Have you ever wondered if all the technology we use is spoiling us? Would things be better if we lived a simpler life, more like our ancestors did, with no electricity and no non-human or non-animal powered machines? That’s the idea that Eric Brende explores in his book “Better Off – Flipping the Switch on Technology“, the story of him and his wife (and later son) living with an Amish like community for about 18 months. What does this have to do with personal finance? Read on to find out more.
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The Story – Deciding To Flip The Switch Off
First, an introduction to Eric. The author has degrees from Yale, Washburn University, and MIT. He’s received a Citation of Excellence from the National Science Foundation and a graduate fellowship from the Mellon Foundation in the Humanities. So, overall, he’s a smart guy. While in college he started to question the role of technology in human society. Sure, technology had saved lives, made manual labor much easier, and seemingly improved society in many ways. But he started to question whether technology should be the end all, be all of human existence. Were there lessons to be learned in the older ways that we may have forgotten as we’ve sped toward the future? Was there deeper meaning to be found in a more manual existence rather than a technological one?
So he decides to explore this idea with his new wife, taking off from MIT, running water, electricity, and other such things. They head out to join a community he only knows about through a chance meeting with a stranger at a bus stop, and a mailed letter. The community welcomes them with tepidly open arms, helping out the clueless outsiders with such basic things as “how to hoe your food garden” and “how to plant a pumpkin seed” (protip – pointy part goes down into the ground).
The book outlines his adventures in giving up every technology he’s known since he was a child, eventually even trading in his car for a horse and buggy. They plant a food garden, learn to can, figure out how to keep leftovers cold without a fridge, and even have a baby at home with a local midwife. Eric helps with threshing and barn raising, and comes to appreciate things he took for granted – or never noticed – in the past. Community. Friendship. Helping each other out. Silence. How good it feels to rest after a long, hard day working. In eliminating technology, he found a deeper meaning in life.
Eventually the experiment ends. Eric heads back to MIT, turns in his graduate thesis, and he and his wife head back into a more ordinary existence in Boston. He first turns to cab driving while his wife went back into accounting part-time. They try to start a community similar to the one they left, but it fails. Eventually they find themselves in St. Louis, where Eric makes a living as a rickshaw driver and a soap maker.
That’s where the story ends, but since this was written back in 2004, I’m sure a lot has happened since then. So I used – or should say, tried to use – Google to look up the author. Of course, Googling someone who is technology adverse is probably not going to get a lot of results, and this was no exception. I did, however, find this short video where he explains his time with the Amish-like community, and how the community achieves greater happiness living a simpler life than many of us do when surrounded by technology.
Financial Lessons From His Adventure
I think the author gives a good overview of some of the financial lessons he learned through his adventures in an old MIT alumni article. Here’s what the author had to say (link to full article here):
Many people admired my “bravery,” my “pioneering spirit,” my “self-control,” wondering how I or my wife or my children could endure such privation. Many called my ideas thought-provoking and-although they weren’t ready to put them in practice just yet or so radically-they would mull over the possibilities.
And yet, now that I’ve lived like this for almost twelve years, I must ask-who is really being brave, radical, or extreme? Is it I? Or is it the people who marvel at me? Compared with the vast majority of earthlings down through history, I am hardly deprived. I use generous amounts of technology. For all my “austerity,” I still benefit from major historic advances like sanitary water, vaccines, plentiful food supplies (shipped in from the countryside by high-speed vehicles), many mass-manufactured goods, and select forms of automation, such as electric fans, a small refrigerator, a dehumidifier in my basement, a digital piano, and, as mentioned, sometimes a car and a computer. And with this degree of usage, I enjoy a balanced life, blending family with work, and leave ample leisure to write books and articles, play music, and visit relatives. Because our costs are so low, even though I make hardly anything, I have enough disposable income to dine out fairly often and take my wife to the movies or a show. We can’t afford to live in a ritzy neighborhood, but our inexpensive urban setting is compact, walkable, and architecturally pleasing. Compared to the world’s silent majority, I am markedly better off, even pampered, and I don’t consider myself radical or extreme in my practices.
I’ve seen plenty of implementations of useless technology that adds no value, consuming millions of dollars and peoples lives for years on end. I’ve seen people get caught up in endless upgrade cycles, “needing” to get the newest technology when an older version would suit their needs just fine. So I agree with the author that we all could stand to be more thoughtful about the technology we bring into our lives.
Do you really need to take that car ride, buy that new phone, get a fancy new “whatever”? Or would an older version suit you just fine? Could you get that thing second hand, so you’re not contributing to waste and consumerism? Could you bike or walk instead of taking the car? I think the book is a good reminder to be selective in what you bring into your life, rather than consume for the sake of consuming. I will say this is one of those books that you’ll either love or hate – just check out the reviews on Goodreads!
Six Financial Lessons From Better Off
After reading the book, I took away several different financial lessons – some of which the author also took away, and some of which I gleaned for myself through his story.
- The best things in life are free (or don’t cost much) – Health. Friends. Family. Companionship. Creating things with your own hands. These things are either free or very low cost. Make sure to keep them front and center in your life
- Money (and stuff) doesn’t bring happiness – In fact, it can have the opposite effect. When people have money, and they buy “stuff”, they often find that life is still empty. You need to seek a deeper meaning for what the purpose of your life is, and money/things has very little, if anything, to do with that. What’s the meaning of your life?
- Insurance was invented for a reason – This wasn’t a lesson the author took away, but I did. Part of how he was able to afford this adventure was skipping out on both car insurance and health insurance. He drove an uninsured car across many states, and even kept it registered in NH specifically because they didn’t require insurance (they still don’t, actually). And they had a local midwife attend his wifes home birth partly because they had no health insurance.
- Don’t mistake your luck for skill – This actually goes back to the insurance lesson. Eric thinks that going without insurance was fine, because they didn’t end up in a terrible car accident and no one needed to use modern medical facilities. I’m glad for him that the gamble worked out. But as someone whose spouse nearly died of septic shock, I’m of the opinion that this was luck. He rolled the dice, they came up in his favor – great! But had something happened – the home birth had complications requiring a c-section, there was a car accident, Eric had gotten injured during his adventure, etc. – they would have been bankrupt. People can get into trouble when they adopt the “it can’t happen to me” philosophy
- Be picky about technology – Don’t just get technology for the sake of having the latest, new, shiny thing. Think hard about the value it will add to your life. Do you need an electric coffee maker that will break in two years, where you’ll need to toss it in the trash and get a new one? Or could you pick up a sturdy French press, which makes great coffee and doesn’t break? The more mechanical and “modern” the object, the more easily it breaks and becomes obsolete. So be thoughtful about what you bring into your life.
- Be self-sufficient – take a technology break– Every time the power goes out I’m reminded about the importance of this one. Early in my adult life, when the power would go out, I’d be at a loss. Over the years, especially as we started camping as a family, I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to live without electricity for a while. I can cook food over a propane stove or charcoal grill, make coffee by grinding beans in a mortar and pestle, and keep a supply of emergency water (I have a well) on hand for power outages. Once a year, we take a break from living a modern life and go out tent camping. It helps reset our expectations of what we need to be happy, and how little we actually need to live.
I Want To Hear From You!
What do you think of this concept – have you ever considered going “off the grid” and becoming more self-sufficient? Or do you think he’s crazy? Let me know in the comments!
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