How To Live Simply?

Dear Steph,
First I want to thank you for your wonderful blog and pictures, I have
become addicted to visiting it. For me it is one of the most refreshing
online places to visit, especially nowadays when I can’t afford to get out
and climb because I am finishing grad school. You always have a good word and good advice for everyone who writes you, so I am daring to ask you a few questions and if you have some time to answer sooner or later, it would be very much appreciated on my side.

1. What are your thoughts, ideas and tips on frugality?
I can imagine you wouldn’t be where you are today in climbing and in life if you had not been a very frugal person and I remember reading somewhere (apologies if I am wrong) that in your early climbing years there were times when your annual income was under 10000$.

The first thought that comes into my head when speaking about frugality is that it is important to first cut off on the big expenses. (In my situation that translates to not giving away bits of mental energy to save on groceries when I have thousands of dollars debt in student loans.) As I look around myself I notice that it is ingrained in the minds of the vast majority of people to work during their youth and middle age years, generate an income and give away a good part of that towards the ownership of a home. Much of the precious and very finite life energy that one has goes towards putting a fancy roof above one’s head and those of one’s offsprings, if any. But when we die the fancy roof remains in this world. This plain fact has prompted me to put some thought into living arrangements that are very economical and hence do not require a major investment of life energy.

Would you mind sharing with your readers some information about your current living situation? You have disclosed previously the fact that you live in a mobile home that you have placed on a piece of land that you purchased independently; what were the approximate costs of these purchases and what were the main steps that you went through?

2. Would you mind sharing with your readers about the arrangements that you had for yourself regarding health insurance and postal address while you were living out of your vehicle and climbing full time?
With what health insurer did you go? Did you have any kind of situations were it paid off to have the insurance?

3. This one is about diet and nutrition: when you travel abroad, do you
manage to keep your diet 100% vegan and if so, how do you do it?
I recall from your blog that you traveled for a film festival to Poland
and that you have other trips to Europe planned as well.
I’ve been to Poland on a recent trip and unfortunately I had to be content with just vegetarian food; the Polish seemed to be big time meat eaters and I really missed having lots of different vegetables, grains, tofu, etc in my diet as I am used to while not traveling.

4. Your Diamond and Castleton free solo pictures are simply fantastic and I love to look at them again and again. I am just curious, when you wear your hair loose while free soloing or climbing with a rope, do you have any fears or thoughts that it might catch up on something?

Thank you very much Steph for reading this so long email, and if you ever have the time and mood to post some answers on your blog, it would be very appreciated.

Your fan,

Dear Irina,
Thank you for writing, I loved reading your letter! And you are certainly covering all the bases…home, nutrition, health, and of course, hair! I am most of all struck by your awareness that money and lifestyle have a direct relationship to life energy and happiness. I am sure you are right.

I have always been determined to keep the overhead low. To me, money and debt directly relate to freedom. That’s why I lived in my car for several years, because at my income level (it was around $8000/year as a waitress), I couldn’t afford to spend money on rent and also live the free, nomadic climbing life. But as the years went by, I needed the safe feeling of a place to return to. I bought a 1968 doublewide in a small neighborhood in Moab. It was already there, on a lot, so I didn’t have to put it there–in fact, the neighborhood is one of the oldest in Moab, from the original uranium miners who were living here in the fifties.

At the time, my doublewide cost about half what a “real” house would cost in Moab, and I could just afford to buy it. It was a little dispiriting at first when I was at home, because it was very cheap, which was good, but also very spartan and kind of ugly, so I had no choice but to get to work right away, and in the end I spent many years turning it into a place I love to be. To me, it was better to have a place that didn’t put me under a financial burden even if I didn’t like it much at first. But I also have a strong sense of aesthetics and order, and I realized that a home should also be a place you love to be. I had not lived in a house before since being a kid, and I learned how to garden, landscape, repair, paint and decorate, out of necessity. So it was a very good learning experience for me, to learn to make a beautiful home no matter where you are, with the resources you have at hand. There are a lot of desert stones in my landscaping, and desert wood fuels the wood stove all winter!

I do believe that a healthy living space should be a clean, peaceful, beautiful place that makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. I learned that it does not have to cost a lot of money to achieve that, if you are creative and willing to put time into it. I have a lot of security in my home, because it doesn’t require a mortgage payment or big tax expenses. And that’s part of what makes me feel good here, and I love being at my house and looking after it.

Before I was “settled” in Moab, I had a storage unit and a PO box, which worked very well when I was totally nomadic 🙂

There are some big expenses that are unavoidable, like your student loans. But if you have conservative habits, I think you will always feel content. Being vegan is a big part of that, as your grocery shopping and eating habits are usually more simple and practical. I’ve found that as time goes by, I seem to want less than I used to. I’m not sure if it’s habit, or a conscious desire, but I know it’s a feeling you can cultivate. I do think that living simply, trying to be conservative financially, is a good way to feel free. To me, financial situations are all about freedom, and that’s why they affect the spirit so much. It seems to me that freedom from financial worries can come from either having a lot of money, or by not needing very much money. For most of us, it’s not so easy to get a lot of money, but it is pretty easy to learn to not need very much. Fortunately, being a climber is all about living simply and boiling life down to the necessities, so I think that comes very naturally.

I find it a little ironic and sad to answer your question about health insurance, right now! As a young, roadtripping climber, none of my friends had health insurance. They just figured they were broke, and if they got hurt, it would be subsidized by the government. I was not comfortable with the prospect of being a burden on others (since being a dirtbag climber was a personal choice), and I knew that in reality, if any of us got hurt, our parents would bear the responsibility. So I felt very strongly about keeping health insurance, even when I was living in my car. Having a very basic, major medical policy, cost about $40/month when I first got it, but to me it was not an option, it was a necessity. It’s about three times that now.

I have had Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance since the age of 21, and was lucky enough to never need it. Ironically, 15 years later, I hurt myself last August on a BASE jump, so it looked like it would finally come in handy. However, as it turns out, they tell me they exclude “parachuting.” This is a pretty bad shock to me, especially after having paid the policy for so many years without ever having used it, and it definitely creates an unexpected financial situation. But I still believe in having health insurance, though I’m not so enthusiastic about Blue Cross Blue Shield now :). I have been researching and applying for other policies. The most important thing is to make sure it’s a fairly reputable company that doesn’t seem like it will go out of business and leave you with no policy.

I just came back from a trip to Europe, and it’s a good question, how do you stay 100% vegan when traveling? The answer is, I don’t! I would never eat meat, but when I am in Europe, I often use milk and I don’t panic if there is cheese in something I’m eating. Often there are cows living in fields all around in the places I go, and I feel like they are having a good life and being treated well, and so I don’t feel uncomfortable with eating their dairy products if I have to. For me, being vegan is a choice for health and performance, and a way to avoid causing harm to others, so in inconvenient situations, I try to keep those thoughts foremost. I think it’s important to be somewhat flexible and not to make my eating choices an issue which affects everyone else around me.

As a vegan, it’s important to make others feel comfortable and to give them a positive feeling. I’d rather eat a little cheese in my dinner or milk in my coffee than make a big issue of it. I’ve never yet been in a place where there is absolutely nothing I can eat, especially if I am non-militant about the occasional dairy. Still, it is always wonderful to come home, and have as much tofu and soy milk as I want! For me, that’s just part of traveling, being adaptable and letting go of comfortable habits, and appreciating the luxury of choice I can have at home.

Keeping long hair is something I do for practical purposes. Once I cut my hair short, and I nearly froze on the Diamond. I didn’t realize it until then, but having long hair really gives me extra warmth! Now, when I’m cold, I keep my hair down, and when I’m hot, I tie it up. So far, it hasn’t gotten caught in anything!

Thanks for all your interesting ideas and questions Irina! I hope I was able to give you some useful thoughts too.
xx Steph

  • vsiaki

    Oh no! How large is the bill on your BASE accident? How are you paying for it? You are probably so committed to your self-reliance that you won’t let someone else foot the bill for you. I would’ve gladly taken handouts from my parents if they had been able, but you have had the self-reliance to not take a cent from them since graduating . . high school or college? how admirable!

  • Steph Davis

    I was lucky enough to have scholarships in college, and I had a teaching assistantship during my Master’s program. After that, I became a waitress.

    The bill is 30K 🙁 As to how I’ll pay for it, I’m not sure yet. Apparently hospitals usually give discounts to people who don’t have insurance. I, however, “have” insurance, so they won’t give me self-pay discounts for my self payment. Wow, that’s quite a Catch 22! It’s starting to look like I should have stayed in law school, because it seems like a pretty shifty way to do business, if you ask me, both on the part of Blue Cross and the hospital billing departments.

    Maybe I’ll be auctioning off some guiding days on ebay in the next year!
    🙂 Steph

  • Insurance is shady, my last manager was an ex insurance salesman a royal pain. Sad to hear about the base incident though if the ebay bids stay low enough perhaps I can scrape some money to hang with a pro 🙂 Nice reading the post about living simply which is truly relevant in recent months.

  • Stephanie

    I just went through a bunch of issues with blue cross blue shield as well – but here in Massachusetts for another injury. After spending a while trying to figure out a bunch of the small details and trying to understand the “system” and then trying to understand how that was actually implemented and worked in real life took a lot of time. Good luck with that!

    I know for me, as a last resort I ended up filing a formal “grievance” to their department where you discuss your points on why you should be covered or the misunderstanding you had, or even how maybe it wasn’t stated about the coverage plan. I’m told they are required to get back to you with a “decision” within 30 days. Sometimes this has worked really well with others – other times not so much. I think it depends on who’s evaluating your case, but just another idea for a long shot of things to try.

    One thing I tried (and I think a friends mother did something similar) was just discussing with the hospital (not the insurance company) the situation and that it simply is a big expense and is difficult, and also that the insurance isn’t covering it so in the end you are paying out of pocket. My friends mother did end up getting some break on a surgery and my dad who also works at a hospital has talked with people who’ve gotten some breaks whether or not they had insurance too in similar situations. I hope that works out for you. I don’t know how anyone can really afford most of their medical expenses.

    I’ll be sending good thoughts over your way. Good luck!

  • I’m upset about your health insurance experience as well as my own. It really seems like blackmail – “we’ll go after your parents if you get hurt”.

    There are so many issues to talk about, but how about this one: do you admit to being a rock climber in your insurance application? If you tell the truth you get denied, or sky-high premiums. If not, do you really have coverage?

    I’m about ready to start putting that money into savings instead.

  • Steph Davis

    One reason I got sandbagged on my insurance policy was that I did check it carefully when I first signed up….15 years ago. Oddly enough, they do not exclude rock climbing or mountaineering, or pretty much any sport. The even bigger sandbag was my brother! He had an individual BCBS policy from California (the missing detail, I now know) and had a fully-covered BASE accident last winter. That was a major sandbag! I was sure mine was the same. But it’s Utah. Ohhhhhh.

    But you’re right–a lot of policies will deny you if you’re a rock climber, and that’s a real problem too. It’s a little bizarre when you can’t get health coverage for doing things that make you an unusually healthy person! They’re all different, and they all have many many many pages of fine print.

    I tend to expect things to be straightforward….from my point of view, I paid them money for health insurance so they’d pay money if I needed health care. Unfortunately, that’s not how things work in the “real world.” For sure, in my case, saving all that money would have been a much better choice. But who knew?

    Live and learn :), at least if we’re lucky, right?

  • Hey Steph, I just recently ran across your blog and must say I am very much enjoying reading about you and your adventures. They are inspiring me to push my climbing forward and start living my life how I know I should.

    I wanted to tell you what a smart thing you have been doing by maintaining health insurance. I know it feels like you have been throwing that money away all of your life, and for the most part, that is true since you haven’t been able to use it. I also know what it is to feel like the entire industry, from the insurance companies to the hospitals, are mostly corrupt, because basically it is. But most importantly, I know what it is to need that insurance in a bad way.

    About 8 years ago I was diagnosed with Leukemia. Before that day I had never been sick a day in my life and in fact didn’t even have a doctor. Long story short, I did chemo for about 2 years at which point I relapsed and had to get a bone marrow transplant. Thanks to a very selfless individual in Germany who donated his marrow, I have since made a full recovery and am considered cured since it has been over 5 years since the transplant.

    The main point I want to make is that with my cancer treatment alone, my hospital bills have totaled over $750,000, not to mention the subsequent health problems from the after effects of chemo and radiation. Had I not had insurance, I would most likely not be writing this today. My father’s co-worker at the time had a daughter that was diagnosed with the same disease at nearly the same time as me, however she did not have insurance, and unfortunately only lived about 6 months from the date of her diagnosis because she did not have access to the proper medical care.

    So I know it seems like a complete waste now, since you are obviously so healthy, but keep in mind that anything can happen at anytime, things with which you have no control. The key is to live your life not worrying about that which you can not control while still being prepared to handle all that life can and will throw at you. Like they say, luck favors the prepared.

    Anyways, keep up the good work with your site and keep on living your life to the fullest, full of adventure and without regret. I wish you the best in your journeys and health and prosperity throughout your life.

    Austin, TX

  • The Alabama Crew

    You know I alwways have looked up to you because of your outlook on climbing and life in general; after your story of why your a vegan and treating others well, I really look up to you with the highest respect. I’m a firm believer in Christ and try to the best of my ability to follow Christ. I also believe in “not harming anything or anyone” or associating myself with anything or anyone that does so. I will tell you, that alot of Christians could learn alot from you! Your a self made hero in my book! Thanks for the inspiration that you instill with your attitude and preserverance!

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  • MJ

    I just came back from spending 17 months climbing in Europe, and though the exchange rate while I was there was astronomical (while at Kalymnos it was $1.60), I was able to live comfortably.

    It’s about prioritizing, really.

    You’re right about the food; fruit and veg are easy to find anywhere, but tofu products are non-existent. Soymilk is available, at least.

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  • Sounds like yoou know exactly what you want out of life and you are after it. Well done.


  • Steph Davis

    Thanks Nate!
    🙂 Steph

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