Living the Good Life on a Budget:
8 Ways our Family Borrows from Voluntary Simplicity
JBF is a great place to get pre-loved clothing.
We live in a complicated world where the day’s news can catapult anyone into a state of panic and millions of working-class Americans walk a fine line between frugality and despair. One of the greatest challenges of parenting in the Information Age is finding a way to imbue our children with pragmatic optimism—that is, giving them not just hope but a means to make that hope meaningful through action.
One of the ways our family has accomplished this is by incorporating voluntary simplicity practices into our lives. Voluntary simplicity, also known as simple living, can mean a lot of things. At its most extreme, it is a complete rejection of consumerism and anything materialistic. I’ve met people who live almost completely off the grid, grow their own food, build their own home, and make everything they need.
The benefits of this lifestyle are manifold. It reduces your environmental footprint, limits your reliance on others, and allows you to focus on simpler values like family and community. While I find that kind of lifestyle admirable, after a short stint of our family living in a tiny house on ten acres while caring for my mom before she died, I can truly say it’s not for us.
The truth is, I love geek culture way too much to imagine living without my Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica toys or feeding the kids’ collections of favorite fandom plushies.
But just because you’re not ready to grow your own food and craft your own vegan organic Band-Aids doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from some of the principles of voluntary simplicity. Finding a balance between constant consumerism and minimalism can be freeing for families of all economic levels.
Our family has recently crested the hill of several years of financial hardship. Through the worst of it, modified voluntary simplicity helped ease the impact of our austerity years on our kids. Even when we were living on PBJs and using change to buy gas, our kids had nice clothes and cool toys to play with.
Anyone who knows our family can say we’re definitely not great examples of minimalists, and we’re just as guilty of unbridled consumerism as the next family. TLDR we can’t claim to be better at this than anyone else. What we can do is share how adopting some of the principles of simplicity has allowed us to live better in some pretty uncertain times.
Here are a few of the ways we’ve managed to strike a comfortable balance between consumerism and simplicity.
1. Give Stuff Away to Others
Reduce, reuse, recycle, right? When we are clearing out clothes that no longer work for us, books, toys, or whatever, we offer it first to friends and then to our online community. That way, people we know who need it get first dibs. If all of those options fall through, we donate anything worthwhile at a drop-off bin.
2. Join a Buy Nothing Board
The Buy Nothing project is a social movement where people can ask for what they want and give things away to others. Almost every community has a Buy Nothing group on Facebook you can join. I look on my local group almost daily to see if anyone is giving anything away that would benefit our family.
I love scented lotions and bath products, but in our struggle days, we weren’t able to splurge on such things, so from time to time I would go on the Buy Nothing group and let people know that I would happily take their unwanted lotions and toiletries. Plenty of people get Christmas gifts filled with lotions they don’t love, and usually, they sit in their cabinet until they break down and toss them in the trash. That’s how I ended up with all kinds of cool perfume samples and Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works products.
In turn, we’ve given away coats, clothing, furniture, and even food to people on our local Facebook group. The groups are community-based, so everyone kind of gets to know each other and pitches in when someone is in need. Earlier this year, a local veteran was struggling, and lots of people from the group helped him out with food and basic needs.
3. Let People Know You Accept Secondhand Things
You’d be surprised at how eager people are to give away their discarded belongings once they know who likes or accepts what. When my kids were born, we had more clothing than they could ever wear, so we were able to sort through it and pick out our favorites and donate the rest. We ended up having some of the best-dressed babies around with our kids decked out in some really cute boutique brands like Naartjie and Tea Collection because we were happy to take cast-offs.
Arthur wore a lot of pre-loved clothes from our friends' kids as a baby
And I’ve got a friend in Massachusetts who feeds my love of Free People by sending me the things she no longer wants. Sure it’s a little materialistic to be crazy about spendy brands most of the middle and working class can’t afford. But when you’re part of a culture where these items are used again and again, there’s a lot less to feel guilty about.
To this day, friends who know what we like will call us up and offer the kids uniform clothing, toys, and shoes. My friend Shannon of Tigerlily’s Emporium brings us a few boxes of her daughter’s things every year, so Lucy has a supply of cute clothing in storage, and we always manage to find a few cute plushies or cool toys to save back for the next gift-giving occasion.
4. Shop at Thrift Stores, Garage Sales, and Estate Sales
Thrift stores are part of our family’s culture. We collectively appreciate super cool older things, and we see thrift store shopping as a way of unearthing treasure. I keep a Google docs list on hand of things I’m on the lookout for. Currently, that includes hot pads, nice bath towels, and funky glass tumblers. But you never know when something spectacular will catch your eye.
Lucy rocking a true vintage 1950s dress we got for around $6 at the thrift store
A few months ago, Lucy and I had been looking all over for ideas on DIYing our own Barbie clothing because they’re kind of spendy when we came across a treasure trove of vintage Barbie clothes for a few dollars at our local thrift store.
Even cooler, when I posted on Instagram about how we spent the next day playing with them, I found out they used to belong to someone I know! She’d forgotten all about them and relative had donated them. She was really glad to see something she loved was getting appreciated by a new generation!
Thrift store Barbie fashion show? Yes please!!!
5. Use Facebook Market
When Arthur wanted Pokemon cards for his birthday a couple of years back, I started looking on Facebook Market. I found a young guy who was selling a ton of them and was super excited to cut me a sweet deal. We’ve also picked up secondhand tabletop games, X-box games, and toys on Facebook Market at a fraction of the cost.
6. Buy Secondhand Online
Sometimes you just can’t get what you need from regifts or locally. I used to try to shop on eBay for these things, but I’ve had pretty bad luck overall with bidding. I recently got introduced to Poshmark, and it’s been a game-changer. Poshmark is similar to ThredUp. It’s a place to resell and buy secondhand things. It’s essentially an online consignment store.
The kids looking fly in second hand clothing.
I first downloaded the app ages ago but wasn’t initially interested in it, and then one day out of boredom, started “hearting” items I dug like a Twin Peaks t-shirt. A day or so later to my surprise, I got a bunch of notifications saying the sellers were offering me lower prices. The Twin Peaks shirt? The seller wanted $6 plus $4.95 shipping. On a whim, I countered her offer with $5 and she immediately accepted. Haggling for clothes is way better than bidding IMHO.
7. Learn to Appreciate Older Tech
I keep seeing memes around Facebook about “Do you know what this is?” and it’s a picture of a cassette tape or a VHS tape. You know who knows what those things are? My kids. We couldn’t afford to give our kids tablets when they were much younger, but TBH I wouldn’t have wanted to until they were at an age where they could make more educated decisions about their viewing. But Mommy still needed some “me time,” so we got a VCR and about 156 VHS tapes from friends, family, and garage sales.
Sure, my kids only know the non-PC version of Aladdin, but they’re also incredibly well-versed on Gen-X and Millenial pop culture. They also had a Wii until it basically went extinct last year. We recently upgraded to an Xbox 360 as a gift from a family member, and since it’s not the most recent tech, we’re able to pick up games for about $5 at the thrift store.
8. Reuse What You Can
Reusing what you’re able to is a cornerstone of living frugally and reducing your ecological impact. We’ve been saving glass jars and food packages to use for storage for ages. If we’ve got an old throw pillow that doesn’t fit our decor or just looks a little shabby, I’ll try to pick up a cool looking sheet or piece of fabric to reboot its look.
Thanks to Pinterest, there’s not much that can’t be made over. Last year, we even took a bunch of broken toys and made them into Christmas ornaments. Our tree was absolutely bananas, but the kids loved it.
Christmas got a little weird this year but that's ok
Now that I’ve shared some of our tips for managing these uncertain and borderline apocalyptic times, I’d love to hear some of yours. How do you live the good life when things are strapped? Do you have any tips for minimizing your eco-impact? Hit me up in the comments, and have an amazing week.