Living Richly Without Being Rich

There are plenty of people who are happy with very little money but it is easy to get trapped into believing that being happy with little money is not possible. So much in society points towards the idea that money is the basis for everything and without it we are totally doomed. For the most part this is not true — there are plenty of ways to live and be that don’t need money to have a “rich” life.

Strategic under-consumption

But please don’t misunderstand me – money has a role for most of us – money provides access to resources which can be used to help meet our human “needs”. Some people have no money and have been deprived of access to basic resources most of their lives. But others want more and more, and even a little bit more, gobbling up a large amount of resources to meet their ever-expanding “needs”. But we’re all human, we all have to satisfy the same basic needs to flourish and be happy – yet some are more efficient at meeting those basic needs than others. Sometimes it’s through a lack of choice that individuals have to reach this efficiency but sometimes we come across those who actively pursue thrift – a lifestyle of strategic under-consumption – so as to live a happier and more meaningful existence.BuyerarchyOfNeedsSome do it with no money at all

There are in fact a number of inspiring people who have lived completely without money – for example, Mark Boyle The Moneyless Man, who has written about his inspiring experiences, or there is Heidemarie Schwermer from Germany who decided to live a life without money in 1996 (here is a film). To most of us, however, living completely without money might be going a bit too far but there are plenty who advocate living a meaningful life with less stuff – see for example The Minimalists. Or perhaps you might even take something from my own tent-living story. Indeed research supports the idea that we can live very well with little, if we so choose to.moneylessmanWhat does the research say?

In our societies the “benefits of thrift” are not widely considered or espoused. In fact some might derogatorily refer to those that are thrifty as being miserly, stingy, frugal, or even as tightwads. However, thrift has roots in the word thrive and whilst money may be essential for living, it is insufficient for thriving. So how could living with less actually result in more thriving? Here are a few ways.

Thrift may help us work less

We think in terms of how much something costs in monetary terms – it is very rare that we think of the hours we spent earning that money in the first place. If a gift to a daughter or son cost £80 to buy then at £10 an hour it cost 8 hours of our life to get them. Perhaps 8 hours spent with that child might have done more for everyone’s well-being. I think José Mujica (ex-president of Uruguay) said it best:

“We invented a mountain of superfluous needs. You have to keep buying, throwing things away. It’s our lives we are squandering. When I buy something or when you buy it, we’re not paying with money. We’re paying with the time from our lives we had to spend to earn that money. The difference is that you can’t buy life. Life just goes by. And it’s terrible to waste your life losing your freedom.”How many of us are working too much in jobs we dislike to buy the things we don’t need? Thriftiness therefore means we can work less and hopefully give us more time to do the things we love.

Thrift promotes positive consumption values

Purchases that are aimed at instant gratification, or feed into improving self-esteem, may help in the short-term but generally add very little, if anything at all, to our well-being in the longer run. A focus on satisfying purely materialistic needs has been shown to be related to lower well-being. Those with thrifty tendencies are more inclined to think more carefully about the things they buy – they might ask more searchingly as to how important something is for their life? What need does it fulfill? Could these needs be satisfied in other ways? This means thrifty individuals are more likely to make purchases that sustain well-being into the long-term. Thrifty individuals may also be more likely to cherish old things as opposed to discard them for new and may experience more gratitude for the things they do have. The positive consumption values of thrifty individuals may help them obtain greater well-being. Older generations tend to embody such positive consumption values and in doing so perhaps this might explain why older people often tend to be happier.


Thrift encourages savings

Another advantage of thrift is it can give a person more space to save. Not only do savings help protect from negative income shocks, which my own work has shown can have a large negative impact on well-being, but also perhaps provides a little security. The presence of debt, on the other hand, is known to result in lower overall well-being. If there are reserves put aside then that unexpected repair or broken item can be financed via savings rather than having to borrow in the short-term, which may then limit our ability to fulfill basic needs in the future.

Helping others

There are important personal benefits to thrift but more generally our lifestyle choices also have an important influence on others. What we chose to consume, whether it be the latest technological devices, plastic things, or even clothing or food, have to come from somewhere. Sometimes these things are not produced under the best conditions (often far from it) and our choices can help sustain those conditions. Thrift not only enables space to consider these issues more broadly but may also encourage us to think of meeting our needs in another way, such as through our own efforts, or importantly by sharing with others and fostering meaningful localised relationships.

Time for giving real gifts

As a society fixated on obtaining “things” we often forget about the things that really do matter — our relationships, our physical and mental health, or who we are and how we relate to the world around us — but by thinking carefully and acting thriftily we can realign with these truly important things. We’re entering that season again where we‘re encouraged to be anything but thrifty. To expect gifts. To give gifts. Last year I was fortunate enough to find myself in the jungle but not this year. Fortunately there are many ways of giving and whilst I won’t be giving any material gifts I’ll be spending time with people that are important to me and giving them as much love as possible. There is a choice – it’s not always easy – the first step is awareness.

typical person saw


*** Thank you for reading. If you like any of my posts then I’m happy to have them shared or commented upon. Also if you don’t like anything then I’d be grateful to hear that too.


  1. I have spent a lifetime practicing thrift. This might be a result of havingbeen a ten year old ripped from my home, culture and appurtenances of living – and realizing things are just objects of use which on can use up or abandon, even unwillingly. My mantra is “you can’t take it with you” and my relationship with things anticipates changes in living which may necessitate my moving on from them. I realized early that my physical needs were very simple, so paying attention and savouring of daily phenomena from experience is what has given me most stability and contentment – and wonder. And the world is full of wonders – not always earthshakingly pleasant, but always curious.G

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