Waking up to a chilling fresh air as you roll out of your warm bed covered in vintage handmade quilts. Then rushing to the wood stove to stoke the fire and heat a blackened old coffee pot as you peer out the window of your quaint cabin, soaking up the sun as it glistens across the dew covered grass has now become a typical morning for you. This may sound like a dream morning to most but to many of you living a simpler, more sustainable life is not just what you dream of but is what you are striving for each day. This sustainable movement, shall we call it, is growing more and more with a growing number of people realizing the healthier, sustainable and more fulfilling life can be had with less from the modern world and more from becoming closer to nature.
For almost two decades now this is what I have been striving for and I have noticed so much change in this area and a continual steady growth in popularity. When I first began this journey I could rarely find anyone who desired this same kind life, we were sparse and hidden away but now it seems I can find them all around me. This, of course excites me to know that I am not alone and that there are more and more people out there waking up and working for a simple lifestyle. This increase in popularity brings advancements and innovations that helps make this lifestyle more attainable, but like with many things, an increase in popularity can bring commercialization and a loss in authenticity and that is where I want to take this article.
I would never want to discourage or put anyone down for how they choose to live, each of us must find our own path. What I do want to talk about though is how there seems to be more and more “experts” and companies selling the next best thing in sustainable or off grid living or selling you this idea that for the right amount of money a sustainable life can be bought. I hope to encourage and maybe show you how it is possible to do this but on a much smaller budget. I hope to open your mind to think outside of the box and realize it is possible to switch your home to solar power and not spend $30k or spend the same on a tiny house. I don’t focus on what’s trendy or popular I look at the practical and what will get me closer to nature and less dependent on the system. Sure there are those out there with enough savings to just buy their way to self-sufficiency but for most of us that have already been trying to live this life for a while money usually your priority or something you have a lot of.
The point is not to discourage those that can afford to spend the money to do everything proper but to encourage those that can’t and show them self sufficiency is still possible. We have been conditioned as a society that we need certain conveniences to live a fulfilling life but I believe the truth is, it is these things in our lives that weigh us down and keep us from true freedom. Learning to live with less is a big step in that direction.
The first thing to learn and remember throughout this journey is that this is a lifestyle change not just buying a natural structure home or turning your house into an off grid dwelling. Being aware of this and making a daily effort to learn to live with less or use less will make this transition much easier and cheaper. I tell people all the time that it kind of defeats the purpose of living a low impact, self sufficient life of you’re still up to your eye balls in debt trying to live that way. So let’s talk about just three things that impact your life and can cause the biggest long term expense. Energy or utility use, food consumption and where to actually live like this.
Energy use is one of the biggest hurdles to over come. Whether your goal is low impact, natural living or self-sufficient, off grid independence most have a goal to eventually cut the umbilical cord from the utility company. For most people the easiest solution is the use photovoltaic solar cells or solar power. Solar energy is obviously readily available and the ease in harvesting it makes it a prime choice in off-grid systems. There is also hydro, wind and even fuel driven electric generator power but with those there are a lot more variables, so for the sake of this article we will stick with solar.
Fortunately the popularity in solar energy is causing the price to continually drop and the technology to increase the efficiency of the cells. Ten years ago complete systems could easily run $30-50k and now it’s possibly to pay less than $10k for complete systems. But we are going to see of we can get that price even lower.
Remember how I said this life is a lifestyle change and not just a different kind of house? Well this is what I am talking about. Most solar system calculators found online or expert salespeople to help you figure out what size of system you need are simply taking what you normally use or what an average household would use in electricity and converting that to how many solar panels you would need. So in the end you are taking a modern house with all the amenities and running them on solar. This is how you get the $15-30k price tag. The key to lowering your up front costs is altering your living habits and changing of eliminating your appliances. This alone can have a great impact in lowering the overall cost. Simple solutions like switching your light bulbs to LED bulbs, building a house with lots of windows or adding them for natural light, keeping things turned off when not being used and learning to live with less are some of the ways that will also lower your costs. Most houses now have several TVs and the HDTVs use about 3 times the energy of the older TVs doing away with all but one small one or having none with lower your energy needs. Learning to live without air conditioning and burning wood in the winter and either removing or changing the kinds of kitchen appliances can also change the equation. For instance refrigerators are a big drain but there are low energy options. Some choose ones that run on propane gas, others opt for much smaller units, there are also very high efficiency models that are about 10 cubic foot but use very little electric. I’ve even seen a chest deep freezer converted to run at refrigerator temps resulting in very low energy use. The point is that thinking outside of the box can mean a very big savings for you. Another way to lower your energy need is to try using mostly DC appliances instead of AC. Solar panels produce DC electricity and has to be converted to AC to run most appliances but a certain amount of energy is lost when the current is converted. There are several home appliances available that run on 12v DC power. One other way to save money when converting to solar panels is to make the panels yourself. The average solar panel runs around $3-350 but by buying the parts and building them yourself you can reduce that down to $150-200. You don’t have to be an electrical engineer and there are several YouTube videos out there showing you how easy it is. Battery storage costs can also be reduced by checking around at local companies that have large computer network systems to see if you can purchase their old batteries they use for backups. Most of these companies rotate them out long before the end of their life cycle making them a great money saving option.
Food, the very thing you must have to stay alive, can also be something that makes or breaks you when striving for a life of independence. Not only is it important but this is a subject that can be discussed in a lot of length so to keep this short I will try to cut to the point. Learn to raise your own food! Trying to live sustainably and independent is difficult and nearly impossible if you are still eating the same way with the same so called foods as the typical family. Changing your eating habits can not only save money but it also improves your health. This is a process that can take a year or two to get everything up and running to grow and preserve your own food supply but it is a job well worth the effort. For many though, that haven’t begun doing this, may see this as a daunting task and one that means sacrificing the foods you enjoy. Yes, there will be things to give up but trust me learning to live off of the food you produce can not only improve your health and lower your food bills it can be very fulfilling and empowering.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to most of you that many of the things found in your local grocery store have become less and less healthy and have very little real food in them. It has been estimated that anywhere from 60-80% of what is sold in your average grocery store did not even exist a half a century ago. With obesity, diabetes, cancer and many other health issues on the rise changing your diet to real foods that you or other local farmers grow is a necessity. Not only can you save money with your monthly food bill but over time the increased health can help lower many future medical costs.
But one might ask how it is possible to raise everything a family might need to eat and if that is the case, how much work that would entail? Well, you don’t have to. This is where building a strong community comes in to place. Networking with others to trade with them or even taking your goods to a farmers market can allow you to stick to growing or raising certain items and trading your extra harvest with others for the rest. In fact an ideal situation would be to have neighbors nearby that share your same lifestyle and instead of everyone trying to grow everything, each one of you grow only certain items so that as a community you are able to trade with each other for the things you don’t produce. This helps build a stronger community of neighbors and reduces the burden on each family to produce all of the items you might need individually. One family might produce milk while another raises a lot of tomatoes and the other more than enough eggs. This brings back something we have lost, the old barter system. One other point to food independence I want to add is this, Americans eat more meat than anywhere else on the planet. Continuing to consume large amounts of meat is not only unhealthy, it is not sustainable, so if you decide to continue to be a meat eater learn to eat less meat and make it more of a luxury and you will see many positive impacts in your journey of independence.
The last thing I want to cover is the location you might choose to live. Location, location, location as they say in real estate, is key to the success of this lifestyle. Sure there are factors in choosing your home site that may be out of your control (children, family, jobs and cost are just a few) but thinking outside of the box, like with many things when it comes to sustainable living, is a must. What may be considered a perfect house or piece of land for a typical household may not be ideal for this kind of life. Whether you have chosen to live sustainably in the city or out in the country side, doing your best to evaluate your choices can make for an easier journey down the road.
Some may be tied to the area you already live and must find a place nearby to begin this life, others may be able to move to another part of the country to start this process. Either way finding something affordable with the capability to support what you plan on doing should be at the top of your list. Fortunately in most areas the kind of land or house that might be perfect for sustainable living might not be what the typical person is looking to buy thus reducing the value of the property and making it more affordable. Look for small older farm houses or mobile homes on less than 5 acres or fixer uppers in the city. Remember smaller homes are cheaper to maintain and require less energy to run. A lot of your time is going to be spent outside so focus more on the land than the house on it. Maybe you’re wanting to build, so look for a place with a good mix of wood and open land. Small odd shape or odd number of acre plots can also be cheaper. Places out of the way and ones with less risk of future developments nearby are key. If you plan on being off grid from the start look for places that don’t have utilities on them or ones far from utility lines, they are generally cheaper. Also don’t just look for the popular areas to farm or the most scenic, this means the land is more valuable. Look for regions that seem untouched over the last half century (this works well for city and rural areas). Certain areas in most states can be much cheaper, just doing a little research on the internet should help you find them. For instance not far from where I live it’s still possible to find land for $800-1200 an acre or a small fixer upper on a decent size lot for $12,000-20,000. Being open minded and flexible can mean a big savings and will help in discovering areas more conducive to sustainable living. Of course there is a give and take in every situation. Usually cheaper land and housing also means lower wages but for many this may not be a problem if getting to the point of living off the land is one of your goals.
Once you decide on which the part of the country you want to live the next thing you would want do is to try find others in the area that live similar to how you want to live or are working towards the same goal. Look for community groups on Facebook for that area to possibly connect with others or spend time driving through the area looking for signs of people that might also be living a simpler life. Look for gardens, small chicken coops, solar panels, log or natural structure homes or even groups like Amish or Mennonite. In the city check on Craigslist, Facebook and google searches for any groups or clubs of like minded people. Although it’s very possible to live a self-sufficient and sustainable life on your own it is so much easier to experience and share this life with others around you working towards the same goals. Who knows it might even be possible for you and several others to cooperatively purchase a piece of land and build a self-reliant community together.
Remember that just because an area has become popularized for being known as natural or self-reliant area doesn’t always mean it’s the right one for you. It could be but always be open minded to other areas that might have more to offer at a better price even though they may not seem so on the surface.
By taking these ideas along with others and thinking outside of the box it can help you build your plan towards a dream of a simpler more sustainable life. Embrace the fact that more and more people are also choosing this life but be cautious and aware that the popularization of this life doesn’t always lead to workable solutions. Be wary of the $400 starter seed packages or $15k cabin plans. Not every aspect of this life is going to be as serene as a magazine article or Pinterest post. The reality is that most will have to work hard and come up with thrifty ways to see this through to success. No one said this lifestyle will be easy but it is empowering and fulfilling and I believe well worth the efforts.
– Travis Maddox from Anarchist Family