I’ve got mooching on my mind lately. Is it possible to aim for minimalism — living a simpler life — without relying on someone else to pick up the tab?
My parents instilled in me a thrifty nature when I was growing up. As a grown-up, my family and I are pushing hard toward financial independence, which means cutting unnecessary expenses and saving as much as we can for the future. But I’ve been thinking lately about how nobody’s decisions exist in a vacuum. What would happen if everyone did this?
Let’s get the easy part out of the way. Presidential election years can draw out partisan divisions and make self-interest even more naked than usual. But even the most hardened libertarian would have a tough time talking most people out of all collective life in the United States. Property taxes from my retired and childless neighbors pay for my kid to go to school. Gas taxes from Lindy’s hybrid pay for roads all over the state of Maryland. The insurance premiums from young and healthy patients cover the medical bills for those who have serious illnesses. Still, I know we as a society have limited tolerance for not carrying one’s weight. Ronald Reagan’s odious “welfare queens” are probably still the best example of exploiting this tendency, even decades later.
A few weeks ago, the Washington Post Magazine published an article about a family in our area that’s sending 13 kids to college, living debt free and plans to retire early. The answers? Extreme frugality, as you might imagine. But also, as touched on in the article but called out by the next week’s letters to the editor, relying on the kindness of strangers, their church and the state for additional support.
The New York Times has noted that James Altucher, a minimalist and self-help kind of guy whose books I’ve read and enjoyed, only owns 15 things. He doesn’t have a permanent residence. He’s also a tech brazillionaire who sleeps on friends’ couches a lot of the time.
Heath and Alyssa Padgett have a fascinating life. They made a documentary about working hourly-paid jobs in every state in the union. They live full-time in an RV and have quite an online following. As twenty-somethings who don’t own a home, their expenses are low. One of the reasons they were able to stick to their budget was the number of driveway stays they did when they were traveling. In other words, these advocates for life on the road were dependent on friends and family who do own bricks-and-mortar homes.
None of this is to criticize these folks and their decisions in life. They’ve inspired plenty of others by their example and brought plenty of great ideas into the world. Yet the notion of these kinds of lives being so easy that anyone can do them is probably worthy of a second thought.
What about my own life? When does minimalism lean into mooching?
I bring a reusable water bottle almost everywhere, because I refuse to pay for bottled water. I realize someone has to pay for the ice machine and the soda fountain with the water button, and the reason businesses do this is because people buy sodas. But the water button is an optional feature, and most of these businesses give out free cups for water on request if you’re eating there anyway. So I don’t feel bad about free-riding there. Same for movie theaters that have drinking fountains.
One night this summer, we camped in our RV for free in a Wal-Mart parking lot. It wasn’t trespassing, and it’s encouraged by company policy. But it wouldn’t be possible without a profitable store that has a paved parking lot for its customers. Sam Walton was an RVer, and he made a business decision that allowing overnight guests would probably draw them into the store to buy things. I did buy a handful of things at a grocery store in the same shopping center, but I didn’t return Wal-Mart’s hospitality. I’m troubled by a number of the company’s other business practices, and try to avoid shopping there if I can. Is it hypocritcal for me to free-ride in the parking lot, then? Quite possibly.
So where is the line between living a reasonable and prudent life, one that’s free of unnecessary expense and consumerism on one hand, and simply relying on others to cover expenses you should cover yourself on the other? I think the best we can do is see the line approaching and refuse to cross it. Having a 7-year-old along for errands and for life is actually an amazing check on the conscience. If you find yourself unable to explain what you’re doing to your kid, it’s probably time to put some of the ketchup packets back at the restaurant.
Also published on Medium.