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 tips to get creative juices flowing.
Homesteading as Social Security Tip 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.
Homesteading as Social Security Tip 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.
Raising the 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 OrganizedHome.com and 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.
Homesteading as Social Security Tip 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 with 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 homeschool 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 of recommendation.”
In our area, there’s a retired science teacher who does wonderful experiments with solar power. This spring, I hope to enlist his help in designing our first passive solar building. Is someone you know a retired mechanic, plumber, electrician, insulation installer, or another trade person? What do you have that could be swapped for those services?
Homesteading as Social Security Tip 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 the process.
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 homestead promotion 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 homestead marketing plan? These services and more are offered free of charge through SCORE, 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 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.
Homesteading as Social Security Tip 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; Investopedia.com 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 a 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. Just be sure to do your research (and read the Insider’s Guide to Buying a New Car, Homesteader Style.)
Finally, investigate 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 that 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:
It’s about more than money. Check.
Do what makes you happy. Check.
Live with purpose. Check.
Keep your mind sharp. Check.
Develop new friendships. Check.
Increase your financial stability. Check.
Keep your spirits up. Check.
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.