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Less is more

Living on a low income

Jonathan Cornford

 

Some of the fruitful dividend of having more time (but less money): bottled tomatoes, tomato sauce, relishes and chutneys,jams and marmalades, cordial, bottled fruit, home-baked bread, home-made soap and fresh produce from the garden.

 

When Kim and I were married in 1995, we resolved at the outset that as an expression of our desire to work for justice we should try to ‘live simply’. Living in Townsville at the time, we had hardly any idea what this meant and virtually no example to follow, and we have since discovered that ‘simple living’ can be quite a complicated matter. However, one thing we understood right from the start was if simple living was to have any meaning or relevance, it required living off less money than the norm. Since then, this seed of an idea has sent down deep roots into our faith and come to be a way of life that we cherish.

In the first few years of our marriage we earned more money than we have at any time since. Kim was working at the Tax Office and I had postgraduate scholarship, together amounting to about $45,000 a year – a respectable sum for a young, childless couple in 1995. Recognising we could live on a lot less, we lived off only one income and saved the rest. In 1999 we moved from Townsville to Melbourne to live in an urban mission community and our income for that year dropped to $0 (we lived off savings). In the last few years, with two children in tow, our household income has risen slowly back to about $45,000, which, once inflation is factored in, is about 65% of what it was in 1995.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other measures of wealth we are a ‘low-income family’. We have qualified for the Low-Income Health Care Card ever since it was invented, and in fact, according to the University of Melbourne’s Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, our weekly disposable income for the last few years has been below the Australian poverty line.

Our gross weekly income 2011
 $852
Average Australian gross household weekly income 2010 (couple with kids) $2000

Our weekly disposable income 2011 (gross minus tithe and tax)

 $717 Australian poverty line 2010 $754

 

Having consciously chosen this position must reflect a truly sacrificial way of living, right? Wrong! Although we have made conscious decisions to live on less than the norm, our lives are far from ascetic and could in no way be characterised as poor. We live in a comfortable house, have a good car, two computers, a stereo, TV, microwave and all sorts of other household conveniences and comforts; our fridge and pantry are full of ample food, including things that up until very recently have always been considered luxury foods – coffee, chocolate, ice cream, chips etc. Indeed, although we are now considered to be below a supposed poverty line, our standard of living, when measured in material consumption and life ease, is at a level that my grandfather, a middle-level civil servant, only approached late in his life. When we travel in Laos, or even when we visit the houses of our refugee friends in Melbourne, we are painfully aware of just how fantastically wealthy and comfortable we are. The question of whether we are rich or poor is entirely dependent on where you stand and according to the Global Rich List website (www.globalrichlist.com) more than 90% of the world’s population would consider us rich.

All this reveals a great deal about our society’s perceptions of standards of living. The current political blether is dominated by talk of how ‘average’ Australian families are ‘doing it tough’, and this supposed fact will become a mainstay of the coming federal election campaign. Recently, Federal Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon stated: ‘In Sydney’s west you can be on a quarter of a million dollars family income a year and you’re still struggling.’ There is little doubt that there are many families under financial stress, however, there is virtually no consideration of the role played by our wildly inflated perceptions of standards of living requirements in generating this stress. As a culture we have completely lost sight of what is actually needed to furnish a decent, dignified and satisfying life.

Let me state this plainly: although we now find ourselves at the bottom end of Australia’s income ladder, at no point have we ever experienced hardship, or felt poor, and financial stress has been blissfully absent from our lives. We would describe ourselves as ‘comfortable’. Indeed, without any hint of romanticising, choosing a lower standard of living than the contemporary Australian norm has been, without a doubt, a blessing to our family. But before explaining this, let me briefly summarise our steps towards living on a lower income.

 

How we have come to live on less

Over the course of our marriage, the simple idea of living on less has solidified into some core practices that shape our household economy.

Tithing

From the outset we decided to tithe a minimum of 10% of our gross income, and to make this decision the foundation stone of our household budget – it is the first line-item of the budget, to be taken out before rent, food or bills. Tithing, when it is healthy, is not some rules-based religious obligation, but a rich practice with layers of meaning. I have written at more length about this in a previous Manna Matters (August 2011), however, at a practical level, tithing is an active and voluntary decision to live on less money than you otherwise could.

Part-timing

Since leaving Townsville we have chosen to work or study on only a part-time basis. At first this was just the result of practical decisions, but it has become now a central commitment about how we want to live our lives. Once again, the reasons for this are multi-faceted, however, the end result is less money.

Living frugally

Living on a lower income necessarily means doing without a bunch of stuff that the advertising industry tells us we should have. To do this, we have endeavoured to keep luxury food as luxuries (things we really enjoy once in a while) rather than normalising them; we have rejected the need to constantly upgrade our technology when it is working just fine; we have rejected the need to take up many new technologies that we have so far lived perfectly well without (and whose contribution to our quality of life we are dubious about); we have never had a credit card (we use a Visa debit card), but live by the rather more simple standard ‘if you don’t have the money, do without or save up’(although we wouldn’t apply this to buying a house); we buy as much as we can – clothing, car, furniture, technology, household goods etc – second hand; we are endeavouring, bit by bit, to produce as much of our own food as we can.

Paying more

To start with, our idea of living simply involved trying to live as cheaply as we could, and involved buying lots of generic brand groceries. Then we started to learn about the global food system and trade system and realised that groceries can only be sold so cheaply by doing harm to people and the planet. This put us on a long journey to try to be responsible for the impact of what we consume, and has led to the realisation that for many things we need to pay more for more ethical and sustainable products (eg. fair trade, organic, more local, durability, recyclability, efficiency etc). Of course, paying more means you can afford less, which is a pretty effective way of reducing the volume of what we consume.

Budgeting

It sounds boring, but we have found budgeting an essential practice to living on less. Any budget, whether it is the Federal Government’s budget or our household budget, is a statement of priorities and therefore a statement of values and therefore a statement of belief. More practically, doing a budget once in a while is an excellent way of discovering what we are actually spending on various things, which can often be surprising. It provides the opportunity to reflect on our use of money, and to begin to think about what things we could change to better align with our values.

 

Why live on less?

What began as a fairly simple and one-dimensional choice to live on a lower income has turned out to have a whole lot of other dimensions – I might even call them dividends. It turns out that in God’s created order, what is good for my neighbour and good for the earth is also good for me. Here are some good reasons to make the choice for less:

Care for the least (the justice dividend)

At a simple level, a decision to live on less is a conscious decision to limit the vast and growing chasm of wealth inequality between us and the rest of humanity. But more than that, the reason why the consumer economy can provide us with so much stuff so cheaply is because other people, elsewhere, are being ripped off. By limiting our participation in that economy, we are in effect limiting its harm.

But isn’t it better that I keep buying stuff so that poor labourers in China can at least earn a living? This is indeed a major argument of the proponents of the current system. It is a complex question with lots of underlying assumptions, and much more than we can discuss here, but I believe the short answer is ‘no’. This will have to be a topic of discussion for a future Manna Matters piece.

Care for the planet (the ecological dividend)

Whatever the complexities of whether the consumer economy benefits poor labourers in the developing world or not, the simple fact is that the planet cannot sustain our current levels of consumption. No one benefits from the collapse of the biosphere. The choice to live with less is, at its core, a choice to use up less of the produce of the earth to ensure that more is available for the other creatures who share this planet, and for future generations.

Time for important things (the relational dividend)

What began for us as a choice to live off a lower income has primarily become a choice for more time. Time, we have come to realise, is the critical ingredient needed to take steps to explore more ethical and sustainable ways of living. It is also the central requirement for any communal action and sharing with other people, such as in church communities and food cooperatives. But perhaps more than anything, the immense value of time – inestimably more valuable than mere money – became clear to us when we started a family. The first five years of childhood before school fly by so quickly and can never be got back, and one of the things we are most thankful to God for is having had time and space to fully enter into this beautiful season of life. We are not up to the tricky teenage years yet, but it is not hard to see that, in a different way, time will be important then too. And finally, the time that Kim and I have had to explore all these things together – all rewarding forms of unpaid work really – has been a rich blessing to our marriage.

Breaking the yoke … (the spiritual dividend)

Every day, in thousands of ways, we are bombarded with messages about how we should look, what our homes should look like, what toys our kids should have, what gadgets we should have, what sort of career success we should pursue, what life should look like … To make a discipline of saying no to these things is freedom itself. With the rejection of the whole package of consumer life comes the liberation of seeing just how hollow it all is. Then comes the realisation, ‘I didn’t make a sacrifice in saying no to all this - I was saved from it!’ Why else did Jesus make renunciation such a central part of following him: ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ This is not intended as a test of faith; it is the gateway to freedom.

Discovery of a witness (the evangelical dividend)

Saint Francis said: ‘Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.’ The scandalous idea of the New Testament is that God’s message to humanity cannot possibly be communicated by mere words – it requires lives. The word must become flesh, and it is because of this that choosing to live with less is an evangelical act.

We have noticed that when, through our lives, the dominant idols of our time are challenged, people notice. Questions are asked, conversation follows. Sermonising is not necessary. We do not have to use religious words, but what we cannot hide is that for us, the journey of trying to follow Jesus has indeed been good news. Not just in some spiritually abstract way that is confoundingly difficult to communicate (that too!), but in the real, earthy fruit of life in abundance. As Cardinal Suhard once wrote:

To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.

I believe the primary evangelical task of Christians in the twenty-first century is simply to live well in a world dominated by bad living.

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This is something of our story, and obviously it would be silly to generalise our particular experience as some sort of ‘model’ for others. Nevertheless, our experience is one more concrete example of a truth that I believe all followers of Jesus should heed, and that is that a good life – an abundant life – does not require anything like the material standard of living that our culture tells us is ‘normal’. In fact, there is little doubt that this standard of living is an obstacle to rich and full living, and it is certainly bad for the planet. For us, choosing less has been a choice for more of the things that a consumer economy can never supply us with, and they just happen to be the most important things of all.

 

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