When you grow your own food, generate your own energy, and work from a home office or farm for your livelihood, the so-called “costs of living” largely disappear. You become untethered to the work-earn-spend consumer economy and thrive, instead, in a more locally centered, self-sufficient economy in which monetary income is less essential for a rich life. Making this self-sufficiency dream a reality has been our goal since my wife, Lisa Kivirist, and I moved to our 5 1/2-acre farmstead in southwestern Wisconsin in 1996.
Self-reliant living can take many forms. You can provide your own food and energy and be your own barber, repair person, home-school teacher, house cleaner, painter, and child care provider. By running a home-based business, you can generate the money needed to obtain essential products or services you’re unable to produce for yourself.
Transitioning to self-sufficient living requires research and planning. But have no fear: You can get started today, wherever you live and with whatever resources and skills you already have.
The Journey to Self-Reliance Begins
Today, our one-third-acre garden meets about 70 percent of our food needs. A wind turbine and a photovoltaic system generate a surplus of electricity annually. Our home-based enterprises include running a bed-and-breakfast named Inn Serendipity, consulting for various nonprofit organizations, and writing books about sustainable living. A modest farmhouse houses both our family and our businesses. But it didn’t start out this way.
We moved to our farm from Chicago, newly married and eager to begin our quest to reclaim the skills and services that we had been buying from others for so long. We wanted to break free from our fossil fuel addiction and sequester more carbon dioxide than we emit each year. We knew these goals would take years to achieve. Here are the strategies we have followed to make our vision a reality.
1. Be Frugal
Practice financial discipline by making a commitment to frugality. Forgoing luxuries, such as satellite TV and smartphone service, allows us to live below our means. We’ve never owned a new car or carried a balance on our credit card.
Why rent a movie when you can get it free from the library? “Shop” at clothing swaps, where you drop off the clothes your children have outgrown while picking up something new for yourself. We chop cords of firewood with neighbors and enjoy cooking with our Sun Oven solar cooker. The combined savings from these creative ways to share and use free resources, along with our food and energy production, allowed us to pay off our mortgage.
With our mortgage retired, we can live on about $10,000 a year. When we do purchase items, they’re high-quality and durable — many with warranties for a decade or more — and are bought from cooperatives when possible. As for retirement, why would we want to stop what we love doing?
2. Think Long-Term and Stay Put
Commit to a permanent location and develop a long-term vision. You will want to have a practical plan that you can achieve over a time period appropriate to your current stage of life. Taking on a project in your 50s that would require years to see through is not the same as doing so in your 20s. Be reasonable and honest with yourself regarding your abilities and project time frames.
We plotted our journey to self-reliance by the decade, leaving ample time to figure out projects big and small, from how to plant potatoes to how to take advantage of renewable energy incentives that made our home energy systems possible. We also factored in time to persevere when setbacks occurred — which they did, such as when a severe windstorm damaged all three blades on our wind turbine. We typically only take on one or two major self-sufficiency projects a year.
3. Get Back to Basics
Deciding where to start your journey can feel overwhelming. If you’re like we were — strung out on lattes, hunkered down in cubicles at stressful big-city jobs, living off biweekly paychecks — simply finding the time to think through the how, where and when is challenging. Raising kids and paying a mortgage or student loans can add to the stress.