Financial Minimalism and Spiritual Discipline

The word “discipline” is not one of the most pleasant words in the English language. It conjures up images of punishment and self-denial; hours at the gym, giving up sugar, being called into the boss’s office, mom putting you in the corner.

Modern Spirituality seems to be drifting away from discipline and more towards indulgence, and I’ve become more and more dissatisfied with this lately. With a focus on growing abundance, online spiritual businesses have exploded in the last decade, offering courses, retreats, and coaching to help you manifest your every desire, without regard to how those desires may or may not be good for you, your family, your community, or your world.

For awhile, I found myself going along for the spiritual abundance ride, but it was never fulfilling in any meaningful sort of way. $10,000 months were followed by even more work to make even more money, until I was exhausted and burned out, depression creeping in and taking over my life, wiping out all the money that I’d made, and leaving me starting from zero again and again and again.

This left an ache in my soul, and reaching out for guidance, I was often told that I simply had “money blocks” and needed to clear them, and then everything would be okay again.

The idea of “money blocks” didn’t sit well with me. Neither did the “abundance mindset,” which reeked of “Prosperity Gospel,” and the charlatan televangelists that preached about how God wanted you to experience great abundance and all you have to do is send Mr. Preacher Man $1000 and eternal salvation and riches are yours. More and more I felt like what was really going on was a Capitalist perversion of spirituality, and I didn’t like it.

For awhile, I was able to bury my dissatisfaction. I needed money. I have bills to pay. Rent requires cash, after all, as do phone bills and internet bills. I needed cash to make cash, too. Web hosting costs money, as do many of the apps I used to run my business. So if I was making money anyway, why not try to make as much money as possible?

And yet, this felt distinctly wrong. If you truly open your eyes and look around at what’s going on in the world, you can see that the quest for more, more, more, and even more is destroying us. Studies show that making more than $75,000 a year does nothing to increase happiness, which make me wonder what the quest for six-figures really is. If it won’t make me any happier, what’s the point?

More than that, though, I began to ask myself do I really need to make $75,000 a year to make me happy?

And ultimately, the answer was… no.

In 2016, I didn’t make a lot of money. Just enough to survive. And as hard as 2016 was, I’m happier now than I have been in many, many years.

But it’s not because of money, it’s because I started a practice of spiritual discipline. Meditating and journaling every day, as well as deeply exploring who I am, who I want to be, what I believe, and what all of that means for me. Finding my place in the Universe has been better for me than any amount of money I could have made.

And as I watch our Capitalist culture cannibalize itself, I’m again asking myself those money-related questions, and digging any deeper.

Is it responsible to want more and more and more?
Is it ethical to claim needs that aren’t really needs?
Or am I contributing to the suffering of humanity with the constant quest for a higher income?

My answer is that I feel happiest as a financial minimalist. Making what I need in order to have the life that makes me happy. Spending only what I need to spend to have the few things that I desire, and saving or giving away the rest. I don’t want to be rich, I want to have enough, and my enough isn’t really all that much. Pay my rent and other housing costs, wherever it is that I happen to be living. Buy healthy, locally sourced food. Cover transportation costs for local trips as well as for long-distance trips. Buy a nice new notebook every month, and keep my fountain pen supplied in ink. Have money to cover my business expenses. Pay for my health insurance while it’s affordable, and save for health emergencies when insurance is no longer affordable. Save to buy a minibus that I want to convert to a tiny cottage on wheels so I can work and travel all over the country without leaving home.

Currently, covering my expenses means making about $800 a month. Of course, I can’t save for the things I want to do on that, so a little bit of extra hustle to make a bit more money so I can do those things. My goal is to reach $3000 a month. Right now, I live with roommates, which is why my life is as cheap as it is, but I want my own place, so that means upgrading just a bit. But I don’t need to upgrade a lot. I don’t need to go after a six-figure income. $3000 a month is $36,000 a year, and while that’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, it’s enough for me to have the comfortable life that I want.

Social justice and ecology are important to me, and constantly striving for more, more, more is incompatible with both of those things. Income inequality is increasing by the day, and our landfills are filling with the castoffs of the quest for more. Each day, we’re pumping more and more chemicals into our atmosphere, onto our land, and into our water. I live in Flint; I can’t even drink the water that comes out of our taps. Consumer culture doesn’t really make anyone happy; it just lines the pockets of the rich, who spend it on more and more in the quest to fill the void left by the constant striving.

It’s not necessarily easy to make this decision of focusing on financial minimalism, and this is where discipline comes in. Impulses to buy things pop up. Sometimes, something looks really cool, and I really, really want it. But looking back at the impulse purchases I’ve made in the past — even purchases that I desperately wanted — I didn’t really need most of them. In fact, in recent months, I’ve been getting rid of a lot of stuff, most of it “just have to have it” kind of stuff. Stuff that I was so sure was going to fix some problem that was the source of all my dissatisfaction with life. None of it really fixed anything, of course, and mostly, it just cluttered up what little space I have. And the reality is that no matter how much space we have, we’ll just fill it up with stuff that doesn’t really make us happy. I’ve lived in houses, I’ve lived in apartments, and it didn’t matter how big or small, I crammed them full of stuff that made me feel good in the moment, but that just took up space in the long-term.

As hard as our culture makes it with constant advertising and pushes to buy, buy, buy, there’s a certain freedom and feeling of lightness in letting go of the hustle. In focusing on making just enough. I don’t have to work for endless hours. I can focus on doing what I really enjoy doing, instead of settling for a job or business that I’m not really happy with but that makes a lot of money. An hour or two of work a day makes me what I need to make, and I can increase that as necessary, without overwhelming myself. This frees up the rest of my time to live my life and do what I really want to do.