Frugalism – the art of being frugal, or how to realign your life so it’s no longer all about earning money.
One of the main reasons we’ve stuck with this path of simplification, is the dream that eventually we’d find a way to be free of that deep fear we are infected with at birth, of never having enough money. We also wanted the freedom to spend our days doing something positive.
As early as the age of seven I already knew about money and jobs, how there was never enough of the former and too much taken up by the latter (my father was permanently on shift-work). This situation soured my entire childhood. It also left me permanently scarred and determined not to repeat their mistakes/ debts. Luckily when it came to leaving home it was the mid-1970s. There was a mood of liberation in the air, time to cast off the old ways. Plentiful employment. And hardly any pressure to buy stuff and spend. I also had Maureen. So we found it relatively easy to move from job to job, find affordable accommodation, survive periods of unemployment. However the one thing that constantly evaded us was a way to earn enough and in a way that fulfilled us creatively too. So finally we decided to look another way to live. Where the burden of needing money (and jobs) was less, and then get out of this crazy rat-race altogether. And if this sounds like what you’ve been thinking about then what follows definitely is going to be useful.
If such a thing as evil exists then money is it. Money is the sole cause of all the ecological destruction on this planet, and it also the major reason why the population has suddenly exponentially increased (for the time ever). The people that dreamed it up (it’s not a natural phenomenon, nor is it that old) did so for a purely selfish purpose – they wanted to supply themselves with an endless supply of free labour/ cash to do their bidding. And when that wasn’t enough, kept refining it so now we’ve got to the point where we actually give them back virtually ever cent we earn. Thankfully there is one glaring flaw with their system, which means for the moment anyone with an ounce of gumption can escape their evil clutches (at the moment). That is, the basic premise requires us to become addicted to needing stuff (including children), trapping us in a spiral of debt. Reinforced by the education system and the media.
The money con. I don’t know what you think money actually is, but I’m guessing because it is run by banks and governments at the very least it is a transparent and fair exchange – I give my time/ skills in return for an agreed coin of accepted worth. And with that I am then free to go and spend as I like on goods/ services of an equal value. WRONG. What 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 have 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 totally true. 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 living in a place where there is work (higher house prices/ rent/ and community charge). Then finally taking off the other vast slice, the one we spend to help us get us through all this tyranny week-after-week year-after-year, the things we buy to make us feel better, the treats (holidays/ leisure/ food/ gadgets/ clothes/ decorating the house). 90% of what we earn we spend on because of the job. The saddest part is most of us don’t even think there is any other way. I didn’t. Not until I got made redundant for the second time and suffered that desperation you get when if there isn’t another job forthcoming we were going drown from our accumulated debt. But there weren’t any more. Only if we moved, which of course was going to be even more expensive. Thankfully in the end we didn’t. What happened instead was our naturally anarchic nature kicked in and we decided at long last to put a stop to this living for the moment crap and try putting into action a plan we’d been hatching for a while, to become self-sufficient. Not quite as we’d intended, which was to buy a piece of land in the middle of nowhere, build a house, and live off what we could grow. But by staying put and doing whatever necessary to survive on the remaining income until we could sell up. I was 35 then, and haven’t had a job since (24 years). It also took us nine long years before a buyer turned up. However, from day one, despite all the logic saying we’d go bankrupt within a month, our finances not only held up, but started to get better. Finally in 2000 Maureen gave up her job and we set off to do it properly. Fifteen years later I own my house and land, and there is enough potential here to cover virtually all the needs of two people. At the same time, throughout the journey our quality of life has soared daily.
Before I go on to describe how all this was achieved, let’s just have a quick look at the other half of the great money con, the value for money factor: what you get for your labour/ sacrifice. Because oddly enough, when you try and spend any of this hard-earned cash then the same depreciation effect/ deception, that took so much out in earning it, kicks in all over again. With yet more excuses to charge over and above the value of whatever it is you want to buy: tax/ all the seller’s costs (including more taxes, things like rent/ equipment/ marketing/ employees/ and of course buying the stock/ materials)/ plus of course their cut for profit/ salary. Typically this loads the price so that what you get is actually only 10% of what it is actual worth. And that’s at best. Try this for example, buying a cup of coffee at STARBUCKS’S. It costs say £2, but the true value is less than a fraction of one penny. That’s not all, it gets worse. Now combine the remuneration factor with the value for money factor. Because until you do this you can’t get the true picture. I’ll save you the effort. What you actually get, from a life dependent on currency and work, is just 1% of the gross salary.
It doesn’t have to be like this, there are other options, one of which is self-sufficiency. This system 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 more-or-less a 100% return on what you put in. Owning your home means no rental/ mortgage to pay. The land should also have sufficient potential to provide your other needs too. At which point you are probably going to ask “but how do you find the money in the first place to buy somewhere outright?” Well it is possible, I have met people who had no capital whatsoever and still found their place, eventually, one way or another, it takes determination but is possible. In our case we had £40,000 (at today’s value) to spend. Another question probably is going to be “what do you do in the interim, while looking for land?” We spent nine years living like this. It wasn’t easy, but as soon as we learned how to adapt it became less of a struggle. So much so that when I hear what people in the UK are spending now (and wasting), it comes as a real shock, as well as making me feel really sad as none of it has anything to do with quality of life. Living here, as I do now, even in the saddest moments (of which there are plenty) is a million times better than before. But I’m getting ahead here. None of what we achieved would have been possible had it not been for the experience of living in such different countries with their totally different cultures, since we left the UK. Places and values we had previously never imagined. Like the wild and remote mountain communities of Galicia. The Alentejo, the poorest region in Portugal. And on a small island in British Columbia. All places where the people have to manage on a lot less than in the UK, typically a third or quarter of the income, yet where goods & services often cost a lot more. Where unemployment is a way of life and there is no benefits system. A typical household at best having only one wage-earner to support 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 conventional life, the greatest part of Maureen’s earnings went on paying the mortgage and repairing/ decorating our house. This kind of expenditure is unique to the UK. In Spain & Portugal, until very recently, most people never knew what it was to have a mortgage/ a loan/ or pay rent. They lived with their parents (and grandparents), or in a property owned by their family, or provided by their employer in lieu of wages. And it was/ still is a very basic set-up, simply somewhere to prepare meals and sleep. During the day everyone worked in the fields or factory (now offices), after which they went to the bar and stayed there until the last possible moment. Very little has changed. 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 just as full (and warmer!).
It is not unusual either to find that homes are always in a constant state of repair, to be completed as and when money can be found. Heating 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) the norm is to do most tasks by hand. Thus it was, with this new perspective, we found ourselves learning a new way to live, 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 holiday, when it’s either been very cold and wet or unbearably hot, then anything where you can’t touch the floor/ walls/ and ceiling simultaneously is a vast improvement. Without exaggeration, when moved out of that van we swapped it for no more than an animal shed. 25 m2 of floor space/ the ceiling roof tiles/ no bathroom/ no mains connection/ no hot water, and it was heaven. It was also really cheap. The highest rent we ever paid over the entire nine years was £90 a month.
Furniture. None of the places we lived in came furnished. And as we were always moving there wasn’t the chance to acquire anything, so what we did instead was use the stuff from the van and keep a look-out for anything other people threw away to renovate. 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 with that a 13 kg bottle would last 10-12 weeks (a replacement being £12). We were never asked to pay community charge. Nor was there a charge made for water, as it usually had to be brought by hand from the nearest spring. Likewise for sewage, as none of the places we stayed were on the mains. We didn’t have a phone, relying totally on the post (two days to the UK, four to the USA/ Canada)/ phone boxes/ and free wi-fi access in local bars and libraries.
Our biggest expenditure was food. And this is where we made our greatest savings. Thanks primarily to all our neighbours wherever we stayed, who instantly adopted us and made sure we always had enough to eat. Thus is the beauty of sharing, for which no mention was ever made of repayment, and we reciprocated with the gift of our time/ skills/ and use of the van. This is obviously deep-rooted in Iberian culture, because everywhere we’ve been is the same, 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 here, so endemic in the UK with LETS and barter systems (as in how much is my time/ skill worth?).
The most noticeable saving though has happened from a dramatic change in diet. Mainly the decision to cut out processed food, including alcohol. Not because it’s a lot more expensive, but turns out it isn’t very healthy for you either (see the how to become healthier page). A profound moment. Up ‘til then we really did believe we’d got it all so utterly right. Doing all our shopping only at ethical/ ecological/ and co-operatively owned enterprises, supporting an alternative and greener economy, because we really though it could make a difference. And of course, only eating organic because it is healthier. Or so we thought. In reality, the only reason ANY of this stuff exists, is because someone somewhere had the idea of turning a really cheap raw-material into something that makes them a lot of money. Dressing and talking it up so we actually believe we can’t live without it. Regardless that the provenance of the ingredients, the methods used to process it, and the claims about its healthiness, may not be so wholesome/ safe/ or even true. I’m talking here about all those really 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 this 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.
I still buy some processed food (like flour), but it’s now a tiny fraction of my outgoings. It’s also at lot lower prices, because I 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 isolated place like this you need a vehicle to carry heavy stuff (like gas bottles) in and out. And because fire engines and ambulance won’t come to you. When Maureen was dying I had to drive her in our van, in a coma, to the nearest point an ambulance would reach, something I will never forget. We did live for a year without any, but it wasn’t pleasant and hitching is illegal in Spain. So I currently have a small Renault Kangoo van, which is 14 years old. It’s the cheapest/ oldest vehicle we’ve ever owned, and now constitutes by far the biggest drain on my finances (insurance/ tax/ MOT/ repairs/ fuel). The only good news is the mileage (and thus wear and tear) has dropped dramatically over the years, down to around 600 km a year. Most of the time I cycle.
Insurance used to be another big expense, especially when we lived in the UK. Selling the house freed us from buildings cover, contents cover took a little longer as our insurer was prepared to continue whilst we were travelling and it included alternative health, which proved worth every penny. When that stopped though was a very scary moment, because we’d grown up believing insurance was absolutely necessary. However the kinds of policies available in Spain (& Portugal) aren’t anything like the same so we decided to live without. For fourteen years. Until Maureen got really ill, then I got a very basic policy, just in case.
Other than that, there hasn’t been much else to spend money on. Living in the middle of nowhere means there are few shops. The nearest town is 25 km away and only has the basics. Sevilla is 120 km away, with many temptations, but the cost of getting there is so high I now only go once a year and am happy enough just to look. The only place I would spend money, if I could get there, is Portugal (only 40 km away). Both to visit all our old friends/ enjoy the coffee & cakes/ the hardware shops/ buy coffee (it’s the best and far cheaper)/ and of course visit 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 (in 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 past left (though more than the UK), but what has survived is still renowned for quality and supplies most of the best-known world brands. Part of what they make too is what are known as “overruns”. Not strictly counterfeiting as such, but where the factory turns out rather more than the buyer orders, to sell on to the market trade mafia. Which includes 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), 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. It’s also really bizarre. You probably imagine there is no need for it here, being so far south and literally on the Mediterranean. Wrong. We might enjoy Adobe Photoshop bright-blue cloudless skies seemingly every day (well at least 300 a year apparently), but from Oct-May it gets as cold as anywhere else in Europe (even the Shetland Islands), and will freeze/ snow. In Galicia it was literally arctic in the mountains. Yet despite this, the idea of doing anything about it, like installing heating, has yet to catch on. In most homes/ bars/ restaurants/ shops/ public buildings/ schools and offices they don’t have any. Even in the cinema/ theatres. You just go suitably dressed, in coat/ hat/ scarf/ gloves, and keep them on. Maybe it’s because their blood is thicker.
There are exceptions. The brasero being the weirdest/ oldest. And which still exists in virtually every home. Traditionally this was a metal dish into which hot ashes from the kitchen stove/ fire were put, then transferred to underneath a large table, over which a long thick cloth was draped to keep the heat in, and where everyone sat, toasting their lower parts. The rest of remained frozen and the fumes probably killed millions. Today though it is exactly the same effect but there are modern versions, using electricity and gas.
Now before I disclose exactly how much I currently need to live on, let’s quickly go back over the last part with some examples (from here at El Pocito), like appliances/ furniture/ and costs for consumables. When we moved in we brought with had just a single suitcase of clothes and what we’d brought from the UK in the original van. Since then virtually everything else has either been made by us, from recycled scrap, or bought second-hand.
There are no carpets, so no need for a hoover, only broom and mop. No mains electric light, just candles and wind-up torches. No curtains, instead wooden shutters which are far more efficient at keeping the heat in. Heating is by a wood-stove, fuelled from our own supply and on which we can also cook and heat water. No tv. A wind-up radio. A 13 year old laptop (for watching films on). 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. Saucepans and crockery. Washing-up liquid is bio-degradable, and diluted 10:1, so a litre can last up to two years. Scourer and a microfiber cloth. No bathroom, 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 or a few bought homeopathic ones. No other health or beauty products. And that’s it.
So how much do you think it costs me to live now? Well, even without the garden producing anything yet, this year I reckon on spending £2000 in total. Amazed? Well you should be, especially how this reflects on what you spend/ waste, and that includes precious life and what effect it is all having on the planet. But that conversion was nothing. Not compared to how we’ve managed to earn what we needed, in a country where we didn’t speak the language/ without a job/ where virtually no-one else has one either/ without any obvious skills to trade/ and no state benefits. Another adventure, and one taking us down a path we would never have guessed existed otherwise.
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. Our original plan had been to survive on the interest from the capital, and that it shouldn’t take us more than three months to find somewhere then start reaping the self-sufficient benefits/ find other income to tide us over. That didn’t happen. Our initial destination (Santiago de Compostela) turned out to be so unbelievably awful we didn’t even bother to stop but drove straight on. 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 or understand the language), and not knowing where we were heading, meant that for a while our spending and stability spiralled out of control. Leading to where we were eventually forced/ prepared to do virtually anything to feel rooted somewhere and 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 speak (or understand) a word of the language, the state education system (right up to and including university) is so appallingly bad in Spain and Portugal, beyond belief actually, there is always going to be an insatiable need for people like us. We first realised this when a group of parents approached us in the very first village we stopped at. Discovering we were both teachers, and english, had them wanting us to help their children. And it seemed like the perfect trade. We had something to offer, and it was the perfect way to learn the language/ culture at the same time. Or so we thought. Because in no time it wasn’t just a couple of children wanting our attention, but a constant stream then adults too. Our days became filled with nothing else (preparing/ teaching/ travelling). Not at all what we had set out to do.
The next time this happened was in Portugal and by then we’d vowed never to get drawn into it again, but still needed some money. It was one our neighbours who suggested Maureen should sell some of the toys she’d been making as presents for friends (back in the UK). Have a stall at the local produce market on Saturday, which was where everyone gravitated, and she would help with the introductions. This last bit proved all-important, as (in both Portugal & Spain) before anyone will register you even exist in most rural places, let alone trust you, they have to know: who you are/ where you 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 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 really helped with getting to know who everyone was, especially as at first we were camping several kilometres out of town. The only problem was it was also a very small town, in the middle of nowhere, so eventually everyone who was going to buy a knitted cat had. And that led us down yet another path, one that again took over our lives completely, as we looked for other places/ opportunities to sell. Starting with building a stall so we could take it anywhere, setting up on the beach throughout the summer and attending all the local fiestas. Then getting involved in organising events like the town Christmas market (we even our own one year). Which for a while was very glamorous, just like being on holiday, except we weren’t supposed to be there for that, it was distracting us from the main task. At the same time most of these events didn’t start until very late, continuing on through to dawn, so we were losing the next day to catch up on sleep. Also that kind of punter isn’t really interested in what we like to make. Still we met some really nice people, made some money, and gave it our best shot, and that’s what matters. Because when you make the effort to go the extra mile, even if all the odds are stacked against you, it always leads to something else. Eventually. And for us it was to discover that ANYTHING we put our minds to would work, no matter how off-the-wall it sounded, if we believed in it enough. For Maureen it meant she could stop worrying about where the money would come from (I never did), and concentrate instead solely on what she wanted to create next. And unbelievably from that came the solution we’d been looking for all along. It’s called Monkey and Sofia. With a website of the same name (http://monkeyandsofia.wordpress.com). How to make what little money we needed, without compromise. And a twist. Nothing Maureen made was ever for profit, she only received from it what it cost to produce (materials/ postage/ wear & tear on tools/ etc). Confused? Read on.
Monkey & Sofia (named after two of our cats) is not just about the toys Maureen made, but everything we do here: the house/ garden/ writing/ anything else we may get into in the future. This is because, like nature, nothing works properly unless it has been woven inextricably and seamlessly into all its other parts. An ongoing process which involves distilling one’s experiences/ thoughts/ and ideas, then focussing them with a single-minded purpose and passion, until it produces an incredible and intense point of energy, transforming itself into output. It’s such a powerful creative force, that when people come and see what we make/ our house/ experience the garden/ or read about how we live, they don’t just do this in isolation, they are hit at the same time by the full expression of what that means. The interconnections, which are literally sewn into the fabric of the toys/ knitted across the rows of wool/ or mulched into the roots of our burgeoning edible forest. Allowing them to instantly appreciate what it is we’re trying to do here. Not just with our lives, but how it affects the planet too, in a small but positive way. And the effect of that is they then want to continue being a part of that. Either as a friend or by supporting us in any other way they can. Out of which has grown this wonderful global village of people, from 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, be it with seasoned advice or whatever else they can do to help. And they have become our guardian angels, helping to keep us (and now me) on our path. That’s the secret to how we survived and I 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/ Monkey & Sofia is all about. We’re trying to change the world. Back to how it should be. You can be part of that too. You can make a difference. By becoming a friend.