Buying My Life Back by Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

The latest issue of New Escapologist includes an article I wrote to introduce the practical technique of tax resistance. Regular Picket Line readers won’t likely be surprised by anything therein, as I’ve covered the same themes in similar terms hereabouts.

Buying My Life Back by Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

When Dubya’s “Coalition of the Willing” invaded Iraq in , I quit my job in order to get under the income tax line so that I would no longer be paying for such things.

Like many people, in the days before the invasion I was horrified at the thought of the suffering we were about to inflict with our “shock and awe” campaign, and at the increasingly blind, ignorant, and bloodthirsty belligerence that dominated my country. But I knew that as a taxpayer I was a small but vital part of the machine we were unleashing. I knew that no matter how much I complained or voiced my moral opposition, as long as I continued to pay taxes I was — in a practical, bottom-line sense — a war supporter.

I decided to put my money where my mouth is. Today I’m under the income tax line. I’ve learned how to live within my means without paying federal income tax — honestly, peacefully, and legally. I resist other taxes, like excise taxes or the “social-security tax,” in other ways (honestly and peacefully, but not always legally).

I’m through with symbolic, feel-good, bumper-sticker activism; I’ve taken Phil Ochs’s “I ain’t a-marchin’ anymore” to heart and I’ve left the “peace parade” marches and rallies with their tired chants and terrible speakers behind. I take a practical approach, learning about the tax laws and about how to live well by being down-to-earth and sensibly frugal.

Here are some of the techniques I’ve adopted to lower my budget:

  • I cook my own meals from scratch rather than eating out or eating expensive packaged food (I’ve found that now that I have the time, I really enjoy cooking).
  • I brew my own beer, because I like the good stuff (and because I want to avoid the federal excise tax on alcoholic beverages).
  • I trade English tutoring for Spanish tutoring rather than paying for classes.
  • I use the public library for research & recreational reading instead of buying books.
  • I don’t own a car — which is such an expensive thing, especially in San Francisco where I live — but I buy in to a short-term car rental co-op for rare occasions when I need a car, and use public transit, bicycling, and such otherwise.
  • I try to find used stuff on freecycle or craigslist rather than buying new — for instance, off the top of my head: a pot rack, a Foreman grill, our vacuum cleaner, a back door that I could cut a cat door in without risking our security deposit, a bread machine, speakers for our DVD player, our living room couch, some sets of lectures on tape, our food processor and blender, and a carboy I use for brewing.
  • I’ve joined a community of tax resisters in the United States who meet periodically to share stories and ideas for resisting in better ways.

How do I feel about my life now that I’ve gone from a $100,000-a-year urban playboy lifestyle to living on around $12,000? Money Magazine profiled me briefly a while back for an article they put out on how to avoid paying taxes. They concluded that their readers probably wouldn’t enjoy what they called the “ascetic lifestyle” that comes along with my technique.

If this is “asceticism,” asceticism is very underrated. The life I’m leading now is fuller and more enjoyable than ever, I have less anxiety (and less guilt about my taxes) and feel more integrity, and I’m genuinely living a life of abundance.

For one thing, by being willing to take in less income, I am able to work fewer hours. It turns out that, to me, those free hours are much more valuable than the money I’d been trading them for — and the more practice I get in living vigorously, the more valuable my free time becomes to me. Now, more of what I do with my life is for goals I think are valuable, useful, and interesting; much less is what I have to put up with for a paycheck.

It seems that many of the things people commonly give up, in order to pursue careers and more money, are more valuable than the money we gain in the trade. Not only are they more valuable, but many are not for sale at any price! — our health, our youth, and the time we need to pursue our dreams, to learn new skills, to strengthen relationships with our family and friends and communities, or just to read those books we’ve been meaning to get around to.

One measure of abundance is this: what percentage of your time and energy — what percentage of your life — are you able to devote to your passions, and what percentage are you forced to spend on priorities that contradict and oppose them? By “your passions” I don’t just mean “your own selfish whims” but your values, the things you think are worthwhile and important.

If a percentage of your paycheck is being sucked up by the government, you’re spending that percent of every working day using your energy and your time — spending your life — to promote the government’s priorities. It may very well be that, instead, you can live more and promote your own priorities more by working less, earning less, and spending less.

What worked for me won’t necessarily work for everyone. Some people, for very good reasons, have higher expenses than I do — children, for instance, though they are good tax deductions, can be something of an expensive hobby; I don’t have kids. And not everyone has job skills that translate well to a part-time, contract-based, work-from-home style job. Many people have to work full-time jobs, all-year-round to earn what I earn.

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all strategy for abundance and fulfillment. But what I’ve learned is that by taking more direct responsibility for your life and your effect on the world, by radically reassessing how your activities relate to your priorities, and by backing away from the consumer and job cultures, you can make your own life better and reduce your complicity in making other peoples’ lives suck.

So I urge you to take stock of your own vision of an abundant life, to look closely at which components of it are best-served by earning money and which components are best-served in more direct ways, and to look also for ways in which your career may be interfering with a more abundant life.

And I urge you to look also at how the government, by means of the tax system, is forcing you to expend your time and energy on priorities that contradict your own. Consider the possibility that the best life you could be living may be one in which you are earning and spending less but living more.

Since I wrote this article, we’ve given up our City Car Share co-op membership. My sweetie’s job moved down the peninsula and now she has her own car for the commute that we also now use for whatever occasional car trips we used to use City Car Share for.

John K. Stoner, at Mennonite Weekly Review, is trying to get more Mennonites to dip their toes in to tax resistance: “Would $10.40 get their attention?” Excerpt:

Christians who are appalled that our taxes pay for death and destruction in war would like to say so to the government. But how can we say it in a way that would make a difference?

A group of us in Pennsylvania is calling for a million people to say so in a way that will be heard. We’re calling it 1040 For Peace. We’re inviting you to be among the first to do this small act of witness against war and for the rights of conscience.