In conversations with friends and family recently, one theme I’ve heard again and again is how struck people are by how dependent they are on the availability of so many services and products. Many of them simply needed to go to stores or other places simply because they simply didn’t have access to basic things otherwise.
This left me thinking about what moves I can make that reduce my reliance on external services while being financially sensible, not incredibly wasteful and not requiring a ton of additional time for upkeep. The goals are simple: I want to find ways that make me less reliant on services, have less need to leave home if there are reasons not to (like, say, social distancing), and manage to achieve both of those things in a way that keeps costs low and doesn’t require a lot of ongoing time investment.
Isn’t this going down the route of being a “prepper”? To a small extent, sure. The difference is that each of these items can and should be used over time just due to normal living and normal consumption. The purpose isn’t solely to stow away things for a disastrous scenario but to live a lifestyle that makes it easy to go without services if needed — without investing tons of money that won’t be recouped outside of a disaster scenario.
Here are 12 frugal strategies you might consider for making yourself more self-sufficient without a ton of ongoing time investment. You can decide for yourself which of these is sensible and practical in your own life.
It’s worth noting that, for many of these, it may be a good idea to wait until social distancing has concluded in your area before moving forward with these ideas. Use your own judgment, of course.
1. Install solar panels (and backup batteries).
Installing solar panels on your roof allows your home to be powered by the rays of the sun rather than the energy coming into your home from the energy company. On sunny days, they can generate a lot of energy if your roof is well covered, so you’ll complement those panels with battery backups that will provide power overnight and on less sunny days, with a connection to the power grid as a fallback.
Solar panels are a significant up-front investment. At current prices, you’re paying somewhere around $20,000 to $30,000 for a 6 kW system with battery backups for your home, and you’re going to want the battery backups so that you have energy during the night time hours.
However, once that system is installed, you’re basically free from the electrical grid and you’re likely producing significantly more energy than you’re using, so you can sell the excess back to the electric company. You turn your energy bill into an energy check, in other words.
Let’s say your average home energy bill is $150 per month, and after installing the system, you’re getting a $100 per month check from the energy company instead. That’s a change of $250 per month on average, which means that you’re paying off the solar panels in about 100 months, or eight years. After that, it’s money in your pocket. (Note that this is a rough estimate of a typical house’s energy cost and what an energy company might pay you for excess energy.) It’s this eventual payoff that turns into profit that makes solar panels a reasonable frugal choice.
Not only that, you’ll still have energy in the event of a power outage or some other similar issue. If a tornado wipes out power to your area for a few days, you’re fine. If someone hacks into the power grid and takes it down for a while, you’re fine. Solar panels serve as insurance on top of the eventual savings.
2. Install geothermal heating and cooling.
A nice complement to a solar setup is a geothermal heating and cooling system. Geothermal heating and cooling involves circulating air deep in the ground to provide a steady temperature in your home regardless of the time of year. Such systems require minimal maintenance, but they have an up-front cost of about $10,000 for the typical home (though it can vary a lot depending on your area). If you have an older furnace or air conditioning unit that may need to be replaced, this is a great option to consider.
A geothermal system uses significantly less energy to heat and cool your home than a traditional furnace and air conditioning system, which means that the cost of such a system is gradually recouped over time. For example, if a geothermal system cuts $100 off your average monthly energy bill over the course of a year and the system cost $10,000 to set up, you’ll break even in 100 months.
This works well as a complement to solar panels because installing a geothermal heating and cooling system means you’re using less energy in your home anyway. This means that your solar panels don’t need to produce as much energy to keep your home powered and then there’s more excess energy to sell back to the energy company.
3. Take up gardening as a hobby.
While there are some up-front costs to gardening (tools, mostly), running your own vegetable and herb garden can be a wonderful self-sustaining hobby that can produce a surprising amount of food in limited space. You can choose vegetables that you enjoy eating to grow so that you’re excited to eat and enjoy the fresh produce.
Of course, to pull off a vegetable garden, you do need some land. In some areas, you may have to supplement that land with additional soil to make it a fertile place for plants to grow. You’ll need a number of simple tools — a hoe, rake, shovel, trowel and possibly a small tiller. You’ll also need an initial batch of seeds to get started with, preferably non-hybridized seeds so you can harvest them from your plants each year and plant them again in the spring. A compost bin is an additional useful tool, as it allows you to turn things like vegetable scraps, lawn clippings, eggshells and coffee grounds into valuable fertilizer for the soil.
Gardening practices vary widely in different areas of the world and even within the United States. In the upper Midwest where I live, vegetable gardening is a seasonal effort, with lots of time spent preparing the garden and planting in April and May, maintenance throughout the late spring and summer, and lots of harvesting in the late summer and fall. Other areas can sustain year-round gardening.
The value of a vegetable garden is that it produces a surprising quantity of fresh vegetables. With a large garden, even one that’s a small fraction of an acre, you can produce enormous amounts of food, far more than you can eat while it’s fresh. This is a great thing, though, because it provides a great opportunity for bartering with neighbors and friends as well as the opportunity to get into food preservation.
In terms of long term sustainability, having a garden that produces an abundance of fresh food each year is invaluable, and if you’re using non-hybridized heirloom seeds like those available from Seed Savers, you can save the seeds from a portion of your fall crop and plant them again in the spring, essentially forever.
4. Take up food preservation as a hobby.
As noted above, food preservation is a great supplemental hobby for gardening, as it allows you to turn a bountiful harvest of food from your garden (and from other sources) into a year-round supply of food.
Food preservation takes on a lot of different forms. Dehydration, canning and fermentation make it possible to store food for a long time at room temperature. Freezing allows you to keep lots of food in the freezer for future use. The point is simply to take food which you have in cheap abundances — like the food you grew in your garden, or other foods that you perhaps purchased in bulk or traded your surplus of garden vegetables for — and turn it into something that will last for a long time.
Again, the tools here are pretty straightforward and relatively inexpensive. A food dehydrator is useful, as is a pressure cooker for canning. You’ll want a lot of jars, lids and other containers in which to store food. If you get into making and storing fermented foods such as sauerkraut or kimchi, a slow cooker will be a valuable tool.
The key here is to really lean into this hobby during the harvest season, where food preservation will likely take up a lot of your time as you’re putting aside food to consume in the future. After that, you’ll be able to eat that fresh food all throughout the year.
My parents did a lot of food preservation when I was growing up. We had a root cellar of sorts with a lot of shelves stocked full of canned green beans, canned pickles, canned tomatoes, canned peppers and many other things as well.
5. Buy quantities of non-perishable food, household supplies, hygiene supplies and first aid supplies you normally use, then use from that supply and replenish regularly to keep a healthy supply.
If you sit down and make a list of all of the items we use consistently in our homes and constantly have to replenish, that list is surprisingly long. It includes a lot of non-perishable foods, a lot of household supplies, many hygiene supplies, and even some first aid supplies. Most of those items are nonperishable or have a very long shelf life.
One practical way to make yourself more self-sufficient in a frugal way is to start buying those items in very large bulk purchases and then getting into a routine of using up those bulk items as you go, replenishing the bulk purchases occasionally.
Let’s say, for example, that each bathroom in your house uses a bar of soap per month, and you have three bathrooms. That’s 36 bars of soap per year. You could use some spare money to buy two years of bar soap at a bulk discount price — that’s 72 bars — and then store them away in your home somewhere. Whenever you need another bar of soap, you just grab one from that supply.
Once every few months, you evaluate all the stuff you have stored and if you’re below some minimum amount of that item — say, a two-week or one-month supply — you replenish it with another bulk purchase, putting those extra items at the back of your storage, so you keep using the older stuff first.
There are two distinct advantages here (and one disadvantage). The first advantage is that this allows you to buy things in very large bulk quantities, which means your cost per unit is going to be really, really low. Once this system is in place, it is very cheap to keep it going because you only replenish specific items via a large bulk purchase.
The second advantage is that if there were a reason where it became inconvenient for you to go out of the house to buy food or household supplies or anything like that — say, during a stay-at-home order during a pandemic — you literally don’t have to leave home for weeks or months at a time. You have everything you need right there!
The disadvantage, of course, is storage. If you lean into this with lots of nonperishable goods, you’ll need space to store this stuff. A spare bedroom is perfect if you happen to have it, but this becomes more difficult with a small home.
6. Store some water, but do it in a smart way.
Along with food storage, you may want to consider water storage, both for drinking and cooking as well as for hygiene. Again, in some situations, you may find that water from your faucet is unusable (think of a boil order or some other problem with the water supply). We’ve had a couple of periods like this locally over the years.
The obvious solution is to just go stock up on a whole lot of bottled water, bought in bulk. While that’s an easy solution to the problem, it has a few issues. One, it’s incredibly expensive per gallon of water. Two, the bottles themselves are not designed for long term water storage, as the plastic just isn’t meant for that. Three, it produces a ton of waste.
A much better solution for this is a reusable water container like this one. The upfront cost is noticeable, but a water container designed for long term water storage will keep water safely for a very, very long time. This one will store seven gallons of water for $15. You can just fill it from your tap, close it up, and it’s good for a long while.
A good rule to use when figuring out how much water to store is that a person uses roughly a gallon of water per day in drinking, food preparation and hygiene. So, if you’re like us and you have a family of five, you’d need to be able to store 35 gallons of water per week of supply, or five of those containers. You can decide for yourself how much water supply you want to have, but two weeks should get you through many disasters and other problems before running water is hooked back up. For us, that would mean 10 of those jugs.
(If you want a more long term solution, you can look into having a well installed on your property, which should provide unlimited water if you can get below the water table in your area.)
It’s a good idea to rotate the water in your water storage every year or so, which is why reusable containers are a really good idea. You can simply use the contents of that container for things like watering the garden or making a gallon of tea and then, when the container is empty, clean it, refill it and put it at the back of your water storage.
7. Install a simple rain barrel or other rainwater collection system.
Another great solution for having your own source of water (not for drinking, but for hygiene and for watering the garden) is to have a simple system for collecting rainwater. A rain barrel is probably the simplest option.
A rain barrel connects to the downspout from your gutter and collects the rainwater that hits your roof and would otherwise wash right out of your yard. It stays in an enclosed barrel and typically remains clean enough for hygiene purposes and for watering gardens.
We have one, purchased as a Mother’s Day gift for my wife when she was very interested in having such a system. We use it to water the garden and it does a good job of storing that extra water and keeping it pretty clean. We clean it occasionally when it runs dry (which isn’t too often, actually), but it mostly just sits there and holds water and we hook up a hose to it to water the garden as needed.
The initial cost to this is under $100 for a pretty big rain barrel and the upkeep is basically nonexistent, plus it provides completely free water for your garden. If you were to have a period without safe running water, this water could be used for hygiene, too, and could be a source for drinking and food water if you have a filter system. However, we just view it as a reservoir for our garden.
8. Practice cooking at home until you’re incredibly efficient at it.
If there’s one skill that will help you become more self-sufficient and less reliant on services, it’s this one. The ability to take basic ingredients like fruits, vegetables, meat, grains, flour, sugar, herbs and spices, and produce enjoyable meals, is a skill you’ll draw on for the rest of your life, in easy times and hard. It will not only save you a ton of money (since you’re not getting takeout or eating at a restaurant or eating convenience food), but it will also make it much easier to really lean into longer-term food storage as described above.
The best way to build this skill is to simply do it. Make lots of meals at home, and repeat making your favorite ones until they seem like second nature. Make lots of food items yourself, like bread and pasta and pickles, again repeating it until it feels like second nature.
What you’ll find is that the more natural cooking at home becomes, the less appealing it is to eat out. You can make better stuff at home with a little practice — it’s cheaper, tastier and healthier (unless you’re comparing what you make to high-end restaurants).
Not only does that shift save you a ton of money, but it also becomes an invaluable skill if you’re cut off from access to services. Staying at home gets a lot easier if you find it easy to just make a meal you like with what you have on hand, and if you pair a strong home cooking skill with adequate food storage, you can go for months without needing food that isn’t already in your home while still eating quite well.
9. Build a large emergency fund in a local bank and a smaller cash emergency fund at home.
Cash is king. Having cash easily available to you makes all sorts of hardships much easier to handle.
For short term emergencies, such as situations where you can’t access your local bank in any way, a small amount of cash actually in your home is ideal, particularly when it’s paired with other strategies in this article.
For longer-term situations, having money in a local bank or credit union is a valuable tool. It can help you through periods of unemployment, situations where emergency repairs are needed (such as getting a car back on the road), and many other situations.
Start working on building up an emergency fund by securing a small amount of cash in a safe place in your home and also building up an emergency fund at a local bank or credit union via automatic transfer. Here’s a great guide for starting an emergency fund.
10. Build strong relationships with your neighbors.
A healthy relationship with your neighbors pays dividends in times both good and bad.
Having a good relationship with a neighbor means that you have someone you can trade with, someone you can share resources with and someone who can serve as an extra pair of eyes on your home and property. It can also develop into a true friendship in some cases, providing an element of social connection as well.
For example, we have several neighbors with different schedules who keep an eye on our house for us throughout the day, and we keep an eye on their house. I keep an eye out for strangers on their property and any signs of a problem, like smoke. We trade produce with several neighbors, swapping peppers for cabbages and so on. We share tools throughout the year. Our neighbors have helped us move furniture and helped with some DIY projects. We also have good friendships with a couple of our neighbors and do things with them like camping trips and dinner parties.
These benefits are useful in ordinary times, but they’re particularly useful in emergencies. Your neighbor might have first aid supplies that you need in an emergency. They might have food or shelter they can share in a tough situation.
Build up those relationships. Be friendly with your neighbors. Get to know them a little. Offer help if you see where you can easily provide it. Don’t hesitate to ask for small favors, either, as that’s also useful for building relationships. Borrow tools and lend them. Swap food items. That relationship will build and strengthen over time, and it will always be useful.
11. Get as healthy as you can be.
Investing time and energy into your physical and mental health is something that also pays incredible dividends both in good times and in bad.
The more steps you take to get your own health under control, the less reliant you are on medical visits, medications, and other health care support. Better health also means that it’s easier for you to take care of yourself in stressful situations.
If you want to invest in yourself, get your health in better shape. If you need to lose weight to get yourself to a healthy weight, do so. If you find that you struggle to do all the things you need to do in daily life, work on your fitness. Make sure you’re moving around and walking.
Some simple steps you can take:
Eat a higher percentage of unprocessed vegetables and fruits at meals, and a lower percentage of other things (processed foods, meats, dairy, etc.). You don’t have to exclude those things, just cut them down. Put more green beans on your plate and less hamburger.
Go on a daily walk. Simply go on a walk every day. Over time, aim to go on longer walks and to increase your pace. You should aim to feel pleasantly worn out when you get home, not exhausted.
Drink water instead of other beverages. Not only does this save money (especially if you drink tap water), it’s also far healthier.
Talk to your doctor about non-medication steps you can take on to help with your ailment. If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor and learn about things you can do at home without services or supplies to make your ailment more manageable and perhaps gradually reduce or eliminate your need for services and supplies.
12. Collect practical, low-cost how-to books.
Why? For many people, the internet has become a very useful substitute for how-to books of all kinds… but what do you do if the internet is unavailable? You might feel capable of trying a home repair or a first aid task with some guidance, but what if there’s no Youtube to access because internet service isn’t working locally or because you don’t have power?
Books work in any condition where there’s light to read them by. There are many, many books out there that explain how to do lots of things, from first aid guides to cookbooks to home repair books to gardening books and on and on and on.
Find and collect good useful resources on topics that you may need to reference in a situation where internet access isn’t available. For each person, this list would be different, but it’s a good idea to have a great book on first aid available, a general purpose cookbook or two, a home repair guide, a car repair guide, a book on gardening (if you’re doing that), and manuals for all of your major appliances.
You don’t need to have the latest and greatest book or the perfect volume, either. A copy of Joy of Cooking that you found in a used bookstore is perfect for this type of thing.
Having said that, it’s not a bad idea to use those books for reference where applicable even if you do have internet access, just so that you’re familiar with using them. You can always use Youtube videos for extra guidance.
The goal is to be prepared while also keeping costs low (and even saving money).
Prepping can definitely turn into an expensive hobby without much practical benefit, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Rather, the goal is to identify low cost or even money savings steps you can take so that you’re less dependent on external services and don’t have to leave the home very often if such steps are needed. All of these strategies nudge you in exactly that direction.