as published in Nov./Dec, 2005 Countryside Magazine
we Downsized from an Annual
Income of $42,000 to $6,500
And lived to
tell about it!
Kevin & Donna Philippe-Johnson
As a middle
class American, it’s been difficult for me to understand how we are
supposed to make a living when there are so many things working against
us. How can we go on day after day with the rising cost of food, fuel,
utilities, car insurance, taxes and health care, while dealing with the
insecurity of unemployment? In the past, whenever I considered these
things, I felt a hopeless sense of impending doom in the pit of my
stomach. There is so much talk about how to solve these issues, but
nothing ever seems to stop the downward spiral of struggle and stress
that millions of folks are experiencing.
working people, my life went along fine during the 80’s. I had a good
paying job ($42,000 a year) and though I didn’t enjoy the kind of work
I was doing as an industrial draftsman, receiving a steady paycheck
every week kept me going without much complaint. But then came the Gulf
War in the 90’s and after that point I faced nine lay-offs over the
span of 10 years. By the time September
11 happened, I hadn’t been able to maintain steady employment in
the petrochemical industry for over a decade. I would work about 3 or 4
months, then back again to the unemployment line.
It was at
this point that I realized something was wrong.
The life strategy I had grown up to believe in was no longer
working and there didn’t seem to be any answers. Obviously, no one was
going to get me out of this, so I decided I needed to take matters into
my own hands and figure out a way to redefine my basic approach to
me, I have an adventurous wife. She
was on the same page with me and was willing to make some drastic
changes in our lifestyle. As a committed team, we decided to figure out
another way to survive despite these uncertain, hard economic times.
Since we didn’t have a lot of money and because it was getting harder
to find steady employment, we decided to rethink our basic values in
order to create a life for ourselves where we could be independent and
free of needing a career or a full-time job.
And for us, that meant first and foremost, moving to the
country. If we were going to be poor, we thought, at least it would be
better to be poor in the country. That way we could grow our own food
and reduce our expenses. Eventually we discovered there were others who
felt the same way we did. Today there is a small, but growing movement
in this country towards a lifestyle we call “Voluntary
to start over, to shake loose from all the things holding us down. We
got rid of all the stuff we didn’t need and worked on paying off debt.
Then canceling our credit cards and using cash, we followed an efficient
financial plan that taught how to track every penny. By doing this we
were eventually able to save a little bit of money. (See the book
entitled, Your Money or Your Life,
by Joe Dominguez & Vicki Robin).
wanted to be strong and healthy to do the work required for this basic
lifestyle so we changed our eating habits.
We broke away from the standard American fast food, pre-packaged
supermarket diet in favor of organically grown whole grains, raw fruits
and vegetables, fermented dairy, nuts, seeds and sprouts and eliminated
all junk foods and prescription drugs.
We started exercising regularly by walking, practicing yoga, and
gardening. Since we no longer wanted to pay health insurance premiums,
we decided to start a special savings account
($1000) just for emergency first-aid treatment. And of course we
got rid of the cell phone, cable television and Internet bills and
greatly minimized our use of air conditioning. The beginning of the path
to the simple life was a process of elimination in every aspect of our
we found 2 ½ acres of land, 35 miles out of the city. Inspired by our
new vision, one summer we said goodbye to the city, permanently moved
out to our new place and set up a dome tent to live in.
We happily lived in our tent that summer while clearing the land
and constructing a rustic 10’ by 12’ room with a sleeping loft.
We did this on a “pay-as-you-go” plan, hauling all the
materials in the back of our old pick-up truck. Never having built
anything before, we worked hard and gained the skill of building our own
As the tiny
out-building took shape, next came the installation of an underground
cistern for collecting rainwater, and finally, the construction of our
3-room (500 square foot) cabin. Since we had to borrow $9,000 to
purchase the property, I continued to take whatever jobs I could find
(from drafting, clerk work, courier, dishwasher, bakery assistant, etc.)
while Donna stayed busy working on our organic garden, planting fruit
trees and composting. She
enjoys learning about native plants and healing herbs that she can grow.
Over the next few years, while working towards our goals of
self-reliance and independence, we became stronger, healthier and more
confident in our ability to rely on our own skills. It was quite an
empowering experience. We learned how to build things, grow our own
food, take responsibility for our own health, and best of all, we
learned how to laugh and have fun again. The simple joys and true
pleasures of fresh, home-grown food, watching everything grow and
prosper in harmony, working with our own hands and spending quality time
together replaced all of the costly false values that had occupied our
we paid off the land, finished the cabin and succeeded in minimizing our
basic utility costs. We began to notice that our expenses were
decreasing as the quality of our life was increasing.
As long as we stayed home and didn’t travel to a steady job we
really didn’t need very much money. The lifestyle of voluntary
creative simplicity was resulting in compounding efficiency and
improvement in every area of our lives. Soon, we saw the proof of the
inefficiency of working a full time job. After figuring in the
work-related expenses of one job, I realized that my take home pay was
only $3.00 an hour! At that point I was convinced that it was far more
cost effective to stay home, grow our own food, split our own firewood
and bake our own bread than it was to travel to a job day after day. Yet
we still needed some form of income.
had reduced the amount we needed to around $540.00 a month (way below
the poverty level in America), we still had to find a way to generate
that income without relying on full-time employment. Once we had
succeeded in drastically reducing the amount of money we needed, I knew
it would be easy to earn this income by working odd jobs such as
building rustic furniture, playing guitar for tips, simple carpentry,
part-time drafting, office work, plumbing, etc. However, there was one
thing I really loved to do…bake handmade whole-grain sourdough bread
in an outdoor wood-fired clay oven!
always shared my bread with friends and family, but it never really
occurred to me to do it as a way to earn extra money. We soon discovered
that there was no authentic, handmade sourdough bread being produced in
our area, and little by little, people began asking if they could trade
or buy from us. Within a year we had enough bread customers to generate
the supplemental income needed to meet our modest expenses. And now
there is even more demand and a waiting list of neighbors and friends
who want our bread regularly. They know our bread is special because the
organic wheat is freshly hand milled, the loaves are lovingly made
entirely by hand and baked in our outdoor clay oven. (See our article, A
Homemade Clay Oven and Naturally Fermented Sourdough Bread, in the
July/August 2005 issue of Countryside.)
We want to
let others know there is a wide open market for this kind of specialty
bread, even in very small towns like ours, because so many people, for
various reasons, are unable or unwilling to make it for themselves.
In fact, there is such a demand for this unique artisan bread
that many people are perfectly willing to pay us $4.50 a loaf! Anyone
who wants to earn a little extra cash, say $50 - $100 a week or more,
should consider learning this valuable skill, then educating and sharing
in their local community. We continuously hand out educational material
about the health benefits of sourdough bread, offer informative
presentations in our local community and give out free bread samples.
of distribution is arranged like a “bread co-op”.
There are regular customers who buy a batch of 6 loaves at a
time, which we deliver fresh to them once a month.
An added bonus of learning this skill is the inexpensive,
incredibly delicious, wholesome bread that we make for ourselves, which
helps reduce our food bill. This is just an example of how a valuable
skill such as this can be financially supportive when you are living and
While the key to the lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, is
“thinking small”, many people still believe the opposite is true –
“bigger is better”. For
example, people often tell us we should invest in a commercial bakery
and produce more sourdough bread. But in order to expand and make a
career out of baking and selling bread, we would have to go into debt to
purchase commercial mixers, freezers and large ovens, work longer hours
and face the mountain of bureaucratic permits, codes, fees and
restrictions. As a result, the simple, authentic handmade artisan bread
that our customers love would have to be sacrificed in favor of
expanding volume and making more money.
Everybody loses but the bankers and the bureaucrats. We would
fall right back in the same old trap, getting into debt and sacrificing
our freedom and quality of life for a job. This is an example of
downfall of many people who would like to break the bonds of stress and
financial enslavement to the system is their tendency to think too big.
But we must realize that this has been programmed into us by the
industrial society and loan institutions, all attempting to excite and
feed our insatiable desires. Friends, it takes a lot of mindful
awareness to break free of all these traps. It also requires an ability
to improvise and adapt towards an alternative model. The lifestyle of
Voluntary Simplicity is one option and the resulting benefits are
I’m making is this: many of us can no longer think in terms of having
a lifetime career anymore. For whatever reason, things are changing in
this country. Outsourcing and cheaper labor costs in other countries
will continue to eliminate jobs in the United States. And though the
opportunity still exists to work, we must understand that it may be only
temporary. While continuing to work at a job or career one should be
wise and set up a plan to survive without steady employment for certain
periods of time if necessary.
mean storing some supplies, purchasing a piece of property where a small
shelter, tent or tee pee can be erected if necessary, or getting out of
the city and into the country where one can provide food for themselves.
My old Grandpa used to say, “all
the troubles in this country began when people stopped growing their own
food.” And he was right. The younglings of this modern age don’t
even know what real food is, much less how to grow or prepare it! This
has to change. (That’s another reason we promote sourdough bread
baking. It is time to start a “slow-food” movement).
small is one of the most intelligent and powerful things one can do.
Consciously reducing one’s life down to the simple basics is the
secret to happiness. And it is so easy. What is the solution? This is
our advice, especially to young people:
“Don’t get in debt, don’t think in terms of a career (work at a
job for one reason only, to get paid so you can buy a place to
land and grow some food), live in a small shelter, unload unnecessary
stuff, reduce monthly expenses, extract yourself from the enslavement of
modern technological materialism, stay healthy by exercising, eat a
simple, wholesome diet, develop some practical skills, practice your art
or trade and serve your local community. Teach your children to value
true pleasures. Real wealth is perishable: food, health, trees, flowers,
herbs, healthy soil, clean water, fresh air, friends and art. Learn to
value and appreciate these above all else.”
we realize that everyone has to creatively work out their own unique
plan according to their particular circumstances, especially if there
are children to raise. (We have six grown children.)
But with “small thinking”, so many opportunities open up and
the more one can release, the more freedom there is to experience with
each passing year.
would have suggested to us ten years ago that there was a way for the
two of us to live on much less, build our own little hut, buy our
freedom, give up steady employment, work fewer hours, become happy,
healthy, debt free, self-reliant, and live fearlessly without health
insurance, I would have told them they were crazy. This has been an
incredible, radical journey for us, but now we know from first hand
experience that with vision, patience, self-discipline and courage, it
is possible to create such a reality.
voluntary simplicity expands faster than inflation. For those who can do
it, instead of thinking too big and chasing after more money to find
happiness and security, the answer can truly be summed up in the words
of the Greek philosopher, Diogenes: “True freedom is in the minimum of needs.”
Kevin and Donna are selling their instructional video (DVD format only)
on baking naturally fermented sourdough bread for $35.00.
This includes the video, a set of written instructions, a packet
of starter culture and shipping costs.