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How-to ~ Ideas
Juggling outside work with a long list of 'things I want to do' on the homestead is a challenge at best, not to mention all of the off-the-homestead activities you strive to fit in. Snuggling oneself into the constraints of time doesn't always come easy, but it can be a fun game if you go at it with a cooperative mind, consider the abundant choices with interest, and allow the changes to happen. And don't forget to make a list.
Changing Jobs / Changing Life - 2003
Several years ago Steve cut his part-time, too-often-stretching-to-full-time, computer tech job to one day a week. He wanted to get back to his neglected art and woodworking. This worked fine -- for awhile. Then the one day a week expanded to two, then three, sometimes four, and more. Necessary homestead chores and usual trips out took up the remaining time, and the pile of chips and shavings in the woodshop remained pretty small.
Meantime, I continued to try to fit my own artwork and writing into the busy life of the all-too-often lone homesteader. The major projects that I couldn’t do myself started piling up, and we were both becoming frustrated at not having enough studio time. Plus, we just plain missed working together. Our life pace had, once again, become too harried.
It was time for a change, time to focus on what we really wanted, what was truly important.
We knew the drill. We’d gone through this many times before. Although a major (or sometimes minor) change in livelihood has its anxieties, it can also be exhilarating, freeing, and fun. The only difference this time was that we didn’t make the decision over many cups of coffee at a local restaurant, which had, for some reason, been the pattern in the past. Steve just one day said he thought it was time for him to retire from the school (as Technology Coordinator/Administrator) and focus on his artwork. And I said, sounds good to me.
Which is vaguely reminiscent of what happened twenty-some years ago when we decided to move from steady earning jobs in the city, to who-knew-what in the country. Steve one day said he was moving to the northwoods. I said, sounds good to me. That was a much bigger change. But that was when we made our first List.
I have fond memories of that list. Though short on experience (particularly me), we had dreams and enthusiasm. We read and studied and planned and made notes and drawings. And made lists. Lists of what we thought we needed to make a go of it on our new homestead. Lists of things we didn’t have. Tools, supplies, materials, equipment. As the plans coalesced, Steve pulled the lists together into one. Typed up and made pocket-size on a reducing Xerox, we carried this list with us everywhere. It became one of our more important tools.
Some things on the list were purchased a little at a time, such as canning jars and honey (except for the one large jar that broke through the bottom of a grocery bag to crash and splat all over the sidewalk -- a memorable mess). Some of the larger items (Troy-Bilt rototiller, Garden Way cart, welding unit) were purchased as we sold what we had but would no longer need (Lotus Europa sports car, Triumph motorcycle). We spent a lot of time in hardware stores. And many weekends found us at the auctions, bidding and buying such prizes as baler twine, copper boiler, lard press.
It was a fun time. The list helped keep us focused. As items were crossed off, we knew our homestead was getting closer. It wasn’t really that much stuff. When we moved, everything went in one large U-Haul, including a lot of bulky (and heavy) building materials. But it gave us a sense of security and confidence that was as important as the array of hammers we’d collected, which Steve assured me would be useful but of which I was quite skeptical.
We didn’t get everything on our list before we went. And we added things here and there that weren’t on it. But since we were heading to a homestead with no buildings but a small 6’x 8’ camper cap on plywood base home, we didn’t want a lot of stuff anyway. Most of our load found its new home under a large sheet of plastic. It was a great way to begin.
Many of the most important things we took with us weren’t even on the list -- enthusiasm, learning, sense of humor, a willingness to work (on the homestead and off), enough money to get by on for awhile, several cases of canned goods. But most of the other stuff came in handy. Some of it right away, some of it much later ...
Such as that heavy duty cast iron lard press, one of my own exciting auction finds that I gradually lost enthusiasm for as we moved it and stored it and moved it and stored it for so many years. Having never raised hogs we never had much use for a lard press. But one can’t just throw away such potential as the quality screw and gear on the thing. Then, last year, I saw a picture of my old lard press in an old wine book, only they called it a Fruit Press. Ah hah! I knew I couldn’t use it as it was for fruit (I’d thought of that long ago) because it was made of iron and worn plated steel. But, turned over to the inventor/tinkerer of the family (Steve) it came back with a new wooden basket, wood pressing plate, and wood drain plate. It works great.
I have less fond memories of the more expensive non-ssessities we bought and hauled. Like the shredder-grinder (obnoxiously noisy thing) (sold for a little to a friend), the Garden Way cart (eventually completely rebuilt to be usable and could have been built for very little to begin with), the too expensive and very heavy used Kalamazoo wood cookstove, purchased from a friend, with a cracked top, grates that didn’t fit, and a rusted oven (sitting in the woods behind the shed). Ah well, there are worse mistakes to be made.
I’ve recreated the list as best we can remember it. It was a good way to begin building our homestead while living in the city.
come-a-long peanut butter
200' 1/2" nylon rope salt
100' 3/8" nylon rope sugar
cant hook canning jars
drawknife canning lids
pitchfork baler twine
splitting maul bushel baskets
100' meas tape wood cookstove
masonry trowels heating stove
4 ft level Aladdin lamp
chalkline oil lamps
froe pressure canner
pick waterbath canner
work boots rototiller
winter boots cement mixer
work gloves chain saw
Since then our "pre-move" lists and plans have changed, as our lives have. Our subsequent moves have been livelihood related, not physical. We have little need now for more things (getting rid of accumulated stuff seems to be more important nowadays). Things on our to-buy list are usually quite specific, usually a tool or materials for woodshop or homestead. If we can afford it, we buy it. If not, we wait until we can. Or we make it (preferably). Or do without.
Looking back at our family income over the past 25 years is to see a wildly fluctuating up and down graph (our business name of "ManyTracks" is not without reason). Our full-time outside employment was heaviest in the early years when we had need to pay for our homestead. But throughout that time is a steady line of being self-employed. Sometimes one of us, sometimes both, usually at several different endeavors. The changes occur when one of us decides it’s time to leave a regular job to pursue an irregular one, or to stop going down one or another self-employed path. The change usually means going from steady income to unsteady, and from more to less. And that means doing some serious planning on the economic front first.
Time to haul out the "Economics" folder, and a different kind of list.
We’ve saved our various planning lists over the years, and it’s interesting to look back to see where we’ve been, how our "needs" have changed over the years. But the basic format has stayed the same. How much money do we need to get by? What can we happily live on? We’re not talking probably-never-happen-but-just-in-case-survival here, we’re talking about living. Everyday satisfied living. Which is different for different people, of course. Your list will be different than mine. But a dead honest list of your needs/desires can be a down-to-earth analysis of your beliefs and priorities, what you truly judge as important. It can also be a releasing freedom if you realize that you can happily get by on less money than you thought. Less stuff. Make the necessary changes, and you’re on your way to (often) a less stressful life.
But first you have to decide where you are. To do this we have now and then made a month or two project of writing down every expenditure, no matter how large or small, in a notebook. One page for each category, such as: gasoline, vehicle, food, junk food, business, clothing, homestead, garden, sundries. Whatever we spend money on. And I do mean EVERY penny spent. Often the most important expenditures to list are the easiest to skip -- the candy bar, the bottle of pop, the magazine, the little something that caught your eye as you walked by an aisle filled with expendable little somethings. Be honest and committed. Write it all down. Every day. For several months. Then add it up. And look it, and yourself, straight in the eye.
What is truly needed? What can you do without? What can be made instead of purchased? Borrowed instead of owned? What is important to you, and what isn’t? How much of your buying is habit, how much need, how much desire or a substitute for something else? Will it make you happy? More satisfied? There's no right or wrong, just a whittling away of excess so you can see the thing straight on.
Now is the time to make any changes in buying habits you want to make, before you make a change in income. If you can’t do it now, if it isn’t important enough to you to do it now, you won’t be happy doing it later. Besides, being able to cut back on unnecessary buying is a great boost to the spirit anytime. And we all can use a bit of that.
We always find a few surprises here. Things that had slipped in without notice, but could very well slip out again with just a little work or awareness. Others that, with a little thought and planning, could be reduced. And some things that could be had cheaper, but for reasons of quality or environment, we choose the more expensive. We don’t wait for a change in income before making changes in our spending. It’s an ongoing thing. Being able to live happily on less is what gives us the freedom to live and work as we do, which, in general, tends to be not very high on the money-making scale.
Now, on to the Economics List.
Ours is divided into several sections.
The first are the absolutes. The bare minimum. This is the money we make sure we
have set aside for at least a year ahead, so no matter what happens, we have a
reasonably comfortable margin, a year to react without having to scramble simply
to get by. These are the not-to-be-raided funds.
Minimum car insurance and license plates
Food we don’t grow (grains, oil, raisins)
Miscellaneous (gas for car, chainsaw)
Medical (eye glasses, dental) (we self treat for other health related issues)
Entertainment (plays, concerts, library cards, eating out)
Discretionary odds and ends
After trimming all the unnecessary fat and frou frou, we add it all up and come up with our yearly and monthly totals. This is how much money we feel we need to live a satisfactory life. This is how much money we need to earn. For us, this bottom line is around $500 a month. So, whatever we do for livelihoods, it needs to bring in a total of at least $500 a month, or $6000 a year.
If we want to make a major purchase above this bottom line, we will need to earn the extra money for it. Borrowing doesn’t fit into the satisfied life picture in our opinions so that isn’t an option we consider. We haven’t paid any interest in the last twenty years. We’ve been there in the past and don’t want to go there again. We often look at a pending purchase this way. Say it is a tool that will cost $300. If we had an extra $300, we ask, is that what we would spend the money on? Surprisingly often the answer is no. And the item we were considering loses its importance. Another way we look at it is to figure out how many hours one of us has to work at whatever money-making job we’re doing, and ask if that item is worth that many hours of work. Is it a good trade, a satisfactory barter?
Time also helps. I put the item on a list. If it’s still there next week, or next month, I consider it a little more closely. Still there the next list? Maybe I’ll do some shopping. Getting tired of transferring it from list to list? I take it off, it wasn’t that important after all. I find this works well for many little things. It also works well that I don't like to shop.
This helps keep our financial situation at a comfortable level. When we have less, we live on less, and know we can do so quite happily. When we have more, we buy the bicycle we’ve been wanting. Make the larger donation to those causes we want to support. Go to a play, eat out, stay overnight so we don’t have to drive home in the middle of the night (dodging deer by headlight). The decisions we make now are different than the decisions we made twenty years ago, or ten. And I’m sure are different from those we’ll make ten years hence. But they all have that comfortable base of knowing where we stand, how much we have, how much we want, how much (or little) we can get by on. We have been as happy at subsistence levels as when we have had more of a cushion.
Granted, our highest sense of security isn’t on any list -- the skills we’ve gained by doing, by learning, by our willingness to do it ourselves instead of buying it, the knowledge that there are friends and neighbors to help if we should need it, and that we are here to help them should they need it. But as we live in a money based society, there is also the security of knowing where we are, how much or how little we need to live on, and what options we have.
And now (2003)? Well, we are now both full time artists, and homesteaders, and part-time writer. Steve left his Computer Tech/Admin job in the fall of 2002. We haven’t a lot of money, working at a livelihoods that are long on hours and short on pay, and our lists are pretty small. But it is a good life, and satisfying work. And a very good way to live.
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Copyright © 2003 by Susan Robishaw
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