Core Principle #3: Frugality, Self-Sufficiency, and Sustainability

There is a deep and important correlation between frugality, self-sufficiency, and sustainability.  Recognizing this relationship is critical to the brave new life philosophy. There are hundreds of books and blogs on each, but rarely do you see the three tied together.  The inter-relation between them is why I chose to make them a single core principle.

It’s very important to tie them together.  Bind them in unison, let one support the other and become a philosophy.  Some life decisions are hard when you only consider one, but become very easy and obvious when all 3 support the same decision.  And it’s quite often that all 3 do support a single decision.

Part 1 – Frugality

Frugality, for most people, is a means to an end.  For some (those not seeking a brave new life) it’s a way to save money on stuff so you can just spend it somewhere else.

Hey, if I cut coupons and stop drinking that daily $4 vanilla mocha latte with soy milk I can save up for a Carribean cruise (because I deserve it!).

This is not the frugality I’m talking about.

For the BNL type, frugality is a means to an end to achieve financial freedom.  Financial freedom buys you freedom from doing things you would rather not, like sitting in a cubicle on a beautiful sunny day.  A financially free person can make personal decisions that make them happy and satisfied.

Part 2 –  Self Sufficiency

Self-sufficiency is the state of not requiring outside help in order to survive.  But by “self-sufficiency,” I don’t mean that you need to move out to Walden pond, chop wood, and eat only what you hunt or gather.  (Although this does sound like a nice week-long getaway).  Instead, the self-sufficiency I’m proposing is a group state that consists of your family, friends, and local community.

There are two ways to increase your self-sufficiciency:

1. Increase knowledge across each area of your life

Increasing knowledge can be accomplished by using books, the internet, friends’ knowledge, and experimentation.  Since making the decision to become more self-sufficient, I’ve used all 4 of these in the past year.  I read books about private money lending, and attend a free seminars in order to learn to make money independent of a job.  I had a neighbor teach me how to tune-up my bike, which I had never done before.  I used an website to learn how to diagnose my broken furnace, and a youtube video to figure out how to replace my busted furnace ignitor.  All of these things have led to an increased knowledge base and further self-sufficiency.  This increased knowledge is addictive, it becomes fun to do things yourself.  In each of the examples I just gave, I also saved quite a bit of money – connecting us back to frugality.

Now let’s explore this form of self-sufficiency with a hypothetical example.  It’s below freezing outside, snowing, and your furnace breaks.  (This isn’t that hypothetical, it happened to me 2 months ago).  You could call an expert to come in, but the fees will be $200, they can’t come until Monday (it’s Saturday), and the temperature in your house is dropping 3 degrees per hour.  So you have to book a hotel for 2 days, pack up the kids, and leave. Total cost is $400, two sleepless nights in a cramped hotel room with 2 kids, and no knowledge gained.

Alternatively, you could get on the internet and start diagnosing the problem. You figure out that your furnace doesn’t have a pilot light, instead it uses a silicon carbide ignitor – and you see that it’s not igniting.  According to the vast knowledge of the internet, this means it’s either not getting the voltage input it needs, or it’s gone bad.  So you get out your voltmeter and measure the voltage, which looks fine.  You get back on the internet, learn that your particular ignitor costs just $25 at a local HVAC store, and can be replaced in minutes.  Total cost: $25, 2 hours of labor/research, 2 good nights of sleep, new knowledge about how your furnace works, and a little bit of self-sufficiency pride.

2. Decrease complexity and quantity of what you need and want

The second method to increase self-sufficiency is to decrease the complexity and quantity of what you need and own.  For example, why have a toaster that will eventually break when instead you could use the broiler in your oven?  The toaster is just one more thing that can break.  Why have a complex and loud toy for your kids when they are equally as happy with play dough, crayons, and some paper?  Why have 2 cars when you can have 1 car and a bicycle?  Once again, in each of the examples above you not only increase self-sufficiency, but you also increase frugality.

Let’s again explore a hypothetical example.  Let’s say you own a Ferrari and your Ferrari breaks down.  This is a complex vehicle with a lot of foreign parts that have to be ordered by a high-charging specialist.  This is not self-sufficient.

Now let’s say you own a Ford Focus and your Focus brakes down.  You may not know how to fix it, but you probably have a neighbor or buddy that can help get you started.  That would be self-sufficient.  Or perhaps you don’t have anyone that knows how, but there are 10 mechanics within 5 miles that can easily service the car. This is at least getting closer to self-sufficiency, and you did it by having a less complex product to achieve your transportation needs.

Now let’s say that you decide to move to a place closer to work, and buy a nice bike.  But your bike brakes down, the chain pops. Even if you’ve never repaired or replaced a chain before, you are one YouTube video, 20 minutes of labor, and a $7 tool away from fixing it.  This is self-sufficiency.

Once you start embracing self-sufficiency, you realize that simple, mechanical tools are preferred over complex ones.  A bike is preferred over a car.  A manual powered reel lawnmower is preferred over a self-propelled gas powered mower (which is still preferred over a riding tractor). A toaster is just one more thing that can break.

A final advantage of self-sufficiency is that it saves money, reducing your time to financial freedom and retirement, which then gives your even more time to be self-sufficient.  It’s a wonderful positive feedback loop.

Part 3 – Sustainability

The Iroquois tribe had what they called the Great Law of the Iroquois, and it’s now referred to as Seven Generation Sustainability.  Basically, it goes like this: “Do what you believe will benefit your children seven generations down the road.”  This is how I define sustainability.

Example: Planting a tree is good, cutting one down to make a parking lot is bad. Patching a hole in your bike tire is good, buying a new one is bad.

Taking this philosophy is a huge burden, but an important one.  The unsustainable lifestyles common in the industrialized world means that each unsustainable act you do, you are taking away from your children and grandchildren.  When we run out of oil, when we pollute the water, when we use finite resources for our own pleasure, we are literally taking away from them.

When we talk about frugality, we are referring to the reduction of spending.  Sometimes this gets hard, even for me.  Sometimes I want to drive to the store when I know I could walk or bike.  Sometimes I want to buy a new laptop, when my current one works OK.  Sometimes it’s simply not enough to be frugal to stay on track for an early retirement – and in those cases you need a commitment to sustainability to help you through.

When I think about driving to the store, I think about the Great Law of the Iroquois.  And I think, will burning up more oil (something that will most likely be gone in 7 generations) be good or bad for my children, and their children, and so on?  Or would it be better for me to save that limited energy for them, while also improving my health?

Will it be better for my childrens’ childrens’ children if I patch this bicycle tube, or should I pull more resources out of the ground to manufacture a new one?

It’s amazing how in-line frugality, self-sufficiency and sustainability are once you start putting these things together.  This tight connection is why you see a few common themes on books and websites like mine (ERE, MMM, etc).

  • Biking instead of driving
  • Learning to cook healthy and simple foods from scratch (beans, rice, etc), rather than processed foods
  • Fixing things instead of buying new things

All three of these examples are acts of frugality, self-sufficiency, and sustainability.  (Note: they all happen to be healthier too, which is a common by-product).


Now Your Slate Is Filling Out

You’ll now notice that the pieces are starting to assemble, and that the support each other.  So far, we have three sources of happiness: An active/healthy mind, financial freedom, and a healthy conscience.  Financial freedom is directly and indirectly supported by 4 contributing principles: the rejection of lifestyle inflation, frugality, self-sufficiency, and a sustainable lifestyle.

27 Responses to Core Principle #3: Frugality, Self-Sufficiency, and Sustainability

  1. It’s fantastic how it all ties together: frugality is a natural consequence of a sustainable, and self-sufficient lifestyle. Frugality doesn’t have to be deprivation.

  2. Olivia says:

    Nice post; it is nice to see how it all links together. It will be neat to see your graphic all filled out when you are done!

  3. steveinfl says:

    Good stuff. The part about reducing complexity has proven true for me. I like your bike and car example

    I can fix most problems on my bike and in the worst cases can walk it home. When my car breaks down I need a tow, a mechanic and never less than $500. Having switched from driving to work to a bike/train combo commute yielded many benefits including: no dealing with aggressive drivers, an enjoyable commute, a clearer head to start and end each day from a vigorous wall or ride, cheaper costs, no parking concerns and the greater benefits of health, sustainability and frugality.

    I’m looking forward to principle #4

    • I’ve also found that when I get into the office there is no need for coffee because the bike ride gets my blood flowing sufficiently. There really is no downside to biking in to work if you can make it work for you.

  4. BDub says:

    Can’t wait for the next 6!

  5. yes, yes, and yes.

    I would also add to your Iroquois example .. the various movements of the Anabaptists (e.g. Mennonites). I have a lot of respect for these people and if the world were to go to hell in a handbasket – they have a better chance to manage than most. I like their simple and self-sustaining lifestyle. Even their disdain for technology is very admirable imho.

    Luddism is another way of establishing independence (and self-sufficiency) by reducing the complexity of the tools you make use of. The word has a bad connotation namely because it implies anti-consumerist sentiment.


  6. Yabusame says:

    I haven’t disagreed with any of your principles sp far, but I just wanted to say that I loved this post. Loved the graphic too.

  7. […] good friends and family that you can rely on (and who can rely on you) is a widening of your self-sufficient community.  Need a baby-sitter?  There’s no need to pay, you can just have your neighbor watch your […]

  8. Matt says:

    Love the chart!

  9. Jack says:

    Great post. I am wondering how investing fits into all of this.

  10. lifeoverwork says:

    Great commentary on self-sufficiency. This applies to all aspects of financial independence. No one is going to take care of you – you have to define your own goal and achieve it.

  11. Martin says:

    Really enjoying this series, and this post in particular.

  12. Carlito says:

    Nice post; but I disagree with your view of the Law of Iroquis. I would use the most oil I could son my next generation are forced to come up with a most viable replacement: simple economics. Of course I wouldn’t cut more trees, my point is there are things that are worth preserving for the future, others maybe not. Nothing remains constant, what is worth today, tomorrow may be worthless… and science goes fordward. Should we easy the life of our descendants or should we force them to think and act? Sustainability is a double edged sword.

    • Are you saying you disagree with the Iroquois philosophy, or just my interpretation of it?

      I agree that oil will run out anyways, but I don’t see how that’s an argument for using more (just hurry up and get it over with?). When we run out, I hope it will be a slow transition of rising oil prices.

      We live in a global economy, but without oil those things can’t get to where they’d be going. Even “local” products likely depend on material being shipped in.

      As I see it, people will start to buy local when it’s cheaper to buy local. When that happens, more people will start producing things locally, local markets will become more popular, etc. But this evolution takes time.

      If we run out quickly, the economy simply can’t evolve fast enough and we’ll have chaos. However, if prices just keep slowly rising due to reduced supply, then we can have the time to evolve.

  13. Martin says:

    I like your series and blog, but I think you went overboard with the toaster example. A toaster might be an additional piece of machinery compared to using the broiler you already have.

    But looking at the energy consumption, it is probably more sustainable in the long run to buy a toaster than using the broiler (and at least 10x the energy) to toast your bread.

    • Gerard beat me to the punch below…

      My broiler uses about 2kW, vs the 1.5kW of a toaster. But the toaster only makes 2 pieces of toast, where as the broiler can make up to a dozen! Usually we make 4-5 for our family of 4. The time to cook is a little more, but not much, so it actually saves energy.

      Then there’s the fact that we can make cinnamon toast in the broiler (unlike in a toaster, to my knowledge) !

      I’d like to see where you came up with your 10x number, because I’m not seeing it. If you consider the power usage mostly equivalent, then if you consider the environmental cost of producing the toaster, it’s definitely not something we want in every household.

  14. Gerard says:

    I dunno, I had a quick look online and it looks like broilers use about 1140-1500 watts and toasters use 800-1400 watts. Now, presumably toasters toast a little faster…

  15. Poor Student says:

    I can’t believe that so many of the things in this series, first of all make so much sense, and second of all are not all common sense.

    I personally love becoming handier by finding out how to do things on my own, so the cost is actually secondary in my mind but is still an awesome benefit.

  16. Peter says:

    I am enjoying the series. It speaks to a new economic future for us all. Hopefully corporations will look at these principles, since according to our highest Court they are PEOPLE after all. Or perhaps sensible elected officials will eschew the bribe money and enact laws that require corporations to follow principles such as these.

    I hope the author will consider editing this blog however, and find a new example for his toaster reference. Most toasters of the modern era are quite inexpensive. They do dont have many moving parts or ways in which they can break down. They can accomodate small slices of bread and large slices of bread and even bagels. They also toast simultaneously on both sides AND They have a heat sensor that help prevent burning of the toast. In which case your practical costs could go way up. Maybe a family of 4 can dedicate a person to watch, turn and take out toast for all, but this does not seem like a time saver, because even cleaning a few dishes, you could miss the moment when toast turns into charred waste.

    I am guessing the author is pleased that the greatest fault commenters find is with his dismissal of the practical and economical toaster.

    • Pleased indeed…

      Two dissenting views of the toaster… Hmmm…

      Here are my thoughts on the toaster. I’m willing to consider changing my stance, but you’ll need to convince me. :)

      1. A toaster is not necessary, because there is already a standard household appliance that can accomplish the same thing.

      2. The broil function in my oven uses a similar amount of power, but can toast up to a toast, so for each piece of toast beyond 2 (or 4 if you have a larger toaster) then the power per piece of toast is actually less.

      3. A toaster takes up space on the counter. You could put it away after each use, but since we eat toast almost every morning, this is just added work.

      4. Toasters cost money, although you are correct that it’s not a lot, where as using my oven’s broil function does not.

      5. Toasters require taking resources out of the ground, where as using my oven’s broil function does not.

      6. The broiler can also make cinnamon toast, which is awesome. In fact, I think we’ll make some this morning now that I think about it.

      7. With the broiler you can fine-tune the exact temperature, toasting time, and baking tray type (we use a pampered chef stone tray) to make the perfect piece of toast. Then you just set the timer and go. Burning isn’t an issue because the timer lets you know exactly when to pull it out.

      • kakey says:

        I have never considered a toaster as redundant technology.

        I am working towards two goals main goals in my house with respect to “stuff” although in some cases this is at odds with my wife’s agenda, she is pretty understanding about it all.
        1. Evaluating redundant technology and disposing of redundancy.
        2. Ensuring the technology utilized is low-tech where possible.
        3. Ensuring I am not paying a luxury premium charge for convenience (I firmly believe “most” people waste 80% of their disposable income in this area)

        This is all with the goal of relocating (oddly enough to Denver) and this is the basis for one list of stuff to take or buy when we get there.

        I consider the following my essential, non-redundant “portable” technology in the kitchen:
        1. Toaster
        2. Crockpot x2
        3. Popcorn Machine
        4. Electric Can-Opener
        5. Kitchen Aid Mixer
        6. Microwave
        7. Baby Brezza
        8. Hand Blender
        9. Hot/Cold Blender/Food processor
        10. Champion Juicer

        All pretty low tech. Not all arguably completely redundant.

        IE You “could” cook your popcorn in a pot on the stove. Sometimes I do this for fun but it takes longer and is much more error prone :)

        You “could” use a manual can-opener and to be honest I probably should but it is a good quality opener which often opens stuff I cannot actually open with a manual opener. At least not without using the “bash open a big hole with a hammer/screwdriver” method.

        Some of the other items have some level of cross-over but barring the Champion Juicer (Seasonal for dealing with apples/plums/pears/figs/berries of all sorts) and possibly the hot/cold blender. I have actual uses on a weekly basis for each item that actually pointedly save me money :)

      • Just a couple of thoughts…

        I do think a toaster is a redundant technology. As you saw in other comments, some people disagreed that it was worthwhile to have, but I don’t think you can avoid calling it redundant when the oven can do the same thing. If you dispose of it, perhaps you can sell it on craigslist or ebay to pay for a few months worth of toast. :)

        The can opener is a similar story. In this case, I would apply your goal #2, to reduce complexity. If my manual can opener breaks, I can replace it for almost nothing or, perhaps, fix it if it’s not major damage to a joint or something. Then again, I’ve never seen that happen. On the other hand, I think we went through 2 electric can openers in 8 years or so before I made my life changes to simplify things. I’d probably be on a 4th by now… Instead, I have an old manual opener that has almost no breakable parts and could easily be sharpened to extend it’s life and efficiency.

        The other item worth mentioning is the Baby Brezza. This item, like almost all baby related items, can usually be bought used and sold used a few years later for pretty much the same price. This perfectly fits the BNL core principles since it is both environmentally and economically efficient.

  17. […] Core Principle #3 – Frugality, Self-Sufficiency, and Sustainability […]

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  19. […] concerns as well as financial, and they are interconnected here like they are for most areas (as discussed on Brave New Life).  I think it is worth reducing water use purely for environmental reasons.  But I’m […]

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