Finding your self-sufficient sweet spot

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?

 

 

[This article originally appeared as a guest post on Self Reliance Exchange, but that site no longer exists and the successor site doesn’t seem to be using my post. Rather than just let the article disappear, I figured I’d post it here.]

Fabric on loom
Fabric on Loom

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?

My wife spins and weaves. I have a beautiful sweater that she hand knit from hand spun yarn. It’s wonderful—and it’s comforting to know that my household is not only self-sufficient in woolens, we produce a surplus that we can sell or trade. But the fact is you can buy a perfectly good sweater at Wal-Mart for less than the cost of the yarn to knit it.

If you try to be genuinely self-sufficient—in the sense of producing through your own labor everything your household uses, like a hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer—you’re going to be poor. Your neighbor who works at a job for wages or a salary is going to be better off by almost every measure.

Oh, his factory-made microwave meals won’t be as good as home-cooked food from your garden and his furniture from Ikea won’t be as good as what you make in your wood shop. But he’ll have so much more! In the time it takes you just to build a kiln he’ll earn enough money to buy a thirty piece set of Corelle ware. Unless he’s only making minimum wage, he’ll probably have enough left over to buy an iPod—and you’ll never be able to make your own iPod from sand and vegetable oil.

That’s why we have trade. If everybody specializes in one or a few things, and then trades with others for what they need, everybody can be better off. It raises your standard of living, but it means that you can’t be self-sufficient.

There are still many reasons to do for yourself. You can make exactly what you want, instead of having to make do with whatever happens to be available on the market. You can use superior materials, and take them from the environment in a sustainable manner. You don’t have to worry that the stuff you use was made in a sweatshop by children or prisoners or slaves. You aren’t dependent on the continued smooth functioning of the vast global economy. But you can’t be self-sufficient in very many things—even if you had the skills and the tools and the land, you’d quickly run out of time.

So, we find ourselves trying to figure out where we belong on the continuum between actual self-sufficiency and ordinary self-reliance. How do you find the sweet spot? Here are my thoughts:

  1. Focus on necessities. It’s a lot more important to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, and housing than it is to be self-sufficient in tennis rackets and rollerblades.
  2. Focus on capabilities. Instead of trying to fill your pantry by hunting and fishing, do enough to maintain and improve your skills—and then start developing your next capability.
  3. Focus on what’s practical. It’s really hard to be self-sufficient in window glass and impossible to be self-sufficient in digital watches. Don’t waste your time.

Start with the few things where homemade actually is cheaper, like gardening. Then move on to things that can be done as a hobby—and that you’d enjoy doing as a hobby. Don’t let point #1 above (necessities) keep you from developing self-sufficiency in something that’s fun and interesting just because it’s not important. It may not be important to be self-sufficient in beer, but the equipment is cheap, brewing is a pretty easy skill to acquire, and the result is better than what you can buy.

Finally, remember that there’s a vast range between being “self” sufficient and being dependent on a global supply chain. It’s almost as good as self-sufficiency to source things from your neighbors. Short of that, it’s still an improvement to source things closer rather than farther—your home town, your region, your state, your country.

Once you set your priorities, don’t hesitate to go with the cheapest option for things that don’t make the cut.  That frees up money that you can use on the important underpinnings of self-sufficiency—things like land and tools in particular, but also things like books, training classes, materials to practice with, and so on.

Then you’re in your sweet spot.

Who are the middle class?

As someone who’s written quite a bit about what’s a decent standard of living, I was intrigued by the post on the growing global middle class that Tobias Buckell just linked to in his post the exploding middle class to come. Toby includes a graph from the source article that shows a rapidly shrinking population of poor people, squeezed by modest growth in the rich combined with surging growth in the middle class.

I quickly clicked through to the source article, to see what their definition of “middle class” was, which turned out to be daily spending of between $10 and $100 per person.

Now, in a sense, that’s pretty reasonable. For a family of two that would multiply out to annual expenses between $7,300 and $73,000. At the low end there’s considerable overlap between “middle class” and “poverty” (the US Census Bureau has $13,991 as the poverty threshold for a family of two), but I think that’s fair: From a global perspective, just barely in poverty in the US probably counts as middle class.

But I know, from my own experience writing about our rising standard of living, that people have very strong feelings about these sorts of things. Would a couple getting by on $14,000 a year in the United States feel middle class? Some would. Some people, especially rural folks living a subsistence lifestyle, feel very strongly that they’re not poor, despite a money income below the official poverty threshold. But I don’t think that will be a typical response.

I wrote an article called “Our High, High Standard of Living,” that made the case that, just like in the 1950s, a working man could still support a family with just one income—as long as they lived at a 1950s standard of living. Full-time work at minimum wage would bring in just over $15,000 a year—not only solidly in “the middle class,” but comfortably above the poverty threshold. And yet, many commenters on that article suggested that it would be utterly impossible to support a family on that income.

My sense is that it would only be possible to live a middle-class lifestyle on $14,000 to $15,000 per year under very specific (very lucky) circumstances. At a minimum, you’d have to live in an inexpensive part of the country and you’d have to find unusually cheap housing close enough to where you worked that you wouldn’t need a car. You’d also have to be young and healthy. (My wife and I would qualify as part of the global middle class just on our health insurance spending. But if we had no money for food or a place to live, we wouldn’t feel very prosperous.)

I think this order-of-magnitude spending range for “the middle class” is also at the heart of Toby’s deeper issue—whether or not a rising middle class is good for the planet.

If we see surging growth in households moving out of poverty into the lower end of this range—able to spend $7,000 to $14,000 a year ($10 to $20 per day per person)—we’re likely to see some positive effects. People with that sort of income are in a position to say no to the most pernicious efforts to turn their neighborhoods into dumping grounds for toxic waste, to insist on some level of protection for nearby natural areas, and so on. But if we see surging growth in households moving into the upper reaches of middle class—able to spend $70,000 a year or more—I think we’re in big trouble.

Those people are going to want cars.

Created a bitcoin account

I noticed that my brother now had a bitcoin payment address at the bottom of his blog, so I figured I ought to send him something.

So, I signed up for bitcoin, followed a link that gives you a bitcoin nickel for free, and then sent 4 bitcoin cents of it to Steve.

Now I only have one bitcoin penny. If you’ve got a bitcoin account (or, if you’d like to create one and get your own free nickel), and want to send me some bitcoins (not that I can see why you would), here’s my payment address:

1JizYHL53sn64hG4Nt7s2Q5PMEYpRjrWPV

Then I’d have more than just one bitcoin penny.

Some bitcoin pennies would be great, but what I’d really like is some spesmiloj.

(Note: I’d actually feel kind of uncomfortable if someone I didn’t know personally were to send me either bitcoins or spesmiloj.)

Localization—not just for food

I spent the whole decade of the 1990s hoping that the economic upturn would prove that the strategy of letting employees go the instant there wasn’t any work to do was unwise. Surely, I thought, those companies would suffer—missing out on business because they didn’t have the skilled employees to do the work (and screwing up on what business they did get, because rushing to hire new employees would result in picking up some duds).

My hopes remained unfulfilled. Oh, probably plenty of companies did suffer from an inability to hire skilled, reliable workers at reasonable wages. Certainly employers complain that they can’t, especially when they’re lobbying Congress for an expansion of the H1 visa program. But it didn’t matter, because the company’s were profitable. (Profitable companies may do as they please; unprofitable companies must kowtow to the financial markets.)

I’ve written about this before, in a two part series at Wise Bread called “What’s An Employee To Do?” Part 1 laid out the issue in some detail, and part 2 talked about the best strategies for an employee to follow. (There’s actually a lot of opportunity for employees in the current situation, as long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking of themselves as employees.)

Prompted by Tobias Buckell’s recent post Working culture, though, I wanted to talk a little about the broader impacts of the way we’ve come to arrange society, because there were other reasons that employers kept employees on during a business downturn. Business owners kept employees on during a downturn because they cared about them as people, because they were friends and neighbors, because the whole community suffered when one person lost a job.

A small part of the reason that things are different now is that this is less true. Managers are not as likely to live in the same neighborhoods as their employees. They don’t shop in the same stores. Their kids don’t go to the same schools. In any case, the decisions are being made far away. (The local managers were completely out of the loop when the site where I used to work was closed down three years ago.)

But that’s just been an enabler of this shift. The real cause is the behavior of the financial markets, which since 1990 have crushed any employer that tries to resist, by driving its stock price low enough that someone could acquire them and bring in new management—management that would lay off plenty of workers.

This isn’t new, of course. Business owners knew that going public meant putting their business in the jaws of the financial market nutcracker—but they made so much money it was worth it. You occasionally hear about the rare business owner who has declined to go public for just that reason—but you hear about it because it’s rare enough as to be news.

As Toby describes, Germany has structures and institutions in place to support businesses that are small and local. Unions are a big one—including the government support for unions that encourage and enable unions to work together in a block. Also important are rules that lean against market pressures for business consolidation, offshoring employment, etc.

Personally, I used to support a purely market-based approach. That’s why I spent the 1990s waiting for markets to punish the bad actors. I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine to leave the fate of the companies up to the markets, but it unacceptable to leave to the markets the fate of whole communities.

Similarly, I used to support the notion that the right way to address this sort of issue was education (because I believe in free choice). Yes, stuff made by prisoners, slaves, and children costs less. Yes, stuff made by heavy industry costs less if the manufacturers are allowed to wreak environmental destruction all across their supply chain. But surely people would make different purchasing choices if they understood that they’re not only paying to have all this harm done, they’re also putting their friends and neighbors (and themselves) out of work. There again, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out, I simply didn’t understand how much cheaper that stuff was than stuff made locally.

Given the option to have the accoutrements of a middle-class standard of living—clothes, dishes, furniture, gizmos—it’s become clear that most Americans will cheerfully accept any amount of slave labor and environmental destruction (as long as they don’t have to see it) and tolerate the destruction of local businesses and the bankruptcy of their neighbors.

They’ll complain about how it affects property values and how it makes it tough to find a job. But then they’ll take their unemployment check and food stamps and go buy the cheapest stuff they can find at WalMart.

Neither markets nor eduction are going to do the job. The U.S. needs to create institutional support along the lines of what Germany provides.

Recycling for apartment dwellers

Recycling Bin
Recycling Bin

To me, recycling is kind of a declaration of failure. It’s a statement that that I needed something so badly that I couldn’t just do without it, nor make do with something I already had, and yet didn’t need it so badly that it made sense to buy an item of enduring value—something I’d keep, rather than tossing into the recycling.

Champaign-Urbana, though, is very much a recycling kind of place. Locals in both communities have long had curb-side recycling—but only people who live in houses. For some insane reason, there was no easy way for people in apartments to recycle. (There was a “recycling center,” but it wasn’t satisfactory—it was 3.6 miles away, and really only accessible by car. You could get there by bus, but it took an hour—and you still had to cover a mile of the distance on foot.)

The story, as I understand it, was that apartment dwellers weren’t the sort to take to recycling: They were too lazy, too uninvolved, too low-class. Only house dwellers were the sort of upright people who cared enough about their environment and community.

It’s a story that pisses me off, because apartment living is much more sustainable than vast suburbs of detached homes. To simply dismiss people like me (who chose to live in an apartment on the grounds of simplicity, frugality, and energy efficiency) over an offensive stereotype of apartment dwellers is annoying.

Far more annoying, though, would be to have that stereotype vindicated by my neighbor’s behavior. And the opportunity to find out has arrived here in Champaign. A few weeks ago, recycle bins appeared next to our big dumpsters (sealed shut with a strip of tape asking us not to dump recyclables until Thanksgiving). We all got fliers asking us to feed the thing.

So far, I haven’t seen much use by other residents. We don’t use it a lot, because we don’t produce much recyclable waste, but we have started separating our cans, bottles, paper, and cardboard from the food waste. But even if our neighbors are quite conscientious about reducing and reusing, I’d expect to see more recyclables than I do.

It’s not looking good for team simple-living. Let’s hope it’s just some combination of newness and holiday craziness—that by early next year, my neighbors will be recycling up a storm.

I really don’t want the stereotype of the disengaged apartment dweller to be true.

[Updated 2011-03-11: Once the recycling bins had been in place for a couple of weeks, my neighbors started doing a much better job of putting the recyclables into the recycling. Phew.]

The moderately grim truth

Via Dmitry Orlov, I happened upon America: The Grim Truth, which I think is worth reading, even though I disagree with both the forecast and the prescription.

It’s worth reading because I think it’s actually pretty good descriptively—it nails the split between the reality of the current situation and the average American’s perception of it. I am persistently amazed at the things that Americans just accept.

On food:

Much of the beef you eat has been exposed to fecal matter in processing. Your chicken is contaminated with salmonella. Your stock animals and poultry are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics.

On education:

In most countries in the developed world, higher education is either free or heavily subsidized; in the United States, a university degree can set you back over US$100,000. Thus, you enter the working world with a crushing debt. Forget about taking a year off to travel the world and find yourself – you’ve got to start working or watch your credit rating plummet.

On wealth:

America has the illusion of great wealth because there’s a lot of “stuff” around, but who really owns it? In real terms, the average American is poorer than the poorest ghetto dweller in Manila, because at least they have no debts. If they want to pack up and leave, they can; if you want to leave, you can’t, because you’ve got debts to pay.

On freedom:

Why would anyone put up with this? Ask any American and you’ll get the same answer: because America is the freest country on earth. If you believe this, I’ve got some more bad news for you: America is actually among the least free countries on earth. Your piss is tested, your emails and phone calls are monitored, your medical records are gathered, and you are never more than one stray comment away from writhing on the ground with two Taser prongs in your ass.

Even though I agree with just about all of that, I disagree on the prospects for the future.

First of all, the current situation is still an improvement over most of US history. Through our whole first century and a half, the average American lived a life just as dangerous, just as precarious, and just as vulnerable as the one described above. And if the average American didn’t owe just as much money, it was only because he didn’t have access to that much credit.

My point is not that things are okay now, but rather that the fact that things got better serves as an existence proof that getting better is something that can happen.

Second, although the situation in the US is very bad for someone who has gotten caught in the wage-slave/debt-slave trap, it remains possible in the US to opt out. It’s actually pretty easy, as long as you avoid debt. And avoiding debt is pretty easy: just don’t let yourself be sucked into the consumer lifestyle. There’s an awful lot of crap for sale—don’t buy it. There are plenty of big houses for sale—don’t buy one. You can live in a bigger, nicer apartment if you’re willing to live an hour’s drive from where you work—but if you live where you can walk to work, you don’t have to buy a car. With the money you save, join the rentier class.

I think we ought to change things, and I think it would be great if we could get the government to set rules that would encourage those changes—require uncontaminated food, prohibit predatory lending, protect workers from abuse, etc. But individuals can actually make those changes in their own lives without needing the government to act.

So I don’t see a need to flee the country. But that doesn’t mean that I think things are okay—which is why I think that’s a post worth reading.

On the ethics of submitting to airport security

I don’t want to say that I’m never going to fly again. I’d fly—if it were necessary to hurry to the bedside of a sick relative or to rescue someone. I might, just possibly, fly in order to take the vacation of a lifetime. But routine flying? I’m done with it. I’m simply no longer willing to participate in the system.

Megan McArdle hits almost the right note in this piece in the Atlantic: Dear Airline, I’m Leaving You. She seems to get the ethical aspect of being a willing participant in an immoral system, although she plays it for laughs.

Through most of the past decade, I flew on business a couple times a year. I got to watch as airport security became more and more a kind of shamanistic ritual better suited to deflecting blame in case of a terrorist incident than actually preventing one.

It always annoyed me—the pointlessness, more than the actual inconvenience. But even more than that, the fact that I submitted to it was a blow to my self-image. I take security seriously—all those business trips were for my work on Bluetooth security. As a person who takes security seriously, I really hated my role in the mock security at airports. Each time I submitted to it, simply because it was the only way to get where I needed to go, I thought less of myself.

I also worry about the TSA agents. Where I was only playing a brief role in the security theater, they were doing it as a career. How soul-destroying must it be when your whole career is performing pointless acts of mock security?

And spending your working life doing mock security is nothing compared to what those poor TSA guys and girls are doing now. Spending your days staring through the clothing of the traveling public? Getting paid to grope a steady stream of tourists and business people? No one with good moral character could do the work—which means that any such people will be quickly driven out of the job. Soon the only TSA agents left behind will be degenerates who don’t understand why what they’re doing is wrong.

And that is what I refuse to participate in. It’s not that I worry about people seeing me naked, nor about someone touching me inappropriately. It’s that the whole system is wrong. It mandates behavior that is uncivilized, unethical, harmful to everyone involved.

If I fly again, it will be because I’m doing something so important that it outweighs the harm of participating in the degrading system of mock security our society has foolishly bought into. That’s a pretty high standard.

[Update: After posting this I discovered TSA Enhanced Pat Downs : The Screeners Point Of View, which shows pretty clearly that many of the screeners know what they’re doing is wrong.]

Guest post #2 at Get Rich Slowly

Back in July I got a note from J.D. Roth, who was lining up some guest posts to run on Get Rich Slowly while he and his wife were on vacation in France and Italy. I was pleased to be asked once again, and wrote a piece that I ended up being rather pleased with. . . .

Back in July I got a note from J.D. Roth, who was lining up some guest posts to run on Get Rich Slowly while he and his wife were on vacation in France and Italy. I was pleased to be asked once again, and wrote a piece that I ended up being rather pleased with. It went live this morning: Why Now is the Time to Think Long-Term. (Spoiler alert: low interest rates are the reason that now is the time to think long-term.)

About twenty-five years ago (as an example of long-term thinking), I had a whimsical investment idea: Buy some cheap land and plant hardwood trees. The trees wouldn’t be ready to harvest for 100 years or so, but it would have been a cheap investment with (eventually) a fairly large payoff.

It takes a certain perspective to make such a long-term investment. I call it a whimsical idea because I’d never have been able to enjoy the financial return. I was already in my mid-20s at the time. Even if I’d selected the hardwoods for quick maturity, they wouldn’t have been ready until I was well into my 90s.

It’s a topic I’ve been aware of since the early 1980s, when very high interest rates produced a spate of very short-term thinking. (In particular, my dad’s publisher tried to weasel out of a book contract, because it seemed more profitable to invest their money in the money market at a guaranteed 14% than to invest it in a book that might not make so much.)

When rates are high, it doesn’t make any economic sense to think long-term. But when rates are low, long-term projects are suddenly reasonable. Since just now rates are at multi-generational lows, Now is the Time to Think Long-Term.

Financial disaster stories—mortgage crisis

I always enjoy James Howard Kunstler’s rants, and the recent revelation of sloppy bank record-keeping gives him a good jumping-off point.

It’s true that this rather seems to be a third strike by the banks. First, they lent money to people without regard to whether the borrower would be able to make the payments. Second . . . .

I always enjoy James Howard Kunstler’s rants, and the recent revelation of sloppy bank record-keeping gives him a good jumping-off point.

It’s true that this rather seems to be a third strike by the banks. First, they lent money to people without regard to whether the borrower would be able to make the payments. Second, they made loans on houses that were wildly overpriced thanks to the housing bubble. And now, strike three, it turns out they did such a poor job of record-keeping that they may not be able to prove that they own the mortgage on the house!

The value of those mortgages was already somewhat doubtful, given that the banks only option was to foreclose and sell the house for a fraction of its bubble-inflated value. But if their bad record-keeping means that they can’t even foreclose, maybe the paper is worth zero. If the paper is worth zero, Kunstler figures the results will be dire:

With fraud absolutely everywhere in our banking system, like some advanced metastatic cancer, financial metabolism comes to a sickening stop. Nobody can buy or sell property. Nobody can trust any American financial institution. Money can’t circulate. Nobody will be able to get any money.

Personally, I doubt if most of the records are really lost. If the banks are willing to spend the money—hire a bunch of researchers, archivists, and paralegals along with some secretaries and assistents—I expect they can prove most of the mortgages. But it’d be expensive.

My hope is that this will mean, finally, that the banks will have a real incentive to do what they should have been doing right along—renegotiate the mortgages, writing the value of the mortgage down to something under the fair market value of the house, and the interest rate down to current market rates. If they keep proper records of these new mortgages, they can sweep the problem of the old, sloppy records under the carpet.

So, I’m rather more optimistic than Kunstler on this issue. In fact, I think it just might save us.

Retirement, health insurance, financial institutions up at Currency site

Currency, a new personal finance site sponsored by American Express, has just gone live with several articles by me. . . . .

Currency, a new personal finance site sponsored by American Express, has just gone live with several articles by me.

On retirement

The main article is How Much Money Will You Need to Retire?

It appears along with sidebars:

On health insurance

The main article is How Freelancers Can Budget for Health Insurance.

It appears along with sidebars:

On financial institutions

The main article is Should You Put Your Money in an Alternative Financial Institution?

It appears along with sidebars:

You may have noticed my posting on Wise Bread was a bit sparse lately. Part of the reason is that I was writing all of those. Enjoy!