12 Tested Tips to Build Your Self-Sufficiency

It’s not always easy to figure out our consumption sweet spot. On the one hand, we have the subjectivity of sufficiency. As Asoke Buddhists reasonably observed, individuals must determine for themselves what is enough. On the other hand, we have the objectivity of ecological constraints. There are real, concrete limits to what we can consume without threatening environmental collapse.  But rather than depriving ourselves in our guilt for consuming more than our fair share or getting bogged down in the data (How can I measure my COemissions? How much can I emit?), I have a different proposal. Simply make self-sufficiency a guiding principle for our consumption choices whenever we can, for our own—and the common—good. 

Tip #135: Rethink Your Relationship with Stuff

Self-sufficiency and stuff have an inverse relationship, meaning the less you have, the easier it is to be self-sufficient. Marie Kondo popularized reduction in her bestseller, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo’s advice is straightforward: pick up each thing you own and consider it; if it doesn’t spark joy, say your respectful good-byes. We may have to interpret “joy” loosely when it comes to cooking utensils! But I’m sure most of us have any number of non-joy-inducing things crammed in our kitchen drawers.

This process might seem a bit silly and more than a bit time-consuming. But it forces you to see clearly all the objects you have accumulated and to reflect on what it is you truly need. The challenge after this initial purge is to only bring into your home things you absolutely love. 

Tip #136: Cut Unnecessary Spending

Just like with stuff, reducing spending also increases self-sufficiency. The Asoke monks I lived with advised followers to plug the leaks. They meant identify where money is spent unnecessarily and stop up the hole. For this exercise, I separate expenses into two major categories: necessary recurring household expenses (mortgage, insurance, utilities) and elective expenses (which are more flexible). Then I hunt for unnecessary spending.

It’s a good idea to review the first category of expenses once a year or so. Thanks to my husband’s diligence, we have refinanced our home twice, lowering our monthly mortgage payment by 17% since we bought it.  We also recently lowered our homeowners insurance by $400. We simply asked our agent: “Why did our premium go up so much last year (and the year before)?” Apparently, it just creeps up. Same for internet and cell phone. Many companies assume customers will pay more for “new and improved” service. But if you don’t need more bandwidth or data, call them and ask to return to the basic package. 

Tip #137: Budget Elective Spending

The second, more discretionary category of expenses calls for closer scrutiny. My husband and I put the vast majority of these expenses on our credit card (though we pay it off each month). So it’s easy to get a good overview of what we spend. Then we can evaluate purchases line by line or tally costs in a category like restaurants or travel. My usual response to this exercise is: how do we spend so much?! A more productive response is to decide what to spend in each category, and then think creatively about how to meet the goal. 

Just a heads up that this is not a “set it and forget it” activity. Anyone can be affected by hedonistic adaptation (mentioned in the previous section). This lifestyle creep can happen without us realizing it (like insurance premium creep). So to keep our consumption down, we need to conduct regular checks and cut where we can. Our self-sufficiency will be all the better for it!

Tip #138: Push the Purchase Pause Button

One of the best ways to boost self-sufficiency through curbed consumption is push the pause button before making an elective purchase. I do most of my elective shopping online, so it’s easy to put something in my cart for days. The next time I return to that site, I no longer feel the same urgency to buy that thing. As you reflect on whether you need the things you consume, hopefully you will find lots of little gems you can do without or find creative replacements for. Perhaps for good. These small cuts add up over time.

Tip #139: Take a Buying Break

How about a longer pause? A number of books have been published recently by individuals who have taken year-long buying breaks. I don’t think my family would go to this extreme of a year-long moratorium on purchases. However, smaller, more diverse buying breaks might have the same affect on our self-sufficiency. 

For example, you might also consider taking a buying break on certain days of the week. What if you committed to not buying anything on Wednesdays, for example? Or make it 2-3 days a week. This most certainly affects grocery shopping. I find that the more frequently I go to the grocery store, the more I buy that is not strictly necessary. 

If you’d like to make a real statement, take a buying break on Black Friday. While most companies angle for advantage on the biggest shopping day of the year, my favorite store, REI, closes its doors and runs a social media campaign encouraging everyone to get #Outside. Good advice for any day.

Tip #140: Rebrand Your Consumer Label

Have you ever noticed that we—the people who live in this country—were once called citizens, but now we are more commonly referred to as consumers? I can’t say that I’m all that crazy about that label—it’s certainly not the way I see myself. I’m a tall woman, an anthropologist, a Californian with Midwestern roots, a mother, an introvert…none of these labels have anything to do with stuff. So how do we shake this “consumer” label, which seems to go hand-in-hand with our consumption-driven society? It’s time for a self-sufficiency rebrand.

To rebrand our consumer label as one that better promotes material wellbeing, think about identities that favor less consumption. For example, we might identify with a counter-culture movement that views accumulation as counter to wellbeing, and call ourselves minimalists or downshifters. 

Tip #141: Consume Like Other Cultures

Looking to other cultural beliefs and practices can give us ideas on how to consume for self-sufficiency and material wellbeing. I’m Swedish, so I look to my own heritage. Swedes are known for their modesty and minimalism. A few years ago a friend who visited Sweden brought us back T-shirts with the saying, Lagom: Enough is as good as a feast. Now there are entire books published on lagom (to go with the Danish hygge books). Lagom means not only being satisfied with moderate amounts of things (or moderate success); it also means not having more than others. Contrary to the accumulation competition or “keeping up with the Jones” common in some American suburbs, it’s embarrassing to lagom-loving Swedes to have a bigger house or a nicer car than one’s neighbors.

What cultural consumption practices speak to you?

Tip #142: Calculate Your Ecological Footprint

If you’d like to know how sustainable your consumption is, you can get a concrete picture by calculating your ecological footprint. This measures both the demand on our environment as well as nature’s supply capacity. The Global Footprint Network has a free calculator that will tell you how many planets it would take to support your lifestyle. It’s based on your consumption of food, transportation, and goods—things that an individual can easily affect through lifestyle changes. The final calculation also factors in societal impacts or “services” provided by the government like infrastructure, public services and assistance, and the military. Everyone gets a share of that, so it’s difficult to achieve a footprint score within the means of one planet. 

This footprint calculator also reveals your personal “overshoot” day. This is the day that the world’s population would use as much from nature as it can renew in a year. In 2018, the world’s overshoot day was August 1; anything we would consume after that is like going into debt.

I tried this calculator myself. I was shocked to discover that if everyone lived like me, we would need 3 planets to support us all. And the Overshoot Day adjusted to my consumption practices would be May 4. What an eye-opener! It’s a good reminder that our own self-sufficiency is wrapped up with everyone else’s on this planet.

Tip #143: Know a Thing’s True Cost

In our efforts toward self-sufficiency, we may try to buy things we need for the lowest possible price. As a thrifty person, I definitely lean toward inexpensive things. For example: I wear a $35 Ironman plastic digital watch from Target. Not a $125 steel mesh analog watch from Skagen (a Danish company). So I could buy three watches for the price of one (and probably will have to, since the Skagen will likely last longer). But if I dug deeper into the true cost of that Ironman watch, I would see that it’s not such a deal after all. 

Unfortunately, in order to sell goods at such low prices, companies must cut costs wherever possible. This means building factories where environmental and health regulations (which raise production costs) as well as wages are low. Multinational corporations (MNCs—usually American companies set up to operate in multiple countries) head to places like China or Bangladesh that have “export processing zones” that make it easy to do business. As they churn out their Ironman watches, etc., they pass on the environmental and social costs to others. Then they can offer more competitive (lower) prices to their customers. 

Tip #144: Face Damage of Cheap Goods

If you would like to see a vivid example of the damage cheap goods can do, watch A Killer Bargain. This is a documentary about the hidden costs of producing inexpensive bed linens for a Swedish company (not Ikea). In the film, the filmmakers interviewed sick cotton farmers whose illnesses were attributed to pesticide. They also captured dangerous handling of toxic dyes, including mixing with bare hands and dumping waste into a nearby lake that provided drinking water to locals and their livestock. To the Swedish company’s credit, once they learned how their sub-contractors so blatantly harmed the local community, they dropped them and set up a system to ensure more ethical practices.

As this documentary shows, we simply have to face the uncomfortable fact that other people and the planet suffer in the production of the cheap goods we thrifty folks habitually buy. While I value my own self-sufficiency, it’s not worth sacrificing other lives to get it. Once we realize the true costs of our consumer culture, we might have the strength to cut back for good.

Tip #145: Live without Chinese Goods

Back when I indulged in retail therapy, I’d often check the label of the clothing I was considering buying. If it said “Made in China,” I’d put it back on the rack. Companies operating in China are notorious for human rights abuses and complete disregard for environmental concerns. 

But my little clothing check is nothing compared to what Sara Bongiorni and her family did. They tried to live for an entire year without buying anything made in China (one of the “buying breaks” I referred to in action #3).  In A Year Without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy, Borgiorni describes how this experiment turned daily life upside down. Finding tennis shoes for her little one was especially vexing. After three weeks of hunting, she found an Italian-made pair that cost $70—substantially more costly than kids’ sneakers made in China ($15 or so). In this year, Borgioni discovered that goods and product parts made in China touch every aspect of our lives.

While it seems like Borgiorni’s experiment would have been prohibitively expensive based on the sneaker episode, they just about broke even.  She explains that they couldn’t find non-Chinese alternatives for many items, so they went without. As an example, when their automatic drip coffee maker died, they couldn’t replace it—all similar models were made in China. So they ended up making it on the stove for the rest of the year. 

The Borgiorni family is back to buying things made in China, but this experiment is worth reflecting on. Before we buy inexpensive goods with hidden social and environmental costs, we might consider following the Borgiorni example by finding more ethically made—and longer lasting—alternatives. Or better yet, we can ask ourselves: can we do without?

Tip #146: Teach Kids about Consumption

Who doesn’t want self-sufficiency for their children? Moreover, if “children are our future,” we had better teach them well about how our consumption affects ourselves, other people, and the planet.

The most obvious place to do that is at home. For starters, we can set a good example by de-comodifying holidays and birthdays. Instead of buying “stuff” to wrap as presents—stuff that family members don’t really need, find an alternative. In my Michigan family (mom and sisters and their families), we no longer exchange Christmas gifts because it’s just too much stuff. So the money we would have spent to buy presents and the makings for a holiday meal for a family in need. Yes, some of those gifts are extras like toys for the kids, but they always include necessary items like winter jackets, boots, towels, and basic kitchen items. Then every Christmas, my California family (husband and daughter) goes on a hike and has a picnic to remind us of what’s important: each other and nature (not to mention good food and exercise).

Schools also play an important role in increasing young people’s knowledge about the impacts of consumption. We just need to ensure that easy-to-use materials are available to them. For example, the Story of Stuff, which aims to build a society based on “better not more, sharing not selfishness, and community not division” has created a 10-lesson high school curriculum called “Buy, Use, Toss.” In these lessons, students explore the system of producing and consuming goods (called the materials economy): Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption, and Disposal; they then “analyze the sustainability of these steps, determining how consumption can benefit people, economies, and environments.” I don’t know of any teachers who are not thankful for resource suggestions—especially ready-made (but adaptable) lesson plans, so when you find a gem, pass it on.

Next Week…

We’ll have a short round up of the last 4 tips on how to create material wellbeing through sufficiency, which expand our thinking globally. See you then!

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