Involuntary Simplicity

Written by Anneli Rufus

For those in debt, simplicity isn't just a trend.

Years ago, Tom Brewster persuaded his wife Tina to stop buying presents. For anyone. Period.

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"I remembered how much satisfaction I used to get out of making little gifts for my mom out of clay and seashells," Brewster recalls, "so I thought this would be a perfect way to simplify."

The Brewsters were in step with the times. The couple, both Web designers, had heard about the Voluntary Simplicity movement from a friend who was growing his own wine grapes in the garden of his Silicon Valley split-level and only driving his Lexus on weekends and pointing out relentlessly that consumerism was utterly crass.

While that wouldn't have been big news to, say, the Unabomber, to the Brewsters it was a bolt from the blue. That Christmas they gave jars of homemade jam, and dolls made out of buttons and stuffed socks.

"It was a kick," says Brewster, who remembers trading furniture-repair tips for hours on end in Voluntary Simplicity chatrooms whose users congratulated themselves on "getting rid of all the clutter and chaff so that we can really appreciate the important, beautiful, and fulfilling." On cold nights, he and Tina proudly donned mohair sweaters rather than turn up the heat.

Keeping the costs down, like all games, was fun.

But that was before the Brewsters' company shut down.

And the job market turned into a sad little yard sale.

And the gas bills started soaring.

This year the Brewsters sold one of their SUVs and started planting zucchini in earnest. Deprivation as a lark is one thing. As a necessity it's entirely another.

Things change.

Duane Elgin, the author of Voluntary Simplicity and a researcher at a Stanford think tank, heralded what he called "the beginning of a socioeconomic transition that will be at least as great as the transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society.

"Downscaled lifestyles," Elgin declared, "will be a key element of a new way of life that people are inventing now."

While this sounds downright depressing, it's a reality for many who are in debt or lost their jobs. It also can be liberating once the attachment to "things" passes and time and life sorts out the pain. Much easier said then done, especially when it's forced.

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