The Lady whom I shall serve has no other suitor, no poet has ever sung her praises, and no knight has ever fought her battles; for I will be the faithful lover of the Lady Poverty, whom all men else despise.
ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
"That's your work phone. Right?"
I had to laugh. I knew what was coming. In the age of the iPhone and a hundred flavors of Android with front and rear cameras, I still use an old flip phone. Even women on public assistance have smartphones, but I still use a phone with buttons on it. Clearly, I can afford a newer and snazzier phone, but I refuse to buy one. I can make all kinds of utilitarian arguments for owning an old flip phone over a smartphone, but they really come down to one thing. I refuse to pay for a phone that I don't need. My current phone is still usable, and I don't want to pay for an expensive data plan. Now, you can call this thrift, or you can call it cheapness. I call it voluntary poverty. Voluntary poverty is when you choose to live with what is necessary, and you eschew the rest with the aim of giving it to the less fortunate.
Some people prefer the term "minimalism." Others prefer the term "voluntary simplicity." I prefer to call it what it is. It is poverty, and it is voluntary. Poverty by itself is scandalous, but the addition of the voluntary makes it even more scandalous. This is why the stranger asking about my phone was so incredulous. Knowing it was by choice, he could not fathom why anyone would choose to live with less. It goes against the consumerist mantra of today's culture that you should always upgrade to the best that you can afford.
I part company with the minimalists because they preach fewer things, but they always want those things to be the "best" which usually means expensive and with an Apple logo on it. I part company with those in the voluntary simplicity camp because they seem consumed with saving the planet, so they pay more for organic food and Dr. Bronner's soap. It isn't cheap living like a hippie.
Voluntary poverty is living with what is necessary and no more. This makes it relative since people have different needs. For instance, I need a computer and a cellphone which are luxuries in some parts of the world but necessities in present day America. But I don't need a smartphone or a tablet, so I don't have either of those. If we constrain necessity to the barest essentials, I could get by with food, water, clothing, and shelter. But life is more than mere surviving, so I also need books and transportation. For me, I think my life is pretty rich. I don't feel materially deprived at all. This is why I laugh at those who laugh at my poverty.
I wonder often if this is how St. Francis felt. He was definitely someone who practiced voluntary poverty as he renounced a sizable number of worldly goods as a rich young man to go barefooted and bareheaded in a rough habit. He loved poverty so much that he referred to it as Lady Poverty as if she were the fairest maiden that ever lived. I don't live anywhere close to the radical poverty of St. Francis of Assisi. But I like how he altered his personal economy to prize what others despise. Like those who choose a lifestyle of minimalism or voluntary simplicity, you discover in poverty a freedom that eludes the typical consumerist chasing after more and better. You begin to see that all that stuff just doesn't matter.
Economists and the like will tell you that people need material things to be happy. They reason that want breeds misery and despair. But their case falls apart when they see a surf bum enjoying a level of leisure and health forbidden to a high paid office worker. Greed knows no satisfaction. Corporations know this which is why they spend billions yearly stirring up those passions in hopes that people will be beguiled in satisfying them with that company's products. But as the ancient philosopher Epicurus discovered, needs are easily met. Wants are what always scream for more.
To live voluntary poverty, the first and most basic step is to get rid of all the things that you don't need. If you have two of something, get rid of one and keep the other. Sometimes, you don't even need the one. You can keep paring down these things quite a bit. Then, look at the things that are left. Do you really need a designer handbag when a basic one will do? Take the expensive things and trade them out for cheaper. You can probably get your money back or sell them online. For instance, you could get rid of your new thousand dollar Macbook Pro and buy a refurbished Acer Chromebook from Walmart for less than $200. You can give back your snazzy smartphone and buy a used Nokia dumbphone on eBay. There are many ways to live with less.
If this causes you to wince in pain, you should consider yourself a consumerist. It makes no difference if a husband sleeps with a hundred women on the side or just one high class callgirl. He is still an adulterer. Lady Poverty will tolerate no mistresses. Voluntary poverty means being willing to part with anything if necessity demands it. So many minimalists think they are not consumerists when the reality is that they are consumerists willing to settle for the best instead of the most. This is more of a compromise with the reality that they had to downsize in the recession than an embrace of Lady Poverty. I have to wonder if minimalism will die when the good times return.
The aims of voluntary poverty are one part corporal mortification and one part charity. By living with less, we overcome concupiscence which is the desire of a lower appetite against a higher desire. It's not wrong to want nice things, but it is wrong when you know people who are dying from starvation. The difference between the price of a regular pair of sneakers and a pair of Air Jordans can be the difference between life and death for a starving family somewhere in the world. Why not choose a shoe that is just as good and feed that family with the difference? Or, do you want to keep buying mansions for Michael Jordan's family? Whenever you make a purchase, you should ask yourself if you could do with less and help someone who has less than you.
Voluntary poverty is a radical life choice. It isn't for everyone. Some people can't live without a Mercedes and a Rolex. I completely understand. What I would urge you to consider is that many people can't live without food or water. This would be everyone. This includes you. Not everyone was fortunate enough to live in a prosperous and free land like you. Deprived of certain opportunities, you would be just as poor as the poorest people around the world. And we can attempt to demonize these people believing they indulged their appetites which made them poor. But this is to excuse our own indulgences in materialism and consumerism which can be every bit as impoverishing in both body and spirit. To live voluntary poverty is to acknowledge that there is something sick about a world that would let people suffer and die while others indulge in buying what amounts to a label on a product. Voluntary poverty is simply reordering our priorities, so that our resources go to serve a higher good over a lower good. The good feeling you get from helping others feels way better than the good feeling you get from buying a pair of sneakers to make a rich man richer. Lady Poverty is a beautiful maiden when you get to know her.