This UWTV Classic Video is Ross Reynolds interviewing Vicki Robin about simple living and her book that is credited with starting the movement of living simply and in alignment with your values.
Transcript: Vicki Robin Reveals How Simple Living Yields Greater Happiness
Speaker 1: The following program is a UWTV Classic.
Ross: How much is enough, putting money in its place, ahead on upon reflection?
Speaker 3: From the University of Washington in Seattle, Upon Reflection.
Ross: Welcome to Upon Reflection. I’m Ross Reynolds. Consuming more, but enjoying it less? Stick around. Joining us today is the woman the New York Times call the Prophet of Consumption Downsizers. She is Vicki Robin, co-author of the best-selling Your Money or Your Life: Transform Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. Vicki Robin’s book and her work with the volunteer nonprofit New Road Map Foundation has changed the way that many Americans view their money, their work and their lives. Thanks very much for being with us, Vicki. I appreciate it.
Vicki: It’s a pleasure.
What are we talking about when we’re talking about simple living or frugality?
Ross beginning at 1:20: What are we talking about when we’re talking about simple living or frugality? How would you define it?
Vicki: It’s interesting that there is no really wonderful term in English for what we’re trying to talk about, which is really the making the best use of every resource you have, be it time, be it money, be it love, be it talents, whatever it is that you have, making the best use of it, and not like just an efficiency expert, but also with that wonderful, sensuous joy of really maximizing every moment of life. The term, simple living, or voluntary simplicity seems to be the one that’s caught on in the press, and that has to do more with an aesthetic, with a sense that life has become unmanageable and I want to simplify it.
I don’t want so many appointments, so much clothes, so much this, so much that, that somehow or another I’m drowning in my obligations and expectations and previous commitments. That’s the idea of simplifying my life, and I do it voluntarily, not because I’m being forced to do it, but I do it voluntarily. Frugality is more the technology. Frugality is how do you go about simplifying your life. It takes it from the realm of a philosophy and grounds it in practical, everyday reality.
What is the relationship between money and freedom?
Ross beginning at 2:41: Americans equate money with freedom and with power. You sort of take that equation and turn it upside down and say it’s quite the opposite. Why?
Vicki: For me, freedom and power comes from within me and comes from being completely in control at a material level of my world and free at a psychic level, or level of my psyche, to roam. And let me clarify that a little bit. What I mean is that financially I have defined how much is enough for me, and I have pared down my accumulation of stuff to that which I can take care of, that which really serves me, and I don’t have any excess. I don’t have stuff I don’t use and I don’t want and I bought it on sale and it’s crowding my closet. I don’t have all that stuff. I don’t have any debt, so I don’t have financial obligations like that, and I have been able to accumulate enough money through my working life to have savings, and I can live on the interest from my savings and all of my time is free.
There could be somebody who lives on two times, three times, ten times the amount that I live on, and yet they’re not free because they’re full of worry. They don’t understand their personal finances. They actually don’t know what’s going on—their accountant tells them. They have to work not a 40-hour week, but an 80-hour week just to maintain the possessions that they have no time to enjoy. I think I’m a lot freer than people who may have much more money than I do. And as far as power goes, I don’t have to wait for somebody else to pay me to follow my conscience.
In other words, you might have a sense, like really what I’d love to do with my life; my sense of my calling in life is to be an interviewer … No. I won’t use that example, but you might have a sense of calling in your life that you cannot pursue because of what you have to do for money. I can pursue my calling 24 hours a day, if I choose to, because I don’t have to wait for somebody else to tell me what to do.
Are there some people who aren’t happy unless they have more material possessions?
Ross beginning at 4:55: You and people you work with, who are working on this basis generally, probably make a lot less money or have many fewer possessions than other people do. You, like I, drive 14-year old cars and we don’t have giant homes, and people have chosen to do this life because they feel as though that gives them power and that gives them freedom. Is that equation the same from person to person? Are there some people who aren’t happy unless they have more material possessions? Is the equation different for them?
Vicki: Yes, absolutely, and that’s really one of the reasons why we wrote Your Money or Your Life is to provide people with a set of tools that they could apply, a set of lenses that they could apply to the flow of money in their lives, and assess which purchases, which possessions, which expenses actually add to their quality of life, and which are just waste. As people use these tools they discover that on average about 20 to 25 percent of their expenses fall away just by paying attention, and their quality of life goes up because now they feel in control, they feel smart, and they may be a little sheepish about how they used to live their lives, “But well, you know, I’ve turned over a new leaf.” Each person defines how much is enough for them. But enough, I would say, in every case I’ve heard of where people have used these tools, has turned out to be less than people thought they needed.
How do you know how much is enough until you’ve had too much?
Ross beginning at 6:24: How do you know how much is enough until you’ve had too much? In other words, how can you make a determination that I don’t really need these things until you have them in the first place?
Vicki: It’s a different question, I think you’re asking, for middle-class Americans, [than for] poor Americans, and than [for] people in the less-developed countries. A middle-class American, I would say, is anybody … You know, the median income here in this country is someplace between $30,000 and $35,000 a year for a household of three. I would say that’s the center of the middle class. So if you’re anywhere from $18,000 to maybe $55,000, that’s middle class. I think there’s a distorted vision of what is middle class in this country. First of all, I just wanted to say that, that people are always claiming middle class as, “Oh, yeah. I earn $150,000 a year, but really I’m in the middle class. I just could hardly make ends meet.”
Ross: Notoriously stretchable kind of middle class.
Vicki: Exactly, so what I’m saying is: when I’m talking about middle class, it’s these people who truly are in the middle. I think that people like that, once they start to assess what’s going on in their lives, they might find that indeed, they are actually already over the top. We have a thing that we call the Fulfillment Curve, and it’s … Just imagine an ellipse. You have a vertical axis and a horizontal axis and you have an ellipse, and there’s a certain amount of spending that’s spending for your survival, just basics, and then there’s a certain amount of additional spending that is for comforts beyond basics, but it’s like you’re not sleeping on the floor anymore, you’re no longer in college, you’ve got a bed and you got a sofa and et cetera. That spending also brings fulfillment,
And then you go on to another level of spending, which you could call luxuries. You now have paintings on your wall. Your life is gracious, it’s beautiful. These are all things that add to the quality of your life. Maybe the painting costs a lot more money than the bottle that you got when you were a baby. Both bring satisfaction. And in the process of this whole process of acquisition of stuff in order to fulfill your needs, you program into your mind, “If I ever have a sense of emptiness inside, all I have to do is consume.”
We get a habituated in this culture, and we are supported by advertising. We are supported by overproduction, which pushes products on us, then to continue to consume beyond that point of sufficiency into the point where you have bought things that are no longer bringing you fulfillment. But you have not consciously registered that, because you think more stuff equals more fulfillment. For most Americans, if they would pay attention, they might find that there are types of consumption, there are things that they’ve bought, that are really burdening their lives and not adding to their fulfillment.
I am eliminating the poor people in our country and I am eliminating the poor in the rest of the world from this discussion. There are things to talk about at those ends, too, but not here.
Ross: The issues are different for those groups of people in developing nations, for example, or for the very rich.
Vicki: Yeah. There are people who do not have enough. They do not have enough. They cannot make ends meet, and they can spend 24 hours a day just making ends meet. They are totally in survival mode, no comforts. Forget about luxuries. You have to deal with those issues on another level, maybe on a social level. There’s ways in which people can be educated at the bottom and to use the few dollars they have more wisely, but I want to acknowledge that there are people who are having trouble making ends meet and who do not have enough.
What are some examples of how you have gotten people rethink their consumption and change their lives?
Ross beginning at 10:25: Give me some examples of the way that you have gotten people to rethink their consumption and to rethink how much money they absolutely need to live, and some ways in which they’ve been able to use that reevaluation to change their lives?
Vicki: One of the cores of Your Money, Your Life is this analysis that we do about what money is really. When you think about it, we are told many things in the course of our lives about what is money. Money is power, money is success. The bigger your paycheck, obviously you’re a more important person—whether or not you have any more skill to offer in the world than the next guy down the line, if you’re earning 100,000 and he earned 75,000, you’re better. So money’s the way we keep score. Money is prestige. Money is success with the opposite sex. It’s like if you have the right clothes, the right car, the right look, the right this, the right that, you will be viewed as a more valuable person and you will be able to attract a better mate. Money is tied up with all these needs for approval and getting ahead in life.
When you take a look at it, if you were a Martian anthropologist just come to earth, and so you come down and you’re reporting back about what this thing: “they have this thing called money, and I can’t quite figure it out, but all I can see is that most of them seem to get into these hard little things and go back and forth to someplace called the office, or the work site, and eventually after a week or a month they get something called a paycheck.” So money is something that they trade the hours of their life for. People make money valuable by that trade, and our lives are very real to us. All these fantasies about money makes success—that’s not real, but our lives are real. We only have like 72, 75 years here.
Once you understand that money equals the hours of my life and that you think you’re earning $20 an hour, which is maybe just above the median income. But if you take out taxes, and daycare, and car fare and job costuming, and if you add in the extra hours for your commute and your this and your that, you’ll find out that that $20 an hour is actually only $10 an hour. And once you do that calculation and you find yourself saying, “Ugh, you know, it was a tough week. I’m going to go treat myself to a dinner out,” 60 bucks, and you look at that and say, “That’s six hours of my life,” and you say, “No way. That’s six hours on the job in order to eat a dinner that’s going to be gone from my body within 12 hours,” or you might say, “Wow, only six hours? Hmm, all right, and I’m going to really enjoy this steak.”
Ross: At least you think about it …
Vicki: You think about it, and it’s a thinking tool, and as people use that thinking tool, what happens is they increase their consumption in places that bring them fulfillment and places that are in alignment with their values. They may tell Tommy, “Look, we’re going to have to buy you a used soccer uniform because I can’t afford a new one,” but when you think about that the most important thing in your life is your kids, you might invest in the new soccer uniform. It’s not about less of everything. It’s about spending money in accordance with your values, and making your values conscious at the point of purchase.
How big has this simple living movement become?
Ross beginning at 13:52: I’m curious. Your Money or Your Life was a giant best seller and there are study groups that have been set up around these ideas, there are a number of books that have come out, there are radio programs, you’ve made appearances on major television shows. Do you have any idea how widespread this movement has become?
Vicki: It’s really hard to say. I do know that for two years now, Your Money or Your Life has been among the top-ten best-selling business books in North America. Now, to me that’s significant, and it’s not significant to stroke my ego, it’s just significant that people really want this information, and I think they want it because they’re in debt. They need to save money. Our jobs are being threatened. The globalization of the marketplace has left everybody on this slippy-slidey ground. We’re not quite sure. We have to take matters into our own hands.
There’s that “fear of finances” sort of thing. There’s environmental concerns that no matter what you hear about the global environment, this year with El Niño, every time you hear about the storm you realize that driving my car is part of it. It all comes back again and again, whether it’s debt, whether it’s saving money, whether it’s wanting to be with our kids more, whether it’s the environment, whether it’s getting to be 50 years old and wondering what life is about and what’s the meaning. It all comes back to, “How can I manage my money, the stuff that comes into and goes out of my life, in such a way that I can have the life I want.”
Is there a spiritual component to over-consumption?
Ross beginning at 15:30: Let’s talk about that spiritual component, because I find that very interesting. The saying from the bible is something like, “A camel through the eye of a needle is more likely than a rich man getting into heaven,” And the whole implication of that is that it’s really better to be poor than it is to be rich. Is there a side of that to your beliefs?
Vicki: Every single religion teaches moderation. There is no religion that I know of on this earth that says, “Be a greed-head,” and that says greed is good—except for the religion of economics, which some people treat as a religion. All religions say moderation in all things, and there is a movement now in the Christian churches towards stewardship, this recognition that this cup, well this cup is yours, but let’s say this were my cup. This cup isn’t mine. This comes out of the earth. This is God’s cup. In some essential way this is God’s cup, and it’s mine to use for a certain period of time, and to use well and wisely.
If I don’t pay attention to my consumption, if I buy things I don’t need, if I throw a lot of things away because I’ve been imprudent in my buying, if I hoard money, if I’m greedy, this is all an insult to my relationship with God. It means that I’m a Sunday Christian, and the other six days of the week I’m an American consumer. People within the Christian church, within all, you know, Catholics and many, many denominations are looking at this question of how can we steward God’s creation better and understand with tremendous gratitude what we have here in this country. It’s like the opposite of greed, for me, is gratitude. It’s like the more grateful you are for what you have, the less you’re going to consume.
Does money provide the power and freedom in the ability to influence others and actually create the society that we live in?
Ross beginning at 17:37: Some people might be watching you and they might say, “Well, I can understand how you would say that simplifying in your personal life could give you greater satisfaction and maybe lead you away from work that you’re just doing to make money. And I could see how it may even be more spiritual to move in that direction, to practice moderation. But there’s a third part of our lives, and that’s the component of our lives in society. We are here in society and we are social beings with others around us, and it’s very hard to deny that money in society does not provide power and freedom. I mean, witness the way that political campaigns are running this country with more money equating to more television time, equating to being elected to high office. How does that fit into the equation when you look at the way that money does provide power and freedom in the ability to influence others and actually create the society that we live in?
Vicki: That’s one level that’s going on. That’s one level of the political world that is going on. We’re all observing this kind of … To me, it’s just this ridiculous kind of dance of elephants, really. If you take the politics closer to home and you take a look at what is it here in Seattle? It’s participating in my neighborhood, it’s knowing my neighbors, it’s applying for a small grant to do an improvement on my street or to get a kid’s something going.
Politics is really a relationship with one another outside of our household, and the more connectivity you have, the more you participate in your community, the more you go to the public hearings, the more you actually treat your elected officials as your representatives, not that they’re telling you what to do, but that you’re telling them what to do. The more you can participate at that level or that you vote with your dollars, that you shop at one store because you like the policies in the store and you don’t shop in another because you don’t like the policies, and not only that, you tell them. Or you vote with the media.
It’s stunning to me the people do not realize that just doing a call to a television station and saying, “Hey, that was a great show you had on.” Ten of those calls can keep a producer who’s doing forward-thinking programming on the air, because that’s a huge multiplier. We have so much power through our participation that we do not exercise. It’s interesting that television viewing has gone up 40% in the last 20 years, so on average, people watch about four hours a day. We could devote a portion of that time, just a portion of that time to participation and exercise that kind of power. I’m not being dumb about PACs and all that. I’m not being dumb about that. I know all that stuff happens, but just because that happens doesn’t mean we need to kind of lie down and get rolled over by this big truck.
Saving vs Investing?
Ross beginning at 20:42: There’s one way in which you agree with many major economists and what you sketch out, and that has to do with savings. Many people think that Americans don’t save enough, don’t put enough money away. In the last 10 years or so, actually some people in the baby-boom generation have turned around and begun to say, “Well I can’t be spending my paycheck every month. I need to put it away,” and often they’ve been putting it away in the stock market in the form of mutual funds, but you don’t see that as saving. You see that as speculating. Could you explain the difference?
[Editor note: Vicki’s original point-of-view in the first edition of Your Money or Your Life was based on a period when the yield on Treasury Bonds was extraordinarily high. Her revised edition seems to embrace the common sense investing principles that we teach on this website.]
Vicki: This is economics 101. Stocks go up, stocks go down. Mutual funds are funds that have stocks in them, most of them, unless it’s a bond fund. It means that you’re buying somebody else’s best guess of which bundle of stocks is going to go up or go down, so you might buy into a fund that makes a poor guess. You put in your $10,000 life savings. You sold off the second car. You realize you need to save money. You put it into X, Y, Z mutual fund, and then the Asian markets crash and somebody makes a poor decision in London and the wheat crop in Russia fails and your $10,000 is down to $4,992. That can happen, so stocks go up, stocks go down.
Saving money, to me, is living within your means and actually living below your means. Saving money is very—it’s kind of very elemental. It’s like anybody watching this show who’s like my age or older can remember you were taken down to the savings bank you opened a savings account and you saved money from your allowance and you put it in the savings account and you put it in the piggy bank. It’s that elemental. It’s living on less money than your income and taking that which you have saved and putting it aside and you can use that for future consumption. You buy in debt, and what have you done? So you buy something for $2,000, 18½ percent interest, you pay the minimum amount, three percent. It’ll take you 14 years to pay that off and you’ll pay $4,000 for that item; but you save the money for it, you’re always earning interest on that money, and then you have the item maybe a little bit later.
Spreading the ideas?
Ross beginning at 23:11: Along with your work in public speaking, and also the book Your Money or Your Life, and the sequel to it, you also are the co-founder of The New Road Map Foundation and you try to encourage various groups to work on these ideas. What are some success stories you can point to where you’ve been able to put out some seed money and seeing these ideas go further?
Vicki: All of the money that comes in from all of our educational work goes through the foundation and nobody at the foundation takes any money for what we do. We’re doing this because we choose to do it, because it’s where our power is. One of the organizations I love that we have funded since very early is the Northwest Earth Institute. It started in Portland, and there was a couple who when the man was a prominent lawyer who turned 50, both of them were strong environmentalists and they realized that they wanted to give back to the world, but they didn’t need any more money. They had enough, so they decided that he could keep on working as a lawyer and donate money to environmental organizations or form their own.
They have used his entrée into Portland businesses to start study groups on the issues of deep ecology. Their question is, “How can we live for the earth? How can we change our mindset so that we’re living for the earth instead of using up the earth for us?” He started study groups and 250 organizations on deep ecology, and then people were so enthralled with those eight-week study groups that they went on to study groups in voluntary simplicity. Now they have study curricula on bioregionalism and on sustainability, and his programs are going nationwide. He and his wife are just volunteering to do this because they believe in it.
There’s another group in Boston I really like, The Sustainable Living Institute, and it’s really the brainchild of one woman who said, “There’s so much going on in the Boston area on the subject of sustainability. How can we live our lives in such a way that future generations can have enough?” She has a newsletter and she’s supporting many, many projects through this institute.
Backlash against some of these ideas?
Ross beginning at 25:21: You’ve told me that you see a backlash in place in this country operating against some of the ideals that you’ve talked about on this program. What are some of the examples of that? Where’s that coming from?
Vicki: Actually I mentioned that to you on the phone because I had seen an article, I think, in the paper where somebody was extolling the virtues of I don’t know whether … It was a stretch … It wasn’t a stretch limo. I don’t even know the name of it. What is it, the utility vehicles.
Ross: Sports-utility vehicle?
Vicki: Yes, it was a stretch sports-utility vehicle, and these are the coolest things in New York City.
Ross: Where you really need an off-road vehicle, right?
Vicki: Where you really need a sport-utility vehicle, a stretch sport-utility vehicle. This is something I saw earlier in the 80s and it was really distressing after the 70s, “Now, what has happened? Are we going backwards?” By my way of seeing it, though, there is something happening globally, which is the environmental limits that we’re coming up against that is not going to allow us to have a backlash that we had in the 80s. We’re going to come to moderation because we’re going to … Stopped in our tracks …
Ross: Whether we want to or not …
Ross: … we’ll be forced to come to moderation because of that.
Vicki: Yeah, and better to embrace it before you’re forced, than to have to be forced to do it.
Ross: Do you think that’ll happen? You sound like an optimist.
Vicki: Yes, and you asked earlier about the number of people who are engaged in this movement. There are estimates of something like 15% of the baby boomers are coming on board. There’s another estimate that 44% of Americans, in some way or another, are practicing values that are at least in the environment of voluntary simplicity. There are people, as I said, because there are so many streams feeding this river of thrift running through our culture because it’s an aesthetic, because it’s an environmental issue, because it’s a financial issue, because it’s a human family issue, because of that, it’s getting stronger.
Ross: The book is called Your Money or Your Life. The group is called The New Road Map Foundation. Vicki Robin, thank you very much for being with us on Upon Reflection. I appreciate it.
Vicki: It’s been a pleasure.
Ross: Thank you.
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