As we know, there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and many people have given up on the chance of working in one way or another. Some are living with parents, in school longer than expected, or making do on what they have and what other income sources they can find. There is another possibility, which numbers do not measure accurately – having a life without the usual physical connections, commonly known as “living off the grid.”
Millions of Americans have been living that way for decades. The two major possibilities could be called rural, or living in the countryside, and town or urban.
The countryside version, as it is now commonly lived, often includes a lack of links to municipal infrastructure. One source in 2007 estimated 300,000 American households without connection to government-provided electricity, water, and heat, and expected that would grow to 520,000 homes with close to one million people by 2010, a projection which has almost certainly been exceeded. Those who lived off the grid outside cities and towns before the Great Recession were generally from the ends of the political spectrum, either liberal anti-capitalists or conservative survivalists and rural Southerners.
People living a back-to-the-land lifestyle often grow food, heat with free or cheap materials from trees and abandoned buildings in old or homemade stoves, barter, buy clothing used, and generally get as much as possible from their environments. Those raising children often homeschool them, and value living in a community where there is little peer pressure to buy them expensive toys. Religiously, they are often Anabaptist (Amish or Mennonite), other Christian, Zen Buddhist, pagan, and atheist. While some consider living off the land a political deed, others are unconcerned that way. Some draw inspiration from the 5th century B.C. Athenian Diogenes, who at one point lived purposefully without any possessions. They usually own their homes which may be trailers, abandoned, or otherwise not mainstream houses. With the help of used construction materials and self-manufacture they usually owe no money on them, which some say is a critical component to the lifestyle. Some work occasionally and some permanently but part-time, while others earn money through such as babysitting, doing housework for others, breeding and selling animals, and selling plants, all on a small scale. They often do not have cars and usually walk or bicycle for transportation. Work at home and on the land generally takes them several hours a day, varying greatly by season.
People choosing to live in the country with low expenses often do so to be freed of mortgages, mass marketing, and being tied to a working life, and want to live more independently and environmentally soundly, though many are greener only unintentionally. Modern electronic connections can be managed though wireless modems and car battery power. Expenses can be extremely low – one interviewee claimed that with a home owned outright and growing his own food he could live for $150 per month. Some with this lifestyle generally think it is harder to pay for many things than it is to do without them. As clear disadvantages, though, they usually have no insurance and minimal health care.
On the more urban alternative, many considerations are similar to those of the rural people above, including avoiding many ways to spend money. Several things that people with town or city low-expense lifestyles do to manage expenses include cutting their own hair, repairing clothing, cooking from ingredients, buying used in general, choosing public or self-powered transportation, using libraries, growing vegetables, making some household products usually bought, and self-maintaining their cars, motorcycles, and bicycles. Exchanging unneeded items through organized or community systems for those personally useful, along with reusing, conserves their money also. As with the frugal rural residents, some consider that children do not need as many high-priced toys and electronic devices as others might think, and discussing the family’s financial situation and budget truthfully with them may help, along with reinforcing that less money means less time away for work and therefore more with them. To reduce housing costs they live in smaller quarters or share them with others, limit insurance to that which covers true financial disasters, keep older cars, eat ordinary food, and avoid wasting heat or electricity.
A low-expense mindset can be understood by considering the spending habits of many who lived through the Great Depression. Many also budget amounts for each large category and record all money spent. In general, efficiency and decreasing waste are important, and many couples with frugal city and town lifestyles are able to live on less than $25,000 per year.
Work, when less of it is needed for one’s lifestyle, can fall into several categories. Those which author Bob Clyatt named included “the filler job,” or a reasonably pleasant but low-paying steady position; “the avocation,” or a job one might take on even if it were unpaid; “your former job, but less of it,” maybe without benefits; and “hobby turned business,” if profitable. Those living frugally also consider it important to discover other meaningful activity. One danger is to be too intense about work, which can be offset by consciously calming down, delaying key decisions until a year after ending the full-time job, or just accepting it.
Although isolated from most others, people living off the grid still often enjoy strong communities, in person and otherwise. Several websites have good information, including how to handle many problems with little or no money - three good ones are www.off-grid.net, www.offthegridnews.com, and www.offgridsurvival.com.
A frugal lifestyle, whether on or off the power and communications infrastructure, has clear disadvantages – it can be very austere in ways which Americans are used to more comfort, for one thing – but the ideas behind it offer something to almost everyone. Now that we are in a time of lower general affluence it behooves us to evaluate what is essential. For most of us, if we neither need something nor greatly want it we should consider doing without it – a strategy which will continue to show some people they are best off living off the grid.