How to Thrive on 50% Less Income

Published on December 9th, 2009 | by

Whether you’ve been forced to take unpaid furloughs, reductions in pay (or increases in insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses) or find only one person in your household with a job instead of two, you’re not alone in having to rediscover how to live on as much as 50 percent less in household income.

According to Kenneth Couch, a University of Connecticut economics professor who studies worker pay issues, displaced workers who eventually find a job may experience pay cuts as much as 40 percent. It’s no surprise the latest productivity numbers nationally are as high as they are; corporate America is getting more work out of their employees for the same or less amount of hours and, of course, paying those who do have a job less.

What thousands of Americans have discovered is that you can actually thrive by getting by with less, a large part due to adopting a more sustainable approach to living and working, often, for yourself.

Here’s a few approaches I’ve discovered while writing ECOpreneuring, Rural Renaissance, and Edible Earth:

Return to the Homestead

While the stuff of Little House on the Prairie, you don’t need to go at it in a log cabin these days. Thousands of urban, suburban and, yes, rural homesteaders are busy at work recreating a more self-reliant homestead and doing more for themselves (and often with neighbors) rather than heading to the mall or big box store to find their “good life” in a package (and on sale).

Like my family, we’ve invested in renewable energy systems and get our utility to pay us for our surplus electricity. Or we start a kitchen garden to grow at least some of our own food. In other words, what some people take to be givens – utility bills, groceries, gas – need not be so. In an ecologically mindful city like Madison, Wisconsin, or San Francisco, you may not even need to own a car, using public transportation, your feet or a bicycle instead.

Live Where You Can

For most people, we have the opportunity to move around anywhere in the U.S. Some places are more expensive than others, some places with high taxes and others with little to none. While job opportunities can drive a decision where to live, so too, can amenities, scenic beauty, and a caring community. When we moved to a small farm in Wisconsin, we needed to rediscover the wonderful life to be had by living below our means.  We prioritized our life based on what we valued: friends, family, magnificent sunsets, great health, low stress, purposeful work. Had I stayed in the Detroit area where I grew up, I’d be in the middle of the mess left over from a greedy automotive industry. I played football in the $55.7 million Pontiac Silverdome (built in 1975 with taxpayer funds); now it’s likely to be sold for less than $600,000. I moved. Should you, too?

At some point, we need to take advantage of our adaptability as humans and relative ease at moving to a place that is both more affordable and perhaps, reflects the importance we must place on restoring the planet. Besides hosting the nation’s largest organic farming conference and world’s largest renewable energy fair, Wisconsin is leading the nation in green travel and state incentives for renewable energy systems. It also has a state-wide health system that covers nearly all its residents.

Go Debt Free

In ECOpreneuring, I devote a lot of space to debt because most of us have “bad” debt, not “good” debt. Bad debt means the nice new flat screen TV you purchased with a credit card for $700 could end up costing as much as $1,300 if you don’t pay off the credit card balance when it comes due each month. So cut up those credit cards or at least use them as a free 20-day loan only.

For debt to be good, we need to be generating cash flow or some meaningful return from the investment. Unless you’re renting a portion of your house for a home business use (which I recommend enthusiastically), a home should not be viewed as an “investment,” only as a place you call home and for which you are provided shelter.

Eat Lower on the Food Chain

The easiest way to cut down your food bill, besides growing your own food, is to eat lower on the food chain, focusing on vegetables, fruits and herbs — ideally fresh or in season. Processed foods and meats cost a lot more than fruits and veggies.  A vegetarian diet is great for the environment, especially if you select local and organic produce, and could be an important variable in improving your health and well-being (and thus lowering any medical bills).

Be Your Own Boss

By running your own sustainable business, you can increase the likelihood that you can keep more of your hard-earned money. This reality has to do with how business-friendly our economic system is in the United States. My numerous Ecopreneurist.com blogs cover the various aspects of green business start-ups and why having a triple bottom line will be the key to businesses that thrive in the coming years. You just need to proclaim your passion and launch a business around your purpose (or Earth Mission, as we call it). It’s unlikely you’ll end up a millionaire. You will discover, as many other ecopreneurs have, just how richly your life can be without demanding tens of thousands of dollars a year in income.

To be honest, the first few years were pretty rough when my wife and I opted out of corporate America and moved to the farm.

Then after a few years of mindful investments in renewable energy systems and conservation practices, inter-relationships cultivated with neighbors, the successful launch of our tourism business, Inn Serendipity, and learning how to grow most of our own food, we emerged from the experience with a life far richer than any we ever dreamed possible – on less than half our previous income.

Photography: borman 818 by Creative Commons License


About the Author

John Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, is the co-author of ECOpreneuring, Rural Renaissance and Edible Earth, innkeeper of the award-winning Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast, national speaker, freelance writer, and copartner in a marketing consulting company. Ivanko is also an award-winning photographer and author or co-author of numerous books, including the award-winning children's photobooks, To Be a Kid, To Be an Artist, Be My Neighbor and Animal Friends, which help support the Global Fund for Children Books. He's contributed to Natural Home, E/The Environmental Magazine, Mother Earth News, Hobby Farms and Wisconsin Trails, among many others. Former advertising agency fast-trackers, the husband and wife duo are nationally recognized for their contemporary approach to ecopreneurship, homesteading, conservation and more sustainable living. Based in Browntown, Wisconsin, they share their farm and Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast with their son, a 10kW Bergey wind turbine, and millions of ladybugs.
  • Those are some solid ideas. I think one of the best is just down sizing. You don’t need a big place to survive. If you stay organized, you can live in a smaller house and use less energy to heat and cool the house. Plus growing your own food like you said can save even more.

  • Those are some solid ideas. I think one of the best is just down sizing. You don’t need a big place to survive. If you stay organized, you can live in a smaller house and use less energy to heat and cool the house. Plus growing your own food like you said can save even more.

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  • Interesting article. Yours

  • Interesting article. Yours