05 Mar 2016
Last week, we talked about how it was impossible to be completely self-sufficient. But there are areas where we can still rely on our skills and resources to take control of our lives.We do all of our own yard work, other than removing large trees and installing the chain-link fence. Those got contracted out. Planting the hedge? We did that. Build all the sidewalks and raised beds? That was us, and it took years, a little at a time.
We do much of our home improvements and repairs. Big jobs like reroofing the house and replacing windows get contracted out. Small jobs like painting all the cabinets get done-in house. Working on our house makes us very familiar with its needs and idiosyncrasies. It also means that when I talk to Jake the Contractor about a job, I know something about what I’m talking about when I ask for X. I firmly believe that a contractor notices when he has an ignorant fool for a client.
We used to change our own oil, but as our time decreased, and the cars got more complex, this went by the wayside. Your auto mechanic can have a pretty good idea of how much or how little you know about your car when you describe a problem to him. Does it ensure better service from professionals if they think you know something about the job? Perhaps. At least you won’t feel stupid when you describe the problem if you know the lingo. You also have a better appreciation of the time and skill the job requires.
Self-sufficiency is always a problem of resources: your time, your life-energy, your skill set, and your money. Time is at the top of the list. Many of the most self-sufficient things to do such as knitting socks or braiding rag rugs take plenty of time. The skills aren’t hard to learn. But it takes time to learn them, time to get better at them, and then time to execute the project.
If you’re working forty hours a week, plus commuting time, then you have less time with which to change the oil in your car or paint your house. That means you have to plan your free time to use it efficiently. This is where self-sufficiency and goal-setting intersect. If your goal is to get out of debt, then which is the better hobby to have? Shopping or knitting socks? Watching TV or food gardening? The answer is always the one that gets you closer to your overall goals.
Hobbies are a terrific way to improve your self-sufficiency skills. Look over the “Little House” books we recommended last week and be impressed by what the Ingalls family had to do every day to make ends meet. Today, cooking and sewing and gardening are hobbies. Then, they were vital skills that kept you alive. If they become vital skills again in the future, wouldn’t you like to be good at them before you need them?
If you don’t know where to start, look around at your own life and decide what you’re tired of paying for. Take-out meals getting expensive? Want to eat better and save money? Learn basic cooking. Yes, in these days of ready-to-eat food available in every gas station, basic cooking has become a self-sufficiency skill. Don’t like to cook? Learn anyway. You have to eat, two or three times a day, every single day.With regards to cooking, do not be deceived by all that foodie porn about everybody loving to cook in ye olden days. Plenty of women (I’ll use this gender as the vast majority of cooking was done in the home by women) didn’t like to cook. They didn’t find it fulfilling or spiritually uplifting or creative or any other crap like that. It was work, and they did it because someone had to. Peg Bracken of “The I Hate to Cook Book” wrote for this audience. Women who were utility cooks put three meals a day on the table as fast as possible and then went on to do all the other things they had to. I use Peg’s book and I like to cook, at least some of the time. But I have other things to do, so fast and decent works for me.
Tired of throwing out clothing with plenty of wear in it because a seam split? Learn basic mending skills and rescue that shirt for the cost of half an hour of your time, a needle, thimble, and thread. This will save you money and time as you’d have to replace the garment (spending money that takes hours to earn) and use more of your valuable time to shop for the replacement garment. Second-hand shopping may be less expensive, but the cost in time is as high as going to the mall.
You don’t even need a sewing machine for mending. A lot of repair work is in tight areas of the clothes, and it can’t be done on a machine even if you have one. A needle, thread in white, gray, and black, a thimble and a pair of scissors are all that’s required.
Tired of wondering how careful the garage was when they changed the oil in your car? Many older cars were made to be worked on in your own driveway. We routinely changed the oil, checked the fluids, put air in the tires, changed air filters, all the basic stuff. It took time but it wasn’t hard. When we had a Chrysler van, the Chilton manual for it explained every step with plenty of pictures.
We don’t do this with our 2011 Ford Focus as cars have gotten more complex. You can’t get at the air filter and the vehicle requires a special, proprietary and expensive oil. So now we have to pay the dealership.
If you have an older car or a simpler one, you can learn how to do a lot of routine maintenance yourself. You might even do a better job than the garage would when changing your own oil. Why is this? It takes time to fully drain out all of the old oil. You have the time to leave your car sitting on its ramps in your driveway for hours to drain every last bit of gunk out of the crankcase. The garage can’t afford to waste the service bay when there are ten more cars waiting to be done. You’ll be more careful when you tighten and loosen the oil filter. Will they be as careful?
GardeningTired of wondering what was sprayed on that amazingly expensive mesclun at the grocery store? Mesclun is French for roadside weeds sold to dumb city slickers by savvy farmers. There is darn little produce easier to grow than lettuces. If you let them go to seed every year, they self sow themselves for you so you don’t even have to plant them anymore! We’ve pulled out lettuces that self sowed in sidewalk cracks and eaten it. It tastes fine and is far, far fresher than anything you’ll ever buy.
Food gardening is one of the most useful hobbies you can have. It encourages you to do your own cooking, and if you grow only what your family will eat, it can save you some money as well. Start by growing the easy stuff that you can’t get fresh at the grocery store: tomatoes and lettuces. Both of these things are easy to grow and you won’t ever taste better. As you get better at it, add other vegetables. You won’t be growing the majority of your food. Few people do. But you can grow plenty of stuff that will supplement what you buy, making those dull grains and beans into tastier, more vitamin rich meals.
We do much of our home improvements and repairs. Big jobs like reroofing the house and replacing windows get contracted out. Small jobs like painting all the cabinets get done-in house. Working on our house makes us very familiar with its needs and idiosyncrasies. It also means that when I talk to Jake the Contractor about a job, I know something about what I’m talking about when I ask for X. I firmly believe that a contractor notices when he has an ignorant fool for a client?
Tired of those sagging cabinet doors? Go down to the library and look for one of the many, many titles they have on home repair and learn how to tighten the screws yourself, or replace the hinges. Cabinet doors don’t stay shut? The hardware store sells magnetic catches for just this purpose. You’ll need a pencil, a screw driver, a gimlet to start the hole, and some time. Learn how to install the first cabinet latch and the rest of them will be easier and you will start building up your tool chest.
Heating bills getting high? The library has an avalanche of titles on insulation and weather-stripping. The basics of weather stripping a door are easy to do and the parts are readily available in every hardware store. It is so easy and cheap to weather-strip a door that you should do it on rental property! (You may want to ask first.) I’ve had apartments where you could slide a quarter all around the exterior doors. The cold winter poured in 24/7 until I installed the weather-stripping. Any handyman can do this job but it is so easy, you should learn how to do it yourself.
Insulation and weather-stripping are like changing the oil in your car. They aren’t hard to do, but they demand time and patience and attention to detail to get it right. You’ll put more time into making sure your insulation is tight than a contractor on a schedule will.
If you have to call the electrician to replace a light bulb, you need easier light fixtures, or you need to learn how to do it yourself. Save up the money so when you need the electrician to add more outlets or fix those fire hazards you can get those jobs done promptly.
Faucet leaking and wasting both your water and your money? It isn’t that hard to replace the cartridge in a standard faucet. The library will tell you how and the hardware store will sell you the parts.
Learning Begins Today
What we have learned over and over is that the more skills you learn for basic, everyday living, the more self confident you are about tackling a bigger job. When you read over all the things we’ve done in Fortress Peschel, you can see that we have a lot of skills.
We didn’t start out in life with them. We had to learn how to do them bit by bit, day by day, and year by year. We learned what we like to do: painting, gardening, sewing, basic home repairs; what we couldn’t do: reroofing the house and installing solar tubes; and we stopped doing some things like oil changes when the car got to be too smart for us.We’ve decided over the years what jobs are worth doing ourselves and that lets us free up scarce cash for the jobs we can’t do. There are plenty of things that have too big a skill requirement or they take too much time that has to be spent on something that earns money.
But the time spent reskilling means that if you have to do something, you have a fighting chance of being successful. If you have no money, then you spend your time.
Reskilling makes us flexible in what we can do. It gives us choices. Should we spend our time or our money?
It makes us better consumers as we can look at a ready built cabinet and decide if it’s worth the money.
It means we’re less likely to be flummoxed by an emergency like the pipes bursting: we know where the shut-off valves are for every sink, toilet, bathtub, and washer in the house as well as where the main valve to the house is.Reskilling and being more self-sufficient pays off over and over for us. Yes, it takes time; time to learn and time to do. But everything takes time! Look at how much time it takes to drive to McDonalds versus making toasted cheese sandwiches. Don’t forget to calculate the time it took to earn the money for the McD’s run versus the time it took to earn the money to buy the bread and cheese. Don’t ever deceive yourself about how long something takes. When you choose to pay someone to do something, you have to factor in the cost of your time earning that money.
Ask yourself everyday, do you want to spend your limited free time doing something that helps you meet your goals or not? Having an array of practical skills at your fingertips makes the choice easy. Learn the skills and be ready for whatever may come your way in the future.
Next week: The Domestic Economy