simple matters 14: roshanda cummings and erin johnson

December 12, 2018
simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

Roshanda (Roe) Cummings and Erin (E) Johnson // Brownkids

For Roe Cummings and E Johnson, living simply is about getting free. Together, they live in a teeny, tiny Baltimore, Maryland apartment and chronicle their journey toward liberation on their Instagram account, brownkids.  Here’s their perspective on striving toward debt-free living, emboldening communities of color, generational trauma and healing, and thriving in a truly tiny space.

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

ERIN: We’ll get into specifics, but let’s start with you sharing a bit about yourself with RMTL readers who might not be familiar with your work.

ROE + E: Hi, Everyone! I’m Roe and he’s E and we’re Brownkids. Minimalists? Uh-yeah, you could say that. Intentional Living Advocates? No doubt. Debt-free folks? Almost there. But more than anything, we are two brown people who looked at each other a couple years ago and decided we were going to live our liberation now. Not tomorrow. Not someday. Right now.

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

So, that’s what we’ve been doing: ditching the stuff that doesn’t matter and figuring out how to make powerful of all our moments, while we host the wildest-open-hearted Instagram community interested in doing the same.

I asked E once what he hoped for these Insta-squares and he took a long moment to think before he spoke: “I want to embolden communities of color economically and financially….with the end game being a more perfect union, in the face of inequality.”

And this, to me, brings that all home—makes ‘our work’ make sense. What we’re up to in the world is this: freedom for all of us through mind, body, and minimalism.

This is the story of us empowering ourselves. We’re so happy you’re here.

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

ERIN: You’ve recently moved across the country into a tiny space in a new city. People often think of living in small spaces as being confining, but what are the ways that you’ve found it to be liberating, close quarters aside?

ROE: (Oh my gosh…I’m realizing I want to call you, reader, “Family”, just like I do our community every day) Everyone, I want you to know I own a copy of Erin’s book, Simple Matters. It lives in one of the hallowed book boxes waiting to be unpacked and placed on shelves in a place of honor. I read that book and thought to myself, “She gets it. She really actually gets this small living stuff.”

And now that we have downsized from 800 square feet (74 m2) to ONE-HUNDRED AND FORTY SQUARE FEET (13 meters square for our International Loves), I find myself clinging to its principles: Don’t rush into buying anything until you know how you’re using the space; every item counts; look for antiques and wood pieces you can keep with you for a lifetime.

Because right now, as I wait, I’m feeling downright claustrophobic. It doesn’t have a kitchen (long story) and the row-house situation custom to Baltimore is like sharing a room with your brother but your brother is your neighbor and he does Riverdance in the evenings.

The whole reason, however, we decided to make such a hilarious leap is we’re training for van life actually—to spend time in the daily lives of everyone who’s followed us over the past 6 years ( or at least that’s what we keep reminding ourselves, hahaha) and we knew it was going to be harder to jump for 800 to 75sq feet than from 150 to 75, so we chose to go for this.

The liberating feeling rushes in when we remember the end goal, make creative plans for small space solutions we would N E V E R have come up with had lived somewhere larger, and, we spend more time outside, period, getting to know our new neighborhood.

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

ERIN: Liberation, freedom, unapologetic living, empowerment—these are words you guys often use to describe your journey. They sound like words—and destinations—that most folks would find appealing, but no doubt they have specific and special meaning for Black folks. Can you talk a bit about that?

ROE: Oh, yeah! Favorite question!! Oh man oh man oh man oh man…I could go so many dorky, nerdy ways with this.

Alright, let’s get nerdy. Why these words mean something profound to Black Folks these days is because we’re entering an age where we don’t have to taste them as concepts on our tongues, we can live them.

And, when we do live them, something happens in us. And our children.

It’s no secret that Black Americans have been systematically boxed out of economic opportunities, property ownership, and the social freedom to do as they wished (In Baltimore, freed slaves were exclusively kept from trades; e.g. carpentry, blacksmithing, cobblers, gunsmiths, milliners, etc., until the 1940s. These jobs were higher paying jobs, setting back 2 to 3 generations of men and women from not only stable forms of income, but also passing on legacy vocational skills to their children. Imagine how that could affect upward mobility).  So, black folks alive today carry those implications not just historically but genetically.

brownkids | simple matters | reading my tea leaves

But this is where it gets exciting: Studies have shown, in the emerging field of epigenetics, that what was possible for our parents came with us in our DNA and that whatever we ourselves heal and unleash in our lifetimes becomes healed and unleashed in our children’s DNA.

Meaning: That for anyone marginalized in any way historically—if you dare to live liberated right now, that new possibility actually passes down to the next generation. So, for Black People, why not go all out? Throw off all chains, heal yourself, and free yourself from the ways you may have been held back—fault of yours or not—if it can lift us all up to the next level. The question, “What do I want to make possible?” when I wake up every morning as a black woman in America, takes on an all new, profound meaning.

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

ERIN: Can you share what it’s like to be a couple doing this work and why you’ve chosen to share your journey publicly?

ROE: I’ll punt this over to E for the beginning of this answer because he’s so good at things like this.

E: For me, this started as a chronicling of our relationship and nothing more than that! And now this is just the story of us freeing ourselves paired with the information we receive that we feel isn’t ours to have alone. We have a saying, “We all gettin’ free,” and that means that the lesson of freedom isn’t ours alone.

ROE: Me, what it’s like? Surprising. Shocking. A whirlwind, most times. We seriously were just taking pictures of ourselves for our friends and our account exploded. It feels heartwarming to know there are so many people rooting for you as much as they are rooting for themselves; who’ll do anything for you (when we shared all of our design challenges for the tiny space, I received 300 DMs from people that day who took the time to GO OUT on the internet and find bed options for us, I kid you not). I take my responsibility as this internet person very seriously: If I’m learning something that’s helpful, I want our IG family to know about it. And that takes a lot of personal work on my end, making sure I’m filtering out any crap, resisting the temptation to be another excuse to “buy stuff”, and keeping myself clear about where it is I am going in life.

If you’re going to lead, lead with integrity, spirit, and generosity. In that order.

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

ERIN: You guys are both infectiously good spirited. How do you guys stay cheery even in the midst of doing things that, frankly, a lot of folks would find to be intensely stressful? (Letting go of worldly possessions, hiking through the California wilderness, moving into a tiny place in a new city—on a new coast!, etc.)

ROE: HAHAHAHAH. Ohhhhgodddd, I think it’s just too much work to be anything else.

E: Of all the possible lives I could choose to live, it just doesn’t make sense to me to choose the life where I’m stressed in it.

ERIN: You developed the Jar Method and coach folks on how to integrate it into their lives. Can you explain a little bit about how it works, but especially how it hits that sweet spot of simplicity and frugality that makes up so much of your work?

ROE: Oh, gosh, totally! I decided I was going to get out of debt. But instead of trying to get a higher paying job, I came to the conclusion that I should get rid of my debt so I wouldn’t have to have a terrible job to pay off my debt. So, that meant: “Girl, you gotta get your money right.” And, by money, I meant expenses, and my expenses were all going to food.

E was and is vegan and we’d go to Whole Foods for fresh vegetables and watch our hard earn money wilt 3 days later. I made a decision: if you can keep your vegetables longer, your money will go farther, and you won’t spend as much.

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

The Jar Method was an accident. I O B S E S S I V E L Y researched food storage (because, dammit, I’m going to figure this out) and made a connection to glass and cold circulation. Our refrigerator was a crappy rental fridge, so I bought 64 oz mason jars to store greens and smaller jars to store chopped vegetables, and bought all of our food for a MONTH in one shopping trip (since I read from Linda Watson, this one smart). E was agog. “Why are we spending $350 on groceries?!? At one time!!” I told him to trust me.

By combining glass and methods, our fresh vegetables went from 3 days of freshness to 3 weeks. Before, we spent $850 on food every month as a city couple. The first time we tried this, we saved $500, eating produce we no longer had to rush to eat. I perfected it and created The Jar Method to satisfy our community who hounded us about it for 2 years.

It’s the simplicity and frugality sweet spot because you no longer spend your money in a way that doesn’t multiply. You eat your values, to your health, and to your sanity. Expediting your financial goals, not impeding them, which feels SO. damn. Good. And, once you learn it, you want to tell everyone, it’s so awesome, and you have command over your home and money in a way you didn’t think possible —  so you can do other things you a c t u a l l y want to do. (But most of the time walking around feeling like I’m adulting well is actually what I’m here for.)

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

ERIN: I imagine that you might hear from some folks who are fascinated by following along with your story, but who feel, for whatever reason, like the kind of freedom that you enjoy wouldn’t be accessible to them because of jobs, family, kids, health, or any of the other kinds of things that tend to keep folks from, in your words, getting free. What would your message be for these folks? How can people who aren’t ready to take the whole plunge still manage to get their feet wet?

ROE: E and I lived under the poverty line for 6 years.

We’ve never made over $40,000, combined.

We don’t have a car. We don’t own property quite yet.

We’re from an historically marginalized group, where in some situations in America, we have to watch our behavior or it could mean our lives.

I came from a traumaaaatic background and I never thought I’d get out of the cycle of being chronically overworked and underpaid.

And today, I blink with wonder at the life I get to play in every day.

It’s not luck, it’s not chance, it’s not limited, and it’s not elite.

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves

I think the guy on the Bigger Pockets podcast is spot on:

When you decide these things, in this order, your life is going to pick up speed:

(1) Know what you want and (2) do something about it.

Really. Consistently. Gently, but with determination.

Say it out loud. Tell people about it. Make it plain. Then watch what happens when your will meets your magic. Hold on, kiddos.

simple matters | brownkids | reading my tea leaves


To see more of Roe and E’s work, follow brownkids on Instagram.

To learn how to slash your grocery bill, consider The Jar Method.

Photographs of  Roe and E by Jamie + Lauren Eichar @eicharphotography + @eichars_explore 

The Simple Matters Series is inspired in part by curiosity piqued while writing my book of the same title. I wanted to know what simple matters were for other folks. And why simplicity mattered to them in the first place. My own Simple Matters story came out in January of 2016. It’s still available where most books are sold. (Signed copies are available locally at Stories Bookshop!)

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  • Reply Marlena December 12, 2018 at 11:31 am

    I adore Roe and E! Their Instagram is a beautiful space of love and encouragement and light. Roe’s debt diary series helped me release shame from my feelings about debt and money and lit a fire under me to free myself by first educating myself. They have one of the best online communities I’ve ever seen.

  • Reply Alex December 12, 2018 at 11:35 am

    Damn, this is so inspiring. THANK YOU! Going to try the jar method ASAP because we want to stop wasting money on unused groceries.

  • Reply Linh December 12, 2018 at 11:50 am

    Loved this! Thanks for introducing me to them!

  • Reply K elly December 12, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    Ahh!!!! I love them so much, they’re some of my favorites!! I’m sure the rec came feom Erin originally, but I am beyond excited to see Roe & E! I am patching myself up for my own downsize AND a new baby! I just love y’all

  • Reply Audrey December 12, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    I was so happy to see Roe and E on your blog today!! I started following them on instagram (based on your recommendation) a while back and their energy is SO infectious and inspiring. Watching their journey just makes my heart smile.

  • Reply Marloes December 12, 2018 at 12:19 pm

    So much energy in this post! Love it!!
    Going to listen to that Bigger Pockets podcast now.

  • Reply Lee December 12, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    I love Roe and E so much! Their jar method class has been a huge money saver for my spouse and I. Thanks so much for featuring such a generous and inspiring couple!

  • Reply Lauren December 12, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    Thank you for featuring Roe and E! Their jar method course has helped me change my relationship with food and cooking, not to mention save money. It was lovely to read this in-depth interview!

  • Reply Kaira Cooper December 12, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    Erin! You constantly enrich my life! Thank you for writing a piece about these two inspiring humans!

  • Reply Janean December 12, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    I so very soulfully love them!

  • Reply Molly December 12, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    Thank you so much for including these wonderful folks on your blog! I’ve been following them on Instagram for awhile and have loved hearing their perspective on living simply. It makes me so happy to see them here 🙂 And thanks for the reminder about The Jar Method!

  • Reply Tamara December 12, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    This interview made me so happy! Also been following since your last recommendation and just in love with their infectious joyful spirit and honest living. You and them are my favorite minimalists out there for keeping it real. <3

  • Reply Eme December 12, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    Such an inspiring post and what a lovely couple they seem to be too!

    Eme xo

  • Reply Jay December 12, 2018 at 4:49 pm

    Curious about The Jar Method, but not sure I want to spend that much on the workshop without a preview/intro. Is there one? Maybe I’m missing something.

    • Reply Ashley M. December 13, 2018 at 1:13 pm

      There are many great posts that also include jar methods if you want to get your feet wet prior to taking advantage of their lovely guidance. Check out posts on Mama Eats Plants. It’s a great primer.

      • Reply Jay December 13, 2018 at 2:46 pm

        Thank you, Ashley!

    • Reply BRIANNA December 14, 2018 at 7:07 am

      I feel exactly the same; thanks for writing this. I would never spend money on something like this without a preview, and feel that I am opening myself up to exploitation, being taught how to suck eggs, if I do. The aspirations are great, we all want to live great, debt free lives, and the photography is beautiful, but I need more, before I fund this in sheer sympathy and optimistic blind hope.

      • Reply ERIN BOYLE December 14, 2018 at 8:11 am

        Optimistic blind hope sounds lovely to me, but for anyone unsure of whether they’d like to invest in the course, Roe and E offer an enormous amount of free introductory information about their Jar Method through their Instagram feed and stories. The idea is that folks who familiarize themselves with their method there might want to take a deeper dive and subscribe to the course. Nothing exploitative about it.

        • Reply Sarah Hornsby December 14, 2018 at 11:42 am

          What a lovely response.

        • Reply BRIANNA December 15, 2018 at 2:52 am

          It’s not lovely if it’s wasting your money, or say degrading the precious vitamins in your food if it’s pre cut before storage. I looked at the Instagram account and I couldn’t find the info I needed that would convince me it was a solid investment. Maybe I am missing something you are all seeing. I truly hope this is a lifechanging product. I care about reducing waste, great nutrition and saving money.

          • ERIN BOYLE December 15, 2018 at 6:09 am

            Happily your decision to take the course is yours alone. Certainly if you’re doubtful of the value or method you can choose to carry on without taking it or seek out other resources that feel like a better fit for you without deriding these folks.

          • BRIANNA December 15, 2018 at 8:47 am

            Erin, if my careful criticism is seen as derision, which is mockery or contempt, then I’m disappointed too. I was hoping you might understand that perhaps something is missing from this marketing campaign and that we share the core values of this culture; which are practical and non conformist.

          • ERIN BOYLE December 15, 2018 at 5:18 pm

            If your goal is careful critique and not derision, I might suggest finding an alternative to the phrase “being taught to suck eggs.”

  • Reply maryann December 12, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    Wow. This is so inspiring! I’m loving this series.

  • Reply Lisa December 12, 2018 at 5:08 pm

    Ah, love Roe & E – thank you so much for featuring them! I’ve learned so much from/been consistently inspired by what they say, what they do, and their amazing community.

  • Reply Jackie December 12, 2018 at 6:54 pm

    Love them, thank you for spotlighting how wonderful & inspiring they are. My NY resolution is to learn about and implement the Jar Method (I signed up for the workshop but haven’t yet had time…January 2019, I’m coming for you!) <3

  • Reply Diana December 12, 2018 at 8:35 pm

    Can I just say how much I’m loving this series? I am blissfully empowered through those who have been interviewed thus far.

    Thanks 🙂

  • Reply Maureen Bleeker Paal December 13, 2018 at 4:07 am

    I would never have found them on IG – great to read about their Jar method and they are so cute together!
    As always, great interview Erin x

  • Reply Mickey December 13, 2018 at 8:53 am

    Such a great interview with this couple. I pulled quotes from it as I was reading, transferring them to my journal. I wrote this in large letters in a blank page: “Of all the possible lives I could choose to live, it just doesn’t make sense to me to choose the life where I’m stressed in it.”

    This series is gold.

    • Reply Sasha L December 17, 2018 at 12:57 pm

      That sentence resonated with me as well. This precious life, day, moment, why spend it living in a way that is unhappy, if we can make a different choice. So much contentment can be found living a conscious life, a simple life that feels like a choice.

      Love this interview, these generous folks, Erin and this space. Thank you all.

  • Reply Taylor Norris December 13, 2018 at 2:58 pm

    What fresh, powerful voices! Thank you for highlighting them.

  • Reply Ila December 14, 2018 at 2:32 am

    What incredible people. Thank you for introducing me.

  • Reply Shannon December 14, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    Wow!! Roe and E are fantastic, thank you for introducing them. My life and our world is better for them (and you) being in it 🙂

  • Reply BRIANNA December 15, 2018 at 8:49 am

    Erin, if my careful criticism is seen as derision, which is mockery or contempt, then I’m disappointed too. I was hoping you might understand that perhaps something is missing from this marketing campaign and that we share the core values of this culture; which are practical and non conformist.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE December 15, 2018 at 5:15 pm

      If your goal is careful critique and not derision, I might suggest an alternative to the phrase “being taught to suck eggs.”

  • Reply BRIANNA December 15, 2018 at 8:58 pm

    That for me means being taught to do something that is really too obvious to charge money for. It’s a very serious phrase. In Australia it is very common to use these short hand expressions and they’re not seen as derisive at all. However, to another culture I can now see how that might appear differently. In Australia it absolutely isn’t communicated in ill will, often it’s the opposite, to try and soften an important idea that might seem too blunt; such as how an Australian might hear an American communicate. There’s humour too lost in translation. Anyway, this was a terrific learning experience in communication and cultural differences. Thank you for it.

    • Reply Jay December 16, 2018 at 8:23 pm

      Brianna, that is so interesting. When I read your original comment, I didn’t find that expression offensive or problematic in any way (I did have to google it so see exactly what it meant:). Many years ago, I was a temporary resident in Australia (for almost three years). I still miss it and the lovely people I met.

  • Reply BRIANNA December 17, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    Thanks, Jay. I am a bit at fault for being an awkward communicator, though I am a typical Aussie, using sayings. I think that I also had a number of misgivings, other than the major ‘egg’ one, and it’s socially challenging to be upfront. If I was to invest in this, I’d really need to know more about how this is an intelligent method, along with the science, and how vitamin degradation is managed, as intelligent food storage is more about health than just money saved for me. The photography is lovely, but I would prefer a marketing campaign that’s also related to the product.

    • Reply Emily January 8, 2019 at 8:58 pm

      Brianna, my husband and I lived around Aussies for a few years and had to learn how to manage that cultural bit – lots of phrases and bluntness that we found abrasive that they meant in good faith – it certainly took time to learn how to communicate well with each other! Re: the course, I have taken it and can say that I do love brownkids and what they’re doing – I find them to be among the more lovely and inspirational, encouraging folks on the internet, who are sharing their knowledge honestly and joyfully – but that if you have a few years’ experience with food prep and research under your belt and/or already use glass in place of plastic storage, you might not get as much out of it as you’d hoped for the cost (I still learned some things that have made some of my produce last longer, though, when I commit to doing the work!). That said, it is a wonderful introduction to longer term food storage and grocery shopping for those who are new to to the kitchen/food prep. As far as I can remember, it won’t answer your questions about vitamin degradation, but they seem to be the kind of people who will work hard to update and share info as they themselves learn more.

  • Reply Mackenzie December 21, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    Incredible story and sooooo inspiring!! 🙂

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