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Better off broke: Why some choose poverty over wealth

A shocking truth -- Not everyone craves the trappings of the American Dream

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A shocking truth: Not every American craves a high-powered job, big house, luxurious vacations and stockpiled cash. In fact, some not only eschew such things, they've consciously chosen to both earn and spend far below their capabilities. For them, living on the economic edge is neither a brutal nor shameful experience. It's a preference. 

Here are just a few who have willingly -- and happily -- ignored the dangling financial carrot. Unencumbered by debt and excess, they now enjoy freedom and contentment. Sound appealing? A flat net worth can be positive as long as it's done for the right reasons.

Exchanging hubris for humility
Movies such as "Wall Street" ("Greed is good!" pronounced the infamous Michael Douglas character Gordon Gekko) and "Glengarry Glen Ross" ("I made $970,000 last year. How much you make? You see pal, that's who I am, and you're nothing," said Blake, played by Alec Baldwin) defined the late 20th century.

Better off broke: Why some choose poverty over wealth

With the booming stock market and bloated property values, such platitudes and attitudes were so common that a new term -- affluenza -- was coined. According to the book, "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic," by John de Graaf, published in 2001, the U.S. had succumbed to the "socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more."

Since then, however, public sentiment has shifted radically. The housing bubble burst in 2007, launching a recession whose side effects continue to linger. Millions of Americans lost their homes and jobs, but others just gave them up. 

As a result, many turned to a simpler lifestyle -- either out of necessity or borne out frustration. Today, the simple-living movement extols the virtues of being satisfied with the bare minimum. According to The Simplicity Collective, a grassroots network embracing downsizing, "Never before have so many people had the option of casting off the chains of consumer culture, stepping out of the rat race and living (and spending) in opposition to the existing order of things." Meanwhile, the freegans (a subculture espousing "waste reclamation" where foraging goods is a common practice) are bucking the system to such a degree that they intentionally eat from dumpsters. Money? Who needs it?   

J.T. Mathis

Not all who adopt a more basic lifestyle dine on trash, however. Some, including Enterprise, Ala., resident J.T. Mathis, just felt there was a better way to live that what he was taught. "I was part of the herd to live the American Dream," says Mathis, who holds an MBA and spent 10 years in the business world. "When terminated from my recent job two years ago, I realized that all that this dream is a chase. A chase for more and more and more."

Mathis looked to the lessons of the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, whose teachings also inspired Thomas Jefferson. As Epictetus wrote in the first century, "Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants." Which is pretty much the polar opposite of Gekko's ode to avarice.

"I wanted humility, to become more humble," says Mathis. He sold most of his belongings, turned over his apartment key, became an author and "went nomadic." With nothing but a backpack and his dog, Mathis walked across the Oklahoma plains, which was experiencing drought and record high temperatures. "There was nothing in sight," he says. "I knew there was a likelihood that I could die. If I was offered a million dollars or a glass of water, I would have taken the water. That was an important moment."

In Occupy Wall Street, a movement retaliating against corporate abuse, Mathis found affinity in the bartering system and using only what's necessary. "I found people who felt like me, who rejected the idea that financial wealth is everything."

I opted to just barely pay my bills by creating things by hand one at a time rather than pursuing a vastly more lucrative endeavor.

--Joel Selmeier 
Peace-pole.com

Trading material goods for the greater good
Joel Selmeier, from Cincinnati, was raised in an affluent household and he, too, turned his back on the established definition of success. His aim was to serve, create and spread a powerful message.

Selmeier suffered from chronic, serious depression. Though he majored in political science and tried a career with the United Nations, by the time he reached his late 40s, he felt crushed and needed to start over.  "By luck I stumbled into a need for an unused skill I happened to have," says Selmeier, who is now a sculptor of peace poles -- monuments inscribed with a plea for world peace. He makes them individually and slowly. Not to get rich, but to break even.

"I opted to just barely pay my bills by creating things by hand one at a time rather than pursuing a vastly more lucrative endeavor," says Selmeier. Today, his life  is simple. He has a 15-year-old car that runs fine, and though he doesn't make or have much, neither does he owe. Instead, he gains from the experience of dealing with people as they come, creating things that make them happier.

Joel Selmeier

Doing work that benefits others, even if it pays poorly (or not at all) is inherently gratifying. Selmeier recounts a physicist friend who complained about not doing work that benefited anyone directly. "He never had the experience of doing something for an individual that made things better for that individual, like making a physical thing for them," says Selmeier. "When I began doing what I am doing, he said I was lucky, even though I was earning a fraction of what he earned."

Why money doesn't (always) buy happiness
It is important to distinguish the difference between crushing, inescapable poverty and electing to live sparingly. The former often leads to a sense of desperation, but the latter can result in a sense of liberation and joy.

Robert Biswas-Diener is a psychologist, author and instructor at Portland State University, whose research focuses on income and happiness. Not surprisingly, he's found that money can enhance a sense of well-being as it can lead to comfort and convenience, but being materialistic creates the opposite feeling. In essence, says Biswas-Diener, "money in itself is not toxic to happiness but desiring the things that it buys is."

Additionally, says Biswas-Diener, economic abundance can negatively complicate a life. "Like lottery winners. But it's not just them. I know some very wealthy, famous people who are profoundly miserable." Wealth can be either perceived as a burden (what do I do with all this money?) or produce feelings of guilt (I don't deserve this money).

I see a movement toward voluntary poverty. That shift is already taking place in the private sector as homebuyers re-entering the market are opting for smaller, efficient homes.

-- Bruce Specter
Advisory mortgage planner

"Money needs to be managed and that's a stressor," says Biswas-Diener, and that can make a life with little cash and few responsibilities alluring.

Biswas-Diener recounts a story about a colleague living in Thailand. "He and his friends used to see a guy they nicknamed 'hammock guy,' and for a long time they made fun of him because he was always there. But then they all realized that they were working themselves like dogs so they could take vacations and lay in a hammock. This guy was doing it, but getting rid of the middle man!"

And those McMansions that surged in popularity when the housing market made overnight millionaires? Many owners found them to be more of a pain than a pleasure. "I see a movement toward voluntary poverty," says Bruce Specter, an advisory mortgage planner from Reno, Nev. "That shift is already taking place in the private sector as homebuyers re-entering the market are opting for smaller, efficient homes."

Specter and his wife participate in the trend. "We have paid off all our consumer debt and are moving into a smaller home with a mortgage one-third that of our current house."

Finding balance between
Ultimately, while funds in the bank and cards in your wallet can reduce anxiety, they can also elevate it. You've got to pay attention to how your money is spent and invested and that requires at least a rudimentary amount of acumen. Running a household means nonstop bills. As for that cell phone and computer, keeping up with the latest technology also becomes increasingly expensive and for some, more of a headache.

Is the solution all out rejection? For some, yes. "To not want or fret over a bill or upgrade, well, this is one less stress," says Mathis. "Instead of the massive wardrobe and watch for each day, I now don't wear a watch and my wardrobe consists of three outfits. I no longer have credit cards."

Biswas-Diener, too, believes it's important to also review your goal to exist on a substance level with a professional who can help you plan for your later years. "Sit with a financial planner. Let them help you establish the amount you need to live the life you want. That's healthy. You don't have to pursue more and more to no end. Paint your own aspirations." 

See related: Over your head in debt? 5 extreme budgeting ideasStretching a food budget to the extreme

Published: September 23, 2013


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