Monday, October 9, 2017

Five Ways to Save for Retirement ... That Don't Include Money

Let's face it. Most of us don't do a good job of saving money. We all know we need to save money for retirement, but for those of us without an automatic pension plan or a 401K option we started at the beginning of our careers – before we ended up needing a certain level of income to maintain our current lifestyle – starting the practice of regularly putting a little aside is difficult.  It becomes even worse the longer we wait, and if we have children or suffer job/income losses, saving for retirement can become all-but out of reach. 

In 1997, Deus Ex Machina and I moved to Maine. He found an entry-level job, and I started my career as a stay-at-home Mom. In 1998, I started a home-based business and have been self-employed ever since.  Over the last two decades Deus Ex Machina has worked at several different companies, only two of which had a 401k program. If we wanted to save money for retirement, we would have needed to have opened our own, personal, retirement savings account.

Living on one and a half incomes is a challenge, and without an employer sponsored retirement program, retirement savings ends up being one of those things one is going to do in the future. Unfortunately, sometimes, the future comes more quickly than planned.

According to this article, almost one-fifth of the senior population here in the US depends solely on the federal social security system for financial support. It's usually not enough, as the article points out, and (too) many seniors, these days, are taking low-wage jobs just to make ends meet.

Articles, like the one referenced above and this one, are full of great advice on how and how much we should be saving toward retirement. According to the second article, if one earns an annual salary of $74,000, one would need to have saved $1.3 million for retirement, which works out to over $900/month or $11,000 per year in savings. Putting that kind of money into a savings account and still keeping a roof over our heads and food in our mouths just isn't possible. The article advises starting early.

Yeah … well, that ship sailed without us.

The fact is that it becomes even more difficult to START saving the older one gets, and when one is my age, if one doesn't already have some savings, whatever one is able to save from this point forward isn't going to go very far anyway. Sometimes any little bit doesn't really help. What's that saying, rob Peter to pay Paul? That's how starting to save at my age can feel.

Suppose that I was able to find some stray $11,000 a year to put into a non-interest bearing savings account. When I retired, I'd only have $165,000 in the bank. That's a nice savings. I could pay off my house.  It's true that I wouldn't have a non-interest bearing account.  If those funds are invested well, I could be looking at twice that amount, or more.  Certainly, I'd be no where near the $1.3 million, but I could be sitting on a quarter of a million, or slightly more, when I retire.  

The problem - for me, anyway - is that those funds are rarely secure.  In fact the first article I linked to above has a heart-breaking story about a woman who invested in a 401k only to be robbed of her entire savings just when she needed it most.  So, I could be putting my money into a savings account and trusting that we won't end up with another 2008 too-big-to-fail situation but with the banks not being bailed out by the government.  I could be putting my money into US Treasury bonds and trusting that we won't follow Venezuela into economic collapse.  I could be investing in the Stock Market and hoping that we don't end up with 1930s style Market crash.  

Or, instead of scrimping and saving now, so that I can live on a tiny fixed income as a senior citizen, I could be investing in my future in very real ways that will make my future more secure and more comfortable.

Here are five ways Preppers (or anyone) could be investing that don't involve risking our hard-earned dollars.

Pay off the mortgage

I think the absolute best thing one can do to prepare for retirement is to make sure that one is debt-free when one enters those golden years.

And by debt-free, I also mean free from a mortgage. In the first article referenced above, the writer states that social security is less than what a person can make working a full-time minimum wage job. If that's true, a senior citizen who only has social security will be subsisting on about $1200 per month. If one has to pay rent or a mortgage out of that amount of money, it might not actually be possible to subsist on only that. As such, paying off the house and living rent/mortgage free would be a huge step in the right direction.

I could invest in a retirement savings, or I could pay off my house. The latter is, in my opinion, a much better choice.

The best thing I can do for Old Wendy is to make sure that she has a place to live.


Reduce the cost of one's utilities

Going hand-in-hand with paying off the mortgage is reducing/eliminating one's other bills. We already don't live with and don't want or need cable television. I would completely cut all television-related expenses, if I could convince my family, which means no Netflix, either. Granted, cable television isn't a utility, as the heading implies, but cutting the proverbial cord is a step toward the necessary independence to keep Old Wendy more financially secure.

Reducing one's overall footprint with regard to electricity usage and water usage will also be valuable to Old Wendy. The less one has to pay for those basic things, the less money one needs to live comfortably.

So, instead of spending $900/month on a retirement account, one could put those funds toward setting up an alternative energy system.  For less than a half a year's worth of savings, we could be generating enough electricity to power some small electronics (laptops, phones, some LED bulbs) and our freezer.  By the time I'm ready to retire, we could have a whole-house system with enough capability to run whatever we plug into it (including the power-hungry electric stove), that was completely paid off and we'd be generating electricity for free.  

Setting water barrels for watering the garden and giving the animals water (and for use in an emergency) will reduce the water bill, which will also translate into a huge savings.  Algae-free, filtered rainwater can also be used for washing clothes and dishes, which would reduce the water bill even more. 

And for a small, one time investment, the toilets (which are the biggest user of clean water in the average US household) could be replaced with composting toilets.  

With just those small changes (at a cost of less than three months of the recommended $900 of retirement investment), one could cut one's water bill in half.  We don't pay a lot for water, but our water company recently announced an increase in our water rates for infrastructure repairs we didn't ask for or authorize, but for which we will be paying.  If we were on a fixed income, increases, like that, might just be more than we could afford.  

With only a year's worth of the recommended retirement savings, we could take our house completely off-grid, which would save thousands over the years leading up to retirement, and leave us in a pretty happy position when we transition into those golden years. 


Learn to grow one's own food

One of the biggest problems that I hear for the elderly is having enough food. In the first referenced article, the author advises his readers to visit the food pantries. I agree that the service the food pantries provide is invaluable to a lot of people. Speaking only with regard to the food pantry where I volunteered, pantries provide supplemental food and keep edible food out of the garbage. It's a good thing.

The problem is that there is absolutely no continuity of food choice at the pantry. One week might yield a refrigerator full of salads, fresh eggs and gourmet cheese, a freezer full of organic meat, shelves brimming with long-grain rice, BPA-free cans of refried beans, gluten-free cereal, and all-you-can-pack-in-a-grocery-sack of day-old produce and bread. The next visit will yield mealy apples and Wonder bread, a freezer full of ice cream and frozen pizzas (not gluten-free), shelves of canned tomato soup and boxes of fruit roll-ups, and a refrigerator containing cans of off-brand diet soda. It can be a good supplement, sometimes, but more often than not, this discarded food is stuff that other people don't want to eat. It's the donated stuff from the backs of people's cabinets or the bottom of the grocer's produce bin. The best thing our pantry offered was a steady supply of quality breads (none of which I can eat, because I don't eat bread) and a lot of still-edible produce, most of which needed to be used much sooner than later, because most of it was right on the edge.

Over the past decade, I have been learning to grow my own food. Some years are better than others, but I'm finally figuring a few things out. Potatoes grow really well in bags. Actual seed potatoes are much better than trying to reuse those grocery store potatoes that grow long and spindly in the cabinets. Diatomaceous Earth is awesome. I never plant enough garlic. Raised beds, strawbale gardens*, and container gardening is really the only way I should do things.

Which actually works to my point. Those methods of growing are easier and yield more for me, but they are also easier for older people. Raised beds and strawbale gardens don't require the kind of bending, stooping and tending that a regular garden with rows will require.

But also, having a garden is a very cheap way to supplement one's food supply. When I was volunteering at the pantry, we had a couple of elderly clients who also had a plot at our local community garden. We didn't see those patrons for most of the summer, because they were able to grow what they needed to supplement their diets. With a slightly bigger plot and the ability to preserve some of their harvest, those patrons might not have needed to use the pantry at all.

One 4'x4' garden bed can feed one adult two vegetables per day for the growing season. That's the statistic I've heard over and over again. 

 I have much more space than just two 4'x4' garden beds, which means that, depending on the crops I choose, I could grow enough vegetables to feed us for three-quarters of the year. If Deus Ex Machina builds some cold frames or that greenhouse I want, we could have vegetables year round.  

If we keep raising chickens and the rabbits and it's just the two of us, I could raise enough protein (between meat and eggs) for the whole year. If we forage the wild apples and berries we find and add them to the grapes, apples, peaches, and raspberries we have growing on our property, we have plenty of fruit. If we include maple syrup, we have completely rounded out our diet and the only thing we aren't raising is dairy and grains. 

 But we're already gluten-free and mostly grain-free. By the time we're retired, we could be completely grain-free and with just two mouths to feed, could be supplying nearly everything we need to have a calorie-rich, healthy, organic diet with just what we produce here, supplemented by our local dairy farmers.


Cultivate self-sufficiency skills

Deus Ex Machina is fond of saying one either has time or money, but rarely both. Money allows us to pay someone else to do the things we would/could do for ourselves, if we had the time. In retirement, the one thing most people have is time, but it's best to begin learning those skills before they become a necessity.

Skills like: cooking from scratch, canning/preserving, butchering animals, darning socks, mending/making clothes, changing a bicycle tire (and riding a bicycle, if that's not something one learned as a child), sharpening a knife, cutting one's hair, cooking without electricity or gas, building a fire, turning tree sap into syrup, making soap from rendered animal fat and lye, turning wood ash into lye water for soap making, tincturing herbs for medicine, fermenting vegetables (for preservation and healthier food), making cheese and yogurt from milk (to prevent spoilage and waste), and doing small home repairs (like painting the house, changing filters, repairing a faucet, patching a hole in the wall).

None of the above skills require great physical strength or are particularly difficult to do, but knowing how to do them, and more importantly, doing them, could save a great deal of money.

For instance, we all know that cooking at home costs far less than eating out, but cooking from whole ingredients rather than buying the prepared foods from the freezer section, also saves a ton of money.

If it's just the two of us, and I still cook like I do now, one day of cooking will give us three or four meals. The leftovers can be packaged and put into the freezer,or, depending on the food, put into jars and pressure canned for meals at some much later date. Get stocked up enough, and we wouldn't even have to go grocery shopping regularly, which would save us a lot of money by preventing those inevitable impulse purchases, and also save us in the cost of gasoline to get to the store.


Stay Physically Fit

A few years ago I was having a conversation with a friend. I said, “If my house is paid for and I don't have any debt, and I am growing my own food and making my own electricity, what do I need money for?” She said, without hesitation, "Medical expenses."

As someone who hasn't had very many medical issues, I wouldn't have thought of that one, but the general notion in our culture seems to be that age is equal to poor health. In fact, according to this website 75% of people in my age bracket are taking prescription medications. I guess I'm in the minority among half-centenarians. But I approach health differently, I guess.

I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and had a blood test. Nothing on my blood test worried my new doctor, except the low iron, and he recommended a stool test. I asked him why I needed a stool test, and was told it was to check for bleeding. I told him that my blood tests have showed anemia since I was in my twenties, and if it was a bleeding issue, then I've been bleeding for thirty years. Seems like there would have been some other symptoms in all of that time. I declined the stool sample.

But what I saw for the blood sugar levels bothered me, even though they didn't seem to worry the doctor. As such, being a proactive participant in my personal health maintenance, my response was to cut out sugar and alcohol.  The goal is to be sugar-free for at least a month, and then, to go back to have my blood test done again.

Or maybe I'll just cut sugar as a regular part of my diet.  It's not a necessary part of a healthy diet, anyway, and the occasional maple syrup as a treat is both healthier ... and cheaper, because we make it ourselves.  See how this works?  I save money by cutting out sugar, AND I get healthier.  

The other thing that alarmed me, but didn't phase my doctor was my weight, and I seemed to have put on a lot more of it than I had realized. I don't have a scale at home. I knew that I was porking up, but because I didn't have a way to test it, I could pretend I didn't know.

So, I started a regular walking program. I've lost three pounds in two weeks – which is about a pound and half a week. That is a very respectable and safe weight loss regimen. If I can keep it up, I'll be down to something closer to where I want to be by Christmas, and maybe Santa will leave some new clothes for me under the tree, because my pants are already getting a bit too loose.

None of the above is medical advice. It is simply what I did when I was confronted with medical issues. I could have done nothing, continued to gain weight, continued to enjoy sugary drinks and snacks, tested positive for diabetes and been prescribed a diabetes medication when I reach those twilight years.  

And maybe I'm still destined to be diabetic.  My grandmother was diagnosed with diabetes when she was my age, and she controlled hers with diet only for most of her late adult life.  She was in her 80s before she needed medication.   

Maybe none of my changes will stop me from developing diabetes, but if it does, I've saved future Wendy thousands of dollars in medication expenses. Not spending my social security money on medication is cash in my pocket, and not needing medications, means that I can survive on less cash.

All of the above ways of preparing for retirement are cumulative. That is, once one starts doing them, the savings start to pile up, both the savings in actual dollars, but also the savings in stress and worry from not having an adequate bank account.

If my house is paid off, I don't need money for housing, and I can live without the worry of being homeless and elderly.

If I have a garden and some suburban livestock, I don't need as much money for food and I reduce  the worry and pain of hunger.

If I make my own electricity, I don't have to pay an electric bill and I eliminate the concerns of having my electricity turned off when I can't pay my bill.

If I can mend my clothes, I don't have to purchase new ones as often.

Certainly, there will be things for which we will still need money, but I've run the numbers, for us. Without a mortgage or electric bill, absent a payment for classes and cars, reducing everything else to what it would be with only two people, and allowing for $400 a month “just because”, Deus Ex Machina and I will need about $1100 per month of income, which is about what I will get from social security.




I've read everything Paolo Bacigalupi has written, so far. I'm very excited about Tool of War, which is being released tomorrow! It is a sequel (of sorts, in that it has one of the characters that appeared in two of his other YA novels, The Drowned Cities and Ship Breaker).

If you're into dystopian fiction, these are great novels to read. They're set in the US and depict a future in which our government has collapsed, the US has become a “third world” country, climate change is wreaking havoc on the coast, and genetic engineering has resulted in some pretty horrifying creatures.  Bacigalupi talks about a Category 5 hurricane in Ship Breaker, a storm whose magnitude was not heard of when he wrote the book, but which came close to being a reality with the recent Hurricane Harvey.

Bacigalupi's two adult novels: Wind-upGirl and Water-Knife are equally chilling in their potential accuracy. Water-Knife is set in the American southwest and predicts water wars – a reality that is too chilling in possibility.

All of them are great stories.



* For those with small spaces who are interested in strawbale gardening, I can't recommend strongly enough the book Strawbale Gardening by Joel Karsten.  I borrowed a copy from the library and liked it so much as a resource, that I bought my own copy.  



Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Some Things I Like

A few years ago, I was approached by an author friend who was writing a magazine article that would discuss tools that we, homesteaders, felt were invaluable. 

I have two.

The first is a good pair of gloves.  I prefer leather gloves, as they are sturdier for the kinds of work that I have to do around my homestead.  I had a pair similar to these, and given that they were very thin and unlined, I was surprised at how warm they were.  The gloves fit my hand like a second skin and kept the cold wind from touching me.

Gloves are essential for things like working with firewood.  Splinters hurt.  So does burning my fingers when I get too close to the flame in the woodstove. 

Back when I was typing, full-time, for a living, protecting my hands was even more important than it is now, but I still appreciate a good pair of gloves.

It's also important to have a good pair of shoes.  Deus Ex Machina loves the Carhartt brand.  When he was prepping for his trip on the Appalachian Trail, he found that Carhartt had a pretty good selection of super lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing, but they also offer some great boot options, like these.   The composite toe protects his feet from accidents like dropping a log. 

What?  That's never happened. 

What are your favorite tools around the homestead?

Repair, instead of Replace

I've talked before about the unfortunate, mostly, negative opinion society seems to have toward stay-at-home moms.  Because we don't earn money, our contribution to society is not valued as necessary and worthwhile.  What do stay-at-home moms do that we couldn't pay someone else to do for us?  And why would we want to be stuck at home washing our husband's dirty skivvies, anyway?   

When I was a youngster, I was told that my goal should be to have a job.  A job would give me prestige and success. 

A job would allow me to buy things.  Lots and lots of things.  More and more things.  All the things. 

But the stuff breaks or wears out, which is why I need to have a job, because I need to be able to replace my stuff when it gets worn out.

And so we must work to earn money to purchase and/or replace our stuff, which we can't even enjoy, because we spend most of our time working to pay for all of the stuff we want.

It's a pretty vicious cycle. 

One of the coolest things about being a stay-at-home mom is that I get to break out of that cycle.  I can sew clothes out of old tee-shirts, which means that I'm not only not purchasing something new, I'm also repurposing something that might otherwise have just been thrown out.

I can also refurbish things that might otherwise just get replaced.

We bought our couch second-hand more than twelve years ago.  It's a lovely couch - super comfy.    The frame broke at one point, and we had a furniture repair guy fix it for us.  It cost about $100, which is considerably cheaper than buying a new couch.  And, because I am a stay-at-home Mom, I could be here for the appointment without having to miss any work. 

It's a bonded leather, which means it has a look similar to leather, but without the high quality and higher price tag. 

Between age and use (we have a lot of dogs, and we never wanted to train them to stay off the furniture), the couch cushions were starting to look a little worn. 

Since the couch is bonded leather, I didn't really think there was much hope for it.  So, I did a little research and I found that the spots where our cats have ripped the faux leather can be patched (the hardest part is matching the color) and the worn couch cushions can be spruced up.

I knew that leather could be cleaned and oiled so that it would last longer, but what I found out was that bonded leather furniture can be treated in the same way.

I planned to try it ... someday ..., but it was one of those things that would never be at the top of the priority list, until it was, but likely it just wouldn't until that very rare of days when I had nothing else to do, but nap, and I wasn't tired (very rare!). 

Then, we started cleaning up and rearranging and decluttering, and part of that process was getting rid of those pieces of furniture and decor that no longer fit.  The carpet in the living room no longer fit.  It's gone.

Pulling up the rug opened up the space in a way that was a beautiful surprise, and I decided I wanted a winged back chair.  I found three on a local buy/sell Facebook page.  My daughters each have one in their rooms, and there's one for the living room. 

We needed more seating space in the living room, but it's a narrow, long space.  Whatever we decided on, needed to be a very particular something.  I thought that a large ottoman would have the right look and feel.

And then, we found one of those, with a storage compartment, on Craigslist.

It was so perfect, it even matched our couch.

Except that the ottoman is in "like-new" ottoman.  Our couch, not so much, and when we put the ottoman next to the couch, it was pretty obvious that it was old and nearly worn out. 

So, I fixed it.


This is the before picture - the worn out sofa cushion.




I've oiled the right side and one can see the difference between the two sides of the cushion. 



This is the finished product.  It looks really different and not so old and dumpy. 


It was really easy to do.  I just rubbed coconut oil into the cushion, and then, using a soft cloth, wiped off any excess.  

It didn't take long, and it wasn't a difficult project.  Even if I had a job, it's something I probably could have done, but the sad fact is that if both Deus Ex Machina and I worked full-time, refurbing this old sofa so that we can get a few more years out of it wouldn't be worth what little time I had off work.  We would, like most people, opt to just get a new one.

Which is silly, because, clearly, it still works. 

If you're a stay-at-home mom, what things are you able to do that you wouldn't have time to do if you worked? 

If you work, what are some things you buy that you might not purchase, if you could do it for yourself?  



Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Finally, a Place for the Sewing Machine



It finally has its own table.  We're all pretty psyched.

Homestead Happenings

Many years ago ... way before "Survive the Suburbs" was conceived, before we called our quarter acre a "homestead" and a "nanofarm", before we had chickens, even before we had much of a garden ..., Deus Ex Machina and I went to a flower show up in Bangor.

Bangor is a long drive from my house, but we used to do things like that - hop in the car and drive three hours, because gas was cheap, and we could.

It actually ended up being a hugely positive experience for me, and for my future farm.  Among other things, I was given a packet of seeds so that I could "Plant-a-row", which was my first contact with a food pantry, and I saw this amazing landscaping display that stressed the importance of using natural landscaping materials, particularly, using what nature gives us, free for the taking, for mulching.

I saw an advertisement today about bagging leaves, and I thought, "I've never bagged my leaves."

Those first couple of years, we raked all of the leaves into our own compost pile. 

Then, after that amazing flower show, I started using my leaves for mulch, and I just never have enough of them these days. 

First, I rake them into my forest garden.  Then, I push them under the apple tree and peach tree, which are neighbors.  Then, I dump as many as I can find into the herb bed under the office window.  The herb garden next to the driveway is the next recipient, and lately, that particular bed is getting a little too light on the mulch. 

If there are ever any leftover, I put them in my raised garden beds to keep weeds from taking over in the early spring - before the beds get planted.

I need more leaves! 

Bark mulch looks nice, but I actually prefer the more rustic (and natural) appearance of the leaves as mulch.


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I was finally able to make a space to set-up my sewing machine.  For the first time, ever, I have a "sewing nook."  It is nice to get the sewing off the dining room table and to have a place where I can leave a more involved project.  

I hear, from my family, that there's a quilting project out there somewhere, that was intended for me.  I would love to get it and finish it.  Now, I have the space. 

I have a picture, but I can't load it.  So, that will be a future post. 

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We spend every weekend gathering firewood.  We're about three-quarters of the way to having enough to get us through the winter.  Most of this year's wood supply is pine.  We like burning pine, during the day when we're home, but for overnight, or when we gone most of the day, we really prefer to have some hardwood, which burns more slowly.  Guess we'll have to make a bigger effort to be home more. 

Oh, darn.  

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What's happening in your neck-of-the-woods?