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Monday, April 13, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 15 - Work

Tax Credits, Flickr

How much should one work, and how much should one earn? Reading on that topic I have learned that:

  • the minimum wage is usually not enough to afford a salubrious shelter, reasonably healthy food, medical expenses and an education - especially if you have kids
  • happiness increases as you make your way up to $75,000 a year - after that, additional increases in income will not make you any happier
  • the American Dream costs $130,000 per year

Of course each of those statements has been questioned on various grounds.

I have lived on incomes all along that continuum, which makes me look like I'm qualified to draw my own conclusions. 

However, I'm afraid I cannot comment on the lower income end since in my case, when I lived on very little it was 1) by choice (I refused to borrow any money at all while I was in college) 2) temporary (I knew my situation would improve as soon as I got out of school and got a "real" job) and 3) complemented by my parents' contribution to both my tuition and groceries - plus I could enjoy their property on the weekend. In the end, I did spend a few years living very frugally (1-room apartment, no TV, no microwave, very few possessions in general and not going out much), but it never felt like actual poverty. (It might help that despite my low income, I was treated with respect, which doesn't seem to be the case in many low-income realities.)

I can, however, comment on the fact that the American Dream as described by USA Today is not an infallible recipe for happiness. There are many reasons behind that. First and obvious is the fact that safety and material comfort are only one factor of happiness. From what I have either witnessed or experienced personally, pleasant relationships, meaningful activities, good mental health and such count just as much in the well-being equation. I would rather live in a shack with people I love than live in a castle with people I despise. I would rather have a job I love that pays okay than have a job I hate that pays well. I would also rather have less stuff to look after. I could list examples of well-off people I have known that were not happy, but I will trust that you have your own examples.

This is where an honest appraisal of the reasons we work the way we do and of the costs and benefits of work comes into play. You might have landed the prestigious, well-paid job you had dreamed about. Or you might simply be working really hard at a regular-Joe job. But is it filling you with contentment or with misery? How do you truly feel? Is all that hard work really worth it?

If you really love what you do, and if the time and energy commitment doesn't get in the way of other life goals (like spending time with loved ones, engaging in hobbies or simply relaxing), then by all means keep at it. 

But if you feel like the trade-off might not be worth it... time to reconsider. In my field, I have met many colleagues who left secure jobs as physicians, lawyers, engineers, financiers, senior managers and the like to become freelance translators, editors and writers. I have yet to hear one of them say they regret it at all. Despite the initial uncertainty, precarity and fluctuations of income (it does get better as you gain experience), more than one has told me they would "never go back". 

Within one's ideal field itself, one must also be weary of crossing the line of "too much". There have been times in my freelance career when things were going so well for me that I started feeling they were going a little bit too well: the money was good, but I was working so much that I could never use said money - there simply was no time for anything else but work! Life was made of hours worked and checks deposited, with very little in-between. I had to cut back.

Doing so has had less negative impact than I imagined. I realized that having the time to watch life go by is a luxury I enjoy way more than most material possessions. I also realized that if I cut down on certain paid tasks I like (translation in fields I am not passionate about), I have more time to indulge in paid tasks I love (teaching, writing, and translation in the fields that I am passionate about). Interestingly, my income did not significantly decrease as I changed how I invest my time: it simply comes from different sources now. I certainly feel like I don't work as hard as I used to, but it's simply because I love what I do. 

Everything is relative of course: there are fields and cities where working less than 50 hours is considered slacking, and there are people who cannot fathom working more than part-time. Each of us has to ponder our need for stimulation as much as our need for rest as we tackle the $ numbers.

I have to be completely honest: I am not ready yet to fully indulge in hardcore minimalism. There are "luxuries" I still enjoy. Plus, I am not even handy. But I am more than ready to mindfully assess the use of each and every minute and dollar to make sure that it truly serves the purpose of maximizing my well-being.

What is your relationship to your job and the money you make from it? Do you think any changes in that area could make you happier?



They say it takes a few weeks to form a new habit. After 15 weeks of not buying, I think the habit has been formed. I can walk into a store and get the one thing I need without even considering anything else. It's a wonderful feeling. 

Donations (good riddance)

I am stuck in the book department. Really stuck. I know as long as I live in an English-speaking environment I will keep my French classics since they are so hard to come by, and I want my kids to have access to them (plus, I teach French). But any other book seems like it could go. Which doesn't mean I feel ready to let them go. Any advice?

Observations and cogitations

I have had that conversation with a few friends and family members: what should one do about things that s/he doesn't use but feels s/he will use in the future? For example, I am keeping some pairs of jeans for when the ones I currently wear the most have to be discarded. It seems logical in such a case. But such a logic also opens the door to accumulating things "for later", which can certainly go too far. I have seen more than one older person move to a nursing home or pass away with enough hand towels and Javex to last 3 generations. What do you think?

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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  1. Well, I think that "extreme frugality" definitely feels different when you are doing it by choice as opposed to living in poverty because you are stuck. I quit my job 9 years ago and now support myself through online ventures. The first 2 years I actually made double what I had when working, but I also worked a LOT. Totally not worth it. I do live much more frugally than most, but for me it's a choice. I'd much rather spend my time "making do" than working at a job.

    And my advice with the books is to do three things. First, check to see if the content is available online. I had a book of TS Eliot poems that I was hanging onto, but then I realized I could find all of them online, so it was easy to donate the book. Second, go see if the title is available at your local library without a long wait. If it is, then it's easy to let the library store the book for you. And finally, go look up the book on Amazon and see how many used copies are available and at what price. You'll be AMAZED how many books are listed there for a penny a piece! You may find that there are some books you'll still want to hold onto, but my bet is that this little exercise will make it easier to let go of most of them.

    1. I love your comment about work. You seem very lucid about the whole cost vs benefits of work situation. And thank you for your advice on books!

  2. Oh... and "salubrious?!?" I had to go look that one up! Impressive vocabulary, my friend!

  3. My relationship to my job is bi-polar. There are details about it which I find very rewarding and satisfying and things about it which really bring me down at times. I think my relationship with my income is ok and I am learning how to become a better steward of my earnings. With regard to the negatives of my job I am trying not to label/judge situations and instead go with the flow, because of the old wisdom that says you cannot tell from the start of something how it will end. Sorry that is probably not a very good explanation, the wisdom to which I am referring is the parable of the Taoist Farmer.

    Re the jeans. I think there is a difference between stockpiling which can be prudent, and hoarding (hand towels and javex for example) which could stem from fear and anxiety.

    1. I have a feeling that most people must have a bipolar relationship with their job. :-) Going with the flow sounds great.

      I like the distinction that you make between stockpiling and hoarding.

  4. I have been very poor - to the extent I saved up for shampoo. I have been comfortable. I know which I prefer. Hands down.
    Riches don't interest me. I have no urge to have more than one home, and don't need to keep up with the 'Jones'.
    Luckily here a minimum wage will (mostly) keep a roof over your head.
    Health issues meant I had to give up work some years ago, and I live on my superannuation. I understand I live on a lot less than the 'average' wage - but it meets my needs. More than. I don't live a flash life, but there are some luxuries (books and garden) and I can still give a little to selected charities. I think it is about priorities. And it sounds as if yours are in the right place.
    I keep books I will read again. Too many books. And lots of the books I love are not (yet) available on line. I also much prefer 'real books'. I like the feel of them, I like the paper and illustrated books in particular are (I think) MUCH better in the flesh.

    1. Your approach - gratitude for what you have as opposed to wanting more - probably brings you peace! And I feel the same as you about physical books.

  5. I live in family where no one wants to get rid of books, but some of them (the books) had to go. I asked each family member to pick our which t books they couldn't live without. When I put the question to them that way, it was much easier to part with some of the others.

    Thanks for visiting my blog, Julie. I see that you have a very thoughtful blog about issues that are important to all of us.

    1. That's a great way to part with things! I should ask myself the same question... Thank you for commenting!

  6. Hi Julie, what a brilliant blog you have. I am definitely trying to survive on less since losing my home in the Global Financial Crisis. You have made some great points in your post like the hope for a better situation and respect while a student. I have decided to send my books on to someone I know will enjoy reading them when I am finished, rather than just going back on the bookshelf. But like EC and yourself, there are some I would never part with.

    1. Maybe I'll start doing that, giving my books to specific people. It might be less painful than not knowing where they are going!

  7. Thank you for this very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it. We are a family of many, many books and need to start weeding them.

  8. People should do what they HONESTLY want to do. If a person struggles financially, and the person HONESTLY doesn't like to struggle, they shouldn't pretend that money doesn't matter just to tell other people, who don't have money, what they want to hear. (Often times, people who say money doesn't matter never had any money.) Having enough money makes life easier in many ways.

    Precious Monsters

    1. I agree and that is why I will never demonize money. Money can bring security and freedom, which are worth a lot. As long as money does not become the goal in itself.

  9. Oooooooh, timely. Since closing up my fitness business for the final time, I have exclusively low paying jobs. Of a big part of being able to do that is that I have no debt. The other part is the my ex-fiancé owes me equity from a house we lived in together. She recently sold the house and is letting me live here free for a year.

    Today I applied for:

    - Hospital orderly
    - Junior college janitor
    - Casino bus driver
    - Telephone CSR (kill me)

    After a year in anyone of those jobs I'll still have enough to but a small motorhome to live in, and have already found accommodations near by.

    This could actually work. ;-)

  10. Well, since I'm self-employed as a business owner I haven't made a penny in over 1.5 years:)
    Growing up we had very little and I ended up with lots of debt by the time I finished grad school. Thankfully Chris and I live debt free other than our mortgage and now my truck - all that to say that I have lived through a big range of the spectrum too:)

  11. I retired from a job that I both loved and hated but I had to do it for my health. Afterwards, I missed the people and purpose and not the money as much. It is the people you have in your life that give you purpose; it is the people in your life that give you joy; it is people in your life that teach you about love and friendship; it is the people in your life that hold your hand during good and difficult times; it is the people in your life that make your life.

    1. Very interesting! Without the right people around us, all the money in the world would taste bitter.

  12. What a singularly thorough, honest, and creditable examination of the ideas that have dominated my life. I completely relate to what you have written EXCEPT that as the author of a novel, a blogger with many reader/friends, and a reputation among successful journalists as a fine writer, I have not been able to figure out HOW to get my foot in the door of freelance writing/editing. Must one be a recovering attorney or physician? And can such new freelancers find adequate remuneration to maintain some semblance of their former responsibilities? I would ADORE the opportunity to demonstrate how unambiguous and readable "technical" writing can be. Any advice? And Thanks for your visit!

    ALOHA from Honolulu,

  13. I've had plenty and I've been in want. But much of how you deal with it has to do with attitude. I don't need a lot to make me happy. I think happiness is an inside job and very little to do with 'things'--again attitude. Paring down and creating a simpler life is the best. Less stress and worry.

    I had the satisfaction of being a success in my field and I like the fact I got there. That I was able to apply what I learned and make good money. It was the challenge of the striving I liked. Then I had a child and my focus changed. I wanted more than sound-bites with said child. Changed gears and simplified life and took niche jobs based on my skill set. Greatly satisfying. Now, he's 20 and again, I'm changing gears but not chasing $$ but doing what I enjoy and having time to enjoy living. Spending time outdoors and with my family and my animals. It's a good life and I'm content.

    I have a whole bunch of stuff I do need to get rid of. Much of the clothes and such I donate to second hand shop nearby. Hubs is a semi pack rat and I've already warned him that the stuff is gone. If we aren't using it or haven't used in a year? It's not neccesary. :-)
    Enjoyed your post.

    Sia McKye Over Coffee

    1. You sound like you have figured out a healthy relationship with money and belongings!

  14. I know exactly what you mean about your French books. I don't read in French very often, but they're so hard to find in California (Spanish books are everywhere) that I hold onto them just in case I'm in that mood.

  15. I was retired early because I had a major stroke. I was working in a higher paid job, but, I had nothing. I had to live off off the state. And, that was nothing!!!!!! Anybody in this world, with a stroke, can see how hard it was. I lost my wife because she couldn't take me. But, I am a happy though, taking photos is my job, I love it.

    1. I am sorry to hear you had a major stroke. And happy that you found something you love. :-)

  16. Just two thoughts from me:

    1. If you have anything in your wardrobe or cupboard you haven't used in the past 12 months - it can go.

    2. Books - are the hardest thing to discard! I certainly would keep your French Classics.

    Hope your week is going well

    All the best Jan

  17. The hardest part is to be happy for no apparent reason. I struggle with this every single day, but when I do feel good, everything else seems perfect. Go figure.

  18. I would think you would be more concerned with the Canadian Dream :-)

    Did you hear about the company owner that just recently lowered his salary and paid it to all of his twenty or so employees so that their salaries would be up to that $75,000 number after he read that study?

    As a surgeon, work hours can be very long, but the money is good, and I make more than I need so I've been able to pro bono a lot. It's been more than worth it for me. I've been able to live my childhood dream.

    1. Haha, yes, make that the Canadian Dream.

      Your situation sounds ideal! And long hours are okay if you love what you do.