The Value of Reducing Your Overhead

Good, down-to-earth advice based on wisdom and experience is something I always appreciate. When I hear such advice from two very different sources, I’m even more inclined to sit up and take notice.

A piece of advice that made a big impression on me was, “Reduce your need to earn.” I heard this back in 2005 from Scott Pittman, of the U.S. Permaculture Institute, who taught the two-week course in Santa Fe, NM, where I earned my first Permaculture Design Certificate.

I just loved that phrase! And often over the years I’ve encountered the same advice worded differently from a variety of sources, including successful corporate executives. The other day, reading a business leadership book (I read a lot of those — they’re great reading not just for business but for life!), I came across the following:

Many young leaders are tempted to take high-salaried jobs to pay off loans or build their savings, even if they have no interest in the work and do not intend to stay. They believe that after ten years they can move on to do the work they love. Yet many become so dependent on maintaining a certain lifestyle that they get trapped in jobs where they are demotivated and unhappy. Locked into the high-income/high-expense life, they cannot afford to do work they love. Ironically, not one of the leaders interviewed would up taking a position predicated upon establishing wealth early so they they could later pursue roles they would enjoy.

Excellent advice, from TRUE NORTH – Discover Your Authentic Leadership, by Bill George with Peter Sims.

I’d actually been practicing this principle for years without fully realizing what I was doing. Long before I took that life-changing Permaculture Design Certificate course, I had reduced my financial overhead to the point where I only had to work a few hours a week to cover my expenses. The rest of the time was free to develop business ideas, make art, connect with friends, ponder solutions to world problems, get out in nature. And, perhaps most importantly, have ample time and headspace to tune in to my inner voice.

Anytime I hear of someone who “can’t afford” to do the work they really want to do; can’t afford to travel; can’t afford to take courses; can’t afford to live the way they want to live; or just plain can’t figure out what they want in life … my first advice is always, “Reduce your overhead. Reduce your need to earn.”

This advice applies doubly to people who are passionate about the environment. Reducing our overhead not only helps us personally; it helps the planet. People with low overhead and simple needs tend to have a much lower eco-footprint. And, they have more free time and headspace to ponder solutions to our collective problems.

Want to improve your life and reduce your footprint in short order? Reduce your need to earn! Note, this is different from saying “Cut your earnings. Deprive yourself. Embrace poverty, be poor, live on the edge.”

No, what I’m talking about is reducing your NEED to earn.

Or, in other words: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” Those words are from Henry David Thoreau (a real master of low-footprint living large!).

A really far-out example of this principle is Diogenes, the ancient Greek philosopher who supposedly dwelt in an urn. Now THAT would reduce a person’s housing costs! A very low-footprint life, with few possessions other than his drinking cup. But one day, Diogenes came upon a young boy who didn’t even have a cup, and simply drank water out of his hands. Seeing this, Diogenes tossed his own cup away.

Most of us prefer to own cups, and at least a bit of other stuff besides. But almost all of us can benefit ourselves, and help the planet, by reducing our need to earn.

For your further encouragement, I give you two present-day real-life examples of highly successful small businesses that were started by people who’d just had the seemingly disastrous experience of losing their steady, high-paying jobs:

The Soup Peddler, Austin TX: started out as a one-man bicycle-based business delivering jars of homemade soup; grew into multiple storefront locations

Kale Café Juice Bar & Vegan Cuisine, Daytona Beach FL: started out as a booth at a farmers’ market; now has multiple storefronts