Off The Grid And Bill Free: When It All Starts To Make Sense
Categories: Life Stories
A decade ago, while my husband and I were busy cultivating the American dream, we didn’t think much about our bills, other than to complain about how high they were, how frequently they showed up in our mailbox, and how hard we had to work to keep up with them. Like most people, we were conditioned to believe that paying bills was just part of life, like having to go to school and make a living. While we made efforts to reduce our monthly costs by consuming less energy, taking advantage of sales on clothes and household items, and generally being conscious of our purchases, it never occurred to us that we could actually eliminate some or all of our bills.
In addition to the utility bills associated with running our household, we were caught up in the vicious credit card cycle of barely chipping away at past purchases while accumulating hefty interest fees. Saving money to finance travel, eating out at a restaurant, or other luxuries had become next to impossible. And we weren’t alone. In 2005, the average savings rate in the U.S. was at negative one percent, the lowest level since the great depression. According to the Federal Reserve, total American consumer debt in that same year reached $2.3 trillion.
And yet we lived under the illusion that we were doing well. According to a widely held definition of success, we had arrived. We had a home-based design and architecture business. Our two young children had been accepted into a reputable preschool. We had a house, two cars, and appliances that made our lives easier.
Only not much of it was actually ours. The house was mortgaged and the cars were leased. So we spent most of our time working long hours under pressure in order to afford what didn’t even belong to us. As a result, we didn’t spend much time together as a family, even though my husband and I both worked from home. We had become completely disconnected from Nature and far removed from the sources of what we purchased. The conveniences we took for granted – water, electricity, clothing, and food – were things we paid for without ever thinking about their origins, availability, longevity, or social impact.
It took a global financial crisis and some courage for us to look at our situation with honesty and realize that, not only were our lives precariously teetering on the edge of financial instability, we were also missing out on so much of what life has to offer. We were trapped on a treadmill powered by an economic system that favored the accumulation of wealth, when what we really wanted was to move forward on our own path, at our own pace, and with a sense of purpose.
I can’t say that my husband and I had a sudden epiphany. It was more of a slowly rolling wave that we had glimpsed off the shore for some time, only now it was gaining speed and momentum. We needed to change course before we capsized.
Fast forward ten years. Our story has changed dramatically. In 2009, we moved to Senegal, W. Africa, a place my husband had known and loved for years. There we and built an off-the-grid earth house using the clay-rich soil on site to make rammed earth walls and earth bricks (see article in Natural Life Magazine, November/December, 2011). We live in the earth house we built and own, which eliminates rent or mortgage payments. Our electricity is provided by solar panels and a wind turbine, eliminating electrical bills. Our water is pumped from a well using a small solar pump and we use a composting toilet system, which means we are independent from the public water system. Phone and Internet access cards are replenished based on our weekly usage. We have one debit card which we use for travel, health expenses, and emergencies, but we are finally credit card- and debt-free. Best of all, when I reach inside our post office box once a month, the only things I find there are the occasional letters and care packages from family and friends.
Sacrifice and Simplicity
Depending on your perspective, sacrifice can either be a pro or a con. But really, in order to simplify, the two go hand in hand. Our decision to live a simple life was both conscious and deliberate. And in many ways it was an experiment. Initially, I took on the challenge with reluctancy, knowing I would be forced to give up everyday things I had grown accustomed to and was certain I couldn’t live without. But I found it to be just like when we go on vacation and pack all those clothes we’re certain we’ll need and usually end up wearing a third of what we bring – which usually corresponds to a few essential things we love, need, or feel comfortable in. This is all about perception and perspective.
When people come to our house, they often ask how many things they could power if they were to install a hybrid system similar to ours, which consists of a wind turbine, seven solar panels, and four batteries. To me, this is like standing in front of an all-you-can-eat buffet and wondering how much you can pile on your plate, rather than thinking about what appeals to you or how hungry you really are.
It’s the same with alternative energy. Instead of trying to figure out how many things we could plug in, we approached our energy needs from a different perspective: What did we really need on a daily basis and what could we live without? Since we could only afford a few solar panels in the beginning,