Mother Earth Living

A Guide to Self-Sufficient Living

Self-sufficient living isn’t just for manifesto-writing, backwoods cabin dwellers. Our tips will help you explore ways to grow and produce your own food, use less energy and water, live healthier and save money, no matter where you live.
By Eliza Cross
September/October 2012

Photo By Caroline Arber
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Environmental concerns, uncertain financial markets and general burnout from overwork and consumption have created a recent surge of interest in self-sufficient living. Who among us hasn’t daydreamed of living off the grid in an efficient, mortgage-free house, generating everything we need to sustain ourselves, unfettered by the bills, pressures and responsibilities of modern life?

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was a common credo just two generations ago, when most women knew skills such as sewing and food preservation while men routinely handled home repairs and chores such as changing the oil in the family car. Modern conveniences and consumerism have largely replaced our society’s self-reliant spirit, creating an endless cycle of spending, overextending and debt—and accompanying stress and dissatisfaction.

Self-sufficient living can be labor-intensive, but the tenets are simple: Slash expenses, eliminate reliance on fossil fuels and municipal utilities, and maximize what you grow and produce. The good news is that even if you’re a suburban homeowner or an urban apartment dweller, you can take steps toward a more independent lifestyle.

Home, Sweet Self-Sufficient Home

Acquiring do-it-yourself skills is one of the best investments you can make in your own independence. Familiarize yourself with how the systems of your home operate, and learn the basics of maintenance and repair. Many home improvement centers offer free classes, and online tutorials are available for everything from repairing a toilet to replacing roof shingles. Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore and Craigslist are excellent sources for low-cost building materials.

You can also gain more independence in your home by generating or collecting some of your own resources. Creating your own power with a solar energy system or residential wind turbine is the ultimate “off-the-grid” solution, but even if you can’t afford a full-scale installation, you can still tap into free energy with a less-expensive solar hot water heater or solar outdoor lights. Energy audits and energy management monitors can help you evaluate and run your home’s systems more efficiently to use less power. As appliances wear out, make energy rating your top priority with replacements. Even small improvements such as increasing attic insulation, weatherproofing, installing skylights for natural light and hanging insulated drapes and awnings on windows can significantly reduce overall energy costs—enhancing both your energy and financial independence.

Whenever possible, opt for manual systems over automated. Sweep the floor instead of powering on the vacuum. Hang your clothes on a clothesline instead of using the dryer. Crank an egg beater instead of the food processor. Let dishes air dry, and use cloth napkins and dish towels instead of paper towels and disposable napkins. Eat dinner by candlelight. Over time, these small changes combined can add up to big savings.

Live Healthfully, Stay Well

Health care and insurance can be a significant expense, so it pays to take control of our health by eating well, using preventive natural medicine and reducing the potentially toxic chemicals we bring into our homes and put on our bodies. Explore natural remedies for common ailments, especially those that run in your family or to which you are prone; studies have found many herbal remedies to reduce our risk of health ailments and issues. You may even be able to grow some medicinal plants and herbs in your garden. Whenever possible, avoid products that contain formaldehyde or other hazardous chemicals that can offgas into the air inside your home. Make your own household cleaners to save money and reduce exposure to chemical toxins.

Many steps taken for good health offer multiple benefits. For instance, riding a bicycle is great exercise and provides free transportation. Gardening offers physical activity, stress reduction and also provides food. Other no-cost, healthy activities include walking, weight lifting, eating more fiber, deep breathing, meditating, getting enough sleep and keeping your brain active with puzzles and games.

Take advantage of health fairs and state health clinics for free or low-cost routine tests and immunizations. For non-life-threatening emergencies, urgent care clinics often charge much less than a trip to the emergency room. Get regular checkups, and don’t let small ailments turn into big problems.

Garden of Eatin’

With basic gardening skills and a sunny plot, you can grow a significant portion of your own food. The more of your lawn you can convert into growing space, the less you’ll spend on fertilizing and mowing—and the more you’ll reduce your grocery bills. Tuck some edible plants into your front yard or turn the traffic strip between your yard and the street into a vegetable garden. Consider growing flavorful herbs where grass grows now. When landscaping, consider fruit trees and berry bushes instead of ornamentals. Extend the growing season in cold climates with a greenhouse, cold frames or row covers (read more about season extension). With container gardens and vertical gardening techniques, you can grow a surprising bounty of produce—even on a small balcony. If you live in a city high-rise, join a community garden.

You can make your gardening endeavors less costly by reducing the amount of money you invest into plants, fertilizers and water. Join Seed Savers Exchange and learn how to save your own seeds and swap for different varieties with other members. Make your own compost from leaves, kitchen scraps and lawn clippings, or start a worm farm indoors. Buy or make a rain barrel to capture rainwater and cut down on municipal water reliance. Capture graywater from your shower or the kitchen sink, and use it to water the garden.

Eat Better for Less

Growing and preparing as much of our own food as possible not only saves money, it directly affects our health and well-being. Look at your yard as a mini-farm. After you’ve got the garden going, consider what else you might be able to produce in a small space. A couple of chickens could provide your family with eggs and reduce pest population. A beehive could supply honey and on-site plant pollinators.

For better food and lower costs, buy seasonally and locally whenever possible. Purchase staples in bulk, and keep a stock of easy-to-prepare foods in the pantry and freezer so you’re less tempted to order pizza delivery on busy nights. Preserving food allows you to stock up on in-season produce, and many county extension offices now offer canning, freezing and dehydrating classes (read our guide to food preservation methods). If you have an unheated room in your basement, use it as a root cellar.

Learn how to make your favorite foods from scratch and you’ll not only save money, you’ll enjoy a much higher-quality product. It’s simple to bake your own bread and make your own yogurt. You could also consider making homemade cheese, churning your own ice cream, distilling your own vinegar, curing your own meats and brewing your own beer—and you might just discover a new favorite hobby in the process.

Eliza Cross is the author of five books, including the award-winning Family Home of the New West. On her blog Happy Simple Living, she writes about sustainability, organic gardening, good food, simplicity, saving money and—most importantly—having fun. 


Get By with a Little Help

Self-sufficiency and relying on others might seem like contradictory terms, but living in a close community can be one of the best paths to simplicity and sustainability. Some neighborhoods have food co-ops, homesteading groups and emergency preparedness teams; others host regular clothing swaps, potlucks and canning parties. Some communities chip in together to purchase and share tools and equipment. Close neighborhoods are safer, too, as people can keep an eye on each other’s houses and watch out for unsafe activity.

If you want to foster connectedness, one easy step is to form an online neighborhood group using a service like Google Groups. Start the conversation, and soon you’ll be swapping references for reliable plumbers and electricians, finding babysitters and sharing outgrown kids’ Halloween costumes and sports uniforms.


Pursue Financial Freedom

Paying off debt—including your mortgage—is the single biggest step you can take toward true self-sufficiency. If your credit card balances are out of control, you may need to cut up your cards to eliminate the spending temptation. Sell anything you’re not using to generate cash, and you’ll reduce clutter at the same time. For painless saving, dump coins in a jar every night and deposit twice a year. Set aside every $5 bill that comes your way and apply the money directly to your mortgage, debt or investment account. Review your vendors each year for major expenditures such as insurance and make sure you’re paying competitive rates.

A budget is a must for good money management, and calculating your net worth each month will paint an honest picture about the state of your finances. Because accidents and disasters happen, start funding an emergency account so you’re prepared for unforeseen circumstances. If you incur large payments during the year for expenses such as taxes or insurance, tally the amounts, divide by 12 and contribute a payment monthly to a “freedom account” so you’re prepared. If you’re trying to get out of debt, consider ways you might supplement your regular income such as starting a home-based business, selling crafts on Etsy, selling food at a local farmer’s market, teaching classes or tutoring, or taking on additional part-time or seasonal work.


Resources

Books 

The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan 

Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal

Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine 

Convert Your Home to Solar Energy by Everett M. Barber, Jr. and Joseph R. Provey 

Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy

Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces by Gayla Trail

The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernila 

How Your House Works: A Visual Guide to Understanding and Maintaining Your Home by Charlie Wing

The Naturally Clean Home: 150 Super-Easy Herbal Formulas for Green Cleaning by Karyn Siegel-Maier 

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour 

Shift Your Habit: Easy Ways to Save Money, Simplify Your Life, and Save the Planet by Elizabeth Rogers

Other Resources 

County Extension Offices
nationwide educational network 

Google Groups
free source to create online discussion groups 

Habitat for Humanity ReStores
nationwide chain of used building material stores 

Natural Home & Garden online   

Sealing Air Leaks for Increased Home Efficiency
a step-by-step guide to DIY home weatherization 

A Guide to the Best Energy-Efficient Appliances
how to choose the most efficient appliances 

Guide to Growing Your Own Food
a guide to growing your own food 

Guide to Composting
everything you need to know about composting 

Seed Saving 101: How to Save Seeds
how to save your own seeds 

What the Cluck! Raise Backyard Chickens
selecting breeds and how to build your own coop 

Natural Remedies for Common Ailments
explore natural remedies for common ailments 

Guide to Natural Cleaning
recipes to make your own cleaning products 

Come Together: How to Build Sustainable Communities
learn how to engage your community in sustainability 


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