The Mechanics of Living With Less – Economy, Part 2

In my previous post I talked at length about some of the philosophy behind the ideas of minimalism and radical simplicity, but did not really get into the semantics of how I plan on implementing these goals in the pursuit of a nomadic existence. Being that I want this blog to be as much about putting things into practice as about philosophical musings, including a second part on the subject of Economy seems more than pertinent.

So I plan on simplifying in a major way, in order to maximize freedoms and minimize the amount of time I am obliged to spend doing things I neither enjoy, nor support. That was pretty well established in Economy, Part 1. But what does this look like? How exactly do I plan on simplifying? Where will I live? How much stuff will I own? How many bills will I have to pay? How much money will I spend on food? Will I be driving? Will I own a cell phone? How much money will I need to pay for the expenses I end up retaining? How will I acquire that money? Could I go hard core like Daniel Suelo, and ditch money altogether? Even if I could, would I want to?

It is these and other topics I intend to discuss here. But before we get started on  what my goals are and on imagining what life will look like in the future, once I’m well established on this journey, let us first look at where I am at now, and discuss the sort of life I am accustomed to living. This will provide a good framework, and a point of contrast to see what I must accomplish, and how far I have to go.

I’ve always been a fairly simple kind of man (Lynyrd Skynyrd, anyone?). For most of my life, I have generally preferred being out in nature and engaging in a select few outdoor hobbies over anything that the city might offer. Aside from the outdoor gear that I have always loved – the essentials needed for pursuits like camping, wilderness backpacking, fly fishing, kayaking, rock climbing, and outdoor photography – I’ve never been a big consumer. There was a brief point a few years after college where I was considering the whole wife/kids/house scenario with a longtime girlfriend of mine, but even then I was looking at property to buy with cash, and planned on building a small cabin and starting a sustainable homestead, with the intention of doing it mostly through my own labor. The most stuff I ever accumulated, even back then, could probably have fit into single medium sized U-haul truck. Those were the heights of my consumerist days, when I had a full time career in corporate America, and a lot of excess cash at my disposal to spend on whatever superfluous junk I wanted. Even then I spent relatively little, and mostly put money away in the bank. That was roughly 5 years ago now.

Things can change a lot in 5 years, it turns out. Since that time, I’ve acquired a pretty dismal chronic illness, lost my ability to work in the profession in which I was educated,  and my girlfriend of 10 years did not last long after that. Basically, I went from being well on my way to achieving the American dream, to losing pretty much everything. At that point, I went through period of fairly intense suffering, and eventually turned towards spirituality as an escape. A few years later I found myself pretty immersed in the study and practice of Zen, which in turn led to a rather abrupt process of awakening that would ultimately change my life irrevocably. One thing that you will find if you spend enough time absorbing Zen concepts, is that minimalism will slowly but surely become the only way of life that makes a lot of sense. Or perhaps more aptly, with Zen one ceases trying to make sense of everything, and with that, minimalism sort of emerges by default. This has certainly been true in my case, and over the last two years or so I’ve been getting rid of more and more stuff, and learning how to spend much less money. This was also in part due to necessity, as I haven’t really been able to hold any kind of solid employment as a result of my illness, and the business enterprises that I have tried starting for myself haven’t been very successful either.

But even now, I feel as though I have a long way to go. Up until this year, I’ve been able to augment the little bit of money I made here and there with the rather substantial savings I had accumulated back in my professional days. But after the savings was gone, I dug into my retirement fund. When that was gone I sold my newer SUV, bought a much less expensive van, and lived off of those proceeds. What I noticed was that during all that time, as long as I had money to spend and a permanent, comfortable place to call home, I was living far from the minimalist life that I knew I wanted. I had grown very domesticated, and there were certain things that I’ve had a really hard time giving up. As a result it’s been a rather continuous hemorrhaging of money going out, and not enough money coming in. This has been stressful and has kept me up more than a few nights worrying about my future. If there is anything I lament, it is living in the future in any capacity. Somehow, I needed create a more balanced life.

Fortunately, there is little else which is more motivating than necessity. Right now, I’m at a place where I not only want to finally live within the constraints that I’m about to outline, but I’m also sort of in a place where there aren’t a lot of other options. Yes, I definitely want to live as a pure minimalist, but at this point I also kind of need to. So as it is, this is where I stand.

I currently have about $1,200 in cash reserves, and a camper van conversion worth about $3,000. Those are my primary assets.  Right now, I would say that I could probably fit around 75% of the things that I own in my van and still  have it be functional as a camper for one person. It would be a bit cluttered, but it would work (this is not my ideal; just where I am currently at). I also own around $500 in silver bullion, five or so firearms worth around $1,500 cumulatively, a nice mountain bike worth maybe $500, a full-frame SLR camera that has a used market value right now of about $1,000, and this new fancy laptop I’m typing on. The rest of the things I own are divided mostly between clothing, outdoor gear, and food/cooking items. I also have a few antiques and pieces of art from when I experimented with selling as a dealer in a local antique shop, but I’ve sold most of that and what’s left I plan on leaving with the person I’m currently renting from, as a way to say thanks for the generosity she has extended me while living here.

Now for income. The one source that I have coming in every year at this point is my nutritional consulting business. I got into holistic health several years ago in an effort to address my own health problems, and ended up becoming extremely knowledgeable in it. Eventually I obtained a simple certification and have been working on a part-time basis ever since, helping others navigate the throes of chronic illness. Right now I probably average a net income of around $4000 annually from this source. This is not always reliable as there are certainly dry spells in consulting, and fluctuations in demand. I’m also a very poor marketer, so I struggle finding new clients and this trend seems to be getting worse. Aside from what I make consulting, I will often also work part time jobs occasionally for as long as I can last doing them. Unfortunately this is not often very long, as my health is quite an obstacle that renders just about any job quite difficult to maintain. The last solid period of work that I had was during the summer of 2015, when I worked part time for about 6 months and made around $12,000 over that period. By the end of it, my health had degraded substantially and I spent most of the ensuing winter recovering.

That’s probably the most unfortunate thing about having a chronic illness. When I don’t have to work I can generally keep my condition relatively stable with tons of rest, and by taking really good care of myself through proper nutrition and other means. But as soon as I have to report to a job every day, the combination of the stress and fatigue that results, and the lack of time to take adequate care of myself, prepare healthy meals, etc, pretty much destroys me. And that’s during the good times, when my condition is in relative remission. When it is at its worst, the idea of working any kind of job whatsoever is pretty much laughable. Bummer, huh?

Maybe on some future post I will do a dedicated piece on what it’s like to live with a chronic illness like the one I must contend with. For now, I just wanted to outline a bit of the challenges I face, and what this really means in terms of economics. It is really difficult to predict what I can expect to make in a given year at this point, as there are a lot of variables, but right now if I had to make a simple analysis, I would say I can probably manage to pull in an average of around $6,000 per year as things currently stand. Some years will be better, when I am feeling reasonably well, when I find a good paying part time job to work for the summer, and when my business does well. Some years will be less, as when I go through one of my sicker spells, and when less economic opportunity presents itself in general. So $6,000 per year, or $500 per month, is going to be the income figure I plan my life around. I feel this is conservative enough to be fairly constant and reliable.

Alright, what about expenses? Lets take a look at how I have been spending money over the last few years, and see how that jives with my expected income. Here is a rough outline of what I estimate my expenditures have been:

  • Groceries – $400/month
  • Eating out – $200/month
  • Gas – $200/month
  • Rent – $100/month
  • Insurance – $50/month
  • Cell Phone – $90/month
  • Alcohol – $200/month
  • Coffee – $90/month
  • Entertainment – $50/month
  • Other – $50/month

So that’s a little less than $1,600 per month, or right around $19,000 per year. As you can see, I’ve got a bit of a cash flow problem. I’m spending about $1,100 per month MORE than I can expect to bring in. I’ve only been able to continue doing this for the last few years because I began with a pretty significant savings and a few other assets, which I was able to liquidate and live off of. In addition, my rent has been really cheap because family has taken me in and helped me out while I try to get this chronic illness thing resolved. But even so, I’ve been spending WAY too much. Obviously. As you can see, I have a few addictions which are inordinately expensive. I also drive more than I need to, usually going places just out of boredom, or to keep myself occupied. Judge me if you will. I’ve been pretty isolated for many years now, generally feeling too unwell to do a lot of socializing, and alcohol has been a way to self-medicate. Similarly, since chronic fatigue has been one of the hallmarks of my illness, coffee has also been a crutch, and a bright spot in the day. Hiking in the wilderness is also a staple of my life, and I have to drive my van, which gets about 12mgp, about 80 miles to get to any appreciable wilderness area.

If there is one thing that is evident about this situation at this point, it is that something has to change. Not only am I spending more money than I have coming in, with no real expectation of that changing, but I have also run out of help. I’ve bounced around and lived with various family members and friends since my troubles began 5 years ago. First with my mom, then my dad, then back with my mom again, and most recently I’ve lived in my ex-girlfriends studio apartment attached to her garage. Now my stay has come to an end there, and I truly and honestly have nowhere else to go. My dad has an illness which is very likely terminal, and my mother is having health and financial problems of her own. I have no other viable options in terms of family, or friends. I am now for all intents an purposes alone, with no more savings in the bank, and a grossly reduced ability to generate income for myself, to the extent that what I do make, has not been enough to live on (in the manner in which I have been living).

This is not a sob story. I don’t feel sorry for myself, and I expect nothing different from anyone else. I love my life, even to this day, and I view this situation as an opportunity, every bit as much as I view it a hardship. If there is one thing that is seen quite clearly through the practice of Zen, it is the utter futility of being at odds with the circumstances that manifest in life. Nothing could ever be more absurd than arguing with the universe. All suffering is caused by desiring present circumstances to be other than they are, and by refusing to surrender to what is. So for me, everything I have described above is simply the reality of my situation. It is what is. Further, it’s not in my nature to paint over issues that are present in my life, or to manipulate outside opinion to make things appear other than they are. As I said in my very first blog post, the pursuit of the minimalist life is, for me, not so much a choice as a necessity at this point. Fortunately, it also happens to resonate very strongly with my beliefs, and is very much in harmony with my inherent nature anyway.

For a long time, I would lay awake at nights trying to think of ways that I could make more money so that I could be fully autonomous, bringing in more than I spent each month, without having to rely on any outside assistance. But then I got into Zen and Taoism and Non-duality. And I read some of the American greats – Thoreau, Emerson, Edward Abbey, and others. Later, I stumbled into the work of John Zerzan and  became immensely interested in a philosophy called Anarcho-Primitivism, which I will discuss in detail in a future post. As time wore on, my view began to change entirely. All throughout my life, I had always went to the Wilderness for my recreation, and for my spiritual fulfillment. If I had a week to spare during the summer, I didn’t go to the tropics to spend my time on some beach; I went backpacking in the mountains. I chose to live in a manner which is about as minimalist as it gets, sometimes for weeks at a time, purely for fun. And I loved it. When I was healthy, backpacking was basically what I lived for. Even when sick, I still get out as much as I possibly can.

Somewhere along the line, a light bulb went off in my head. I loved backpacking not because it offered something different from ordinary life; I loved it because it’s the closest medium to the life we are supposed to be living. I love the wild, because I am meant to be wild. I love to wander, because wandering is in my DNA. The modern world makes me feel  hollow and empty, because that’s what a zoo does to the wild creatures of earth. That’s what domestication does. If humans once lived entirely without money, wandering the earth freely and autonomously, and if that way of life was actually better for the cumulative health and well-being of the individual (see: The Original Affluent Society, by Marshall Sahlins), and if the Zen monks of old could find enlightenment by forsaking settled society and wandering from place to place, then why couldn’t I do the same? This, I realized, was very likely the best solution to my cash hemorrhaging problem. Then I read about guys like Daniel Suelo and Mark Boyle who were apparently both quite successful living entirely without money in modern society. This helped me understand that living a life of radical simplicity is not a death sentence, but if done rightly, can actually be a form of liberation.

Over time, my fear of being “homeless” dwindled, and was increasingly supplanted by excitement. Eventually I came to understand that there is actually no such thing as being homeless. One may be house-less, to be sure, but so long as one views the Earth as one’s home, then there can be no such thing as a condition of homelessness. If home is where the heart is, and my heart is out on the road, under the open sky, then no matter where my travels take me, I will be at home. Once this idea rooted itself firmly in my consciousness, it’s become something of an obsession, to the extent where living as a nomad has become my ultimate goal in life. I am 32 years old, and I have lived a very full and rich life up to this point. There is little left that I feel called to do. If the time of my death were to arrive tomorrow, there would’t be anything I felt I had missed out on, save one single thing. I never got to experience the freedom and exhilaration of a truly nomadic life.

So here I am. My primary goal has come into focus, and I know what I need to do in order to bring it about. I need to structure my life in such a way that I am spending less than I bring in, so that I can live out there, as a free and autonomous human being. Since I don’t bring in much in the way of income, I have to do quite a bit of restructuring. Ideally, I want to be in a position where I am saving at least a hundred dollars each month, on average, to serve as a rainy day fund. With that, this is the task that I have before me, and what follows is the rough outline I have established to achieve it.

We already know my expected income. This probably won’t change a lot in terms of going down, and if I am successful with a few enterprises I have in the works, it may even go up quite a bit. But for now, I’m left assuming a net income of $500 per month. So I need to spend $400 if I want to have $100 left for savings. This seems extremely daunting at first glance, but I have to assume it can be done reasonably easily, if other guys are living with no money at all. So what am I going to do?

First, my van will be my only shelter expense, but I am going to have to drive it much, much less. So I have found a place to park it on a permanent basis near the city where I currently reside, and close to a central bus station. The parking fee is $15 per month, and while sleeping in one’s vehicle is technically prohibited by city code, this doesn’t seem to be something which is enforced to any appreciable degree. I will have to be discrete, and I will move my van periodically to other nearby locations which are entirely free, so as to draw less attention. If you have ever followed the van-dwelling crowd on the internet, then you probably already know that this is what is considered urban stealth camping. Others call it boondocking. In addition to parking, I’ve gotten my insurance down to around $35/month, and if I’m smart with my driving, I should be able to keep gas expenses down around $30/month. This brings total van expenses to $80/month.

So I have $320 left to spend of my monthly $500 income, with $100 going into savings. Of that, I’ve decided to budget $200 for food, $30 for public transportation, $20 for a gym membership (this will by my primary source for showering), and $20 for misc. expenses such as the occasional clothing purchase from a thrift store, repairing or replacing essential gear when it breaks down, getting a haircut every once in a while, etc. Finally, I will budget $50 for coffee or tea, so that I can have access to WiFi at various coffee shops. I view this mostly as a business expense, as the internet is a necessity for me to generate income, and I really don’t want to be stuck using only public libraries. So that’s it. Here it is in list form:

  • Parking – $15/mo
  • Insurance – $35/mo
  • Gas – $30/mo
  • Food – $200/mo
  • Public Transportation – $30/mo
  • Gym Membership – $20/mo
  • Coffee/Internet – $50/mo
  • Misc. – $20/mo
  • Saving – $100/mo

There you have it. This is how you can live comfortably on $500. You will see that things like alcohol and having a cell phone have been cut from the budget entirely, and that all other expenses have been reduced significantly. Spending $200 per month on food may sound rough to some, but it is more than possible. In fact, one can actually eat reasonably healthy on this amount. This is something I also plan on detailing in a future post. As a nutritionist by trade, I want to make an art out of eating as healthfully as possible with as little money as possible, to show impoverished families and those with few economic resources that it can be accomplished. For now, suffice it to say that if it is possible to get enough calories into your system by spending no more than $2/day, then it is certainly possible to eat relatively healthfully on more than triple that amount. It won’t be an easy task, and will require much dedication, but this is a challenge that I look forward to.

Let met also state that the above list does not take into account what can be acquired freely. So while my food options from stores may be limited by what $200/month can buy, I am still free to eat as much wild food as I can manage to forage, to dumpster-dive if I deem this a worthwhile pursuit, and I will not turn down free meals offered through the generosity of others. In this way I am confident that I can eat extremely well on what amounts to slightly less than $7/day. I’m obviously going to have to do away with eating out almost entirely, and will have to be extremely conscious of the calories-per-dollar ratio of the foods that I purchase from stores (more on this later), but this is part of what it means to be a minimalist.

So that’s pretty much it as far as economics go. There will be much more to come in regards to how I chose to live, especially in terms of how to maximize the amount of time I am able to spend in the wilderness, ways to engage in the process of Rewilding, and how to minimize the amount of time I am required to spend in or around cities. For example, while I am grateful to have a van to sleep in – to get me out of the weather when I really need to, to provide a sanctuary during the really cold and wet months of winter, and to use for transportation when I really need to – these are all things I intend to rely on as little as I possibly can. If my plans go reasonably well, I will be spending a much greater portion of the year traveling on foot, and sleeping out under the open sky, than I will spend using my van as either a vehicle for transport or as a shelter.

Many people live a completely nomadic existence without owning any vehicle at all. Perhaps this is something I will aspire to someday, and to be honest, if I lived in a warmer, dryer climate, I might be inclined to consider it right now. I definitely want to rely on natural modes of shelter and locomotion as much as possible, and to eschew all forms of artifice where and when I can. But as it stands, the region I call home has some pretty awful winter months in terms of weather, and life would be resolutely miserable, and possibly dangerous, without some form of shelter to retreat to in order to ride out the worst of the cold and the biggest of the storms. Being that one of my goals is to maximize personal autonomy and freedom, I certainly don’t want to be relying on others to provide me with shelter, whether they be family, friends, or charitable institutions. Someday I may choose to relocate to a more southerly locale where I can get by year-round with a simple outdoor shelter and sleep system, but for now I’m still using the Pacific Northwest as my primary base of operation, and if you’ve never spent a winter here, let me tell you upfront that you don’t want to be stuck outside all day and night, with no option for reprieve, in mid-January. Some people manage to do it, but I wouldn’t want to.

But there again, semantics. I will be covering these topics, and many more, at great length in the future. Now that I have outlined the nuts and bolts of the economics of the minimalist life (or my version of it), and because I want to make sure I am adhering to the themes of either Zen, or Primitivism, or both,  throughout the course of this blog, I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes, from one of my favorite philosophers, which in my opinion describes in something approaching perfection the experiential feel of the awakened life:

“But Brahman as One Reality is all-inclusive, for the Upanishads say, ‘It is made of consciousness and mind: It is made of life and vision. It is made of the earth and the waters: It is made of air and space. It is made of anger and love: It is made of virtue and vice. it is made of all that is near: It is made of all that is afar. It is made of all.’

What, then, is nonduality in terms of a state of mind? How does the mystic who has realized his identity with the One reality think and feel? Does his consciousness expand from out of his body and enter into all other things, so that he sees with others’ eyes, and thinks with others’ brains? Only figuratively, for the Self which is in him and in all others does not necessarily communicate to the physical brain of John Smith, mystic, what is seen by the eyes of Pei-wang, construction worker, on the other side of the earth. I do not believe spiritual illumination is to be understood in quite this sensational way. We shall answer the question sufficiently if we can discover what is a nondualistic state of mind. Does it mean a mind in so intense a state of concentration that it contains only one thought? Strictly speaking, the mind never contains more than one thought at a time; such is the nature of thinking. But if spirituality means thinking only and always of one particular thing, then other things are excluded and this is still duality. Does it mean, then, a mind which is thinking of everything at once? Even if this were possible, it would exclude the convenient faculty of thinking of one thing at a time and would still be dualistic. Clearly these two interpretations are absurd, but there is another way of approach.

Spiritual illumination is often described as absolute freedom of the soul, and we have seen that the One Reality is all-inclusive. Is the mind of the mystic singularly free and all-inclusive? If so, it would seem that his spirituality does not depend on thinking any special kinds of thoughts, on having a particular feeling ever in the background of his soul. He is free to think of anything and nothing, to love and to fear, to be joyful or sad, to set his mind on philosophy or on the trivial concerns of the world; he is free to be both a sage and a fool, to feel both compassion and anger, to experience both bliss and agony.

And in all this he never breaks his identity with the One Reality-God, ‘whose service is perfect freedom.’ For he knows that in whatever direction he goes and in whichever of these many opposites he is engaged, he is still in perfect harmony with the One that includes all directions and all opposites. In this sense, serving God is just living; it is not a question of the way in which you live, because all ways are included in God. To understand this is to wake up to your freedom to be alive.” – Alan Watts


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