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Low-Cost Steps to Self-Sufficiency, Part 1: Smart Buying

When I was invited to write an article for people who wanted to prepare but felt unable to because of limited budgets, I was perplexed. Why, I wondered, would people assume that preparation was expensive? So far my forays into self-reliance and sustainability have cost very little and have enabled me to need less money each year.

Perhaps it’s a matter of how we frame the question. “Disaster preparedness” sounds like a heroic and expensive undertaking. I am used to thinking in terms of resilient living. I want to provide for my own needs in a way that minimizes damage to people and the planet, that satisfies me, and that can be sustained in spite of economic and political disruptions. Such a life does require certain basic skills and resources, many of which can be obtained for little or no money. It also requires some basic mental habits, starting with sales resistance.

I expect that most readers of this site are already looking for alternatives to the consumer culture that surrounds us. We know, intellectually at least, that buying more and more stuff will not bring us happiness or create a healthy economy and culture. The problem is that we’ve been saturated with ads for a long time. Even when we don’t buy any particular product, we do, on some level, buy the message that problems are cured by products.  This false belief stays with us when we set out on alternative paths.

The voluntary simplicity movement is sometimes co-opted by “green consumerism,” which claims that we can save the world and bring meaning to our lives by buying the right luxury products (eco-friendly and fair trade, of course… reassuring words, but meaningless unless we know the history of the places and workers associated with each product), and that the harm we do to the earth’s climate can be set off by buying “carbon offsets” rather than actually consuming fewer fossil fuels.

In addition, the prepper movement is sometimes co-opted by disaster consumerism, which tells us that we’re on the verge of calamity and our families will die and it will be our fault if we haven’t bought every product imaginable. Don’t take this the wrong way though—I don’t mean you should never buy any disaster preparedness products. You likely don’t have the skills to fashion your own solar generator, and many times you are better off purchasing freeze-dried or ready-to-eat meals, as they are often less expensive and will last longer than anything you could prepare yourself. Rather, what I am referring to is the compulsive buying of unnecessary items or the hoarding of goods without any thought to the sustainable living that needs to accompany it. When we cave in to disaster consumerism, we end up financially poorer, and inwardly poorer as well, because on some level we know that we can’t buy our way into meaning or justice and that all our expensive precautions can’t really keep us safe.  Sales resistance doesn’t mean buying nothing. It means avoiding counterproductive patterns of buying. Here are a few helpful things to keep in mind.

Buying in haste often leads to repenting at leisure. Watch out for sales pitches that try to scare you into thinking that you have to buy their product right now. Don’t buy something just because you’ve seen a convincing ad for it. First take some time in an ad-free space to think about what you need most and are most likely to be able to use effectively.  Then go out and look at reviews of relevant products. Better, talk to your neighbors about their purchases and find out what’s been helpful and what hasn’t. If you can, try things out before buying them. Borrow tools from neighbors and books from the library. This saves you the frustration of shelling out money for something that doesn’t work well or that isn’t suited to you or your land.

Don’t buy things you don’t really want simply because they’re on sale. I knew a small group of intelligent people who expected the Y2K disaster to bring down the computer network, the electrical grid, and the economy. They stockpiled food, including three hundred cans of Campbell’s soup on which they got an incredible discount but which (when the disaster failed to arrive on schedule) none of them was willing to eat.

Discover the story of one family’s year-long experiment to consume only what was local, used, homegrown, or homemade…

Think about the balance of money and time. Whether your goal is to weather possible disasters, create a more satisfying everyday life, strengthen your community, save the environment, or live out your values, you will need skills and good habits more than products.

Don’t buy more than you have time to use. I had a neighbor once who said he’d bought and read a book about letter-writing as an important practice for cultivating the soul, building community, and offering an antidote to today’s rushed and impersonal culture. He’d bought a lap desk and some really lovely stationery and a good pen. He just hadn’t had time to write any letters yet…

When it comes to preparing for hard times, making purchases without taking time is even more problematic. While I can understand why people do buy seed banks for that “just in case” scenario, it would seem that planting seed now, saving more seeds for next year, and having vegetables in the pantry and a working understanding of gardening in mind a better preparation for a crisis than just having a seed bank in the freezer. We need to take the concept of preparation from being more than just “having” and into the realm of “doing” and experience if one is to weather hard times successfully.

Don’t buy more than you can care for. When I first moved to the farm where I now live and work, I was excited about growing perennial fruits. I bought young apple and pear trees and blueberry bushes that first spring, planted them out on a sunny slope, and daydreamed about the rich harvests they’d yield someday. That winter the deer ate them all down to stumps. I would have done better to build a fence first. It isn’t only growing things that need appropriate protection. Before you buy tools and equipment, consider whether you have a place to store them out of the weather.

Set priorities and start small. Trying to buy all the gear you might possibly need for a self-sufficient life in one fell swoop is likely to be expensive and wasteful; as you get accustomed to different kinds of manual work, you’ll figure out which tools work well given your land, your strengths, and your abilities. Trying to learn all the survival skills you need at once is apt to be frustrating and exhausting. Start with an area where you already have some experience, or at least some strong interest, whether it’s gardening, farming, wildcrafting, fishing, hunting, carpentry, sewing, etc. Focus on that until you’ve developed a satisfying level of competence. This will give you confidence to take on the next thing you want to learn. And before shelling out money to attend a course or buy an instructional manual in the skill of your choice, think about what you can learn by reading library books, talking and working with neighbors, apprenticing with masters in the craft, and trying things out and gathering information from your mistakes. (I’ve written more about this in my article on self-directed learning.)

Finally, close the circle: find ways to reuse apparent junk. The culture of disposable stuff has two obnoxious byproducts: an endless need for new purchased goods and an endless supply of “waste.” Factory farming is a particularly blatant example. Large, confined animal operations generate lagoons full of manure which periodically leak and pollute waterways, while large vegetable monocrop operations purchase fossil-fuel-based fertilizers that strain farmers’ budgets and degrade the soil. Sustainable farming takes manures, food scraps, weeds, and yard waste and composts them into soil-building fertilizer.

There may be other “wastes” you can use, either from your own household or from your neighbors.  Some people get fuel for their woodstoves partly by offering to cut up and haul away trees that have fallen in other people’s yards.  At first my mother used newspapers donated by neighbors for bedding in our worm composting bin; later she switched to shavings left over from my brother’s woodworking projects. My brother has built compost bins and livestock fences from pallets obtained free or very cheaply from the local feed and hardware stores, which often have no use for them once the goods delivered on them have been unloaded. (I still think the pallets make great compost bins.  After we had saved more money, we replaced the fence with woven wire, which is more costly but lighter and more durable…but the pallets did give us several years of good use as fence.)  He has also used metal I-bars from old mobile-home frames to support farm wagons and footbridges. There are many other possibilities for creative recycling which simply require you to consider the materials and the skills that you already have and those that your neighbors might be willing to share.

This practice can save you a good deal of money.  It’s also likely to slowly change your way of looking at your life and at the world. As you become aware of the resources, the relationships, and the competence that you already have, you are set free from the fear and dissatisfaction that fuel all forms of consumerism, whether conventional, green, or disaster-driven. You grow in courage, patience, and gratitude. These qualities are among the most important improvements you can make to your life now and the most useful preparations you can make for the harder times that may lie ahead.

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