Simple Living and the Indie Author

Many years ago, I co-authored a nonfiction book on simple living in urban areas. You can still find used copies on Amazon (but I am here to tell you that it’s not worth what the scalpers — sorry, the fine purveyors of gently-used books — are trying to sell it for).

Over the years since writing that book, I’ve gotten away from the practice of living simply. But it occurred to me recently that it could be a viable route for indies who want to be career writers – that is, they’d love to be able to live off of their writing income. Of course, a lot of people who write for a living already have this down pat, whether by necessity or by design. But on the off-chance this is a foreign notion to some folks, I thought it was worth talking about.

The concept is (forgive me) simple. You figure out, by trial and error, what the phrase “having enough” means to you: enough time in the day; enough stuff to maintain and not one thing more; and so on. It’s a process of streamlining your life so that it only contains the people, things, and activities that satisfy you. So don’t worry – nobody’s going to make you live off the grid in a tent. (Unless that’s what makes you happy. And if it does, hey, don’t let me stop you.)

Once you’ve got your life to that “enough” point, you can very easily figure out how much money it will take for you to maintain that lifestyle. Chances are that it will be less than you’re making from the day job. If so, congratulations! You’ll be able to quit and write for a living that much sooner.

I think – and you might be surprised to learn this – a lot of us are already partway to the simple-living mindset. For one thing, we share a passion for an inexpensive activity: writing. For another, we’ve probably already chosen to forego any number of pricey hobbies and other obsessions because we are saving our free time to write, blog, market our work, and so on. Also, many of us have learned how to do a lot of publishing-related things ourselves, because it’s cheaper and more fun than hiring them out; that kind of do-it-yourself spirit is one hallmark of living simply. And too, the people who know we’re writers already think we’re either weird or misguided or both, so adding another quirk to your personality probably won’t change anything; the looks friends and family give you are probably as weird as they’re going to get.

If you’re interested in learning more about simple living, a number of books explain it better than the one I co-wrote – and they have the added virtue of still being in print. The granddaddy is Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. I’d recommend getting the most recent edition, as the earlier editions include outdated investment advice (i.e., Joe’s original passive-income system was based on laddering 30-year Treasury bonds, which the Fed doesn’t sell any more).

I think most of us have figured out by now that the likelihood of making a Hugh-Howey-level income as an indie is pretty slim. But you might be able to cut your living expenses to the point where you can afford to live off your earnings as a writer, and still have a lifestyle that’s fulfilling for you. Something to think about, anyway. I know I’m taking another look at it.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

25 thoughts on “Simple Living and the Indie Author”

  1. How much is enough? The only ‘extra’ that I spend on is travel, (and I can write much of that off as research). In return, traveling shows you how much you don’t need, and how to enjoy the simpler things in life (a hot shower, a good bed, mosquito netting, friendly locals).

    For me, living simply is as much an ingrained habit as an interesting challenge. I’ve had some pretty lean years in the past and will not ever forget them. I’m also well prepared should it happen again.Thankfully, I’ve never liked shopping much so frugality comes easily to me. Which, as you pointed out, is a very good thing for a career writer 🙂

    1. Indeed, D.V. Most people starting out on the path realize pretty quickly that shopping is a lousy hobby. 😀 It sucks up your time and saddles you with a bunch of extra stuff to take care of.

  2. I assume you are still talking about urban areas, right? If so, there is something right and something wrong here. Living in the city is much simpler than living in suburbia in many ways — you don’t have to own a car. You can shop for food as needed, and don’t have to stock up on huge pantries and refrigerators where food usually rots awau merrily. And there is an endless supply of free entertainment and interests. However, the one thing which is problematic is that in the city housing is vastly expensive. I realize not all cities are as bad as where I live, New York City, but still, it’s cheaper to own a home in many parts of the country than to rent an apartment or buy a condo/coop in the city. If I wanted to live on my royalties, the one thing that would prevent it would be rent.

    1. Yup, Ilil, we touched on all those points in the book. 🙂 And you are right that housing prices in a big city offset savings in other areas. DC isn’t as expensive as NYC, but unfortunately we’re trending that way. 🙁 One way to mitigate the cost, as you mention, is to live in a smaller city — but then you might have to trade off easy access to public transportation. Several years ago, I moved out of a close-in DC suburb to an exurb because rents were cheaper — but the public transit options out there sucked, to be blunt, and my commuting costs offset what I was saving in rent. I moved back to an apartment inside the Beltway a few years ago and have never looked back. 🙂 At some point, I hope to move away from the East Coast; with any luck, that will cut my housing expenses by a fair amount.

  3. I gave up luxuries 5 years ago when I relocated to the wilderness to write full time. I have a fantastic house (which I now have to sell), however, I built it myself to save money. I haven’t gone to a movie or to a fancy dinner or purchased anything other than necessities (or book-related expenses) in 5 years. I don’t miss any of it. Excuse me now, my butler is calling to me. A girl has to draw the line somewhere. 😉

  4. I’ve been comfortable, and not, and comfortable again so many times I’ve lost count. At the moment I need a paying job to create a buffer for my old age, and to feed my cats, the dog and the alpacas. Beyond those simple needs however, I’m happy to live frugally. Being a ‘keeper’ certainly helps. I believe everything I buy should be capable of lasting 20 years or more. I know that doesn’t sound very realistic in this day and age but my car is 25 years old and going strong, my freezer is 20 years old, and if my good clothes get any older they’ll be retro collectors items!

    The only thing I don’t skimp on [yet] is books and music. Or food. With those three I have all I really need.

    Btw, great post Lynne. Brought a smile to my face. 🙂

  5. Even living the simple life: categorically no luxuries (no movies, no meals out, no travel that isn’t absolutely necessary), we sometimes have to tighten the belt another notch; and that’s all since coming here to Tasmania from Sydney (Australia’s version of New York) in 2004.

    Before making that move (to commit to being a writer) I pretty much did or had whatever it was that took my fancy; when I was doing stuff that was not all that enjoyable, for a living, I tended to ‘treat’ myself, and considered that I earned it, deserved it. I now live an extremely frugal lifestyle and I am happier than I have been in my entire life.

    Great post, Lynne.

  6. Surely your book is worth the $1.81 price for the cheapest used copy. 🙂

    Interesting idea, Lynne. I’m not there yet, but if I’m going to be able to retire some day, I’m going to have to.

    1. A lot of people who were into simple living when I was active in the movement were doing it to retire early. I don’t want to get too political here…but I suspect that middle-class Americans today need to consider downsizing if they ever want to retire at all. 😉 Thanks, Al.

  7. Great post, Lynne.
    Yep, my friends already think I’m odd because I’m a writer. Adding a frugality quirk to my lifestyle just makes me more interesting.

  8. The “tiny house” movement is also in the spirit of your article, although many of its proponents seek to buy a piece of land and then put a tiny house on it. Although my wife and I aren’t interested in going really “tiny,” were certainly are seriously thinking about the relationship between time, possessions, and happiness. I’ve included a link to a tiny house blog.

    1. Ah, it looks like these are some of your off-the-grid folks. It’s certainly a viable lifestyle for some folks, and I’ve thought about it in the past. But at this point in my life, I’m not looking to get that radical, either. 🙂 Thanks, Tom!

  9. Great post, Lynne. When I moved from Alaska last year, I realized most of what I had was all material things I could let go of (even though they were important to me when I shipped them up there in the first place ten years prior) because I could buy more material things later if needed. The only things I did ship was all my boxes related to my writing. Now that I stay home to take care of my mother, I get to write full time or when the mood strikes or the muse takes over — or not. And since my writing income is practically nil, it has forced me to be very frugal and after what I was making at my day job, its been a real eyeopener — and scary at times. But I’ve come to realize since life is so short, none of the material things just simply do not matter, and as Tom said time and happiness do.

  10. I am extremely impressed with the dedication and decision making all of you are showing. I am rarely impressed, so take it as a huge compliment. We all face different challenges, naturally, but I’d like to hear more. I have to admit I am held back by practical considerations and the questions of sufficient income even under extremely frugal conditions, since the years go fast and I am not getting any younger, but there is still a lot to learn and think about. I hope the thread will continue a little longer — and by the way, I LOVE the tiny houses…

  11. You can’t take it with you even though the Egyptians tried.
    I could tell you the price of most grocery items I buy. I believe in recycling, donating, and I try not to hoard, although I seem to be the archivist of family heirlooms. I look at it this way–these tchotchkes are not mine, I just get to take care of them for awhile and then pass them on.
    Writing puts a different perspective on priorities. I have changed many things in my life and made sacrifices to pursue this career. It can be lonely at times. Cutting back and pulling oneself out of the rat race allows the necessary focus to kick in.
    Great post!

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