Thursday, January 16, 2014

Revolution or tradition?

I am fortunate enough to live in a very international city, surrounded by people from different parts of the world. For the people around me, the choices I am making as part of this simple living journey have different associations and connotations than they do for me.

For me, simple living is my revolution. It contrasts with what I suppose I could call ‘the family average.’ As a teenager I spent a fair amount of time knitting and doing cross stitch, rather than getting drunk in the park. (Don’t get me wrong, I did my bit of getting drunk as a student, but that’s a different story. And I still crocheted my first blanket in my last year at uni.) When my mother refused to teach me to darn my socks (“Just buy some more!”) I taught myself using the 1940s Make do and mend booklet.
This is just one thread of our family story, not the whole story. We also used to pick strawberries to make our own jam, and my mother taught me how to knit and to sew, so there are many useful and precious skills and values that were taught to me, but I am unusual in focusing so much on these things, and I think it is fair to say that while my family would say they share many of the values behind simple living, I am the only one to prioritise them and identify them as a philosophy in quite this way. It certainly feels like I’m making a different choice, even if the underlying principles are not really that different.

For my friends from different backgrounds, it’s another story. I first realised this when I met one of my closest friends for a cup of tea in cafĂ©. We were drinking hot chocolate, and in Belgium they always put a little sachet of sugar next to the mug. (Because, y’know, it’s not sweet enough already…) She put her sachet in her bag. When I asked why, she explained that she always took these unused sachets of sugar home and kept them by the kettle for use in tea or coffee. It’s already paid for in the price of the drink, after all, so why waste it? 

This frugality was rather unexpected, my friend is not struggling to pay her bills, always dresses in high quality clothes, and often goes out for dinner, to the cinema, to the theatre and so on. I was intrigued, but of course it all made sense when she started talking about her childhood growing up in 1980s Poland. As she put it, ‘child of communism.’ They always had to be careful with what they used, not necessarily because they were poor, but simply because so many goods were hard to come by. She told me how much she used to enjoy darning socks (enjoy!), and shared a number of tips that her mother used – old clothes turned into rags for cleaning, for example. For her, these tips and tricks are things she is glad she doesn’t need any more, but she can use them when she wants to. They’re not something to be rediscovered, there’s no reskilling involved – it’s just an attitude of not wasting.

So of course, I offered her my sugar sachet, and now whenever we meet for coffee she leaves two sachets up. (Neither I nor my boyfriend drinks sugar in our tea/coffee). I also started thinking about frugality differently. My friend is not a spendthrift, but even when she’s out having fun, she’s making sure she doesn't waste anything she pays for.

It’s a similar story with my boyfriend, who comes from South America. I see this with how much money he thinks is a reasonable amount to put aside for the future. My parents encourage saving – but they encourage putting a little aside each month, to enable you to buy a new coat or go on holiday later in the year. 

For my boyfriend, who remembers economies crashing and Presidents changing so fast you could blink and miss one, who saw businesses collapse and jobs disappear, saves to be independent. He doesn't take it for granted that he will always have a job, or that the government will step in with assistance for those struggling, and he knows that the worst can and sometimes does happen. He saves so that if a crisis comes, whether that’s ill health or a family emergency or losing a job, or something bigger, we can weather it a little more easily. 

It’s dramatically changed my saving attitude too. He suggested – and I agreed – that a sensible ‘buffer’ or emergency fund should contain enough money to enable you to survive for a year without income. If we both lose our jobs tomorrow, we have twelve months – time to look for a job. Time to sell our house if we have one, and move to somewhere smaller with a lower rent. 

This attitude is contagious – I am also much more careful with money generally now, much more aware that the world is less secure than it seems from inside the Western bubble, and aware that just because life is good now doesn't mean it always will be. That doesn’t mean we hole up in a nuclear bunker and prepare for the apocalypse, but it does mean that I appreciate what I have now much more, knowing that it is not certain, not automatic, not a right recognised by the impersonal universe.
For many of my friends and my boyfriend, many of the aspects we are discovering as part of a simple living journey – living with a budget, reducing waste, mending rather than discarding, planning and saving for the future – are not new concepts but basic tenets which are known to, even if not practiced by, most people. While some people in the more developed world might consider that this simple living approach is weird and alternative, to much of the world, this is just basic life skills.

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