SAYING NO TO STUFF
DESPITE BOOM TIMES, SOME ARE CHOOSING TO SPEND LESS
AND REALLY TAKE CHARGE OF THEIR LIVES
By Dolores Kong
The Boston Globe
Penny Yunuba gave up a $70,000-a-year job in computer
sales a decade ago and now chooses to live on less
than $10,000 a year, shopping at thrift stores when
her clothes get too frayed, buying groceries in bulk,
and furnishing her Jamaica Plain home with hand-
Nancy Stockford and her family downsized from a house
to a condo in Dorchester and slashed other expenses,
too, so that they get by with spending under $30,000 a
year. Her husband just quit his part-time job, yet
they've been able to save more than ever toward a
college fund for their 9-year-old daughter.
And Stephen TenBarge socks away 60 percent of his
income as an accountant at a Boston venture capital
firm after having once led a typical young urban
professional lifestyle, spending "all the money that I
earned and then some."
All three of these Boston residents are practitioners
of a lifestyle trend called "voluntary simplicity."
They're choosing to spend less money in order to be
financially independent, so that they won't need to
work just for a paycheck and can spend more time doing
things they truly love.
They're not being frugal for frugality's sake, just to
amass a million dollars one day. The concept runs
deeper than that: They're living substantially below
their means so they can do meaningful work, even if
it's volunteer or low-paying; save for a college
education; or leave the rat race early.
Along the way, many practitioners of voluntary
simplicity also have an increasing interest in
protecting the environment or addressing social
While it seems almost un-American in these booming
economic times not to spend, spend, spend or strive to
make loads of money, people who follow voluntary
simplicity point to Benjamin Franklin's saying "a
penny saved is a penny earned," Thoreau's "Walden,"
and the notion of Yankee frugality as evidence of how
American it is to live simply.
The phrase "voluntary simplicity," first coined in a
philosophical journal in 1936, was popularized in 1981
by Duane Elgin's book "Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a
Way of Life that Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich."
Then "Your Money or Your Life," by the late Joe
Dominguez and Vicki Robin, became a bestseller in the
early 1990s, touting voluntary simplicity from both a
personal finance and a philosophical perspective.
In fact, voluntary simplicity became so popular,
especially after the stock market crash of 1987, that
the Trends Research Institute identified it "as
becoming a national movement," said Gerald Celente,
director of the Rhinebeck, N.Y., group that analyzes
trends for corporations.
"By about 2010, upward of 25 percent of the
population will be practicing it in one form or
another," he predicted. "We're looking at the
evolution of a philosophical shift that's about to
take place in society," said Celente, who includes the
voluntary simplicity movement in his bestselling book
"Trends 2000." "People are getting more philosophical.
`What's my purpose in life?' It's bigger than money."
Indeed, various national and international surveys
have found a growing unease among people, even if they
make good money and have all their material desires
In 1995, a Merck Family Fund report titled "Yearning
for Balance" estimated that millions of Americans had
voluntarily scaled back their salaries and lifestyles
to achieve a more balanced, less stressful life.
In a survey of more than 200 voluntary simplifiers
from 40 states and nine countries, author Linda Breen
Pierce found that about a quarter of the respondents
scaled back out of worry about money or stress, and
that people who have done so range across all income
groups, from making less than $10,000 to more than
$100,000. The results are in her book "Choosing
It's easy to start. You don't have to take a vow of
poverty to simplify; basic steps such as bringing
lunch to work or not buying that daily cup of coffee
can mean big savings over the long term.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the
millennium. In the mid- to late '90s, the stock market
went into the stratosphere. Everybody has been
spending like there's no tomorrow and thinking mostly
about the money.
Author Eisenson, a voluntary simplicity proponent for
about 15 years, said: "When times are tough _ which
they aren't right now _ more people seem to think what
I say makes sense. Now they look at me like I have
three heads and say, `Why do you want to live like
While trend watcher Celente said the booming stock
market has slowed the voluntary simplicity movement,
he's still predicting that a quarter of the population
will practice voluntary simplicity in some form by
2010. "We won't see a resurgence of voluntary
simplicity until there's a severe stock market
correction or a recession," he said. "Voluntary
simplicity right now is stalled. It's not dead."
Keeping the movement alive in the meantime are Yunuba,
Stockford, TenBarge, and more than 100 other locals
who have participated in "Your Money or Your Life"
study groups since they began meeting in Massachusetts
a couple of years ago. The groups meet for eight weeks
and examine the nine-step program outlined in the
book, learning to budget, watch their expenses, and
figure out what they truly care about. The groups also
have regular potluck dinners, open to everyone, to
talk about such issues as "enough ness" and otherwise
seek out like-minded, voluntary simplifiers.
Recently, people in their 20s with tens of thousands
of dollars in higher education loans have been coming
to the dinners, according to Yunuba, who has hosted
some of the gatherings.
As Yunuba, 59, sat in the living room of the Jamaica
Plain two-family house she bought two decades ago,
wearing a thrift- store outfit of frayed sweatshirt
and corduroy pants, she cheerfully pointed to all the
furniture she's received as hand-me-downs --- a
Bentwood rocker, a side table, and an uncomfortable
but intriguing- looking "dragon chair" carved out of
dark wood and padded with a home- made red cushion.
Yunuba gave up her $70,000-a-year job a decade ago
after her youngest child left home, and chooses to
live on less than $10,000 a year. She has nearly
$200,000 in long-term money invested in US Treasury
securities, socially responsible mutual funds, bonds,
and certificates of deposit. She now volunteers as
state co ordinator for "Your Money or Your Life" study
groups, works about 20 hours a month for a nonprofit
in exchange for health insurance, and gets income from
Nancy Stockford, 39, of Dorchester, and her family
don't go as far as Yunuba. Stockford continues to work
as an administrator at a nonprofit grant- making
foundation because she enjoys her job, although her
husband, Mark Houston, 43, just quit his part-time
job. Their daughter Eva is "a pretty discriminating
9-year-old," Stockford said, and doesn't want the
latest toys or clothing being advertised.
While they weren't struggling financially in the
early 1990s, when they were living in a big house and
Stockford first read "Your Money or Your Life," "we
had a fair amount of debt and no savings whatsoever,"
she said. Today, after selling the house and squeezing
into a 1,000- square-foot condo and making other
changes, "we really do save money," about a third of
their income. "It's definitely possible with a child.
We definitely don't suffer. If we go out to eat, we
eat in very cheap places. We take maybe one trip in a
plane a year, to visit my sister in Florida,"
TenBarge, 37, the accountant who now saves 60 percent
of his income, said in the past, like most people, "I
always felt like I just wasn't making enough, no
matter what it was." But when he read "Your Money or
Your Life," "it was sort of like an epiphany. There is
a way to set yourself up so you can retire early."
Among the steps he's taken: Instead of eating out
twice a week like he used to, he now goes out only
twice a month. While he likes his job and works for a
good firm, "there are things that I want to do with my
life that I just can't do with a full-time job,"
TenBarge said. He wants to address issues of economic
inequality, and get involved in the community. He
volunteers once a week at a soup kitchen sponsored by
Neighborhood Action Inc. at St. John the Evangelist
Church on Beacon Hill, but eventually he'd like to do
that kind of work full time.
Voluntary simplicity is "the best thing I could have
done with my life," he said. "I'm very excited about
the future. I'm very excited about the journey that
I'm on to attain my goals."
Dr. Gregg Raymond, also 37, was able to walk away from
a $100,000-a-year job as an internist in Boston, after
having "lived like a student when I started making
good money as a physician" and saving enough to lead
the kind of life he wants. He just bought a house in
Maine, paying with cash, and he plans to grow
vegetables and walk and bicycle wherever he can.
He's passionate about environmental issues and plans
to spend some of his time on that. While he may
continue to practice medicine part time, he said he
would do it out of love and not for the money. He has
saved enough so that he can live off the income of his
socially responsible investments. "This is giving me
the freedom to just do what my heart is calling me to