Casey Coleman begins each day much the same way. The fit 75-year old wakes up at 4:30 am, after getting nine hours of sleep. He meditates. He walks for two to three hours. He does 30 pushups, followed by a series of flexibility exercises that he does with a long stick. Then he has breakfast and starts his daily reading.
I met Casey in Redlands, California. Talking to Casey, you might think you’re speaking to a retired college professor or a retired business executive. He’s well read. His hair is cropped short. He dresses in neat, casual clothes, and his eyes twinkle when he speaks. At first, I figured he had left the rat race behind to focus on something else. But this University of Southern California business graduate was never part of that race. He has also lived in his car for the past 25 years.
There are a few places he especially likes to park. One of his favorites is in the Kaibab National Forest. It’s a quarter of a mile from the south entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. Camping is free. He also likes the mountains of the Anza-Borrego Desert state park, in southern California.
“Casey is the most consistently happy person I know,” says his long-time friend, Ingrid Dahlgren. The retired teacher enjoys having him visit her Redlands, California home. But when he stays, he prefers to sleep in his car.
I’m not suggesting you should sell your possessions, move into your car and live like a hermit if you want to be happy. But Casey Coleman has a lot to teach about the benefits of simple living.
“I’ve enjoyed plenty of jobs over the years,” he says. “But there’s nothing I wanted to keep doing for 30 years.” He worked as a bartender, a lifeguard, a condominium maintenance worker. He has raised funds for Greenpeace International and made candy in a factory.
But he hasn’t had to work for the past 26 years. “I learned a long time ago,” he says, “that if I wanted to buy something, there was always somebody, somewhere, throwing that thing away. I just had to find it.”
Casey sleeps in the front seat of his 2014 Subaru Outback. He earns about $1,600 a month. Social Security provides about $600 a month. The remaining $1000 comes from money he invested in a lifetime annuity. “I probably spend about $500 a month,” he says. In other words, Casey earns a lot more than he needs, so he isn’t financially stressed.
The American Psychological Foundation says the typical American stresses most about money, work and the economy. A 2014 Gallup poll says the average full time American employee works 47 hours a week. One in four salaried employees reported working 60 hours a week or more.
This makes me wonder. Are too many people on hamster tracks, working hard to accumulate stuff they don’t need?
While driving across the United States, I’ve marveled at the number of self-storage facilities. I don’t recall seeing them 20 years ago. Liam Plevin, reporting for The Wall Street Journal, says the industry’s growth is an American phenomenon. There were about 58,000 self-storage centers worldwide in 2009. About 46,000 of them were in the United States.
Using data from the U.S. Consensus Bureau, Alexander Harris reports that money spent on self-storage construction tripled between 2014 and 2017. Author James Wallman wrote about the growing American storage industry in his book, Stuffication. He also says our growing love affair with stuff, and chasing Mr. and Mrs. Jones, leads to a lot of misery.
Psychologist Oliver James agrees. He’s the author of Affluenza. He says materialism is causing widespread depression and that Americans are three times more likely to be depressed today than they were in the 1950s.
Juliet B. Schor says such misery comes from a target that we keep pushing up. In her book, The Overspent American, she says that in 1986, “the Roper polling organization asked Americans how much income they would need to fulfill all their dreams. The answer was $50,000. By 1994 the ‘dreams-fulfilling’ level of income had doubled, from $50,000 to $102,000.”
Casey Coleman chuckles. He reaches into his car and pulls out a copy of The Philokalia.Reading from the collection of ancient texts he says, “Pointless effort and endless labour wasted on what is unnecessary only serve to increase our longing for it.” He then laughs during his favorite part. “Once a man has passed beyond the limits of his natural needs, as he grows more materialistic he wants to put jam on his bread.”
It’s worth laughing at. But the overall message rings true.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.