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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Author John Robbins knows a thing or two about living a simple life -- he's had millions and lived without millions, not once, but twice.
At 21, Robbins walked away from his family's Baskin-Robbins ice cream business and fortune and spent the subsequent decade living largely off the land in a tiny cabin on Salt Spring Island off the coast of British Columbia.
Robbins became wealthy writing best-selling books telling Americans how to live simply and healthily. He earned millions of dollars, which were then stolen by Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff.
Robbins lost 95 percent of his net worth after investing with Madoff via a friend who pooled their money and who was also defrauded.
"It was December 8, 2008 -- I will never forget the date when I got that call that our life savings had gone," Robbins, 62, told Reuters in an interview to promote his new book. "I was absolutely terrified and horrified."
Robbins had remortgaged his home to maximize his investment with Madoff, who is now serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to defrauding investors of as much as $65 billion.
Robbins tries to live simply. He says his millions were saved for retirement and for large medical bills for his two grandchildren, who were born extremely premature and have special needs as a result.
After an initial bout of depression and anger, Robbins returned to what he does best -- writing self-help books.
In "The New Good Life, Living Better Than Ever in An Age of Less" -- published on Tuesday by Random House's Ballantine Books imprint -- he says materialism is bad for the soul and urges people to focus on their quality of life.
Just when Robbins lost his fortune, America suffered when the credit crunch of 2008 brought a steep recession.
"I don't think the economic turmoil that we are experiencing is short term and I don't think things will return to normal," Robbins said.
Against that backdrop, he says Americans should reassess how they live their lives.
"The kind of economic assumptions that we have lived by are not credible any longer," he said. "We have entered a completely new economic situation."
Robbins says Americans should get to know their financial situation intimately and actively decide how to spend money.
The book covers everything from the finances of deciding how many children to have to making your own dish soap to assessing the real cost of working -- assessing things from the real cost of commuting time to the price of buying lunch out.
Robbins says as long as people earn enough money to sustain the basic needs of their family, suffering economic stress can have a healing effect if approached the right way.
"Downsizing can actually be life affirming," Robbins said.
When people become less entangled with materialism they can work less and spend more time on relationships and hobbies and things they love to do rather than working so much just to keep a larger house than they really need.
After all, he says, kids don't need fancy, big homes.
"What most kids want is quality, positive time with their parents and if the parents are working two jobs trying to make that mortgage payment for the big house, that's not family values, that's materialism," he said.
After Madoff stole his millions, Robbins had to reassess his own life, taking steps to stay afloat financially including taking tenants in his home. But he says he has done his best to move on, even if he still has the occasional nightmare.
"Madoff stole our money, I wasn't about to allow him to steal the rest of my life," he said.
Editing by David Storey