Those of us who reside in North America or western Europe live in a time, and in a place, where hardly anyone seems satisfied. No matter how many consumer goods clutter a person's household, that discontented soul almost certainly covets more of them.
No wonder we're called consumers. That's precisely what most of us seem to do best. And no wonder so many of us are overburdened by debt, often to levels that make it nearly impossible to ever get caught up, or even to stay afloat.
There is another way to live, but it's not a popular one. Instead of devoting one's life to acquiring more stuff, it's actually possible–and may even be enjoyable–to keep things simple. To own next to nothing. And better yet, to owe nothing because of endless, excessive purchases on credit.
Exactly what does a person need to have a satisfactory life? In a world of “things,” with constant inducements to buy more of them, is it possible to be content with less? Even a lot less?
Having reached senior-citizen status, I should have accumulated the usual mass of stuff. That didn't happen. Why? Because living with less has made life easier; and possibly, more pleasing. Heretical? Of course; but for some of us, 100 percent true.
Let’s try a little countdown of ways to do without:
First off, I have no investments, no stocks, no bonds, no mutual funds, no 401k account, no corporate business ventures. A small amount in IRAs, set aside years ago, and that’s it for retirement income–apart from Social Security. Total assets are whatever happens to be in the bank at a given moment.
I own no property, and never have. That’s right, I’ve never owned a home, or land, or a time share, or a condo. Instead, I’ve lived in nothing but furnished rooms (when young) and apartments (later in life). Currently, my wife and I rent a tiny studio apartment in a condo complex, in a suburb just outside Chicago. Until about 15 years ago, I’d always lived right in the city, in apartments in working-class neighborhoods–and for several extended periods, in basic rooms in residential hotels.
More than 20 years ago, I met a man from Japan who was stationed temporarily in New York City. He asked what I paid in rent. When I answered, he nearly collapsed. His apartment cost at least five or six times what I was paying each month at the time. A few years back, an acquaintance in Manhattan was paying $4,000 a month for a high-rise apartment. Only recently has our rent edged past $900. And we have all the space we need – which is doubtless shocking news to folks who are accustomed to occupying gargantuan houses, even after the children are gone.
To clarify, however, our single rooms (plus micro-kitchen) isn’t really quite sufficient. Neither was a three-room apartment we had before; or the six-room space before that. For three decades, I’ve rented storage units to hold all the work-related materials – mostly printed matter – that went with my job as an independent journalist, author, and historian. Every single month, I agonized over the supplemental sum paid out over the years. Even so, like so many of us who keep stuff that has little or no tangible value, until recently I was unable to discard nearly enough of that mass of paper and miscellany. So, even those of us who live simply, for the most part, often have an excess or two entering into some aspect of our daily lives.
TV? No home theater in our household, I’m afraid. We manage perfectly with a 32-inch flat screen, purchased only after our previous 23-inch TVfinally expired. We'd inherited that one from a relative, having been purchased many years earlier at Sears for $199. Even before moving up to a flat-screen, we didn’t feel the least bit deprived by viewing an old-fashioned CRT (cathode ray tube) set, even when watching movies though our DVD/VHS player.
Purchased new, that DVD player has been around for quite a few years now and has an operational flaw or two. When it quits, we'll shop promptly for a replacement; but not before
Cable TV? Satellite? Streaming services? Our previous apartment came with basic cable, but we've been limited to broadcast programming, taking advantage of a master antenna on our building't roof, for quite a while now. We do belong to Netflix, but rarely purchase DVDs or CDs. Those come mainly from the public library, as do nearly all of the books we read.
Home stereo? Let’s see, we have a radio/CD player – the kind with a handle so it can be moved around. No external speakers, no high-output amplifier. But it works, which is all that counts. A couple of iPods see occasional use, but those were received as gifts.
Computers have been part of my life since 1985, due almost entirely to my work. Since that time, I’ve owned two desktops, four laptops, and two smaller netbooks (one of them purchased secondhand). One laptop remains in regular use, and is filled with glitches (not viruses, thankfully) that curtail its performance and requre a host of workarounds. I do have a high-speed connection. No iPad or tablet competitor, but I do have an e-book reader that's never worked properly. Also sitting in a drawer is an often troublesome – yet handy – Palm handheld device with wi-fi access, which in the past accompanied me on countless work-related trips.
Cell phones? A year and a half ago, I could have said I never had one, but that was a personal prefernce, not a question of cost. One exception: while living for a month just outside of Paris eight years ago, my Airbnb hostess insisted that I obtain a cell phone. I believe I used it twice. Or maybe it was once.
If not for a couple of calls each month to/from relatives, some of them overseas, I’d be happy to survive with no phone of any kind. For decades, all my work contacts dealt with me by e-mail, so I rarely needed – or wanted – to call anyone. Besides, who are all these zillions of people with cell phones stuck to their ears talking to all the time? Better watch out, because if it were in my power, I'd uninvent the cell phone – and probably landline phones as well. Androids, iPhones, and all the latest-tech personal "assistants?" Couldn't care less about any of them.
Full disclosure here: A year and a half ago, a friend offered to buy me a basic flip phone. Thinking that it might be prudent to have at hand for emergencies, I elected to accept. So, how often has it be used, either for incoming or outgoing calls? Not much more than half a dozen times, and not all of those were essential by any means. Admittedly. though, having it in my pocket while driving provides a little sense of security.
Cars are more complicated. Until a decade ago, I'd never owned a new one, or even a late-model. From teenage years through 2010, when we leased a brand-new vehicle, I drove a long string of low-priced used cars, bought for cash. Jalopies. Clunkers. Broken-down, rotting hulks, mose of them were awaiting one final trip – to the scrapyard. Another admission, though: for some 25 years, I nearly always had a new vehicle or two on hand, because my work involves test-driving and reviewing automobiles. So, we've had the benefit of driving the latest cars without having to purchase any of them.
Perhaps most heretical of all, my wife and I both detest shoppingb – the all-American pastime and source of pleasure. Only when a purchase becomes absolutely, unquestionably essential can either of us be dragged into a store.Many more items that we do without could be listed, but here's the crucial point. Unlike nearly every American, and unlike most people in the world, I covet nothing. There's nothing I want. Literally, nothing. Zero.
Well, there is one little exception to that claim: one item I regret never having owned. That would be a motorcycle. Preferably, an older model. I learned to ride long ago, but only occasionally had opportunities to hit the road, even briefly. Now that I'm well into senior-citizenhood, I don't imagine an vintage Triumph or Indian two-wheeler lies in my future.
Doing without an overabundance of "things" lets a person prioritize his or her life. (See our separate essay on that topic.) One big example: Countless Americans with reasonably good incomes claim they cannot afford to eat in restaurants. Well, through much of our married life, we've gone to restaurants regularly. Not fine dining establishments, which we find compelling only occasionally. But restaurants nonetheless, because we enjoy them. That's possible because so many things that demand a substantial price have been voluntarily absent from our lives, so we could indulge ourselves in those that mattered to us. Doing without a daily breakfas sandwich or bagel and coffee at a Burger King, McDonald's, or Dunkin' would be hard to take. When America locked itself down during the Covid-19 pandemic of spring 2020, that modest but enticing morning outing was one of few events that I really missed, and looked forward to resuming.
Naturally, too, persons with children or dependents cannot simply decide for them, and give up what so many Americans, in particular, consider essentials of a satisfactory life. No sensible person would urge a father or mother to compel their children to lead a life without consumer goods. On the other hand, would it hurt to set an example to the younger generation by thinking twice before buying yet another consumer item, and another and another? Children, after all, are seldom unaware when their parents are facing financial worries, likely due to excessive credit purchases. Demonstrating that buying stuff isn't the only way to go through life could provide a valuable lesson in itself.
Doing without so many things that most of us believe to be essential also means that I don’t have to pay for them, either up-front or via time payments. Except for a very brief period when I fell into bad company in my 20s – namely, a woman who loved to buy things on credit and expected me to do likewise–I’ve never bought anything on time, never borrowed money, never dealt with a bank or finance company for a loan, never sought a mortgage. Except for ordinary monthly expenses–rent, electricity, a car lease payment–I owe nothing to anyone.
Sure, I use my two credit cards regularly. But except for rare circumstances, I’m one of those who pays off the entire balance every month. Now and then, that’s been impossible, due to medical bills, emergencies, or a sudden, thankfully temporary cessation of income. But for the most part, my existence is strictly based on cash.
Even the most simple-living folks don't necessarily shun the use of credit cards, as long as they're deployed with care. Because we never miss a payment, and never pay anything late, our credit scores and the limits on our cards are relatively high. Does that mean we can walk in anywhere and plunk down a credit card for a high-dollar item? It does not. We were barely able to lease that car mentioned above. Why? Because I'd paid cash for all those third- and fourth-hand automobiles of the past. Never before had I leased a car, or bought one on time. Lack of certain types of credit history makes credit-grantors suspicious. My wife had owned only one automobile in her life, and that was in early adulthood.
Not that life is perfect; far from it, especially in this age of Trump. But nothing that could be bought with money could improve it. Anything that might improve life has little or nothing to do with dollars. That's why we stopped buying lottery tickets many years ago. Not just because the odds against winning are astronomical, but because we didn't want to be millionaires. Or, to win any sizable sum. Sure, a windfall could ease a lot of worry about the future. But as things stand, in terms of consumer goods, I'm totally content already.
So, what does this all mean? Who cares what I, personally, own or do not own? Want, or do not want? This summation is merely meant to demonstrate that it’s possible to live with less, if a person seriously evaluates real wants and needs, and then dismisses those items that aren’t necessary and don’t provide much in the way of true satisfaction.
Naturally, we’re all different. For instance, if you’re a person who really craves home ownership, apartment life would be a major letdown. Because I totally lack any ownership instinct, it means nothing at all.
Admittedly, too, living with less has been a lot easier for me because I can honestly say that I want nothing. When you crave nothing, it's easy to stay out of debt. In fact, it would be difficult to acquire any debt, apart from something like a medical emergency. Disasters can happen to any of us at any moment, and immediately destroy our financial state, whether it's meager or abundant.
How many people do you know, regardless of the quantity of their possessions, who can say, truly, "I'm perfectly satisfied with what I have. I want nothing more." And mean it, 100 percent.