For many years now I have been daring to ask: How much does it take to live? At the heart of this is the question, how much money does it take to have a good life? To be clear, my ultimate question is what is the minimum amount? It is not that simple; it gets tangled up in values around how you spend money, the price tag you place on free time, and the extent that you seek out simplicity.
Barbados has proven to be an enlightening place to discover what it means to live simply. One of the biggest differences to North America is in consumption. When “stuff” is readily available we buy it. On a Caribbean Island, that must import most everything and imposes huge taxes to do so, it is not convenient, and it is expensive. Pre-COVID, many Barbadians made a practice of flying to Miami to go shopping. Surrounded by convenience and cheap merchandise, they say that they would fall into the consumption frame of mind, and they would buy things they didn’t need.
This is what I have learned: If you don’t need to buy it, you don’t need to make more money to have it.
In February 2020 I had just come back from Nicaragua, the last place I traveled outside of moving to Barbados. Waiting for a couple of contracts to get rolling for work, I shopped. I had decided to stay in my house after exploring selling it, so I purchased a couple beautiful pieces of furniture. I also bought shearling-lined boots so that I could survive the rest of the winter. I even picked up a new suit jacket, which became the most useless piece of clothing in the pandemic. Guess where all that stuff is now? In a storage locker in Ottawa.
There is no Walmart, Best Buy, or Home Depot on the island. People don’t talk about Amazon because the import taxes make an item cost double the list price, at a minimum. This fundamentally changes the buying behavior and, in turn, leads to a simpler life. Islanders, unless they are very wealthy, tend to work with what they have. I am astonished at the lengths that people go to fix things rather than replace with new.
I was looking for a new laptop and was explaining to the shop attendant that my Surface Pro display would go all squiggly after an hour because it couldn’t deal with the tropical heat. He gave me an “are you kidding me!” look and explained that is not a thing – the fan likely just needs to be fixed. To be clear, rather than sell me a computer this man told me to get mine fixed.
I blogged six months ago about a conversation I’d had with my cousin Shawna, where she spoke about a book named A Year of Less by Cait Flanders. 2020 was the year of less for me. Not only did I buy less, mostly because all the shops were closed, but I purged and realized how much stuff I had. This was before I decided to move and fit my life into a 5’ x 10’ storage locker. Every time I diminished the piles of stuff around me, I reflected on where it had all come from, the hours I had spent accumulating it, and the space needed to display it or store it.
In more ways, 2021 has become the Year of EVEN LESS for me. Over the past fifteen years I have spent a great deal of money on house renovations, now I rent. I had a beautiful three-bedroom house that I bought enough furnishings to make lovely, now I live in a small two-bedroom townhouse with little storage (and no basement). I shopped for four seasons of clothing in Canada, now I fit all my clothes in one suitcase and spend more time in my bikinis than anything else. My friend Heather just sold my car in Canada; here I was renting one and have been experimenting with going without. After nearly two months without a car, I am closing that experiment and know that it is worth the money to me to have the freedom a car brings. It is now a conscious choice, rather than one I had made automatically in the past.
It is a small island, and there is only so much a population of about 300,000 can sustain. There are some nice restaurants, particularly because Barbados is a tourist destination. Kate and I went to the drive-in a few weeks ago and that was a great laugh and throw-back to my childhood. But for the most part, my friends and I keep it simple, spending our time in the water surfing and snorkeling. The most complicated part is finding a surfboard and getting it to the water; even then, there are plenty of places on the island that you can walk out your front door or down the street to the beach and into the surf.
Starting January 1st continually for the entire year, Barbados has been through a series of lockdowns and curfews to curb the spread of COVID. They have been an inconvenience, but I can’t say that they have changed my lifestyle horribly. For an extended time, the beaches were only open from 6-9am. It wasn’t until they lifted that curfew and gave us a second option to be at the beach from 3-6pm that things got more complicated. With one option, I knew that all my friends would be surfing at that time, but with two options I suddenly had a fear of missing out (FOMO) if we were there at different times.
Freedom is the value that I hold most dear, and I would not suggest for a moment that I want to be told what to do or that I want my choices removed. But there is something to be said for simplicity and reducing the amount of choice. This is part of living on an island.
It is simple: Barbados is a paradise not because of the shopping malls or the entertainment, but because of its natural beauty. It is not for everyone; some come for a couple of weeks and get bored and go home to the big city. Others of us revel in the calm that comes from being surrounded by the ocean and reducing the number of things needed to live a good life. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get frustrated when I can’t obtain things that I want, but it does make me pause to think whether I need them.
For someone that suffers from anxiety, reducing the amount of choice and the level of busyness might be what I have needed. Once I stopped distracting myself from my problems, I wonder whether a simpler life is what I have been craving. Simplicity may have been my salvation all along.