Saturday, August 15, 2009

How and Why We Live Like This

Joe and I met in Maryland when I was still in college. Joe was a very frugal and average-earning civil servant (NASA engineer), socking away every penny, weighing every purchase. Keeping the thermostat low and combining car trips to save gas. Buying groceries discounted for age or condition. Doing all his own oil changes and most auto repairs. Saving money in hundreds of non-glamorous ways. He planned to retire from working at 40. He was completely confident in this goal.

So we lived according to his bachelor rules of frugality through my master's degree, my couple of years working, and his job change to the private sector, which also brought a small bonus of stock options. Nothing astronomic, our earnings ... maybe we had two years in six figures, as a couple. But we put most of it away, or into assets that would hold their value or appreciate.

We lived for a few years in a little house on a few acres in Maryland, raised some chickens, had a big garden, and started our family. When Joe got laid off in 2002, shortly after we had our second kid, and a couple of years shy of 40, we decided he wouldn't go back to work. I went back part-time for a year or so, but came home when I was expecting our third child. That's also when we found our Kansas farmhouse, which Joe's great-grandpa had built in the twenties, 2 miles from the house he grew up in. It looked like our dream home: lots of room for three growing boys, great soil for a garden, a community we knew and loved, and a low cost of living (our idea of frugality was a joke by western Kansas standards).

We bought the farmhouse on its six acres, and Joe immediately started planting fruit trees and cultivating an annual garden. A scant year later, we had tired of maintaining two complete households 1500 miles apart. We bought a 12-year-old motorhome (so we'd be able to visit family and friends in Maryland without entirely moving in with them) and sold our Maryland house. We then bought the rest of the quarter section (1/2 mile square, or 160 acres) around our farmhouse.

It's a pretty piece of land, with a half-mile shelterbelt of woods along the blacktop road and a creek that's dry most of the year. We contracted with a neighbor to plant alfalfa, and he cuts, bales, grinds it and takes it to a nearby feedlot, where it becomes Kansas beef. Joe had a new shelterbelt planted (baby trees!) to shelter the homestead from the north wind. We experimented with chickens and goats (which always had to be given away when we went a-traveling). Joe put in a woodstove and a water-source heat pump, serving both aesthetic and frugal ideals. We started fixing up the house, room by room, but never really getting ahead on the heap of projects the old place suggested to us. The barn (c.1903) wants love, and two smaller buildings are sliding into horizontal oblivion. The house is sound, and charming, and in need of paint. And then there are all the seductive ideas of alternate energy, improving the passive thermal management of the masonry house, more trees, more permaculture, more, more, more ... pie in the sky.

After a few trips in the motorhome, we realized how much we enjoyed being elsewhere. We quickly developed a preference for nature-focused state and regional campgrounds over commercial RV parks, which tend to be resort-type seasonal communities, or parking lots for people visiting local attractions. We spent months on the road, visiting friends and family and exploring new places. When my brother Frank was in Florida, we discovered the Emerald Coast, where Henderson Beach State Park has become one of our favorite places to stay. Last winter we stayed three months in coastal Southern California, and fell in love with the beaches, the canyons, the sunshine, the tacos, and the ready availability of ... well, everything!

With all this traveling, we do spend some money, but we still have a frugal core. We never buy new vehicles, we try not to spend money that's better spent elsewhere, we don't have to dress fancy or keep a vehicle under the demands of commuting. We homeschool, so we have no child care costs and no school activity costs. We eat grocery bargains at home (the RV is home), and we go as cheaply as satisfies when we dine out. And Joe is a helluva handyman when it means saving money (although he's delegated oil changes to the pros at this point, and as our vehicles get larger and newer, other repairs as well).

There are downsides to frugality. We move very slowly on home improvements, and we aren't the first couple to struggle with disparate ideas of what "has to be done". Joe always preferred spending time in the garden to working on the house, and I was barely keeping up with housework with little ones to mind. Joe also has a bit of the packrat in him -- he grew up on a wheat farm in Kansas, with older parents who'd survived the Great Depression. It was always a relief to leave behind the chaos of our ever-increasing load of stuff and get on the road with a well-defined set of necessities and truly valued luxuries.

On our last couple of trips, we realized that the weight of running our old homestead, the constant struggle of maintenance and clutter management, depressed us as soon as we turned for home. We considered the problem off and on for a year or so. With the kids getting older, we could potentially start to work down the never-shrinking list of homestead projects. Maybe we could limit our gardening, maybe stay home for an entire year, fit in the living around the work (like most people do). As we thought and talked, we realized that we couldn't even agree on what we were working toward -- we each had different ideas of what "home" looked like. We came closest to agreeing on the qualities of a pleasant home when we were on the road, and the home in question was our RV. A-ha! After some soul-searching on the relative value of stuff vs. simplicity, and roots vs. freedom, we concluded that we would pull up stakes entirely.

We've traded up to a 4-year-old fifth wheel RV pulled by a 13-year-old pickup. We're selling the farm. We've given away almost everything useful or beautiful that we owned. And we've sent a whole lotta junk to its final resting place. It'll be a challenge to be as frugal as before with a minimalist attitude toward property. This is the first time we've surrendered all of our precious junk, which we often mined for solutions instead of buying new things. But being on the road for months has gotten us used to living without stuff, and it's downright liberating when you really start pitching all the crap that's been collecting dust in corners and harboring spiders in storage rooms for years.

So, here we go. And you get to watch. We might even come live near you for a few weeks. Hope to see you then!


  1. Meg - Sherry Konjura here - (your Dad's friend from High School - you and I spent a good bit of time conversing at the banquet in KC0.

    Anyway - just want to give you kuddos on the decision you and Joe have made and tell you that I found your essay to be wonderfully inspiring.

    May God Bless and keep you and family in your travels and learning as you live according to your own beliefs.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Sherry! Of course I remember you, and I'm so glad you are enjoying our story. Be well! :)