Assume This Is the New Normal

“What would happen if the shutdown taught everyone they can live on less of everything they thought was important?” — So goes a Facebook meme that’s been making the rounds the past few days. It’s getting a lot of Likes, and I am one of them.

During disasters, life gets turned upside-down, and people focus on toughing it out “til things get back to normal.” But I think we’d be better off assuming that this is the new normal, and adjusting our lives accordingly. In particular, I really think it behooves us to adjust our finances, so we can live well on far less money. Right now, most people I know of are very financially vulnerable even if it were not for the quarantines and shutdowns prompted by the Coronavirus. Over the past few years, people’s livelihoods have been interrupted by hurricanes and other weather extremes. Even among those who are able to earn a steady income, many people’s lives are adversely affected by student-loan debt, medical debt.

The best advice I can offer anyone is, Learn to live on less. In permaculture design courses, the saying was, “Reduce your need to earn.”

For those of you who are thinking, “I shouldn’t have to be uncomfortable! Why should I deprive myself?” — I say, this isn’t about deprivation; it’s about lowering your overhead so you’re not a financial slave to anything or anyone.

Here, I’m going to cover the top culprits in high overhead, and offer tips for getting out from under them.

A roof over your head: Rent or mortgage is the top expense for most of us. Even if you own a house free and clear, you still pay rent to the government as property taxes. Lower this overhead by choosing the simplest, smallest place possible, and, even more importantly, by living with other people. Live in multigenerational community with family or friends. Living alone is not only expensive but isolating. When living with another person seems like too much of a hassle, remind yourself of how much money you’re saving by not having to pay for a whole place yourself. And learn the art of taking turns letting the house’s other occupants have the house to themselves: Don’t always be home! Go take a walk around the block; run errands.

And speaking of roofs, if you’re paying for a storage unit, now would be a great time to cut that expense loose. Find a place for your stuff inside your house, or else sell it or donate it right now to someone who has immediate use for it.

Entertainment: Bar tabs and coffeehouse receipts can add up fast. Treat yourself but don’t make it an everyday thing. (This is one area of expenses that’s been curtailed by the virus.) Write down what you spend; you might be surprised. Ditto for travel and electronic media.

Travel: warrants its own category. Be it for entertainment or for social visits, maximize the innovative use of teleconferencing, and don’t look back. I hope a lot of the teleconferencing innovations (such as musicians giving concerts by Zoom) will stick around, as people wake up and realize how exhausting and expensive all that travel was.

Home energy use: Be it electric or gas, heating or cooling your home is most likely your biggest energy expense. Cutting back, or doing without in regions where that’s feasible, can save you hundreds of dollars a month. Other energy-bill elephants are the clothes dryer (use a clothesline or drying rack instead) and the water heater (turn it way down, or do without if you can).

Transportation: Automobile ownership eats up a huge chunk of your income. Ditch the car. I know it sounds harsh but so is opening up a vein for the car payment, gas station, insurance company, and auto repair shop. If you want to free yourself of a real albatross, ditch that car and live close to where you work. Or make a home-based business. (At the very least, if you cannot or will not do without a car, then please do yourself a favor and share it with multiple other people.) Yes, doing without a car requires a bit of planning and coordinating, but instead of focusing on the inconvenience, focus on how much money you’re saving and how much you enjoy being free of the ever-looming specter of car payments and engine trouble.

Student loans, medical debt: These are pretty much impossible to get out of. But by reducing your overhead in the above ways, you can get free of them faster, and live a less stressed life along the way. If you haven’t yet taken on debt for school, don’t. Just don’t. The fickle job market should be proof enough that student loans are a dicey bet.

Does the above advice sound too extreme? What’s really extreme, is how financially vulnerable we’ve allowed ourselves to become. High overhead breeds insecurity, and it’s hard to enjoy our prized material possessions or any other aspect of life if we’re insecure.

When I was a kid, I’d see pictures of people in “poor, primitive” countries, and wonder why they had such big smiles on their faces. Well, now I know: 1) They owned their homes free and clear. Might’ve been a grass hut but at least they owned it. (And, they knew how to build themselves a new one if it burnt down or washed away.) 2) They were surrounded by family and community. They knew their neighbors. 3) Everyone had jobs to do. From little kids to elders, all knew they had a role in the economic life of the community. 4) They knew how to grow or forage their own food, get their water from streams or the sky. 5) They were physically and mentally acclimated to the prevailing temperature and other weather conditions.

None of which is to say that modern life doesn’t have its great riches and blessings. I’m using one of those blessings right now to get these words out to you. But let’s be smart: Let’s use the economic challenge of the Coronavirus to get our household economies truly, deeply in order. In the process, we will also be reducing our eco footprint. Hooray!

Don’t wait for things to get back to normal. Assume this is the new normal. And adapt and thrive accordingly.

Further Reading:

How To Align Economy and Ecology (Open Collaboration Blog): “PROVIDE JOB TRANSITION SPACE for people to leave jobs in companies which are based on producing more unnecessarily. Provide space for companies to reorient more ecologically. TRANSITION TO NEIGHBORHOOD COMMONS. Shifting childchare, eldercare, sickcare, food cooking back into the commons, shifts money from runaway capitalism system into the commons, it recenters life in our neighborhoods so theres less travel and less gas use, and it leads to more sharing of goods which lowers consumption …”

In the Midst of the Coronavirus Crisis, We Must Start Envisioning the Future Now, by Masha Gessen in The New Yorker: “When we virtuously retreat to our homes, deserting public space and delegating all authority to one man armed with emergency powers, we are creating a society as close to the textbook definition of authoritarianism as has ever actually existed.” And, regarding how we choose to think about the changes prompted by the pandemic: “[W]ill we think of distance learning as a way to make education more accessible or as a way for colleges to save money on professors and classrooms? For younger kids, might the shift prompt us to stop thinking of school as a place to warehouse children while their parents go to work, and start thinking of ways to engage children in learning? Will we emerge more atomized than ever before, with all casual links severed, accidental connections precluded, and public spaces destroyed—insuring that the new authoritarianism continues—or will we take care to create our public space anew? Will we have the courage to resist trying to restore the world we have lost, with its frenetic pace, its air travel and traffic jams, and its obsession with growth and production?”

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