How much does it cost you to exist for one hour? Have you ever asked?
Just for a rough guess, add up all the expenses of replacing the stuff that breaks, the cost of going to your job, your mortgage, taxes, tuition bills, gifts for relatives and friends, etc. Then divide by 8,904 (the number of hours in a year, assuming an extra 6 hours to offset for leap year.) How much is that? Is it higher than the US minimum wage?* If it is for you, you no longer have to wonder why you are broke. If you work forty hours a week, there are an additional one hundred twenty eight** uncompensated hours your wage does not cover.
It is my goal each year to reduce the cost of my hourly existence by .10 per hour. That is a pretty hefty goal considering all the upward pressures corporations keep heaping on me to buy more stuff or pay more fees to power what I already own. (PNC, Apple, Vectren, DP&L, Anthem BCBS, Amazon; I’m talking about you!)
It’s not all about money even though that may be the easiest scale to keep track of the cost of existence. It also about time and the quality of the experience. A friend of mine remarked to me several years ago that the worst thing she ever did to her life was buy a house and move to the suburbs. She had a baby at the time. (Since grown and graduated from college. They are still in the house she hates.) She had her epiphany while mowing the lawn and weeding the garden. For an average home of 2,000 sq ft, this usually takes a solid morning every week. If you then factor in “recovery” time for hot and humid weather, that is pretty much a solid day every week beating back nature.
She realized that the whole time she was mowing the lawn, she could be spending that time with her daughter, exploring the insides of a library or museum, flying a kite in the park, taking a road trip to someplace new and exciting or biking a trail. Instead, in her quest to give her daughter a higher quality of life in the suburbs where she was “supposed” to raise a child, she traded the opportunity of experiences for an anchor that demanded a day of her life every week. To further depress herself, she started adding up the hours she spent commuting to her job twenty miles away, the cost of maintaining the car and her work wardrobe and daycare. Fortunately, she stopped before any depression set in.
I think most of us live like that, denying how much cost our lives demand of us in time and treasure, simply because this is how we are supposed to live. A responsible parent does not raise her children in the middle of a city. A successful executive doesn’t live in a one-bedroom walk-up and walk to work.
Some people like spending that time in the garden and for them, it is worth the cost in time and treasure. That is ok. For them, that is the smaller life. For all we know, if they did not have a large yard and flower beds to mow and weed, they would be spending their money and time in speakeasies instead of libraries.
Both the New York Times and MSNBC ran stories yesterday on couples living the simple life. I’d link to them, but I already spent the obligatory five minutes searching for them. Too much clutter to deal with, so if you care enough to read them or check my facts, you go find them. I already had the experience. As usual, the media is getting this all wrong. They are focusing on the expense side of thing, i.e., how big a place to live, how much they spend, etc, and ignoring the overall quality of simple. I’d like to see how families are living simply too, not just a couple, but that is probably an entirely different rant.
I predict what we will be seeing in the next several years is marketers and retailers “packaging” the simple life, inflating the cost of it and re-selling it much like they sold the American Dream of a house in the ‘burbs, surrounded by a yard you have to mow every week, stuffed to the gills with crap that breaks on a cycle of planned obsolescence. And most of us will buy into it and never notice our time and money wallets are being picked.
For now, I use a simple formula when adding anything to my life. I ask myself a series of questions: How long will this last? How will I dispose of it when it wears out or breaks? Can I repair this? Will this cause me more time commitment? Will this reduce the time I already spend on ‘maintenance’ tasks? Where will I put this? Will this reduce my hourly cost of existence? Will this make me happy? It surprises me how often the answer to at least one of those questions causes me to put something back on the shelf, click away from a website or hang up the phone.
That is just “stuff.” Julien Smith has the start of an excellent treatise on the “cost and return of friendship” with his blog entry, Follower Hyperinflation. It may not have been the original intent of the article, but it can branch in so many ways. I suppose you can also explore the cost of contracts, volunteerism, family, etc in much the same way.
Ironically, this thousand or so word blog post was originally over three thousand words. If some of the arguments are incomplete and transitions appear a bit choppy, it is probably because they are. I had to hit publish at some point and the keeper of the deadlines was banging down the door. Add what you feel I left out or argued badly in the comments.
This blog post is part of a blog-off series with a group of bloggers from different professions and world views, each exploring a theme from his/her world view. This was about “The smaller life.” To explore how others handled the theme, check them out below. I will add links as they publish.
Veronika Miller, @modenus Modenus, Brighton
Paul Anater, @paul_anater Kitchen and Residential Design, Florida
Nick Lovelady @cupboards, Cupboardsonline, Alabama
Richard Holschuh, @concretedetail Concrete Detail, Vermont
Rufus Dogg, @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog Dayton, by way of Minneapolis
Cindy Frewen Wuellner, @Urbanverse Urbanverse
Becky Shankle, @ecomod, Eco-Moderism
Saxon Henry, @DESIGNCOMMOTION Chair Chick, NYC
ABC Dragoo, @abcddesigns abcddesign, NYC
Sean Lintow, Sr., @SLSConstruction, SLS Construction, Alabama
Steve Mouzon, @stevemouzonThe Original Green, Miami Beach
AptTherapy, @AptTherapy, Apartment Therapy
*In case you are wondering, my number for 2009 was $5.43. I’m slightly behind my goal for 2010 but not sliding backward. **Yeah, yeah, and some minutes for leap year.