“The cost of a thing is the amount of what
I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it,
immediately or in the long run.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
These words hit me hard at the age of 29. It was 2008, and depending on the hour, I was watching my marriage unravel, witnessing the collapse of the financial markets from the office of my first-year financial planning business, or determining whether I was even or underwater on a 2,500-square-foot McMansion. Collectively, my husband and I were $275,000 in debt…
One day I picked up the book and read it all the way through. I looked around my home and finally understood: I was drowning in debt, and my lifestyle was making me miserable. I exhausted hours every Sunday dusting, vacuuming, and mopping. I spent the majority of my time either working to pay for things like furniture or electronic gadgets or fearfully maintaining them by obsessively dusting and scrubbing. I could see my future, and it looked bleak…
Seven years have gone by since I left that lifestyle, and so much has changed. I now make about half the annual income I once did, teaching yoga, writing about health and wellness, and waitressing part time. I have good days and bad days, but I no longer feel controlled by debt. I take 12–16 weeks off each year and one winter spent four months on the Big Island of Hawaii, eating homemade dinners on the beach and listening to the trumpets of humpback whales. In moments like those, when the magic and wonder of the world offer themselves so vividly, I experience so much gratitude for simply being alive.
It is interesting to note that the anti-consumption narrative of today – avoid the McMansions and big debt, simplify your life, pay more attention to things you love – is not exactly new. It could appeal to more people today after the spread of consumerism throughout much of American society with the prosperity of the 20th century. McMansions make easy targets since they require a large financial outlay (not only is it costly but it requires payments for a significant portion of adult life), require maintenance (whether because of cleaning, repairs, or making use of all that space), and critics argue they are meant to impress other people.
In the end, I wonder if Thoreau would find such efforts as described above enough to truly get away from modern life. Are vast resources now required to get away from it all?