One of my favorite personal finance bloggers is Philip Brewer at Wise Bread. He writes long, thoughtful articles about the philosophy of money, not just on tips and tricks to save at the grocery store.

Brewer recently posted a piece called “What I’ve Been Trying to Say” that summarizes his philosophy. Explaining why he believes voluntary simplicity can be a great choice for many people, he writes:

You can choose how you want to live. If you choose to live simply, you gain a certain kind of freedom. In particular, you’re free to choose to do the work that’s the most satisfying, rather than the most lucrative. Choosing to live simply doesn’t mean that you have to give up all the cool stuff you want. It means, rather, that you have to focus on a small number of wants — the ones that matter the most to you.

Brewer’s key idea is similar to that of Timothy Ferriss (of The 4-Hour Workweek): you are responsible for designing your own life. When you were young, other people determined how and where you lived. But as an adult, those choices are up to you.

Brewer suggests five tactics to make the most of these choices:

  1. Live intentionally. Decide what’s important to you and what you want to do with your life. Set goals. Be aware of why you’re spending your money. Try to make conscious decisions, and not just react out of emotion.
  2. Raise some capital. Personal finance isn’t all about saving, Brewer argues. It’s not all about living cheaply, either. It’s about finding a middle ground that works for you. But every goal will require some money to back it up. Prepare for emergencies, invest for the future, and use your money to support your values.
  3. Find your true calling. “Find meaningful work, so that you can spend your time doing something that you care about,” Brewer writes. Saving and investing don’t just yield financial benefits, he says, but they also allow you to choose a vocation instead of basing your job decisions only on salary.
  4. Do it yourself. This notion has figured prominently in my thinking lately: that whenever possible, I want to do things myself instead of paying to have them done. (This probably has something to do with the fact that I just spent several thousand dollars on a re-wiring project.) There’s a lot of satisfaction to be derived (and often money saved) from growing your own food, repairing your own home, and maintaining your own car.
  5. Value community and experiences over stuff. You are not what you own; you are what you do. It took me a long time (nearly forty years) to realize this. I still haven’t fully wrapped my mind around it. But like Brewer, I’m coming to understand that it is relationships and experiences that give life meaning.

Brewer’s article offers more background on his philosophy. In many ways, it reminds me of a guest post I published last January, in which Mark Cunningham wrote, “Simplicity frees one to make any range of choices and pursue any range of possibilities.” As Kris and I continue our own personal finance journey, we’re amazed at the possibilities we might pursue. Freedom is the greatest reward for getting out of debt.

26 Replies to “Five tactics for pursuing voluntary simplicity”

  1. Kristen a.k.a. The Frugal Girl says:

    Sometimes, choosing to live simply is not so much a choice…if we didn’t live simply, we’d be drowning in debt. I suppose that’s still a choice, though, as the debt is always an option.

    Not only does living simply free us from the financial and emotional stress of debt, it also enables me to stay home with my kids so that I can homeschool them, and that’s worth more than truckloads of stuff.

  2. Grant says:

    I definitely agree with #3. I recently just switched jobs because I wasn’t happy with where my career was going (glass-ceiling) and the work environment. I feel the environment of my new position will greatly affect my feelings about work and my life here. That positive attitude gain will just permeate into the other areas of my life.

  3. JenK says:

    Kristen – You could choose to drown in debt. More importantly, you are choosing how to live with your current means.

    Take housecleaning for an example – there’s the “soap is cheap” school, which figures that not having much money means you don’t have money to spend on clutter and that if you keep things in a generally clean state it doesn’t take much work to stay clean. Then there’s the “Don’t have money for nice things so it doesn’t matter” school, which tends to not clean at all. And a million variations in between!

    What I do find is often people don’t consciously choose what they’re going to do. They do what their parents did, or the opposite of what their parents did, or what their roommate did … they don’t *choose*. And that can be sad.

  4. Josh Ulrich says:

    I’m starting to find I disagree more and more with #4. You can save money and get satisfaction by doing those things yourself, but there’s still one major opportunity cost – time.

    I just finished remodeling my kitchen and did almost all the work “myself” (much help from family and friends). I do a lot of basic maintenance on our cars myself. Those things take a lot of time, since I’m often learning as I go. That means more time without a kitchen, less time to spend with my wife, and less time to build my business.

    I found that saving money by doing some things myself actually costs me more in things I value more highly, and may – if you have a side-business – cost you future income.

    It’s just not as simple as, “do it yourself,” but few things in this life are simple… 🙂

  5. HollyP says:

    As the daughter and daughter-in-law of electricians,the thought of someone unlicensed trying to rewire their house makes me very nervous. Some things are well worth hiring a professional to do.

  6. Philip Brewer says:

    Thanks, J.D., for the kind words!

    @Josh: My original comment is kind of a reaction against a certain extreme version of what you say. There are people out there who seem to think that you shouldn’t do anything yourself. That is, you should always do whatever earns you the most, and then hire everything else done–that’s the most profitable strategy. I think, especially for things that you enjoy doing, it’s worth doing things yourself, even if it would be cheaper to hire someone else to do them.

  7. Frugal Dad says:

    Great post, J.D.–I’m a big fan of Philip’s work as well.

    @Josh: I wrote my own post on Wise Bread today on this very subject of to DIY or not. I tend to agree with Philip that if you enjoy doing something then the cost analysis may not make sense because enjoyment can’t be quantified easily.

  8. typome says:

    Philip Brewer is also one of my favorite bloggers to read. His articles are so different from the copy and pasted ones that you often see (not you though, JD 😉 ). I enjoyed this article when I read it, particularly about the experiences over materials. Now when I have a choice, I opt for an experience, instead of physical goods whose novelty will just wear off in a few weeks anyway.

  9. Ryan McLean says:

    I like how you said “When you were young, other people determined how and where you lived. But as an adult, those choices are up to you.”
    It got me thinking about how when we are young we dream of doing great things. No one could tell us how small our dream had to be, but when we are older we cannot dream to be whatever we want to be because everyone is telling us “You have to make a lot of money to be happy” or “You need to pay the bills”. So in a way as a child we were free to make our own choices and now as adults other people are determining how we live.
    Just some thoughts to ponder

  10. Paul Williams says:

    @Josh Ulrich:

    There’s also value to the learning that you’re doing when you do things yourself. It might slow you down, but it expands your mind and keeps it sharp. Plus, it just might prepare you for a time when you need those skills because you can’t afford to hire someone else. Maybe it’s not worth it to do EVERYTHING yourself, but I’d say it’s probably a good idea to try to do it yourself at least once. (Except for things you are absolutely not qualified for…like wiring a house or performing surgery on yourself…) 🙂

  11. Sara at On Simplicity says:

    I loved that article! I found that it wrapped dozens and dozens of posts into a few clear ideas. For me, internalizing the idea that “you are more than your things” was the first step to going beyond frugality to actually embracing simplicity.

  12. Nate says:

    Enjoyed this post. I’m a recent college grad and still single, so posts like this really help me as I determine how to manage my financial lifestyle. I’m starting to realize that money isn’t everything, it’s merely the enabler to have life experiences, whether those experiences are provided through money, or by attempts to save it (like item #4).

  13. Sam says:

    Simple living makes sense. Life will be more satisfying if you enjoy simple things in life (e.g spending more time with family, less stress work). Living simply does not have to mean sacrifice or hardship. It means focusing on the things that are important to us and in our lives.Simplifying our lives by reducing what we use and what we do can provide us with the opportunity to seek the light and focus on the joy in life. This does not mean sacrifice, it means seeking what truly matters.

    Fix My Personal Finance

  14. Josh Ulrich says:

    I’m probably currently leaning toward paying others because remodeling my kitchen wasn’t something I should have done myself. Large, complex, time-consuming tasks are much better to pay a professional to do (major kitchen remodel, deck replacement, major landscaping, etc.)

    Philip and Frugal Dad,

    I agree. I continue to do some things myself because I enjoy doing them – I enjoy the exercise from mowing my lawn.


    I could not agree more! I would put many maintenance tasks in this category… you’ll save a lot of money if you tune-up your car yourself.

    In addition to the value from learning you describe, I’ve found that having general knowledge often prevents others from taking advantage of you. For example, a mechanic once told me that my engine would destroy a new catalytic converter in a matter of seconds because my check engine light was on. I looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t believe *that* for a second.” Now I don’t do business with them anymore.

  15. Derek says:

    #4 Is a great way to save money however the “cost” is your time. To make this effective you have to work out what you can earn for an hours work before deciding whether it is better to “do it yourself” or pay someone else “to do it”.

    It’s pretty easy to do.
    If you earn 10 £/$/€ per hour and the mechanic charges you 9£/$/€ per hour then get the mechanic to do the service as you will still be 1 £/$/€ in pocket!

    Mechanics are far quicker than you will be at car maintenance, which means that they can do things in minutes that may take you hours thus they actually save you money.
    They will also notice when something is wearing and tell you that it needs to be fixed before your next service thus preventing a potentially very expensive breakdown, at least mine does.

    With that said like any other service you have to find a good mechanic first and when you do stick with them!

  16. Paul Williams says:


    Yes, at $9 or $10/hour that might work out. However, I’ve yet to find a mechanic that charges $10, $20, or $30 an hour. Most labor rates are going to be at least $60/hour, if not more. That means you’d have to be making $120,000 AFTER TAXES for it to make sense to pay him instead of doing it yourself if you can do it in the same amount of time. That’d translate into a salary of about $200,000/year. Most of us don’t make that much.

    Let’s say it takes you twice as long as the mechanic. You’d still have to be making $100,000/year for it to make sense to pay him instead. Even if it takes you four times longer you’d need to be making $50,000/year if the labor rate is $60/hour. So for the vast majority of people who probably make somewhere between $50k-100k/year the math makes sense to do it yourself.

    You still have to consider things beyond the math…skill level/abilities, your opportunity cost, desire to do-it-yourself. I’m just saying the math makes sense more often than you think.

  17. Derek says:

    Hi Paul
    I make or “earn” £15,000 (app $30,000) per annum and a Full service costs me £160 ($320) per annum inclusive, at least it has for the past two years. This on an eleven year old Toyota Hilux Surf 4X4 which runs on SVO.

    My mechanic charges me £45 per hour labour and it takes him an hour and a half which equates to £67.50 in labour costs

    To earn £67.50 I have to “work” for just over an hour as my hourly “rate” is £57.60.
    My hourly rate is worked out on the basis that I work 1 hour per day in my business Monday to Friday for 52 weeks of the year.

    Obviously my maths are different to everyone else’s and my hourly rate is high but then I choose to spend as much of my time as I can away from work.
    £15,000 a year is enough for my current reality.

    You are right though on many occasions “doing it yourself” often has more than financial rewards but “doing it yourself” can be false economy. Like most things in life it is a judgement call.

  18. Carrie says:

    Does anyone ever factor in the cost of tools when taking the DIY route? How does that affect the math? Everyone I know who works on their own cars has tons of expensive tools cluttering up the garage.

  19. JenK says:

    Carrie at #18 – I know The Tightwad Gazette includes examples for how to decide whether to buy or rent a rototiller or other expensive equipment.

    We were lucky enough to buy a house next to friends, so we haven’t bought anything we can borrow. We lend back, too – and we frequently have neighbors over for dinner. Not to mention the husband’s pickup 🙂

  20. Kevin says:

    I am a DIY mechanic, and the cost of tools is certainly a factor. You can do pretty much any regular maintenance with a complete set of hand tools, code scanner, jack and stands, and a few widgets like a brake bleed kit and grasping tool. That all might cost about $1,200 new. If labor is $75/hour then the break even point is 16 hours of mechanic’s labor.

    A lot of DIYers buy many more tools than that, but those are for extensive projects like bodywork or rebuilding engines, which most people will need 0-2 times in their lives.

    Whether it’s ‘clutter’ is a matter of perspective. To some, pots and pans would be tons of expensive tools cluttering up the kitchen.

  21. leigh says:

    don’t forget the potential to screw up or get in over your head when DIYing.

    DH is a master mechanic, and i can’t tell you how many times someone would tow a car to the shop asking them to fix their screw-up or get that rear vcg on right or something 😮

    just a thought. there are some things even he doesn’t want to do in the driveway.

  22. Johnzilla says:

    I have to agree with Josh. I know exactly how to hang and finish drywall, and I know exactly how to lay a tile floor. I’ve done both many times. I also know exactly how to lay a brick paver patio and have done a few of those as well.

    However, take the patio as an example. It would take me at least 4 solid weekends to do it, probably a few more to get it just right. Sorry, but I value my weekends more than that, so to me it is well worth paying a pro to just do it to my specifications. I even come out ahead…I can work from home for 3-4 days, not lose any vacation time, and still supervise the pro to make sure they do it exactly how I want it. And my weekends are free for me to enjoy other things.

    I can make soap, paper, and all sorts of other stuff. And sure, it might save me money. But it zaps my time.

  23. Stephen Martile says:

    Live Intentionally –

    I think this idea falls in nicely with Philip Brewer’s philosophy. I’m in total alignment with Brewer when he says,

    “that you have to focus on a small number of wants – the ones that matter the most to you”

    That’s great advice, especially when it comes to living intentionally. Narrow your focus and will more than increase your odds of creating the results you want.

    Great advice.

  24. Nebula says:

    I agree with Ryan McLean (#9) the older we get the more “shoulds” accumulate around us until we’re practically hogtied. It seems that to achieve a simple life is a feat involving avoiding most of the constricting “shoulds” (such as “you should get married” “you’re married, you should have children, or buy a house, etc.) in life and choosing those that give us more avenues of freedom.

    As for the DIYers, I cut my own hair, with unenviable results sometimes. I can live with it but I wouldn’t recommend it! (On the other hand, I have fun doing it and it takes less time than going to a salon.)

  25. Kim says:

    A friend of mine has a lot of contractor friends who refer to the “homeowner’s premium”. That’s the TRUE cost the owner has to pay for a repair -the first expense when s/he screws it up and the second when s/he gets a professional to repair the repair. Part of our simple-living lifestyle is to pay experts to do the job. Our DIY track record is dismal.

    Trent, I’m reading a book right now – “I’m Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping” by Judith Levine (2006) – that you might want to review for your readers. She and her BF join a Voluntary Simplicity Group as part of their effort to curb consumerism in this year-long experiment. Interesting read!

  26. Frugal Living says:

    Hey JD,

    I love this theory and kind of unintentionally I have been following down this path. I gave up my full time job and went full time online so that I could live a live wherever I liked… I am currently living in Egypt, which is pretty cool!

    I have had to cut back and prioritise money spending and cool things :). Still I have a nice macbook and a tv and I am happy!

    I just need to raise some capital now!


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