Steve Shultis is a Strong Towns member who shares a guest article today as part of an ongoing series about household resiliency. How can individuals and families plan their lives in a way that mitigates financial emergencies and maximizes happiness? This series explores that question with answers from several Strong Towns members. Find more related articles.
I lower the bar, making success easier to achieve, I stay away from the edge so small mistakes don't become catastrophes, and I focus my investments on multi-utility outcomes. These strategies have worked for me.
I could make more money than I do. I'm a teacher and lots of teachers coach, work as advisors for clubs, teach summer school, or have jobs on the side. I like my free time. My mindset is that my desires will need to conform to the income I can earn at the effort level I choose to give. The house I bought nine years ago had to conform to the price point I was willing to commit to as a divorced guy with two daughters nearing college age. It had to be cheaper than renting with an upside for my dotage.
Before I remarried most of our home improvements were DIY; not that my daughters and I were great at home remodeling but what work we could do had to be good enough. By the way, "good enough" always is; it's a tautology. I focused on insulation, weather stripping and lots of deep cleaning. The girls did the painting and carpentry. One of my priorities was that the house be in a walkable neighborhood with good transit: I was not buying another car and paying for gas and insurance, nor was I prepared to schlep the girls everywhere.
When I did get remarried, my wife was a kindred spirit. Having a partner who also enjoys not maximizing today's purchasing power, who enjoys pinching a penny or two, and who will engage in long conversations about planning for potential setbacks goes a long way toward putting a plan for increased resilience in place. First, we agreed that not cranking up our lifestyle to correspond to the efficiencies that unifying our lives would allow was the smartest path; in truth we used the change to re-think a tremendous number of our expenses.
What we've saved in not maintaining two cars, or going on fancy vacations, or upgrading to a more expensive walkable neighborhood we've put into savings, more energy efficiency, greater food security, and redundancies for critical systems.
And it's a good thing we did.
The last 18 months have been an emotional and financial nightmare. While I was sitting beside my mother's deathbed I was informed that the city's work on modernizing the XIX century sewer lines had collapsed a shared pipe with a neighbor and that my share would come to a few thousand dollars. I had to pay for that while writing the check to bury my mother and to pay for the attorney to begin probate of my mother's estate. My mother's house, whose minimal value was reduced to effectively zero by some systemic flaws and code issues, also required a fair amount of time and effort for clean up. My parents' midlife conversion to Mormonism left me a basement filled with long neglected food storage; a tremendously important object lesson for food related resilience to which I shall return. In the intervening months it became clear that my own home needed a new roof, our 36 year old boiler cracked, and some electrical outlets mysteriously started to go dead.
It would be reasonable to estimate that these and other expenses have had us unexpectedly pay out over $50,000 in cash in the last year. The result has been—as if Zeus had been our dinner guest— that we are exactly where we were a year ago with our savings and we've still made extra payments on our mortgage, continued our food security payments to a local farmer, put in 14 new storm windows, and expanded our garden.
Living so far from the limits of our means has made what could have been a crisis merely a frustrating time when progress on many fronts has been delayed.
There is much more to resilience than just money: there's what you can do with money when you don't need money. I mentioned our connection to a local farmer. We have an account with him where we have prepaid for whatever products he can supply, but we've gone beyond that with regular payments to him during the slowest months of the year with an understanding that if some circumstance of exceptional need were to occur, that we will be helped proportionately. Also in the area of food, we have a larder with a few months to a year's supply that we assiduously rotate (thanks mom and dad for the lesson!), and we've expanded our 45' by 45' urban farm to produce as much food and beauty as we can squeeze out of it.
We've also found that resilience breeds resilience. Our boiler cracked on January 1st. That's just about when a boiler is going to give up the ghost in New England as that's when winter shifts into high gear. But the new one we had the means to lay out for in cash never actually worked right all winter. The defect wasn't discovered until August—even in Massachusetts not a prime time for heating—so that left us in the heart of winter without a central heating system and without the wood stove we had purchased as back up because our wood stove guy hates cities (but that's another story).
It turns out that miserliness regarding energy had made all of us less sensitive to temperature fluctuations, and the enormous investments in insulation, weather stripping, and new and refurbished windows allowed for the entire house to be kept adequately warm by merely turning on the heat in the basement apartment and letting the heat waft upward!
There's so much more to it of course. I have 500 gallons of rain water storage to irrigate the garden when it gets dry, and we have emergency drinking water stored inside the house. My wife cans food, she and LuLu enjoy sewing, we keep loads of extra blankets and bedding in the house in case people need to come here (again) as a place of refuge; central Springfield has underground utilities so we've never lost electricity, even after Snowmaggeddon and a tornado. Our neighborhood includes most of the region's emergency service headquarters, some power generation, and the region's most important medical facility, with in-house capacity for a month of independent function, is a 30 minute walk away.
Looking forward, we're spending less and less on energy because of our investments in efficiency, and getting more and more food from our garden. If we ever needed a little money we could rent out the basement or do an AirB&B thing; if we ever needed a lot more money we could live in the apartment and rent out the other 3,000 square feet as residential or commercial space. Apart from the many bus lines and the regional rail service they connect to, our house has a Walkscore of 87 and rising so I envision a carfree retirement. I can see my doctor's office from my living room window, and the Springfield cemetery from my front stoop: that pretty much covers all the bases.
Most importantly, we love our lives today, in the here and now. I like walking; my daughters and my wife love the garden. We feel good about using less, and about producing at least some of our own food. Nothing is better than watching the snow fall and knowing that we've already got the bread and milk and we can focus on alley sledding, snowball fights, and building snowmen. Seeing what we've already been able to get through fills us all with peace of mind as we march toward what has always been an uncertain future.
(Top image of Steve's garden haul, courtesy of the author)
About the Author
Steve Shultis lives in an older neighborhood in Springfield, MA. He discusses his own experience raising a family in a less affluent neighborhood on his blog. Steve walks the walk.