The Simple Things
DO WE PUT TOO MUCH STORE BY POUNDS AND PENCE? CHANGING YOUR ATTITUDE TO SPENDING CAN REAP REWARDS
Are you giving up something for Lent? Alcohol? Internet shoe shopping? How about shopping, full stop? In fact, why not go the whole hog and give up money altogether? It sounds barmy. Not to mention impossible (although a few brave pioneers of moneyless living have managed it). But if you agree with the growing chorus of thinkers who believe the West’s obsession with making and keeping money is at the root of the planet’s problems – poverty, inequality, environmental destruction – it makes sense, if not to give up money, at least to re-evaluate our unhealthy relationship with it.
That’s the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, whose new book Dethroning Mammon (Bloomsbury), contemplates the role of money in modern life. Mammon – the name attributed to the power of money and finance in The Bible – is a deceptive and destructive master, he argues, which “calls the weak to suffer in the name of the general good”.
A former oil-company executive who served on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, the Archbishop urges us to change attitudes to possession and wealth to create fairer societies and a more stable world. “The problem with materialism is not that it exists, but that it dominates,” he writes. “It shouts so loudly it overrides our caring about things of greater value.” One reader spotted glued to a copy of Dethroning Mammon on the London Underground was a certain Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England.
This timely book may have been intended as a companion for Lent – a period of reflection for Christians associated with fasting and penance – but it strikes a chord with all who feel drawn to self- denial at this time of year. Post Christmas and January sales frenzy, we all feel a bit queasy, not only about the amount of food, drink and sparkly tat we’ve spent our money on, but by the sheer scale of spending, full stop.
(NON) CONSUMER POWER
No wonder, then, that among the healthy-eating regimes, fitness kicks and Dry January pledges that dominate New-Year’s resolutions, a new sort of detox is on the rise: the financial fast. In her new book The No Spend Year (Coronet), personal finance journalist Michelle McGagh recounts how she eschewed all but the most essential purchases for 12 months. If you think that sounds like something you could do, bear in mind that McGagh’s non-essentials included moisturiser, haircuts and bus fares: one of her lowest points was throwing up from exhaustion by the roadside during a 30-mile bike ride to go wedding dress shopping with her sister (the irony was not lost on her).
McGagh, who blogs at londonminimalists.co.uk, was motivated by the pragmatic desire for financial freedom: during her no-spend year she shaved an extra £23,000 off her mortgage. But she also discovered that rejecting consumerism made her more receptive to simpler pleasures: the great outdoors, time spent with loved ones, the generosity of strangers. “It costs us nothing to be kind but in our ‘me me me’ society we’re often after our next fix, our next goal,” she writes in the book, which
combines memoir with financial advice. “This year has inspired me to take the blinkers off, look beyond the bigger picture and get involved in my community.”
If the idea of getting your weekly grocery bill down to £30 by surviving on batch-cooked veggie chilli and pasta sauces sounds too challenging, there are other ways to embrace a low-spend lifestyle. Jen Gale (see our feature in Issue 43, Jan 2016) pledged to buy nothing new for a year (not just for herself but for her husband and two young children), sourcing clothes and toys from charity shops and making homemade biscuits instead of buying children’s party gifts. More than three years after her experiment ended, she still hasn’t bought an item of new clothing (except for ethically sourced underwear), and continues to make her own shampoos and deodorant.
“We are all consumers, but that is where our power lies,” says Jen, whose second-hand life was motivated by concerns about climate change and sustainability. “When you’re faced with huge problems, it’s easy to feel powerless, to think that you’re just one little person who can’t make a difference. But being more considered about the things I buy is my way of trying to make a change. It has a ripple effect. If I take a jar of homemade biscuits to a children’s party instead of a factory-made toy, perhaps other people will think that’s OK.”
LOW-SPEND TO NO-SPEND
Jen’s conscientious approach to consumerism – buy less, buy better – is one that we could all try, for a month, a year, even a lifetime. Her website, mymakedoandmendlife.com, offers recipes and inspiration for more mindful money management. By contrast, the extreme reaction of former organic food business manager Mark Boyle to the problems caused by the pursuit of money and stuff is one that few of us could emulate. Mark gave up money altogether in 2008, living in a solar-powered caravan, surviving on foraged and donated food, grinding his own flour and even making his own soap and toothpaste from wild plants.
“I did [it] on the basis of one major realisation: much of the suffering and destruction in the world – factory farms, sweatshops, deforestation, species extinction, resource depletion, annihilation of indigenous peoples and their cultures – were symptoms of a much deeper issue,” he wrote in The Moneyless Manifesto (moneylessmanifesto.org). His experiment lasted nearly three times longer than the year he planned. “I’ve never been happier,” he said. “Money gives us the illusion of independence, but we’re becoming dependent on people far away from us, as opposed to people in our local communities. That has led to destruction of community.”
Community is at the heart of the ‘gift economy’, the means by which Mark led his moneyless life. A gift economy means unconditional sharing of skills, time, knowledge, information or material goods between people, in contrast to a conventional exchange-andreward economy. Even bartering, the oldest form of currency (see box for more on alternative currencies),
WE ARE ALL CONSUMERS, BUT THAT IS WHERE OUR POWER LIES