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Off the Grid and Into the Future

Written by Matt Jabs - 33 Comments

Last week, while busily bullet-pointing how to prepare for a power outage, I noted that my wife and I were considering going “off the grid” one day a week as a way to save a bit of money and to spend more quality time together.

Although my wife thought it was a great idea at the time, she grew skeptical a week later when it was time to throw the breakers. After some prodding, however, she agreed to participate. This article is a story about what we learned from our initial experience, and where it’s leading us…

Going off the grid

Going off the grid one day a week was easier than you might expect. Don’t get me wrong, it’s completely different and does take effort, but once you adopt the mindset, it’s not a big deal. We ended up leaving the breakers on, and just made a conscious effort to avoid using electricity. We watched zero television and kept the lights and furnace off, but did continue regular use of our water, gas stove, and sewer. As such, this first run was far from true off the grid living!

After the experience was over, we decided to continue this exercise each Saturday for the foreseeable future. We expect to save a bit of money (perhaps as much as $20/month) with our little experiment, and have already noticed growth in our relationship. We’ve also found that flirting with these concepts has motivated us to become more self-sufficient, and less reliant on grid living.

Before we go any further, I feel as though I should define what “off the grid” means to me. When I say “off the grid,” I’m referring to a simpler, more self-reliant lifestyle for my family. In no way do I mean to imply that our goal is to become recluses that completely shun modern conveniences and fail to contribute to society at large. What I really want to do is to practice preparedness and frugality by becoming less reliant on our existing infrastructure.

Five lifestyle goals

Here are five important lifestyle changes we are hoping to adopt and embrace as we become more comfortable moving “off the grid”:

  • Self reliance. We’d like to reduce our dependence on societal systems such as sewer, water, power grids, gas, etc. If those utilities were ever to cease to function, we’d have alternative options at the ready.
  • Cost control. If utilities prices were to skyrocket — as we’ve already witnessed over the past couple of years — we’d be less dependent on them and could reduce our costs.
  • Simplified living. Less dependence on modern systems means we could return to a less stressful, more basic way of life. This is very attractive to us.
  • Learning old-world skills. We’ll exercise our creativity, handiness, and ingenuity as we build our knowledge and competency in things like gardening, canning, building, etc.
  • Focus on relationships. We’ll build and strengthen family relationships by tuning out or turning off outside technological influences and focusing on people instead.

A little history, a loose plan, and a looming problem

In reading so far, you might have envisioned my wife and I living on acres of country land with chickens running around, cattle in a pasture, etc. In truth, none of these are part of our current lifestyle, though I’d very much like to make vision reality! Let me paint you a more accurate picture of me, my background, and my relevant situation.

While I didn’t grow up in the holler, my daddy wasn’t a coal miner, and I don’t fly a rebel flag or drive a monster truck, I’m a country boy at heart. As such, I have a strong desire to lead as independent and self-reliant a life as possible. As a child and young man, I:

  • Grew up on 20 acres
  • Was basically a lumberjack – we heated our home with a wood stove
  • Raised chickens, cows, and horses
  • Was first employed by the farmer down the street as a hay bailing grunt

As a young adult, I moved away from my country boy roots and sold my soul to the real estate devils when I moved into the suburbs where I now:

  • Live on 0.17 acres
  • Have an 80% efficiency furnace to heat my home
  • Raise nothing but blood pressure, and maybe a few herbs
  • Work as an IT Manager

Though my wife and I are currently suburban DINKs, we’re planing on getting back to basics and are counting the days until we find our “dream home” in which we’ll start a family. As of now, we envision a self-constructed dome home complete with a wood burning stove to provide heat during the cold Michigan winters. This dream of ours is not going to happen overnight, and it’s going to require a lot of patience and sacrifice. To make it happen, we’ll need to cut spending, reduce our debt, and save a lot of money.

The biggest problem we’re currently facing is that, like so many other Americans, we’re upside down on our house. We bought our house with no money down, and are now faced with the realization that we owe much more than it’s currently worth. Fortunately, when we purchased our current home two years ago, we limited our monthly payments (including taxes and insurance) to 23% of our net income. Thus, we’re not saddled with onerous mortgage payments.

To get started we’ve decided to wean ourselves off things slowly, and have likewise begun planning for the implementation of alternative ways of life while still living in our DINK laden suburbanite neighborhood.

Some interesting additions

Since I first mentioned the idea of going off the grid, we’ve committed to starting a garden and purchasing canning supplies. We’re planning on starting to grow a lot of the produce that we would otherwise purchase throughout the year, and we’ll be purchasing both a pressure canner and a hot-water-bath canner that will help us store our bounty. As an aside, here’s here’s a link to a great guide on when to use a water-bath vs. pressure canner.

Concluding thoughts

After everything was said and done, my wife and I were both quite happy with our little “off the grid” experiment. We’ve also been a bit surprised by the shockwaves that it’s created in our life. Not only will we be saving a bit of money and spending some nice time together, but we’ll also be learning a ton of great new skills, and growing more and more self-reliant as time goes by. We’re most excited about our vision for the new home and lifestyle that we have set our sights on. Now it’s just a matter of pushing forward and maintaining discipline.

Have you ever considered going “off the grid”, or otherwise changing your lifestyle to reduce your dependence on modern conveniences? Do you have any other ideas for simplifying life, improving your self-reliance, and/or saving money by “downshifting.”

Published on May 7th, 2009
Modified on May 27th, 2009 - 33 Comments
Filed under: Energy, Frugality, Planning

About the author: is a thirty-something IT manager and blogger who wants to help himself and others get out of debt. He writes about personal finance and debt-free living at Debt Free Adventure.

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33 Responses to “Off the Grid and Into the Future”

  1. 1
    SaveBuyLive Says:

    If you want to try living off the grid for various reasons that’s cool with me. I have no problems.

    Now, forgive my skepticism, but you’re going to save $20 a month by not using electricity for 4 days/month? Just how much power do you use normally?

    That’s my entire month’s electric bill (excluding the fixed customer fee).

    Even if I factor in the cooling costs in summer when I turn on my cutting edge of the 1970s, hideously inefficient air conditioner I sill can’t fathom how going off the grid for only 4days/month saving that much money.

  2. 2
    Jo Says:

    If you truly want to be frugal, you’d be better off getting a home using geothermal means to heat the home rather than a wood stove. Less pollutants in the air, for starters. Another to consider would be radiant heat. This is very popular in German housing. Very energy efficient throughout the house. Better yet, if each room has it’s own “thermostat”, then more power to you.

    My SO and I are in the process of looking for a home in the NW part of PA. Lake effect snows and long winters means a lot of wood/propane/oil or electricity to keep the home heated. But during the summer, there’s no need for A/C. It would be easy to do like you are – going “off the grid” for a day.

    Good luck in finding your future home.

  3. 3
    Neil Says:

    Hi

    I like your vision of life :)

    My big idea for downshifting used to be to sell our home and buy a big old sailing boat. We would have been able to travel the world (starting from the UK) and live off the money that we had invested.

    Sadly this dream has got more distant as additions to the family have come along. It’s now the plan for when we retire :)

  4. 4
    Nickel Says:

    SaveBuyLive: I can’t speak for Matt, but we live in a fully electric house, and the sort of savings that he described is probably a bit conservative relative to what we’d see. In fact, I just just looked at the numbers in Quicken, and we spent an average of $192/month on electricity over the past year. Of course, we have a large family (four kids), we depend on electricity for our heat in the winter, and use a lot of AC because we live in a hot climate. As such, it might not be a fair comparison.

  5. 5
    waldo Says:

    SaveBuyLive, it works out if you’ve got a $150 utility bill.
    150 / 30 = 5
    5 * 4 = 20.

    But not otherwise.

  6. 6
    Baker @ ManVsDebt Says:

    Awesome post, Matt! We go through almost an identical thought process in our views. In fact, the 5 lifestyle goals you outlined are very similar to ours. We have the same sort of struggles though with how to really implement them into our lives.

    Really enjoyed this!

  7. 7
    LoraPapineau Says:

    Great article and idea. I love the way it brings the family relationship closer. I never thought of the old-world skills which has now peaked my drive to try this as well. Thanks for the push.

  8. 8
    sara l Says:

    Good luck on your journey. I’ll always be an urban/suburban girl but I like doing little things to be more self sufficient (making laundry soap, growing food, crafting).

    One thing on literally throwing the breaker- wouldn’t your fridge/freezer go without power then? Every once in a while it’s probably not a bit deal but temperatures regularly dropping could cause your food to spoil.

  9. 9
    Matthew @SoundMindInvest Says:

    Matt – Way to go for it. I think the most exciting byproduct of it all is the relationship building aspect. Yes, it’s great to save money. But growing closer to your spouse is priceless.

    Good motivation for us all. Thanks Matt.

  10. 10
    David Says:

    Sounds like a plan, and I highly recommend moving forward with it. Where I live, plenty of people are entirely off the grid, and they love the fact that they have a $0 utility bill every single month. We are “partially” off the grid full time – we collect our rainwater from the roof for all needs other than drinking (which comes from a well, so water is free), and we have a passive solar house that stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer due to the orientation towards the sun. Our electric bill is now $23 a month because of our careful usage and the way the house is lit up with natural light all day – I never turn a single lightbulb until nightfall.

    Those dome houses are great – we have a friend here who loves hers. Best decision we ever made was to move to a rural small town and start homesteading in our own way – less stress, less expenses, more room to breathe. Good luck with your plans, sounds like you know exactly what you want!

  11. 11
    John Moore Says:

    After a little research into dome homes, you’ll find they’re incredibly impractical, hard to heat, etc. The single most “off grid” thing you can do is commit yourself to never having another repairman in your house. Starting 30 years ago, I’ve saved $4-8K annually and have done things I never would have dreamed! Anything you need to learn to do – you can now learn online though forums. The sense of accomplishment and self-reliance is immensly satisfying.

  12. 12
    David Says:

    Actually, dome homes are great for heating/cooling/wind storms, etc. They heat well because the heat rises and works its way down the walls – there are no corners.

  13. 13
    Corporate Barbarian Says:

    It’s always been a goal of mine to live independent of the power company. But it’s a long-range goal. Now, I’m just focused on living a little simpler than yesterday.

  14. 14
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @Everyone – Thanks so much for your encouraging comments! We are very excited, and are actually going to buy a few rain water collection barrels after work today…another step in the right direction (and maybe a post for next week) ;-)

    @SaveBuyLive – My utility bill fluctuates between $150 and $300 monthly, so $20 is actually a conservative estimate. I’m happy for you that yours is so low! Any advice for the rest of us?

    @Baker – The best way for both of us to implement the changes is to just do one at a time. Before you know it you’re a bonafide “off the grid” pro!

    @Lora & Matthew – The focus on our relationship & the building of our family unit plays a very important role in all of this. I believe the break-down of the family unit is what has gotten America into the conundrum she’s in now, and I want to do all I can to build a strong family!

    @Sara – great question. The two appliances we look to always leave powered on are our kitchen refrigerator & our garage freezer.

    @David – thanks…your comments are very inspiring! I will definitely be moving in this direction in the foreseeable future.

  15. 15
    Sam Says:

    I think it’s interesting that you mention going off the grid every Saturday. Essentially, that’s what orthodox Jews are obligated to do. They’re not allowed to use electricity, do any work, or exchange money, on Saturday.

    As a self-proclaimed “country” Jew who has been trying to be more and more religious, not to mention frugal (no jokes please), I definitely relate to this post. Thanks.

  16. 16
    Avi-Gil Says:

    @Sam I too am an Orthodox Jew and had the same thought as you. We aren’t entirely off the grid, as we do leave some lights (and AC, when needed) on timers. Of course, Matt isn’t turning off his fridge either, so he isn’t totally off the grid. As we also don’t drive or even use public transportation, we are saving that way as well.

  17. 17
    Mike Says:

    Adding to sara’s “throwing the breaker” comment, you might want to include any sump pumps on your list of essential appliances to think about before switching off. Bailing water from the basement by hand is not a skill I’d want to add to my “off the grid” resumé.

  18. 18
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @Mike

    LOL! I agree Mike!

    Fortunately my home is high enough to where my sump never runs…but GREAT advice, others would be wise to heed it.

  19. 19
    Michael Harr @ Wealth...Uncomplicated Says:

    This is exactly in line with what the wife and I are looking to do over time. We’re not in an alt-energy friendly state so our transition will be more expensive, but ultimately, we’re going to be living in a Green Cabit Kit home on a lake where the only internet will be via satellite. Love where you’re going with this. Also, with a payment of 23% of net income, you should be able to own the house outright within five to seven years if you strip away all other debt and non-essentials. At any rate, good luck to you and I’ll look forward to seeing an update sometime down the road.

  20. 20
    Funny about Money Says:

    What an intriguing idea.

    Around here, you might save $20 in four Saturdays if it were summertime and if you normally used incandescent lights. And if you had an all-electric home. With a gas water heater and stove plus a heat pump on the roof, my summer power bills run over $230, when outside temps rise above 110 degrees. I s’ppose this means I’d have to turn off the electric for around nine or ten days to save $20. Questionable how well one would survive such an exercise — in a modern dwelling, a 115-degree day is no fun.

    In wintertime, though, it would be doable. Doubt if you’d save that $20, though. Candles cost more than running a few CFLs after dark.

    I like Michael Harr’s idea of paying off the house so you can sell it and move to the dream home, no matter what the real estate market does…

  21. 21
    The Getz Says:

    I can totally see saving 20 dollars a month. I unplug almost everything in my house except for two alarm clocks, one small chest freezer(with jugs of ice to help keep it cold without running as much), the fridge, a laptop and speakers, and two lamps. Everything else gets unplugged and the water heater is usually on only between 5am and 8am. I use CFL bulbs in most of the house, heat with the fire place for long period heating and a kero stove for quick, short period heating. When I do have to use the crappy electric heat base boards, only set them to 55 and use them sparingly. I line dry alot of my cloths and only average one load of laundry a week. With all of this, my electric bill is still running 80+ dollars a month. If I had even one person living with me, it would go up. I can most definitly see saving 20 dollars a month on a 250 dollar bill. If(or more accuratly, when) the electric bills go up on average 3000 dollars a month, I’m screwed. There is nothing else I can do to bring my electric bill down except for wind and solar(which I could build myself) but I don’t own the house I live in so I can’t go mounting solar panels and running wires. If I ever do own my own place though, that will be one of the first upgrades though.

  22. 22
    David Says:

    Man, these electric bills are expensive! My highest bill ever was like $53, and now its about $23 a month. Either my utilities are very cheap or some of you have a basement full of grow lights! ;-)

  23. 23
    Rosa Says:

    What an awesome idea. I wonder if I could talk my partner into one day a week off the grid. We don’t have an air conditioner, but our gas furnace is electricity-dependent.

    I’d add a pressure cooker & a good pressure cooking cookbook (I love Lorna Sass) to your energy-saving shopping list. We have only had the pressure cooker about a year and a half but we use it 2-3 times a week – it’s made cooking with dry beans so much more convenient I can’t even estimate how much money we save.

    and check to find out where you can get your pressure canner’s guage checked. I am having a heck of a time getting mine checked – the extension offices have apparently cut staff really sharply in recent years.

  24. 24
    Erin aka Conscious Shopper Says:

    Very interesting post. If you end up being stuck in your suburban house for awhile, you might find the book The Backyard Homestead useful. I came across it the other day at the bookstore and thought it looked informative and fascinating. They claim you can grow most of your own food on just 1/4 of an acre!

  25. 25
    Lynn Says:

    Check out my blog (linked from author name). It describes the building of an off grid, passive solar monolithic dome. We get our electricity from a 3 kw wind turbine and 8 solar panels. Currently, we are heating the dome with wood. I think we burned about 2 cords of wood last winter ( central Canada). We use less than $20 of propane per month. That is used for cooking and sometimes to heat water. It CAN be done. We are living proof! We grow much of our own food. I freeze and Can the result.

    Good luck in your venture

  26. 26
    Lynn Says:

    This comment is to John Moore. There are actually TWO types of dome homes: geodesic and monolithic. Geodesic was designed by Buckminster Fuller. They are made up of geometric sections that are connected together. From what I understand, they often ‘leak’ a lot of your heat and that is probably the dome that you are referring to as being hard to heat. Then there are the Monolithic domes. the walls in a monolithic dome are approximately seven inches thick. There is three inches of foam insulation, a rebar grid, and four inches of concrete. The end result is a thermal mass that absorbs heat in the winter and radiates it back to the inside of the dome instead of letting it escape. The dome is warm in winter and cool in summer ( kind of like a cave). Monolithic domes have an R value of 60! A house constructed of two by fours has an R value of 12. A house constructed of two by sixes have an R value of 20. A straw bale house has an R value of 55. That is why we went with a Monolithic dome!

  27. 27
    John Moore Says:

    Lynn- Really Good Answer! In the last 6 months I have designed my dream home (without an architect) and it is now being built. In preparation for the design part, I must have read 15-20 books on architecture, design, etc. and in at least 2 or 3, mention was made of geodesic domes and how really impractical they are to heat, furnish, maintain, etc. with pictures of abandoned domes in the desert, etc. I’m guessing most of the books were 5-10 years old. I’m glad to see somebody has made them practical since then.

  28. 28
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @Lynn & John: I really appreciate your comments. I know I need to put a lot of research into my dome design, thank you for the reminder & the motivation!

    Glad to see success stories too…

  29. 29
    Rose Says:

    Hi,
    Your yard (.17 acre) is certainly large enough to produce quite a bit, depending on how it is situated. You might want to check out http://www.pathtofreedom.com/
    to see what they have done on an “ordinary city lot.”
    They are inspiring to many…including me!
    I am looking forward to more posts. Thank you for sharing and inspiring us.
    Rose

  30. 30
    lynn haddon Says:

    I have gone “off the meter” after an outrageous bill for from our local power company. My efforts include: unplugging all appliances, lamps,t.v., computer,etc. from their outlets (have put them on power strips now) Also, efforts include limiting clothes washing to one load weekly and air drying. After dark I use a latern or oil lamp and also allow myself 2 hours of lamplight to read or watch a special t.v. program. Am not much of a tv type so has to be PBS or a special. In the past 10 days, I have used 9 KW! Am now planning to buy a lamp programmer to put on my water heater and set it to come on about 4:30 each day before I get home from work. Does anyone have a alternative to internet service so I can disconnect from my land line?
    Thanks,
    Lynn

  31. 31
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @Lynn: Wow, this is great to hear. Very encouraging. It’s amazing how empowering freeing yourself from the majority dependence on established municipal systems. Congrats Lynn.

    I do not know of any great alternative & cheap Internet sources are…other than just taking your laptop or netbook to a free wifi zone every day.

  32. 32
    stacey Says:

    i am so encouraged by eveyone’s posts…. I have been considering going off the grid for some time now. It’s great to see everyone’s ideas and things they do to conserve. I have been having a hard time getting my husdband to join me in this dream of mine. Mabe seeing some of these posts will help him see it can be a reality.

    thanks

  33. 33
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