Cutting out the Big 5

Clothes-dryer, dishwasher, car, air-conditioner, water-heater.

Those are the five items that have struck me over the years as being considered absolutely essential for a respectable middle-class life. Doing without them has come to be seen as unthinkable in North America and other places heavily influenced by North American cultural norms.

I realize these things are considered by mainstream North American culture to be absolutely necessary. But they used to be luxuries.

These five things also account for a large share of the typical household budget. And coincidentally — or not — these five things are also very big-ticket items from an eco-footprint standpoint.

One of the ways that I have been able to liberate myself from the financial treadmill of being forced to work a middle-class type of job and/or constant long hours is to cut out what most middle-class people see as “essential stuff.”

This is something you can look into if you’re tired of high repair bills and the hassle of scrambling to buy/maintain a supposedly essential appliance.

Ask yourself: What if you just didn’t need it? What if you really actually didn’t need it, imagine how much money and time and your own human energy and worry you could save.

Of course not everyone will want to do this, and there are lots of reasons why not. Many of the reasons are emotional. For example, having these items is a proof that one has arrived socially and economically. So cutting them out, even voluntarily, could be seen as a step backwards, a cause for shame.

And of course, there is the convenience factor. Conveniences are called convenient for a reason. But when I look into it, a lot of the hassles these things cause seem to outweigh the convenience, at least for me. Multi-thousand-dollar air conditioning repairs, car breakdowns on deserted roads in the middle of the night, and so on. And the extra hours we have to work to pay for all that.

“But I could never do without my …” is a common utterance even in environmental, permaculture, Riot for Austerity, and Degrowth circles. The conditioning of society is very powerful.

I’m not trying to convince anyone that they should force themselves to do without something. And I’m not trying to shame anyone for wanting conveniences and comforts. I certainly have my comforts that I like, although a lot of people seem to assume that I have no desire for comfort just because I found out that it’s easier for me to do without a lot of things.

I’m just saying, as a person watching from the sidelines while her friends are derailed by one huge breakdown and repair after another, that I would invite people to explore the possibility of ditching some big thing instead of constantly forking over the money and energy without question.

If you end up enjoying cutting out the big five, maybe you can explore some peripheral things like specialty countertop appliances that don’t get much use in your house.

The biggest expense most of us have, of course, is housing itself: the roof over our head. More and more, the things that those of us at the economic margins (whether we inhabit said margins by choice, as I have, or not) used to be able to do to cut our housing expenses have become closed off to us, either by law or by very strong social norms. SROs, living in a van, getting creative about arranging an apartment to accommodate more roommates, Mom & Pop mobile-home parks, quirky sheds tucked out of the way in backyards … more and more, those cost- and labor-cutting options are being closed off to us.

But many of us have found that great financial relief is possible by tackling the “big five” that I mentioned.

But, you say, what if I don’t want to do without that convenient thing? Well you don’t have to. I’m just saying that if you feel financially or energetically crunched you might want to explore it. But I understand that it’s hard for various reasons to live without these things. If nothing else, there is the emotional stigma, because a lot of these things are considered signifiers that one has “arrived,” both financially and socially, so getting rid of them can feel like a backward move in life.

Regarding the washer, even before I started only washing my clothes by hand I found it very helpful to basically share a washer, by using a laundromat or utility room at the RV park etc. I just wouldn’t use the dryer, and not using the dryer saved a lot of money and energy. Yes, it takes a lot less of my human energy to hang stuff on the line and let it dry than to babysit and fret about the dryer. This is something that probably sounds unbelievable except to people who have directly experienced it. If you give it a try, or try cutting out any of the other “big five,” let me know how it goes for you!

If nothing else, I think our society would be a lot healthier if people at least resented being basically forced to take on all of these expensive machines. Like, a person might not be able to do without a car, but at least if they have a healthy resistance and resentment toward this constant financial and energetic burden, they might end up finding ways to reduce or eliminate it. We might have more staunch advocates for public transportation.

In my book DEEP GREEN, and elsewhere on this blog, I have gone into detail about how I do without the typical middle-class signifiers and other expenses that aren’t adding value to my life. I hope you will find my tips helpful. And I’ve also shared a lot of material from other people on a similar path. If you can’t find information on something or other, drop me a line and I will help you find the blog article or book chapter/paragraph. I’m also available for teleconsults at budget-friendly rates.

Cutting out the big five is a quick way to reduce one’s eco-footprint to “Riot for Austerity” levels of around 10% of the US average. When I’m living alone, my electricity use is actually about 3% of the US average. Even though I live with two “civilian” housemates, our consumption of water and electricity hovers around 10% to 15% of the US average.

Speaking of the house, I have posted a series on my YouTube channel, a room-by-room tour of my house. Look for the titles with “DEEP GREEN house tour”; the videos are all grouped together.

On a housing note, Vicki Robin, a famous fellow permaculturist and co-author of the bestseller Your Money Or Your Life, has started an email newsletter and Substack. Reading her newsletter yesterday, I realized we are trying to do similar things with our personal housing surplus. She wrote in her newsletter:

“Currently I’m encouraging house rich people to consider a kind of sharing called in-home suites – to increase the stock of affordable rentals.”

Cool! That’s exactly what I’ve been setting out to do with my DEEP GREEN house! If a lot of us house-rich people do this, maybe it will make a dent.

PS. You can check out Vicki’s page and subscribe to her newsletter here.