sumac journal

Where are you and where are you going?
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Joined: Wed Nov 27, 2019 12:35 pm

sumac journal

Post by sumac » Wed Nov 27, 2019 3:08 pm

I've been lurking on this site for about 5 years now, and have finally tipped over into journaling. ERE has been a useful framework for me in part because I'm a somewhat "pointy" person. I have significant strengths and significant limitations, and have been working over the years to leverage the strengths and minimize disruption from the limitations (and improve them over the long term where I can).

I'm just under two years out of college now. Much of my personal work during school was focused on creating a solid base that I could build my life from. "Base" here meaning the fundamentals: mental stability, broad set of life skills, physical health, meaningful relationships to people and land. I struggled a lot with several of the above, especially mental health and social competency. You could say that I spent the first half of college teaching myself about theory of mind, and the second half muddling my way through systems thinking. My classes were useful in terms of introducing new frameworks for thinking and doing, but the doing on my own is where most of the lasting (experiential, internalized) knowledge has come from.

I got myself into $38k debt getting my degree. I made this decision as a teenager, but I didn't have the foresight to reconsider it as I learned more about myself and the world. I could have chosen to switch into a certificate or apprenticeship program as soon as I noticed those ways of learning worked better for me, which likely would have resulted in a better return. But no matter - I'd make different decisions for myself now, and I hope to have the vast majority of my life ahead of my to apply & improve those decision-making patterns. I also 100% do not regret spending more time on establishing healthy patterns than on my coursework - those patterns have paid off many times over in life satisfaction.

The past two years:

  • I've paid off about $22k of that debt, working one year in design/communications for $42k pre-tax and one full season in farming (9mo) for $11k pre-tax, plus odd jobs
  • I have $16k remaining; $13k at 5% and $3k at 3%.
  • I am focusing on paying off the $13k in the next 12-24mo while maintaining or increasing a cushion of savings
  • I've saved about $6.5k in a retirement fund and have $4k liquid (6mo core expenses plus $1000 sinking fund)
  • I made the considered decision to buy a car for about $3k - something I've been against all my life but decided to do given the circumstances and a target end date for car ownership.
As you can see, my savings rate has been fairly low, but the total proportion of my income going toward debt & savings has been reasonably high. Not quite at achievable ERE levels, though.

During my first post-grad job, my average monthly expenses were like so:

Student loans - $1300
Rent + utilities - $600
Public transportation - $380 (long rail commute plus bike or bus)
Groceries - $130
Discretionary consumables - $120
Health - $180
Travel - $150
Donations - $100
Clothing - $30
Misc - $70

Total sans student loans: $1760

Very poorly optimized on the big three. My long commute and poor fit for this office environment also created stress and reduced personal time.

The understandable question on this forum: why shift to a much lower-paying occupation? For me, small farming was a good choice because:
  • It's a great place to exercise systems thinking in the medium to long term while engaging in a variety of mostly physical tasks on a day to day basis
  • No office politics or need for social masking (the latter can be more draining for me than the job itself)
  • I'd tried it before (as a intern) and liked it
  • Connection to family background and fields of study (social, environmental)
  • Very concrete way to respond to large-scale challenges (climate, food, water, inequality, economic and social instability) on a human/local scale
  • Good for learning through experience while being paid
  • Opportunity to drastically reduce expenses
Downsides were that I was specifically required by my employer to get access to a car before starting, and the farm was 15 miles from where I lived. Still an improvement on before.

My average monthly expenses while farming (transition period):

Student loans - $210 (cut down to maintain cashflow)
Rent + utilities - $500
Car expenses (borrowed) - $90
Groceries - $70 (plus free veggies and eggs as part of work compensation)
Discretionary consumables - $45
Health - $40
Travel - $5
Donations - $100
Clothing - $30 (good rain gear was most of this)
Misc - $100

Total sans student loans: $980

Better, but still could be improved.

My average monthly expenses while farming (current):

Student loans - $300 (to increase to $700)
Rent + utilities - $50 (now exchanging a few hours a week of childcare for housing)
Car insurance - $115
Gas - $50
Maintenance and repairs - $75
Groceries - $60 (plus free veggies and eggs as part of work compensation)
Discretionary consumables - $20
Medical - $40
Travel - $5
Donations - $100
Clothing - $20 (if I don't spend it, it goes to fund for replacement boots)
Misc - $50

Total sans student loans: $585
Core expenses: $315

After debt is paid off, living on $7k a year feels very reasonable to me. $3k would be a challenge, and $11k would feel luxurious.


The near future

I now live about 11 miles from my place of employment, which I've biked a few times but would hesitate to do 5 days a week on top of a physical job. Maybe working up to a couple days a week? My boss also has given the option of semi-sheltered camping at the farm a few days a week, but not living there. These two things combined could significantly reduce my need for a car (maybe to the point that my employer would be okay with me selling it), but at the cost of more flexibility for social engagements in the city.

I like my housing situation and would like to stay in it for as long as I'm able.

I've recently been promoted at work, so starting next season I will be making $14/hr instead of $12/hr and will have closer to a full-time x9mo schedule. I've also started picking up side work in landscaping and odd jobs, which pays about $25/hr on average. I have tutoring and design experience that I'd also like to use on my own terms - many of the posted gigs are the fairly depressing "boost your scores and get into college" type, but my interest and experience tell me that lots of students might be interested in getting support in applying their learning to their lives in useful ways, and overcoming common mental blocks that arise in achievement-based learning environments. Perhaps something to test on a small scale, since I have more flexibility during the fall thru spring (overlapping with the school year). And even one consistent client makes a big difference at my current income level.

Skills: Related to the above, I'd like to learn more about landscaping with native plants and working with different types of soil (and soil-dwelling creatures). Also dealing with farming under more inconsistent climate conditions - my boss has farmed for about 20 years and has been seeing a trend of heavier storms, less consistent seasonal precipitation, and more intense heat waves. Other long-term interests are lettering, building, and strength training. I generally prefer analog and "soft" systems to digital or mechanical ones, and I figure I might as well work with that tendency instead of fighting it.

General thoughts:
My experience in the past couple years has shown me that quality of life, community, and living according to my values are by far the most important thing to me, and that I have the skills and flexibility to make even a low income work well. I feel more confident about my ability to make my chosen way(s) of life work than I did in college, when I felt a lot of anxiety about being able to make it in a typical degree-requiring job for years on end.

Phew! That's my very long intro, for now. I don't know how often I'll be posting, but it's a very useful way to reflect and consolidate my thoughts.

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Joined: Fri Jun 07, 2019 4:11 am

Re: sumac journal

Post by horsewoman » Thu Nov 28, 2019 1:48 am

Great intro! I'll be sure to follow your journal, we seem to be on a similar vibe. Good for you that you found out relatively early in life that the mainstream way of life is not for you. While student debt is of course a burden, you got some education out of it. And who knows if you had figured out your learning style so soon without those experiences? I made some "detours" as well as a young adult that set me back financially, but now looking back at almost 40 I see that I put most things I learned in these years to good account in my life. A system needs nodes, and every experience has the possibility to become an additional node.

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Joined: Wed Nov 27, 2019 12:35 pm

Re: sumac journal

Post by sumac » Thu Nov 28, 2019 9:32 am

Thanks, and good points! I'm in it for the long haul, for sure.

Posts: 6
Joined: Wed Nov 27, 2019 12:35 pm

Re: sumac journal

Post by sumac » Thu Nov 28, 2019 9:54 am

Risk tolerance

As far as I can tell, mine is pretty low. Not to the point that I'm going to put all future income in TIPS or CDs, but I do lean toward reducing/replacing expenses rather than increasing income. I believe I can do both, but the latter requires fighting more of my tendencies.

Sample tiers of expense replacement

1) cheaper version of same thing (e.g. buying a used car)
2) find different thing to serve same purpose (buying a scooter to reduce maintenance costs)
3) change lifestyle to allow cheaper/more efficient use (move closer to work, bike/walk)
4) change mental state to allow cheaper/more efficient use (build habits that make biking/walking fun and easy)
5) all of the above and find ways to derive financial, social, and/or psychological benefit (teach skills at community bike shop; offer repairs in exchange for money, goods, or services; refurbish craigslist bikes; pick up roadkill as you bike along and sell articulated squirrel skeletons)
6) all of the above and inspire others to act in the way that unlocks new options on a political or systemic level (relationships formed through workshops and repairs allow for coalition that finally passes transit/ped infrastructure bill or changes single-family zoning; local companies understand importance of showering facilities and bike parking; critical mass of people biking/walking contributes to safer roads)
7) contribute to stable new paradigms?? (kids grow up thinking driving is bizarre)

At some point it becomes less about expenses and more about the quality of the environment we live in (which is a lot of what we spend money on, anyway). I don't mean to suggest that aiming for the highest tier is always the best course of action, only that experiencing the first few tiers can sometimes lead into actions on the next few. I used option 1 for handling my current commute, but absent outside influences my sweet spot is options 3 and 4. 5 is fun but limited for me, and 6 is aspirational.

More on low risk tolerance: I share Jacob's intuition that returns on most things are likely to regress in my lifetime.* Possibly negative on a global hundred years scale. This is given that most of the growth of the past several hundred/thousand years has been predicated on finding things that have not been priced (but perhaps are valued in other ways) and converting them to economic value. My belief is that people will continue to do this for as long as some are able to, and as long as the physical + social + economic infrastructure supports it. But I do not think that the current rates of conversion can be maintained, given the limits of a finite landbase, diminishing energy intensity (EROI), and the precarity of our complex global dependencies. More opportunity temporarily, more risk in the long run. Phosphorus is a less-discussed example of precarious dependency we've engineered ourselves into.

This gets into the ethics of how to value the future, current others, future others, and which others count. See biocentric vs ecocentric consequentialism for a discussion of possible interest; this link is way more academic than necessary, but imo gets at some of the roots of the societal battles we have: ... 3379790-10

Will leave that tangent there for now.

That said, it feels like a desire for a future of knowns is at odds with this worldview I've just described. Guess it's not for nothing that I spent so much time grieving the predictable world (that never existed). My gut and knowledge tell me to expect a precarious future, but I don't equate precarity with lack of abundance. Just that sources of abundance may shift unexpectedly, and many of them may be intangible (or not legible to an economic parser). Perhaps our tendency to return to a happiness baseline can be a good thing? All I know is that internal preparations feel just as important as external ones on this journey.

*A while back, Jacob cited 3% growth annually as a common average in nature - much lower than what the past century has brought for stocks.

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Joined: Wed Nov 27, 2019 12:35 pm

Re: sumac journal

Post by sumac » Sat Nov 30, 2019 12:59 pm

Fighting Inertia, Using Inertia

Spent yesterday painting the bathroom in exchange for dinner and the next couple months' utilities. Very satisfying to mask things off.

I often take a long time to start projects, but once they're going they're usually effortless. So it's helpful to have small ways to short-circuit my "infinite loop before actually starting" process. One of them is to start a small piece of my project semi-carelessly: remove the soap and toiletries from the bathroom, tape off one window or cover the sink. Then I don't have soap, and I'm compelled to keep going.

Maybe on a meta level, if I get in the habit of starting things, it will be easier to start things than to not start them.

On the flip side, inertia is sometimes useful. I don't particularly want to add sugar to food, but it just *sounds* so cozy to have a cup of tea with milk and honey. Now my sugars are in weird places and it never feels worth it to use them, and having a cup of hot milky un-sugared tea sounds just as appealing each morning. Not to mention it still tastes sweet from the fat and fragrance.

Another example of inertia as test-stick: I moved into a unheated outbuilding in September, and spent some time thinking about options for staying warm in the winter. Since I have access to kitchen, bathroom, and living spaces in a heated house, I figured it wouldn't have to be overly energy-intensive. Things I considered include 1) building a small wooden canopy with quilted hangings over my bed, attach kotatsu-type heater low down and use before bed so my sleeping-hole warms up; 2) putting an electric blanket under my sleeping bag and quilt, heat for 15 min before bed; 3) wearing sleeping hat, layering up, and taking advantage of 15deg sleeping bag + down quilt.

So far, nights have gotten down to the teens and 20s and option 3 is working perfectly well. Especially when I leave my clothes in the main house and put them on before bed. We'll see how it goes when it's below freezing for days on end, but I don't think it'll be necessary to add much more heat than a hot water bottle or two. In this case, it was easier to use what I had and make small behavioral adjustments than to preemptively add energy.

Of course, a different question is whether I should build my canopy anyway just for the sake of making a sweet cave. It would be nice to have something to attach my pull-up bar to, since for some godforsaken reason zero of the doorframes on this entire property will accept a pull-up bar.

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