November 2011 Update

We've been living this experiment now for nearly eight years. Below, you can read the original description that I posted back in 2004 at the start of the experiment, plus an update from 2009. A few things have changed since then:
  • In October of 2010, we had a third child, Novy.
  • In October of 2011, we moved from Las Cruces, NM to Davis, CA. Along with all the good things listed below about Las Cruces came bad things. Vicious dogs loose on the streets (one bit my wife while biking) and in parks (I came close to getting myself shot during a confrontation with a dog owner). Crime (the little old lady next door got burgled twice in one year, once at 3 in the afternoon through her front door). After living in extremely cheap places for 8 years, I came to realize that these places are extremely cheap for a reason (because people don't want to live there if they can avoid it). So, we flipped our approach on its head and asked the opposite question: if we could live anywhere in the world with no constraints, where would we live? The answer, after some research and a visit, was Davis, California. Utopia, but it's real (along ever conceivable axis, no joke). Now all we have to do is figure out how to afford a house here.

August 2009 Update

We've been living this experiment now for nearly five years. Below, you can read the original description that I posted back in 2004 at the start of the experiment. A few things have changed since then:
  • In January of 2008, we had a second child, Ayza.
  • At some point, as costs were going up (inflation), we increased our annual budget from the original $10,000 to $14,500.
  • In July of 2009, we moved from Potsdam, NY to Las Cruces, NM. The move was originally motivated by my spouse's asthma (the damp, musty environment in Potsdam was making her breathing worse year by year). But along with a dry, mustiness-free climate, we also gained dramatically lower property taxes (goodbye, New York), dramatically lower heating bills, year-round biking, and a much longer growing season (from USDA Zone 3 to Zone 8). We can grow figs here, and our Las Cruces yard came complete with three large pecan trees.

Our Simple Lifestyle

Our life right now is an experiment: how much can we trim our spending, consumption, and ecological footprint while still surviving in relative comfort. Each day, we trim a bit more. Here is what we have done so far:

Our location

After searching across the US for a suitable location, we picked Potsdam, NY---it was the only town that met all of our criteria:
  • a good food co-op,
  • affordable housing,
  • a walkable and bikeable town layout (no need for a car), and
  • a university atmosphere [1, 2, 3, 4] (for culture).
We found Potsdam by first cross-checking the food cooperative directory against real estate prices. This narrowed our search down to about ten candidate towns. We visited most of these candidates during a drive across the country (while moving from Ithaca, NY to Santa Cruz, CA), but we were disappointed by almost every town that we explored. After exhausting our main list, which did not originally include Potsdam (we avoided it because of its cold temperatures and remote location), we decided to visit Potsdam as our last hope. We were both pleasantly surprised.

In my opinion, Potsdam is heaven: a small town with friendly people and quite a bit of culture. The surrounding countryside is home to lots of people who have "gone off the rails" of mainstream US life: we have friends here who live off the grid, grow their own food, or do not drive cars. We fit in here. In fact, compared to some locals, our lifestyle borders on conventional.

Our Shelter

After living in Potsdam for a year and searching for a house, we finally settled on one in June of 2004. Our house is relatively small: a single story with one bedroom, plus an office. Though it was built in 1950, our house has many nice passive-solar features. Our yard consists of a double-lot with a fence surrounding the back yard---a perfect spot for an orchard and a garden.

Our Transportation

We live car-free. We use our garage to store our bikes. I ride a BikeE recumbent, and I use a custom-built (out of scrap wood) trailer to haul our weekly groceries. I ride my bike year-round, even in -10F. My spouse and baby ride a WizWheelz recumbent trike. We bought our trike used, though it is in very good condition: we do not plan on riding it in the winter. Our house is about a half mile from downtown Potsdam, so we can easily walk everywhere we need to go, though we often ride our cycles in good weather to save time. Details aside, living car-free saves us a lot of money: no insurance, no maintenance, and no gasoline.

Our Food

We buy all of our food at the Co-op and at the local farmer's market. About 95% of the food that we eat is either organically grown or local. We do not buy food in disposable packaging, but then again, we do not need to: we buy only fruits, vegetables, and raw bulk ingredients (we bring reusable containers to the Co-op for these). We do volunteer work at the Co-op for two hours per month, and this gives us a 10% discount on all of our groceries.

We recently turned off our refrigerator---this was relatively easy, since we are now on a vegan diet, but I am surprised each day by how little I miss this "necessary" appliance. We started canning for the first time this year. So far, we have put up cans of local tomatoes, corn, and plums.

Because we bought our house in mid-June, we got a late start on our garden this year. However, we did manage to plant and harvest tomatoes, lettuce, and peas. We have started preparing our beds for next year's garden, which should be much bigger. We are planting 120 cloves of garlic this fall, which should produce 120 heads of garlic by next summer. We have purchased seven fruit trees which we will be planting this fall.

The dream is to grow much of our own food, but this is a completely impractical dream, especially on our meager half-acre lot.

Our budget

We have set our yearly budget at about $9,756. Town, village, and school property taxes eat up about $1500 of this per year. After that, we have a budget of about $688 per month. We have devoted $200 of this to utilities (water, electric, and amortized heat), and $65 to telephone and Internet. You might be laughing: "No fridge, but you have DSL, huh?" Remember, I am a computer programmer. After all of these expenses, we are left with about $423 per month, which must cover food and other purchases.

Our food budget is currently rather tight, but we expect it to become looser as we start to grow more of our own food.