Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Underground Economy, Part 1

Years ago I read (and re-read) a book written from the perspective of the late 1970's - early 80's recession (and I can't remember the title).  The author was very well educated (PhD) but had chosen to leave his professional position and live a life working lower paying jobs mixed with living off the land.  He and his family learned to do everything they could themselves rather than paying someone else to do it, grew a large garden, and continued learning by reading and taking classes (especially at the community college where skills were taught).

I wish I'd kept the book, I gave it to the library sales when I thought I no longer needed the wisdom it offered.  I'd love to re-read it today... slowly and with a fine tooth comb (so to speak).  It was this book which first opened my eyes to what he called the "underground economy" where one could live quite well on very little income. 

At the risk of greatly underdefining (is that a word?) his lessons learned, he came to realize his quality of life became much higher when he left a high stress professional job where his take home pay was being eaten up by increased taxes together with a high rate of inflation.  He started "doing" what he had payed others for in dollars whose value was decreasing all the time.... by simplifying their life and learning to live off the financial grid.

Some changes made were-- growing a garden, looking for needed items at garage sales and thrift shops; driving older cars; bartering; investing in classes to learn skills such as cooking, canning, sewing, carpentry, plumbing, mechanics, painting, well... you get the idea.  His family learned how to take vacations with little money and send their kids to college for less.  All because they found there was an underground economy where one learned to live life differently than what they had been taught... that being make lots of money and spend lots of money.

I've thought about this book often in the twenty-plus years since reading it (over and over).  It came to mind a couple days ago as I walked through Goodwill and noticed all the beautiful clothing, shoes, household items, etc. one could purchase for pennies on the dollar from their original cost.  I think of it when I am at the grocery store and see how much money is being charged for baked goods, processed items, and all pre-made foods (of course, not all being unreasonably priced).

It was this book which inspired me to take cooking, flower arranging, and quilting classes in my 20s and 30s (I wish I'd taken the time for even more skills learning).  My husband was also influenced long ago, learning to do whatever he could as he had time.  These skills became invaluable when we had no income (I have limits... he is not allowed near electricity and we're good friends with our mechanic).  :)

The underground economy is nothing new for it is the way the generations before us lived each day of their life.  There was a time in this country that only the wealthy could afford to pay someone else to do that which we take for granted today.  When one learns there is life outside of paying full price, life can become less stressful and more creative... not always easy but well worth it.

Now, obviously my husband didn't quit his job but he did utilize every skill he learned.  Our home is full of beauty and books and so many good things in spite of living on a very small income.  I'll share more about our journey in Part 2.

Picture: Homemaker-First Issue;


mom2six said...

Wanting to move toward this lifestyle. My husband has taught our two oldest boys how to fix their own vehicles. They have learned about carpentry, electricity, plumbing, and other useful ways to be handy around the house thanks to their dad. In the past I have canned, quilted, even made my clothes for myself and children. Now we are learning to garden and raise animals. One day soon we hope to be pretty close to able to fully provide for ourselves. I enjoyed this post.

Anonymous said...

I think I have seen the book of which you speak but my mind can't pull out an author or title just now. Perhaps a "Goggle" search would locate it and then you could begin a treasure hunt for it. Say a prayer - often God will lead me to an item of need/want at a garage sale or thrift store that I have been praying for.

Linda Hibner said...

I'm more and more there right with you and the "underground economy" philosophy. My husband is close to retirement, after having worked for churches where investment in his retirement wasn't something the church could afford. We're looking at a huge reduction in income, even though I will keep working for another 8-10 years, the Lord willing. I've started deepening my pantry considerably (inspired by you!), cooking and baking. In preparation for the income change, we're not eating out like we have in the past, and I'm wearing my clothes a lot longer. I haven't shopped at Goodwill in a while, but I'm planning on going there in the next few weeks. That old sewing machine is also going to get a good dusting off. As scary as loss in income seems, I'm actually looking forward to this next adventure in our lives. Thanks to you and your wonderful blog, I have more information than ever to do a reasonably good job at this economizing. You inspire me and hundreds of others daily. I appreciate you and pray the Lord's blessing on you in a mighty way.
Linda Hibner

hmsclmom said...

I hope one of your many friends here will remember the name of that book. I would love to read it myself. :)
Your timing could not be more perfect on this post. Right now I am looking at my dear husband putting tarps over the top of our big garden space. We are hoping to warm the soil up and hopefully "bake" some of the weed seeds to death before putting in our garden in about 1-2 months from now. He got it all cleaned out last week. Our plan is to gown enough fresh produce for us and for our grown children that still live in our area. My hubby is very handy with the home repairs (former carpenter)and I am an "expert" (in his opinion) of finding deals, cooking from scratch and making sure that we have lots of frugal fun! :) Our idea of a hot date is to curl up in bed on Saturday night with a big bowl of popcorn, pop in a borrowed or free rental dvd, huge dog and cat beside us and enjoy a movie together. We both look forward to our "date night" each week.

Be blessed!

Grace said...

I'm sort of rediscovering your blog here. That sounds like an interesting book. Maybe I'll spot in somewhere.

Mama Squirrel said...

Could it have been one of the books by Charles Long or Ernie Zelinski? There was another similar one (male author) that I'm sure I had a copy of--how to work way fewer hours but have a better life--but I'm not sure of the author.

One of the issues now with doing things yourself, in many places, is that there are so many regulations against it. In some places it's against the rules to even open the hood of your own car, much less change the oil or repair it. We've heard stories too about people who tried to swap babysitting with each other but ran into childcare regulations, and so on and so on. We're living in a world that makes it harder to do many of the things that people used to rely on to survive.

Mama Squirrel said...

Maybe Ragnar's Underground Economy? That's not one I read, but the title sounds right.

Mama Squirrel said...

Maybe Living Well on Practically Nothing, by Ed Romney?

Lisa Z said...

I love the whole idea of the Underground Economy. Maybe it speaks to my naturally rebellious nature! But it also makes so much sense. I think everyone should get used to being part of it. I would also call it the "home-focused" economy. Sharon Astyk in her book Depletion and Abundance asks a question which I love: what if we all put less effort into the industrial economy and more into the home economy? That is just what we are trying to do.

I used to profess to hating to sew, but lately if I can make it myself, somehow, I am itching to use that sewing machine, or pick up the knitting needles, etc. I find myself really enjoying the process now, as well as the product. It's such a GOOD feeling to do a thing for one's self or family, with very little money spent. I set goals for sewing like making skirts for under $5 each. Luckily one of my craft stores has a wonderful table of $1, $2 or $3 a yard fabrics from which to choose, and I often like the fabrics. "Making do" with what's cheap forces me to be creative and step outside my usual box. I love it.

Meredith said...

I am thinking that sounds a lot like Charles Long's The Conserver Lifestyle (or something similar), an out-of-print book I read in the library about 10 years ago. It had that rock bottom quality that was so fascinating to someone who has already mastered basic frugality.

Anonymous said...

Could it have been "your Money or Your Life" by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin?
Amy Dacyczyn refers to the book in "The Tightwad Gazette".

G.L.H. said...

It is wonderful to see my daughters beginning to see the wisdom of the "underground economy." When my daughter was growing up, it was the way we lived, and she did not apprectiate it so much! My daughter-in-law grew up in a family where she had "everything" available to her. My son is an elementary school teacher, and she now has five children, so she is looking to me for advice!

Looking forward to your next installment!

Manuela@TPOH said...

I wish you knew the name of that book! That's something I'd love to read.I hope someone is familiar with it.


Vee said...

Sounds like a good challenge for a research you remember where the author lived?

MrsKamorri said...

I found the same book Mama Squirrel did so I am disappointed that it's not the right one. I guess I like a mystery to solve :)

This is something my husband and I have been discussing and thinking about for the last while. He has a lucrative job in a city 50 miles away and every day it kills him a little bit to spend 2 hours in his car instead of home with his family.

We both like old ways and learning new things that people have mostly forgotten about (sewing, blacksmithing, knitting, cooking from scratch) or just stopped caring about. We're currently in the process of buying some food insurance in case of major economic collapse or similar catastrophe in our lives, not with fearful hearts but with (hopefully) foresight.

I am always inspired by your posts and so glad you're finally feeling better!

Dawn said...

In the rush of our days I yearn for simplicity (especially those days when my daughter doesn't feel well and I can't be home with her. Unfortunately, neither my husband nor I are very handy and we end up paying more for trying to do it ourselves! However, one small baby step at a time we are getting there. Thank you for sharing - would love to read the book!

Anonymous said...

Could the book be 'The Good Life' by Scott and Helen Nearing? This has been on my to read list for a while.

Kim said...

Could it be The Self Sufficient Life by John Seymour?

There is even a revised 2009 version.

Di said...

Thank you for these enlightening posts - I'm wondering if the book you're looking for is How to Survive without a Salary: Learning how to live the conserver lifestyle, by Charles Long. It was from the period you mention, and has been revised once or twice in the intervening years. I think I still have a copy somewhere in my basement shelves, but can't locate it yet :(