In our consumerist age, most of us spend our time working – so we can spend our free time spending. Two years ago, in an act of defiance, Melbourne-based lawyer Samuel Alexander stepped off the mainstream work wheel and became a simple liver.
Despite what the name suggested, simple living wasn’t simple at all. Alexander gave up his job in a high-profile firm, moved into a shed, ate primarily from his vegetable garden and spent just $7000 annually.
As a part of his commitment to simple living, Alexander founded the Life Poets’ Simplicity Collective and it has since grown to over 500 members. I met with him and his four chickens at his Coburg home.
What first brought you to simple living?
While I was writing my law masters’ thesis, I was cautious of theorising about alternative social arrangements without being able to live the ethics upon which the theories were based. I decided if the environmental problem is due to the expanding economies and consumer culture, one way to approach that problem is to rethink how much is enough. That clearly resonated with the idea of simple living and so I found a way to personalise my politics.
How do you live simply in your daily life?
Over the last two years, I have been living in a shed that I built in my backyard, so I could see how far I could provide to myself. I paid very little rent, I grew my own veggies and I spent $38 on clothes. Also, for a whole year I took an exact account of how much money I spent on everything, which came to $6792.
Were there any surprises in how much you were spending on particular items?
It’s very easy, for example, to lose track of the cumulative cost of coffees and take out lunches. Coffees are now $3.50 and a lunch could be $10 per day. So if you always take a packed lunch and only get one coffee you can save $75 per week. Now, in a whole year that’s nearly $4000. I don’t think that’s obvious to everyone.
So do you object to activities based just on their expense? If staying at The Hyatt was suddenly (and very hypothetically) free, would you want to do it?
I object to both the expense and the experience of artificial perfection. I’m sure in the hotel rooms there are big TVs and everything is luxurious in one sense. Luxuriousness, however, is open to different types of definition and there is a luxury in going to sleep under the stars.
In our society we need to earn enough money to cover, at least, our basic costs. How does a simple liver cover these costs?
One way to get to the root core of the simplicity movement is to ask: “how much money is enough?” It’s rethinking the presumption that if something can be bought, then that is the way it should be provided. For example, the Simplicity Collective did a recent bread-making workshop and it’s amazing because almost everyone has bread in their diet, but no one knows how to make their own bread.
How do people respond to the idea they could work less and have more free time as a simple liver?
Sometimes the simplicity movement is criticised as a bourgeois leisure movement, but to expand one’s free time doesn’t mean giving up hard work. The simple liver can still work hard, but instead of dedicating time to their career, the simple liver might reduce their needs and then dedicate themselves to social work or learning a musical instrument, for example.
What are some of the challenges of living simply?
Simple living can be socially isolating to the person that recognises it is not what almost everyone else is doing. There is a risk of me feeling I am isolating myself from a social group because I can’t socialise like my friends, some of whom have a lot more money than me. In the Simplicity Collective we bring people together as an act of affirmation, so simple livers don’t feel they are alone.