For some, a traditional work ethic and a big income seem to come naturally. I am not one of those people.
After feeling for years like I “never worked hard enough” at jobs, school, and money, I am settling into a new lifestyle. Ecofrugality, as we’ll call it, lets my free spirit do what it wants, while expressing my eco and social justice values. I am learning to be a minimalist not only about the stuff I own, but also the effort I put in and the money I earn and spend.
The term Ecofrugality comes from the name of a publication by Joe Omundson. Before I became familiar with his work, I had previously glimpsed such a lifestyle from Sophia Gubb, who blogged about unjobbing and unschooling. The idea was that if people were free to do whatever they wish — but given the tools to thrive —learning and contributing would still be a major part of their lives. They wouldn’t just binge Netflix forever. It might take time to adjust to being free, after such a long period of living up to the Joneses, but eventually, we would find a healthy balance. We would rest, play, and work. We would be both useful, and fulfilled, in our own organic ways.
I desperately wanted to believe that this idea was true. That inner motivation could be enough. I was tired of always pursuing a grade or a paycheck just to make it look like I measured up, to socially and financially survive. Unfortunately, I was never able to escape “the system” for long enough to catch my breath.
I lost my job to COVID last year, got on unemployment, and moved back in with my parents. I got out of debt, and I saved money for the first time in my life. I started treating writing, my passion, as if it were my full-time job, not caring how much I made. Meanwhile, I have been able to be helpful around the house for an aging family member with Alzheimer’s.
Despite seeing evidence that my writing and caregiving made a difference, I found it difficult to relax. $100-some a month in royalties? Pah! Unless I made a respectable income, how could I prove I was “doing enough” to give back to society?
I was ashamed to live an easy, frugal life. I wished I could shake off the conditioning, and feel proud for doing what makes me fulfilled. Here are the ideas I’m exploring lately that are helping me take pride in my ecofrugality.
The Mean Wage Movement: Could you live off $10,000 a year?
The Mean Wage Movement: One Guiding Principle to Fight Climate Change, Redistribute Wealth, and Live Happily. Joe Omundson’s gripping title discusses the perks of frugality. Being thrifty obviously means I can work less, which is a relief. But spending less money is also a way to shrink your carbon footprint. It could even help the poor.
To start, let’s consider the estimate that half the world lives on less than 3,700 US dollars per year, per person. 90% live on less than $18,000. 99% live on less than $50,000.
That’s according to Brookings Institute data cited in The Washington Post, The figures, from 2016, are adjusted based on relative purchasing power in different countries. “Most of us who complain about having a hard time making ends meet in the USA,” Joe contends, “are still living lives of relative luxury and cannot fathom the hardships we would endure if we were truly poor.” If we voluntarily choose to cut back, perhaps we can:
- Lower the demand for fossil fuel, environmental damage, and everything on Green Santa’s naughty list.
- Lower the demand for harsh human labor.
- Have more money left over to send to effective poverty-fighting charities, such as those recommended by GiveWell. We can redistribute wealth to those who need it more.
What is the Mean Wage Movement, then? It’s the idea of only spending what the average human makes. $3,700 a year is the median figure I referenced earlier, but the average or mean comes out to around $10,000, which is an easier target for the luxury-acquainted. Joe decided that beyond 10K a year, he would donate all his money.
$10,000 per household member is still a daunting spending goal for those of us who pay rent, have healthcare costs, and so on. The Mean Wage Movement devotes a whole chapter to who the movement is not for. The book also explains that $10,000/year may require an alternative living situation, such as a van, commune, or tiny home. I never realized that a family living in a mud hut would see sewage, AC, appliances, and all that concrete and drywall as exorbitant wealth. No wonder our modern homes cost so much; they are really less eco-friendly!
Joe advises only the people who want to willingly, joyfully give up their money to do so. Living frugally allowed him to quit a career that no longer suited him. He could spend more time hiking, writing, and doing what made him happy while helping the planet. Yet, if spending 10K a year is an unrealistic goal for some people, they could aim for 20K, or 30. Ecofrugality is not an all-or-nothing proposal.
Reading The Mean Wage Movement changes things for me. Since simply spending less is a big way I feel I can make a difference, earning less feels more okay. I try not to add to the demand for needless or oppressive labor, so I feel justified in being picky about the work I do. Part of me wishes I could make 100K a year in a prestigious career and “earn to give,” but since I don’t have that kind of drive, I’m happy to just be a cheapskate writer who tries to make an impact with my words.
I do want to be willing to work hard— especially when I ponder other people’s labor that my life has depended on. However, I only want to work hard when the fruit is worth the labor and/or the labor itself is fun. I want to be the change I wish to see in the world, and I wish for a world where “work” is a positive word!
You know what else should be positive words? Rest. Ease. Doing nothing.
Lie Flat (Tang Ping): I dare you to do nothing
Tang Ping is a counterculture movement that rebels against hustle culture. In parts of China, people work “996,” which is 9am-9pm six days a week. As The New York Times reported, a man named Luo Huazhong was sick of this. He quit his factory job, did a bike tour, and has gotten by on odd jobs and money from savings ever since. “Lying Flat Is Justice,” he said in a blog post, with a picture of him resting in bed.
I was humbled to learn about Tang Ping, or “Lie Flat” when translated to English. I have never been so overworked like Luo Huazhong, yet the idea of lying flat is a cure for my inner critic. I always feel as if I ought to be doing more, which prevents me from feeling relaxed and has given me insomnia. Further, I distract myself a lot with technology, which gets in the way of true rest. Here is how Tang Ping has been influencing me to change:
- When I get mentally tired during the day, I take a “fully disengaged rest break.” I lie in bed, breathing slow. I shut my eyes and let myself nod off, thinking “don’t think” or “shh” to quiet my thoughts and get real replenishment.
- I no longer feel bad about not having clear long-term goals. Of course I have some idea of my ideal future, but I’m not trying to control it as much. I’m letting living for today be enough!
- I’m trying to turn off my devices around 9 (as a gentle guideline) and prioritizing a full night’s rest no matter how late I end up falling asleep. I haven’t been consistently well-slept since before I was 13, and I’m hoping to change that.
- I’m often asking myself, “How can I put in less effort? What tasks can I let go of? How can I make my life simpler?”
My default state used to be “trying to do something.” Now, I am making rest my default state.
Bored? I’ll gaze at clouds. On edge? I’ll take a leisurely walk, leaving my smartphone at home. Tired? I’ll lie flat. If I don’t have anything better to do, anything I care to do, I’m just going to relax and do nothing until I find a reason to move.
Instead of feeling pressure to “achieve” a good night’s sleep so I can ace my goals the next day, I’m telling myself, “Hey, it’s time to rest. I don’t have to do anything. I can just be at ease. How nice!”I even recently turned down an offer to take a $1,000 refresher course in life coaching. The anxious side of me was having FOMO, but I realized not signing up would be truer to my new principle: “When in doubt, lie flat.” And when it comes to buying clothes from the fashion industry, my choice to do nothing will also be better for the environment!
My new goal is to rest, be dirt-cheap, and live a free, inspired life
As of September 2021, I no longer aspire to work hard or make proper money. My new vision for my life is to be the best-rested I’ve ever been, to spend only the money I need, and above all, to trust myself.
I trust that I am a person who cares about others, who wants to put my head, hands, and heart to good use. If I treat myself to self-love and the basics of a healthy life, I will be naturally inspired to do lovely things with my energy. I do NOT need an inner critic, outer authority, or economic pressure lording over me in order to be a helpful person.
Ecofrugality — at least as I’m pursuing it — is not for everyone. Certainly I am incredibly lucky I got unemployment last year and can live with my parents. Yet, I would say that if you are handed a lucky break, take it! Right now, I am having fun keeping track of all my expenses, writing income, and investments. I am excited to slowly figure out my independent creative “career,” and to align that career with good causes, even if it takes years. Someday I might save up for a camper vehicle. I might decide to work on a farm 3 months out of the year and be free the other 9. I might write an Amazon bestseller and suddenly start making more than $100 a month in royalties.
As for today, I am simply enjoying being alive. And I am counting that as enough.
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Photo: Maria Lupan via Unsplash