Hey look at me! I’m writing a series! :0 I started with some reflections on my own definitions of self-suffiency, and where my husband and I are at with our goals. Then I offered some thoughts and historical perspective on our economic and ecological relationship with land. In this post, I’m muddling through my thoughts and dreams around the dilemmas of income: how do we make a living off the land, or should that even be a goal? Is the need to make a living from our land actually structuring the way we use and abuse it?
So. Money. Yeah, ugh. The root of all evil or the secret to freedom and happiness? Discuss. (This is a generational test ;). The answer is here. (at 5-6 mins in, if you don’t have the patience) Ah 1994. Good times.)
As part of the Skipper and my discussions on how to live in a more ecologically sound way, the question of money comes up pretty regularly. We struggled for a long time on the subject of whether buying a home and property was feasible or even desirable. Now that we have a little piece of land, and we’re happily working away on the garden, the boat, the house, we have regular discussions about how we might be able to live this life full time, rather than having to go out to work. Our commute (we each drive 45 minutes in opposite directions) is the least sustainable part of our lives, and although we feel lucky to have good-paying jobs that we generally like very much, we have no trouble imagining more idyllic ways to live. At the same time, we recognize that these idyllic lifestyles (more on this coming) are both potentially real and an incredible privilege that forever define us as incomprehensibly wealthy in the scheme of things.
I’ve noticed that we’re not the only ones who regularly talk about living off the land as a more meaningful way not just to live, but to make a living. There is a ton of discussion out there about small-scale farming as a way to reconnect alienated city-dwellers with their food, to create a more sustainable food-production system, and there are a lot of alienated city-dwellers who get interested in doing that sustainable food production themselves, as a way to reconnect with the environment (like me!). But is it just me, or is part of that discussion of how much we want to get out of the city also a kind of longing to get out of the wage economy? To somehow opt-out of modern industrial capitalism all together by finding ways to produce directly (food, energy, clothing, etc) those things that industrial society usually produces for us, albeit not usually in an environmentally sustainable way?
So here’s the dilemma as I see it. We want out of the wage economy, which feels like we’re contributing to the problem and that takes us away from the places we want to put our life’s energy. But we need money to buy the land that we might be able to make a living off of, and if we need to make a living off the land, then we need a bigger piece of property, which means we need even more money. There are multiple ways to finance that purchase (and as discussed in Self-Sufficiency 2 probably ways around the purchase part at all), but most of them mean more debt.
[Aside: I was highly influenced by Your Money or Your Life‘s definition of money AS life energy. Think about it: we only have so many hours of life. In the wage economy, we are trading those hours of life for money, which we then use–in typical North American lifestyles and in the book’s argument–to buy things which either allow us to work more or compensate for the stress and emotional disconnection of the job. A vicious cycle. ]
I know I went through the next logical question: do I have to earn money at all? I talked previously about how we cannot be islands unto ourselves and produce everything we need to survive. But is money an essential part of the community relationship? Some folks are experimenting with barter and trade economies, local economies, and even cashless lives. Others are reducing their expenses to the extreme, to find out how much little they need to save in order to be financially independent sooner. Your Money or Your Life advocates this process: figure out what the most meaningful, sustainable lifestyle is for you, and then work to save enough to perpetuate it.
I spent many years trying to go this route. I simplified my life dramatically, worked to save as much money as I could, and fantasized about being financially independent (or retiring early, as most call it). At the moment of financial independence, I would no longer NEED to work for a living, and then I could live life freely. (There is a huge not-so-underground movement of people out there working toward and dreaming about this, and the crash hasn’t slowed them down–too many links to add, but ask if you’d like to look at some)
But I ran into a couple of stumbling blocks. The first was that I never actually earned much money. I naturally–for the same reasons I was interested in getting out of the wage economy–gravitated towards jobs that were rewarding in all ways other than financially! I spent 13 years in post-secondary education, many years in child and youth care, and did a variety of other part-time jobs. I was the only person I knew who managed to SAVE a little money while doing these jobs, but only a little. But eventually, between my husband and I, we were able to start getting into the black, and we started to think about the best way to manage and invest our money. This is where the second stumbling block comes in.
In all of the personal finance books out there, it’s clear that the only way to become financially independent in a short-ish period of time (like before you’re too decrepit to enjoy it!) is to make a return of some sort on your savings that will outpace inflation (ie to keep your savings equal in the future to the purchasing power they have today). The usual advice is to earn lots, save most of it, invest it in the stock and bond markets in some way, retire, live off the returns on your savings plus a little bit of the principle as necessary. (Much discussion usually follows on the “safe withdrawal rate”. No double entendre intended).
Now I am not a math and numbers person, but I gave learning about all this stuff a valiant try for several years. But the fundamental paradox is clear: in order to take your life energy out of the industrial capitalist system, you have to invest your money (= life energy) back into the industrial capitalist system. Sigh. Couldn’t find a way to resolve that paradox, for now keeping some ethical funds going in small amounts.
During the last couple of years of upheaval that led us to many of the life changes we’re now enjoying, I questioned most of my own assumptions about life. I wondered why I had become so pre-occupied with early retirement. Why did I not want to “work” ? (work for me was never the same as “labour”–I don’t mind “labouring” I just didn’t want to think about jobs, careers, etc) What was it about my life that I wanted to retire from, and more importantly, what did I think I was going to do with my time once I was free? What was the life that I was trying to get to, and–the big question–perhaps there was a way to live that life without financial independence first?
We put the questions aside temporarily and focused on lifestyle. Our wage jobs allowed us to buy a lovely little house on a lovely little piece of property. They enable us to live in the way that makes us very happy. We are very happy. But we’re still commuting. Maybe that’s ok.
But if living full-time on and working out of our home is what looks like dream life to us, what are our options? And are they any more ecologically sound? Part 2: The Pros and Cons of Small-Scale Farming (as I see them ;))