Sharon Astyk is a stay-at-home mother of four children. Seven years ago, her family was barely getting by on her husband's salary as a teacher. They decided they could live better by simplifying their lives. As VOA's Faiza Elmasry tells us, the Astyks represent a small but growing number of Americans who are paring down and cutting back and, in doing so, finding financial relief and a measure of happiness.
Sharon Astyk still remembers how difficult life was when she and her husband got married more than 10 years ago.
"We were graduate students living in Boston in the United States and living on a very low income by the standards of the city," she says. "We were used to getting by in the city on very little money. One of the things we began thinking about was how hard it was to afford to eat well when you were a low-income family.
"We started saying, 'OK, we're never going to be rich.' My husband was a teacher. I was staying at home with our son. We started asking, 'How can we live as well as possible?'"
They found the answer in leaving Boston and moving to rural upstate New York.
"One of the ways we could do that was if we could consolidate our housing with our extended families," she says. "In the United States, this is not the norm the way it is in other parts of the world. Generally speaking, everyone has his household. Everybody lives separately. But my husband's grandparents were getting to a point where they could no longer manage things on their own. We bought a house with them in the country, and we cared for them until the end of their lives."
Family Strives For Simplicity by Producing Own Food, Sharing, Conserving
Astyk explains how her family created a simpler lifestyle in a new book, Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front.
"What we started doing was something that was quite normal in the U.S until maybe 50 years ago and is still normal in many parts of the world," she says. "We started producing more of our food. We started sharing resources with our family and bartering with our neighbors. We tried really hard to stay out of debt. That meant when we didn't have enough money to do things, we just didn't do them."
That lifestyle, she notes, is a more environmentally friendly one.
"We only have one car for our family, which is unusual," she says. "That means when my husband has the car, I don't have one and I'm home with the kids. We just walk places or we bicycle or we don't go anywhere."
The family also worked to reduce carbon emissions from their use of energy and other resources.
"We divided it up into seven categories: electricity, transport fuel, heating and cooling energy, consumer goods, water and others," she says. "And we've gotten to 80 percent reduction in every category. We're getting much and much closer to the use of energy that people in India or China are using right now."
Recycling is another way the Astyks save money and resources.
"When something broke, we could say to our neighbors. 'Oh, do you have one? Can we borrow it?' And we could offer something in return to them," she says. "It was very simple to find sources of things that were being either thrown away or underused, or people were willing to share."
Environmentally Friendly Lifestyle Becoming More Affordable
Such an environmentally friendly lifestyle really does help people financially.
"The key to money is not what you make. It's what you keep," says David Bach, author of Go Green, Live Rich: 50 Simple Ways to Save the Earth.
"When you go buy things today, one of the questions you should ask yourself is, 'How long will this last?'" he suggests. "Because so much of what we buy can last longer than we actually use it. My grandma used to use things forever. The longer you use things, the less money you spend. This is really an important time for Americans to do two things: simplify your life and save more."
Bach says that over the years, the environmental lifestyle has become more affordable.
"For 10, 20 years it's always been if I want to buy something 'green' or organic, it costs more," he says. "It [doesn't] anymore. Today, because consumers are demanding green products, mainstream companies are coming out with these products and actually lowering the price because we're buying them."
As Financial Crisis Deepens, More Americans Scale Back
Growing numbers of people already have started to adopt a greener, simpler lifestyle, Astyk says.
"That's really wonderful, and [it's] not only in the U.S., but all over the world," she says."There is the Compact, which started in the United States on the West Coast, which has people buying only used things and leading a much simpler life. There is the Voluntary Simplicity Movement started by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robins that have million of members all over the world.
"There are really a lot of people who are trying to figure out how to live a decent life in a world that is shifting. I think as the costs of energy and food and other basic things have risen, there is more and more interest and more and more sense that not only might this be a good choice for reasons of pleasure or environmental reasons, but we may have to live like this.
"As the financial crisis deepens here, I think Americans are going to live more like their grandparents or their great-grandparents, and there is a lot of interest in finding out how to do that."
Astyk says living a simpler life has another benefit for her family, beyond the financial aspect. It's helped her children see how they can consume less, save more and create a more meaningful life.