Coming from a Catholic background, the youngest of 5, I was surprised in graduate school when a professor introduced us to the ethical case for not having children. I scoffed at the idea, since at the time I already had two kids – I couldn’t very well unhave them! At the time I was still a very religious person and strongly believed in the Genesis command of “be fertile and multiply”. If you’re financially and emotionally capable of having a large family, you should have one.
Learning about material scarcity and thinking of my own children’s future has led me to question this element of my upbringing. The human race should continue, but at what rate? Can our home sustain even the population density we’re currently at? I haven’t done enough research yet to offer arguments one way or another, but I think we should be cautious rather than optimistic about future births.
I touched on this in my last post, but the West – and particularly America – consumes resources 4 times faster than a sustainable planetary pace. In 200 years of a fossil fueled economy (beginning with coal, with petroleum added into the mixture) we’ve exhausted millions of years’ worth of organic resources. Technology can create efficiencies, but it can’t summon energy from nothing.
Reading Modern Farmer has been illuminating on the tension between returning to organic and sustainable farming practices and the need to raise food production per acre of arable land as the world’s population increases – and developing countries begin to eat more balanced diets. We can have safe food or lots of people – not necessarily both. It’s easy to romanticize farming, but instead of a constant push towards consumerism and the service economy, returning to a level closer to subsistence could probably bring loads of health and environmental benefits.
So, what about having kids, then? I have three kids, so I’m above pure “replacement” level already. The first seven years of my parenting definitely damaged the planet. The Alchemist and I were fairly typical consumers, preferring convenience packaging and disposability unless there was a massive price premium. But kids certainly don’t have to be that way. I really enjoyed these classic MMM posts about what kids really need.
We’re currently tied down in an urban environment and realistically will continue to be so for a decade or so. That said, even on a quarter-acre lot, you can teach kids a lot about the value of being good stewards of the planet’s resources. Efficiency inside the house is slowly happening as money allows, and next spring we’re going to transform a lot of our non-edible green space into garden space. A year or more down the road I’ll start building cold frames to extend the growing season. Worst-case, we have to revert back to dumb, old grass when we sell the house – but hopefully the home-gardening revolution will have taken hold by then!
As a species we have to be really cautious with population expansion but establishing a binary isn’t productive, either. First, the most environmentally-conscious people let their genes die out instead of working to pull humanity back from the brink. I know many families larger than mine, and the vast majority have a far lighter footprint than the average consumer. It is a problem, however, with clear limit cases: intentionally dying off is a non-starter but geometric progression hits the wall eventually.
As a society we have to talk about this in a way that isn’t compulsorily limiting on fertility but doesn’t look at large families as ignorant “breeders”. No matter how many kids you have, we need to start by ending consumerism and living sustainably first. Once that happens, future generations will be smart enough to realize where the true population equilibrium lies.
The average American, reading the title of this post, looks around and goes “Huh?” America is an obscenely rich country compared to our peers and by historical standards. We’re so rich that even the cheapest trinkets are shipped from halfway across the world because we’re too rich to make our own trinkets cheaply.
Cheap energy, however, has a defined threshold. Material scarcity is inevitable. Living frugally and sustainably can help us prepare for a world of expensive petroleum, diminishing mineral resources, and wars over access to clean water and arable land. As many parents know, however, it can be difficult to imprint your own values and preparations on the next generation. I don’t claim to be an expert and my kids are still quite young, but here’s a few things I’m trying to inculcate:
- Homeschooling can be a huge aid when raising your kids in a counter-cultural way. We’re halfway through our first school year with the goblins at home and I notice a huge change in their expressed needs for commercial goods. There’s less pressure to own the cool backpack, the toys, and take the lavish trips their friends’ families would take. It’s not a path for every child (or every parent) but I treasure the relaxed atmosphere and the time to enjoy as much nature as we can. Sitting in a classroom for eight hours really saps their desire to be inquisitive, to observe nature at work, and most importantly to learn respect for the world around us.
- What comes from the earth returns to it. Hands-down, the best experience I had with the goblins from the past few months was when we turned the compost bin and separated out the new soil from the bottom. We had tons of worms working through the dirt, which lit up their faces with wonder. I was surprised just how much they dived in and enjoyed touching and handling something normally considered gross. They understand that while we shouldn’t waste food, what we can’t eat anymore returns to the earth where it came from – and will be a big help when we expand our garden this year.
- It takes patience, but hands-on gardening with little ones can be a very rewarding activity. Will they break something? Absolutely. Will they pull something that’s not a weed? Of course. But working with plants, becoming connected to their food, that’s worth all the frustration in the world. And you’ll be surprised just how fast kids can work when they put their mind to it. I don’t think we ask enough of our children in that regard.
Coming off a Christmas where my goblins were showered with gifts and we piled bags of trash into our bins, it has me thinking about – what will we do then? Peak oil will probably arrive in my lifetime and certainly within theirs. Technology will provide new solutions, but I have been convinced by people like Mr. Money Mustache and Jacob from ERE that the average American consumes at over 4 times the rate that is sustainable. I made a number of mistakes in the first ten years of adulthood, mistakes that I hope my goblins won’t repeat – and thus will be far better prepared to face the coming scarcity.
One of my personal goals for 2014 is to ride a half-century (50 miles). So far I think I’ve achieved solid progress towards that goal.
Tonight marked my second week at 20 miles, and third ride in a row of personal best times. I will probably give myself one more week at 20 miles and then up the distance again.
- Weather: 35F, light rain that changed over to freezing rain during the last mile (I almost wiped out right in front of my house!)
- Recorded Distance: 19.92 mi
- Time: 1:43:56
- Speed: 11.54 MPH
My ride on Tuesday averaged out to 10.9 MPH, with a much faster front half that had me burn out on the second half, so tonight I intentionally held myself back on the front half, recording 5:10 splits against a light headwind. This paid major dividends on the back half of the route. The last two hill climbs still gassed me but I hadn’t run out of stamina. This has me really hopeful for the next distance increase.
*I doubt I’m going to type up every ride but I’ll try and post milestones along the way. Stats were measured with the RunKeeper (Android) app using an HTC One.
I’m starting this post not known what the final balance is going to come to. Will be eye-opening!
- Home (Estimated Market Value): 75,000 (conservative estimate but I doubt we’d get more than 80K based on sales in our area)
- 401(k) combined: 55,100
- Cars combined: 6,000
- Cash Savings: 1,400
- Total: 137,500
- Home Mortgage: 106,800 @6.5%
- Student Loan (Chief A): 4,500 @0.1%
- Student Loan (Chief B): 13,668 @6.5%
- Student Loan (Alchemist A): $3,180 @0.1%
- Student Loan (Alchemist B): $27,400 @6.5%
- Roof Loan: 10,900 (no interest before March 2015)
- Total: 166,448
Net Worth: -$28,948
Whew. Obviously negative net worth sucks and any debt, in the inimitable words of MMM, is a “hair on fire” emergency but we’re not as deep underwater as I thought we were. My 401(k) plan isn’t terribly great, but I recently made changes to the Alchemist’s to take advantage of funds with low expense ratios.
At this point our primary savings goal is getting enough cash to pay the roof loan before the interest accrues (16.5%!) and then attacking the higher-interest student loans and mortgage. Even though I’m familiar with the debt snowball, I will probably attack the mortgage first because the longer amortization means extra principal paid early pays bigger dividends than the 10 year amortized student loans. Either than or I will split 50-50 between paying my B group loans and the mortgage early – but that’s a decision which won’t come until 2015.
I started reading Johnny Moneyseed a week ago but his newest post Escape the Rip Current is a really well-written piece, using the metaphor of swimming in the ocean to describe basic cashflow and why it’s so important for retirement, but especially early retirement.
I don’t have profound thoughts of my own to add but it’s worth a read.
It’s a trap similar to the overzealousness of religious converts: the change is such an eye-opening and powerful one that you feel compelled to race, compete, and improve as much as possible. Look at me, look at how frugal I am!
The instant you start doing this, something has gone wrong.
The whole point of frugality/lifestyle optimization is simplicity. It’s not “hey, look at my worn-out clothes because I’m frugal”, it’s “I wear old clothes because it’s simpler that way, and if you have a problem with it, it’s your problem.”
Cutting down to a single-car family, for us, would be hair-shirt frugality. It would net us a few thousand dollars immediately, and save close to $1,000 annually. At the same time, it would complicate things. I don’t drive much with the goblins, but it’s nice to be able to – whenever – without imposing on my wife. Worse, what if one of them needed doctor or hospital care right now? It’s a change I’ve thought about making, but realized that it wouldn’t optimize our life, even though it would optimize our finances.
At the same time, I’m sitting here in my comfortable old hoodie that’s got a number of stains and rips in it because I like it. It’s warm. It’s comfy. It’s been mine for a long, long time. I look at the rips and think I should replace it, but where does the should come from? What is the source of the imperative? It’s not from my own desires, certainly. It’s simpler to keep wearing it then, until its functionality is spent. I’m not, however, wearing it because it makes me look like a hobo.
An optimization I did before consciously pursuing frugality has actually been one of my most successful changes. For many years I was a serious video gamer, particularly PC games. I had a high-powered machine to push the latest in graphics, particularly extra mods which made already demanding software even more demanding. After a while, though, I realized I was never happy playing the games. I always felt like there was something I could do better with my time. So then my computer started gathering dust. Oh, I used it, but I used a fraction of its full utility.
An opportunity to buy a nice quality (but ancient) Mac with a easy-on-the-eyes display came up, which acted as the catalyst for tearing down my gaming PC and selling most of the parts off. I’d already removed most of my gaming time from my life, freeing up time for other things, but making that final choice to recoup money simplified my life even further. That said, if I was still craving gaming time, the choice would have been a bad one. Frugality isn’t a punishment. It’s about chiseling away the dreck in your life, getting to the core of who you are.
Everyone wants to save money, if for no other reason than to maximize consumption. Some have taken the next step, and realized the treadmill of hedonic adaptation is a modern-day Tantalus experience. But, when simplifying your life, take care in what you excise. Yes, good choices can be hard, but you should never punish yourself with frugal choices. Instead, look for choices that truly offer simplicity, in avoiding bills, in avoiding complications, and most of all – gaining time to pursue what you really want.
This is the first time I’ve sat down to write in a few days and in general I’ve been feeling very unmotivated creatively. I’m enjoying my writing projects but have let myself be conquered by “what the hell are you doing this for?” I consider myself a believer in writing for its own sake but the last week hasn’t exactly seen me putting this into action.
I’m fascinated by the concept of Financial Independence and Early Retirement (we’re a little late to add the ‘Extreme’ modifier). The relentless optimism of MMM really supercharged me back in October, so much that I think I honestly went from depression into a form of mania. My brain was buzzing ideas so fast I couldn’t sleep well. In fact, one night I pulled an all-nighter for no reason at all! That’s slowly come back to earth over the past few weeks.
I have to remind myself when reading FI blogs that all of these people started where I was, and many of them started around the same age (late twenties). They’re better off because they’re further along. ‘Financial Independence’ is a snappy descriptor but it’s a long play. Even at high savings rates, it takes years to build up enough assets and skills to walk that path.
So what happens in the interim?
I think the term that helps me work out my frustrations best is lifestyle optimization. The “end goal” of FI is a great one to have, but if that’s the only goal in front of you, that’s like putting a carrot on a really, really long stick – you’ll break trying to be the fulcrum for a lever that long. Or, at least I will. Instead, it’s about simplifying things now with the added bonus that optimization directly leads to FI.
Here’s a few things I’ve managed to do to optimize our lives, thereby reducing stress and our ecological footprint:
- Travel by car less (required #1) and use bike travel whenever possible.
- Purchase ingredients, not food from the store (avoiding convenience packaging, pre-processed stuff, etc.)
- Use the library far more than we ever did.
- Get outside (when it’s not the ice planet Hoth outside).
So far, when I actually sit down and list it out, we’ve actually made a good deal of progress in the past two months. The monkey’s still there but taking the time to reflect lets me ignore it.