Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Too near the bone

Many, if not most of us, will be changing the way the live. When fuel, food, housing, and transportation become too expensive, something has to give. People who never had to make hard choices will be forced by necessity to make them. Except for the very rich, incomes have not kept up with inflation. Job loss is common. The drop in personal income can no longer be made up by cashing in on home equity -there isn't any.

So now people who never had to worry about the bills have to take measures to survive. Problem is, there is much less room for error.

Let's take a family that can no longer afford food for the table. The logical thing is to dig up the back yard and plant a garden. Anybody who's ever grown a garden knows things don't always go smoothly, especially the first year. It's common for new gardens to cost more than they save. Overtime, a diligent gardener can greatly reduce the risks and maximize production. Most gardeners can eventually produce good food and save money. The key here is eventually. When budgets are tight, there's no room for trial and error. It has to work the first time.

I save a lot of money on motor fuel by burning waste vegetable oil. It took a year for me to get everything running smoothly. It's not just a matter of doing the vehicle conversion. Sources for free waste vegetable oil had to found. Safe fuel handling methods had to be developed. There were investments in transfer pumps and storage containers. The project had a lot of trial and error. Sometimes I'd be pulled over on the side of the road, car hood up, and me scratching my head. Good thing it wasn't my only car.

There is a learning curve. My first car conversion cost about $1,300 in all, with me doing all the labor. Lots of trial and error. The second car conversions only cost $300 and ran just fine. My truck conversion was on only about $100 in parts. Even my expensive conversion was a good deal compared to many kits out there.

Picture this, a guy can't afford to fuel his car. If he's lucky, it's a diesel that can be converted to run on waste vegetable oil. Maybe he knows a restaurant where they are willing to give him used fryer oil. Money's tight, so spending a couple thousand dollars on a kit is out of the question. Maybe he could afford the $100 - $300 conversion. There are problems. The cheapo solution may not work. I was using parts from the hardware store in ways they were never intended. What if the car breaks down? Maybe it's his only car and he can't afford to miss a day's work for car trouble.

Money was pretty tight for us this past year. I dreamed up a cool way for heating household water. It should have been able to reduce my water heating bill down to nothing, using solar and wood heat. I had most of the parts I'd need for the job. Never did it. My budget was too close to the bone. There was no room for error. It was possible I'd have to replace about $50 in plumbing parts. There's wasn't $50 in my budget. For one two period we only spent $40 in total for all expenses. Also, there was a less than zero chance the hot water system won't work as hoped. My budget had no room for failure. Didn't have the money to save money.

Had our budget remained tight, I might have experimented anyway, hoping for the best. Here's the logic to that. We'd be at a point where I couldn't afford the monthly energy cost. The choice would be between taking a chance on having free hot water or none at all. If the experiment failed, we'd be no worse off. Even a partial success would be better than nothing.

I've had to do cheap fixes before. There are some old windows in the original part of the house that lose a lot of heat in the winter. The best fix would be to replace them with new energy efficient windows. Eventually, they'd pay for themselves. Of course, there's the little matter of getting the money together up front. There were always more pressing needs. The cheap solution was to make up some storm windows out of scrap lumber and heavy plastic. That worked well enough.

Then there came a year that the wood frames could no longer be used and the plastic had to be replaced. There wasn't any money for even that simple fix. If something wasn't done, however, we'd freeze. A local store got all their stock in bubble wrap. They didn't know what to do with it, but hated to throw it out. I covered my windows with bubble wrap. Worked pretty good for keeping the heat in, but I could no longer see out those windows. At least the bubble warp let in enough light so the rooms weren't dark.

As home budgets get smaller and smaller, people are going to have to save money somewhere. Ideally, we'd all have done the good solutions when we could afford them. Many of us will be stuck doing whatever they can for as little as possible. Access to the Internet is a big plus. These problems are common. Many solutions have been posted, often with good step by step instructions -cuts down on expensive trial and error.



  1. "Didn't have the money to save money."

    That's no joke. I'm pretty much there myself, especially during the summer when the electric bill eats us alive...

  2. "Many, if not most of us, will be changing the way the live."

    We can do this voluntarily or wait until it is forced upon us. I'm doing it by choice. It gives me a bit of a buffer and some time for this city kid to learn some country tricks.

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