Summer Survival Council: Balancing Finances and Preparedness
Expert tips on prepping without breaking the bank.
Unprepared has assembled an expert crew of preppers and homesteaders we’ve dubbed the Summer Survival Council. Every week this summer we’ve been posing one question to the group. This week, we had a question from a reader about balancing preparedness and finances:
“One thing I’d love to read/think about is the mix between time spent preparing and financial solvency. In our case we have two businesses with twenty some employees and we work a lot because lack of employees. We’re half way through remodeling a duplex 40 miles away (one side is rented and covering 2/3 of the mortgage) and mostly done remodeling a garage we live in and we rent out the house which covers 2/3 of that mortgage. Every day I think, should we figure out how to work less and homestead more since we have 3 acres and water rights to the creek running through our property. Financial solvency seems crucial and I don’t know how to balance it all. I would love to hear about this from a different perspective.”
In short: How do you balance your finances and your preparedness?
Unprepared is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
You can join our Discord server to pitch your own questions to the council. Catch up with our previous entries in the Summer Survival Council series:
Tackle Food Shortages and Inflation with Unprepared's Summer Survival Council
Confront the Fuel Crisis with Unprepared's Summer Survival Council
How the Unprepared Survival Council Prepares for Power Outages
Hamilton is a tradesman, father of three, and homesteader in the Missouri Ozarks. With over a decade of vegetable-gardening experience, he recently expanded to a broad-acre farm operation with animals including chickens, geese, and pigs. Follow on Twitter @Watchman_motto.
You have to assess what type and degree of risk and danger we may face.
I'm the type who tries to simplify my obligations as much as possible. So while I work full time, (and these hot summer days, more than that), I want as much time on the farm as I can get.
You see it when you look at what people with a lot of money do. They hire everything out. Lawn work, nanny, maid, laundry, everything because time is worth more than money.
It's why usury exists. Time > money.
But the short answer is, do the best you can with both.
As I've said before, I don't see an imminent catastrophe, but rather a long slow decline. We have time.
Of course, if I knew world markets would collapse in 2 weeks, or the grid would go down for an extended time, I would dump all my time and money into preps. But nobody knows.
A constant reminder to myself: you can't go from A to Z, it's A, then B, then C, and so on. Concrete steps daily towards your goal.
Travis J I Corcoran
Travis J I Corcoran is a software engineer and an author. He lives on a 56-acre farm in New Hampshire with his wife, dogs, livestock, and a variety of lathes and milling machines. He raises and butchers his own pigs, sheep, and poultry, and grows a variety of fruits and vegetables in his gardens, orchards, and vineyards. His two-volume homesteading magnum opus is available on Amazon: Escape the City Volume 1 and Escape the City Volume 2. …as are his two award-winning science fiction novels: The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation.
This is a great question.
In my essay “Prepping and the Power Law” in my Escape the City books, I talk about how often various catastrophes strike an individual and mention that layoffs and economic downturns are far more frequent than global conflicts or civil wars, and thus people should concentrate on solvency far more than on preparing for TEOTWAWKI scenarios.
Editor’s note: “Prepping and the Power Law” is in “Escape the City Volume 2,” page 1121.
My general stance is to make hay when the sun shines (both literally and metaphorically). You can build fences, dig ditches, and log trees any time — but when you've got paying work lined up, grab that work and get that paycheck. You'll find yourself with down time sooner or later, when a job goes to part time, or you get laid off, and that's the perfect time to switch over to your endless backlog of projects.
This actually happened to me recently - I had three jobs stacked up in the first six months of this year, and I was working seven days per week and only getting a little bit done around the homestead… and then three weeks ago, the situation reversed, and I got laid off.
Because I'd been working so hard, and investing not only in liquid savings (stocks, etc.), but in equipment (solar cells, parts for long needed equipment repair, etc.), I was in the perfect position to pivot to doing homesteading stuff while figuring out what job comes next.
This has been my approach over the years, and it's worked well for me; I recommend it.
Joseph — Homestead Padre
Joseph has been homesteading for over a decade and specializes in small-space homesteading and intensive gardening systems. He is married with three children, one grown, and is co-owner of The Smith Homestead with his wife Melody. He also owns a cottage food bakery out of his home, servicing his local community with homemade and artesian breads.
I spent many years working and building both my preps and farm infrastructure.
I don't know how well I can answer this question this week because my homestead is my work and income.
After my firing at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I completely shifted mindsets and decided I would make working the farm pay my bills. With that said, I'm in a situation where there isn't a balance, instead I am doing both simultaneously.
The more I build my farm up the more my income increases.
Since my farm is my prep, the more I build my income up the more I'm able to put back into my prep.
I have taken on some side work — mostly ghost writing — in an attempt to build my farm faster.
I guess for me, looking at headlines these days, I think placing more attention on farm and preps verses income is more important. But then again, you have to be able to pay for it all.
That leads to the conclusion that you will have to start making at least some money from your farm and build from there. Start small, too much at once will usually fail.
Ashley Colby is an environmental sociologist who lives with her family on a homestead in Colonia, Uruguay where she runs study abroad programs for Rizoma Field School. She also organizes online classes for adults like Homesteading 101 and Homeschooling 101 via her Rizoma School Gumroad. Ashley co-founded Doomer Optimism, a podcast and Substack that explores topics like homesteading, regeneration work, and preparedness. You can follow her on Twitter @rizomaschool.
Basically our whole homestead, family, and life project is about balancing finances and preparedness. First and most importantly, you must get out of debt to the extent you are able. Being in debt (and this includes a mortgage) keeps you on a treadmill wherein you must make payments or lose your housing, ability to eat, etc.
As young working adults, our first priority was to eliminate all debts, especially student loans, and to not get ourselves on the treadmill of monthly payments by, for example, financing a car. We bought cheap used cars with cash, and we did not move to Uruguay until we had enough money saved to buy our land and build a home without financing.
Beyond that, it absolutely is a balance between earning, saving and prepping. We tend to think that inflation and failing global supply chains will make the future procurement of tools and essentials both more expensive and more difficult, so we try our best to purchase any necessities for our homestead or building projects as soon as we can identify what we need. Certainly, fruit trees or lumber are worth more than lines on a spreadsheet in a bank. Having said that, fiat currency (especially the US dollar) is still and likely will be the currency for the foreseeable future, so we make sure to earn enough to be comfortable and provide for our family.
Patrick is an American teacher from a city who now lives in a rural area of western Uruguay in South America. With wife/sociologist Ashley, he started Rizoma Field School in 2017 to promote and study resilient, sustainable practices and livelihoods. He is particularly interested in agroecology, disaster preparedness, and informal community building (aka being a good friend and neighbor). You can follow him on Twitter @RizomaAt.
Though eliminating all debt is not the only way to go, and financing can often make sense depending on your situation, I strongly prefer the idea of using and spending the money you actually have. The psychological burden that is lifted when you owe no money to banks or the government was personally life changing. Beyond that though, I think there are many things worth "investing" in beyond tools, shelf stable food, livestock, and plants. Funds put toward business ownership or investment — enterprises that can give you future income — is something I support. Consistently patronizing local businesses builds up good will, community ties and to be honest, makes those people more likely to do you favors or help you out in the future should you be in need.
We have a very modest amount of long term retirement investments, but that money is mostly there to avoid being penalized or taxed. I am not going to give a wholesale condemnation of investment of this type obviously, but even if I had a time machine and lived from lets say 1920-2000 in the U.S. when economic times were booming more often than they were not, I probably still wouldn't have put a lot of money into the stock market, bonds, etc. This isnt everyone's preference and I guarantee there will be a big range of answers to this question from the panel, but I can't help but remember the John Ruskin quote of “There is no wealth but life,” and so I tend to spend money on things and experiences that help our family to survive and thrive.
Dave is a former Navy SEAL (but not the kind who thinks that makes him cool) and aspiring homesteader. He and his family live in an old schoolhouse in the Pacific Northwest where they garden, care for a small orchard, and raise chickens. Say hi to Dave on Twitter, where he is @aspiringpeasant.
Honestly, my wife and I have not struggled with this at all.
When we need to make decisions about resource allocation, we simply ask ourselves “What’s essential? What’s our goal?” and then we eliminate anything that does not support our essentials and goals in an effort to streamline our lives (and finances).
I find Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s framing helpful: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
This is basically our life philosophy, but the specifics vary dramatically based on our specific circumstances, timelines, and immediate goals.
Right now, all our “preparations” have a singular focus: we need to finish our restoration of this old schoolhouse, sell it, purchase our final property, and move there with enough cash in the bank to start building basic infrastructure (water, small house, etc).
Nothing else matters (excepting the default non-negotiables of parenting and marriage).
I changed careers last year so I could work remotely and still afford to pay for land/infrastructure.
Sometimes I take a day off work to knock out one of our renovation projects so we can sell this place (our primary goal right now).
We only have one car now. This is not convenient, but is well worth the cost savings. We are not maximizing immediate convenience or comfort: We are maximizing velocity from here to there. So saving money by only having one car is a no-brainer for us.
Our current house is 5,000 sqft. and, when we move, we’ll build a ~1200 sqft. house for our family of five. That also means needing less stuff.
We don’t go on vacation. The goal is to create a life that we don’t want a vacation from, so vacationing now is a distraction.
Once we are on our final property, there will still be no tension between “financial solvency” and “preparation” because we will simply take money (which I neither like nor trust) and convert it to things with inherent value.
Regardless of which government is doing what: land, food, water, and shelter will have value. So spending money on our infrastructure will not be a “cost” to us - it’ll simply be an investment in the only kind of assets I actually trust.
And there is no sacrifice here, no sense of needing to find “balance,” which is why I think this question vexed me for so long. We don’t see tradeoffs between finances and building the things our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will need and want. There is no tension. If my life is not for them, then what is it for?
Everything is for them. I, myself, need almost nothing. Clean water, fresh air, quiet days, nutritious food, a warm dry bed, the love of my children, and the respect of my wife. That’s all I need.
What do they need? Safety and love. Community and family. A safe-harbor to return to that costs them nothing. Food growing on trees, healthy soil, fresh water, cabins to keep themselves dry and to raise their families in.
None of this has to cost a lot. It’s all “prepping,” I suppose (though I don’t consider myself a “prepper” per se). But it’s also just pursuing the kind of rooted, grounded life I want. It’s all the same thing.
We need enough money to get there and do this, but we don’t need much more than that.
And I think that’s where people sometimes get caught up. We see the shiny/sexy/luxurious thing on Insta and all of a sudden we need that $109k Grand Wagoneer with the wood details that make it look like a luxury yacht. “We’ve worked hard, we deserve it.”
Then, all at once, the nut you have to make to live your life has $1,000/month more. And if that’s isn’t a convenient reason to put off the scary changes you dream about, I don’t know what is.
This is why I consciously use my Twitter account as a way to rebaseline myself, to reaffirm the things that matter to me and what kind of man I want to be. Write about the things that matter every day and it’s a lot harder to forget them in the face of a luxurious SUV looking out over an idyllic alpine lake.
There’s lots more I could say here. About finding a dozen different ways to make money after the move that would be in full alignment with both our monetary needs and our “preparation” goals. Maybe we build a bunch of cabins and rent them out for retreats — maybe retreats for veterans with PTSD who need the healing quiet I first found in a garden. Maybe, after building 10 cabins, we build them for other people. Maybe we raise sheep in the orchard and make some money selling lamb to local restaurants and neighbors. And when the orchards/berry patches mature, run a u-pick operation that dovetails with the cabins and event space. Maybe a dozen other things I haven’t even thought of. The point is not the specifics, but the fact that there is an infinite constellation of opportunity out there to both make enough money and support community.
But that’s all me dreaming a the future where we’ve skated to the puck and the things we’ve invested our time and money in are the things that our community needs.
The theme that’s emerged here is that the things we’re going to build/do in order to “prepare” for the future are just “non-standard” investments. There is no tension between our financial well-being and the preparations we’re making, because in the future I see, there will be no difference.
Nicole Sauce of LivingFreeinTennessee.com has run a homestead for a decade and a half, roasts great coffee at HollerRoast.com, and runs workshops on self-reliance and homesteading (SelfRelianceFestival.com). Her book Cook With What You Have helps folks learn to do just that, and she coaches people through development of a step-wise plan for building an independent, stable lifestyle including income generation, choosing the city or the country, preparedness, and lifestyle balance. She is also hosting a Swale Workshop in Camden, TN on July 30 and 31.
The short answer is with a budget, an eye toward the side hustle, and by letting go of the concept of "evil" profits. One of the biggest mistakes folks make in the preparedness world is becoming convinced that the big crash is upon us. They will sacrifice the long-term for short term stability. Then when the crash does not happen as expected, the long-term bill comes due. This thinking is supported by our government school system, cultural tendency toward instant gratification, and media programming.
To break free of these chains, I personally had to stop exposing myself to short-sightedness by:
Canceling my subscription to Better Homes and Gardens (keeping up with the Joneses). Things do NOT look that way here and they never will.
Setting long-term financial goals, and addressing short-term spending bad habits.
Forcing my non-clerical self to create a budget and review each month when it is complete.
Perhaps the thing we do not talk about enough is taking a systems approach to preparedness. When we stock and rotate food, we have a food savings account. When we stock and rotate water, we have a water savings account. When we stock and rotate money, we have a savings account. When we tap into emerging technology and acquire some crypto currency, we have a “progress” savings account. Every system we implement should be in balance with personal goals and our need to sustain life.
Once you get your financial system in place, have an ongoing habit of increasing your financial literacy, and have established that emergency fund that everyone recommends, it is easier to keep your preps in line with your lifestyle reality. And having diverse ways to handle problems on the financial side is as important as having a deep pantry. The two things should not be separated.
In fact, when planning a prepared life, the first thing to address is your financial situation. You may need to knock out debt, change spending habits, and increase income all at one time — and it is possible with focus. Six years ago, I had $40,000 in consumer debt (the kind at 21% interest), $250,000 in mortgage debt on personal homes, and $250,000 in rental property loans. I was the typical American — only one paycheck missed away from insolvency. Today, I am $49,000 from all the personal debts (mortgage and consumer) being paid off.
This is what I did to fix my problem:
Documented ALL debts and what my monthly minimums were.
Documented how much of the monthly minimum was going to interest only.
Created a budget that I was willing to stick to. (So NOT beans and rice only.)
Rolled credit card debt to 0% offers and aggressively paid those off.
Changed what mortgages I could to an every two week cycle, which resulted in one extra mortgage payment per year off of the principle.
Quit my job because it was killing me and launched a business.
Lived off my preps mostly for a year.
Put 10% of all money earned into a savings account for an emergency fund, and another 10% into just a saving account while also paying off debt.
Sold lots of things and put 100% or proceeds into consumer debt payoff.
Those of you who listen to my podcast heard me both building a business, paying off debt, and building a deep pantry through scoring inexpensive food when it was in season and preserving it for winter. Six years later, the end is near so to speak. It took time, focus, and lots of advice from friends along the way. The other thing it took was an acceptance that it is not only OK but GOOD to make a profit on business endeavors. For if you do not, you end up broke and unable to keep providing the goods and services to your customers that they wish to procure from you.
Unprepared is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.