In 2014, Whitney and I finished graduate school. She had a MS degree to be a pediatric nurse practitioner, and I had a PhD in aerospace engineering. Fortunate to be debt free and have high-paying jobs waiting for us, we moved to the Houston suburbs to start our careers. Whitney was 26 and I was 28.
We bought a 2,700 sq. ft. house on a one acre lot. We planned to be there for a long time and our house was one that we could grow into. My goal was also to have enough yard space to play with my future kids. It was a beautiful home and lot with 80+ pines and oaks.
The realities of professional life and suburban living set in quickly. Whitney’s commute to work was about 20 minutes. My commute to work was about 45 minutes. I recall one time there being a terrible wreck on my way and it took me three hours to go 20 miles. While this was extreme, it seemed like something happened at least once a week. Every week, Whitney spent more than 3 hours in the car. I spent almost 8 hours in the car – an entire work day driving so I could work. This seemed like such a waste of life, but I couldn’t figure any way around it – most of my colleagues were tolerating the same or worse.
Back at the house, there was lots of work to do. We had to mow the yard, edge and weed around trees, water the grass, rake and blow the yard clippings, vacuum, mop, etc. This was during the spring and summer, which turned out to be the easy seasons. We probably spent a combined 2 hours per week taking care of our property. Through fall and winter, we had to rake and collect leaves – mountains of leaves – and then burn them. We probably spent a combined 4 hours per week in these seasons. The good part of this was the outdoor exercise. In the middle of my graduate school, I weighed almost 200 pounds. By graduation, I was down to about 175 pounds. After a year of all of this yard work, I was back to my high school weight of 155 pounds. I felt better and had more energy. At first, yard work was fun and we chose to do many of the tasks the hard way for the extra exercise. Eventually, the adage “the things you own own you” began to resonate.
With surplus income, we diligently paid the mortgage, saved, invested, and built a new garage so we had parking for four. We filled our new garage with an antique truck that I could work on along with some old tractors, yard equipment, tools, and kid toys.
Everything changed in 2016 when our first child Tyler was born. Our commutes lengthened because we now stopped by the daycare. Every minute commuting and every minute burning leaves was a minute not spent with my son. Every minute working was a minute not spent with family and friends. Here was a problem I didn’t know how to solve: our lifestyle was apparently getting in the way of our life. Being a frugal person, it frustrated me that we consistently spent more than $5,000 monthly. We didn’t consume material things, but the mortgage, insurance, bills, etc. added up every month. Even in months where we only bought food, we would spend close to $5,000. I thought and thought, ran the numbers over and over, but couldn’t figure a way to reduce our operational costs.
In the summer of 2017, I applied to academic positions. Since professors have flexible schedules and I enjoy teaching and academic-style research, this seemed like a great solution and the best way to get back the time I wanted to spend with family. However, professors don’t make near the money that oil engineers make. I calculated that I would be throwing away millions of dollars over a career and conceded that I did not have the guts to change. I withdrew my applications before the review processes even began. Realizing my lack of courage and attachment to money was a wake up call.
In 2018, I read a book called “Radical Simplicity” by Jim Merkel. Jim, being a well-paid military engineer, had a similar experience as I did, but he had run the numbers and found the courage to change his life. Jim is at times referred to as the $5,000 man because he consistently lives on less than this amount annually. While this does sound radical in the US, in his words, “Suffering is optional.” His book outlined his thought process as well as the numerous benefits to himself and others around him. He introduced to me the concept of ecological footprint – a measure of your impact on the earth. Based on our big house, long commutes, and meat eating ways, it would have taken more than 4 earths to sustain everybody living our lifestyle. I was shocked. We weren’t material consumers, but the fundamentals of our lives were consumptive.
With newfound knowledge and a path to follow, I again applied to academic positions. We limited our search to places amenable to a “smaller” life that are closer to nature, bikeable, and not so busy. We found a great place for me at Utah State University. I remember signing the academic contract worth 60% of my current income. It was liberating knowing that I had found the courage to do so. Of course, nothing had actually changed yet. If we made poor decisions, our lives would be no different. We would just be making less money.
In the meantime, our daughter Jenna was born. Having a second child was a great reminder to retain the energy required to simplify our lives so that we could spend quality time with the kids. We planned to live in a much smaller home. To do so, we had to get rid of many possessions. These included my grand piano, pickup truck, furniture, clothes, TVs, tools, lawn equipment, car, etc. This wasn’t easy – consuming emotional effort and time. All said, we sold or donated about half of our possessions. We were now feeling lighter and down to one vehicle. We made these decisions to force us into a different life, and this was a great exercise in non-attachment.
Regretfully, I passed up a work trip to India during this time. Fortunately, several of my Indian colleagues visited Houston in 2019. Many of them ate a plant-based diet and shared with me the joy of eating healthy foods, living simpler lives, and the principles of Jainism. Thanks to Alok, Chandu, and Avilash for the discussions. Whitney and I talked about our diet and decided to start eating plant-based.
In northern Utah, we found a townhome that backs up to a park, is within walking distance to healthcare and grocery stores, and walking/biking/busing distance to the university. We have just over 1,300 sq. ft. and no yard work or exterior maintenance. We bought it using the equity from our previous house. Through good fortune, saving, and wanting less, we got to be mortgage free at 32 and 33 years of age. Combining our plant-based diet with limited car use and smaller living style, based on our ecological footprint it takes a little more than 1 earth to sustain all people living like us. What about all the other species in the world? We have reduced our footprint but clearly still have room for improvement.
In the US, living more equitably with others in the world takes courage and deliberate decision-making. Our choices have cost us financially. As noted, my salary is now 60% of what is was. Whitney is not working at all. And yet, our monthly expenses are just above $2,000. We have a shelter with warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer. We have food to eat. We have clothes to wear. We have time with the kids. We have more than enough – and what we have far exceeds nearly everyone in the world. We eat primarily rice, lentils, and vegetables – as do billions of others in the world. Our life is smaller living in a home on par with the US average 70 years ago and world averages today. Our life is slower biking and walking many places. Our life is simpler with fewer distractions and more focus on family, community, and recreation.
We can measure our progress using ecological footprint. We can also measure our progress by the amount of family time we have outdoors at parks and on mountains. More importantly, there are feelings of progress: liberation from the car, freedom to work a job you like for less, solidarity with people in other parts of the world, etc. By all of these measures, our lives are more peaceful, less violent, and more equitable with others.
There are many ways to continue improving our lives. Our pantry, kitchen, and bathrooms are still filled with plastics. Plastic waste in northern Utah goes to the landfill and blows into neighboring states, breaks down into micro plastics and blows across the world polluting deserts, oceans, and places in between. We shop at the farmer’s market where they sell spinach in a single-use plastic bag. After a weekend of baseball, the parks are filled with bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, chip bags, etc. In our area, the traditional single-family home price commonly exceeds $400,000 meaning most people cannot afford to buy a home without being indebted for 30 years.
Our journey was challenging. It took several years and a transformation in mindset. Many religions and prophets advocate for non-material lifestyles. There have also been numerous secular trends including transcendentalism in the 1800s, the back-to-nature movement in the early 1900s, voluntary simplicity in the late 1900s, and financial independence retire early (FIRE) and minimalism in the early 2000s. Personally, literature associated with the voluntary simplicity movement has been the most inspirational because it is not self-centered and focuses on gratitude and compassion. A number of excellent resources, which have been useful for me, are listed below.
Radical Simplicity by Merkel
Voluntary Simplicity by Elgin
Stepping Lightly by Burch
Material World by Menzel
The Abundance of Less by Couturier
Instead of Attachment by Ajahn Brahm
Goodbye, Things by Sasaki
Mole Had Everything by Odone
Walden by Thoreau
Your Money or Your Life by Dominguez and Robin
Wealth by Randy Vining