Voluntary Poverty and Escaping the Need for Money

voluntary poverty

A friend and I were talking the other day about jobs and money (actually, we were whining about our jobs and money) and he brought up the concept of Voluntary Poverty. I’ve never heard of voluntary poverty outside of certain orders like monks and nuns, so I asked him to explain.

Turns out that there is a movement of people who seek to escape the need for money by assuming a life of poverty. The dictionary defines poverty as, “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.” When we think of poverty, we think of people who cannot afford the basic necessities of life such as adequate food or shelter. In most cases, we associate this condition with unfortunate circumstances such as job loss, disability, illness or a lifetime of money management problems.

The people to whom my friend was referring defy the dictionary definition of poverty in one crucial way: They do not lack the money to live at a standard considered normal in society. Most have quite healthy stores of money and have the full ability to get and retain good, high paying jobs. They simply choose not to live according to the normal societal standard. My friend made it clear that voluntary poverty participants do not rely on government assistance. They choose instead to get by on their wits and ability to do for themselves. They recognize that this is a choice for them and do not take resources away from those who truly need them. Their lifestyle has some things in common with what we commonly term frugality (buying less, using less, reusing everything possible, etc.) but goes beyond frugality into true deprivation and sacrifice.

These people frequently choose not to have homes, opting instead to “squat” in vacant buildings and homes. By squatting they avoid taxes, insurance, rent/mortgage payments and utilities. I asked my friend if they don’t get into trouble for this, as squatting is against the law in most places. He said that if they get caught they will get in trouble but in most places the “punishment” is simply to be asked to leave. Rarely are criminal charges brought unless they inflict damage on the property. Some squatters actually fix up the properties they squat in (as more of a hobby than a public service), leaving them in better condition than they found them.

Those that don’t squat may find other like minded individuals and rent a house or an apartment but put so many people in it that the rent and utility bills per person are negligible. Again, this is a questionable practice if there is an occupancy limit on the dwelling but, as with squatting, the punishment is rarely more than asking the “extra” people to leave.

Some solve the housing problem by constructing a very tiny, simply appointed home on land that they or someone they know owns. In doing so, they don’t escape the burdens of taxes, utilities and insurance, but they do keep these and their other needs well below the “norm.”

Most do not keep cars, relying instead on walking, public transit, or perhaps a bicycle for transportation. In doing so, they avoid taxes, insurance and car payments. They tend to eat very low on the food chain, mostly beans, rice, soups and the like. Voluntary poverty participants are likely to be devotees of the “Freegan” lifestyle and hunt through waste baskets for perfectly good food that has been discarded from restaurants and stores. And, of course, they don’t shop very often, if at all. When they do it tends to be in thrift or surplus stores. What they own tends to be only what they can easily carry since they spend a lot of time on the move. They aren’t burdened with useless items and the associated maintenance and payments.

So why would one do this? Why intentionally live like a homeless person, always on the move and without what society considers adequate food and shelter? For some it’s a political or moral statement. It’s a way to buck the system. They prefer not to be controlled by the government and the trappings of modern life. They opt out of “the system,” choosing to live off the grid and away from the interference of the government agencies and bureaucracies that complicate everyday life. Some want to be free of taxes because they don’t like what the government does with the money. Some no longer believe that the government serves their best interests so they prefer to go it alone, demanding nothing from the system but contributing nothing, either.

For others it’s an environmental statement. They don’t like the waste being produced by the consumer society so they opt out, choosing instead to live on the discards of others. They feel that their lifestyle creates less waste and pollution than a “typical” lifestyle and better supports their commitment to the environment.

For others it’s way to be free of work that they don’t enjoy so that they can have more time to do the things they want to do. Some were previously trapped in cube farm jobs they hated so they could make the big mortgage payment, pay for the swanky car, and buy the latest gizmos. They reached a point in their life where they decided to get out, opting out of the cube farm job and turning to a life where money was not as necessary. They may still work, but it’s likely to be on an as needed basis, or when the opportunity to do something interesting turns up. They may experiment with different types of work without fear of losing a job that they need. Rather than steady work, they may volunteer for causes that are important to them. Voluntary poverty gives them time to do things that are important to them, without worrying about where the money to make the next payment is coming from.

Some see it as a chance for a little adventure and freedom. For these people, voluntary poverty is not a permanent choice. They may assume the lifestyle for a time in order to see what it’s like, to wander aimlessly, or to determine where they want to go next in life.

When my friend was finished explaining voluntary poverty, my first reaction was, “What a stupid thing to do.” But the more I thought about it, I decided that this was the wrong attitude. I decided that, while the lifestyle doesn’t appeal to me (I like my comforts a little too much), there are lessons to be taken from such a life and I shouldn’t judge others so harshly. I encourage you to do the same. Before you rush to judge the lifestyle, take a moment and think about the lessons we can all take from voluntary poverty.

1. While voluntary poverty takes it to an extreme, there is nothing wrong with learning to live with less and waste less. Maybe we can’t all get our belongings down to what we can carry, but do we need so much stuff? We can all ask ourselves what we really need to live and what makes us happy and make purchasing decisions from there, rather than just mindlessly buying stuff. Doing so will probably improve our finances and cut down on the amount of stuff we throw away. A reduction in waste and clutter is good for us and the planet.

2. Learning to do more for yourself and finding new ways to do things is a good thing. Sometimes our society turns us into cripples by making us think there’s no way to get what we need without going through “the system.” If you want power, you have to go through a utility, right? Not necessarily. You can go for solar or wind alternatives. If you want food, you have to go to a store, right? Maybe not if you can grow some of your own or join a co-op. Or, if you’re not averse to such things, you can try the Freegan approach and go dumpster diving. If you need clothes you have to go to the mall, we think. Well, if you can sew you can make your own or you can buy or trade used clothes through a variety of sources. There are plenty of alternative ways to get what we need (and a good bit of what we want) and learning a few of them makes you a more self-reliant person. In many cases, these alternative methods cost less than “the system” does, thus reducing your cost of living.

3. Working less never hurt anyone. In this country we are slaves to our jobs and careers. But yet we also complain incessantly that we have no time to do the things that are important to us. If we didn’t need as much money to live, we could work less and use that time for more important pursuits such as family time, hobbies that enrich our lives, volunteer activities and travel. The key to this dream is learning to require less money. As long as you have a lot of debt and expenses, you will have to work harder and harder to make the money to pay for them. But when you require less money, you can work less.

4. It shows us that it is possible to reduce our dependence on money and still survive, in some cases quite comfortably. We all sometimes say things like, “Oh, I can’t live without TV,” or, “I’d die if I couldn’t have my favorite meal out once a month.” But go without these things for a period of time and you are likely to find that better things have taken their place. Instead of TV you read more or play with your kids. Instead of eating out you discover the joy of cooking and get healthier. The truth is, it is possible to reduce expenses and consumption and still survive. As long as you are willing to think beyond the mainstream and try new things, it is possible to live, and even thrive, on much less than you are accustomed to.

5. There are mental health benefits to reducing consumption and dependence on the system. How many times have you been stressed out or angered by your job or boss, yet you cannot walk away because you need the money? How many times have you been driven crazy by the slowness of the DMV or come close to strangling the government bureaucrat who says, “I can’t help you, try down the hall.”? How many times have you worried and fretted late into the night because you owe a large amount of money and have no way to pay it? If you didn’t have a car, you could eliminate the DMV. If you didn’t have a lot of credit card debt or a mortgage you can’t afford, maybe you would sleep better and be able to tell your boss to kiss off. Reducing consumption and your dependence on the government or bureaucracy leads to less stress and an improved mindset.

6. There is something to be said for being a little bit freer. Here in America we live in the “Land of the Free.” But are we really as free as we think we are? We are controlled by our debts and our lifestyles. We owe money on our homes and we are not free to shirk that obligation without consequences. We are slaves to our jobs that give us the money to pay for our homes, cars, and goodies. Some of us are controlled by our homeowner’s association that says our home must be painted a certain color. We are controlled by utilities that set the rates for our power and water usage. We are controlled by governmental policies and procedures every day. While most of us can never escape all of this completely (and it could be argued that some control is good and necessary), there is nothing wrong with trying to reduce your dependence on these systems and increase your freedom.

Voluntary poverty isn’t a lifestyle that will appeal to most of us. Most of us prefer more comfort, security, predictability in our lives. For some of us such a lifestyle can never be a consideration because we have kids, dependent parents, or other issues that make it impossible for us to just chuck it all and live outside the system. I’m certainly not advocating that we all rush to embrace voluntary poverty, but there are lessons to be taken from those who have chosen to voluntarily reduce their needs to a level considered “sub-standard.” Think about those lessons and what else voluntary poverty might have to teach you about reducing waste, consumption, debt, and dependence, while increasing freedom, choices, and self-reliance.

Image courtesy of moominsean

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31 Responses to Voluntary Poverty and Escaping the Need for Money

  1. devon says:

    No, you were right with your first impression. It’s a stupid thing to do.

  2. pinkly says:

    I think the idea has a much more romantic image than it would actually have doing it.

  3. Trent Hamm says:

    Five years of voluntary poverty and you could likely retire.

  4. Alexandria says:

    Reminds me. We have a nun in the family. Though she has definitely given up worldly goods, I roll my eyes at the idea that she has taken a “vow of poverty.” There is nothing impoverished about her pension or her health benefits. She will never be hungry and she will never worry about how to pay any bills. She is also highly educated. (I always think to my impoverished grandparents and how they could not afford to go beyond something like 3rd grade. They had to go to work to support the family).

    Though I am not sure where she would be if she left the church. ??? I guess then she might experience true poverty since she wouldn’t have a penny to her name. She certainly has taken on considerable economic risk, and I am not sure how most would fare giving up all of their possessions. But I always kind of look at the big picture and have real issues with the word “poverty” used in her situation.

  5. justme says:

    people who squat in other peoples buildings end up burning them down happens all the time, they light fires and candles its on the news everyday

    I have never heard of someone breaking into a building and fixing it up that is nonsense

  6. Ceejay74 says:

    I agree that overall the idea doesn’t work (what about the police, hospitals, government-maintained parks, clean water? Surely they’d want to be able to take advantage of these trappings of society), it is great, I think, that people are experimenting with this, trying to raise their own and others’ awareness about excess, being slave to a bigger and bigger paycheck, etc. It’s somewhat irresponsible, but so is a lot of the behavior that’s led to our towering national debt and lack of savings. At least they’re trying to learn something, unlike the blissfully unaware majority of our society.

    Thanks for the article!

  7. D. Bolesny says:

    One of my bosses from long ago (an attorney) had a very interesting cartoon under the glass on his desk.

    It showed a homeless looking man sitting on a park bench and a businessman in a suit with a briefcase walking past him. They shared the same “thought bubble” which said, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

    Very poignant.

  8. princessperky says:

    everything in moderation..including ‘poverty’ or the lack therof…I couldn’t manage without the semi security of my house (course I do have kids) but I certainly see way to much emphasis on ‘stuff’ in todays world.

    I think like offering to die my husbands hair blue to get my MIL off the ‘long hair is bad kick’ offering to head on out to the streets might get her and others to stop trying to give us so much stuff (how many dolls, cars, toys ect can one kid even play with anyway?)

  9. EvieD says:

    LMAO at the “working less never hurt anyone”

    Generally, most employers require you to work “X” amount of hours per day/week/pay period, etc. Working less may in fact lead you to poverty but it won’t be voluntary seeing as you’d probably get canned!


  10. JenLovesPonies says:

    I find myself irrationally annoyed with the idea, and I can’t explain why. I read a romance novel recently where the mother of the heroine was like this- refused to earn more than $3000 because she’d get taxed, working with various poor populations while her daughter lived with various friends, giving away all she could. The book opened with the daughter finding her checking account empty because the mother used the money to buy some women out of slavery. I was annoyed with the character, who never loved her child enough.

    I think I just get irritated with freegans and other people like that because it seems unfair that I have to do all those things I have to do, and they get it all for free.

    I do wonder what they do when they get sick. Public health clinics are funded by taxes, for one thing. Taking expired medicine can make you sick, if you dumpster- dived for it.

    Squating bothers me too. I doubt too many people aren’t taking advantage of the utilities and I would be suprised if that many people fix up the place for free.

    On the other hand, I know reading PF blogs has given me opportunities that others don’t get and/or pay full price for, and I don’t mind that, certainly. I think I am a little hypocritical.

    Alexandria- I went to a Catholic college. The nuns and priests may not have owned much to their own name, but they were well taken-care-of. The priests, when they went to Seminary, had to spend a month on the streets begging to teach them humility or some nonsense. I was a little repulsed since they were taking things from actual homeless, all while enjoying the backing of the richest religion in the world.

  11. asmom says:

    When I was little we used to call people like this “bums”. That term went out of vogue for the term “homeless” back in the 80s. I am all for reducing waste and not being a slave to jobs and possessions but “squatting” on other’s property- which is stealing by the way- takes it to another level.


  12. Miranda says:

    I certainly agree that it sounds romantic. I don’t like the idea of living a freegan lifestyle. But when I look at what other, “normal” married people my age have — two cars, a big screen TV, crazy toys for the kids, premium cable, cell phones, etc. — I feel pretty abnormal. We only have one car and take advantage of our legs and public transportation, a smallish TV and basic cable. And we have a pay as you go cell phone. We have a garden and we buy very little at the store. You don’t need to take a “vow of poverty” to cut back on your expenses and to live a lifestyle that isn’t as wasteful as those around you.

  13. jgwiss says:

    There is a spectrum of voluntary simplicity.
    This can range from hoboing to Goldenager RVing north in summer- south in winter. There are ideas like ‘the commons’, usefruct, gleaning, and wildcrafting that go back millenia in European culture. There came a time in the ’90’s in some coastal California cities when the cops stopped bothering the folks living in vehicles because These were the workers for those lucky folks who had ridden the real estate bubble up to serious heights.
    Most folks like being in community where they can contribute to the commonweal. I’ve met others happy to have a shopping cart and be left alone sleeping in a doorway. Strike up a conversation sometime with someone seeming to voluntarily have less stuff and more time. You might learn something.

  14. kay louis says:

    Every time I contemplate the word poverty or listern to the ill fearing fate of the word, and how deep this cancer has spycologically stifle and criple the world, the planet, and the life of every living thing on this earth;our freedom and strengh and,the gift of life which is the most powerful and precious in freedom there of, most valuable, the riches gain, void of all what the opposite of worldly poverity stands for,and this generatiion of man has yet if ever to learn,leaves me to wonder how much longer will those who in the misleading power of social justice and welfare and in the name of capital gain of social high class continue to mentally enslave and inprision us the majority which feeds of the bread crumbs of war Lordes of the world dressed in sheep clothing, dazzelled with all kinds of precious stones and of gold, tempt us with fruitless words of uninspiring hope which leads us but into that bottomless pit of social misery, social strife, social hunger and illness greed,warfare, death and resurection. I marvel at this wonder with man,and his drive for power and dominion. It is indeed because of that ill fated fear of the opposite of such a word that we the world is in the state of becoming hell on earth.Think about it. Are we here to inherit life or capitalism. If not the latter, then God and life and heaven is invane.

  15. Lisa says:

    Most of us come from a perspective of scarcity. There’s not enough for us. We sell our time on this earth for health insurance, a pension, a big house we work too many hours to truly enjoy, a car that feels good for the first day, week, month or if lucky year and then we feel deprived and needy again. There’s just not enough out there to make us feel fulfilled. So some folks decide to be like Buddha although they may not call it that and try to live simply. Some give up one thing, that leads to another, to another until they live very simply. The authors of “Your Money or Your Life” are a good example.

    I freely admit that I only continue to work because I am afraid to be without health insurance. Do you love what you do or do you do it out of fear of being without something? Do you ever feel like you have enough?

  16. froggies13 says:

    If poverty is defined as not having enough money to live in comfort, how can these people say they are living in povery when they have a fat bank account?
    Shouldn’t they give their money away?
    People who live in poverty don’t have a financial cushion to land on if something goes wrong in their lives.

  17. Pingback: Festival of Frugality #125 - Save Some Money If You Are Rich Edition

  18. Viridia Rainbird says:

    if you have money to fall back on you’re still another annoying wannabee, playing pious among the real outcasts. give away your money and perks and social connections then try live by your wits like we do.

  19. Nick says:

    Actually, you seem to have forgotten to mention the motive for some of us taking on voluntary poverty..


    Spending less money means more money out of your paycheck to save, which if handled correctly, can make $ into $$$ a lot faster than other methods.

  20. Monica says:

    Awesome article I believe in living a lifestyle of frugality however I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to become a squatter moving from place to place having to look for food. That’s a bit much for me.

  21. Kim says:

    Just found your article. I think it is great that you were able to examine yourself – not many people are willing to do it. I live a life of voluntary poverty and I don’t have a fat bank account. (and I am not a nun, nor do I ever receive wages for any work I do). God is the Father and provider of us all. With a little faith, anything is possible. Dare to believe.

  22. Andrew Knight says:

    It’s kind of funny (in a sad, ironic way) how many people have criticized the freegans on the basis that they are “freeloading” off government services. In our socialist country, government is forced upon people with a forced system of taxation. So when someone simply decides to withdraw his consent from the social contract and to stop contributing to the system, people complain that he is getting benefits for free. I, personally, would be more than happy if all government “services” disappeared. Yes, that includes public schools, public health, public anything. If I choose to lawfully not pay taxes (such as by earning less than the threshold for taxes), out of protest for a system gone mad, what about this is irresponsible? Indeed, this is exactly what our Founding Fathers did when they left Europe.

  23. gregg says:

    surprised by the negative comments. My wife and I have dipped in and out of “society” and volutary poverty for the last twenty years, at first through circumstance now by choice. Find that when we are working and contributing we are not the envy of anyone, while we are “enjoying” our time of poverty we are the envy of everyone. Now our level of lifestyle would not be at the lowest levels of poverty but having more time than money has alot of personal benifits.

  24. PlainFarmer says:

    I’m interested in voluntary simplicity. I do own land, and would have to pay the taxes on it, but I would like to live without paying “normal” utilities. I live without normal lights right now in a tiny camper. I have no debt.

  25. reflective says:

    I just read the article Voluntary Poverty and Escaping the Need for Money. Nice idea but…reality is most people who take this up are probably well educated. That means when they have tired of the experiment, they can end it and go back out and join the system again. I am truly humbled by those few who choose it as a permanent “way of life”.

  26. Lee says:

    The author of this article made an error, in my opinion. People that live a life of voluntary poverty do not live a life that is considered “normal” in our society. Their standard of living is not normal.

    On the other hand, people that live a life of “voluntary simplicity” may live a life that appears normal on the surface.

    I do agree with the concept that people can lower their standard of living and improve their quality of life.

  27. loveablenerd says:

    @EvieD, I think you missed the point. Someone practicing this lifestyle would surely resign from such a demanding job themselves and seek out less stressful part time work, freelance work, or odd jobs whenever needed.

    @Andrew Knight, well said. Taking their lives back from their boss, the government, the banks and the corporations never hurt anyone.

  28. Garrison says:

    Don’t you fix up your home? Why would a squatter not maintain their living place and make it comfortable? And what percentage of squatters actually burn the place down? I bet the number is far, far less than the “normals” who fall asleep with a cigarette or whatnot.

  29. Garrison says:

    Stealing? Stealing what? If a home is not being used, and as long as they aren’t causing damage, how is it stealing?

  30. shooshooo says:

    very interesting, what does this statement mean?

  31. Lee D. says:

    I’m in favor of voluntary poverty. I’m not surprised at the people that are completely against it without taking note that there is a spectrum here, as someone else mentioned. Not all of the people that take up voluntary poverty are squatters. Then, the dumpster divers are doing the environment a service. They are using what was not used efficiently and reducing the need for brand new things. It’s just as in other ecological systems. Nothing goes to waste in nature. It’s unfortunate that many things go to waste in human economic systems.

    I myself live a life that is simpler than what I have access to. I once earned an affluent income, but now earn a lower middle class income. I prefer the work that I’m doing now though, and I also prefer my current coworkers over the hard people that I worked with to earn a high income. I want to take my simplicity further and live off of $11,000 a year or so (just below the poverty line). I’m having trouble getting to this point. I think that I’ll be there after building my own little low-cost house on a lot that I purchased with cash. It’s a way of going about it mentioned in Possum Living, and in Mortgage Free, two great books.

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