Chapter 11 - The Cost of Living

It’s a great country, but you can’t live in it for nothing.
Will Rogers

The common goal of living large while spending small is most attainable in a rural place. Land and housing costs may be only one-quarter of urban prices. Should you choose to produce much of your food and fuel, your rural overhead may be less than half your previous urban budget.

Professor and author Jack Lessinger portrays a certain group of modern Americans: “Caring Conservers have found a way to deal with overconsumption by the most astonishing feat of social alchemy. . . . [they] change their sense of values—by consensus. Faced with the necessity of buying less of what they prefer, people change what they prefer. . . . Caring Conservers don’t turn grudgingly to their substitutes. They adore them.”

That reminds me of Faith Popcorn’s concept of “Small Indulgences,” in The Popcorn Report. We Americans are adjusting to the growing inequity of income and status between the upper and lower classes in creative and sensible ways, which is part of the reason that city-to-country migration is accelerating.

“Voluntary simplicity” is a phrase back in vogue. (Richard Gregg coined it in a 1936 article and it was the title of a 1981 book by Duane Elgin.) Gerald Celente, Director of Trends Research Institute, says, “Voluntary simplicity doesn’t mean deprivation. It means buying things you really need, rather than things you simply want. It means reducing debt and dumping household clutter.

“It means spending time with family, gardening, canning and preserving foods, buying used items, bartering and bargaining. It means staying physically, spiritually and mentally fit” (The Ithaca Journal, 10-28-95).

Catherine Roberts Leach wrote, “Voluntary simplicity is a viable, responsible choice. Many of us are ready for big changes and another chance. We’re in it for the long haul. Intuitively we know that finding the work we value, the place we feel at home, the contribution we wish to make, will depend on our discovering pride and pleasure in the way the world works. And in the way we can participate. Simply” (Country Connections, March/April 1996).

Farmers and other rural people have been living simply for generations but few have done so as a matter of conscience. Voluntary simplicity is nothing special to country folks; it is often simply the natural way of life. Traditional ruralites work to live, not to accumulate.

Planning your move to the country is an excellent time to consider a cost-of-living adjustment. The reasons for moving to the country speak to values, how we relate to the condition of our self and our family, and to social, economic, political and ecological conditions. In the next chapter we explore options for making a living. Lowering one’s cost of living makes earning a living simpler. It may also allow us to pursue interests long repressed. This is a good time to weigh the pros and cons of working at home. One of the cons is uncertainty of income, a condition tolerated more easily from a position of modest needs.

Country usually costs less . . .

Real estate

For the price of a city lot you can buy many country acres if you avoid chic addresses and “hot” spots. The range of rural land prices is about $200 to $3,000 per acre, depending on distance from cities, size of parcel, soil quality, water quantity and quality, access, vegetation and improvements. New homes cost about the same to build, with lower rural labor rates offset by higher materials’ costs due to shipping expenses. Using local materials lowers the outlay. Older homes’ prices typically reflect the economic condition of the area. Some old farms are priced according to the number of acres, with very little value given to the old buildings. You can save money if you are willing and able to take on a sound but outdated older house and bring it up to modern standards. Property taxes are less in the country, as are the services they pay for.

Food

Gardening is one of the great country living experiences. (See Chapter 13.) Growing a substantial part of your food will save you money, make you healthier and likely give you a lot of satisfaction. If you plan to buy all your food be aware that grocery prices are often higher and selection and quality lower in remote areas where delivery trucks travel more miles.

Clothing

The farther the city, the simpler the cloth. Power ties and designer suits create amusement where everyone else is in blue jeans and casual tops. Working at home will especially save on wardrobe costs. A pair of boots or sports shoes costs less than several pairs of high heels. An exception may exist if you plan to work in a bank. Bank employees in our area seem to have succumbed to city fashion fears.

Vehicle purchase and maintenance

This item can go either way. If you work at home you won’t need a late model car. If you commute or operate a home business that requires substantial travel, your needs will be greater. If you have high school-age children, expect to put on plenty of miles taking them to school functions.

The best single vehicle for the country is a pickup truck. If you need four-wheel drive, expect to pay a premium. How often you need to buy a new vehicle depends on miles driven, the condition of the roads driven on and your maintenance mode. Country values contribute to the tendency to drive a vehicle longer, which saves on purchase costs but adds maintenance costs. Gravel and dirt roads are hard on tires and suspension systems. Air filters, oil and oil filters need to be changed more often because of dust. Scrupulous maintenance saves money. Changing oil and oil filters every 3,000 miles is far less expensive than changing vehicles every three or four years.

Vehicle insurance

Car insurance is substantially less than in the city where the high rate of thefts and repair costs drives premiums up. Pickup truck insurance may be even less than for a passenger car if you buy property in an agricultural state; such states often have special insurance rules for farm vehicles used within a certain mileage radius of your “farm.”

Utilities

Private water systems are safer and less costly than buying water from a municipal system. Some city people we know spend $100 per month on bottled water. It will cost far less than that to pump from your own well, stream or cistern for household needs and garden irrigation.

There is generally no trash pickup in the country and that’s a blessing. Rather than sending it “away” to a landfill we can compost all vegetable garbage, sort for recycling most paper, metal, plastic and glass, and return batteries, appliances and other dead items to where they may be recycled. In some areas the volunteer fire departments bolster their operating budgets through the sale of recyclable materials and are happy to accept appropriate items. As demand for old newsprint and other recyclables has risen, many new recycling centers have opened.

If you heat with wood cut from your own woodlot you can save hundreds of dollars on your yearly heating costs. But the biggest factor here is your choice of climate.

Furniture

Country homes are typically furnished more casually than city homes. In many areas, craftspeople make furniture from local woods. Buying directly cuts out the cost of all the wholesale and marketing middlepeople. In many rural areas there are auctions throughout the summer where furniture may be purchased at modest prices.

Contract labor

Rural wages are lower than in the city. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters and others may charge half or less of city wages. This is a regional factor and also depends on how far out you are from the city. The flip side of the coin is that if you hire yourself out you also receive less.

Recreation/entertainment

Rather than spectator activities, country recreation tends toward personal activities: hunting, fishing and other water sports, hiking, picnicking, sight-seeing. Cable TV is often unavailable but satellite antennas are good buys. Entertainment costs will be higher if you make frequent visits to the city, for gas, meals, tickets, overnight lodging.

In our neck of the woods summer socializing runs heavily to community potlucks and volleyball or other sport, then making music. Wintertime get togethers feature dinner and just plain talkin’ and occasional parties, often benefits.

Mostly we prefer to stay home. Some of our finest summer evenings are spent sitting in the porch swing, counting trees and watching the grass grow. What with the state of the world, a body needs to dissipate tension.

. . . but sometimes country costs more

Real estate

Beware: trendy rural places are fast becoming expensive, both in real estate prices and living costs. In addition to the entertainment figures mentioned earlier, California migrants with more impatience and equity money than common sense have caused prices to quickly climb in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. One relocation service advises Californians to change vehicle license plates before visiting—locals hate Californians that much. Real estate agents love ’em. Price is but one of the many reasons to avoid “hot spots.”

Utilities

Your monthly rural telephone bill may be larger. Until you become established in your new community most of your calls are likely to be long distance. Get your city friends on e-mail and save bucks and interruptions. Yeah, I know, it’s not the same.

Regarding service: rural electric and phone service are both subject to greater interruption from weather conditions. Private-line phone service taken for granted in the city may be temporarily unavailable in some areas and very expensive in others. This is an especially important factor if you plan to run a home business or use a fax or modem.

Electric costs may be somewhat higher in sparsely populated areas where it takes more poles and wire to serve fewer customers. Electric air-conditioning costs are therefore higher. Electric heating is inefficient and the most expensive of all heating systems, to be avoided if possible. Our electric company is a user-owned co-op and our rates are very low, have not been raised since 1985.

Residential photovoltaic systems have become cost-effective for many applications. Properties beyond power lines are good candidates for a home power generation system. The Sunelco Planning Guide & Product Catalog (see Appendix A—Resources) uses one-third mile of utility line extension as the rule-of-thumb guideline for cost-effectiveness.Weigh the cost of bringing in a power line with the cost of your own system, including a gas/diesel/propane generator to back up the PV system when the sun shines not.

Bottom lines

It generally costs less money to live in the country than in the city. How much less depends on how much you pay for your property, which tax/service concept you buy into (see chapter 19), whether you subscribe to voluntary simplicity and how independent you become. Gardening and cutting firewood can be first steps to lowering personal and environmental costs. Investing in solar heating, photovoltaic or wind electric generation equipment, and especially energy-efficiency upgrades to your house can further lower monthly costs dramatically while also helping to heal the planet. Transportation costs are typically next highest; the lifestyle you choose will dictate what you drive. Or ride.

The true cost of living includes the economic, health and cleanup costs to our environment and our communities. We can express and implement our values not only by how we spend our money but how we avoid the necessity for money and how we conduct ourselves in our homes, on our land, in our community. Buying locally will help keep our community economy healthy.

We have been urged to “think globally, act locally.” In Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community Wendell Berry offers this perspective: “If we could think locally, we would take far better care of things than we do now. The right local questions and answers will be the right global ones. The Amish question ‘What will this do to our community?’ tends toward the right answer for the world. . . . In order to make ecological good sense for the planet, you must make ecological good sense locally. You can’t act locally by thinking globally. No one can make ecological good sense for the planet. Everyone can make ecological good sense locally, if the affection, the scale, the knowledge, the tools, and the skills are right.”

The Statistical Abstract of the United States is published annually by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. It includes a cost-of-living index. It is available from the Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954, or by calling Census Customer Services Dept.: 301-457-4100, or fax: 301-457-3842.

For a free “Subject Bibliography” of government publications on the cost of living, write to: Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402. Or call: 202-512-1800, or fax: 202-512-2250, or use the government’s fax-on-demand program, 24 hours a day, by dialing: U.S. Fax Watch at 202-512-1716, and following the prompts.

Point your browser at http://www2.homefair.com/calc/salcalc.htm and quickly learn what a given salary in your present location will mean in your desired destination. The site is called The Salary Calculator.

Got no check books, got no banks.
Still I’d like to express my thanks—
I got the sun in the mornin and the moon at night.
Irving Berlin
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Go on to Chapter 12 - Making a living.
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