Natural Life Magazine

Off the Grid and Bill-Free

Off the Grid and Bill-Free
By Ellen Rowland

A decade ago, while my husband and I were busy cultivating the American dream, we didn’t think much about our bills, other than to complain about how high they were, how frequently they showed up in our mailbox, and how hard we had to work to keep up with them. Like most people, we were conditioned to believe that paying bills was just part of life, like having to go to school and make a living. While we made efforts to reduce our monthly costs by consuming less energy, taking advantage of sales on clothes and household items, and generally being conscious of our purchases, it never occurred to us that we could actually eliminate some or all of our bills.

In addition to the utility bills associated with running our household, we were caught up in the vicious credit card cycle of barely chipping away at past purchases while accumulating hefty interest fees. Saving money to finance travel, eating out at a restaurant, or other luxuries had become next to impossible. And we weren’t alone. In 2005, the average savings rate in the U.S. was at negative one percent, the lowest level since the great depression. According to the Federal Reserve, total American consumer debt in that same year reached $2.3 trillion.

And yet we lived under the illusion that we were doing well. According to a widely held definition of success, we had arrived. We had a home-based design and architecture business. Our two young children had been accepted into a reputable preschool. We had a house, two cars, and appliances that made our lives easier.

Only not much of it was actually ours. The house was mortgaged and the cars were leased. So we spent most of our time working long hours under pressure in order to afford what didn’t even belong to us. As a result, we didn’t spend much time together as a family, even though my husband and I both worked from home. We had become completely disconnected from Nature and far removed from the sources of what we purchased. The conveniences we took for granted – water, electricity, clothing, and food – were things we paid for without ever thinking about their origins, availability, longevity, or social impact.

It took a global financial crisis and some courage for us to really look at our situation with honesty and realize that, not only were our lives precariously teetering on the edge of financial instability, we were also missing out on so much of what life has to offer. We weren’t happy. We were trapped on a treadmill powered by an economic system that favored the accumulation of wealth, when what we really wanted was to move forward on our own path, at our own pace, and with a sense of purpose.

I can’t say that my husband and I had a sudden epiphany, or even an “aha” moment. It was more of a slowly rolling wave that we had glimpsed off the shore for some time, only now it was gaining speed and momentum. We needed to change course before we capsized.

Fast forward ten years. Our story has changed dramatically. In 2009, we moved to Senegal, W. Africa and built an off-the-grid earth house using the clay-rich soil on site to make rammed earth walls and earth bricks (see article in Natural Life Magazine, November/December, 2011). We live in the earth house we built and own, which eliminates rent or mortgage payments. Our electricity is provided by solar panels and a wind turbine, eliminating electrical bills. Our water is pumped from a well using a small solar pump and we use a composting toilet system, which means we are independent from the public water system. Phone and Internet access cards are replenished based on our weekly usage. We have one debit card which we use for travel, health expenses, and emergencies, but we are finally credit card- and debt-free. Best of all, when I reach inside our tiny post office box once a month, the only things I find there are the occasional letters and care packages from family and friends.

Sacrifice and Simplicity

Depending on your perspective, sacrifice can either be a pro or a con. But really, in order to simplify, the two go hand-in-hand. Our decision to live a simple life was both conscious and deliberate. And in many ways it was an experiment. Initially, I took on the challenge with reluctancy, knowing I would be forced to give up everyday things I had grown accustomed to and was certain I couldn’t live without. But I found it to be just like when we go on vacation and pack all those clothes we’re certain we’ll need and usually end up wearing a third of what we bring – which usually corresponds to a few essential things we love, need, or feel comfortable in. This is all about perception and perspective.

When people come to our house, they often ask how many things they could power if they were to install a hybrid system similar to ours, which consists of a wind turbine, seven solar panels, and four batteries. To me, this is like standing in front of an all-you-can-eat buffet and wondering how much you can pile on your plate, rather than thinking about what appeals to you or how hungry you really are.

It’s the same with alternative energy. Instead of trying to figure out how many things we could plug in, we approached our energy needs from a different perspective: What did we really need on a daily basis and what could we live without? Since we could only afford a few solar panels in the beginning, we needed to think about the basics, which for us turned out to be two computers and a printer for learning and work, a small solar refrigerator, and a few lights which we only turned on at night. We gave up the dishwasher, the washer and dryer, and the flat screen TV, just to name a few. None of that was easy to do. The weaning process was rife with frustration and doubts. But the return was immediate and welcome. We worked less and played more.

Each one of us gained confidence in our own abilities and limits and began to explore creative projects we had never allowed ourselves to pursue. We gained time to read, play board games, talk and laugh, take walks, draw, paint, write. We gained a sense of satisfaction at hanging our laundry to dry in the sun and having the time and means to grow our own vegetables. And we gained a sense of family and a notion of time that had been missing from our lives. 

 Environmental and Consumption Awareness

We also gained an inevitable understanding and appreciation of Nature and the elements. Since we know exactly where our electricity comes from, as well as its limits, sunny days have new meaning, and an index finger held into the wind can mean the difference between a day spent working on the computer or out in the garden. The weather isn’t something we can change, so we don’t fight it. When the wind is down and the clouds are out, we go with the flow, which often allows us the down time to balance our work lives.

We’re now accustomed to considering rain- fall and water tables when we turn on the faucet or shower, or water the garden. Apart from our awareness of the environmental advantages of using alternative energy sources, we now know a surprising amount about meteorology, are much more connected to Nature in general, and are grateful for what it provides us.

Spending and the Human Element

With the ease of virtual transactions made possible by constantly-evolving Internet technology and credit cards, buying things has never been easier or faster. Or less personal. While this might be convenient in terms of time and energy, it’s one of the marketing factors that encourages over-consumption in a virtual economy, depriving us of a sense of human exchange and community contribution. Because my family no longer uses credit cards to pay for our purchases, we are much more aware of what we spend and how we spend it. Most importantly, we know who it goes to.

It’s easy to avoid the trappings of credit cards in Senegal because, apart from a successful micro-credit system for women in the agriculture and crafts markets, banks here issue Visas and MasterCards judiciously. For most people, credit is non-existent. You purchase what you can pay for and nothing more.

We buy mostly local products sold either directly from the grower or a local merchant and are fortunate enough to live in a community that discourages credit cards and embraces the barter system, which at its heart, is a very human concept.

When we have too many papayas or lemons, I take them down the road to Madam Combe, the Senegalese woman who sells fruits and vegetables from under an umbrella, and trade them for carrots, potatoes, or eggs. Papayas are her favorite fruit so I always give her a few extra to take home. She sneaks a large bouquet of fresh mint or a few scallions into my bag. We talk about the arrival of the mango season (they promise to be plentiful this year), the birth of her grandson, how badly she needs a new pair of shoes.

I buy fish from the same man at the same briny market every day and artisanal bread from the local bakery. This daily routine, so different from the bulk-buying, superstore chain experience, not only assures fresh produce, but also promotes the local economy and fosters meaningful personal relationships.

Where our Money Goes

Our choice to live a pared down, autonomous life meant earning less money in the beginning as we established ourselves in a new country. It also meant an initial investment to build the house and purchase alternative energy solutions. That investment has since been amortized and the return has been enormous, mostly in terms of our sanity, our happiness, and our lifestyle. Over time, we’ve added back in a few “luxuries” like my Kitchen-aid mixer and a hot water heater. The money we save by living a simpler life has allowed us to discover the rich diversity of Senegal and its people and to travel abroad once or twice a year. We discover other parts of the world, their culture and language, visit museums and monuments, meet new people, and taste new foods.

My husband now has a successful earth building design practice, which gives him the choice to participate in less lucrative, but more fulfilling social projects in addition to private residential projects.

We made the decision to homeschool our two children after seeing how much they learned and the joy they experienced during the hands-on process of building our earth house. Their curiosity and love of learning is invaluable. So the money we would have spent on tuition and text books goes toward art supplies, geography and history books, horseback riding lessons, films, music, culture, and anything else that fosters their creativity, learning, and passion.

For us, living off-the-grid and bill-free isn’t about bucking the system. And it isn’t free. It’s about re-evaluating our priorities and finding creative, alternative solutions to meeting everyday needs. It’s also about taking stock of our lives and being grateful for what we have. Having the extra money to finance the things that bring us joy has been worth all the small sacrifices, which, looking back, seem more like necessary trade-offs for the luxury of living an independent, conscious life. Having stripped away so much of what we perceived as essential, we find that our suitcases are now a lot lighter.

Ellen is an American living abroad. She and her family built an off-the-grid earth house in Senegal prior to moving to an island in Greece. She writes about culture, family, things that are good for the planet, and life without school. She is also an accomplished poet and the author of Everything I Thought I Knew, a collection of essays about living, learning, and parenting outside the status quo.


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