Alt-Lifestyle Answers to the “Big Questions” on Health Insurance, Old-Age Security, and More (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I shared a video by Rob Greenfield, in which Rob brings up the “big usual questions” regarding finance, old-age security, health insurance, etc. The questions that a lot of us hear, when we embark on alternative lifestyle paths. If you haven’t watched the video yet, I highly recommend it; think you will find it an excellent use of 45 minutes — and those of you who know me know I don’t say that lightly, as I have low tolerance for sitting through videos when I find it so much more efficient to take things in by reading.

In my life, I have adopted an approach that is very similar to Rob’s in terms of deliberately chosen income level, occupation, property-sharing, health, and old-age security. Here, as promised in Part 1, I’ll outline what these choices look like in my life.

Income: Same as Rob, I’ve chosen to keep my financial overhead ultra low and keep my income level at or below the poverty line. I do this to avoid paying taxes for war (though, unlike Rob, I do file taxes and pay Social Security and other self-employment taxes*). I also keep my income at the minimum level I need because, according to my observations, income inequality is a huge driver of destruction of ecosystems and indigenous cultures around the world. (*Rob does “tax himself” by donating all of his media income to environmentally and socially beneficial nonprofit organizations.) Rob does not plan to collect Social Security at all; I do, assuming it is available still by the time I’m 65.

Insurance; health: Same as Rob, I have no health insurance and I just do my best to minimize encounters with the conventional medical system. I share his conviction that lifestyle choices carry a lot of weight in one’s state of health. Like him, I just pay out of pocket when an emergency comes up (such as last summer when a cut on my leg got septic and I had to go to the ER). Same as him, if a bigger emergency came up than the $1,000 I had to pay the ER and pharmacy last summer, I’d just have to work out a payment plan with the hospital, as anyone else does when they can’t pay all at once. Rob talks about how he was once able to pay a dental expense by doing some social-media work for the dentist. I’ve never actually traded labor for medical services, but one time about 20 years ago an ER doctor bought some of my handmade jewelry that I happened to be wearing, and even though the amount was modest it did help me pay my bill. I concur with Rob’s observation that even people who have health insurance are not immune from getting medical bills that leave them in debt for life. Same as Rob, if I were to get cancer or something I would forgo chemo and all that. Unlike Rob, I am open to getting health insurance if my income reaches the minimum level for me to qualify. In the meantime, I advocate for either Medicare-for-all, or a total dismantling of the health insurance system altogether.

Banking; money: Rob has no bank account or credit cards. I have both, but the credit cards have modest limits, and regarding bank account, my general policy is to keep only a minimum amount of money stockpiled. I do have some money left from my inheritance (after tithing to various nonprofits and community causes), and right now it’s sitting in the bank but I’m engaged in discussions with some colleagues about possible local enterprises to co-invest it in (I’m not seeking financial return, but rather, social capital and helping to produce something beneficial for my community). Before I inherited money, my bank accounts were just portals where I stored tiny amounts of money to pay bills online and such.) Same as Rob, I do not invest in the stock market. The bulk of my inheritance is invested in my house (which also contains my workplace: office and studio); also, I have a share in a permaculture farm/education center here in my home state.

Phone: Rob doesn’t have a smartphone. I do, and consider it an essential tool for my work. I assume he must do his videos and writings and such on a laptop computer.

Property ownership: Rob does not own property (other than a few clothes and work tools etc.), and he does labor in lieu of paying rent. I currently “own” my house (“own” in quotes because I don’t really believe we can own a place even if we have purchased it free and clear as I was able to do) and rent out rooms to housemates to help cover the modest expenses of the house, and to provide people with stable, low-cost housing. I aspire more toward co-ownership though, and like a lot of other middle-aged and older people, am not interested in growing old by myself in a whole house. Regarding property, it struck me that whether a person chooses non-ownership or ownership, either one can include sharing of property, which is highly beneficial for people, communities, and ecosystems. Also: I have been doing some explorations toward making parts of my place “porous,” as in public or semi-public. One longtime element of “porosity” at my place is the Little Free Library I have installed along the fence. I’m getting ready to double the library’s capacity. And, today I’ve opened up my fence at the corner by the stop sign, and am putting a couple of small concrete benches there for anyone to stop and sit in the shade.

Work: Same as Rob, I have chosen a freelance occupation that involves raising people’s awareness of how to live lightly on the earth, regenerate ecosystems, and work for a kind and equitable society. Same as Rob, I don’t ever plan to retire per se, though as the body ages, I expect I’d be focused more on writing and teaching than on the manual labor that is part of my current work mix. (Then again I have seen and met many quite elderly farmers and gardeners, the defining attribute being that they were working on a human scale with hand-tools and a slow steady pace, as opposed to a large scale with industrial equipment and a fast pace.) I share Rob’s faith that I’ll always be able to find some way to make myself useful in community.

Marriage, kids: I am not anti-marriage, but I share Rob’s belief that people can have enduring relationships without an official piece of paper from the government. Also, like Rob, I chose not to have kids, and I share Rob’s view that there are plenty of kids already out there in the world who could use some extra care and attention. However, I know plenty of people who have children and who have still chosen to embark on a path of minimizing their need to participate in financialized sectors. So there’s no need to feel you can’t do this and also have kids.

Dating: Rob’s posts always seem to elicit at least a few negative comments along the lines of, “Who would date this person? How can he find people to date?” [because of his lifestyle] etc etc. I haven’t seen him stoop to answering such comments, which seem to just be petty jabs from trolls or envious people, but I do have an answer to those questions. For people living alternative lifestyles, dating and finding relationships is no more or less difficult than for “mainstream” people. Even “mainstream” people don’t have smooth sailing. Everyone pretty much deals with the same stuff. The challenge of connecting, meeting new people, finding someone compatible. Unrequited love; attractions that fizzle; connections that seem strong at first but don’t stand the test of time. Obviously “alternative” folks are going to tend to gravitate toward other “alternative” folks (though not always! many relationships cross that divide, and last a lifetime). But the assumption that dating and relationships must be harder for those of us living non-mainstream lifestyles is incorrect. Who knows, maybe some aspects are even easier for us, since we have learned not to let money and other material stuff dominate our relationships or override emotional affinities.

Old-age security: Same as Rob, I feel strongly that the best form of security is the social capital we build up throughout our lives by working with people, helping people. I don’t plan on ever needing to be warehoused in a “care facility” that I would not have money to afford. There are other things I would choose first, such as voluntary death with dignity, which is now legal in a couple of states and I hope will become legal in more places. In the wealthy industrialized world, mainstream society has come to see stockpiles of money as being necessary for, and even synonymous with, old-age security. But when we go down that road, we tend to find that no amount of stockpiled money (or stuff) ever feels like “enough” for us to feel secure. What I have found most helpful to my security is 1) reflect on what “security” means, for me. I realized that for me, security is a combination of (A) knowing that I will always have some kind of value to contribute, even if it’s something basic like shelling nuts or tending chickens or watering plants. And of course there’s making art or teaching permaculture design principles or helping people process emotions and so on. And let’s not forget storytelling, one of the best and most overlooked (by today’s society of monetized and centralized entertainment) things all of us elders have to offer. And (B) knowing that I have at least a few friends/colleagues who’d be willing to take care of me if I ever need it. (And if the shoe were on the other foot, I’d be happy to take care of them.) And 2) Another thing that has allowed me to achieve security is always caring about something bigger that just myself and my own needs. A wider focus of caring helps me feel less worried about my own concerns because I can feel them as part of a bigger picture. Like, for example, instead of worrying about “my personal housing security in old age,” I find it grounding and empowering to direct my attention to “working with my community to expand the housing ecosystem to include more options for elderly citizens and people of modest means.” It might seem counterintuitive, but I have found that focusing too much on just my own personal security makes me less secure. Not only makes me feel less secure; but actually makes me less secure. Focusing on the bigger picture, security for everyone, is the rising tide that lifts all boats. An even bigger-picture version of this is to question the elements of modern society that have people feeling so insecure in the first place. Most of it comes down to the fact that we’ve replaced care, connection, and community with financial instruments. And we intuitively know that the latter are very brittle compared with the former. The antidote is simple (if challenging sometimes): Cultivate care, connection, and community! In today’s world, it’s a downright revolutionary and heroic practice.

Death: Rob freely admits that, being only in his 30s, he’s not necessarily the best spokesperson regarding death. As a 60-year-old, though, I totally share his attitude that death is just part of life, and that instead of fearing death and taking extreme measures to prolong life at all costs, we should simply live fully right now, and be ready to die when it’s our time. For me, a big part of being at peace with death is trying to avoid leaving words unsaid with my loved ones. This is a work in progress and can be easier said than done sometimes, but I always just do my best, keep plugging away. Another big part of being at peace with death, for me, is spiritual beliefs and spiritual practice. A lot of people I know have had very bad experiences with church, spiritual “gurus”, and such. But I would say don’t let those bad experiences keep you from cultivating your own spiritual beliefs, your own personal relationship with your notion of a higher power.