At the end of 2011, my personal income was 20% what it was at the beginning of 2011. I know a few people who run their own businesses and really struggled last year, and we all know people who are employed by others and worry for their jobs and therefore their income, but for me, this reduction in personal income was my own choice.
In April last year I made a decision that I wanted to dedicate time to doing what I could to help Japan, and in order to do that I had to make some changes to my working life — working twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks doesn’t leave much time for anything (or anyone) else.
And guess what, I loved the life that earning less gave me.
I don’t necessarily mean “working” less, but earning less — I am talking about a reduction in personal income for whatever reason, the adjustments you make because of that, and the way your life, values, choices, and relationships change as a consequence. For a variety of reasons a lot of people are facing the possibility of earning less money, and, unlike me, probably feeling that it is not their choice. And there are probably people who love to work all the hours they can, but feel generally annoyed because they feel they don’t have more money to show for it. Whatever money people have, it never seems to be enough — and now we are living in a world that encourages us to buy stuff we don’t need and pay for it later, it is no wonder so many people aren’t really living life.
My epiphany came from a rejection of the material — suddenly I didn’t want any of the things that I was in the habit of buying. I wasn’t even that materialistic to start off with — I’ve never had the urge to own property and I’m not impressed by fancy clothes or restaurants. But my make-up bag did resemble a small branch of MAC, and I couldn’t pop into an IKEA without deciding to revamp one room in the house when all I wanted was a candle.
I think I can trace it back to the day after the earthquake — putting on makeup and using the special shampoo and conditioner that maintained those funky fuchsia pink stripes I so loved just seemed like utterly pointless things to do. When I left my writing holiday in Saipan and arrived in England a week later all I had was a bikini and a few sarongs so I borrowed a pair of jeans and a couple of tops from my sister-in-law rather than buy suitable clothes — they’d been sitting in the bottom of her wardrobe for months. She asked me if I wanted a couple of fancy tops in case I went out anywhere nice — but going out somewhere nice was on the bottom of my list of things to do. I wanted to spend my time giving talks to schools and collecting items to get back to Japan, and all I needed for that were jeans and a top with the Japanese flag on it — that became my uniform for six weeks.
Throughout those six weeks I couldn’t shake off thoughts of people who had lost everything in the tsunami and odd feelings of guilt kept creeping in — I still don’t quite understand that. At the time I thought that it was just a phase, and it wouldn’t be long before I’d be looking forward to plastering on the makeup again, and getting back to my favourite high-heeled boots. But it didn’t happen. I liked getting up in the morning and putting on the same “uniform.” I liked sticking my hair back in a ponytail and putting on a bit of eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick as opposed to giving myself a mini-makeover every morning. I didn’t have to think about what to wear or how I looked, and instead just thought about the job in hand — what could I do to help Japan somehow, even just a tiny bit.
I didn’t even care about my home or my savings anymore — in the weeks that followed the earthquake my then-husband called me from Japan panicking about the rent and credit card bills so I sent him my bank cards and told him to take what he wanted and give notice on the house because I didn’t plan on living there again and didn’t care about the money I’d saved. Those things suddenly seemed to complicate life rather than enhance it.
And when I originally wrote this blog entry back in December, eight months after I made the decision that I wanted to somehow do things to help Japan and decided to make my personal income very low on my list of priorities in order to do so, I reflected on how my life had been enhanced in so many ways.
When you’re living on a strict budget, it’s actually really easy to decide what to spend it on — you work out what the important things are and stop caring about everything else. Eating has got to be number one, and I found that I had the time to shop for fresh food and to prepare healthy meals. Fruit and vegetables are cheaper at the little shop in town rather than at Tesco round the corner, which is great because I love to walk and the staff are really friendly, and I’m supporting a small, family-run business. One lipstick, a mascara, and an eyeliner is really all I need, so I didn’t need to spend a fortune on makeup anymore and instead gave away all that expensive MAC stuff I had to a teenager studying to be a makeup artist and would otherwise never be able to afford to buy it. Shopping became a very simple task that involves just the necessities and the odd bottle of wine.
Paying for a place to live was an interesting one — as I wanted to visit all these schools there wasn’t any point in having a permanent place to live. If I was going to stay in hotels then that would mean earning more money or using a portion of the donations which was absolutely out of the question as far as I was concerned. So I stayed with friends and family as I travelled around. This gave me a very rare chance to spend quality time with people I hadn’t spent time with in over fifteen years — I was a part of their family, helped out with their kids and dogs, cooked with them and for them, and laughed and cried at things that had happened to us all in recent years. If I’d felt bound to a mortgage or a rental contract, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.
Going out for special occasions was one I think some people might struggle with — it was a dear friend’s 40th last year and her surprise dinner was not within my budget, but she seemed to care more about the fact that I wrote her a long, and very personal, poem as a present instead. I would never have had the time to do that before. And Mr W and I went out for dinner once our first six months of being together — I just couldn’t (and still can’t!) be bothered to dress up but instead prefer to sit at home over a candlelit dinner we’ve made together, wearing the shirt he’s worn all day, fluffy socks, and a pair of knickers.