Everything for free

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Well, perhaps not everything – but you definitely can get for free, or almost for free, things that people usually pay substantial sums of money to have.

One of the things that I find most thrilling in our journey towards self-sustainability is not doing without (although it has to be done at times, and can be very character-building), but rather, finding out creative ways to obtain some of the things we need without paying, or with paying much less. How?

1. Make it. This can refer to many things: sewing, carpentry, repair works, building, plumbing, and a lot more. Don’t be afraid to mess things up, or to end up with work that looks “unprofessional”. You learn as you go, and the satisfaction in doing something with your hands is great.

2. Find it. People throw away many useful things in very good condition. The computer desk we currently used was obtained this way, as were other items of furniture in our house. They weren’t thrown away because they were only good for the dump, but because someone was moving and had no room for a particular piece of furniture, or because they bought something new instead. We have also found home utensils, excellent books (in very good condition, too), and more. In time you learn to keep an eye open when you drive by, especially in the last couple of weeks before Pesach if you live in Israel or in another place with a substantial Jewish population frantically cleaning out their homes.

Warning: this can get addictive. While it’s wonderful to save good things from the dump, consider whether you really need it, or your home will soon be overflowing. Ask me how I know.

3. Perhaps someone is giving it away. Look through appropriate websites. There are endless lists of people giving away furniture, clothes, baby equipment, toys, books, and more. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, they say – can’t think of anything truer than that. For example, someone used to have rabbits, and now he has a cage he no longer needs – but we could use just such a cage for our baby chicks.

If you can’t find someone who is giving it away, it is very likely you will find someone from whom you can buy it second-hand, for a fraction of the original price.

4. Barter. If someone has something you need, consider whether you might also have something they need, which you can offer instead of money. It might be something you make at home, or a skill you can trade. For example, one of my neighbours makes really beautiful pottery, and I know she wants chickens. If we have a surplus of chicks this year, I might offer her some, in exchange for a piece or two of her pottery. Perhaps you are a computer ace, know a foreign language, play the piano, have a hand for carpentry, or, in short, have a skill you can use in exchange for getting what you want/need.

Defying the money economy can be fun. It is also a challenge of sorts. Many times, we did one or all of the above (making things ourselves, looking for someone who is giving something away, etc) not because we could not afford to pay, but because we saw no reason why we should. It becomes a way of life. The bonus part of it is bringing people closer. By making contacts through giveaway lists (lately we have been more on the giving side) we met some wonderfully interesting people. Compare this to just walking into a big impersonal store, picking up an overpriced item, and paying for it, perhaps without even saying a word to the cashier.
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Simple, rural living: be prepared financially

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Image courtesy of solarhomestead.com 

Many people have this dream of leaving the rat race and the crowded city behind, and moving out to a rural area where they can live a simpler, slower, more peaceful life. “We’ll start a little farm or homestead,” they say. “We’ll live in harmony with nature. We’ll grow a large part of our own food. We won’t need fancy work clothes. There will be so many wholesome attractions that our family won’t need any paid entertainment. We’ll make less money, but we’ll also need less money, and our lives will be peaceful and satisfying.”

That was – and is – our dream, too. But if you intend to follow it, you need to be financially prepared. Moving out to a rural area and/or starting a homestead isn’t a solution for those who can’t make ends meet – on the contrary, setting up such a household can cost a bundle of money in the short-term, and possibly in the long-term.

Read more in my latest MEN post:

“Home maintenance costs money. Land maintenance costs money. Gas costs a lot of money. Whatever homesteading project you might want to do on your property costs as well, from setting up a chicken coop to building fences – though the expenses can vary wildly according to your budget, creativity and DIY skills. It takes a lot of time for these projects to turn productive, not to mention offset the initial cost. And while we love supporting our farmer friends and buying top-quality, organic local produce, it doesn’t actually save money – large chain stores and coupons do, though they are a disaster in terms of food quality, ecology and the community.

Lesson learned: a rural life is not inherently a low-cost life.

Another consideration is that, if you happen to be in urgent need of a little extra money, picking up a temporary and/or second job is a lot harder to do when you live out in the boonies and it takes at least an hour to drive out anywhere. Employment options will be limited, and that’s a fact.”

Reviewing our grocery shopping habits

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Food comprises an important slice of every household budget – a slice that is likely to grow, as food prices are rising. Food is one of the variables of household consumption, together with electricity, water, clothing, entertainment, and miscellaneous purchases. It’s an area where we can exercise a lot of creativity (as opposed to, for example, rent).

We still have a lot of room for improvement, but a fair examination of our pantry, refrigerator and freezer showed that we have actually improved a lot, in points such as:

Shopping less often. We have managed to go down to one shopping trip per week, and sometimes we even pull off a bi-weekly shopping and errands run. This is partially due to more successful list-writing. When composing the shopping list, I began to write down not just things that we almost ran out of, but also things that ran just a little low. Also, if we forget to buy something, now we most often just do without it for a few days, until the next shopping trip.

Diapers and wipes. For seven or eight months now, since Israel got the hang of using the toilet, we have enjoyed the freedom of not having to buy diapers, which has really been a blessing – because we didn’t just cut the cost of diapers, but the need to rush to the store for an emergency pack. Plus, our trash bags last longer because they are filled less often with no diaper-users in the house. Of course, this break is temporary and due to come to an end in less than a month, when new Baby Girl joins our family.

Less pre-packaged foods. In particular cookies, cakes, sweet rolls, etc. There was a time when I decided that we’ll consume less sugar if I bake less. I tried that, and the result was only that my husband started buying cookies, cinnamon rolls, etc, which of course contained much more sugar than what I would have put into my homemade treats. So back to baking it is. Of course if it depended on me I’d bake less and serve platters of fresh and dried fruit, nuts and such like, but one has to be realistic. If the choice is between my homemade cookies and cakes and store-bought ones, it’s obvious that mine are the healthier and cheaper variety.

We also buy less spice mixes, which are mostly a waste – it’s much cheaper to use basic spices and make your own mixes.

Less store-bought bread. We do buy bread for sandwiches in the middle of the week, but I make our Shabbat challah. This saves a last-minute dash to the store on Friday (during which other things, some of them unneeded, are all to often picked up along with the challah).
Better-stocked shelves. I now have a larger variety of beans, grains, lentils, rice, pasta and such like inexpensive versatile basic foods which I can make into frugal meals.

Speaking of frugal meals, most of the meat I cook these days is made in the form of a stew with a lot of rich sauce that can be spooned onto rice or pasta or soaked up with bread. For example, if I make beef stew, one evening we might eat couscous with some of the liquid part of the stew. Then on the next two days we eat the beef. Lastly I take what is left of the stew – mostly liquid and little chunks of meat that fell apart – and serve it with rice or quinoa. This makes an excellent lunch, and a total of four days’ worth of meals – not too bad.

What about you? How are you working on improving your shopping habits?

Rural life and financial security

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When we were about to get married, we knew just how we want to raise a family: we would live a quiet, simple, unhurried life in some beautiful rural place, and I would stay home and raise the children, as they would come.

Ten years and 3 (soon 4!) children later, our dreams haven’t changed, but our perspectives have, with experience that allows us, in hindsight, to realize many things we have missed in the past.

We had a good headstart, financially, and we were prepared to live modestly, which had enabled us to purchase our first little home outright, without getting into debt or mortgage. This was good, but it finished off all our pre-marriage savings, and there was nothing left to do some necessary repairs, which the house badly needed, and when my husband hit a period of unemployment, we eventually had to sell the house for some immediate relief. A lot of money then got frittered away on rent.

We bought another house eventually, the one where we live today, but we then hit another stretch of unemployment, or rather, underemployment, plus a few pitfalls such as unwise investments in projects, and being ill-used by unscrupulous people. This was unfortunate, but it could happen to anyone. The problem was that we failed to take something into account, namely, that in choosing to live in a relatively distant area, we are reducing our earning capabilities, and basically eliminating the possibility to find an extra job quickly and easily if needed in lean times. Spending less is great, but sometimes you just hit that bottom when you can’t cut back anymore, and must earn extra to pull through.

Since we only have one car, I don’t drive, and public transportation in our area is almost nonexistent, we couldn’t even make a temporary switch of me taking a job and my husband staying with the kids, which was, and is, incredibly frustrating, since there were opportunities of jobs five minutes away, but when you have no means of getting there, it doesn’t matter if it’s five minutes away or on Mars. I was prevented from acquiring a driver’s license by 1) all lessons being held in town, so how is one supposed to get there without any means of transportation?? and 2) the prohibitive cost, which is quite a robbery in Israel. Because, you see, around here it isn’t enough that someone who knows how to drive teaches you. Oh no! Even if you know perfectly well how to drive, you still need to take a minimum of 28 lessons (I think) with a licensed driving teacher, which costs a bundle. Sorry for the rant, but I always get my blood boiling over government-sanctioned extortion that robs people of their hard-earned money.

So, for months on end my husband and I would both be home, with the car sitting in the driveway (which, granted, saved on gas), and us going crazy with the despair of not being able to climb out of the pit.

Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that I have to make do with what I have, and find ways to generate income from home. Today, I give nutritional counseling (in which I have a degree), do editing, proofreading and translation, and write both fiction and nonfiction. It’s wonderful, but I wish I had done it sooner, because establishing yourself as a freelancer requires time and dedication, and it takes a while before you’re actually earning. It was also hard to shake off the dogma of the husband being 100% responsible for the income. I do still believe that it makes sense for the man to be the main breadwinner, and that it’s extremely difficult, unreasonable and unfair for the woman to shoulder this burden as well, in addition to pregnancy, birth, and nursing (my husband can change diapers and bathe babies very well, but he can’t breastfeed or do postpartum recovery instead of me, nor can he swap with me and borrow my heavy, tired, pregnant body). However, when one’s family is struggling financially, one of the most empowering things is to be proactive and seek ways out of the rut, rather than only look up to your other half and hope things will improve.

To sum up this long and rather rambling post: if you’re planning on a lifestyle in which you earn less and spend less, in particular if you take the plunge and move to a rural area with the goal of becoming more self-sufficient and producing at least part of your own food, that’s wonderful, and it’s still our path, though it has been rocky and winding. However, you must be prepared for financial crisis, or you’ll find yourself in deep trouble when it hits and you have no way to counter it. So what would I have done differently, if I could (some things really did not depend on me)?

1. Possibly, I would have waited with the purchase of that first home. It’s great to be a home owner, but if it leaves you with absolutely zero in the bank, it puts you in a very precarious position.

2. Once the house was bought, I would have tried harder, and would have been ready to endure more discomfort, to refrain from selling it. Selling your only home does not solve problems, though it may stave off crisis, and is unavoidable sometimes. You have to live somewhere, and loose money inevitably goes down the drain. In hindsight, we could have held on.

3. I would have fought tooth and nail to leave more in savings during that time when we did have a nice income.

4. I would have prepared earlier, and more seriously, to the possibility of having to generate income, by whatever means. Granted, even working from home isn’t always practical when babies come one after another and you struggle to hold your head above water, but I have become a lot more efficient with my time during the past three years, and my heart literally bleeds for all those hours in the past spent on passive entertainment or just muddling around.

5. I would have trusted my judgment more. Not because I’m cleverer than my husband, but because two heads are always better than one. Magnanimously saying, “I’m sure that whatever you decide will be great” may sound nice, but going into all the nitty-gritty together is far more helpful.

The silver lining: we have never been, and are not, in debt. This makes things so much easier and less stressful. Avoiding debt (and mortgage is debt as well) is the best and soundest choice, in my opinion, that a family can make.

Debt-free life and peace of mind

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An important part of simple, peaceful life is discharging your debts; not always easy, as circumstances can be different, but it is an essential. And when I say debt, I include mortgage in the definition as well; I’m not saying a mortgage is always wrong, and never acceptable, but today people tend to forget that mortgage really is a state of debt; that a mortgage means one is not really an owner of one’s home, or at least, an owner only conditionally – because if something happens and the payment cannot be made (in a case, say, of an illness and/or unemployment), the owners face a very real danger of losing their home.

Owning the roof above one’s head, free and clear, is therefore an important part of one’s peace of mind. If your home is your own (as much as any earthly possession can truly be our own), a reduction or loss of income is, of course, a blow – but at least you have your safe haven, which is yours, and you don’t owe anyone anything for being under that roof.

Having said that, I will allow myself a little vent and say that, at least in Israel, paying for a home without a mortgage is a near-impossibility, as the prices of land, and consequently housing, are very, very high. Most young families – unless they are fortunate enough to inherit property, or to have parents who can assist them in a very material way – face being bogged down by very considerable, suffocating debt.

Is there no cheap land or housing to be found here? To be sure there is; and we did find it when we were first married, even though it wasn’t exactly the home of our dreams, and we have moved since. We rented for a couple of years, and these days we once more live in a home we have bought outright, no mortgage. It was hard, hard to find and involved many compromises, but we did it. When people here are rioting for “affordable housing”, I think they ought to amend and say they actually mean, “affordable housing in the tiny over-crowded piece of land that comprises most of the country’s population” – which, in all fairness, I don’t think possible. Yes, there are sparsely populated areas with affordable housing – but the problem is, to live in such an area means fewer opportunities of employment.

Obviously, each situation is unique, but there may be several options. Working from home, or mainly from home, is one; re-considering the possible length of commute is another – some people park their cars at the nearest train station, and make the chief of their daily journey by train. Or a family may move to a less expensive area as a temporary measure, to obtain low rent, and scrimp and save for a few years to be able to buy a home in a better area with no or lower mortgage.

Another thing I wish for is that we weren’t so bogged down with the difficulty of building regulations. Say “Israel” and “building” in one phrase, and you’re up to political flare-up. These difficulties, along with government avarice, have caused housing prices to soar in recent years. For illustration, the little house we had bought back when we first married (and since sold at twice the price), now costs five times more than it had a decade ago. Did the salaries rise five times over, on average? No, of course not. They stayed more or less the same. Thus the housing issue continues to be really, really tough, and people keep looking for creative solutions.

I believe there is no real solution but a government decision to take the plunge and make use of the abundant land in politically controversial area. In the meantime, people will have to keep searching high and low for individual housing, financial and employment solutions, and pave their own way towards freedom and debt reduction.

The emotional side of financial pitfalls

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I talk a lot on this blog about frugal strategies, saving money and financial independence, but there is another aspect, no less important, of financial difficulties – the emotional side of the matter. It isn’t enough to say, “OK, so we’ll tighten the belts and get over it”. Often financial challenges come with a heavy emotional baggage that needs to be dealt with.

Insecurity. The feeling of walking on rotten ice. Will things ever stabilize? What will happen tomorrow, in a year, or two, or ten?

Fears, some of them totally irrational and/or with little base in current reality. What if the washing machine breaks down tomorrow? What if the house needs repairs we can’t afford? How are we going to contribute towards our children’s future education/weddings?

Anger and resentment, towards all those people who can just walk into a store and buy whatever they need, without thinking about money.

You might end up in an emotional state that really warrants therapy, but the trouble is, if you’re really in the financial trenches, you probably won’t be able to afford it, and you might hold back from talking about your troubles with friends so that you won’t be taken for someone negative, or worse, someone who is indirectly asking for financial support.

Self-care is imperative. Eat as well as you can, keep up your personal hygiene, exercise (walking and running don’t cost anything), keep up hobbies and activities that make you feel good and don’t cost money. For me, this is usually writing, or finding a creative recycling project I can do at no cost, such as making candles out of old wax or soap out of old oil.

Keep a lookout towards the future. When things are at their low, it’s sometimes easy to forget all the many ways the situation can improve over time: a new job, a business opportunity, inheritance you can reasonably look forward to, ways to reduce one’s dependence on the money economy altogether. It really is tough to look ahead and think you are always going to be stuck when the cold season comes and you don’t have enough money to buy shoes, that you will never be able to afford good-quality, varied food in abundance (true, sardines and bone broth go a long way, but sometimes you really crave an expensive steak). Don’t think this way, because there’s no rational basis to it. Sometimes one really has to live day to day.

And, as a believer, I always keep my eyes on G-d and His divine guidance, which has never forsaken us so far. Indeed, we have experienced many small miracles, from unexpected gifts of furniture to finding a bag of almost-new children’s clothes just when we needed them most.

If you become depressed, you might miss out on opportunities to improve your situation as you wallow in misery and don’t dare to look up from the ground. So keep an eye on that. Whenever getting out of bed or tackling daily routines seems difficult, do all you can to get help and support, because this isn’t normal.

It’s tougher when you have children depending on you. I’ve sometimes found it hard to strike a balance between being open and honest, and not overburdening little children with circumstances beyond their control. I know my children are aware of the value of money, because we aren’t ashamed to say, “We won’t buy this because we can’t afford it.” They don’t seem traumatized or worried. But avoid making it seem as though the family is on the brink of disaster, because children can be extremely sensitive and become prone to anxiety.

Financial difficulties aren’t a picnic, but with wise strategy and cautious optimism, you can pull through towards a better future.

Top Money Saving Posts of 2017

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2017 has been what one might call a year of successful thrift. We came up with even more ingenious ways of how to get on reasonably well with very limited means; we found treasures in thrift stores, we bartered, we entertained people and tightened community ties, all with little cash but a whole lot of creativity and optimism.

So here’s a recap of this year’s top frugal strategies:

Thrifty Green Cleaning – Clean your house with cheap, environmentally friendly substances such as vinegar, baking soda, and citric acid crystals.

Buying Second Hand – These simple tips will help you make the most of your thrift store finds.

Stockpiling – A good stockpile can be a lifesaver in hard times, significantly reducing your weekly grocery store expenses.

Cheap Entertainment – Living simply and frugally doesn’t have to mean living the life of a hermit. Here are some ideas for vacations and entertainment on the cheap.

Top Cheap and Healthy Foods – Eating well means being healthy, but what foods should you choose if you need to scrimp?

Surviving Hard Times – Some general strategies on pulling through financial difficulties.

And, of course, there is more information in my books, The Practical Homemaker’s Companion and Your Own Hands. Available also on Payhip.