Frugalism, or how to realign your life so it’s no longer about working to earn money.
One of the main reasons we’ve chose to live like we do, more simply, was that we wanted rid of the fear that everyone has, of never having enough money. We also wanted spend each and every day of our lives doing what we wanted.
As early as the age of seven I already knew far too much about debt and the ways money and jobs ruin lives. They soured my entire childhood. But also made me determined not to make the same mistakes. Luckily, when I left home it was the mid-1970s. There was a strong will to change things, cast off of the old ways. It was popular and easy to get a vasectomy. Employment was plentiful. No inflation. And the insidious marketing/ media machine had yet to make us all into addicts. You could be whoever and whatever you wanted. I also had Maureen, who was even more adamant that she didn’t want to end up like her family, wasting her life bringing up children. So together we found it relatively easy to move from job to job, find affordable accommodation, survive periods of unemployment, and do whatever we wanted, wherever that took us. However the one thing constantly out of reach was finding a balance between earning enough and having sufficient time left to feel fulfilled creatively. Which is why eventually we decided to look for an answer in a completely different culture. If this is what you’re after, read on.
I do not believe in religion, but if such a thing as evil could exist then it would be money. The sole cause of pain and destruction on this planet. Those who dreamed it up (it’s not a natural phenomenon) did so for purely selfish purposes – they wanted an endless supply of free labour to do their bidding. Then when that wasn’t enough, kept refining the rules so now we actually give them back virtually ever penny we earn. Thankfully there is one glaring flaw in their system (at the moment), allowing anyone with an ounce of gumption to escape their evil clutches. We have to become addicted to their world. We have to need their stuff, so much that we spend the rest of our lives paying of the debt.
The money con. I don’t know what you believe money actually is, but I’m guessing it’s a form of exchange run by the banks, where I give of my time/ skills, in return for an agreed coin of accepted worth. Then with that I am free to go and spend it as I like, on goods/ services of an equal value. WRONG. What really happens is this. Beginning with what I like to call the remuneration factor: what we actually earn for all our labour and sacrifice. Because instead of getting what was agreed upon (the gross amount), paid in weekly or monthly instalments, the actual figure we get to spend, after deductions, is little more than around 10% of that. I kid you not. It’s almost impossible to see how they do it, but they do. To start with, a sizeable chunk (over a third) goes straight to the state, in various forms of taxation. On top of that a whopping portion goes on the cost of getting you to work (owning a car/ public transport). Add in then the expense of being away from home each day (suitable clothes/ eating out/ convenience food/ paying other people to do jobs you no longer have the time for). Plus the cost of having to find a home where there is work, with higher house prices/ rent/ and community charge. Then finally, taking off another vast slice, what we spend to help us feel good about this, get us through the tyranny of working week-after-week, year-after-year. The treats (holidays/ leisure/ food/ gadgets/ clothes/ decorating the house). Those expenses add up. Work costs us 90% of what we earn. The saddest part is most (conventional) people don’t think there is any other way. I didn’t. Not until the second redundancy, after which it suddenly became apparent that despite 19 years in the (re)education system I still hadn’t got the right skills or attitude that would give me employment. And that was a revelation, a turning point. Instead of becoming victims to debt, we chose anarchy, and started to put into action a plan we’d been hatching for a while, to become self-sufficient. It didn’t happen overnight. First we had to sell up. That took nine long years. Meanwhile conventional wisdom would say that without sufficient income we’d go bust. But we didn’t, in fact our finances improved. I was 35 when this started, I am 66 now, and haven’t had a proper job since then. Finally we found a buyer, Maureen gave up her job, and we set off to do this properly. Since then neither of us have had a proper job, and the quality of lives soared.
Before I go on to describe how this was achieved, let’s just go back and have a quick look at the other half of the great money con, the value for money factor, what you get for all your labour/ sacrifice. Because oddly enough, when you try and spend any of this hard-earned cash, then the same depreciation and deception happens again. Everything you buy costs you far more than it is worth. Thanks to:
Yet more taxes. And the seller’s costs (including more taxes), things like rent/ equipment/ marketing/ employees/ and of course buying the stock/ materials, on top of which is their profit. Typically loading the price so that what you are getting is only worth 10%. If you’re lucky. Read this, a cup of coffee at Starbucks, priced £2, is actually worth less than a fraction of a penny. That’s not all. Combine the remuneration factor with the value for money factor, then you’ll get the full picture. Let me save you the effort. Living a conventional life earns you in real terms 1% of your gross salary.
It doesn’t have to be like this, there are other options. One of which is self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency works because the value of what you do for yourself isn’t affected by any of the above factors, it is working in a closed loop and so you get more-or-less a 100% return on what you put in. Owning your home means no rental/ mortgage to pay. With enough land you have the potential to provide most of your other needs too. At which point the question is but how do I find the money in the first place to buy somewhere outright? Well there are many ways. We have met people who had no capital whatsoever and still found their place, eventually. In our case we had £40,000 (at today’s value) to spend on somewhere, which even in Shetland wouldn’t get you a ruin. Another question is going to be what do you do in the interim, while looking for land? We spent nine years doing just that. I’ll be frank, at first it was really hard, but as soon as we learned how to adapt became less of a struggle. So much so that when I hear what people are spending now (and wasting), it comes as a real shock, as well as making me feel really sad, because none of what they are buying into has anything to do with quality of life. Living as I do now, even in the saddest moments (of which there are plenty), is far superior to when we were still like everyone else, conventional. But I’m getting ahead here. None of what we achieved would have been possible had it not been for the experience of living abroad, in such different countries, each with it’s own unique culture. Vistas and values we had not imagined existed. Like the remote cut-off mountain communities of Galicia. The Alentejo, poorest region of Portugal. And on the small islands of British Columbia, which are similar to Alaska in so many ways. Places where people have had to manage on a lot less income than in the UK, typically a third or quarter, and where goods & service, if available, cost a lot more. Unemployment is a way of life, without social security benefits. Where one wage-earner typically supports an extended family of up to three generations. Once you learn how to survive like that you never need to feel dependent again.
Let’s start by looking at some of the differences.
During our earlier conventional life, the greater part of Maureen’s earnings went on the home. Paying the mortgage, heating, repairs, decorating, appliances. This is unique to the UK. In Spain & Portugal, until very recently, most people had never heard of a mortgage, loans were almost non-existent, and paying rent was only for people who moved away for work. Normal was to live with your parents and grandparents in the family home, or in a property owned by the family, or provided by an employer in lieu of wages. Inside these houses there was very little, often they functioned purely as somewhere to prepare meals and sleep. During the day people worked in the fields or factory (now offices), after which they went to the bar and stayed there until the last possible moment. Today that hasn’t changed much. Extended families still prefer to live under the same roof. Television may have arrived, with its whole new world of possibilities, but generally homes remain pretty bleak/ utilitarian affairs. The bars are still preferred and often warmer.
It is not unusual either to find homes in a constant state of repair, to be completed as and when money can be found. Heating to be none existent. And furnishings, well I have yet to see a single carpet (even in a shop), or wallpaper, curtains are rare, even light fittings are often no more than the bare wires poking out of a wall/ ceiling, from which a bulb or florescent tube glows. Apart from the ubiquitous IKEA, all the shops (both in the cities and outside) stock more or less the same shoddily made/ uncomfortable/ ugly/ and outrageously expensive stuff. The same goes for household appliances, though as most homes have a surplus of free labour (a role usually falling to the oldest members), most tasks are still done by hand. Thus, with this new perspective, we found it very easy to develop what has since become affectionately known as our hovel approach to living.
The first breakthrough came while looking for a house to rent. When you’ve been cooped up in a tiny van for as long as we had, and not on a holiday. When it’s either been very cold, very wet, or unbearably hot, then anything where you can’t touch the floor/ walls/ and ceiling simultaneously is a vast improvement. Even an animal shed. Without exaggeration, our first rental, when we moved out of the van, was 25 m2 of floor space in a building that had once housed cattle. Where the ceiling was the roof, no bathroom, no mains electricity, no hot water, but most importantly incredibly cheap. Thereafter, during the whole period we rented, we never paid more than £90 a month.
Furniture. None of the places were furnished. And as we were always on the move there wasn’t the chance to acquire anything, so what used what could be removed from the van (it was designed this way) and keep a look-out for anything other people were throwing away. Total outlay in nine years: nada.
Appliances and utilities. Occasionally there was the luxury of tapping into a mains electricity supply, but with no appliances it was of limited value. Likewise bottled gas, as we only had the cooker (from the van) and a 13 kg bottle for that would last us 10-12 weeks (a replacement being £12). We were never asked to pay community charge. Nor was there ever a charge for water, as usually we had to find a local spring. Likewise for sewage, none had a connection to the mains. We didn’t have a phone, relying totally on the post (two days to the UK, four to the USA/ Canada), walking to a phone box, and free wi-fi access in local bars and libraries.
Our biggest expenditure was on food. And this is where we made our greatest savings. Thanks primarily to all our neighbours, who wherever we stayed, instantly adopted us and made sure we always had enough to eat. No mention was ever made of payment, so we reciprocated with our time, skills, and the use of our van. This is obviously deep-rooted in Iberian culture, the result of some very hard/ lean times not so long ago. I’m also glad to report there’s none of that judgemental exchange crap, so endemic in the UK with LETS and barter systems (as in how much is my time/ skill worth?).
The most noticeable saving when we did buy food was from a dramatic change in diet. Mainly the decision to cut out processed food, including alcohol. Not just because it’s a lot more expensive than using fresh ingredients, but obviously because it isn’t healthy (see the how to become healthier page). In the UK we thought we’d got it right. Become vegetarian, then vegan. Shopped only at ethical, ecological, local, and cooperatively owned businesses. Bought organic. Supported an alternative and greener economy. Really thought spending with thought could make a difference. While in reality, the only reason ANY of this stuff existed, was because someone somewhere found a way to turn really cheap raw-materials into making them a lot of money. Dressing them up up so we actually believed we couldn’t live without them. Regardless that the provenance of the ingredients, the methods used to process them, and claims about healthiness, were neither wholesome/ safe/ or true. I’m talking here about all those yummy and must be good for you treats you get in wholefood shops, like organic: fresh pasta/ noodles/ rice cakes/ tofu/ crisps/ pesto/ peanut butter/ bombay mix/ frozen organic chips/ ketchup/ vegetable pate/ tamari/ tahini/ shoyu/ baked beans/ veggie burgers/ soya mayonnaise/ miso/ soup cubes/ green tea/ wholemeal bread/ flour/ breakfast cereal/ soya ice-cream/ soda/ wine & beer/ et al. Everything they sell in fact, apart from fresh fruit and vegetables (of which more in a moment). Because to be honest there is absolutely no difference between them and conventionally produced food. Even when it comes down to certification (as in organic), because that is actually meaningless too. Nor are wholefood shops any different ethically to conventional shops, worker’s co-ops any happier or better for the staff/ customers/ local economy. Even the poor unfortunate souls who have to grow this stuff don’t ever get a fair deal. And while I’m on it, box schemes suck too. It’s ALL about just one thing – making money. Nothing more.
We buy some processed food (like flour), but that’s a fraction of our outgoings. It’s also bought at a lot lower price, because we shop wholesale. Why everyone doesn’t do this amazes me. It’s at least 50% cheaper, and they deliver for free.
Other expenses. Transport. This has been the hardest transition. When you live in an extremely isolated place, too far to cycle in an emergency, you need a vehicle to carry heavy stuff (like gas bottles). When Maureen was dying I also had to drive her out in our van, to where the ambulance could then take her to hospital, something I will never forget. We lived for a year without any vehicle, but it wasn’t pleasant and hitching is illegal in Spain. The van when we lived at El Pocito was a Renault Kangoo, which was 21 years old. It was the cheapest/ oldest/ most reliable vehicle we’d ever owned, and despite only doing around 600 km a year was the biggest drain on our finances (for insurance/ tax/ MOT/ repairs/ fuel). Most of the time I cycle.
Insurance used to be another big expense for us in the UK (house/ contents/ mortgage). In Spain & Portugal the cover isn’t the same and premiums are higher, so we decided to live without.
Other than that, there wasn’t much else left to spend money on, and living in the middle of nowhere often means there are few opportunities. The nearest town to El Pocito was 25 km away and only had the basics. Sevilla (120 km) came with many temptations, but the cost of getting there was so high we only went once a year, mostly just to look. The only place we would spend money was Portugal (only 40 km away). On the coffee & cakes, the hardware shops, buying coffee (it was the best and far cheaper), and of course visiting the gypsy markets, which have bargains like nowhere else. The latter being one of the real benefits of living abroad. Once a month in all the towns in Portugal (Spain too, but nowhere near as good), a flotilla of white vans appear from nowhere and set up a tented village of stalls, selling everything you could ever imagine (and more), but at a fraction of the retail price in shops. They can do this because either it’s their own hand-crafted produce, cutting out the middle-man, or they’ve bought direct from the manufacturer. Portugal may not have much of its old industrial heritage left now (though more than the UK), but what has survived is still renowned for quality, supplying most of the well known world brands. They also make what is known as overruns. Not strictly counterfeiting as such, but where the factory turns out rather more than the buyer orders, which is then sold on to the market trade mafia. Clothes, shoes, linen, and upholstery fabric. Add in the recent introduction of North American-style thrift stores (a far better range/ quality/ price than charity shops in the UK), with as-new clothes from as little as £1.50, it hasn’t been necessary to pay full price for any of these necessities since.
What else? The only other thing worth mentioning is heating. Because this illustrates perfectly how decadent our life in Yorkshire must have been. You probably imagine there is no need for heating in the Mediterranean countries. Wrong. There might be bright-blue cloudless skies seemingly every day (well at least 300 a year, apparently), but from Oct-May it gets cold everywhere in Europe (even the Shetland Islands), and will freeze/ snow. In Galicia the weather was actually worse than the North Yorkshire Moors. Yet despite this, in most homes/ bars/ restaurants/ shops/ public buildings/ schools and offices they don’t have any heating. Even in the cinema/ theatres. You just dress suitably, in coat/ hat/ scarf/ gloves if necessary. Maybe their blood is thicker.
There are exceptions. The brasero being the weirdest/ oldest, and still used in virtually every home. Traditionally this was a metal dish which hot ashes from the kitchen stove/ fire were put, then placed underneath the dining room table, over which a long thick cloth was draped, keeping the heat from escaping, toasting everyone’s lower parts. The rest of the body remains frozen. Today there are modern versions, using electricity and gas, but it is nonetheless still bizarre.
Now before I disclose exactly how much we needed to earn to live in El Pocito, let’s quickly go back over the last bit with some examples. We arrived with just what we’d brought from the UK in the original campervan. Then bought virtually nothing new. Everything was either been made by us, from recycled scrap, or bought second-hand.
There were no carpets, so no need for a vacuum cleaner, just broom & mop. Wooden shutters replaced curtains, which are far more efficient at keeping the heat in. Heating was by a wood-stove, fuelled from our own wood and on which we could also cook and heat water (no hot water on tap). No tv. A 13 year old laptop (for watching films on). 12 volt car stereo for playing cds. The bed built high enough to create sufficient space underneath to store all that would otherwise require cupboards/ chest of drawers. Kitchen with zero electrical appliances, just sink (cold water only) plus drainer (which is used for food preparation), a tiny gas stove for caravans (from the van) with 2 burners/ grill/ oven. Washing-up liquid is diluted 10:1, so a litre can last up to two years. No bathroom, so no toilet or shower and no toilet tissue or anything like bleach/ toilet cleaner/ hair products/ make-up/ toothpaste. No washing machine or dryer (all done by hand in cold water, a litre of natural liquid soap lasting about 3 months). Electric hair-clippers, bought 25 years ago, to shave and cut hair. First Aid cabinet, with our either own homemade remedies. No other health or beauty products.
So how much do you think it cost to live? Well, even without the garden unfinished, we never spent more than £2000 a year throughout the entire 19 years we lived away from the UK. Does this surprise you? Well it should. It also reflects on how much you spend/ waste, including precious time working to earn it. Which is all having a negative effect on the planet. No imagine trying to get your spending down as low as that in a country where you don’t speak the language. Without a job. Where virtually no-one else has one either. Without any obvious skills to trade. Where there are no state benefits.
In the beginning (when we left the UK in 2000) there was no choice. We were living in the van, on the move every day, and needed to buy fuel/ food/ plus all the other basics. The plan had been to survive on the interest from our savings, and that it shouldn’t take us more than three months to find somewhere then start reaping the self-sufficient benefits and find another income source to tide us over. None of that happened. Our original destination (Santiago de Compostela) turned out to be so unbelievably awful we didn’t even bother to stop. Three months turned into nine years, and simultaneously the interest rate crashed to 0%.
At first it was a real nightmare. The whole process of acclimatisation, getting used to not having any possessions, our only home in the world being nothing more than an old van, being physically and emotionally cut off from friends & family, not being able to talk to or understand anyone. Not knowing where we were heading. All meant that for a short while our spending and stability spiralled out of control. Eventually forcing us to do virtually anything to feel rooted again, where we could recover some kind of equilibrium, and save our precious capital. Even if that meant teaching, the very last thing we ever imagined doing again, but which turned out to be our most saleable asset. For despite not being able to communicate, the state education system (right up to and including university) in Iberia is so appallingly bad, beyond belief actually, there was an insatiable need for people like us. We first realised this when a group of parents came to where we had parked up, and discovering we were teachers, and english, asked if we could help their children. It seemed perfect. We needed money, and at the same time could learn from the children their language and culture. Or so we thought. Because it wasn’t just a couple of children wanting our attention for a couple of hours a week, but a constant stream. Then adults too. Our days became filled with nothing else (preparing/ teaching/ travelling).
The next time this happened was in Portugal, and by then we’d vowed never to get drawn into teaching again, but still needed some money. One our neighbours had seen Maureen making things to send to friends (back in the UK) as presents, and suggested we had a stall at the local produce market on Saturdays, which was where everyone gravitated, and she would help with the introductions. This last bit proved all-important. In both Portugal & Spain, before anyone will register you even exist in remote cut-off rural places, let alone trust you, they have to know: who you are/ where you have come from/ your entire family history/ educational and professional qualifications/ and who else from the town already knows you. I’m not kidding. Maria took care of all that, the toys Maureen started designing and making did the rest, and they went down a storm. Folk flocked. First to look, then coming back to buy. Eventually they even asked her to make other things to order. It was mad, but it was also a truly exhilarating time. To discover finally, that something you really enjoy for its own sake, and has nothing to do with a job/ career, could turn out to be so satisfying AND the solution to earning money. And as we’d pretty much decided this was the place we wanted to stay, it also helped getting to know who everyone was, especially as at first we were camping several kilometres out of town. The only problem was it couldn’t be sustained. A very small town, in the middle of nowhere, with hardly any population, eventually everyone who was going to buy a knitted cat had. Leading us down yet another path, one that also took over our lives completely, as we looked for other places/ opportunities to sell. Starting with building a stall so we could set up on the beach throughout the summer and attend all the local fiestas at other times. Then getting involved in organising events like the Christmas market. All of which was very glamorous for a while, just like being on holiday, except we weren’t supposed to be there for that. It was distracting us from the main task, finding a place to become self-sufficient. Most of these events were at night too, continuing through to dawn, so we were also losing the next day to catch up on sleep. Still, we met some really nice people, made some money, and gave it our best shot, and that’s what matters. Because when you do make the effort, to go that extra mile, even if all the odds are stacked against you, it always leads on to something else. Eventually. And for us that was the discovery that ANYTHING we put our minds to would work, no matter how off-the-wall it sounded, if we believed in it enough. From that moment on we stopped worrying about money and concentrated instead on what we wanted. Out of that coming the solution we’d been looking for all along. Monkey & Sofia, the website: http://monkeyandsofia.wordpress.com. How to make the small amount of money we needed, without compromise, and a twist. Nothing sold ever made a profit. Confused? Read on.
Monkey & Sofia (named after two of our 10 cats at the time) was never just about the toys Maureen made, but everything, including living off-grid and self-sufficiency. This was because, like nature, nothing works properly unless it has been woven inextricably and seamlessly into all of its other parts. A process of distilling one’s experiences/ thoughts/ and ideas, then focusing them with a single-minded purpose and passion, until it produces an incredible and intense point of energy, transforming itself into output. Such a powerful creative force, that when people saw what we made, read about our house & garden, the way we lived, they are hit at the same time by the full expression of what we are trying to do. The interconnections, which are literally sewn into the fabric of the toys, knitted across the rows of wool, and mulched into the roots of our burgeoning edible forest. Allow them to instantly appreciate not just our lives, but how the way we live affects the planet too, albeit in a small but positive way. And then they want to be a part of that. Either as a friend, or by supporting us in other ways. Out of which has grown this wonderful global village of people, all over the world, of every age and interest, who not only take the time to sit down and write regularly, but want to share their lives with us too. With seasoned advice or whatever else they can do to help. Becoming our guardian angels if you like, helping to keep us on our path, vicariously. That’s the secret. How we survived and continue to do so, on virtually thin air.
Finally, and this is going to sound really corny. The whole point, the only point, of being given a life, isn’t about getting what we want, but making every minute of that short existence count. For the good of all. And that’s what El Pocito and Monkey & Sofia was all about. Trying to change the world. You can be part of that too. You can make a difference.