Charlie's Blog: Voluntary Poverty Manifesto


Voluntary Poverty Manifesto

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world: and certainly we can carry nothing out. But having food, and wherewith to be covered, with these we are content. For they that will become rich, fall into temptation, and into the snare of the devil, and into many unprofitable and hurtful desires, which drown men into destruction and perdition. For the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows.

What is voluntary poverty? In its most basic sense, it is the choice to live with only what you need. That simple definition is the best one. The problem comes when we try and define "need." It doesn't take much to find someone who "needs" a designer handbag or an Italian sports car. The difference between a need and a want is that needs are finite while wants are infinite. As I am fond of saying, evil is never satisfied. The keys to understanding and living voluntary poverty are to know what is truly needful and why you are choosing to live this way. To help you understand and live voluntary poverty, here is a manifesto on what I consider to be a superior way of life.

1. Material things do not bring happiness.

We have heard this many times, and it provokes mental images of Buddhist monks or Franciscan friars living carefree lives unencumbered with material concerns. Then, we contrast them with starving children in third world countries who don't look so happy. Somehow, telling a starving child that food does not bring happiness seems more cruel than kind.

True happiness is not a full belly and a fat wallet. How many stories do we hear or read of rich and famous people who are miserable and actively destroying themselves in this misery? True happiness is not a matter of the material but the spiritual. Happiness comes when we love God. God loves you. You should love Him back. When you do this, you will find true happiness.

What impedes people from loving God? This would be the cares of this world. People stop loving God when they turn their eyes from their Creator to things created. Only God can satisfy us, yet people seek substitutes for God in hedonistic pleasures, power, and material goods. Once you have found God and truly love Him, these worldly things don't matter much to you anymore.

You should never expect a material thing to confer a spiritual good upon yourself. Owning nice things without God is less than owning nothing with God. Once you have this firmly established in your mind, you will treat things according to their actual worth and keep them in their proper place.

2. Possess only what is needed.

If you don't need it, you shouldn't own it. For many people, this will be the expensive boat that requires monthly payments and spends more time at the dock or in storage than out on the water. The same can also be said for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, expensive sports cars for the midlife crisis, designer clothes, and on and on. You don't need these things.

Sometimes, it may be hard to make the distinction between having things we need versus having things we just wanted. The easy way to make the distinction is to ask yourself a question. Is this a tool or a toy? If the item is a toy, then get rid of it. Toys are for children.

3. Give your surplus to God and to the poor.

It is important to make a distinction between your supply and your surplus. Your supply is all the money and stuff you need to keep body and soul together. This doesn't mean you can't store and build up wealth for future supply. Surplus is what you possess beyond your supply. For instance, if you win $500 million in the lottery, you are set for the rest of your life in terms of supply. If you are practicing voluntary poverty, one tenth of this would suffice for your supply for the rest of your life. What do you do with the rest? You should give it away. The way to do this is to contribute to God by building His house and giving to the poor who are people in hellhole countries desperately trying not to starve to death and trying to survive cholera and malaria. These are the people who won the lottery of misfortune.

Most people don't win the lottery, so their contributions are relative to what they make at the time in the form of a tithe. You should always give a portion of your income back to God. You get the 90% while God gets the 10%. But when you get the windfall like the lottery, God should get the 90%, and you should get the 10%. If you think this is ridiculous, this would be the decision to live on $50 million after winning $500 million in the lottery. If you can't make $50 million stretch out for your lifetime, you have some problems.

By giving to God, you are able to transfer your riches to Heaven. The only exception to this transfer would be to employ that wealth as capital to put people to work and supply human needs through free enterprise. If you are savvy enough to do this kind of thing, go for it. But if you weren't rich before the windfall, you probably don't possess such business acumen. This is why so many lottery winners end up broke.

4. Show no vanity in your poverty.

Most people love to show off the vanity they have in their wealth. Conversely, some people wish to show off their sanctity in their poverty. So, they leave their shoes unshined, and their clothes unmended. They wish to show off their modesty and humility which is neither modest nor humble. This is hypocrisy. Be humble, and be humble about your humility.

5. The sweetest pleasures are the cheapest.

Voluntary poverty doesn't mean that your life should be miserable and joyless. You should enjoy life. Unfortunately, for many people, they think pleasure is enhanced relative to expense. So, they drink only the finest wines and eat at only the finest restaurants. They become snobs in the things they eat, drink, and pursue for entertainment.

I find that the used paperback from the thrift store reads just as well as that rare first print edition. I find cheap Cuban coffee brewed at home to be superior to the Starbucks. I love cheap jelly beans. As for entertainment, I have a library of classical music that I got for free or almost free. I enjoy all of these things. They don't cost very much at all. I don't feel deprived in life.

6. Don't be a bum.

When you live the voluntary poverty lifestyle, you find that you can get by working less if you are living on less. Avoid this temptation to laziness and keep working. The work ethic is a good thing, and you should have one. Too many minimalists pursue the minimalist lifestyle because they really want to be bums. But voluntary poverty rejects this. There is no shame in making a lot of money. It is what you do with it once you've earned it that matters. But you should definitely keep earning it.

7. Don't look like a bum.

This is similar to point 4, but it has to do with hygiene issues. For men, this means a haircut and a shave. For women, this means getting a sensible haircut. It means taking a daily shower and tending to your appearance. Too many people who embrace voluntary poverty think the lifestyle means looking like a dirty hippie. It doesn't.

8. Do not seek or display status.

We live in a name brand culture. It's not enough to have things. You have to flaunt it. So, instead of buying the Toyota, you opt for the Lexus even though it is essentially the same car. You go for the designer handbag instead of the plain jane purse. Even hood rats in the ghetto like to show off with thousand dollar rims on their rides. All of this is known as conspicuous consumption. You are buying things for the sake of others instead of yourself. This is vanity. Eschew this vanity.

9. Do not look down on anyone.

Rich people love their gated communities. They tend to the pricier places because it separates them from the riff raff. They talk derisively to the help and condescend to their inferiors. It can all be sickening when you see it, and I see it often. If you do not see the fundamental equality of humanity before God, this makes you a snob.

Voluntary poverty recognizes true dignity is not found in wealth or honors or belonging to the exclusive country club but in being a person of character and courtesy. No one you encounter should be treated as your inferior. All people possess the dignity that comes from being made in the image of God. When you fail to acknowledge this, you insult God who is everything. You are nothing in comparison to Him.

10. Do not be luxurious.

This pertains to seeking a life of comfort and things needed to achieve this comfort. This would be the gigantic puffy recliner or the sectional couch. This would be getting the heated leather seats in your Cadillac. This would be spending the day at the spa being pampered and getting a mani/pedi. This would be the ridiculously expensive bed with the air cushions you can manipulate with a remote control. You get the idea.

The irony of this pursuit of comfort is that it makes you soft and self-indulgent which diminishes your tolerance for discomfort. The result is that your stressful and uncomfortable life remains stressful and uncomfortable no matter what comforts you bring to that life. This is known as the hedonic treadmill. When you aim for comfort, you end up in discomfort. When you embrace discomfort, you find comfort. If you doubt this, look at the sedentary guy who complains of back pain from sitting on his bum all day versus the guy who works out and feels great.

11. Make treasure out of trash.

Western societies are very wasteful. We throw away very good things because they are no longer in style or because we have found something marginally better making the old thing obsolete. The result is an ever increasing pile of clutter and garbage.

The first thing you should do in this regard is to not be wasteful. Unless the item you own is completely shot, you should hang on to it and keep using it. If you can, mend it and extend the life of the thing. I have work pants that I still wear that are over a decade old. I patch and sew them up when they get torn or worn. In terms of food, I try to eat leftovers or make a potluck soup, so the food does not get thrown away. I turn junk mail into scrap paper for notes and shopping lists.

The second thing you should do is buy used items. I love thrift stores and used book stores. Before I go to Walmart for an item, I shop at Goodwill to see if I can buy the item used. The irony is that I find many of those old things to be of better quality than the new things.

The third thing you should do is repurpose old things in new ways. A great example would be a cigar box turned into a storage box. I use one to hold the scrap paper I make from junk mail. Another example is the way we turn old peanut butter jars into food storage containers for things like grits or popcorn.


When you pursue voluntary poverty, you notice some ironic things happening in your life. The first and most basic is that your money problems vanish. The disparity between your income and your expenses becomes so large that you end up saving a great deal of money whether you want to or not. The second is that you find more joy and pleasure in your humble lifestyle than rich people do in their luxurious lifestyles. The third is that people envy you even though you have done nothing to provoke that envy. This envy comes as people recognize that you have discovered a superior way of living. And that produces the final irony which is that this lifestyle can't be bought with money. It can only be had by eliminating your wants, reducing your needs, and using your ingenuity to meet those reduced needs.

Life is more than the material, and voluntary poverty allows you to pursue the things that truly matter. Many people don't get that message. The result is that they end up experiencing involuntary poverty of both the material and the spiritual kind. I can only speak for myself, but I have yet to regret living this voluntary poverty lifestyle. It makes me very happy.