In the 1970’s, my father decided to retire
at age 62, the minimum age to draw Social Security. He quit his very
small business and sold his truck. He and my mom sold their modest home
in a working-class Chicago neighborhood, bought a
four-room house in Michigan, and retired to the country. With no
mortgage, a little money in the bank, and Social Security for income, they
settled into a life of fishing, gardening, golf, bowling, cards and
playing with their grandchildren. More hard work than planning got them
to this place, but theirs was a good retirement nonetheless.
For me—turning 60
in the middle of economic turmoil—retirement planning feels more like
studying feng shui before arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I
began homesteading somewhat late in the game and am a long way from
self-sufficient. I have gray hair, a sizeable mortgage, no money in the
bank, and I’ll probably outlive Social Security. I can’t guarantee that
any amount of hard work can keep the ship afloat. But
I’ve decided that I have the heart of a
homesteader, and I’m determined to enjoy the Golden Years on my five
wonderful acres of country. Since I already
know that homesteading is the answer, I simply have to ask the
question. Retirement or rejuvenation?
Hints for a happy
retirement and tips for financial survival can be found almost everywhere,
although they now frequently include the delaying of full retirement. A
closer look at these suggestions reads much like a “how to” list
for successful homesteading: live with a purpose; simplify; nurture
relationships; help others; and, remember that it’s not all about money…
just to name a few. We should have a built-in advantage. But in these
challenging times, even the most experienced homesteaders can use some
reminders. Here are five ideas to get creative juices flowing:
1. Identify your greater goal, and measure every decision against
it. Homesteaders tend to be
creative people with a wide range of interests. While that generally
serves us well, it can also lead to dabbling and a dilution of
resources. I, for example, am a seed catalogue junkie who wants to have
a little of everything in my garden. However, one of my major goals is to
lower my expenses by growing my own food. This year that means focusing
my limited dollars on those vegetables that yield the most for the pantry
and freezer. I can channel my creativity into preservation methods and
healthy recipes rather than a multitude of varieties.
Those of you who’ve
been producing vegetables, herbs, or livestock for sale may have to make
similar choices. The price of supplies is going up and many customers will
be cutting back on purchases. You may need to refocus on feeding yourself
with your harvest and generating income from other sources.
Animals are another
area of both interest and challenge. I really want to share my retirement
years with some large rescue animals. My greater goal, though, is that any
animal on my homestead has relatively free range, with good feed and
housing. While finances are so tight, that means I have to limit myself
to chickens for now. I can add more, to increase production for my own
food and have some extras to sell or share. But my enjoyment of large
animals will have to come from my neighbors’ horses and cows, as well as
the deer who free range through my woods.
2. Do your math and choose accordingly.
It’s more important than ever
that you have a firm handle on income versus expense. Exactly how much
are you spending on transportation, insurance, and utilities? These are
often areas where you can cut expenses and enrich your life at the same
time. In the interest of limiting my debt, I drive an old, small pickup.
My outside job offers me the flexibility of working from home sometimes.
By eliminating two trips per week to the town where I work, I save enough
on gas to pay for high-speed internet service. That, in turn, allows me
the opportunity to earn more money from home and further reduce my debt.
deductible on house and vehicle insurance is another way to limit your
monthly out-of-pocket expenses. However, it’s important to have
enough of a cash reserve to pay that deductible should an emergency
arise. If you work an outside job that pays every two weeks, and your
budget is based on 24 pay periods, the “extra” check you get twice a year
is perfect for starting or growing that reserve. The cash reserve
principles recommended by financial advisors can also be expanded to feed
and supply reserves for homesteaders.
That brings us to a
great shopping tool known as the price book. Online sources offer forms
that you can print to get started. I enjoyed poking around on
www.grocerypricebooks.com. What it really amounts to is serious
tracking of prices on items you buy regularly. I, for one, would much
rather be working outdoors than doing any kind of shopping. While I keep
a budget and try to minimize trips to town, I’m as quick as anyone to be
“taken in” by a sale sign on a store shelf. Keeping a price book
encourages you to pay closer attention to trends, and take advantage of
the lowest prices to stretch your resources.
Couponing is another
tool that continues to grow in popularity. If you’re old enough to
remember when coupon clipping meant scouring the weekly papers to find
products that you might actually use, you may not be a big fan. The
personal computer has changed the game completely. Both coupon websites
and many homesteading blogs give easier access to bargains on items you
need regularly. Couponing can even offer a way to donate to causes that
you couldn’t otherwise support.
3. Perfect the art of barter.
Though trading your products for the goods and services of others is as
old a practice as homesteading itself, now’s the time to think even more
creatively. Sometimes, older homesteaders who struggle with the heavier
physical work can spend a bit more time online doing comparison shopping
and couponing for barter. They could also take charge of a loose
bartering network among friends, by computer, phone, or word-of-mouth.
When my mother-in-law got too infirmed to do anything that required
standing, she was still able to sit at the kitchen table and coach the
entire neighborhood through canning. In exchange, we picked and canned
vegetables that fed her through the winter.
Many of our
homesteading friends have young families but no grandparents in the area.
I can offer "adopted grandparent" services even when I can’t
always do the heavy digging in the garden. Since most of them
home-school their children, and I’m an early-retired classroom teacher, I
can also give the parents a day off from school in exchange for setting
fence posts or some such task.
Farm sitting is
another great service to offer, particularly during slower seasons.
Vacations, business trips, or even county fair attendance can go on
without worry, and you get a good look at the techniques others are using
on their property. If you have animals of your own you’ll obviously have
to limit your service area, but they can also serve as your best “letter
In our area, there’s
a retired science teacher who does wonderful experiments with solar
power. This spring, I hope to enlist his help designing our first passive
solar building. Is someone you know a retired mechanic, plumber,
electrician, insulation installer, or other trade person? What do you
have that could be swapped for those services?
4. Share what you know… for fun and
profit. This is a win-win proposition of the first order. The
knowledge you share may be related to homesteading experiences, or to
other jobs, hobbies or interests you’ve had over the years. Bring others
to your farm for hands-on classes. As they’re learning, you may get some
extra work accomplished. I’m in the process of designing a
service-learning project that would help restore a small wetland area on
my property while teaching students science and environmental concepts.
There is local grant money available to help pay for supplies, so the only
cost to the school or parents is transportation. If it goes well, I might
be able to package the idea and sell it as part of my home-based writing
business. At the very least, we’ll all learn something and have fun in
Offering classes or
mentoring keeps your skills sharp as it helps others. You may barter or
contract for cash. Or, you may simply build a greater network for
the products of your homestead, and awareness of what others have to
offer. It’s the most enjoyable form of marketing I’ve ever found.
One casualty of the
tightening economy is craft sales. If your home-based business involves
such products, you may want to re-adjust your product line. As a
friend of mine put it, “more practical than puffy.” Another worthwhile
approach might be to create a barter price list. For example, this item
sells for $3.00, one bale of organic straw, or a dozen free-range eggs.
With a bit of whimsical artwork on the page, you’ll draw increased
attention and encourage potential customers to approach you with creative
offers of their own.
The best homesteaders
are not necessarily the best business people, so business services can be
another valuable area when the market is tight. Do you have a good plan
for your home-based business? How about a marketing plan? These services
and more are offered free of charge through SCORE,
www.score.org , a national non-profit organization made up of retired
executives and other business folks committed to promoting small business
in the United States. It’s unlikely that many of them would have a direct
knowledge of homesteading, but their business knowledge can help you while
you expose them to another way of life – and a line of goods and services
that you have to market.
5. Use the system but don’t depend on it. This last recommendation may seem the most counter-intuitive of all.
But unless you’re a totally self-sufficient veteran homesteader, you’ve
been a part of standard society for years anyway. Why not let it work in
your favor? Think of it as an extra day of sunshine or needed rain rather
than the enemy.
Unlike my father, I
can’t – nor would I choose to – depend on the government to support
me for the next forty years. However, I have paid Social Security for
that long, and I intend to leverage it to decrease my debt. There are
some unusual ways to maximize benefits, and I recommend you study your
social security options closely;
can offer some ideas for both Social Security and small business.
In my case, life
circumstances have made me eligible for spousal benefits from two
accounts. At age 60, I’m eligible to collect widow’s pension based on my
ex-husband’s account (although no longer married, he and I remained
friends until his death, so I feel comfortable taking this option). That
income will allow me to shift my work to spend more hours at home,
building the self-sufficiency of the homestead (he, and my mother-in-law,
my barter mentor, would be proud!). Later, I can either switch to
benefits from my late husband or take payments based on my own account. I
will take whichever one nets the best outcome for the homestead. By the
time the program disappears, I will be in a much better position to stand
on my own.
Low interest rates
caused by the current financial crisis can also work in your favor. If
you drive an old vehicle with poor gas mileage, it might be worth taking
out a small loan to replace it with something newer and more fuel
efficient. The money you save in gas and repairs could quickly pay off
the loan, and you’ll have more years of service in the future.
the possibility of a simplified employee pension plan. You already own
and operate at least one business, with at least one employee—yourself.
This type of plan gives you the option of saving money with tax benefits.
Certainly, where you choose to save is a huge concern in this market. But
there are banks and credit unions which still offer smart investment
options. Again, measure your choices against your major goal of
self-sufficiency. My faith teaches me to be in this world without
being of it. The current financial crisis seems to me to be the
perfect environment to put that teaching into practice.
So, is all of this retirement or
rejuvenation? Certainly, homesteading doesn’t fit our culture’s
traditional image of retirement… hitting the golf course, sunning on the
beach, traveling the world. It does, however, fit every measure of
leaving the rat race of society to live on our own terms.
As for the
rejuvenation aspect, let’s compare the benefits of homesteading to a
standard list of requirements for successful senior living adapted from
It’s about more than money.
Do what makes you
Live with purpose. Check.
Keep your mind
Develop new friendships.
Increase your financial
Keep your spirits up.
Stay active to remain healthy. Check.
My dream for my
father was that he would die on the golf course, doing what he loved.
I’ll be happy to go to sleep in a field, with the sun in my face
and the dog at my side. In the meantime, stop by my homestead when
you’re in the neighborhood. I can’t offer you money, but we can always
find a cup of coffee and some good stories to share. That feels like true
Social Security to me.