How we went from $42,000 to $6,500 and lived to tell about it!
By L. 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
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.
Like many working people, my life went along fine during the 1980s. 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 1990s and after
that point I faced nine layoffs 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 three or four
months, then back again to the unemployment line.
It was at this point that I realized that 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 living.
Lucky for 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 that 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 Creative Simplicity."
We decided 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 able eventually
to save a little bit of money. (See the book entitled, Your Money or Your Life,
by Joe Dominguez & Vicki Robin.)
Also, we 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 ($1,000) 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 lives.
Eventually we found 2-1/2 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 pickup truck. Never having built anything
before, we worked hard and gained the skill of building our own shelter.
As the tiny outbuilding took shape, next came the installation of an underground
cistern for collecting rainwater, and finally, the construction of our
three-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 (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 toward 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 time before.
Gradually 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 an hour! Atthat 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.
Though we had reduced the amount we needed to around $540 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! I had always shared my bread with
friends and family, but it never really occurred to me to do it as a way to earn
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
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
Our system of distribution is arranged like a "bread co-op." There are regular
customers who buy a batch of six 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 thinking small.
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 compounding inefficiency.
The 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
The point 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.
This could mean storing some supplies, purchasing a piece of property where a
small shelter, tent or tipi 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).
Thinking 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 live 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."
Of course 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.
If someone 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.
Creative 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 have an instructional video (VHS format only) on baking
naturally fermented sourdough bread for $30. This includes the video, a set of
written instructions, a packet of starter culture and shipping costs. Send check
or money order to L. Kevin Johnson, 4402 Gilead Rd., Clinton, LA 70722.