How to live better with less

Carpenter is a Times staff writer.

For the millions of Americans now facing the possibility of home foreclosures and unemployment, frugal living isn’t just an option. It’s an imperative. That sad reality doesn’t make it any easier to actually do it, however, especially for the many individuals who’ve literally bought into the notion of buying now and paying later.

How, exactly, does a person go from living large to living within his or her means? The answer lies in “unhooking your thinking from consumer culture,” say the authors of the classic personal finance tome “Your Money or Your Life,” which has been revised and updated since its original publication in 1992.

The timing couldn’t be better. According to the book’s introduction, the typical U.S. consumer is carrying a credit card balance of $3,000 and has saved little if any in more than three years. Health insurance costs are exploding, jobs are scarce and the environment is in peril. Clearly, something’s got to give.

Or, if the tenets of “Your Money or Your Life” are followed, some things have got to be given up. That doesn’t mean living like a pauper, its authors contend. It means living better and doing it with less -- less money and all that stuff Americans have been putting on their credit cards. It’s about embracing the idea of “enough” rather than constantly yearning for “more.”


Such an outrageously common-sense concept is, of course, a lot easier said than done. After years of thoughtless spending, living with less requires a monumental shift in consciousness to force a fundamental and increasingly necessary shift in habits. In other words, it requires a complete reversal of how we, as Americans, have defined ourselves for decades, which is typically through our possessions and comparisons with others.

What would happen if the Joneses we kept keeping up with moved away? What if we were able to get so in touch with ourselves that what we bought was aligned with what we believe rather than what we believe others are thinking about us? That’s the underlying concept of “Your Money or Your Life” -- a former New York Times bestseller that, like many self-help books, buttresses its nod-in-agreement concepts with exercises requiring action.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, there are steps given to transform your relationship with money and achieve financial independence. But they are exhausting just to read about, let alone put into practice. Sure, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step, but No. 1 seems especially daunting. It asks readers to tally up every cent they’ve earned so far in life, whether it was through an official employer and tracked through the IRS or paid in cash and earned off the books.

Then, and this is where it gets really painful, it asks readers what they have to show for it. What has money truly bought them? Whether it’s a closet of unworn clothes or a protruding belly from restaurant dining, the objective is awareness -- “no shame no blame,” as the authors repeat throughout the book. The authors then build on that awareness, asking readers, in subsequent steps, to keep track of every penny spent and to consider their personal values.

Timely as the ideas now seem, the nine steps in “Your Money or Your Life” were conceived almost 40 years ago as an early-retirement strategy for Wall Street financial analyst Joe Dominguez, one of the authors. What began as the most personal of personal finance tools evolved into a series of workshops, then a book, which helped form the guiding principles of what would eventually become the voluntary simplicity movement.

Dominguez has since died, but his ideas about conscious spending live on. They’ve just been retooled by his co-author Vicki Robin, who has placed more emphasis on consumers’ beliefs about money and their individual value systems, in addition to specific strategies for saving money. In its updated version, “Your Money or Your Life” is less strident (Robin no longer advocates selling the primary car), more realistic (to acknowledge our country’s diminishing social safety net) -- and more necessary than ever.

If you follow the advice of the book, you don’t even have to buy “Your Money or Your Life” to reap its rewards. Check it out from the library, and you’ve saved yourself 16 bucks -- money that most Americans already need to start digging themselves out of debt.