Sunday, February 10, 2013

How I Got Here, part 4: Making Changes

This is the fourth in a series of posts in which I describe my journey from a more or less standard issue middle-class life to the lower energy, lower spending life that is the subject of this blog. Here are parts 1, 2, and 3 if you missed them. I pick up the story after I quit paid employment as a chemist in 1992.

After resigning, I had more freedom than I had had since I was a teenager. True, I continued to do the minimal housework I’d always done, but with no paid employment, no school, and no volunteer activities, I had time to read, to garden, to play music, and to think. At first I felt guilty about having so much time to myself. Mike encouraged me to slow down and enjoy the time, to not rush into something unsuitable out of perceived discomfort with being “idle.”  I was glad to have his support and he was glad that I relaxed and slowed down to closer to his pace.

One of the first things I did was to take a workshop on the process of designing an ideal job and finding a real job that was a close-enough match. I’d participated in a similar process while I was still employed. While both processes provided insights, I couldn’t see how to turn what I learned into a paid position without further schooling. After nine years of post high school education, the last thing I wanted to do was to park my behind in classrooms for however many more years that it would take to get another degree in a different field.

If the time needed for retraining hadn’t been sufficient as a demotivating force, the money needed for it would have been. Mike was making close to median income for the time, we had a cheap house with a small mortgage, utility costs were low because the house was small, and our cars were paid for. All evidence suggested we should have no difficulty living within his income. Nevertheless, within several months we’d gone through most of the savings we’d put aside toward what was supposed to be a temporary period of unemployment on my part. Any retraining I might pursue would require us to go into debt, something we refused to do.

I found home accounting software that would work on our aging Macintosh SE computer and began to track expenses in an attempt to figure out what expenses we could cut in order to live within Mike’s income. But that wasn’t the main focus of my efforts during the first couple of years after quitting paid employment.

Instead, I started to spend much more time outside, caring for a tiny prairie garden I’d started from seed and some perennial plantings as well as a container garden consisting of a few herb plants and a tomato vine. After we’d had the property landscaped, I’d planted the flowers and the bit of prairie, and I took over lawn-mowing from Mike. Mike didn’t mind the flowers, but he’d grumbled about the lack of anything that he could eat in the garden. I hadn’t planted any food plants because I had an idea that I would not be successful at growing them. But now I decided to try growing a food plant or two in containers; if they failed, we wouldn’t be out much, and succeeding would make Mike happy. The tomato plant was for Mike as I didn’t care for fresh tomatoes at the time but he loved them. The herb plants were for me. I’d begun to learn a bit about herbs and wanted to plant a small herb garden; growing a couple of herbs in pots seemed like a good way to start. The first time I snipped herb stems and hung them up to dry, I felt a sense of satisfaction that seemed much larger than warranted by the amount of leaves obtained. I could grow something useful to us after all! Even though the torrential rains of that summer rotted some of the tomatoes (the Flood of 1993 was historic in the St. Louis region) and squirrels took most of the rest, I felt the same sense of satisfaction with the few that I picked. I decided that in 1994 I’d dig and plant a vegetable garden in the side yard, a small rectangle of land that got more sun than what level ground remained in the back yard.

Accounting for what we spent didn’t bring the hoped-for reduction in expenditures, but it did make it even clearer that we didn’t have too many months to go before we’d have to tap into our retirement accounts if our spending kept up at its current rate. Meanwhile, the reading, learning, and thinking that I was engaged in pointed clearly to a like overspending of nature’s accounts. In the mid 1990s, the concept of sustainability, meaning a way of life that could be maintained on nature’s resources for many generations, was surfacing into discussion. I caught wind of it from a local radio show, went to the reference area of the county library’s main branch to find out more, and learned of a periodical called In Context. I subscribed and in one of the first issues I received I read an interview with Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez on their recently published book Your Money or Your Life (YMOYL). What I learned intrigued me enough to check out the book. And once I read the book, I was a woman on a mission.

From the book I learned that we trade the finite hours of our lives for a paycheck, so that anytime we spend money, we pay for what we bought with the time we worked to earn the money for it. When we reduce spending we reduce the hours we need to trade for money and increase the hours available for the other activities of life. By figuring out exactly how much money Mike received for an hour of work, keeping track of expenses, re-calculating each expense in terms of the hours worked to obtain it, and then asking if the hours spent were either or both of satisfying and in line with our values, we could learn where spending reductions would have the most effect with the least pain or even an overall gain. As we reduced expenditures, we would free up money to pay off debts, then to save, and eventually to invest at interest. The final step in the process could be receiving sufficient income from interest to be able to leave paid employment before reaching official retirement age. As I read, I realized that since Mike and I already had considerable savings and only had a small mortgage debt, applying the steps could lead not only to my staying out of work but to making a dream of Mike’s, retirement before age 50, come true.

If you’ve read the previous post in this series, you may be wondering why I would be so excited about investing at interest. After all, since payment of interest and eventual repayment of capital require economic growth, and economic growth cannot continue over the long term on a finite planet, then in that long term investing at interest is as unsustainable as profit growth is. Dominguez and Robin raise the same point on page 325 of the first edition of the book under the heading “Yes, but what if everybody did it?” They then evaded their own question by posing a number of scenarios, all positive, that they claimed would be the outcome of more people following their program. (The current edition of the book, with Monique Tilford as coauthor and published in 2008, does not include this discussion.) Their evasion does not negate the validity of the question because enough people reducing their expenses enough would reduce economic growth enough to make the continued repayment of principal and interest impossible. I ignored that issue, however, so I could turn my attention to implementing the steps in the book. Since we’d already been tracking and categorizing expenses it was easy to add the other steps. At first Mike went along with the added steps grudgingly, as a favor to me. I’d tried explaining to him that I’d learned how we could retire him early, but I couldn’t get it across to him in a way he understood. A few months later I convinced him to read the book. As soon as he did he understood why I was so excited and became as dedicated to the program as I was. With both of us on board, we made fast progress in dropping expenses under his income. Over the next several years we paid off the mortgage debt on our house, began investing the savings we now had from Mike’s wages into interest bearing investments, and gradually cashed out the earlier investments we’d made, taking the tax penalties that applied, in order to re-invest the proceeds as the first edition of the book described. By the late 1990s we looked at our chart of income and expenses and projected it to a crossover point in 2001, when we could, just barely, live off the income from our investments. We decided that Mike would retire early that year once he passed his 10th anniversary with his employer.

Meanwhile, asking the questions each month about whether or not a particular expense category was fulfilling and in line with our values led to consideration of what our values were and then into a greater effort to live by them, pulling me back into volunteer work. Because I found the YMOYL program so valuable to us, I wanted to share it with other people who were ready to hear its message. Dominguez and Robin were offering materials for talks on YMOYL through a speakers bureau organized by their New Road Map Foundation, in order to further publicize the program. Since I like public speaking and the foundation would forward inquiries for speakers to me, I joined the speakers bureau, received the talk materials, and gave a few talks as inquiries trickled my way. As I became more engaged with the concept of sustainability, I started to pay attention to local efforts along those lines as well. In 1995 a nonprofit organization formed to advance sustainability within the greater St. Louis region. I heard about it within its first few months, joined it, and found I could publicize YMOYL through it. That led to more invitations to speak. In addition, I and two other volunteers formed a project within the nonprofit to offer group study courses within the St. Louis region. These courses, developed by a different nonprofit and organized around concepts such as voluntary simplicity, deep ecology, and sustainable living, offered people a chance to read about and then discuss various aspects of each topic with other people who were also interested in it. The group support helped people make changes in their own lives. Co-founding this project was a way for me to advance sustainability from the bottom up, as the more top-down work the St. Louis based organization was attempting to do was, not surprisingly, running into various obstacles.

As my economic literacy slowly grew and especially as I learned more about debt-based capital creation, I realized that our pensions and Social Security were as vulnerable to the effects of a slowdown in economic growth as the interest income gained from applying YMOYL to our finances. From studying sustainability, I knew that that slowdown in growth would likely hit while I was still alive to suffer from it. YMOYL was good as far as it went, but we needed to be prepared for a time when the collective financial hallucination wore off. I needed to learn some practical skills that would help keep us going should our income drop drastically below what our investments, pensions, and Social Security indicated we should expect in our old age. In addition, the more we put ourselves out as examples for living sustainably, the more we needed to do to live up to our example. So we started making a serious effort to reduce the amount of electricity, natural gas, and water we consumed in our household and the amount of trash we put out for collection as well as further reduce our consumption of material goods. Our efforts to conserve energy were made more difficult by the brick-on-clay-tile walls of our house that did not admit of a way to insulate short of building new walls and by the 1950s era leaky building shell. I did not feel up to the job of properly sealing the house and did not think it fair to ask Mike to do it since he had to work for pay. The less-efficient appliances we’d bought during the 1991 remodeling were too new to replace. While we did replace the furnace with a 92% efficient model and we made some simple changes to reduce our energy and water consumption, we were frustrated by the compromises we had to make. If nothing else, however, I learned enough to sympathize with similar difficulties other people faced in their efforts to live more sustainably.

Through the 1990s I expanded my gardening as far as the 1/8 acre lot would allow. I enjoyed the activity and I thought it was the best candidate for a useful skill to acquire, yet I was also frustrated because the yard was so tiny, strongly sloped, and shaded that I had little space to raise food. As I practiced gardening I explored various ways to grow a lot in a small space, such as square foot gardening and Ecology Action’s method, including taking a three day workshop offered in Fairfield, Iowa by Ecology Action in 1999. The more I learned, the more I wanted to do, and the more obvious it became that finding a small house on a larger lot would be required for me to make more than a tiny contribution to the food we ate. We started reading real estate ads and Mike made inquiries on a couple of houses he saw for sale while at work (he worked as a meter reader and thus saw a wide range of houses across the metro area). It soon became clear that it would be difficult to find a good-sized property with a small old house at a cost which would not lower our interest income too much to be unaffordable once Mike retired as planned. Besides that, neither of us looked forward to the work of moving. Instead I began to explore the possibilities of permaculture design to try to squeeze more food out of the shadier areas of our lot.

We wanted to reduce the amount of gasoline we used to reduce our contribution to urban sprawl and pollution. However, because I was giving talks and starting study groups and attending organizational meetings and we had started practicing Zen, and since the St. Louis region is sprawled out and we lived miles away from the areas where all of these events took place, we drove a lot. It bothered me since I well remembered the oil crises of the 1970s and knew that the trends were pointing toward a similar crisis in the not too distant future. I gradually started to pull away from the top-down projects in the organization I volunteered for in an attempt to reduce meeting attendance, but it was harder to give up the study circles since I had helped to bring that project into existence.

2001 brought major changes for us. First, Mike retired in February, making his dream, and mine for him, come true. Almost immediately he joined a small band putting on the Dances of Universal Peace once a month. I attended as a dancer and found them enjoyable enough to join the band myself later on. Around the same time as Mike retired, the project to offer group study courses ended after we received pressure from the organization that had developed them to expand the number of courses given more rapidly than we felt was sustainable. While I understood the sense of urgency expressed by that organization to spread the concepts widely, the conflict that resulted from driving to offer courses that counseled not driving bothered me enough that I could not continue the work. Not long after that I also resigned from the local nonprofit and became a member of a Missouri Stream Team which started working on a short stretch of one of the local streams. And by the end of the year, Mike and I bought a small house on an acre of land a few miles away so that I could put my gardening dreams into practice. Mike had seen the house and met the owner when he read her meter a year or two earlier. She told him that although she loved the house and yard, her children wanted her to move near them and she realized she’d need to do so within the next few years. Mike wrote his name and home phone on a card which he gave to her and told her to call him when she was ready to move because he’d like to buy her house. In September of 2001 she called; by December 31st the house was ours. With that purchase we had more opportunities to respond to the challenges of our energetic, economic, and environmental predicament. I’ll bring the story to the present in the next and last installment, which I plan to post within the next couple of weeks.

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