What's Intentional Poverty, and Why Are So Many People Choosing It?

Photo: house42/flickr.

I know I'm one of many people who regularly dreams of getting rid of the mortgage, the commitments and the work of owning a home. And like many people, as much as I'd like to, I can't. Nobody is willing to buy my home for what I owe to the bank, so until that changes (or I pay off more of the mortgage), I'm stuck.

Other people are equally stuck doing jobs they don't like because they need health care for themselves or a family member, or need to provide financially for people in their lives. There are many ways to get stuck as an adult in America, and it takes time, patience and plenty of will to get unstuck — if that's what you want. Of course, there are plenty of folks who flourish and enjoy being part of the current system.

And then there are the people who have opted out; owning few things, squatting or living in very low-cost spaces, living off the land or occasional work, there are men and women who (particularly following the financial crash) have decided that living a "regular American life" isn't for them, and they're making it work. These are the intentionally poor, who live on less every year than many people spend on Christmas.

How do they make it work? Well, while some of them use government benefits, many make it a point of pride that they don't. These people could be called minimalists, or bums, but whatever you might think of them, they're looking for a simpler life — a much simpler one. NBC News interviewed Dan Price (see the video above), someone who has chosen such a path: "I don't want to spend so much time away from the abode I love to pay for it," says Price. "When you get rid of things and are willing to have less, you're given a gift of more in a sense. More freedom, you're more relaxed, less worried about the things you have and the way they break. Less is more."

Over the past few years, I have been considering a life that's much lower-cost and lower-impact than the one I led throughout my 20s and early 30s, which was, in the end, not the right choice for me. The responsibility of stuff, of so many moving parts, from car maintenance to kitchen implements, yard maintenance and pet care, from washing these clothes this way and those that way, using this vacuum for the rugs and that one for the floor, updating my resume, my phone's operating system, my haircut; trying to fit in the workouts and figure out the right sneakers to go with it — has exhausted me. I no longer have enough energy left (outside of keeping my life and work together) to do the many other things I love to do. So I find these stories of voluntary poverty appealing.

Three years ago, I lived off-grid (but with Internet, it was solar-powered) on the Big Island of Hawaii for three months. I had all my favorite clothes, a couple of bathing suits, my phone and computer, books, music loaded on my computer, and not much else besides a plastic box of food and some space in a shared fridge. I lived in a one-room yurt and shared a toilet and shower. I was never happier. I realized that literally 90 percent of my life was taken up doing stuff for my stuff, maintaining my stuff and saving up money to buy more stuff I thought I needed — not using my life energy for what I really wanted to be doing.

So I have scaled down. It takes years (or it has for me). I'm about two-thirds of the way there. It is hard. One day I would like to live on $15,000 a year, which is how much I can make without doing work I don't like, while paying for basic health care, healthy food, Internet and minimal rent (I'd be a great temporary caretaker) — and flights to wherever I go next, since travel is important to me. So I understand and admire the intentionally poor, and while I realize that's not the life everyone wants, it is where I am headed.