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Thoreau & Rumbley: Wisdom on (Part-Time) Work

February 20, 2010

Henry David Thoreau

“I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”

– Thoreau, Walden

(Thanks, Smokey Joe Wood and Salami)

I work part-time.

I make very little money.

To be specific, I make $17,000 a year (and that’s before taxes).

I only mention this figure here to highlight one thing: it’s enough.

I’ll admit, after stepping down from my teaching position last May—a decision that reduced my annual income by approximately 60%—I was a little nervous. I spent the better part of two months franticly researching positions, drafting cover letters late into the night, and submitting application materials to anonymous email addresses. It was a full-time job all by itself, and a decidedly awful one at that.

But, upon hearing how much I was still earning (17k) from my part-time position, my college friend, Chris Rumbley, offered me some terrific guidance, I suspect without even realizing it, in the words “I could live on that, dude!”

So, with no end in sight and my patience wearing thin, I decided to give up—no, not on life—on the pursuit of money. Maybe Rumbley was right. Maybe I could live on $17,000. Only one way to find out…

Six months have passed since I collected my last pay check from the school I taught at last year. And with the exception of the occasional subbing gig, I’ve been working exclusively part-time since last May.

Thoreau's cabin in Concord, MA.

Make no mistake about it, it hasn’t been easy. Even now, nine months since my retirement from teaching, I’m still struggling to balance my budget. But it’s far better than it was, enough so that I’m not ready to give up on this experiment just yet. There’s still ample room for adjustment. A cheaper apartment. Eating out less. Walking more instead of driving. Selling superfluous things. These are all worthwhile ways to set about sustaining one’s self with less money.

Yeah, that’s right, I said it—worthwhile. Living with less, the conscious choice to spend less rather than earn more, is undeniably difficult, often embarrassing, and, at least ostensibly, unappealing, but it’s incredibly worthwhile!

But here’s where I need to take issue with the stereotypical evaluations of people like me that don’t work a traditional 9:00 to 5:00 job. My choice to attempt to live on $17,000 a year is not about being lazy. It’s not about sitting on my duff, eating pizza and watching ESPN all day. I may joke with people at times, but the reality is almost the exact opposite of the stereotype. In my case (and in many others’, not to mention economic studies), working less has only increased the quality of my life. I read more than ever. I run on a regular basis. I eat healthier. I write. And, best of all, I have the freedom to put my time and energy toward more meaningful things. But that’s another post…

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Corrigan permalink
    February 21, 2010 6:26 pm

    Well put Smith. I hope “life” never catches up with me and I can continue to live. 2011…

  2. smokey joe wood permalink
    February 21, 2010 10:25 pm

    Matthew,
    You are a trip man. I love your spirit and your pursuit of happiness in this modern day. Don’t sell your guitar however. Perhaps we can write a song about your experiences on
    $17,000 Pond.

  3. DAD permalink
    February 22, 2010 12:18 pm

    I LOVE HOW YOU LOVE LIFE! YOU ARE SO “RIGHT ON” IN YOUR OBSERVATION THAT LIFE IS FAR MORE REWARDING WHEN VICTORY INCLUDES STRUGGLE. SET BOTH YOUR GOALS AND EXPECTATIONS HIGH, WORK HARD, PRAY, STRUGGLE THRU AND EVERYTHING WILL COME TOGATHER. YOU HAVE HEARD YOUR CALLING – NOW ENJOY THE QUEST.

    A PROUD DAD

  4. Salami permalink
    February 24, 2010 11:17 am

    “If a man believes or expects great things from himself it matters not where you put him”–Thoreau

    Nice post buddy. Can definitely say that I can relate at this point. Oh, by the way, our sustainable lifestyle is going to consist of brewing our own beer this spring. You know for our health and all…

  5. your sister permalink
    February 24, 2010 2:43 pm

    sure sounds good to me, the sad thing is … I also make about the same amount and live really well here in Spain… what does that say about the american economy and government, no socialized health care, 33% taxes taken out of each pay check, food prices out of sight for processed, cheap crap when here the healthy food cost lots less! And the poor american who really does work their ass off every day trying to do well for their children, because we really do work to make money for our children (can´t remember the last time i went shopping for myself between new shoes with holes in the toes, ripped pants or whatever else children bring.), are the one´s who end up paying for the people who sit on the couch, watch tv and live off well fare… pretty sad!! Not trying to bash the good ol usa because i take pride to be an american but something deffinantly has to change.

  6. March 2, 2010 8:30 am

    Love this quote by the way:

    “Yeah, that’s right, I said it—worthwhile. Living with less, the conscious choice to spend less rather than earn more, is undeniably difficult, often embarrassing, and, at least ostensibly, unappealing, but it’s incredibly worthwhile!”

    Heck yeah, man! The simple life is hard, but rewarding. I am no longer a slave to TV….

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