Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Journey to Self Sufficiency


Guest post by Joetta

I was recently asked how we manage self sufficiency on our minimal income. I gave an answer that while adequate I feel left a lot out of our story. I didn't start out to write a blog and meant to keep my answer to the person who asked short and simple but I recall a teacher saying once that usually if one person asks a question at least three more students have the same question but won't ask. However, before I say exactly how I do it I would like to point out a few facts.

First: we are a family of three: 2 adults and a third grader, a sometimes additional family of three consisting of our elder child's family of two adults and an infant, plus our dog, cat and a recently acquired rabbit. We do have extended family as well.

Second: minimal income in our case is defined as around $15,000.00 a year.

Third: I feel it is important to note our individual backgrounds and personalities as we had always primarily been city dwellers who felt somewhat out of place. We had a really nice dual income when medical issues resulted in filing for disability for one partner and the other was left out of work due to outsourcing and the recession. It was harder to come back down than it was to go up in income without a doubt. We could not afford to pay for electricity, phone, gas, clothes, rent, food, car maintenance or anything else and homelessness and divorce was looming large on the horizon.

My husband, your usual author of this blog (Noel), was offered an opportunity in an MLM selling emergency preparedness supplies. We had to do something, disability had not yet been settled and we were losing everything but our shirts. That was the start of our journey. Income-wise, it was a short trip but it was the beginning as we delved into the emergency preparedness research that lead us to where we are today. Luckily, my disability was approved as it’s our main source of income but it’s not much. After our experience we have decided that those emergency preparedness recommendations are the barest minimum in our opinion and as we've moved through the learning curve we've blogged, researched, written notes, saved things to a dozen files moving further away from preparedness and more into self sufficiency.

I am hardly an expert or even proficient on these topics in my own opinion but I am stubborn and persistent. I also don't mind doing the research so much as long as I have a reason or personal interest in it. Noel will research anything you ask that he doesn't know or point you to someone who does, that's his passion. That is why Kaya the blog, Kaya the Facebook page and group, and Kaya the website exist. Unfortunately at the moment it's a poor living but it makes his soul happy so it has great value in other terms. Terms he would not find elsewhere.

So here goes! Basically I try to find out how my great grandma would have done it and see how it's changed since then and pick a way in the middle. I was lucky I had her to smack me in the head well into my twenties so it's not as big a jump of imagination for me. In fact I owe a lot of my attitude towards self sufficiency to her unfortunately I didn't realize how much influence she had on me until a couple years ago and did not get to say thank you properly. I also grew up basically dirt poor, as did my husband, so it’s not as big a divergence in lifestyle as it is for some, sort of more of a return to one. Only major difference as I see it is we're finally out of the city. That said we do follow some pattern or basic set of rules:
1.   Make a list
2.   Trouble shoot it
3.   Make a Budget and stick to it
4.   Allow for some extras
5.   Garden
6.   Learn something new.

The first thing that we do is to make lists of our desires, needs, and goals. Whether it’s for the year’s garden, tools we need, a vacation, long term storage and rotation, potential blogs, subjects we are interested in or this month’s shopping and supplies we start with a list. Lists help us to be subjective, prioritize, budget, track progress and (the way our brains work) remember things. They also help when enlisting the aid of others. Most things are subjective and will vary given your location, available equipment, knowledge base, time and space available, and personal interests. Lists can you narrow down your available options.  For instance in the mobile we rented we had no place to store a large quantity of water, after listing various options for storage, their prices, and the necessary work entailed in each, we found that had we stayed there we would have been better off getting a secondary hand pump for the well. While here in the house we purchased we have a basement that is cold and damp with ample room for storage (which I hear is also good for storing root veggies) as it was on the list of desired features while were house hunting.

In the city one of our apartments had a walk-in closet suitable for storage of extra water and food but we would never have been able to sustain even a container garden there. Still another place we lived had an actual storage room and room for a garden. Unfortunately they all took the bulk of our income. By listing these things originally in the BIG discussion we found that we wanted a garden very badly as it kept coming up repeatedly and that trapping ourselves in an endless cycle of debt was not smart budgeting nor smart preparedness nor smart self sufficiency nor smart anything and was in fact the largest factor in our stress and unhappiness.

That brings us to number two; Troubleshoot it and evaluate all your options ~ can your situation be changed or optimized to your benefit in anyway? Discuss it. Be open minded and open to change. Give it time. A lot of it really is about how you think of going about things. What are you willing to give up or exchange? What is not negotiable? It can be a simple change or a big complicated one. For example in order to get our budget under control we moved. That was huge and complicated, physically, emotionally, and financially. The town we moved to was tiny, about 100 people total, maybe 25 people actually in town, no stores, no entertainment, not even a stop sign. We separated siblings, moving a hundred plus miles away from our oldest child and downsizing into a mobile home as old as we are, giving up almost everything for affordability and a garden. It was well understood though that leaving state was not on the table and not negotiable. It took quite a bit of time to find that trailer in our budget for rent in the middle of nowhere. It can be hard when you don't know where or how to look.

However changing our method of food storage was as simple as changing our shopping from once a week to once a month. It automatically created a situation where we had 35 days food, at least half of which were pantry items ~ like canned goods such as veggies, fruits, soups, chicken, tuna, rice, beans, spices, potato flakes, flour, pancake mix, sugar and coffee. After that we added and still add one extra or over sized item each month. Water storage came down to the simple decision of saving milk jugs, putting them in the basement, and rotating them out for now.

Number three on the list is: Get control of your budget as much as possible, Make a plan and stick to it! As I said, we had a really nice dual income for awhile and it was harder to go up in income than it was to come back down. There was a lot of strain on us and our marriage for awhile when that nice income suddenly stopped. If we had not taken the time to evaluate every last detail our life, write down what we truly wanted, and hash it out with more open mindedness and honesty about the reality of the situation than we had before, we wouldn't be here. If we had not chosen to move to a location where we could live within our budget we would not be here. We would be a statistic. We would not have lasted another year in the city under the financial strain, struggling just to get a gulp of air. Divorce was a strong possibility. What we have isn't paradise and isn't perfect however it is much better than what it was.

In some ways it’s even better than when we were both working and no matter how you look at it, it is way better than what my great grandmother went through with four kids in the depression. I figure that if she managed to have a good life, raise a family, buy a house, have savings and retire so can we. I'd like to be able to save something, as on our budget there isn't anything left to save or spend after the first week of the month but it'll come in time. Having enough to eat and a roof over our heads that is actually ours is a huge number of steps up the ladder from a few years ago and we can see the progress we've made all around us.

My great grandmother actually had a fantastic philosophy about it ~ you worry about the basics, housing, food, clothing; those should be provided by your regular source of income and should never exceed in cost what is available to spend. You live off your regular pay minus a small amount for savings/tithing but any and all overtime pay, bonuses, and the ilk went directly to savings. If you had to buy something you paid cash. The only thing she ever held a loan on was her house. It’s those things that made her self sufficient. Those are the lessons she learned in the depression and so it is with us now. The only loan we hold is the house and we follow our budget closely.  We have a standard monthly budget with certain items that are always on the list regardless of need. This list includes the standard household bills: the mortgage, propane, electricity, water, sewer, and trash, TP, pet supplies, dish soap and other basic everyday needs.

 We offset expenses where we can for instance there is a food box available once a month for our income bracket if we need it and in the winter we do get it sometimes simply because heating costs are so high. We work on projects during the summer when we don't need as much propane and look for stuff to recycle and reuse as much as we can. We are currently working on DIY house projects as the home we bought is nearly a hundred years old and a fixer-upper, which helped us keep the payments in our budgets. There again we were given some windows for the rabbit shed and to replace the broken one in the garage instead of buying them and I'm going to make an attempt on a tiny area of the wood flooring to clean it with a solution of vinegar and orange peels as its been badly neglected over the years.

We do allow certain extras in the budget for sanity's sake ~ like an occasional meal out and the phone/internet. We also check regularly to see what our community resources are. We get DVD's from our library instead of going to the movies and participate in community events like movie night in the park, the town celebrations, and school plays.

Moving to a small town and cutting our commercialism was definitely a complete change of lifestyle for us at first and it definitely takes patience. It does not however mean no shopping. It can mean rather the opposite sometimes as you rarely find what you want at the first thrift store and you may end up with more purchasing power than you think. Unfortunately it can also mean that if you are out of something, it’s gone and that’s that. Sometimes at the end of the month you don't want to eat what’s left on the shelf in the pantry at all, so I like to make sure most foods I buy have multiple uses and multiple combinations (the garden helps here tremendously). Otherwise, our single car is 13 years old and needs tires, most of our clothing is second hand, being either hand me downs, pass arounds, or thrift store items. That's the biggest part of how I do it. I plan ahead and I shop my budget, not my wants or morals, or even my needs on some occasions. There are two more integral parts though, one I mentioned ~ our garden ~ and the other I did not ~learning.

I strongly suggest you at least try to have a garden; in your yard, in containers on the porch, deck or patio, in a plot in a community garden etc. It's well worth the investment. It can offset your food costs, it’s healthy, natural, and feeds your sense of independence and well being as well as your belly. I offer one or two caveats ~ grow what you like to eat and have patience! If you are like us there will be a learning curve. We have had a garden for four years and this is the first year we will reap the harvest. We did however buy a house and move before harvest time last year so maybe someone else got to enjoy a small bit of our handiwork.

Our final piece of advice is this ~ Plan to learn something new. Do research. Use the Internet, library, join a group, take a class etc. The goal is to change how you think about things or develop a skill. We have vastly improved our knowledge on a myriad of subjects. We try to focus at least a little on old fashioned know how and more traditional skills that don't always require power. For myself, this is primarily focused on whatever project is at hand, crocheting, and weeding the garden is ok too but I haven't quite found my homesteading passion yet. For Noel it would be all things Kaya, gardening and possibly traditional wood working. We live a pretty quiet life.

Don't let all this fool you. We still fall flat on our faces sometimes. There are medical issues and medications, moodiness and we do get sick and tired of scrimping and being broke. Especially around the holidays, birthdays, and back to school. Everyone likes brand new stuff once in awhile and on a tiny budget there are always bound to be some pitfalls. The biggest one we've encountered so far is that new equipment is expensive. It doesn't matter if its garden tools, a pressure canner, lawnmower, sewing machine, canning jars, wood stove or a dehydrator. So I cannot emphasize enough take care of what you have. Read the manuals. When it is time for a purchase most folks we have talked to recommended that we look for good used first and brand new second.

Some of the suggested sources I've received are: thrift stores, estate sales, garage sales, junk shops, Craigslist, Freecycle, eBay, Habitat for Humanity's Home Restore and just recently it was suggested I put up notices on local bulletin boards of what I'm looking for. I personally like Freecycle, though you have to be quick, I see it as a challenge and it fits my values.

It really is all about how you think of going about things. It's about fostering your own independence and abilities, whether they be in an emergency or in day to day life. It's about saving some money and being productive. It’s about knowing that you can live a life without debt, chemical additives, genetic modification, and destroying the planet. It’s knowing things can be simple again. Simpler isn't always easier but a small change can bring big results. It's about having good friends, a strong support group and good community that we can rely on instead of the government. I certainly hope Kaya is a part of that community and support group. Hugs to you and good luck!

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