Simple Living 101


“Flex Talk”

(for presentations of 15 minutes to 3 hours)

By Gerald Iversen

General Outline

In the outline below, Part A can be used as the first of two parts (A&B) or as a presentation itself. Likewise, Part B can be use as the second part of two parts (A&B) or as a presentation by itself. The items in parentheses are included in both Parts A&B. So, use them in either Part A or Part B.

All the videos are free available on YouTube.

A. Living More with Less

1. Video: Break Forth into Joy (or Simple Living Struggles & Solutions, or updated version called Simple Living Works! on YouTube)

2. Introduction & Personal History

3. What Is Voluntary Simplicity? – 5 Life Principles

4. What Is Simple Living Works! (SLW!)? (successor to Alternatives) Mission

5. Resources at SimpleLivingWorks.org >> Archives – show & tell

(a. Advent/Christmas: summary – Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?; Let’s Talk About Christmas!; Alternative Events; Alternative Giving: money, self)

(b. Lent/Easter: 40 Day Calendar; Who's Risen from the Dead, Anyway? collection)

(c. Other: Treasury of Celebrations, Alternative Wedding Book)

(6. Activity & Discussion, or entertain questions throughout)

B. Celebrating Responsibly

1. Video: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas or The Celebration Revolution of Alexander Scrooge

(2. Introduction & Personal History)

(3. What Is Voluntary Simplicity? – 5 Life Principles: summary)

(4. What Is Simple Living Works! (SLW!)? (successor to Alternatives) Mission, organization, funding

5. Resources – show & tell

a. Advent/Christmas

  • Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?
  • Let’s Talk About Christmas!
  • Alternative Events
  • Alternative Giving: money, self

c. Lent/Easter

  • 40 Day Calendar;
  • Who's Risen from the Dead, Anyway? collection

d. Other: Treasury of Celebrations, Alternative Wedding Book (English and Spanish); (Stories & Songs of Simple Living; Sing Justice! Do Justice!)

(6. Activity & Discussion, or entertain questions throughout)


1. Doris Janzen Longacre: Living More with Less
2. Simply Enough video: Straight Talk from Tony and Shane on Simple, Just Living
3. Treasury of Celebrations (or To Celebrate: Alternate Celebrations Catalog #6)
4. Break Forth into Joy video, segments 1, 2, 3, and/or 4 (see study guide): 15, 10, 10, 10 minutes, and/or, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas video, 17 minutes
5. Sample resources
6. Ten Tips for a Simpler, More Meaningful Christmas, p. 57
7. Also see “6. Activities,” p. 26.
8. Bible verses, p. 27

General Guidelines

1. Cut and/or add paragraphs as appropriate for your group and time. Material in double brackets [[....]] would be some of the first to cut to shorten your presentation. Single brackets [...] contain instructions.

2. Pass a Sign-Up Sheet and return names/email addresses to SLW! to have the names added to the mailing list upon request.

3. Tell your audience in advance if you want questions as you go or at the end, such as “I know you don’t want to be rude. And most folks need permission to interrupt. So, you have my permission to talk. I’m here to hear what you have to say. Please feel free to interrupt me if you have a comment or question. It’s OK. I might lose my place but I’ll find it again.”

Also, if you’re in a large group or your questioner has a soft voice, repeat the question or summarize the comment before responding.

4. The videos can be shown at various times. We suggest the beginning because it allows latecomers to be seated without interrupting your talk.

5. If you have the item, hold it up as you describe it. DO NOT hand out an item in advance. Wait until you are ready to talk about it. Otherwise audience members will read it and you will lose their attention. Urge people to take handouts only if they want them.

6. Please give us feedback on this presentation.

7. Wear clothing from the non-industrial world while speaking.



1. Video

    1. Break Forth Into Joy! Main Section–15:00; Additional sections 1, 2, 3 (see study guide): each 10 minutes. Normally show only the Main Section. The additional sections can be shown during break or afterward or not at all.
    2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: 17 minutes
    3. The Celebration Revolution of Alexander Scrooge: 15 min.+/- (retro, cartoon)
    4. Simply Enough: 5 12-min. segments, plus 8 bonus segments, 3-8 min. each
    5. Simple Living Struggles & Solutions, or updated version called Simple Living Works! on YouTube: 30 min.+/-

2. Introductions & Personal History

[[For teens: After seeing this video you may be saying to yourself, “Sure, this middle-aged guy has already had his fun and now he’s asking us to cut back.” You would be justified to feel that way. What I am offering you is a way to avoid the mistakes that I have made. For many years I followed the advice of my father, a kind and generous Christian who grew up during the Depression. He said, “Some people pick up a hammer this fast. But I pick up a hammer twice as fast.” He engendered in me a sense of hard work and competition. But I only got to see him one day a week. He also told me that purchased Christmas presents were as good as personally made ones because he had to work to earn the money to buy the gifts. Over the years I have rejected my father’s point of view. I vowed when my family was young that I would never take a job that prevented me from seeing them every day. I have worked to bring about cooperation rather than competition and I urge people to make gifts or give their skills and their time as far superior gifts to those we can buy, especially better than those that are mass-produced.]]

[A recorded audio version of the following talk is available as Living Simply and Loving It! in the web site Archives.]

I would like to introduce myself, not as a model of simple living but as someone on a journey, struggling to be a disciple of Jesus. As I speak, put yourself in my shoes. How would you introduce yourself or how would you like to introduce yourself in two years?

As Christians we walk on two legs – the spiritual leg and the discipleship leg. (I mean no disrespect to the physically challenged.) The spiritual leg is our relationship with God, our faith, the inward. Our discipleship leg is our relationship with other people and all of God’s Creation, our action, the outward. [hopping] We believe we can hop into heaven on one leg, the spiritual leg. [walking] But we were created to walk on both legs. At Alternatives we promote Voluntary Simplicity as a way to live as disciples of Jesus, to walk on both legs.

[The following is an example only. Prepare your own personal account.]

[[Family Journey -– My spouse Rita and I read Doris Janzen Longacre’s Living More with Less in 1982, and it has become one of the most important books in our lives. We serialized it on radio, even rebroadcast it. Then we serialized the Alternate Celebrations Catalog by this group in Georgia called Alternatives. We became members of Alternatives and in August of 1995 they asked me to lead the organization. Since then I have given numerous presentations on Voluntary Simplicity. Have you ever felt that everything you have done in your life has lead up to this point? That’s how I feel. Some call it synchronicity. I call it the call of God.

I am an Associate in Ministry (AIM) in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). When we moved Alternatives to Sioux City, the Western Iowa Synod was so happy that they issued me a call to this ministry.

We consider ourselves earnest but not condescending about simple living. We live in a geodesic dome with solar panels, wear mostly recycled clothes. We love to laugh.

Rita’s a fourth grade teacher. She’s headed up the recycling project for her school. Each January she builds a “Rainforest” in her classroom. Each year her class preserves an acre of Rainforest in South America. Her class has become pen pals with a village school in Kenya, where our daughter Elysha served as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years. Recently Rita’s students raised some $1000 by recycling pop cans to help the African school get desks and books and the local clinic to get a microscope.]]

3. What Is Voluntary Simplicity?

Ask yourself, What can I live without? During this presentation, I want you to be uncomfortable. Take something off – a watch, an earring – as a reminder of less. Are you a slave to the clock, take it off. Are you burdened by too many clothes or jewelry, take something off.

First let’s talk about What Voluntary Simplicity (V.S.) Is NOT.

1. V.S. is not a list of rules to follow. There are five life principles, which come later. Instead, living more simply is about personal responsibility. It’s about seeing our lives as extravagant, even out-of-control, addicted to over consumption, and deciding what to do little by little, day-by-day, week-by-week to cut down on consumption. We recommend not going cold turkey for fear that we’ll get so frustrated that we’ll give up.

Remember what our children would say to us when they wanted to do something that they knew was irresponsible. “But Mom, all the kids are doing it.” Let’s try that in our lives. [In a whining voice] “But God, everybody’s driving a new car.… But God, everybody builds a big, expensive house that’s ten times bigger than they need when the kids leave home, claiming it’s for equity.… But God, everybody has a yard that looks like a golf course so that no body complains that we’re lowering their property values.…” Sounds pretty silly and disconcerting, doesn’t it? Just as silly and disconcerting as our kids’ requests to sleep outdoors on a sidewalk overnight to be in line for tickets to a rock concert.

Voluntary Simplicity is not a list of rules. It is a consciousness, an awareness. It is a matter of personal responsibility. Every time we go to buy something, to use something, we think, Do I really need to buy this? Do I really need to use this? Yes, I do need a car. Do I buy the one I like, the one that will impress? Or do I buy the economical one. . . the one that will get me around using less gas? Or do I walk, bike and ride the bus?

We believe that for every negative, wasteful habit, there is a positive, constructive one (or at least one that’s less wasteful).

Living simply means wrestling with trade-offs. We can’t do what’s right 100% of the time. But we wrestle. We consider options, we read labels, we do what we can without letting the struggle consume us, without going about automatically doing what we’ve been taught (and are still continuously taught) by the media.

Living more simply can be lonely. Others in our families, in our church, in our social circle may think we’re weird. It’s important to find another Simple Liver or to start a support group. Alternatives is working to put people in touch with each other for support. It may mean dealing with resentment when others don’t “get it.” When we are making corrections, living more responsibly and others don’t seem to have the slightest inclination to change their wasteful ways. Living Simply faces great challenges, powerful forces, which we’ll talk about later [Principle 5].

2. V.S. is not romanticizing poverty, monks, the Amish or people who struggled through the Depression. We only diminish those people’s devotion or struggle, and we tend to try to make the journey of discipleship look silly or untouchable, or “for others... unrelated to us.” Poverty is NOT fun. Two- thirds of the world population live in poverty involuntarily. We have a choice.

3. V.S. is not “living on the cheap.” It’s more than frugality, far from being a tightwad, and surely not being a miser. In some cases, we’ll actually need to pay more for tools that are Earth-friendly. Instead it’s a journey to find more meaning, more joy, more fun in life by getting out from under the burden of so much stuff, to remove the barrier of stuff that keeps us apart from other people, from God and even from ourselves.

4. Simple living is not simple. It requires constant vigilance. The temptations to extravagance and waste are constant. It means challenging not just the obvious temptations to splurge but even the everyday habits that we’ve inherited, probably from loving, well-intentioned family and friends. [[When I was growing up, I learned to take a shower almost everyday. As a busy college student – eager to experiment with life – I tried taking one every-other day. And guess what?! I didn’t die! I didn’t even lose any friends. Then came a water shortage. So I reduced to two a week. No cooties! Nothing! (I’m really reluctant to tell you this. You probably think my dear mother is turning over in her grave.) A couple of years ago I made the big leap and started taking a shower once a week. And if you think that this is some macho-guy thing, be aware that I learned this from my lovely spouse.]] Some folks say, I just can’t start the day without a shower. I say, wash your face. Using more water than we need will not bring the end of society as we know it. It’s just one more symbol of our waste. As we question our little habits, we can begin changing the really wasteful way of life and feel good about the results.

There are three parts of working toward justice.

1) Maybe you’ve heard, “Eat your spinach. Children in China are starving.” Whether you eat your spinach or not will have no effect on that child in China. It’s a symbolic act, like giving up a meal. It helps change US though it does not alleviate another’s hunger. Education and worship are largely symbolic acts. Though they don’t make any thing, they feed our spirits and minds. Symbols are powerful!

2) Small acts of kindness. We give cash, we volunteer. We reach out, sharing our resources of time, money and energy to alleviate another’s situation. And sharing our ideas with people who are open to simplicity but don’t know where to start.

3) Systemic change, which is more complex outreaching, requires recognition of a need for change by communities and governments. Advocacy usually begins by writing letters to elected officials. Systemic change requires conversation, negotiation, a commitment to cooperation, and constant pressure from caring people. We encourage people to work for justice in all three ways… to give money to charity and to work for Big Change by pressuring governments, but not to jump over the first step: getting one’s own life in order.

There are at least two paths to V.S. One is the Christian approach; another the secular, which is called “Downshifting.” (Not “downsizing.” That’s what a company does.)

Downshifting is what we do when the company downsizes. Get the picture? A young executive is cruising along in high gear, peddling her sports car as fast as she can. She thinks, “This is a lot of work!” So she downshifts. Maybe she takes a different job that has a smaller income but less stress. Maybe she moves into a smaller house in a rural area and grows her own tomatoes. Maybe she gets smart, gets control of her credit card and pays off her debts. Basically she’s downshifting to increase her personal happiness.

Christians adopt V.S. for the same reasons. Personal happiness is good. But there’s more. We adopt V.S. also to be in touch with God and to help others. V.S. is a lifestyle of integrity, living as a disciple of Jesus, walking our talk.

The essence of voluntary simplicity is summarized in Living More with Less: [Show “Celebrate Life/Live Responsibly” poster, cover of “To Celebrate” or graphics on p. 78.]

I’m going to use some body signals to help you remember the five Life Standards of Voluntary Simplicity. When I pause from time to time and use a signal, please call out the appropriate principle.

1. Do Justice [Extend arms outward from sides as if “balancing the scales.”] “Do Justice” may remind us of the courts… to get our due. Biblical Justice is quite different. It reflects God’s great love for the poor and our call to respond to their needs.

In “How Much Is Enough,” Alan Durning describes the world population in three groups. One fifth – 20% – are the disenfranchised people. They have no reliable source of food or water, no medical care, only one set of clothes and they walk wherever they go. Three fifths – 60% of the world population – are the “sustainers.” They have basic, reliable sources of food, some medical care, several sets of clothes and they take public transportation. The remaining fifth or 20% are the “overconsumers.” This group has access to lavish, cheap food, has reliable medical care, has many sets of clothes and they use private transportation. This last group, the overconsumers, is made up, to one degree or another, of virtually everybody in North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Guess what percentage of the world’s resources are used by the 80% – the disenfranchised and sustainers combined – and by the 20% of the overconsumers. That’s right, just flip the figures. The 20% of overconsumers use 80% of the resources and the other 80% use only 20% of the resources. North Americans make up four percent (4%) of the world’s population, but they use one-third (1/3, 33%) of the resources and produce two-thirds (2/3’s, 67%) of the waste!

Notice that the first principle is not “think about Justice,” or even “believe in Justice.” It’s “Do Justice.” Beside our prayers, our contributions, and our pressuring of governments, we can help the poor around the world by taking seriously the phrase, “Live simply that others may simply live.” By consuming less we make more available for others.

We may not, in our lifetimes, be able to change the inequitable distribution of wealth. Nor to make all tax laws just. But we can work to take control of our own lives, our own consumption, our own waste, and then share ideas of simpler living with others.

2. Learn from the World Community [Join your hands and make a circle with your arms in front of you.] We have a great deal to learn from people in Third World countries, people we may think of as primitive or even pagan. Most of them live simply by necessity, not by choice. While we eat and die from too much processed food, they eat much less food using simple but tasty recipes.

Our attitude has largely been that we want to help those poor people with THEIR problem OVER THERE [gesturing]. We need to realize that their problem is caused by OUR problem OVER HERE, our problem of over- consumption. All things are connected.

One beautiful way to Learn from the World Community is through music. Several years ago a black bishop from Africa told a story that I’ll never forget. He said, “White folks. . . yes, they’re the people who can sing and NOT move at the same time.” African music can help liberate white North American Christians from their rigidity.

I have heard that North America and Western Europe are losing 6000 Christians a week. They’re not going to another church. They’re falling away from the faith. But in Africa, Christianity is gaining 20,000 converts each week. We have something profound to learn from our African brothers and sisters.

We can also learn about food. Here we are undergoing something called “vertical integration.” This is the process in which the most powerful resource – food – becomes monopolized. The people who sell the food also own the distribution system, and the processing plants and the growing places, the farms. We may not be able to stop this from happening but we can vote against it with our dollars by shopping at farmers’ markets, by supporting community-based agriculture, by refusing to buy out-of-season fruits and vegetables, by learning to glean. One-quarter of all food in the US is wasted – in restaurants, grocery stores, refrigerators!

We can learn more about community by doing menu planning and meal preparation and clean-up together. And we can vow that we will eat at least one meal a day together. So much of the time, we have allowed the school, the community, the TV, even the church to take away our common meal. Research indicates that a typical in-home American father has only three minutes a day of direct conversation with his child. An American couple that is still married only have five minutes a day of meaningful verbal exchange.

Learning from the world community about food is important for another reason. We Americans now eat a great deal of expensive, highly processed food. Many of its nutrients have been processed out of it. Why? Yes, it’s convenient. It’s a cycle. We work more hours so we can afford more expensive food that’s fast so that we can work more to buy more hollow food....

Alternatives promotes cookbooks that use recipes from Third World countries, such as “More-with-Less Cookbook” and “Extending the Table.”

Even people from our highly technological medical establishment are now seeing the potential of learning from people we used to call witch doctors. We are learning natural cures from the rain forests. And we are learning how much processed food affects us and causes many of our ailments.

3. Nurture People [Hug yourself.] We find meaning in life through our relationships with God and with people, not through stuff.

We put ourselves at risk by going into a mall. We start hyperventilating. We have found the thing that is going to give excitement and fulfillment to our life. We whip out our credit card and take our treasure home. It’s great [hug the TV]… for a while. Then something else comes along that we can’t live without. So what happens to our first little lifesaver? We either chuck it or store it. If we keep it, we have to dust it or put batteries in it. We have to maintain it. And we surely wouldn’t want anyone to steal it. So we secure it. We protect it. We lock it up. So we go into debt to buy it, then we use our time and energy to maintain and secure it. It raises the question, “Who owns whom?” Yes, it gives a new meaning to the concept of ownership. If we let them, the things we own would own us.

I’ll tell you what works for me. I play a game with myself that you can play with your children or grandchildren. It’s OK to admire things in stores and say, “I like that… I like that… I like that.” It’s not OK to say, “I want that,” or even worse, “I need that.” Think of the mall as a museum. Everything there is on display for your pleasure, but somebody else is responsible for it. Say to yourself as you stroll through the galleries, “Thank you, store person, for putting this here for me to see. I’m so glad you’re responsible for all this stuff and I’M NOT.”

Nurture people, not things. Let’s use our time, money and energy to nurture relationships… with ourselves, with others and with God.

We have been hearing a lot lately about intimacy, about getting to know someone well, about opening oneself up. Most of us have experienced that when we choose to be intimate with our spouse, things get in the way. To be intimate, we may choose to take something off... to take everything off. Stuff can get in the way of intimacy in other situations as well. We can learn to discard stuff and put relationships first.

4. Cherish the Natural Order [Extend arms in front of you, palms up, and take a deep breath.] This is the environmental component. Most folks have heard the five R’s of Caring for Creation. Let’s say them together – reduce, reuse, recycle, restore and respond.

Reusing means to use something over again. It means not using something just one time. It means refusing consumables like styrofoam cups. And it also means using things that can be repaired. That’s not easy because so many thing are designed to break. It’s called “planned obsolescence.” We can buy tools and appliances and shoes that can be repaired but we need to do our homework to find them. It’s not convenient. The Germans are on to something. They are beginning to require manufacturers to be responsible for the final disposition of their product. That should make them a lot more concerned about how the product is built and how it can be repaired and recycled.

Recycling means making something new out of something that’s already been used. Most of us have come to realize that we have to do something. So, we recycle glass, paper, metal. After glugging down a soda we drop the can in the bin and carry the bin to the curb on recycle day and feel proud to be an American, proud that we have done our best for Mother Nature [hand over heart]. That’s an important start. But that’s really the easiest and least necessary part of the whole cycle.

Even more important is pre-cycling – evaluating a product before we buy it to make sure it is environmentally sound.

And recycling does little good if we don’t close the loop... buy products made of recycled materials, such as paper.

And recycling can be used as an excuse to keep things the way they are. It’s OK to keep on overconsuming as long as we recycle. Wrong!

Yes, it may, for the time being, cost a bit more to buy and use recycled paper. But living simply, living faithfully is not living “on the cheap.” Sometimes it costs more to do what’s right.

Restoring. Remember what your grandparent used to say [shaking your finger], “You got it out. You put it back!” Now we’re talking about sustainability… sustainable agriculture, sustainable development.

[[The most common example is replanting trees. But this also relates to sustainable agriculture… putting natural, not synthetic nutrients back in the soil. This can help make up for past mistakes but never should be used as a reason to make future ones. “A tree farm is not a forest.” A forest is an eco-system with animals and insects. A tree farm is a place to make more paper. And some resources cannot be restored, like oil and topsoil.]]

What is sustainability? It is the ability to sustain a way of life indefinitely. The way we live in North America is not sustainable, that is, we use up many more resources than we replace. And as our “standard of living” spreads around the globe, the entire world is becoming more unsustainable. Part of the reason is because we choose to use resources that are not replaceable, like oil and coal. The irony is that we live in a universe that has zillions of stars, any one of which is capable of sustaining our energy needs virtually forever. Even our own sun, which is a minor star, could sustain us for millions of years. But we choose to burn oil and coal instead of using sun power through solar panels and photovoltaic cells, and wind power – which is a product of the sun – through wind generators.

Certain types of agriculture are more sustainable than others, such as organic agriculture. But corporate agriculture, which is taking over so much of our food production, distribution and marketing, prefers to use the currently more profitable forms of ag, which are not sustainable.

At the root of the problem is that economists don’t know how to subtract! We are addicted to growth economics. We’re disappointed if the Gross Domestic Product [GDP] doesn’t keep going up. We tolerate debt in our personal lives and enormous debt in our nation’s life. When calculating the GDP we don’t count all the nonrenewable resources that we’re depleting. We assume they’re free. If we calculate their value in, the GDP is actually going down. As resources become more scarce, their value will go up.

One scenario is that as resources become more scarce, the rich and powerful will have them. The poor will not. They will die or they will fight. Eventually the Earth will be so depleted that the population will decrease and those who remain will live with scarcity.

The other scenario is that we accept the limitations of sustainability. We live within our personal means and within the Earth’s means. We buy products that represent sustainable living – such as organic foods, that are not grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. We begin to understand the difference between cost and price. We decide to buy or not buy a product based on its cost to the Earth, not just the price to us personally.

We learn about Permaculture – self-sustaining plots of land for plants, animal/birds, and humans. We learn about organic techniques but not monoculture, where only one thing is grown. We learn about natural control of insects and weeds instead of synthetic ones. We support community gardens, local farmers, urban gardens, subscription farms. In a subscription farm a group of people – subscribers – hire a farmer, paying with labor during the busy seasons, with cash or with both. Then at harvest all the subscribers receive a share of the fresh produce.

We invest primarily in people. And when we invest our money we do it in a socially responsible way, especially through cooperatives and micro-loans. Micro-loans are small loans that go primarily to women in developing countries to start small businesses. The repayment rate is extremely high.

Responding means that we make our values known to others through one-to-one testimonials; by speeches, workshops, events, study circles; through the media; by letters, phone calls and email that we send to power brokers like politicians and CEO’s.

The first R is the most important… and hardest for Americans… REDUCE. That’s what simple living is about. It can begin with something as simple as the rule of half – use only half the recommended amount of toothpaste or laundry soap or whatever. If it is still effective, then you have doubled the value of that product. It will last twice as long. You have reduced waste by half.

5. Non-Conform Freely [Show your red socks! Or hold up your hands at shoulder level, palms away from you, as if to say “Stop,” not “I surrender.”] We are not talking anarchy here. We are resisting the pressures created primarily by advertising.

The forces against us living more simply are extremely powerful. Some are downright devious. Some of them are quiet, unwritten… like how we dress in church, how our house will look at Christmas time. But many of them are loud, in-your-face forces that work to get as deeply into your pocketbook as possible everyday.

We all have basic physical needs… for food, for shelter, etc. It’s helpful to have information about where we can meet those needs. That’s one reason for advertising. What’s objectionable is advertising that creates false needs, really wants or desires… when they start playing with our heads, trying to make us think that we will be a better person by the beverage we drink, that we will be sexier if we buy a certain kind of car, that we will be more popular or successful if we wear certain kinds of clothes or perfume. The purpose of advertising is to make us dissatisfied with what we have, so that we’ll go out and buy MORE.

Since the media are very important to me, here are some examples. [[I earned a masters degree in journalism and worked for public radio for almost 20 years.]]

1. I called a friend recently. While explaining Alternatives’ mission, I started talking about the effects of advertising, especially TV. I told him that when I watch TV, I ZAP the commercials… mute the sound. I’m really put-off by aggressive car and soda pop commercials. He said he considered them “the price of admission.” I replied, “That’s exactly what they want you to think. The air waves belong to the people. We owe advertisers nothing!” [[Remember Turn Off TV Week in April, and Buy Nothing Day, the Friday after Thanksgiving!]]

2. Some advertisers are trying to capitalize on people’s desire for simpler lives. Recent commercials use the simplicity theme. An expensive luxury car is hyped with a picture of the Honda Acura and the word “Simplify.” Denny’s restaurants use the slogan “Simplify your life. Eat out more.” MBNA America, a huge credit card processor, proclaims “Simplify your life in the New Year!… Consolidate your holiday bills….” A typical MBNA account pays over 17% interest. Credit card “checks” (a form of the dreaded cash advance) have no grace period. Interest begins accruing immediately. At the same time, their late payment fee went from $10 to $20! The Masters of DoubleSpeak!

3. In the name of “research,” some advertisers – without your permission, even without your knowledge – place cameras in grocery stores to photograph your eyes as you shop. When you are looking at cereal, for example, the cameras record your reaction to various boxes and even count the length of time you focus on each box. This “research” helps advertisers to decide what appeals to you. Whatever works, use it! [For more on such techniques, see “Marketing Madness.”]

4. The key to advertising is repetition. Every time we see a logo or hear a jingle, that’s one impression. Can you guess how many commercial impressions an average North American sees or hears in an average day? 16,000! [[I recently bought a red sweater at Goodwill. I immediately got out the fingernail scissors to cut off the little alligator. I don’t like to pay people for the privilege of advertising their products. Many logos encourage competition and peer pressure. It took a lot of effort to get that thing off. It was obviously put there to stay! Now when some logos are removed they leave holes in the fabric to discourage us.]]

Yes, we are up against tremendous forces. Some of the brightest people on the planet trained in psychology and anthropology are working not to help people but to convince you to buy more stuff. Advertising agencies and Big Business pay better than Mental Health Centers and universities.

We have permission to follow our religious principles, our faith, instead of our culture, instead of advertisers who pressure us to buy things we don’t need, probably don’t even want, and that break down on schedule. Non-conform freely.

Let’s say what overconsumption really is. It’s addiction. And as with any addiction it is powerful. It takes great will power, faith, and tools to beat an addiction. It can be done. In our society, we are working with numerous addictions – the war on drugs. The difference is that the addiction of overconsumption is not only condoned by our culture, not just allowed, it is encouraged, fed, promoted by peer pressure and by advertising. We are told it is patriotic to buy, that our economy depends on it, that we are worth it.

[Personal example. Use your own.] [[I have suffered an addiction most of my life. It may seem harmless, even beneficial, it surely can’t compare to the biggies like alcohol and tobacco. But it’s an addiction nonetheless and I am struggling to overcome it. For 40 years, I was addicted to music. I built an enormous collection of scores and recordings. For a while, it gave me a sense of security to be surrounded by all this beauty. I could easily justify it. I could play it in church. I was enriching myself. I was growing esthetically. Actually I was hoarding. I had a need to own, to possess. As if that was going to make me or anyone else a better musician! And now, I am striving to give away this library. Do you happen to know anybody who could really use 5000 scratchy classical records?

This example is part of a larger plan. A while ago I vowed to reduce my possessions by half by the time I was 50. I spend a few hours a week sorting, giving away, recycling. It is time-consuming but rewarding. I haven’t made it yet but I definitely feel the burden of stuff lifted from my shoulders.]]

For help in dealing with the addiction of overconsumption see “12 Steps to a Simpler Life,” inspired by the 12 steps of AA (p. 65).

I share the view of Alan Durning in How Much Is Enough? Voluntary simplicity is an important piece in solving the world’s problems. For ourselves, it stresses relationships rather than stuff. We really can live fuller lives with less consumption. For others, more resources are available if we’re not using them up.

I hope that you are already doing many of the things we suggest. Feel affirmed by that. Then move on and focus on the ideas that you have not yet adopted. Ask, “How can I also make these new ideas work in my life… in my family’s life together?”

4. What Is Alternatives?

Simple Living Works! is an all-volunteer organization that continues the spirit and mission of Alternatives -- “equipping people of faith to challenge consumerism, live justly, and celebrate responsibly.” Started in 1973 as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, it focuses on encouraging celebrations year-round that reflect conscientious ways of living. Throughout its 38-year history, Alternatives has helped lead the movement to live more simply and faithfully. The many staff members and volunteers of Alternatives have developed many different resources, organized an annual Christmas Campaign, held the Best and Worst Christmas Gift Contest, led numerous workshops, and reached countless people with the message of simpler, more responsible living.

The web site SimpleLivingWorks.org includes almost all the resources produced by Alternatives on simple living and related subjects, such as hunger, the environment, media literacy, etc. We are frugal, no longer publishing on paper.

[[Alternatives’ full name was Alternatives for Simple Living, though it’s best known simply as Alternatives.]]

SLW! does not sell anything nor solicit donations. It collaborates with other non-profits, most notably Jubilee Economics Ministries or JEM.

[[Alternatives moved from the Atlanta area to Sioux City, Iowa, in 1995; then to Colorado in 2008. It's always had a small staff and new homes, but the same mission! Alternatives is a pioneer, not a settler. It’s on a journey. It’s moved several times before. It has both roots and wings.]]


Technology. SLW! has a free e-mail newsletter and an extensive Website with an easy address: SimpleLivingWorks.org. We also have a regular bog, podcast and Facebook page.

You may wonder, “Does this high tech stuff compliment simple living?” Decidedly “Yes.” In fact, communication by computers can be more environmentally friendly than some other means, especially where paper’s involved. Fewer resources are used distributing the news by computers than by newspapers, for example. However, we need to be willing to read the information on our computers and print copies only for really important documents.

Membership. We recommend partnership with JEM, beginning at $25. All donors receive JEM's newsletter.

Communications is very important among simple livers. Voluntary Simplicity can be lonely. Sometimes friends, neighbors, family members, even church members don’t understand. They may even think that we’re unpatriotic for not going into debt at Christmas time. Alternatives has a means to put people in touch to support each other in simple living... by letter, telephone, e-mail, face-to-face. Called ASSIST, it is support service for simpler living.

Resources. We introduce one or two new resources per year and continue the earlier ones -- most notably, Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? -- through the web site.

Alternatives celebrated its 30th Anniversary in 2003, by introducing several new resources.

Outreach. Our nationwide network of over 800 volunteers to present simpler living at events related to hunger, environment and lifestyle shows the willingness to help. It’s called “SLOw Down” – The “S” stands for motivational Speakers, “L” for workshop Leaders, “O” for event Organizers, “W” for media Workers, and “D” for Discussion groups. If you know of a national, regional or local event, offer to speak or show a SLW! video. If you want to present simpler living, your support materials are at SimpleLivingWorks.org.

Gerald Iversen, the former head of Alternatives and founder of Simple living Works! made numerous tours before his retirement in 2007, reaching over 300 groups in over 40 states. Now he's offering a free simple living coaching service for groups. He meets by internet video after a group has viewed his video Simple Living Works!

Promotion and Marketing. SimpleLivingWorks.org offers Alternatives' resources on topics related to simple living, such as hunger, environment, media literacy and sustainability. We also reach out more to the secular market, while still maintaining our service to the church-based clients. And we provide free materials for displays at conferences.

Fundraising. We try to find help for new resources, such JEM's One Earth Project. If you're a funder or know a funder who would like to know plans and needs, be in touch.

Movement. Alternatives has been primarily a small publishing and mail order business. When it began in 1973, it was one of a few organizations really promoting voluntary simplicity. Now over 200 organizations are doing similar things. We cooperate with many other groups.

We can continue to serve our friends and be open and responsive to others if we offer more resources beyond traditional printed ones. We offer CDs for listening at home or in the car. We offer bumper stickers and greeting cards to help people “send a message.” All of our resources, services are available at SimpleLivingWorks.org.

We ask you to respond to our ideas and aspirations and urge you to share with us your own hopes for simpler living.]]

5. Resources Show and Tell

[If you have the item, hold it up as you describe it. DO NOT hand out an item in advance. Wait until you are ready to talk about it. Otherwise audience members will read it and you will lose their attention.]

Seasonal Resources

Christmas Is More Than Gifts and Glitter – The effort to celebrate a simple Christmas is led by a small, ecumenical nonprofit group called Alternatives. Organized in 1973 to protest the commercialization of Christmas, Alternatives provides encouragement and support for those who want to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. The group emphasizes relationships and traditions over things, thereby helping to avoid stress and debt. The point is not to feel deprived but to get so much of the stuff out of the way that we can really celebrate!

[[Personal story: I have several strong memories of Christmas when I was a child. Many of the relatives from my mother’s side of the family would gather on Christmas Eve for a grand meal. Then we would gather around a tree that always reached to the ceiling. It was surrounded by a mountain of gifts. Everybody gave something to everybody else. With little fanfare, I would start ripping into all my stuff. It seemed that no one paid much attention to what others were getting. After an hour or so it was over.

One year I asked my dad if we could go to church on Christmas Eve. He agreed. The problem was, I didn’t ask until Christmas Eve. When we got back, the rest of the group was pretty unhappy. We had changed the plan. Maybe we were right but we hadn’t considered the group.

Now we all go to church. Then we gather for some favorite foods. We take turns opening our gifts with considerable fanfare for each one. Though we are only four, it is so much more meaningful than when there were a dozen!]]

To encourage planning and communication we have developed Let’s Talk About Christmas! Day. (See p. 29) How are we going to celebrate Christmas this year? What is really most meaningful? Who’s going to do what? Are we willing to spend less on ourselves and give more to the needy? Ask your family, relatives, friends questions like these. Write down your decisions and post them. Mark your calendar on October 1st for each year! And remember Buy Nothing Day, the Friday after Thanksgiving!

Alternative Giving

A. [Hand out Christmas Budget Worksheet on p. 33.] Please estimate how much you spent on each item last Christmas. This is private, don’t feel guilty about how much you spent or proud about how little. Then total it and decide what percentage of that amount your family is willing to give to the needy this year. We recommend 25%. You may decide on 10% or 50%.

But now we may feel we have just as many things to buy and people to buy for, but with less money! We have several options. We can drop some folks or activities from the list or buy less expensive items. We can draw names instead of everyone giving something to everyone else. Or – and this is what Alternatives recommends – we can practice Alternative Giving. That’s done in various ways. The first is to decide how much to give away and to whom.

B. Next is Giving of Ourselves… giving what’s more meaningful than stuff for the giver and the receiver – giving ourselves, not our money or things bought with our money, but our time and our special skills. Baking, sewing, woodworking, composing poetry or playing music. Handmade coupon books for promises of time or services at the convenience of the receiver, not the giver, are both generous and well received. Coupons for child care, for a special meal, for lawn mowing… you name it. The point is not just to find a substitute for a thing-gift at Christmas but to build and strengthen a relationship that will nurture and be nurtured all year long.

[[Coupon variations: 1.) For our anniversary our daughter gave us coupons for three “enchanted evenings.” She would fix us a nice meal and then disappear. Later she would wash the dishes.

2.) “This orange [fruit] is good for 1 night out w/ your favorite son. This includes dinner, a movie and lots of good conversation. You pick and I’ll buy. Estimated value = priceless.”]]

C. Another form of Alternative Giving is to organize an event to encourage others in Alternative Giving. (See pp. 41-56.) The basic types of Alternative Celebrations Events are...

1. The Alternative Market – a Third World Crafts and Clothing sale. But why go to all the trouble? We can buy beautiful African and Latin American items from Pier One. Yes, but Pier One, like most businesses, buys low and sells high. An Alternative Market buys as high as possible to make sure that as much of the profit as possible goes to the artisan, not to distributor (the “middleman”). SERRV International, Ten Thousand Villages, and others are nonprofit organizations that supply items for Alternative Markets.

2. An Alternative Christmas Workshop does much that we are doing here – to give people ideas of other ways to celebrate. You could organize one of these at your church or in your club. Yes, YOU! Many times several churches work together. Alternatives will gladly provide the support materials.

3. An Alternative Christmas Festival is a place where people can get information about many worthy organizations and give gifts to them in other peoples’ names. This saves people a lot of time screening organizations, finding addresses, etc. Here’s how it works. A person comes to the event, talks to the representatives of the various organizations. She might decide to write a check to, let’s say, Bread for the World. She also fills out a card, which goes to the recipient, saying, “A gift has been given to Bread for the World in your name.” Alternative Giving can be the Easy Way. Select your charities, match them with your gift recipients, write a few checks and cards and your Christmas shopping is done.

These approaches can be combined to include two or all three.

For some 25 years, Alternatives provided people with ideas in the alternative Christmas campaign called Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? (p. 61), our most widely read resource. Each new annual edition features a well-known author. Designed for individuals, families or small groups, it includes worshipful ceremonies, activities, an Advent-Christmas calendar and suggestions for remembering those in need.

All past editions are available for copying on a not-for-profit basis. The individual articles may be using in newsletters, for example.

Alternative Giving: A Birthday Gift for Jesus. [[Personal story: When Rita and I were first married, we decided to give cash donations to our favorite charities in other people’s names. The response from our relatives was underwhelming. We made a mistake. Giving to the needy was appropriate. But we gave to our charities. We didn’t give to their charities.]]

Writers deal with what’s really meaningful and share helpful traditions and customs.

The calendar offers thoughts and actions for each day in Advent and the twelve days of Christmas to help people remember the reason we celebrate. The calendar is also appropriate as bulletin inserts and in Spanish.

Reflections Through Advent to Epiphany, which can be read quietly or aloud for private or group meditation, focus on the scripture readings for the four weeks of Advent, Christmas Eve, the Sunday after Christmas and Epiphany, all based on the appropriate lectionary cycle.

Worshipful Ceremonies can be used with the Reflections or by themselves during events in Advent and Christmas, such as St. Nicholas Day or Epiphany.

We feel that our resources could be appropriate gifts, even as inserts in holiday letters.

The popular Ten Tips for a Simpler, More Meaningful Christmas is available online. It summarizes much of Alternatives’ emphases into a helpful list. (See p. 57.)

Alternatives also provides other resources appropriate for reevaluation of Christmas, including packets designed for churches and groups – Reclaiming Christmas and Gifts of Peace, three collections of Christmas stories; the video Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and many more.

Let’s Talk About Christmas! Worksheet (pp. 29-32) can help get people talking.

[[Gifts of Peace. Christmas, the season of peace, is a poignant reminder of the lack of peace in our lives and world. The 13 resources in this packet help people celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. Included are: six graded study guides; a giving guide; models for prayer and worship; a puppet play and more. All for free online.]]

Alternatives provides collections of Christmas stories to read aloud or alone. A Christmas Reader and Christmas Collection contain old and new stories, well-loved poems and a prayer to reflect the true spirit of Christmas. A Christmas Sampler helps us celebrate Christmas with a collection of classics and stories from different countries. And we learn greetings in 31 different languages. Excerpts from all three collections are available free online.

The Christmas Game promises hours of family storytelling for those 5 to 105. It makes a wonderful Christmas card stuffer. For additional activities, see other resources, such as Before and After Christmas, Joy to the World and A Simple Christmas.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a video, explores creative ways to decommercialize Christmas. Vivid photography, music and interviews help us rethink how we observe this holy day. This provocative video is an ideal way to introduce people to the idea of celebrating more simply, more meaningfully (17 min., free online).

In teh archives of SimpleLivingWorks.org are many resources on simple living and related topics, both for Christmas and for year-round use, for example the Leader's Guide for the workshop Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love & Joy Back into the Season. We carry numerous resources for adults who work with children.

Resoources may be used as idea starters, sermon illustrations, art and articles for bulletins and newsletters, etc. You are authorized to copy Alternatives’ resources but not to sell the copies. Resources for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany include bulletin inserts; posters and calendars; Prayer, worship, celebrations, plays and scripts; adult discussion guides; child, teen and intergenerational discussion and activity guides; guidelines for alternative giving; and variety.

Lent/Easter For over 20 years, Alternatives has provided resources for Lent and Easter. Each year, we produced an all-new 40-day calendar for Lent which contains daily suggestions for thought and action from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday in English and Spanish. This calendar can be used by individuals, families and other small groups.

The best of Alternatives’ past Lent/Easter resources have been combined into an expandable collection called “Who’s Risen from the Dead, Anyway?” The popular “Ten Tips for a Simpler, More Meaningful Easter” (p. 58) is available online. It summarizes much of Alternatives’ emphases into a helpful list.

Year-round Resources Other resources produced by Alternatives are usable year-round. Recent titles include The Simpler Living Alternatives Calendar, Sing Justice! Do Justice!, Living More with Less Study-Action Guide and Stories and Songs of Simple Living (book, cassette, CD).

The Simpler Living Alternatives Calendar for Any Year strives to help change our wasteful habits into Creation-conserving, Earth-friendly ones. Based on living the “Environmental Tithe,” this 366-day calendar is designed for people of various ages at various levels of commitment and ability. Some changes may come easily; some will be more challenging. Caring for God’s Creation is an invitation for all of us. The word “tithe” means “a tenth” or 10%. It makes a terriffic bulletin insert series.

Wedding Alternatives: A Guide to Planning Out-of-the-Ordinary Celebrations comes in English or in Spanish. Both editions are free online.

The video, Break Forth in Joy!: Beyond a Consumer Lifestyle (45 min.), won a Gold Medal at the Houston International Film Festival! Its four segments are ideal for a Sunday morning adult forum series.

[[Alternatives’ Treasury of Celebrations – Celebrations belong to people. They are not natural resources to be strip-mined each year for the sake of profit. Treasury of Celebrations channels our desire to celebrate into activities that truly nourish the human spirit, express our solidarity with all the Earth’s people, and respect the environment. It helps us resist consumer pressures and celebrate in a more spiritually fulfilling, joyful way. If you are not satisfied with consumer-oriented celebrations, this big book of creative ideas is for you.]]

Treasury of Celebrations: Create Celebrations That Reflect Your Values and Don’t Cost the Earth contains life-giving ways to celebrate holidays and rites of passage.

Treasury of Celebrations draws material from the six Alternate Celebrations Catalogs published from 1973-87 by Alternatives and adds new ideas as well. At 384 pages, Treasury of Celebrations is free online.

More recent free online resources: Worship Alternatives; Quotes & Art for simpler living and global justice; Simply Enough: Straight Talk from Tony and Shane on Simple, Just Living (video); Simple Living Works! (video).

Other recommended titles suitable for year-round use include ’Tis a Gift to be Simple: Embracing the Freedom of Living with Less; Six Weeks to a Simpler Lifestyle; Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook; 365 TV-Free Activities: You Can Do with Your Child; the board game Lifestories; and more for adults and children.

The popular Ten Tips for Simpler, More Meaningful Celebrations (p. 59) is available upon request. It summarizes much of Alternatives’ emphases into a helpful list.

About one-third of the resources we offer are designed for children or people who work with children (like parents!). We hope to affect children’s buying habits early because they are targeted by so many advertisers. I was dismayed recently when talking to a well-intentioned grandmother. She said, “I like to spoil my grandchildren when they’re little. But when they turn ten, I cut ‘em off.” We’re hoping to be a little more helpful.

We hope that our children will not succumb to the pressures of overconsumption that most call success. [[A very touching thing happened shortly after my son Peter graduated from high school. Up to that point he had not been able to save money. Despite all of our modeling of frugal behavior, he spent it as fast as he made it. Then one day he said, “Ya know, Dad, if I don’t spend so much money, I don’t have to make so much money.” He finally got it!]] There are two ways to have the money we need. We can earn more, or we can spend less. Voluntary Simplicity says we’ll have more time for what really counts, for God and for the people in our lives, if we choose to spend less on things we really don’t need.

Author G.K. Chesterton said it another way. “There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”

6. Activities

1. From “Reclaiming Christmas” Packet – a.) *What About Santa?; b.) What Makes a Perfect Christmas; c.) Christmas Traditions That Work for You; d.) The Gift of Giving (p. 61)
2. “Alternative Giving Guides” & card (p. 34)
3. “Unplug the Christmas Machine” Leader’s Guide
4. Christmas Budget Worksheet (p. 33)
5. “Let’s Talk About Christmas!” Worksheet (pp. 29-32)
6. “Ten Tips for a Simpler, More Meaningful Christmas… Easter… Celebrations”(pp.57-59)
7. Other Reflection/Action Resources: What Is a Gift?; Looking Behind the Cost of Christmas (four-sessions) (p. 61)

*[[Personal Story: One Christmas, my mother bought a new plastic Santa to put on the top of the tree. I didn’t think much of it. When my Dad saw it, he quietly insisted that it come down. After all, he was the Sunday School Superintendent. Mother replaced Santa with a Christmas star. That incident had a profound effect on me. As greedy as I was as a youngster, I got the point that we celebrate Jesus’ birth, not the coming of Santa Claus.

Later, one of my sisters became a Jehovah’s Witness. Wow, was that a shocker for a conservative Lutheran family! That group does not celebrate much of anything, so her family stopped coming for Christmas. My mother bought my sister a little book, “Why I Believe in Santa Claus.” It was a lot like the famous newspaper column “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus.”

I feel now that we have much better symbols of Christmas and giving than Santa, who has been completely taken over by commercial interests to sell us more stuff. We have Jesus giving himself to us and the Three Magi giving gifts to Jesus. We have St. Nicholas, who gave gifts to the needy. Let’s not confuse our children with Santa. Let’s tell the real stories of our faith.]]

Gerald Iversen served as National Coordinator of Alternatives for Simple Living, 1995-2007.

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MISSION: Equipping people of faith to challenge consumerism, live justly and celebrate responsibly // An all volunteer educational organization.