Jim Merkel made a good living selling weapons to the military until the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster made him question the costs of his lifestyle. “I’d had deep concerns about the environment in my younger years, but it took a catastrophe to reawaken it,” he says. “The devastation that resulted from that oil spill made me take a hard look at how I was making money and spending it.”
Merkel quit his high-paying job hawking the tools of war to become an advocate for saving the earth. The author of Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth, he directs the Global Living Project, a nonprofit organization that consults with campuses and municipalities and offers programs teaching participants how to choose a lifestyle that doesn’t use more than what the planet has to offer. He lives on the interest from his savings, $5,000 annually (except for a short stint when he was teaching) and is devoted to leaving a smaller carbon footprint.
Many studies have tried to understand our relationship between happiness and money. The oft-quoted Easterlin Paradox, based on a 1974 study by Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at the University of Southern California, asserts that once basic needs are met, happiness does not increase with higher incomes. Yet recent research from the Brookings Institute indicates the contrary: that when it comes to the link between money and happiness, more really is more. It’s enough to leave you scratching your head: how do we, as individuals, decide how much money is enough? And how can we earn a living with our values intact?
“It’s not money that’s the problem, but the meaning we give to it,” says David Wann, author of The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living. “With the downturn in the economy, more people are examining a new paradigm for looking at wealth and defining it in terms of their values instead of just money and the stuff that it buys.”
While Merkel’s lifestyle changes may seem extreme, a growing number of Americans are reexamining the way they earn money and redefining their concepts of wealth. “Not everyone needs to take the leap of faith I have,” he says. But small steps can lead to interesting places. Here’s how to begin.
If a career change is part of your blueprint for enriching your lifestyle, planning ahead is key. “My husband and I wanted one of us to work from home and be the main caregiver for our children,” explains Cathi Brese Doebler, author of Ditch the Joneses: Discover Your Family, who left her full-time management job 12 years ago when the first of her two sons was born. “I dropped down to part-time hours for my employer for about a year while I started my own consulting business. We changed our lives slowly to avoid major financial risks.”
Doug Nordman had a modest savings account and a rental property when he retired from a 20-year Navy career in 2002 at 41. “My wife and I had the idea of being financially independent in mind, but our plan B was working part time,” he says. “Luckily, we’ve been able to enjoy a low-key lifestyle in Hawaii and spend eight years full time with our daughter before she went off to college.”
Decide what really matters
According to Doebler, when it comes to downsizing your budget, the little things can add up. She and her husband took a hard look at their “wants” and “needs,” keeping in mind that family comes first on their list of values. Even one simple change can save big money; simply switching their cable TV plan to basic channels has produced a savings of more than $4,000 in the past 12 years.
“We didn’t cut back on TV channels just to save money but also because we wanted to spend our evenings in ways that better align with our values,” Doebler says. Their family plays board games and watches movies from the library in the winter and spends a lot of time outdoors in the summer—none of which costs a cent. Doebler also cut thousands of dollars per year by making lunches for her husband to take to work and slashing takeout dinners in favor of nutritious home-cooked meals.
“It’s not so much about giving things up that cost money but aligning your values with what you’re willing to spend money on,” says Wann, who is the community gardener in his sustainable neighborhood of 27 families. “Growing food for me and my neighbors meets my needs in a variety of ways. I get to eat healthy food, spend less on groceries, and take care of the earth.”
When Nordman retired from the military he had job offers, but one reason he opted instead to downshift his spending habits was to give back. He spent six years researching and writing The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement, which draws on the stories and advice of other military service members with whom he networks online. Not only does he enjoy building community, but he’s also donated thousands of dollars in royalties to military charities like the Wounded Warrior Project and the Fisher House Foundation.
Find like-minded communities
According to Wann, whose neighbors help support his garden with small contributions of money and time, there’s a lot of power in numbers. “I started this community with six families, and over the past 17 years it’s grown fourfold,” he says. “The key is that we support each other, our lifestyle choices, and our goals. And we enjoy the everyday experiences of doing that.”
Merkel lives in a small town in Maine where he knows most of his neighbors. But he also connects with like-minded people, who also want to leave a smaller carbon footprint, all over the country when he speaks at college campuses, town halls, and companies. “Even though I get frustrated because things aren’t changing in the positive direction I’d like them to, just the fact that thousands of other people share my concerns is energizing,” he says. “That helps keep me on track.”
Value the nonmonetary rewards
The new paradigm for wealth that Wann advocates is still based on rewards, but they come from experiences rather than the things that money buys. The good news is that the rewards of a downsized budget and lifestyle are often immediate. “Balancing the family budget isn’t always easy, but it’s about creating a more balanced life in general,” says Doebler. “There were instant rewards that money simply can’t buy when I cut back my work hours. I’ve been able to be with my children as their main caretaker through babyhood, toddlerhood, and beyond.”
And ultimately, the reward may be the shedding of the concept of reward, which leads to the discovery of the inherent meaning and joy in process: in the act of gardening, in cooking with your family, in community service work or philanthropic giving. Being present with yourself and your family in the moment, in all its technicolor emotions, is perhaps the true reward.
Two years ago, Warren and Betsy Talbot gave up their high-octane careers, their home, their cars, and virtually all of the possessions that they’d worked so hard to amass, so they could fulfill their dream of seeing the world together. This wasn’t just a vacation choice; it was a lifestyle shift they chose after observing health scares in two people close to them. “We realized that everything we owned meant nothing if we didn’t pursue our dreams of traveling together,” Betsy explains. They sold or donated everything that didn’t fit into their backpacks and now own only what they can carry.
They earn a fraction of what they used to earn—Warren was an executive at Microsoft, and Betsy was a small-business coach—selling self-published books about their “Married with Luggage” lifestyle. But they insist they’re rich beyond belief. “Since time is the only commodity you can’t get more of, being able to use it as you like is true wealth.”
6 Ways to Redefine Wealth
Money isn’t the only source of wealth, and it’s certainly not the source of spiritual fulfillment. David Wann suggests exploring a new paradigm for wealth:
1. Create a richer life story by investing in your personal growth.
2. Form higher-yield friendships and increase your social capital.
3. Take preventive health-care measures to build up wellness reserves.
4. Care for your neighbors to improve your community wealth index.
5. Cultivate energy savings.
6. Invest in prosperity futures by valuing the earth as a sacred place.