ANN CROTTY: Learning to live with less
Why my friends are cutting back on their spending
The most unlikely of my friends are becoming rabid environmentalists and are now almost able to live off the grid in their middle-class suburban residence.
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The best investment decision I have ever made was to quit full-time work for a year to pursue a master’s in company law. I now feel a little less daunted when someone makes reference to some or other section of the new Companies Act.
But it wasn’t that I got a financial payback from knowing a bit more about the law that made it a good investment. Rather, being without full-time work meant I had to relearn how to live like a student or, more appropriate to my future, like a pensioner without a defined benefit pension.
I did have freelance work but my disposable income was cut by about two-thirds. Amazingly, I survived the year well. I cut back considerably on a lot of purchased consumption but never once felt that I was doing without. Of course even at my reduced income I was still much better off than the vast majority of working South Africans.
Within minutes of talking to Capetonians — of a particular income bracket — you will hear how very little water they use
Moving to Cape Town helped. Though accommodation and restaurants seem to be more expensive here, stepping outside the door doesn’t always necessitate spending money as seems the case in Johannesburg. Walking is a much more attractive option here and sitting on the beach, in the mountains or in the winelands is a cheap and effective way of relaxing.
It’s difficult to explain precisely how the expenditure cut was achieved without pain but I realised just how easy it is to cut back on our First-World levels of consumption when I started to look closely at my water use. Water is the latest fad in Cape Town, not in a must-have way but in a must-do-without way.
Within minutes of talking to Capetonians — of a particular income bracket — you will hear how very little water they use. Most stay within their free water allocation (no longer available) and frown upon those who fail to, or worse still, don’t even bother trying. Rather like my disposable income I was able to cut back to about one-third of my previous consumption without any significant inconvenience, though I certainly miss the luxury of a bath.
The most unlikely of my friends are becoming rabid environmentalists and are now almost able to live off the grid in their middle-class suburban residence. It’s not just the crippling water shortage in Cape Town. Eskom is driving them on too. And it doesn’t just stop at water and electricity, given that almost everything purchased involves the consumption of water, electricity or some other limited natural resource it seems logical, once you get on this track, to cut back all around. A young friend has set herself the target of cutting purchases by 15% every year.
This is good news for the environment but if it catches on it would be devastating for an economic system that is dependent on constantly increasing levels of consumption.
The implications are even grimmer when you consider the people most likely to be leading the charge into voluntary reduced consumption are those who can still afford to consume. Companies are going to have to learn how to cope with a population divided into those disinclined to spend and those unable to spend.