Live Like Hemingway: How to be Poor and Happy

We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.

 – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

In his memoir, A Moveable FeastHemingway wrote at length about his experiences as a struggling young writer in Paris in the 1920s.  In those days, before the success of his novels, Hemingway lived in a very modest apartment at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their son Jack, affectionately referred to as “Bumby.”  Although A Moveable Feast includes many passages highlighting the struggles of surviving on such limited means, there are also many vibrant passages on the cuisine, nightlife, and travel that they were able to experience while living on a shoestring budget.  Although their limited income meant that frugality was a necessity, Hemingway reflects on this time as some of the most fulfilling and productive of his life.  He ends the book by fondly recalling that, “this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Paris in the winter is rainy, cold, beautiful and cheap. It is also noisy, jostling, crowded and cheap. It is anything you want—and cheap.

-Ernest Hemingway

In 1922, Hemingway wrote an article for the Toronto Star about how it was possible to live comfortably on $1000 a year in Paris.  This article served to highlight the affordable nature of Paris that allowed Hemingway and many of the artists and writers he associated with to live and work during this time.  For Hemingway, this low cost of living was necessary to be poor and happy.  By minimizing his expenses, he was able to dedicate himself to writing full time.  This is something that would not have been attainable in an American city.

Although modern day Paris is more fashionable than it was in Hemingway’s time, this lesson in frugality still applies today.  For those with a taste for adventure and a minimal budget, there are many countries in which the exchange rate and cost of living allow for a comfortable life on a relatively modest income.  Many of these countries have thriving expatriate communities, much like Paris in the 1920s.

This Business Insider article has an infographic with the cost of living of every country in the world.  You’ll notice that many countries are cheaper than the United States, especially in Asia and South America.  A college degree in any discipline will make you eligible to teach English, and any money from a telecommuting or freelance gig will go further in the foreign economy.

The cost of living in Peru is almost 50% less than the United States.  The scenery isn’t bad either:


Although being an expatriate is a great option for some, some of us can’t or don’t want to move out of the country.  Being poor and happy is entirely possible in your own country.

Downsize Your Life

We would all love to live in the iconic Key West mansion with the wrap around deck, surrounded by palm trees and a short walk to the beach.  Unless you’re wrapping up the editing on a bestselling novel, however, this style of living isn’t feasible.  Hemingway and Hadley Richardson’s Paris apartment was far from extravagant, and certainly wasn’t stylish.  Think of it as the 1920s equivalent of a studio apartment in a borderline sketchy neighborhood.  By foregoing some modern luxuries and better locations, Hemingway was able to invest in himself and his aspirations instead of slaving at a 9-5 to make rent.  It’s all about prioritizing your self-fulfillment and free time more than you prioritize luxury.  Capitalism is designed to leave us unhappy with what we have and always wanting more, but keeping up with the Joneses is a dangerous trap to fall into.  Hemingway’s time developing his craft in Paris is proof that it’s how you spend your time, not your money that really matters.

The tiny house movement is just one of the ways in which people around the world are downsizing their living spaces in order to gain more freedom of their time and finances. By minimizing their expenses and eliminating their debt, tiny housers are free to further themselves.

Learn to Cook

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

-Ernest Hemingway,  A Moveable Feast

Although the title of A Moveable Feast was meant figuratively, Hemingway dedicates a large portion of the text to describing the food and drink that he enjoyed in his time in Paris. When he was able to, he feasted generously, and took great great joy in the simple pleasure of eating well.
In his memoir, Hemingway was writing about the food and drink that he enjoyed in the cafes of Paris, but unless you’re dining in a place where the exchange rate is favorable to the dollar, your best bet is to learn to cook.  Dining out is very expensive, and often unhealthy.  By learning to make some simple dishes with fresh ingredients, your quality of life will skyrocket.  After all, being frugal or having limited means shouldn’t mean that dinner is a Hot Pocket cooked in a dirty microwave.

This article from Art of Manliness highlights the importance of learning to cook.  Eating well and cheaply is easily attainable for those who decide to take the time to learn to cook at home.

Buy it for Life

Being poor and happy doesn’t mean being cheap.  Being frugal means that you limit your spending, not that you sacrifice quality on the things you need.  “Buy it for life” is the idea of investing in high-quality, durable goods that will last a long time, saving money in the long run.  Buying cheap, inferior things (think flimsy plastic made in China merchandise) is a waste of money.  If having something is important enough that you are willing to spend money on it, you should be willing to spend a little extra to make sure you’re investing quality.  Many companies have abandoned craftsmanship for the sake of profits by offshoring their production to third world countries.  Although cheap labor and materials allow them to line their pockets, it does so at the expense of customer satisfaction.

For those of you familiar with Reddit, r/buyitforlife is a wonderful source of information on buy it for life products.

Bought it Once is another website that is dedicated to high quality, buy it for life products.

The Best Things in Life are Free

No matter how you spend your money and time, it is important to enjoy the simple things in life.  Nobody looks back on their life and wishes that they spent more time working.  Hemingway writes fondly of the time in Paris spent with his wife and son, as well as his time with friends.  Simple experiences and relationships are often the most rewarding experiences in life, and they are much easier to appreciate when you are are living a life dedicated to enriching yourself.

Check out The Minimalists and Zen Habits for more ideas on how to live a simpler, more productive, and more fulfilling life.

Take some time today to evaluate how you are expending yourself in your daily life.  Remember that it is better to be poor and happy than to be rich and miserable.

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