dollar signOf course this question is a minefield. How much is enough depends on family size, stage of life, where you live, etc. Still, as a follow-up to our recent observations about poverty in Kenya and the growing awareness of income inequality in the USA, I wanted to know – Are Jim and I doing OK in the Living Lightly realm? Are we in the middle – or a little less (as we like to think of ourselves)? Or could we live on less income?

Historical note: I remember when we first got married in 1971 and our income was about $7,000, I made the rash judgment that making over $50,000 was probably sinful. I quickly revised my opinion to, it’s not the income that’s a problem but rather how one uses the excess after meeting modest needs of daily life. This assumes of course that  one comes by income honestly and not at the expense of others or the environment. Adjusted for inflation, our 1971 income would now be about $41,000. The “sinful” $50,000 income would be about $294,000 in 2014 dollars. Our income has increased in real dollars since 1971. So do we have enough or too much? It got me thinking about what I buy with our increased income.

One of our sons challenged me the other day about several things I considered buying, borrowing, or looking for a sale. The first was a projector for PowerPoint presentations – a genuine but occasional need. The second was a Bengals baseball cap – hardly comparable in cost. He said, “Hey, just buy it! You have enough money. Your house and car are paid for; your kids are all out of college, and you have Medicare. You don’t always need to save money.”

Hmmm. He’s right, but frugal habits die hard. Maybe that’s not so bad in that it keeps me from being a spendthrift, but it also can keep me from being generous. When I look back on what might be “sinful” about an income, I now think the biggest fault is being judgmental of others. Yes, we need to work for fair government policies that decrease the income gap between the wealthy and the poor, but we also need to look at the sin of smugness in ourselves.

In my book, Blessed By Less, I propose the following 7 basic needs for a decent human life:

  1. Enough food to stay healthy and the means to cook it
  2. Enough clothing to stay warm and that is appropriate for my work
  3. Housing that is safe and clean with enough space for some privacy
  4. Enough education for the kind of work I want to do and the tools with which to do it.
  5. Access to affordable health care
  6. Some discretionary money for treats or recreation
  7. A job to pay for the above necessities (Ideally, each of us should have meaningful activity, whether paid or unpaid, which contributes to the common good.)

According to the USA Department of Health & Human Services the 2014 poverty level for 2 people (like us) averages about $17,000 depending on where you live. By this measure, we are rich. But watching ads and our contemporaries, however, sometimes we feel poor. Could you afford these basic needs on $17,000?

What do you consider to be enough income? What are your criteria for a decent lifestyle? How do you guard against the “Smug factor?”