Self-Sufficiency vs Self-Reliance

This summer was a bit of social experiment for me. After finishing teaching for the year in June, I’ve been off for July and August, which also cut my income in half. It was a chance to really think through how much money we need, how much we can do for ourselves, and how much we need to work. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to live out those questions, instead of just trying to intuit solutions from reading our bank statements!

I’ve read a lot about how farmers can’t make ends meet without an off-farm job (or 2!). I’ve also read about the 1970s back to the land movement, and how money became the downfall for many who gave it their best shot. In Back From the Land, Eleanor Agnew shares what she feels was a pretty typical cycle. She and her husband were urban professionals in their late 20s when they decided to sell their house and buy a homestead in the country. They had no running water or reliable electricity, but they had Mother Earth News to guide them! They put all of their energy into making the simple life work: improving the old house, putting in and eating from a huge vegetable garden, making their own clothes, bartering for what they couldn’t do themselves. But they were living remotely, and so they needed a car. They had an old car, and it periodically needed repairs. They or one of their children would get sick or injured. Any of these kinds of expenses would be more than they could handle financially, so eventually one of them had to go and find work. But working in a town meant that the car HAD to work, and eventually they simply got deeper into debt. The stress of it all ultimately led to the break up of the marriage, and the author moved into the city, went to graduate school, and was forever grateful for the opportunities that an urban, more conventional life gave her. (This is a really quick and superficial synopsis.  It’s an enlightening read!)

Discussions about the simple life over the last ten years seem to have started from the assumption that we, North Americans collectively, are living urban or suburban lives of mindless consumerism and dysfunctional frivolity. There is a strong suggestion that all we need to do is get our spending under control and we will be able to stop working in short order. It is assumed that we earn a reasonable living, and so without destructive consumer habits, we should be able to save considerable amounts of money each year, and then as long as we live simply from then on, we’re set.

It’s a good theory, and it has clearly worked for many people–I suspect especially boomers who really do earn substantial incomes and maintain expensive lifestyles. And it’s also true that the Skipper and I see in our own community many who earn less than we do and who spend much more on the latest gizmo–especially big trucks and boats. We can only guess how these are financed.

But the Skipper and I have spent the last number of years paring down, paying off our debts, and simplifying our lives. It paid off when we were able to make this move and buy our wee sailboat. And this summer, we were able to take our lives to the next level of the simple living experiment: growing almost all of the produce we ate, fishing for most of our protein, and having only one person working and commuting. It was blissful (well, for me!), but also enlightening.

This summer I’ve learned that we can only simplify so much, and that infrastructure matters. My mother is on the verge of retiring, and she’s concentrating on how to manage her life in terms of monthly expenses. This is what we need to focus on too. If we want to work less, then our monthly expenses need to come down, and food is only part of that picture. Our hydro bills are high, because everything in our home, including our furnace, is electric. A woodstove would bring those expenses WAY down. We will continue to grow our produce, and will work on becoming self-reliant in food over the next few years. But in the short term, we need to build up our raised beds, which means some up-front costs as well. We love our sailboat, which means continuing to pay moorage and some maintenance expenses. We want to continue to improve our home, which means some reno costs in the coming years. We hope that increasing the value of our home may give us some options down the road, but again, there will be some up front costs.

So even with me as housecleaner, gardener, cook, and financial manager, and with the Skipper as carpenter, painter, car mechanic, house maintainer, and fisher, we need income now so that we can keep our monthly expenses lower in the long term.

And so I’m going back to work.  I’m also shifting focus from goals of self-sufficiency (get me out of the capitalist labour market!) to self-reliance, which to me means gradually moving away from looking to the industrial economy to meet our needs and looking towards a life that is emotionally, psychologically, physically, and financially sustainable and sustaining for both me and the Skipper.  I feel dramatically better about working in this context, and I’m excited about what work might look like in this next phase of life.

So, for now at least, “dropping out” is out and reliable paychecks are back in.  But don’t worry–we’re still rebels!

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4 thoughts on “Self-Sufficiency vs Self-Reliance

  1. This is a tough really struggle. In my gut, I believe it is only possible to truly drop out if you have paid off all debt and have built up a nest egg that can sustain your entire family for at least a few years as you retool how you make money. This is what I am working to do. Paring down costs as much as possible is step one. Total debt eradication (including mortgage) is step two. Building up enough saving to sustain the family for a few years is step three. I admit that this is possible because I make a very good salary. On a typical middle income salary this would be tough indeed. I’m glad to hear that even though you can’t drop out right now, you are still a rebel and still working to find the best way to be self reliant.

  2. Sad that your book review ended up that self-sufficiency broke up their marriage and disillusioned them a bit. (By the superficial sound of it.) Definitely know what you mean about cutting back and making sure you’re paying out for what you really value.

    It’s amazing as we make the transition to living on a boat, what expenses we realize we can do without and then how they get gobbled up by things we need in order to live comfortably. It’s a completely different lifestyle which I feel very blessed to try out.

  3. You two are so inspiring! Sandy, you and your family deserve huge credit for accomplishing so much while swimming against the cultural tide. I’ll look forward to reading about how the next phase goes. Amanda, you’re so right about how the monetary needs don’t seem to disappear, just to shift. You simplify some things out, and then new needs rear their heads. Such is life, I guess! I’m hoping some of these costs will be start-up infrastructure costs, though, and that life itself will become less expensive, but habits are hard to break, and time will tell.

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