Wednesday, September 26, 2018

I Had a Blogger Friend Who Lived by the FAR* Philosophy - *Forget About Retirement

I was a stay-at-home Mom for twenty years.  During that time, I was fortunate to be able to also run a home-based business, serve as a volunteer with several non-profits (and even sat on a couple of Boards), write two books, and build a homestead.  

I didn't save any money, though, and by "save" money, what I mean is to put cash in an investment account for retirement.  I have always joked that I have five kids, and THEY are my retirement plan.  One of them will have to stay in my house and take care of me when I get old.

While that is definitely a possibility, and would be my favorite option, I know that my children may, eventually, want to move out of my house and make a home of their own.  It may well be that they have spouses who don't wish to live with the in-laws, or maybe my children will have careers that take them away from southern Maine.  

As such, the second half of my retirement plan is to tailor my life so that when (if) I reach retirement age, I won't really need a lot of money anyway.  The goal is to be, for the most part, off-grid and self-sufficient. 
In short, the goal is to plan NOW, how we can survive on a much smaller income, because we won't have millions of dollars when we retire.  We may not even have the hundreds of thousands that the experts say we should have.   Further, we may not be able to depend on Social Security.

On one of my FB groups, there is a discussion about stay-at-home parents and the fact that stay-at-home parents (mostly women) end up sacrificing their careers to be home with the kids and maintain the home.  The person who wrote the comment pointed out that it's not just the career advancement opportunities that are being forfeited by the folks who are classified as "homemakers", but they are also giving up future social security benefits by not working and paying into the system.  

As this article points out, homemakers are a particularly vulnerable demographic.  As stay-at-home parents, who are not earning an income, they are dependent on their spouses, and sometimes this ends up being a really bad deal for them.  We hear all sorts of horror stories about women (especially) who were homemakers for decades while their husbands climbed the corporate ladder, and then, after years of marriage and raising a family, the homemaker is given her pink-slip and the husband walks away, leaving her with very few options.  

The exact comment on the Facebook group was:

" ... people will say they have one spouse at home because daycare costs so much.  But, do people take into consideration the lost Social Security contributions and the loss of career momentum? Perhaps there is a mechanism for addressing these issues that I’ve missed.  I’d love to know what people think on this."

First, I don't know very many adults, even stay-at-home parents, who never worked.  So, while there is a potential loss of SS benefits, there's still the likelihood that the person will have some SS benefit.  The way social security works is to take the highest 35 years of wages, add them all together, divide by the number of months, and get an average monthly income.  The payment will be a percentage of that number.  A person only has to work for 10 years to be eligible for Social Security.  If a person works less than 35 years, but more than 10, the years between will be calculated as a zero.

I responded to the Facebook query.  My answer was that I worked from home, which put money into my social security fund, but I also stated that my ultimate goal is to tailor my life so that I don't need as much money when I retire.

The fact is, when Deus Ex Machina and I do retire, our budget will look very different than it does today.  In fact, in a few short years, it will look very different.  I think that's true of most married couples who have children.  Once the kids are grown, the way the money is spent changes drastically. 

In less than five years, all of our children will be adults, and many of the things that we are currently paying for them will no longer be our responsibility.  We will no longer be paying for their medical, dental, and orthodontic expenses.  Our phone bill will be reduced by over half.  Our grocery budget should be much lower, because we will only be feeding the two of us.  
We will no longer be paying for our children's clothes, shoes, school supplies, music lessons, dance classes, and all of the other assorted expenses that come with raising kids. 

With only two people in the house, we should be able to lower our electric bill even further.  We will use less overall water, and less HOT water, which means both our water bill AND our propane bill will decrease.

We will be driving less, because we won't need to drive our daughters to their lessons or other events.  So, we'll be saving on gasoline, and we will be saving on wear-and-tear to our vehicles, which means we will spend less on maintaining, repairing, and replacing our automobiles. 

In fact, we could probably reduce the number of vehicles to one, and Deus Ex Machina and I could share a car, which means that we would lower our bills even that much more.

I've run the numbers before, and when we take all of those expenses out of our budget, Deus Ex Machina and I could live, rather comfortably, on less than what a full-time minimum wage earner makes ... if we have made a few adjustments - like paying off our house and having no revolving debt (like loans and credit cards).  

Knowing this makes me feel really comfortable with regard to my golden years.  If social security is still a thing, and if Deus Ex Machina and I don't drastically change our spending habits after we retire, we could live on just what *I* would earn with social security.  His would be gravy.

I sensed a lot of fear in that comment, which made me kind of sad.  The reality is that we should be concerned about our future finances, sure, but it's also a fact that kids who have a full-time at-home parent benefit in so many ways, and, as a society, we should work harder to enable more families to survive on one-income, especially when they have small children.

I didn't stay at home with my kids because day care was too expensive.  I stayed home with my kids, because I wanted the opportunity to be with them, and I am so thankful that I was able to make that choice.  The fact that we saved THOUSANDS of dollars on day care expenses is just a bonus, and the loss of social security benefits and retirement income is totally worth every single second I got to be home.

We can hope for a future in which our society will do more to help stay-at-home parents as they near retirement, but in the meantime, we have millions of men and women who aren't financially secure, who are nearing retirement, and who "worked" for most of their lives caring for their families.  What about these folks?

I reference my grandma a lot, here on my blog and in my other writing.  She was a remarkable woman.  Born around the time of World War I, she survived the Great Depression, four "wars" (WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War), the Civil Rights Movement, and the fight to unionize the mines where she lived in southeastern Kentucky.  She raised eleven children, all of whom graduated from high school (which is pretty remarkable for the time and place where they were raised), and several who graduated from college, mostly by herself while her husband (my grandfather) worked out of state in a factory in Ohio.  

She never had a job.  She never even had a driver's license, but she worked her whole life.

When she reached that "golden age", when we all quit our jobs and settle on the couch to watch television until we die, she owned her home, she had her deceased husband's social security for income, and she had a couple of kids (my uncles) still living and working the old homestead with her.  

Hers is the idyllic situation, I think, for us homemakers.  She had lived her entire life frugally, and as a result, in her old age, she wanted for nothing.  And she died in the house that she had helped to build.

Most of us won't be that fortunate, but there are some things that we could do to help ourselves when we get old.

1.  Secure your housing.  On average, the elderly spend 23% of their income on housing.  The fact is that retired people aren't going to have the same income they had when they were working, even folks who were savvy retirement savers.  One's income will be less, and so it really just makes sense to plan for having less money by needing less money.  Eliminating a house payment, therefore, is smart.  I happen to live in one of the top five states for home ownership in the US.  Over 70% of Mainers own their homes.  Owning a house is a big deal for us Mainers, but I think that should be true for everyone.  Buying a house and paying it off before retirement will ensure that when we retire, we, at least, have a place to live.   

2.  Capitalize on your assets.  Even beyond just having a place to live, if we own our homes, and we stay in our homes, there are things we can do to help us fund our retirement.  That is, owning a house carries benefits beyond having a free place to live.

The design and layout of my house lends itself perfectly to the possibility that I could rent a portion of my house to a young couple or perhaps some college students.  I could live in the one half of the house and have a couple of rooms to myself, my tenants could have a private suite on the other side of the house, and the kitchen, living room and dining room could be shared living space.   My tenant's rent payment would pay my living expenses.

It's possible, however, that I don't really want any strangers moving into my house.  Luckily, for me, I have alternatives.  

3.  Bank on your skills.  As a stay-at-home Mom, I spent years learning homemaking and homesteading skills.  In retirement, with less need for a larger income, I could easily turn those skills into income.  I can sew, and I have a stash of old fabrics that would make quilters swoon.  Making baby quilts is fast and easy and could provide me with a nice income.  Because I can sew, I could also offer my services to people who are looking for costumes or custom-made clothes.

With my garden, I could sell excess produce.  In addition, Maine permits cottage industries, like baking and canning, and I could spend the summer harvesting berries for assorted jams and cucumbers for pickles, and spend the fall picking apples for applesauce.  Then, I could sell these goods at the local farmer's market along with loaves of home-made bread.  

I could reopen my home-based office service and offer typing or graphic design (like making posters and signs, which I'm pretty good at).

I can teach classes on everything from writing to making strawberry jam.

I can tan rabbit hides and make hats to sell.

In a pinch, I suppose I could cook meals (maybe even for other retired folks) and offer a home-made meal delivery service.

I've been very fortunate over the last 20 years to learn and cultivate dozens of marketable skills.

And I don't think my story is unique.  I think there are a lot of homemakers who've learned some great skills they can use to improve their incomes, before and after they retire.  We, stay-at-home parents, just need to reframe how we think about what we do, and understand that if we have full-time outside-the-home employment, we're often paying someone else to do many of things homemakers do, which means that someone would be willing to pay us to do them, when we no longer need to be doing them full-time for our families.

For me, the key to a secure and comfortable retirement is not to have a huge savings, but rather to reduce my expenses and pay off debt, and then the rest of it will be easier to manage.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Climate Change and Building our Community

Bad weather is becoming our new normal.  An article published by a government emergency management agency stated just exactly what most of us, preppers, have been warning for years.  In an emergency situation, we can't count on someone else to take care of us.  We need to be ready to weather the storm and its aftermath without waiting for help.  Help may not come, or it may take the help a lot longer to arrive than we expected.

The article gave all of the standard advice on things we should have on hand.

Stock up on water and non-perishable food

Be sure to have any prescription medications filled.

Secure important documents.

Have batteries for flashlights, etc.

The usual stuff.

Preppers who live in areas with bad weather (you know, places where flooding and hurricanes happen pretty regularly) give additional advice.

Do the laundry, because if the power goes out, it's more difficult to wash clothes.

Charge anything that needs charging (phones, computers).

Gas up the cars and have an additional filled gas can to run a generator (or, if you don't have a generator, to give to the neighbors who can fill up their generator, and as a thank you, will allow you charge your devices).

I actually like that advice.

As those who read my blog and/or my book know, I've long recommended community building as a survival strategy.  There are a lot of good reasons to meet one's neighbors.  In the best of circumstances, it's just nice to know who will be coming in and out of one's neighborhood.  If we know our neighbors, we also know our not-neighbors, which is a safety measure.  If some strange person is lurking around the neighborhood, we'll know.

If we know our neighbors and we need something, it's easier to ask someone with whom we have already established a relationship.  For instance, if we have to go out of town for a few days and we already know the young couple living down the road, it's easy enough to ask them to pick up our mail while we're gone.  Which is also a safety measure, because everyone knows that mail piling up is one of those things that burglars look for when scouting out targets. 

In a worst case scenario, knowing our neighbors means that we can work together so that everyone's needs are met.  If I know my neighbor stocks up on bird seed, and then, something catastrophic happens, I can barter with my neighbor for that bird seed to feed my chickens and offer to supply the neighbor with eggs in return. 

The other day these two young girls came to the door.  They are college students who are renting the house across the road from us, and they were just out meeting their neighbors.

As someone who has always recommended meeting the neighbors, I was so excited to see someone who was actually doing it.

And the wholly positive thing about the experience is that, this winter, when things get bad for us, Mainers, we will know there's someone living over there, a few college kids, who may not have a shovel or have planned for snow-plowing, and we can keep an eye out to make sure they're okay.

What's all that got to do with Prepping for a hurricane?

Having a community means that not all of us have to have everything. 

I don't have a generator, but I do have an on-demand hot water heater and municipal water and a woodstove I can cook on.  If the power goes out, we can jumpstart our water heater and have a hot shower, and I can cook an awesome chicken stew on the woodstove.  So, maybe our neighbor let's us use his generator to keep the food in my freezer (the quarter cow we bought and all of those chickens we raised) from thawing, we give them dinner and a hot shower.

It's always a good idea to be (as) self-sufficient (as one can be).  In emergency situations the basic preparations should cover shelter, water, and food.  It's also nice to have some creature comforts, like clean clothes and a good book to read.

But as humans are social animals, it's also great to know we have a tribe ... or at least some neighbors who are - at least - as prepared as we are so that we can help keep each other safe and alive when the weather gets bad.

As this hurricane (ironically named after one of the most famous care givers in history!) nears the coast, we'll be keeping our southern neighbors in our thoughts. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Plan, Don't Panic

This summer, Deus Ex Machina and I traveled up to Baxter State Park with Big Little Sister and a group of her friends.  We've made this same drive for the last three years in a row.  In 2016, I dropped off Deus Ex Machina and Big Little Sister at the Abol Bridge entrance to the Appalachian Trail.  In 2017, Deus Ex Machina met Big Little Sister and Matches at Abol Camp Ground and the three of them started at that same trail head on the Appalachian Trail. 

This year, 2018, I stayed with them.  We camped in Baxter State Park Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning, we went to the mouth of the Chimney Pond trail that goes up Mt. Katahdin, climbed the mountain, had a wedding, and climbed back down.  Just for the curious, coming down the mountain is significantly more difficult that going up ... and going up wasn't easy.  At my age, I never considered that climbing the mountain would be something I would be doing.  It wasn't on my bucket list.

But it was an amazing experience, and I am so honored that my daughter and her fiance (now her husband) chose me to perform the ceremony. 

The past three summers have been really instructional with regard to prepping. 

First, just let me say that most back packers would never consider themselves preppers.  They aren't trying to live for the rest of their lives on what they can carry, but they are trying to survive - at least for a few days, as is the case for those traveling the 100 mile wilderness section of the AT here in Maine. 

It took us eleven hours of nearly continuous walking (there were a few short rest breaks along the trail, a half hour stop at Chimney Pond, and a half hour or so at the top for the wedding, but mostly, I was moving for the entire eleven hours on the trail) to get from the bottom to the top and back down again.  It was five and a half miles up and five and a half miles down.  We walked about a mile per hour.

On a straight and level path, I can walk four miles per hour, comfortably, and maintain that pace for a few hours.

The AT, here in Maine, is not a straight and level path.  There are sections of the trail that are considered "scrambles."  When Deus Ex Machina came home in 2016, he tried to explain it to me.  I didn't know what he meant, until I'd saw it for myself. 

Imagine you have a storage unit in which you have packed all of your belongings in nice, sturdy boxes that you can walk across, but it was packed quickly, and so nothing is at the same level, and then, there's an earthquake and your storage unit is tilted at about a 30° angle with the back of the unit at the top, and then, you need something that's at the back of the unit, and you can't unpack the whole thing, because this is my scenario and I make the rules. 

Instead, you have to climb over everything.  Sometimes you can walk from one piece of furniture to a box next to it.  Sometimes you have to crawl up.  It's step up, step across, climb over, step across, step up, step up, step up, step up, crawl across, step across, crawl across, step up, step across, step across, step up ... ah, a dirt path ... step up, crawl across, crawl across, pull yourself up using some tree roots and branches, get bitten by a horsefly, wipe sweat out of your eyes, step up, step up, look up and see the path is just a bunch of boulders for as far as you can see, stop for two minutes to cry, crawl up, crawl up, step across ... for four and a half hours. 

It was hard.  Every step was torture, and yes, there were actual tears of exhaustion and resignation.  I couldn't go another step.  I couldn't stop.  Holy shit!  I have to come back down!!  Will this f#&%^ng trail ever end???

On the way down the trail, I realized that I had chosen to leave my water filter at the campsite ... down at the bottom of the mountain ... where we had gallons of fresh water we'd carried in.  Basically, where I didn't really need it, because we also had pots and matches and firewood.  We could purify any water by boiling it.

What I carried up the mountain was a camelback filled with water, and I guess I never considered that I might run out.  I did.  Deus Ex Machina is smarter than I am.  He's also more experienced, and he had the foresight to bring his Sawyer filter.   Midway down, we stopped at a stream, and he filtered a liter of water for each of us.  I didn't want to completely fill my bladder, because I just wanted to get off that damned mountain (and kill that pesky horsefly that had already bitten me once, and wouldn't leave me the *eff* alone.  He managed a second nibble.  He'll never get a third - not from anyone).

So, after our water stop, after we'd walked for another hour or two, after I had drained my bladder for the second time, I realized that, if Deus Ex Machina and I got separated, I could not get water. 

It was horrifying, although not terrifying (and they're two different things, I'll explain).  I was horrified that *I* was so woefully unprepared, given that I live my life as someone who pretends to always be prepared for the worst.

But I wasn't afraid, because the absolute only way that Deus Ex Machina and I would have gotten separated would have been if HE had fallen and gotten hurt, and I had gone ahead to get help, but got lost. 

The thing is, though, I would not have left him, because we were registered with the Game Wardens, and if we hadn't returned by nightfall, they would have come to find us. 

Fortunately, for most of us, most preparedness scenarios are like that one.  Most of the time, there is a fail safe: someone will come and rescue us. 

Unfortunately, sometimes that's not the case, and we can do much better, most of us, at not needing to be rescued.

In the case of us climbing the mountain, I resolved not to need rescuing by taking my time, setting MY pace (which was slower than the rest of our group), and taking each step with a great deal of care so that I didn't get injured.  Deus Ex Machina was behind me on the way down.  He let me set the pace, which was slower than he would have gone, which means he was also taking care.

Knowing one's limits, not panicking, and just taking one moment at a time are essential in an emergency situation. 

That I had no water and no way to filter wasn't a panic-inducing moment.  It was just a realization that flitted into my head, and then, I started a mental inventory of what I had in my pack, and what I could use, if the worst case (we got separated) happened.

It was all good.  I had a bush hat on my head, a cotton bandanna in my pack, and a cotton tee-shirt on my back.   There was plenty of sand and gravel on the trail.  I could probably build a mostly safe filter.  Ta-da.  Problem solved.

That's the key, though, right?  To think about solutions without worrying about what we don't have, and concentrating on what we do have.  In a preparedness scenario, what do we have that we could use to make the things we need?

The other day, when I was making dinner, I used the last of my White Wine Vinegar, and I had this cute, little glass bottle.  I almost put it in the recycling ... you know, because it's glass. 

But, then, I took a closer look at it, and I thought, "I could put a hole in the top of that lid, add one of my lamp wicks, and fill it with some of that mosquito repellent oil and put it on the table outside.

I didn't fill it with the anti-mosquito oil.  Instead, I decided to save it and fill it with lamp oil ... in case we lose power this winter, which if the Farmer's Almanac is correct, is going to be a really tough winter here in New England. 

Storms will happen, which means that power outages will probably happen, too. 

And, we'll have light.

And I also have my water filter ... you know, because ....

Sunday, September 2, 2018

I Climbed a Mountain

A friend told me that a friend of hers, who is not on Facebook, but who was a reader of this blog was concerned, because I hadn't posted much recently.

There are reasons - of course ;).

In January this year, for the first time in two decades, I started working at a job outside my home.  I am the office manager of a local community theater, and yes, it is as cool as it sounds.  I wasn't looking for a job when I found out that the Theater was looking to fill the position.  As a long-time volunteer at this theater and as someone who worked (for a very long time) as an administrative assistant, the job was a perfect fit.  Plus, I get (paid) to hang out at the Theater all day.  There's not downside ...

... except that having a job outside the home makes it a little more of a challenge to live this lifestyle that we've been cultivating for over a decade now.  Just doing laundry requires a little more planning than before, and with no clothes dryer, doing laundry already required planning. 

I guess other people, the prepper-set who were already juggling a home/work balance, can laugh a little at me, now.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.

Here, look at some picture of my other "summer adventure" while you're laughing. 

Yes, I climbed a mountain, but not just any, old mountain.  I climbed the tallest mountain in the State of Maine, where I officiated over my daughter's wedding ... in July.  It was hard, but it was also incredible.  I'm so honored and humbled that she chose me to perform the ceremony, and also that, not once, during the 5 hours it took me to summit, did she ever wonder if I was going to make it.  She just always trusted that I could.  I am humbled by her faith in me, because there were many times during that climb that I questioned whether or not I was going to make. 

 At the Summit.  Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

About half-way there.  

What's interesting about the job, though, is that having more of an income, and especially, being away from home so many hours a day, has strengthened my resolve to be prepared. 

As the summer was coming to an end for us, and we were planning our fall schedule, there were so many more things I needed to think about than just the transportation issue (although that was a big one, actually - without the Mom Taxi, it's harder to juggle schedules). 

For one, there's the issue of heat.  We heat with wood, and usually, there has been someone home for very extended periods during the day.  I've been here to, literally, keep the home fires burning.  If I have to be at work, that will be more difficult. 

Luckily, however, my job hours are still pretty flexible, and my teenagers are still homeschooling.  So, there won't be too many really long stretches of time (more than five hours) when there won't be anyone home.

Of course, there's a second concern regarding heating, and that's the issue of firewood acquisition. In the late spring, Deus Ex Machina injured his elbow, and he can't, really, operate a chainsaw.   As such, gathering firewood has been on hold.  For the first time in a lot of years, we're going to have to purchase firewood. 

The super positive about having a job, for me, was actually quite surprising.  One of my biggest concerns was that, after working all day, I wouldn't have the stamina or desire to cook, and that we'd be eating out more often, or relying on processed foods.

Neither of those things really happened.  In fact, we eat out less now that I'm not home all day (weird, I know), and this summer has been especially hot here in Maine, which means that I am loath to turn on the oven to heat up freezer foods, like frozen pizza (not that we would do too much frozen pizza anyway).

Other than the fact that my job doesn't drain me, because I work in a Theater and it's awesome, we had two things going for us.

First, we've spent the better part of the last decade localizing our diets, which means there isn't a lot of prepared food, or even restaurant food, that we can eat - and still be mostly local.  In the past, we've allowed non-local ingredients if the restaurant was locally owned, and/or if the food was ethically sourced (like Chipotle's pledge to serve ethically sourced ingredients - not local, but still in keeping with our overall goal of making good food choices)  ....

But, and this is the second thing, a couple of years ago, Deus Ex Machina eliminated gluten from our diet.  So, the reality is that there aren't a lot of places we can get food anyway.  And, too often, when we do eat out, we end up "accidentally" getting gluten, and we feel it, unfortunately.  We used to go to this locally owned pizza place, because they had a gluten-free crust, but we found out that their cheese is NOT GF.  Ugh!  Why would someone put flour in CHEESE?!?


I also had one of the best gardens I've had in YEARS.  Go figure.  I think part of it was that I didn't try to buy a bunch of seeds and plant more than I could tend.  The plants I purchased were purchased from a local organic farm rather than from the local nursery (not sure where they source their vegetables).  Also, we had a lot of rain, which helped, because I didn't take much time to water.

It's been an amazing summer - very busy, but in all good ways - and moreover, we've been super productive.

In addition to the usual garden, raising meat birds, and just life stuff, we also replaced the old, worn linoleum in the kitchen and hallway.

My only complaint is that I didn't get to beach, not once, this whole HOT summer, and I didn't get to spend nearly enough time in my hammock.

Other than that, things are good here at Chez Brown. 

And I'll try to post some of the other projects we're working on (including something with solar ... :).