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Thoreau’s Guide to Living More by Spending Less

There are lots of reasons for living a more minimalist life. By owning less you reduce your impact on the environment, you spend less, and you live more simply.

For Henry David Thoreau, the reason for spending less boiled down to a simple formula. It’s what I call “the life calculation.” Here’s how Thoreau describes it:

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Why live more simply? Because the more stuff we buy, the more we end up exchanging our life for the things we own. This is a radical way of thinking about cost. Normally, we think of cost as a measure of dollars and cents. The latest iPhone costs $399. A new Toyota Prius costs around $25,000. A house on the beach in Malibu costs $20,000,000. You get the idea.

Thoreau’s key insight is that the things we buy don’t just cost money, they cost us time, effort, and sacrifice. They cost us our life.

Example. Let’s say you decide to buy a million dollar house. Thoreau would say that the real cost of the house isn’t one million dollars. The real cost is the number of years of work required to pay it off. So if it takes you 40 years of long hours working a job you hate to pay off that house, then it’s real cost is not one million dollars, it’s 40-years of life.

How can we apply Thoreau’s “life calculation” to our daily lives? Here are three steps that might help:

  1. What’s Your Work Time Worth?
    1. The first step in applying the “life calculation” is to calculate the value of your working hours. Let’s say you make $50,000 a year working 40 hours a week. After taxes, you end up actually seeing $35,000 (this will depend on where you live, number of dependents, etc.). Assuming you work 50 weeks a year, the monetary value of each working hour is around $17. 
  • The Shift From Dollars to Life.
    Once you’ve nailed down the rough value of each working hour, you can begin shifting away from thinking dollars to thinking life. You do this by calculating the life cost of all those things you wish you could buy. So that new MacBook Pro you wish you had no longer costs $1,800. If each hour of work is worth $17, it now costs 105 hours (almost three weeks) of life. That new house you wish you could buy no longer costs $500,000, it costs 29,411 hours of life (roughly 14 working years of life, and that’s assuming that the house is the only thing you spend your money on). 
  • Consider trading things for life.
    Once you’ve calculated these actual life costs, think seriously about the trade-off between things and life. For Thoreau, the trade-off was simple. He always chose life over new things. As he says, “There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.” But you may decide that certain things are worth the life sacrifice. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed at spending less and living more. Quite the opposite. It means that you have made a reflective choice to sacrifice a portion of your days and hours for the things you own. You’ve made a conscious choice. The real danger Thoreau points to arises when we lose consciousness of this choice, when we buy without ever considering the amount of life exchanged for our latest purchase.

Of course, many of us work on a fixed schedule. We cannot call in one day and decide that we are going to exchange the next month of earnings for a month spent walking through the woods.

This may be true. But it’s also true that employers are becoming more flexible. I just had lunch with a CEO who told me, “I would be happy to let an employee take a few more weeks off for a cut in pay. But nobody has ever asked for it.”

What do you think about Thoreau’s “life calculation”? Would it help you spend less and live more?

Written on 5/18/2011 by Nate Klemp. Nate earned his PhD at Princeton and is a professor at Pepperdine University. He founded, a website dedicated to exploring philosophy as an art of living. You can follow him on Twitter @LifeBeyondLogic and on Facebook. Download a free copy of his new ebook, Finding Reality: Thoreau’s Lessons for Life in the Digital Age. Photo Credit: Fred Sheahan
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