We moved to an off-grid property to get closer to nature and become more self-reliant. This saved us money in so many ways... it has also cost us more than we had ever imagined. After two days doing the books and taxes, I thought I'd share some of our experiences with you!
Our lives here in Spain have become incredibly cheap, especially compared to the city life we led before we came to our little homestead. Part of this is because life in Spain is just a lot cheaper than life in Belgium or the Netherlands (going out for dinner with 6 people in Aragon is about the same price as dinner for two in Amsterdam) - but a big part of it is thanks to the changes we made to our lifestyle and the setup of our little farm.
How we save money by living a simple life off the grid
1. Saving money on television - in more than one way
Not having a television is definitely one of the perks of us moving here. We used to have one, but we gave it away as it would take up too much space in storage. And we’d be living in a tiny house for a while, there was neither room nor time for a a television.
Turns out, we don’t need a television in a big house either. Since we've been living here, I haven't missed it at all... We have all the connections ready, but just don't see the point of getting a real TV.
Friends gave us an old screen-with-DVD-player so we can watch our favourite DVDs, and we’ve got a Netflix subscription to shows on the computer or tablet when we want to (and where we want to!). We're also Amazon Prime Video subscribers (we got Amazon Prime for the free deliveries, which are oh so convenient when many shops are far away) - so we've been able to watch American Gods, which was the most anticipated series of the year for us.
DIY-man loves his sports as well - when there’s an important event, he streams it over the internet.
What we don’t have now is a TV that is on most of the day without anybody watching it. We don’t have that screen staring at us in the living room, taking up a center role in a room that should be about living together - not about watching television. It makes space and time for so much more; we can put on music or listen to podcasts, listen to the birds and the chickens outside, or just sing and entertain each other.
But back to the main theme - not having a television saves us money as well. And I'm not just talking about the cost of the subscription; we now don't get commercials that make us think we really need a bucket of expensive branded ice cream or this very special game. Several of our friends with children are in the same situation, and it's amazing to see how their children are just as happy with some hand-me-down bags or generic children's products, instead of nagging their parents about needing overpriced stuff featuring some TV show character.
2. We don't get many opportunities at impulse buying
Living off the grid and in the middle of nowhere has lowered our amount of impulse buying to a minimum.
When we lived in the city, we had a supermarket or at least a local shop around each corner. We wouldn’t really buy a lot each time (we lived in a small apartment and had limited cupboard space); we’d just go daily before supper, deciding on the spot what we were going to eat. Easy, but expensive - shopping for groceries on an empty stomach makes for very poor nutritional decisions. We’d come for soup, meat and vegetables - and we’d leave with those plus nibbles, dessert, an extra bottle of wine, maybe some good-looking fruit (forgetting that we had a full fruit basket at home).
Since we now have to make a much bigger effort in order to go and buy food, we tend to approach it with greater organisation. Most times, we plan our meals for at least a few days, and act accordingly. In summer, we often skip groceries for a week or more as we just get some veggies from the garden.
When we go grocery shopping, we use our Wunderlist to-do-list to make lists of everything we will need the coming days; while we’re at the shop, we make sure we tick that off.
When we lived in the city or close to it, I'd meet up with my girlfriends to go shopping for the day. Was that because I really needed something from those shops? Of course not - I could just as well have bought them by myself. Looking back, shopping days with girlfriends were fun - but also a drain for my wallet. Get a drink here, lunch there, and then all the cute clothes I might not really have needed...
If we want to do some real shopping (clothes or specialist items), we drive to either Zaragoza (1h45) or Reus-Tarragona (1h30). We try to group as much as possible in one trip: the long drive and short amount of time we can actually spend there, means I have to prepare a to-buy-list and just get everything that's on there... no more impulse shopping at Ikea.
The need for organisation has reduced impulse buying in our household to almost zero on normal days. We still go astray sometimes, usually at the hardware store or the tree nursery. But then again, there’s no such thing as too many fruit trees!
3. Cut down on entertainment and going out
Every time we go back to the city to visit our families, we treat ourselves to one big movie. James Bond, Star Wars, The Hobbit or a Marvel movie; we used to go to the cinema almost weekly and (usually) choose the small indie movies, but when you only get to see one movie on big screen that year, you tend to choose one that really needs a big screen! We’re still a bit bumped after watching Doctor Strange on my tiny laptop screen. That would’ve been awesome.
Going to the movies used to be quite a regular thing, and we never thought much of it. Dinner and a movie, that’s date night, right? Or we’d go see a stand-up comedian, a play or cabaret night, or even a musical with the girlfriends… We had regular jobs with good income and no worries on our mind.
On date nights, we’d easily spend in one night what we now spend on groceries for a whole month. We still have date nights - they might include grilled zucchini from the garden, a glass of wine from the local village’s winery and watching the milky way from our amazing FatBoy hammock. Or just as well popping a pizza in the oven and watching music videos on YouTube until one of us (definitely me) falls asleep on the couch.
Life never gets boring here though; there’d be a party here, jam around the campfire there, and always more friends to go and visit. Before we even had people we’d call friends over here, our social agenda was already much fuller than it ever was in the city.
4. No takeaway & fast food
I do miss good sushi. My favourite is the maki with cucumber and avocado our little sushi place in Amsterdam used to make... and I refuse to eat cardboard with fish aroma from the supermarket. So yes, we do kind of miss takeaway.
What we don't miss, is the amount of money we used to spend on it.
It was just so easy - not feeling like cooking? Let's get takeaway. And before we knew, we'd be 20-30€ lighter. Now when we don't feel like cooking, we often get something from the freezer... just as tasty, less garbage afterwards, and definitely a lot cheaper.
5. Cooking from scratch = cheaper
We both always loved cooking from scratch - we often thought we didn't have the time for it though. Just lies we were telling ourselves - those steaming boxes or microwave meals from the supermarket were just so tasty! Turns out - making the same meals from scratch tastes even better. And if we really don't think we'll have the time to cook on certain days, we anticipate; I'll either get something from the freezer, or maybe one of those jars of delicious tomato salsa my friend Kristin at Hidden Farmhouse makes.
I often make about three times as much as we actually need when I'm cooking from scratch. It allows for some flexibility in case a friend turns up unexpected - not that it happens that often... that's just the way I was raised and a hard habit to shake. I'll split the meal in three parts: one gets eaten for lunch, one goes into the fridge for later that week (I can use the same salsa once with pasta, and once with rice for instance) and the third part goes into the freezer for an unknown future date.
6. Life in Spain is cheaper than in Western Europe
It has to be said; life in Spain is just so much cheaper than in most other countries of Western Europe. Going for a full meal (three courses including drinks) on a week day won't cost you more than 12€ (14$). And usually a nice meal at that! Renting a (small) house in one of the neighbouring villages starts around 200€ (230$) a month.
Some of our local friends will combine a part time or online job elsewhere in Europe with living in Spain... which is a win-win: high wages, low costs. Sometimes one of them will spend a few weeks working in the UK or Holland, and return with enough money to support their family for several months.
7. Growing our own veggies
Most days, we'll be cooking from scratch. In summer, we're able to include vegetables from our own garden almost every day; it does cost us some money in seeds (and the setup of the garden wasn't free either), but the amount of vegetables we'll get from it, year after year, more than compensates for that. Also, those vegetables are so much healthier and tastier!
I really hope to be able to expand my garden operations, so we get food from the garden all year round.
8. More room to buy in bulk
Keeping a decent pantry is an important part of the life we live now. We made space to keep jars of whatever I'm canning in the kitchen.
That also means we have room to stock up on things; when there’s a buy-2-get-1-free promotion on something we eat regularly, I don’t have to think twice about having enough space in the pantry or enough time to find a recipe to make something out of those 10 kilos of overripe tomatoes. I can always make time for homemade goodness!
9. Cut your own hair
Yes, I'm cutting my own hair now. I started doing it because I was just too busy to go to the hairdressers when I was still working full time; then I continued doing it because why not? It's extremely easy to do with long hair - I've never messed that up, just sometimes cut off a bit more than planned. It's more difficult with short hair though as it's pretty obvious when something's not quite right. I did get DIY-man to the rescue when I made a small mistake when cutting my hair off last winter... and got lots of compliments afterwards about my new haircut.
And DIY-man? All he needs is some clippers and he's happy....
10. Carpooling & shopping for others
In our area, we have a messaging group that is all about buying, selling, swapping... and carpooling. People will announce when they're going to the city, and have extra space in their car; some will want a small amount of money to compensate for gas, but it's still a lot cheaper than driving your own car or taking the bus.
In our circle of friends, we'll also try and notify each other when we're going to a shop that's not local; someone might want to tag along, or place an order for our next Ikea run.
11. Bartering and using alternative money
I'm a big fan of bartering. A friend will be having delicious jam we'd want to serve to our guests at the Bed & Breakfast, and I'll just bake some bread or a cake in exchange for that. Or I'll build somebody a Facebook page in exchange for a nice massage. What's not to love?
One form of indirect bartering has also caught our attention - it's using local alternative money. Say I baked bread for a friend but don't need jam right now? She'll pay me in Furas - and I'll be able to use those Furas to buy flour for my bread. Win-win again! I've written about our moneyless market before - click here for the whole article!
12. Saving money on dog food
Full disclosure: we have fed our dogs and cats a so-called "raw" diet for years now - ever since our little mix, Jinx, turned out to be heavily intolerant to all kinds of kibble... including several brands of expensive veterinary prescription kibble. We believe this diet is best for our dogs - but it's not for everyone; it takes some research to assemble the right diet. If you'd like to know more about feeding your dog fresh food, please read this book (in Dutch) or this book (in English).
When living in the Netherlands, we'd buy our dog food at a specialised pet shop - they'd have these frozen sausages that had all the necessary ingredients (meat, veggies, added minerals). All you needed to do at home was defrost them and feed the right amount to your animals.
Moving to Spain meant we no longer had access to these - so we started assembling their diets ourselves (this is called feeding BARF, Bones And Raw Food). This means buying a lot of meat... We discovered local butchers are usually happy to give us their leftovers (bones! Chicken bits that humans won't eat!) and will sometimes even sell us their regular meat at a discount, towards the end of the day. Add to that seasonal and fresh veggies... and our dogs' current diet is way cheaper than feeding dog kibble. And they poo a lot less. Another win-win :-)
How our slow off-grid life costs us money as well...
There are a few things we spend quite a lot of money on - things we hadn't exactly anticipated.
Transportation: the Car
Living in Belgium and Holland, a car is maybe handy, but not always a necessity. I bought my first car (a tiny Renault Clio) when I was about 30 - DIY-man was about 27 when he got his driver's licence. For some time when we lived in Amsterdam, we didn't even own a car. Everything can be done by foot or by bicycle there... And if you need to go further away, there's always public transportation.
Living off the grid also means off the public transportation grid: there are some busses coming into the area, but it's 15 minutes by car to the bus stops. Going to the nearest village by bike is a beautiful ride - but it's very hilly and just a tad bit too much to do grocery shopping. So we got a car.
One first pitfall of that car, was we'd go into the village every time we needed something. The gas bills were out of control - and we'd lose a lot of time too. We soon learned to group excursions: go grocery shopping AND to the hardware store AND to the butcher AND the baker's AND drop by a friend to say hi... all in one go.
Another thing we didn't quite take into account, was the damage the dirt roads here would do to our car. We have a 4x4 car so at least we'd be able to get up our hill at any time, and we're also able to visit even our more remote friends; still, the dust and stones and other stuff mean there's quite a lot of maintenance to be done. DIY-man spends more time at the garage than at the hardware store nowadays. He sometimes tries to fix things himself too... there's tie-wraps sticking out of the car now. #campolife.
DIY: Tools & Machinery
When we moved to our little piece of paradise, we were armed with a chainsaw, some small woodworking tools and a kitchen aid - we thought that would be enough to get us started. It was... but we turned out to need so much more. Some things we borrow (or we borrow their owner to come and help us), but other things we've had to buy. Definitely not cheap!
Garden: Setup & Seeds
Gardening for profit? It's probably possible... but unless you've got the perfect setup already, not the first few years. We tried doing it for a nickel and a dime at first - piling up organic materials to create soil, weeding a lot, saving seeds from things we ate,...
After two not-very-encouraging harvests, we went for raised beds. Quite the investment (we bought the wood to make the raised beds with, and then bought some soil to fill it with) but totally worth it - our plants are going so much better than ever before...
Using seeds from things we ate wasn't always very useful either - we'd get plants that didn't fruit, or no plants at all. I also save seeds from things that grew in my garden, but as I grow several things at once, I will often get hybrids; funny-looking zucchini-squash crosses, or melons that taste like... nothing. So every year, I buy at least a few bags of seeds or even seedlings, just to make sure I've got some normal veggies in the garden.
Fencing is more expensive than you'd think
We've put in a fence for the chickens first, and now for the alpacas as well. DIY-man would come back from the hard ware store stating "it's only so and so much"... but then if you need a LOT of it (and we're making a lot of pastures), it's just expensive, period.
By the way...
It's not about Money! Except when it is.
My friend Amy at A Farmish Kind of Life just published a book. It's not a book about saving money... It's a book about a money-saving mindset. Grab yours here on Amazon!
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Are you living off the grid? Is there anything in specific you are saving money on?