We live simply, but well. We optimise our time, and pack our days to the brim, and eat like kings. We treat ourselves to coffee and books, we drive a nice car—we don’t deny ourselves, but we earn very little.
It is a strange notion that I am considered to live in poverty, but I have everything I need. Because I save up for nice things that will last and I care for them, you’d never know that I live on so little. Because I live in an inner-city suburb, in a house, you would assume I need more than four hundred dollars a week.
In fact, I live on less than this, and I want to share this fact for two reasons: the first is that, when I decided to become an illustrator, I was very curious to find out how illustrators kept themselves alive between starting out and gaining a steady income. The second is that I feel strongly about the lifestyle choices I make, and want to convince you that they are viable and comfortable.
Chris Riley* writes of the ‘progeny of the Consumer Age:’ we have ‘learned through experience that promises are shallow and that there must be an ulterior motive for everything’ (p. 69). Rather than calling us cynical, or ‘Gen-Y,’ or generally vilifying our refusal to submit to the expectations of our elders, Riley believes we are aware. And, further, we ‘are translating that experience into their life as consumers. In fact, they are rethinking the way they consume’ (p. 70).
Riley calls it ‘sustainable consumerism,’ and I think it fits. We all need to use things to live; it helps to look presentable, to have internet access and to buy fresh food. But there are ways to have all these things without perpetuating the legacy of ‘consumption for consumption’s sake’ (p. 70). Most of our furniture is second-hand—from friends and family, from second-hand shops, from the side of the road. Some of it we’ve repainted. Some were reupholstered by my mum. Some were salvaged and repaired by my dad. Some were imported by J’s Opa and uncle when they relocated from South Africa. (Our fridge is South African. It has a lock and key).
But it’s not just how you came by it, it’s how you use it. I was recently amazed to learn that our energy bill is a fifth of that of an apartment-dwelling couple. It seems that heating and cooling are the main culprits. Our house is very open, with doors for windows, and no sun reaches inside, meaning we survive without even fans in summer. In winter we wear homemade jumpers to bed, and pile sleeping bags on top of doonas.
The car is a luxury, but a near-necessity in Australia, where things are ridiculously spread out and public transport schedules make you doubt the very existence of buses. My recent enthusiasm for bike-riding means I am cutting down significantly on both fuel and public transport costs, and incidentally getting fitter. It’s important to me not to know that I’m exercising—I must be having fun, and not worrying about my body.
I work at a café, three days a week. This was recently reduced to five days a fortnight. I’m torn by this work, because it physically takes up so much time, involves waking up at 5am, and generally tires me out at the start of the week, but it provides security. It means I have social interactions, and meet new people who might be interested in my services. It also means free coffee.
I don’t work at night. I put my illustration away at dinnertime, or maybe a bit earlier to go for an evening walk. I go out in the evening, or read, or knit, or write blog posts, or have discussions with J. I need to know it’s the end of the workday, or I’ll work continuously. Tonight I’m at a café, drinking chai and eating Turkish delight.
Riley writes that the ‘new consumer’ is not fooled by new toys, but is looking for meaningful relationships. Without denying desire—a fundamental human drive—Riley argues that the new consumer says, ‘I want to want, but I want to want what will actually satisfy me’ (p. 72). This can mean so many things. For me, it means I want a fabulous bike, because I can gain enjoyment and regular old utility from it over and over again. It means I want to support independent designers and artisans, because I value their creativity and craftsmanship, and can own beautiful items that transcend fleeting fashion seasons. It means I want to knit things for myself and for my friends because I enjoy the process of creation and of giving something special.
I don’t feel impoverished. Life is good. And illustration? I’ve got a few things coming up that I can’t wait to share, and as the guy behind me in the café just said to the girl he is having coffee with: ‘I think you’ve achieved a great deal. Nothing happens in five minutes, man.’
*Riley, Chris. 2002 . ‘Sustainable consumerism,’ in Looking Closer Four: Critical Writings on Graphic Design. Eds. Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Steven Heller. Allworth Press: New York.