Saturday, 29 October 2016

Thoughts about making money stretch

Tomorrow evening Buzzfloyd, the Badger and I are going to see Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. The movies is quite a big night out for us, so it’s odd to have that coming up without exactly being able to say I’m looking forward to it. I feel confident it will be an excellent film, and I care deeply about its subject matter – but I find it harrowing to think about.

Nonetheless, think about it I have, ever since I first heard of it.

And I wanted to share with you some of my own thoughts about dodging poverty.

I have never been in the desperate circumstances of people like those portrayed in the film. I know there are people whose lives have suddenly spiraled down, circumstances beyond their control pitching them into destitution. That has not happened to me simply because when it did there were one or two blessed souls there to catch me. I can’t tell you about them because the whole net of circumstances involves others whose privacy I must not betray. But I will be forever grateful to the two or three who stepped in to help me get out of the mess that fell unexpectedly onto my life. Even with their help, the way back was arduous and long.

But, though I haven’t ever got to the level of poverty the film portrays, life has required me to focus on budgeting and plan carefully. What I want to share with you is the strategies I keep in place – and please don’t assume I’m a wealthy person playing games; in fact don’t assume anything about my circumstances at all. You do not know them. But I share these strategies because I have found them useful and still do.

Secure housing is a pearl of great price. If you ever have money, when you do have money it is the number one priority. If you can get clear of renting and own a place outright, for the rest of your life you have a buffer against poverty. Owning a house brings overhead and maintenance costs of course, but in the UK you can let out one room tax free, which income will cover your basic outgoings for utilities etc. If you own a house you have an income. If needs be you can live in a shed or live in the garage, and let the rooms in the house.

I find it immensely frustrating when I see friends and relatives prioritizing foreign holidays, expensive consumer items, gourmet food and alcoholic drink, over securing their own place. Some people never get the chance to own their own home, but if you do it’s a golden chance. Take it.

Owning few possessions and sleeping on the floor also create great flexibility in living arrangements, allowing several people to share a relatively small house, which saves huge amounts of money.

Everyone needs water. You pay for mains water. When I sold a book I bought a very expensive water filter. We now get all our drinking water free from the spring – pure, delicious, and bottled spring water is an expensive luxury. If I hadn’t earned the money to buy the filter, I’d chance drinking it from the spring anyway. We also bought (and these were not very expensive) three large water butts to catch the rainwater from our roof. These water our plants and are good for rinsing things, flushing the toilets, washing up etc. No good for drinking water, but excellent for anything else. If we ever ran out of money and had our water cut off, we would not suffer greatly.

Every dwelling I’ve lived in – sometimes a small caravan, once a barn, other times a shared house – I’ve made sure I had some facility for lighting a fire. In the summer I gather fir cones and wood from the forest floor, and store it up in bags and cardboard boxes in the corners of my home. I save packaging and junk mail for kindling. Any time you have money, a little wood-gas stove or Kelly kettle is a good investment. If you never have money, a small fire-pit dug outside (really small, a foot across is fine) with a salvaged rack to stand a saucepan on, will give you a perfectly good place to cook and keep warm, and firewood is easy to scavenge for free.

When I had some money, first thing I did was put in a wood stove. Then you can cook indoors out of the rain, for free – and the fire offers lighting as well as heating and stove-top cooking if ever you can’t pay your fuel bills and the gas/electric is cut off. Plus you can heat the rainwater you gathered from the roof to wash yourself, your clothes and your crockery.

At our place we have solar panels for electricity and solar tubes to heat our water, too. This saves a lot of money, plus the government pays us for what we contribute to the national grid. When my father died, he wasn’t rich but he had a little in savings. What he left me put those panels on the roof.

At some supermarkets you can get excellent yellow-ticket bargains on past-sell-by-date food. I have done that, but not much – the shops near us sell poor quality food at feeble reductions (on yellow ticket I mean, not in general), so the saving is too small for the even smaller benefit. It’s an option some people make work triumphantly, though – as is dumpster diving, which I have never done.

But I have looked out for produce left for gleaners at the end of the day by greengrocers or vegetable stalls in the market. There’s often aggressive competition for these freebies, so I haven’t done it much.

In my garden I plant with a view to eating. Fruit and herbs are expensive store purchases and have the added benefit of returning year on year without having to buy seed each time. They just keep going. You don’t need a huge garden. You can even grow apple trees in pots. You can plant rosemary, lemon balm, mint all free from cuttings, and thereby keep yourself in herb teas all year round. I also plant sage and lavender – great flavouring herbs and almost impossible to kill. Lavender and lemon verbena also save you the expense of fabric conditioner – wash your clothes in rain water and they’ll be very soft, dry them on the herb bushes and they’ll smell great. Line drying is also free, saving the expense of buying and running a machine.

Finding out about foraging plants saves lots of money. Ramsons, dandelions, nettles (leaves to cook, flowers as a grand tonic), chestnuts, hawthorn leaves, mushrooms if you can find where they grow and know which to avoid, blackberries, wild apples – all these and many more are an absolute boon when money is short; high nutritional status, no financial outlay.

Getting in staples when you do have money protects you for when it runs out. I would buy:

Sea salt (the minerals are nutritious)
A big bag of oats – rolled or steel-cut
A big bag of brown rice
A big bag of lentils
A bag of millet
A bag of quinoa
A large pack of dried milk
Oils – best you can afford, and coconut oil doubles for toiletries too
Curry powder

If I had these in store, with dried or fresh herbs from the garden, foraged greens and fruit, I could keep going through lean times  - perhaps purchasing a box of eggs (look for homes who keep hens and sell at the roadside) and a bag of carrots and one of onions, and a cabbage.

For meat-eaters, offal is very nutritious and cheap. The other day I got a pack of lambs liver for £1.40. Shoulder of lamb for the same quantity of meat was £7.00 on special offer.

When you have money, tinned meat or fish is cheaper than fresh and can be put by for when the money runs out. Also, if you have a freezer and the electricity has not been cut off, frozen anything is cheaper than fresh.

Beware of stocking up on the empty calorie carb stuff like white pasta, white flour, white sugar, white rice. Better to get the oats and dried milk to make porridge to fill you up, then forage the greens and scavenge left-overs – on white carbs and sugars you just get tired, fat and sick, which makes things worse.

A bottle of cheapest washing up liquid (US dish soap) plus a bottle of spirit vinegar for soaking burnt pans, cleaning toilets, fabric conditioner and any number of other things, bicarbonate of soda – and you’re good to go for most things. If you have coconut oil to cook with, that’s also handy for a moisturizer and against tooth infections (oil-pulling). Liquorice roots are the best toothbrushes of all, need no toothpaste and are very cheap.

Freegle, Freecycle, charity shops, and eBay. Also friends circulating outgrown baby clothes and equipment. Grace/gift economy generally. I have bought bedding, furniture and curtains, but also found it easy to come by for free. Incidentally, floor-living is very cheap and maximizes living space. A double duvet works well as a pad to sit on in the day and folded in two (half on top, half as a pad to lie on) for a bed at night. A dressing gown is a great investment for cold nights – and days. A hat is a must – a huge amount of heat escapes through your head, because your body prioritizes keeping your brain stably warm. Gloves, socks and scarves are likewise priorities, because at your wrists, ankles and neck large blood vessels sit near the surface. For people who don’t run cars, shoes are valuable: when you do have money, good shoes are a purchase to consider.

Some people have little choice about where they live, but if you can choose this is important. I live in a poor town. Hastings is a pocket of poverty within East Sussex which is a pocket of poverty in the otherwise prosperous south-east. That means the fancy shops don’t last long, but the ones for poor people thrive, which extends all our options. And we have an accumulation of people who know how to live in poverty. And here by the sea there’s a lot of common land useless for building on, plus the sea itself – so nobody who can’t afford holidays needs to suffer.


In poverty, people can be your greatest asset – they keep you from despair, from starvation, from going mad. Choose wisely, because there’s also the other sort of people who can develop what started as mere anxiety into sheer hell with very little effort at all. Be a good person and keep good people round you. In poverty, perhaps surprisingly, a group is an advantage. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


I really did mean to write something about our family camping trip – then my best beloved Badger wrote a piece for the Association of Christian Writers blog More Than Writers that covered it perfectly: The Call of the Relatively Wild.

The wild, in the particular instance of our short camp, was not so much the back-to-nature as our grandchildren. Oh yes. Little Sardine and The Blur.

Little Sardine particularly enjoys the Badger’s company. She does call him Badger some of the time, but having rumbled that his name is in fact Tony, that’s what she mostly says. “Tony,” she announces, “is my best friend.”

Recently she came with her brother to our place for an Emergency Morning when one of her mother’s teeth unexpectedly fell to bits. I drove her mama to the dentist while the Badger stayed home with the Lego, dinosaurs and (crucially) i-Pad. “Take care of Badger,” I said to her as I left. “I will!” she assured me.

On our return she was there to greet us at the front door. Even before she confessed to her mother “I missed you at the dentist” (the words “while you were” should have been in there somewhere, but no matter), she made sure to let me know, “I took care of Badger.” She certainly did. He had to have a quiet half hour with a book after she went home.

Here they are at camp.

Sometimes people ask me why I call them Little Sardine and The Blur. Sardine got her name before she was hatched – but not long before. Her mother, in the last few days of pregnancy, began to feel distinctly uncomfortable, and said the child was packed in there like a sardine. The tinned variety, she meant, in case you are bewildered. They wodge ’em in close.

And why The Blur? Well, here he is on our camping holiday.

That’s why.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The portable, flexible, invisible beauty of minimalism

As long as I can remember I’ve been interested in nomadic living. Since I was a girl I’ve looked at nomadic dwellings and storage solutions, fascinated by being able to fit in anywhere then just get up and go.

Over time, as tiny houses appeared I pored avidly over the creations of Jay Shafer and Dee Williams (I love her), listened to their accounts of how to live in a tiny house, watched every video by Kirsten Dirkson I could find. I love this one – and I’m especially interested by the very last thing Kristie Wolfe says, right at the end of the video: "If you’re going to be off-grid it opens a whole world of selection."

Many people have difficulty with trying to start up off-grid because official permissions are not forthcoming or because other members of the family feel tiny off-grid living is a step beyond where they’re prepared to go. That’s what happened to Dan Price – he loved his family and they loved him; but they couldn’t face living his vision and wouldn’t go with him.

I am a quiet, rooted, low-energy person. I like to stay in one place. I love where I live – near the ocean but also on the edge of a valley given over to public parkland full of trees and home to wild animals and birds. So, though nomadic solutions interest me for their space-economy and versatility, I don’t actually want to move around.

I read once – a long time ago, I’ve forgotten the details of the writer and publication – about a study of eco-villages around the world. It was to do with which one came out as the most Earth-friendly of all. Findhorn in Scotland won, not because of sophisticated technology but because of their practice of sharing. That opened a whole new exciting world to me – I realised that by sharing we could help both human society and the wellbeing of creation better than any other way. The great thing about that is that anybody – a child, an old person, rich or poor people, people of differing nationalities – all of us can share. Everyone can contribute to this great and urgent work of protecting Earth against Mammon. I quickly saw that the more minimalist a life I led, the greater were my possibilities for sharing.

I love watching Grand Designs, and sat down the other evening to see a recent episode featuring a couple in England’s West Country. They work for a living creating artefacts out of steam-bent wood, and wanted to substantially enlarge and link the buildings of the dwelling they had – a small Victorian game-keeper’s cottage and a separate stone bathroom built into the side of a hill. They did a wonderful job, and the result was beautiful.

But my attention was caught by a phenomenon with which I’ve by now become very familiar.

Kevin McCloud (whose series Grand Designs is), interviewing the couple at the start of the build, made much of the inconvenience of their bathroom arrangements – exclaiming in horror that every time they wanted a pee in the night they had to go to a separate building. This assumption is very common. I remember reading about a tiny house dweller who had originally not installed a bathroom, opting instead to go outside into the woods. Then she discovered there were bears in the woods, got scared, and installed a bathroom.

Do they not know about chamber pots? Nobody has to even set foot outside their bedroom to pee in the night, much less go outside.

One of the most exciting things about minimalist living is its portability – very versatile. Here are some of the circumstances of my life where the versatility of minimalism is so effective. I love off-grid living, but my husband is not attracted to it. Our family needs to be in a town so we can manage with only one vehicle between three households (and our household has five people); that way we can all get about on foot and by public transport, and benefit from the infrastructure of a town with its wholefood co-op, libraries, employment opportunities, cinema, restaurants, and myriad other things that a town has and a rural location does not.

At first I thought the best solution would be to build a shed in the garden and live in that – so I could live off-grid alongside my on-grid family. I found the drawback was that the vibration of a group of holy people is tangible and healing, energising. It renews and upbuilds the spirit even – maybe especially – in sleep. I wanted to be with them, within the circle of their aura, not separate from them. I wanted to sleep at my husband’s side; and he didn’t want to live in a shed.

So I did some more thinking. Thoreau put his finger on it in this wonderful passage from the first chapter of Walden. The difficulty comes from fixtures and furniture – the unwieldiness of them.

We have got used to embedding our human needs and functions in a context of associated furniture, and the bulkiness of the furniture requires the designation of living space – separate rooms. So we have a bathroom for the bath, sink and toilet, a bedroom for the bed and clothes closets and dressing tables, a kitchen for the sink, fridge, freezer, pots and pans and food storage, a living room for the TV, sofas, coffee tables etc. We end up needing a quite large house to accommodate the separate needs of even one person.

I realised that if all these things became packable and portable, detached from designated rooms, sharing would become easier, life would be more flexible. And I saw that it is perfectly possible to live an off-grid life even in an urban setting with a modest-sized garden and sharing with other people who don’t want to live off-grid.

I think showing you what I mean may take more than one post, or this will get so lengthy as to be cumbersome. But let me start by showing you what I mean about sleeping and working arrangements.

For a start, nobody needs a bedroom.

Just now, our household has a bug. We’ve had (some of us still have) very debilitating heavy colds. A lot of coughing and sneezing, snoring in sleep and waking in the night. Normally I sleep with my husband, but just now I’m sleeping separately until we are both well again. This is easy, because all of us here sleep on the floor.

So this is a room with very little in it – my mother occupied it when she lived with us for a few weeks recently, after a hospital stay, and so may another member of our family if she comes to live with us for a while. Just now it's empty, and we like to keep it fairly free of furniture to give us somewhere to sing and dance and exercise. I’ve been sleeping in this room.

Here is my bed, rolled up for the day. 

Tonight I’ll unroll it and sleep by the fire, where I have a view of the garden trees in the moonlight.

No need for a bedroom with a double bed, plus a spare room with its own bed for times like this when we need to sleep apart.

And, while we’re in this room, let me show you my office. 

Normally, I like to sit near my hubby to do my work while he is alongside at his desk, up in his attic. This is where I usually sit. My 'office' tucks under that little table that he made.

But just now because of my hubby’s cold he is breathing through his mouth which means whistling through his teeth; and if I have to listen to it I will have to kill him. So I have taken my office downstairs.

This is my office (it was a Vivobarefoot shoebox).

It has everything like diary and pens and correspondence etc in it. It also has my library – yards and yards of books all tucked up neatly in a Kindle – and my speaker so the music stored in my i-phones library can fill the room if I like, and my electronics store 

 to connect things up and to access my massive archive of papers. All this needs electricity of course, but that comes from the solar panels on the roof. 

Meanwhile my glasses, toothbrush, spork, knife, phone, pen, ear-buds, fold-up shopping bag, coin-purse and handkerchief travel with me everywhere in my bum-bag (US ‘fanny-pack’).

I love the tiny houses Jay Shafer designs, and the many similar, but the one drawback (to me) is that everything is so small and poky – a mini-bathroom, mini-kitchen, mini-loft-bedroom, mini-living-room (complete with small tub chairs), mini-desk etc. When all you need is a room, with a certain amount of storage for the basic flexible necessities.

Kitchen and bathroom arrangements can likewise be made way more flexible and portable than they normally are. And I am a big fan of ease and convenience – I confess I don’t like to put myself out! If something is hard I generally give up. So, minimalism doesn’t bring hidden hardships or I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s mainly about questioning assumptions.

 During the day, the room I’ve been sleeping in is needed by other people – for exercising, and for a pop-up studio for some of the artefacts currently in process. So I de-camp to our family room where I can curl up in the corner of the sofa and write.

I could easily sleep here too (and sometimes do) if the room I slept in last night is needed for someone else at the time.

I personally would prefer to have no furniture beyond a couple of storage cupboards and maybe one or two of the low tables my hubby makes. I’d have cushions and sheepskins, because I like to be comfortable, and they’re easy and light to move and pack. But my household values the armchairs and sofas and the kitchen table. And the beauty of minimalism is it allows you not only to share space but to also share completely different lifestyles. There’s no reason at all why an off-grid minimalist lifestyle cannot nest elegantly and invisibly inside a regular lifestyle. It just vanishes.