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I’ve been there. Broke. Not just a little broke, like WAY broke. So, how to homestead when you’re broke? Stay with me and find out!
As I write this somewhat personal post about my past, I’m thinking about the single moms and dads out there who are trying to homestead. When I was 25 years old (1988), I suddenly became a single parent with a 2 year old. I didn’t see it coming and was completely unprepared in every way for this kind of life crisis.
There was no running back home and little, if any support, financially or emotionally. Other than one sweet aunt who was willing to babysit evenings and weekends so that I could work, I was alone…and broke.
So broke that I slept in my car, with my toddler, for over a week waiting to be able to take occupancy of an apartment.
So broke that my utilities were turned on and off on a regular basis, I just didn’t have the money to pay the bills. I juggled them back and forth, never being caught up. I never knew what I would find when I got home from work…surprise!
So broke that I prayed someone would bring donuts/snacks into work so that I could eat. The little money I had for groceries went to feed my toddler. I mustered up enough money for a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and a couple dozen eggs once a week. My daughter ate a lot of scrambled eggs…but she ate.
So broke that I was behind on every single bill, including daycare. I came to hate the mailbox.
So broke that we had no health insurance for several years. Yep, that’s right. Fortunately, there wasn’t any kind of health crisis and we made it through.
Somehow, I was able to buy (a pathetic excuse for) a house with no money down, in a lower to middle-class neighborhood. The area was safe, however, and I wanted a big yard for my little one to play in. The irregular lot backed up to an empty field and was close to 1/2 acre!
My daughter’s social security payment was barely enough to make the house payment and so I figured that we would at least have a roof over our heads.
But beyond that, my entire house was a hot mess and full of things that didn’t work…the garage door opener had been broken forever, which was fine until the garage door itself started falling apart and coming off the tracks. I had to just stand it up and make it look like it was attached, praying that a strong wind didn’t blow it loose. The siding was loose, the plumbing leaked, parts of the roof leaked, the old windows released most of my heat and an unfinished bathroom was unusable. (That’s why it was cheap!).
Did I mention that my car broke down on a regular basis as well?
I spent my days and weeks working 60+ hours a week and trying to take care of my daughter. The job field I entered was 100% commission, so sometimes I didn’t get paid for months. When I did get a check, I paid everything I could so that I could exhale just a little bit! But life was very hard, and I don’t miss those days.
This was 30 years ago for me, and lately I’ve been reflecting on those days. I longed to be independent and sustainable, but I had no idea how to get there. Maybe you can relate?
What would/could I have done differently?
I would have done a LOT of things differently! I would have been a homesteader!
So many of the mistakes I made during that time were as a result of fear and stress. No one makes good decisions when they’re under tremendous stress! Further, I didn’t have a voice of reason speaking into my life at the time. I sure wish I knew then what I know now!
Keep in mind that the internet wasn’t available at that time. I can only imagine how much easier it could have been to read about others (through blogs)who were striving towards sustainability! I would have been all over that!
Along with Craigslist, Free cycle and Facebook marketplace (and Buy Nothing pages!) at my fingertips, it would have been a very different story. I would have used those websites to post “ISO’s” (in search of) all the time (as I do now!). Just because something isn’t listed doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t have it and might be ready to part with it! Put your needs out there! If your neighborhood doesn’t have a “Facebook Buy Nothing” page, start one, that’s what I did!
YouTube could have taught me what I needed to know to grow and can food, as well as the other skills I desperately needed!
Today, we have bartering groups (google “bartering groups” in your state) and community farmer’s markets – none of this was around in the late 80’s. All of these things would have given me more ability to connect with others!
However, I wish I could have seen my situation through sustainably-minded eyes! Oh, the mistakes I could have avoided!
If I had it to do again, here’s how I would have handled that time in my life.
Take a Hard Look at the Money Situation and Make a Plan
My financial situation was a mess, and I had no idea how to handle it, so I just avoided it. This is not a plan, nor is it a good idea.
Once again, there was no internet back then, it was much more difficult to get help. Stay away from those “debt consolidation” places, please. You need real help and sound advice. Dave Ramsey is pretty solid and I recommend his website, I like this article 25 Myths Broke People Believe. There are many churches that offer Dave’s course – let them know that you’re a single parent and need a scholarship.
It can be really scary to look at your financial situation, but until you do, you won’t be able to move forward. My husband likes to say “The truth will set you free, but at first it makes you miserable”. True statement.
Once I had a good handle on where I was financially and had a plan to pay off debt, I would have reduced my living expenses drastically.
Reduce Living Expenses Radically
Why be radical? Because every dollar you can save on living expenses is one less dollar you have to earn! Actually, you pay bills with after tax dollars, so depending upon your tax bracket, you might need to earn $1.38 to take home $1. (You might be able to get more in your check each week, check out “Why You Should NEVER Get a Tax Return“)
Check out 25 Ways to Get out of Debt!
(One of my favorite single moms is Victoria Hunt from Extreme Cheapskates, check out her radical, money-saving ways here!)
When I say radical, I mean radical! Read every website and watch every YouTube video you can find about how to live for free. If that means using free samples of shampoo and soap, so be it. If it means not buying toilet paper and using a “family cloth”, do it. If it means selling every possession that isn’t entirely necessary to raise extra cash to pay down debt, do it. Whatever it takes, get that budget down as low as possible! This takes the income-earning pressure off and helps to pay down debt.
This isn’t a permanent thing. It’s about survival until you can get on your feet.
Don’t Tie Yourself Down to an 8-5
The standard “8-5 job” can keep you in the hole, if you’re not careful. Many of these jobs require day care for your children, a car and a wardrobe. You’ll be so tired, that you’ll eat out and spend even more. I wasn’t making nearly the money I thought I was, I hated the job and wasn’t getting anywhere.
Looking back, I wouldn’t have tied myself down, rather I would have got a “side hustle” going.
I could have totally started a small farming business or even a CSA with that yard! I could have sold at Farmer’s markets or to chefs/restaurants in the area! I could have sold jams and jellies, layers and eggs! The possibilities were endless.
Lest you think your yard is too small for that kind of business, check out the Dervaes family as they make a living off 1/4 acre near the highway! It can be done!
Financial independence, especially as a single parent, is so liberating! You can be there for your kids, while you work side-by-side for your family’s business!
How Do You Get a Garden Going with No Money?
With a fenced half-acre in the suburbs, I would have definitely started a large garden, immediately, that is if I had known how to do that. I didn’t grow up gardening, I learned all of that later in life. This makes a case for teaching our children the basics of where food comes from! I could have had tons of fruits and vegetables from that yard, and maybe even sold some for extra cash!
However, some of you might find yourselves in an apartment or home with no yard. Find the nearest community garden! Again, let them know that you’re a single parent trying to get back on your feet, maybe you can get it free. Plant in buckets on your porch or balcony. Ask your “Farmy Friends” (below) if they could spare a small plot on their property.
First, I would have worked each and every seed saver site that I could find, here’s a good place to start.
Free seeds are everywhere, if you know where to look. By July, the retail stores actually begin to throw away their seeds! Speak to the manager of your closest seed retailer and let them know that you’ll come and get them when they’re ready to pitch them! My daughter-in-law has a friend who works at a large grocer and was able to score a ton of free seeds this way!
Learn how to save seeds that can be re-grown from the food you eat! The other day, I picked up a Cherokee Purple (heirloom) tomato from a market. Yes, I was planning to eat it, but I also wanted the seeds for next year. Two birds with one stone!
Learn how to propagate so that you can take clippings of other’s plants and grow your own! This is very easy to do! Soon, you’ll have all kinds of plants that cost you ZERO!
Also, make “farmy friends”. What’s a “farmy friend”?
“Farmy friends” are those people who garden intensively and do other homestead-y things, like can food, sew, raise animals, etc. These “farmy friends” might live on big farms, but many of them live in regular houses on regular lots. They know stuff that you want to know. They own stuff that you need to borrow. They can be a tremendous support to you! I cannot tell you how much I’ve gained from finding “farmy friends”!
Find that rural community nearest to you and find some peeps! You can do this several ways, but my favorite way is to hang around the feed stores and look at the bulletin boards there. Find a 4H group for your kiddos and meet a ton of people (you don’t have to raise animals to be part of 4H). I met one of my best farmy friends at a baseball game, where both of our sons were playing. She mentioned something about beekeeping and my ears perked up! The rest is history, we’ve been friends for years and constantly support and swap with each other.
Case in point: Right now, as I prepare my garden for fall, I have strawberry runners that I either need to plant or cut back. There’s enough to start a couple of rows of strawberries. If I had that “single mom” in my life, I would definitely be giving her a call! See what I mean?
Last week, I had a ton of free cantaloupe that I could have shared with a single mom. Farmy folks often get tired of canning and are open to letting trusted others come and pick from their garden! Free food, people!
“Farmy friends” always have more produce that they can use! Remember to always reciprocate in these relationships, because we don’t want anyone to feel used and abused, but still. Offer to help weed sometime, that’s a HUGE help and you can learn a lot by just hanging out.
Also, consider “farm sitting“! This is a great way to make farmy friends and gain a great working relationship with the farming community!
BONUS TIP: Often times, I’m driving in neighborhoods and I’ll see an apple tree in someone’s front yard, full of fruit, and clearly the owner isn’t interested in it. If I have time, I’ll knock on the door, introduce myself and ask if they plan to pick from their tree. Most of the time they aren’t planning to. This is when I would offer to pick the apples, AND remove any dropped apples from their lawn, so that they can mow. No one has ever turned me down! Keep a few 5-gallon buckets in your trunk for this purpose. You just never know where you’ll score free food!
Find Free Chickens
Chickens would have been part of the plan as well, just 3-4 hens to give us some eggs and supplement our calories. Chickens also produce wonderful compost for your garden and eat your bugs!
Free chickens are everywhere, from Craigslist to Facebook. There are very quiet breeds of chickens that are easy to keep “on the lowdown”, and it would have worked perfectly with the shed and a small fenced in area the backyard had. Communities are getting more comfortable with people keeping hens, but no roosters (understandably so). NEVER take a rooster, free or otherwise.
My chickens would have eaten our leftovers, to keep costs down. A good feed is required for colder months, so don’t take more chickens than you can feed.
No coop? Not a problem. Chickens can easily live in a shed or even your garage. Your “farmy friend” could give you come advice here, depending upon your situation. However, if you have a yard, you should be able to work something out. Backyard Chickens is a great source of information!
*I would have harvested rain water to give to the chickens, as well as to wash dishes, bath kids and flush toilets with. Just a simple set up would suffice, like a bucket below a downspout.
*There was a fireplace in the house, but not one that would ever save money on a heating bill, however. Even though it might have taken a while, I would have saved for a wood burning stove and stainless steel liner! #longtermgoals
*I would have set up an outside kitchen and cooked outside in warmer months.
*Ditch the car and get a “beater”, 4-cylinder truck, much more useful!
If my utility bills (water and electric) could have been minimized, and if we had grown some of our food, I wouldn’t have had to work so many hours to make ends meet! Along with a side hustle or two, my life could have been much different and I could have spent more time with my little girl.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
While I was reinventing my life, I would not hesitate to get food from food banks until I got on my feet! I refused any kind of help back then, but I should have let my pride down and accepted it. That’s what it’s for! You’ll have a turn to give back down the road.
Sometimes, as single parents on a tight budget, we don’t have access to the tools and equipment we need for such projects, like a tiller. But let me let you in on something…people are usually more than willing to loan you tools and equipment, if you just ask!
I borrowed a neighbor’s tiller (when we arrived at our current house) for 3 years! It was returned on time, cleaner than it came and full of gas. My neighbor told me that she loved loaning it to me because it came back so pretty! THAT’S how you win people’s confidence. Next time, they’ll be more than willing to loan you something else. Make know what you can do for them in return as well, babysit, bake something, etc.
You’ve got to be very careful these days, but there are widowers out there who would love to come and fix things for a home-cooked meal. Getting involved in a group or a church where the members know each other very well could be a good resource. These sorts of relationships take time, but they are worth looking for and working towards!
Many times, homeschoolers are looking for safe places for their children to learn how to serve. This could be a great way to find a “mother’s helper” to watch your children while you work at home, so I strong boy to come help with some labor. Again, ask!
Finally, Never Give Up!
Life can be tough, but never give up on your dreams! Keep asking, keep knocking and keep searching. You’ll find those answers, even though it may take some time. But you’ll make it, I know you will!