Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Patrick of PatrickRhone.com. I’ve been begging Patrick to write something for Becoming Minimalist for years. I’m grateful that he finally did.
I’ll never forget that dollar number. The year was 2003. I had gotten laid off from my job at a software company when they decided to close the local office. I was on vacation when it happened. There was no warning.
On the way home, driving back, I got a call from the President of the company. He gave me the news. Said it was effective immediately but I’d receive some severance. He said it was a hard decision and he wished me the best. I was a full time single dad to two boys. I had a home, a minivan, and all of the normal costs of supporting a family of three.
Still, I had a plan. Before the layoff, to make ends meet, I had been doing some technology consulting on the side. I had a handful of clients and enjoyed helping them a lot. They seemed to appreciate me and were recommending me to others. It had long been a dream of mine to build my own business, work for myself, and do consulting full time. So, when I found my paycheck job gone literally overnight, I took it as a sign.
I had the severance—about six weeks pay—and a little bit of savings. I gave myself a deadline to see if I could chase that dream. I marked it on the calendar. I had exactly one year to stick it out and give it a shot—to see if I could build something that could feed my sons and I and keep a roof over our head. Only after that year, giving it all I had, would I then try to find another job.
That dollar number above is the gross total of what I made. Not the net. Not after taxes. That was it. Between August 2003 and August 2004 that was my gross income for a family of three.
That’s how I became a minimalist.
It wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t a grand statement on our consumerist culture and not wanting to run forever on the capitalist hamster wheel. I didn’t have credit cards because my credit was ruined by financial misdoings during my marriage. I didn’t want them either, but not for lofty reasons. Mainly because I was now very wary of them.
It wasn’t my love of simplicity and rejection of the tyranny of choice. I was broke and hungry and scared out of my wits that the heat would get turned off, our home taken away, the car repossessed, and I’d lose my sons because I couldn’t take care of them.
To be honest, I’m still not quite sure how we survived without any of that happening. That year is still very much a blur. I’m sure I blocked a lot of it out.
I know there were many days I only had one meal in order to make sure my sons had three. They got free breakfast and lunch at school, so I only had to worry about having enough money for dinner. I know there were times when friends would invite us over for dinner, without saying they knew how bad I was struggling to make ends meet. I became a ninja at cherry-picking sales at the grocery store and coupon cutting. I learned that, if you call phone and electricity companies before your bill is overdue, and explain your situation, they are more likely and able to work with you to figure something out than if you do so after it’s due. I can’t explain how the mortgage got paid. It did, somehow. Magic, perhaps.
We made it through. Exactly one day after my one year deadline I had two job offers immediately. Both for very good money. One with better benefits. I took that one.
Even though I then had a steady job and more than enough money to go back to business as usual, I had learned during that hard year how to live on very little. It had taught me a valuable lesson—the difference between want and need. And, while I now could afford to eat three meals a day like my sons, while we were no longer living in poverty, I had no desire or reason to spend money on anything we didn’t need or that didn’t add true value to our lives. That same ethos remains with me today.
So, why am I telling you all this? Well, I think we who consider ourselves minimalists, or those of us who are striving to be, need to be mindful of how we talk about it. We need to keep in mind that the very fact that you have the power to *choose* and decide what is enough for you and live with less, means you are in a position of privilege.
To many of us, choosing to “live simply” is to others living in poverty and they may not have a choice. We should be mindful of this when we talk about it to others because, many times, we come off sounding like elitist jerks.
Look, I get it. You’re happy about how a choice to live with less has made your life less stressful. You’re proud of the money you’ve saved or how you live debt free. You’ve made a life where you’re sure everything you own has value and the life you live is full of meaning and you want to share that with as many people as you can. You’re excited. It’s OK. You have reason to be. I’m simply trying to say there should be a level of understanding of what a privilege it is to be able to have such a life when we talk about it.
The desire should be to help others consider such choices, if they have the ability, for themselves and to have compassion for those without. We should live our lives in such a way that strives to provide others with the same opportunity to enjoy such privilege.
Patrick Rhone writes on the blog Patrick Rhone. I should also mention that he has been highly influential in my personal pursuit of minimalism and I have referred to his fabulous book, Enough, on countless occasions.