The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

Guest Post: ERE-Lite or, How I can easily live on £5000 per annum — Part II

with 16 comments

Read ERE-Lite: Living on £5000 per annum — Part I here…

ERE-Lite: Living on £5000 per annum — Part II

Since leaving my job and striking out on my own I have really come to appreciate this hierarchy of capital types. Social at the top, financial at the bottom. Recall above my previous concerns about whether the financial industry would survive 2008, tie this to my idea of real wealth and the imminence (or at least inevitability) of peak oil, and you will see why financial capital is at the bottom of the hierarchy. It is the least stable, least secure of the three, prone to counter-party risk and strongly correlated to the health of Western industrial civilisation. My non-financial capital includes my home, my garden and the tools to work it. My social capital resides with my friends and neighbours, and provides me a network whereby I have gained some of my physical assets, access to paid work, exchanged food and labour, dissipated my excess production and derived a lot of entertainment, education and pleasure. In terms of priorities, I’d rather add first to my social capital, then my non-financial capital, and finally to my financial capital.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the workings of social capital is anecdotally. I could try in the abstract, but it would be less convincing as it would tend to contradict many common worldviews, and encounter resistance (Ed’s Note: Agree on that point with Macs! Just read, How blog comments look in a parallel Universe). Aliases have been used to protect the innocent.

At the beginning of the tale, when I was little more than a cubicle-jockey running on the 9—5 tramlines of conformity, my social capital was low. I had moved home (and country) a few times and shaken off most of my old social connections, but eventually found myself resettled on my native soil as a debt—slave working an uninspiring job mostly to pay off a modest mortgage. This last was not a common experience, and I was truly unhappy to be in such a position. After a hard day’s work I’d often find myself in the local pub (which we’ll call ‘The Rainbow’, for anonymity’s sake) bemoaning the soul-lessness of my existence. Now, the secret to building social capital boils down to two words, really: ‘Be nice’. Make and build friendships, maintain them, be available, be honest, be true to yourself. Be aware that a gift is an investment in social capital — it’s not quantifiable, not tallied in a ledger anywhere, but it strengthens relationships. So when Mr Grey was out of work and down in the dumps, a drink or two were appreciated. After a while he was employed in the kitchens at the pub, and I found I had a source of re-used containers and potato sacks I needed for my garden. In return I supplied some of my surplus potatoes to the kitchen (for a few pints), and some herbs from my garden.

Mr Blue, another keen gardener, brought in excess runner beans — some went to The Rainbow’s kitchen, some came my way. Likewise the pheasants he brought in after a shoot — now, I didn’t know how to prepare a pheasant for eating, so I spent a couple of days in the kitchen myself, helping out and learning the ropes on preparing game birds. A bit of upskilling! All unpaid except in terms of social capital. Another friend — Mr Silver — also likes a bit of game, so I made sure some of the pheasants went his way, and then when he’d made too much marrow chutney for his family, some ended up in my store cupboard. By the time I was ready to give up the day job, and I knew I had more time to spare, I mentioned to Mr Silver that I’d be available if needed — he works as a handyman and gardener, and I knew some jobs would require more than one pair of hands. Sure enough, a few short contracts have come through that way. He’s been able to take on jobs he might have had to refuse, and I have some enjoyable work I’d never have accessed otherwise. In this particular instance that social capital actually yielded cold, hard cash.

Panorama shot of my foraging grounds

Panorama shot of my foraging grounds. 🙂

Besides gardening, I also enjoy a spot of foraging around the woods and hedgerows for wild foods. Often as not I go out on my own for a bit of peace and quiet, and to enjoy the scenery, but on occasion I’ll team up with Mr Grey and/or Mr Silver, sharing my knowledge of what’s out there, what’s good to pick and how to use it. The latest joint venture is a nice big tub of elderberry wine which is bubbling away in Mr Silver’s spare bedroom. That will be a good party when it’s ready, and of course, we’ll have a few spare bottles to distribute, again bolstering our social capital. Foraging has also yielded quite a nice haul of other produce: elderflower cordial earlier in the year, (wild) raspberry jam, bramble jelly, apples, hazelnuts, rosehips, sloes… Some of this produce stocks my own cupboards of course, some is distributed around the network, swapped for meals out with Mrs Scarlet, or eggs from Mr Green. And of course garden produce can also come in excess, so that is also dissipated through the social network, too. Mr Crimson, I have found, is mad for marrows — which my garden has been producing quite prolifically this year (grown from seed swapped with Mr Silver).

Mr Crimson has also been employing both myself and Mr Silver for garden work and a bit of freelance geekery — a damaged ‘phone needing the data extracting, setting up a blog for his business and the like. Some work yielded cash, some beer… He stretched me a bit, too, when he said he needed a new shower enclosure. This was where my professional-style resignation paid off, as I was able to go back to my previous employers as a customer, and enjoy a nice ‘ex-staff’ discount. And amazingly I’d learnt enough at that old job to be able to fit the enclosure, including doing the tiling and some plastering. Never knew I had those skills until I tried it!

Greenhouse with water tanks

Greenhouse with water tanks

Perhaps the best synergy between my social capital and my garden arose when Mr. Grey announced his father needed to dispose of a greenhouse. In return for dismantling the greenhouse I was able to move it to my own garden which has already made a great improvement to its productivity. There were a few broken panes of glass to replace, but Mr Silver had a source of surplus glass, so that was easily solved. To have purchased that style of greenhouse from new would have cost me a good £300-400, so I have had a real bargain, Mr Grey Senior has had a bargain through not needing to dispose of it and clear the site himself or pay for it to be done, and some valuable materials have been reclaimed instead of being dumped. Now I have an extended growing season, and better facilities for propagating plants, some of which are going to be spread around to Mr Crimson, Mr Silver and the garden at The Rainbow. When I needed water storage to capture the rain run-off from the greenhouse, a quick word around at The Rainbow evinced a reply from Mr Red – a local plumber — who had a couple of 50 litre tanks cluttering up his garage. Result! For the price of a few pints.

Some final benefits I’ve derived from my social capital include the contract to trim all the hedges at The Rainbow, and a share in a massive crop of plums which another customer needed to dispose of — more delicious jam for gifting! Mr Crimson’s old shower enclosure was saved from the dump when I looked at it and saw instead of waste, the makings of a couple of 2 metre long cloches for the garden – they’ll be very useful next spring for starting off early seedlings under cover.

Certainly, I could have stayed at work and bought all those things which I have acquired through exchange of social capital — except of course I wouldn’t have. I would have had no time to devote to my garden, to build a greenhouse, to go foraging in the woods. And you might say in terms of value I would ‘earn’ more in a job than say foraging for hazelnuts. In terms of a simple cash yield that would be true, but the yields are multiple. A couple of hours spent collecting a few pounds of hazelnuts might yield maybe £5 worth of nuts. On a one-dimensional cash-mediated account that is worth less than two hours paid work. But it also yields two hours of entertainment, two hours of healthy exercise, two hours immersion in nature (the lack of which is a major source of mental stress and anomie). In the cash-mediated model, two hours of work would not supply £5 of produce and pay for two hours in the gym, another two hours of entertainment and still leave time for a nice walk at a time defined by working hours. ‘Earning’ the cash would entail further costs — a wage is not pure ‘profit’. To go foraging, I just walk out of my back door, at a time of my choosing. To go to work I needed to wake up early, wear more expensive clothing, drive a car for half an hour, suffer the stress of traffic, spend all day indoors sat down and staring at a computer screen, then drive home again. For the eight hours I’d worked, I’d used up ten hours of my life and degraded both my physical and my mental health. In short, I have exchanged ‘standard of living’ for quality of life.
In truth, much of what we classify as ‘standard of living’ is better described as ‘cost of living’. What may not show through much of the above (although an annual budget of £5000 hints at…) is that I have withdrawn almost entirely from consumerism. I don’t define my ‘worth’ by the things I own, or derive any satisfaction from much of what most people consider to be normal culture. For one, I do not watch or even own a television (Ed’s Note: I can’t even explain how liberating it is not to have TV. Although I own a TV (but no cable, Sky, dish, etc.), it is my parents’ old one from 1984, and gets used occasionally for an odd DVD). That plugs one gaping hole through which pours an incessant stream of discontent and envy into the average person’s life. I’m not interested in ‘celebrity’ culture or keeping up with fashion or organised sport or soap operas or manufactured ‘reality’. I hate being advertised at — either overtly or by insidious ‘product placement’. I resent the condescension implicit in advertising, that vapid consumption of inherently unsatisfying gimmicks somehow bestows on us our ‘worth’. I am not what I drive, or the label on my clothing. I do not need to be anaesthetised by second-rate fiction, I do not need my emotions to be manipulated for someone else’s commercial interests. I do not need my worldview to be pre-digested by the narrow focus of corporate ‘news’ and sterile political ‘debate’ that doesn’t even examine the unstated assumptions of our way of life (Ed’s Note: If you want a more detailed exploration of these ideas, read this post and then, this one). In fact, I don’t need much at all, and most of that I already have. Shelter, food and water, health, a place in society, meaningful work, intellectual engagement. Oikos.

'Still life' composition of some of my 'real wealth'

'Still life' composition of some of my 'real wealth' — (Clockwise from right) Marrows, Apples, Potatoes, Hazelnuts, Jams (Gooseberry, Strawberry, Plum), Jellies (Raspberry, Blackberry Apple) and Marrow Chutney. Preserving summer vitamins for winter use.

Not only is our current way of life unsatisfying, it is also crumbling. We are bumping up against ecological and resource limits – infinite growth in a finite system is inherently impossible. We like to tell ourselves the story that economic growth comes from innovation, human ingenuity, this or that political theory when in fact it almost exactly matches energy use (Ed’s Note: A data-centric treatment of that idea behind energy usage can be read from here). We need to change that story as our energy options are becoming constrained, which inevitably entails an economic contraction, yet our economy is a complex adaptive system that can only remain stable within certain bounds. For one, it cannot accommodate contraction, as an ever-expanding pool of debt backed by the assumption of infinite growth is required to maintain the current financial model. I see the present as a transitionary phase, that now-cliched Wile E. Coyote moment where the majority have yet to look down. I believe the near future will not much resemble the recent past (Ed’s Note: I recommend the Crash Course videos for a quick systems level introduction to our civilisational memes and problems. No, I am not a member, nor do I get paid for that link).

The future will be low-energy, low-tech and local. This is why our most valuable assets will be those which are productive of real wealth. Meanwhile, it is necessary to operate with a foot in both worlds — build up those real assets whilst being able to feed the money-demands of the doomed system. Cutting money costs frees up the time to create the alternative support system — gardens and social capital, our individual ‘oikoi‘.

It’s fair to say that when I left my job, it was a bit of a leap of faith. I had no great plan mapped out for the next few months, just a small safety net — a bit of cash, a garden needing work, a small income from Amazon and other sources. I had no way to know beforehand what my social capital would yield, yet it has made a great contribution towards my needs. To set out on a journey, it is not necessary to know every footstep it will entail. If I’d waited until the future looked secure, then I’d be waiting still.

Ed’s Note: Macs has made it a self-contained post, and I have supplemented suggested readings to whatever topic needed more explanation. However, Macs would be happy to field questions ranging from something as pointed as “‘How can you possibly live on less than £5000 a year?” all the way to very strategic questions one might have about his approach. Fee(l) free to ask. ;-). If the answers have to be long and involved, Macs might even tease out a few more detailed posts. So, put your thinking caps on, and throw those questions (but not the kitchen sink!) at him. 8)

Ed’s Note (2): From Barry Ritholtz‘s Blog: Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data, ability to repeat discredited memes, and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Also, be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor even implied. Any irrelevancies you can mention will also be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.
In other words, we have a very liberal approach towards dissenting opinion, but we will choose to block downright inflammatory remarks aimed at the author or his lifestyle. Thank you.

16 Responses

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  1. […] Post, Personal Finance, Philosophy « Space age seems dead. Long live the space age. Guest Post: ERE-Lite or, How I can easily live on £5000 per annum — Part II […]

  2. Had to look up “marrow”. Is squash chutney sweet or savory? God knows they grow in abundance in my Ag zone here in California.

    Again, I really appreciate the thoughful approach of this post. In reflecting on my own social capital, I realize how neglectful I’ve been of some formerly close friends. Jumping from job/local to job/local on the wage-slavery treadmill has attenuated many of my social ties. And I’m just not drawn to Facebook et al. as a means of rekindling. But perhaps I’ll have to swallow my distaste and make the effort. My mother’s recent bout of ill health has made me re-prioritize friends and family.


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  3. That greenhouse looks really neat. I would be interested in seeing into the cost of such item, and if it came in kit form, or totally assembled? Actually, I have found out I need one of those. I have carted wife’s flowers and plants in and out about three times already here in October.
    Rather than build one of lumber and glass, I want one like in the photo. Any discussion on the greenhouse would be appreciated!!!!


  4. Very inspiring, thankyou. I’m about to start my adventure into low cost living and bartering here in Australia. I love to see simole examples like this how having more time gains you so much more. How wonderful.

  5. Thanks for the comments, folks!

    @Maus – marrow is most similar to courgettes (zucchini) and can get rather large. I harvested most of mine at around 10lb before they got too extreme. The chutney is a bit of both sweet and savoury – the recipe I used is here: with a few variations. You can adjust the spices to yor own taste. I’ve yet to try mine as it’s reckoned to be at its best after three months or so, but it should be good ‘on the side’ with curries or as a sauce base for stir-fries.

    I too was reluctant to join Facebook, but was talked into it by my ‘ex’ to keep in touch. I strictly limit it to real-life friends or following a few select pages (like ERE and Permaculture groups). With privacy turned up to 11, it’s not too bad 😉

    Good luck with rekindling your social capital.

    @hjspencer – a new greenhouse would normally come as a kit with hundreds of bolts and clips and a set of barely comprehensible instructions. Wood and aluminium frames both have their positives and negatives, I’m sure you’ll find lots of discussions on gardening forums to help you decide which is best for you. I was very lucky in sourcing mine, and being able to dismantle it myself really helped in re-erecting it. As it only came from about 200 yards away we could strip it down to panels and carry it by hand. It would have needed to be stripped down further if it had needed a truck or trailer. Anyway, it amused the neighbours seeing big chunks of greenhouse go past their windows… It may be worth looking at your local Craigslist or Freecycle. Construction is fairly common-sense, really, and not beyond anyone who ever had Lego or Meccano as a kid.

    @Jaimekristene – good luck with your adventures and I’m sure you’ll find lots of like-minded folks in the birthplace of permaculture! I don’t know which part of Oz you’re in, but there are some great climates for growing.


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  6. […] When social capital beats financial capital – Sawbones Surio […]

  7. Many thanks for a couple of really fascinating and thought provoking posts, Macs 🙂

    I thought I was doing pretty well at dropping out of the money economy, with growing a low of my own food and fuel (and alcohol is planned for the future!) But your posts make me realise quite how much I hanker after things only the money economy can buy, as you seem to have genuinely gotten over that hankering.

    Two fine examples of things I think I need (thneeds – many thanks to the Lorax) are really nice meals out and going to an energy intensive local “spa” – where the air and water is heated by fossil fuels and not geothermal heat. Never mind the urge to go on a cruise ship to somewhere northerly. I’m not sure how much of this is the result of advertising – and our general culture – and how much is genuinely enjoying/wanting these experiences.

    As a market gardener that earns not very much, but who has a nice warm wood-heated house and fresher food than most people ever taste my “standard of living” is pretty high, but I feel the lack of being able to go and blast money on “luxuries” that I used to be able to afford when I had a proper job. I thought I’d got my head round all this – the luxuries are never worth the pain of earning the money (I too disliked my proper well-paid job intensely) – but I still somehow feel I’m missing out in an undefinable itch I can’t scratch sort of way.

    Perhaps I should invest in my social capital more! Too much time hoeing the carrots, not enough shooting the breeze perhaps!?

    • Hi Mrs Ermine, thanks for your comments 🙂

      In return, I do find Oak Tree Farm pretty inspiring too, and it looks as though you are growing plenty of social capital there alongside the veg and pigs. Pigs are very endearing creatures. We had a couple of Gloucester Old Spot x Wessex Saddleback when I lived elsewhere – we took them around various places for friends to ‘tractor’ their rough ground, and my ex’s daughter’s school came round to see them as she wouldn’t stop talking about them in class 🙂 Very affectionate and intelligent creatures, alas a small garden is no place to keep them. I’m still toying with the idea of getting some chickens here, or maybe bees.

      I won’t decry your yearnings to cruise – I would quite like to go to the far north to watch aurorae as the next solar peak comes along in the next two or three years. I’ve had my years at sea with a well-known global NGO and have seen some of the best and worst the world has to offer. The night sky a thousand miles form the nearest land is awesome to see, and the sea itself is both terrible and breathtaking.

      Personally, I’ve had the feeling that ‘it’s all wrong’ since I was a young child, and so whenever I’ve found myself sucked into the wider culture it’s always a sign that I’m adrift and have lost my bearings. That no doubt is a major part of my non-consumerism; it is visceral, not just intellectual for me. Geting back to where I am now feels like a return to a lost path after some years in a wilderness. Actually, no, not a wilderness – a wasteland.

      I quite agree the ‘luxuries’ are never worth the pain of paying for them – the yearning is a manufactured discontent that fades rapidly as you distance yourself from advertising and media, and any satisfaction derived is transitory and empty.


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    • I second Macs; point Mrs. Ermine. I hip my turban to the effort you are making over at the Oak tree farm!

      Three cheers there, madam!


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    • @Macs and Mrs Ermine,
      > I’m not sure how much of this is the result of advertising – and our general culture
      You nailed it there. Jerry Mander’s book on television and the famous BBC’s documentary “Century of Self” answers that resoundingly with one word: “YES” it is programming of the minds.

      How smoking among women and “good ol’ bacon and eggs” as the essence of a Western breakfast was introduced into the minds of the public:
      “In order to promote sales of bacon, for example, he conducted a survey of physicians and reported their recommendation that people eat heavy breakfasts. He sent the results of the survey to 5,000 physicians, along with publicity touting bacon and eggs as a heavy breakfast”


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  8. […] BIG Thank you to Macs helping to feature a great post on the blog. The ideas of Macs’ post are of the timeless variety, the ones that were in practice before we joined the ranks of Homo […]

  9. I really enjoyed this and part 1, especially the very well-described social network part. But I must be a shallow person, because my main response was wanting to try the chutney.


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    • Thanks, Gerard. I don’t think a yearning for chutney makes you shallow 😉 I’m looking forward to it myself…


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  10. […] as the PPF, the ISA or the 401k and chiefly plan on rebalancing your lifestlye like some of these luminaries […]

  11. I’d like to add a little note on the consumerism/spa thing. As a mother of three and household manager, it is often difficult to get time that is truly your own. It can be draining and I find eventually exhausting when I don’t purposely plan little treats in for myself. If you barter, barter a spa hour or two with another . There is no reason you both can’t benefit from some nurturing without the guilt. There are tons of facial and body treatments that can be made at home and just pick two dates to do a spa treatment on each other. I did this with girlfriends in university and I swear by it.
    Also, that niggly feeling just might be a lack of a passion, what do you do when you don’t have any responsibilities? Make that a part of your life, wether through barter, volunteer, or even a source of a meager income. You can always save the money, but more importantly you will have a spirit of growth as you develop this and the happiness you derive from it will in turn get rid of most other desires.

    On a completely different note, I am trying to start a website for our future farm (we are not lucky enough to be as far along as many of you). Since farmland is very expensive where we are, we will have a mortgage to pay and the best way I can see to have it paid off fast is to develop a market for our crops) I wonder if I could use your foraging picture either for free or maybe for some recipes?

    Heather Young

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    • So long as you are not monetising the images in any way, I don’t see why you cannot use the photos of my guest poster’s farm for your posts. Just leave a link back to the originating post (this one) and attribute it carefully. “Macs” is the owner of the photos. So credit him please.


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