More Than Money
Issue #27

Lifestyles of the Rich and Simple

Table of Contents

“Navigating the Complexity of Simplicity”

There is a common belief in our society that says, If I only had enough money that I didn't have to work, everything would be so simple. In my experience, that's not the case. While having abundance is, as many say, "a nice problem to have," living a full, meaningful life with wealth has presented its own challenges.

I grew up in a family with a private dairy business that was financially successful. I married a woman in similar circumstances and we both received financial resources from our families. Working first as a lawyer and later in community development, I experimented with working for less and less pay until I was almost 40. After much grappling, I decided to stop working for pay after my wife and I both received significant inheritances.

Five years later, I still devote considerable time to unpaid work. This includes community organizing focused on diversity and race relations, serving as a board member of More Than Money, public policy work, managing assets, and philanthropy. I also spend time taking care of my three young children, preparing meals, and doing other household chores. Clearly, my family's financial situation, which allows us to live off investment income, gives me a broader range of lifestyle choices than are generally available to others.

Compared to the fast-paced life I once led as a lawyer in New York (which included the thrills of "competitive dining") my life now feels quite modest. I ride my bike and walk around town. The main things I do for leisure are hiking, running, reading, and visiting friends and family. My friendships are not primarily with people who have a lot of money; we enjoy conversation and simple meals together. I live a home-based lifestyle.

Yet we are very comfortable. Our assets put us into the threshold level of the very wealthy. We could have two or three homes and drive very expensive cars, but we choose not to. We live in an economically diverse community and our house is bigger than most of the others, but not the biggest. We hire people to help us with the children, clean the house, and do lawn work, but we also do a lot of that work ourselves. Money provides an ease about spending, but we don't choose a lot of luxuries that others do.

The greatest complexities in my life derive from my "simplicity" choice to not work for pay. The question "What do you do for a living?" always makes me nervous. I don't have an easy label for my work, and our culture conditions us to believe that we are defined by the work we do. I have a strong internalized critic about my own not working for pay, having received messages growing up that men's value is based on their work and ability to provide for their families. My inner critic tells me that I need to earn money, even though I know my family is well provided for. However, I know I can be both happier and make a better contribution to society by forging a new path.

So my challenges with this lifestyle have to do, first, with figuring out how we as a society can move beyond the pervasive concept that the work ethic is the major motivating force in human life. I think more in terms of service and giving. My personal exploration is about what I do with my abundance in terms of time, talent, and money.

Secondly, being able to do whatever I want means I have to figure out what that is. Who am I? What are my passions? What is my calling? My search for answers takes many paths and drives my effort to simplify other parts of my life. It is hard enough to answer these questions without extraneous distractions.

Thirdly, I am devoted to helping raise my children. I am proud of this work, but having chosen not to work for pay, I am constantly struggling with how to model what is a productive and socially constructive life.

Finally, being aware of the world's environmental needs, I want to decrease my environmental impact; yet, I also have a strong desire for comfort and often find joy in material and technological products. I constantly try to balance my sometimes contradictory desires to live more simply and to enjoy comforts, even luxuries.

I have learned that even simplicity can be complicated. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "I wouldn't give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I'd give my right arm for simplicity the far side of complexity." Simplicity that is accomplished by merely dropping difficult things from my life is failing to live fully. It's a turning away from life, as opposed to embracing life. The lifestyle choices I've made have resulted in a complex mix of both greater simplicity and greater complexity. Ultimately, my best choices, whichever direction they have led, have been ones made from a core of self-knowledge.

-Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff


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