I sometimes get emails from people who are looking to simplify their lives. They are tired of the stress, the traffic and noise of the city, of working all their waking hours for little personal reward and never having enough time for the people they love. Perhaps you too are wishing you had more time to do things you actually enjoy? Would you like to escape the tyranny of spending and consumerism and the desire for things you don’t need? Do you fill your life with possessions as a reward for the pressure, pain and emptiness of modern living? Maybe you’re thinking about downsizing, having less clutter, no more drawers overflowing with unused mobile phone chargers. And you would like to reduce your carbon footprint, and have a more sensitive relationship with Mother Earth? Can you see yourself, happy and free, running naked through a sunny field of daisies?
WELL SNAP OUT OF IT YOU DAYDREAMER AND GET BACK TO WORK.
If there’s one thing I know now it’s this:
POVERTY IS OVERRATED.
Yes, trouble is, once you have a healthy cash flow it’s rather difficult to remember what it’s like not having one. Of course, I know you’re not planning on being poor and desperate, but if you’re going to give up working your bum off, then you are inevitably going to have to adjust to living on less. A lot less. And then, as time goes on, even less and less. It sounds fine as an idea, but believe me it is extremely difficult to change your mentality from “rich” to “poor”, and to change it fast enough to keep pace with your economic status.
How much do you need to live on in Portugal? The minimum wage here is €450/ month: I cannot see how anyone can live on that. I get by, in a painfully, unhappily, penny-watching way (see the Support button below) on about €600, and some months this blows out dramatically: all it takes is a sick car or dog, an insurance bill or a visitor or two and my budget goes out the window. I estimate that a couple with a cat should budget for $1200/month or €15000 a year. PLUS accommodation – allow another €250/ month for renting a 3 bedroom house (you’ll need a guest room, or two). Readers please throw in your two cents worth on this, as costs, as people, vary region to region.
Debt is the enemy. I seriously do not recommend giving up work if you have any debt. What you are undertaking is already enormously financially challenging and complicating the risk with old financial baggage is a bad idea. If you have a mortgage at home or on your new life, then either you or your dog needs a regular job. Sorry about that.
Should the math still be working in your favour, I have this to say. Doing without feels quite good at first. But after a while the novelty wears off and you’d rather have back a flushing toilet, a kitchen with plumbing, a shiny black golf and a goddam dishwasher. So here’s my first piece of advice for those who are persisting with the idea:
1. Don’t Throw the Baby Out With The Bathwater.
I know some people who have tossed their lives away, like me, but they are still living comfortably in a house with modern appliances, eating interesting meals, and maintaining proper standards of personal hygiene. Their secret has been better financial planning coupled with a more moderate approach to deprivation. In essence, they started with more money and they did not elect to live in their ruin.
So, if your other half (or your other identity) is advising caution and saying `let’s give it another 6 months and then we’ll be more financially secure´, then listen to them. On the other hand, that advice would not have saved me. As a freelancer, I may have been waiting forever for that last 50 grand to appear, and it is critical to getting a new life that you don’t put it off forever and to know when you have to make the leap. So if you think your team mate (or you yourself) is just procrastinating and they don’t really want to go and live in Portugal, then dump them and move on. 😯
The point I’m trying to make is when you’re making-frugal, don’t go overboard. Going from living in a penthouse to living in a tent is not nice. Try not to overestimate your stamina and try not to underestimate the length of time your money has to last.
2. Start Living Frugal Immediately And Be Committed.
Somehow you have to guess at the most basic living conditions you can tolerate for an unknown period of time… and then start living that life and stick to it. Even though your money hasn’t run out yet try to live as though it may run out tomorrow. It might sound a bit contradictory to the first advice, but this is about not living in denial about your financial situation. As soon as you stop earning you need to stop spending. Make a long term budget and be sure to include a bucketload of contingency.
One of the trickier things is getting other people to understand your new situation. I am still being invited to skiing trips in Val d’Isère when I haven’t earned a dime in three years. And I don’t even like skiing. You’ll have to tell your friends and family loud and clear, and over and over. No more lavish gifts, no more expensive restaurants. You are Frugalling. You may have to start a blog as well or get a tattoo on your forehead.
3. Go Bush
Mission Frugal should involve the switch from city to country.
The biggest advantage for country living for the ex-city materialist is the absence of temptations. I really appreciate not being surrounded by shops full of shiny things. And there’s something about living in the city that results in needing $15 cocktails on a Friday night. As much as I miss the food, I am glad that I cannot accidentally blow $50 on a sushi tray. Thank god rural Portugal is not a glamorous place – or rather, it is a very unpretentious place. One may comfortably go about looking like a sack and no one snorts or huffs or looks you up and down… On the contrary, I’ve been complimented on my nice dressing gown.
4. Making Friends With The Natives
Let’s now assume you’ve quit your job and moved to Portugal.
Your Portuguese neighbours will be an enormous support and resource to you, even if they want to kill your dog. Firstly because frugality is a way of life in rural Portugal, and secondly they will help you overcome the foreigner/local price divide.
In most places in the world, foreigners are presumed to be better off than the locals, based on the simple principle that you’re travelling and they’re not. It is now your job to undo this misunderstanding. You will ingratiate yourself with your neighbours by complaining about the price of things, griping about being poor and moaning about your poor health. Once you graduate from whingeing you can move onto the higher subjects like local supermarket specials. After that it’s carte blanche on cheap tips: what price they get on sand, which car mechanic won’t rip you off, and what you should have paid for those onion seedlings. And all this invaluable assistance just for your time, your witty banter and your liver.
Unlike your friends at home, your Portuguese neighbours will not expect you to bring a fine wine every time you drop over. On the contrary, my neighbours have scorned all my gifts like home made jam, spaghetti sauce and marinated olives because this gift giving nonsense is just not on. It’s not because they are stingey or ungrateful (no siree, just watch them force food on you) it’s because they don’t have money to waste. Christmas is the best. They gave me crap (but useful) gifts like tea towels, and in return I gave them crap (but useful) things like tea towels.
I discovered the village bartering system by accident. Tia Maria had been abandoned by her children (they went to France to work) which meant she had to walk up and down the hill to tend to the crops. It’s a bitch of a hill and she’s 30 years older than me, so we’d throw the pumpkins the back of my van and I’d give her a lift. No biggie. But then in return she’d try to give me three weeks worth of green beans, a dozen eggs and a bottle of wine.
Once we’d negotiated a more restrained quantity of produce, this became a regular thing. Then I realised that everyone was up for this trading thing. Next door would drop over some lemons, I’d leave a bag of dog food my dog doesn’t like. Lately we’ve been getting into car swapping, internet access for labour, land clearing for firewood. Of course it’s been going on between them for ever: one historic transaction was when one neighbour fixed the other one’s car for 6 jars of honey. It seems so right that I wonder why we aren’t living like this all our lives…
5. Grow Your Own
Of course you’ll need something to trade, and your exotic city tastes may help. I can’t compete with my neighbour’s talent for horticulture, but I can offer them things they don’t grow or have never tried. My stuff has novelty value. And other friends will appreciate your efforts too – so instead of bringing a bottle of wine you can take a pot of basil, cherry tomatoes or some rocket – things we can’t often find in our local markets. Of course anything else you can grow in your garden will help your frug-style. Growing stuff in Portuguese soil will be made easier if you also raise chickens, and while you’re at it, get a pig, some goats and sheep too.
6. Think Global, Buy Local
The biggest immediate saving to you is that you’ll spend less on petrol, but that’s the next point. You have to buy locally because rural areas are in rapid decline and things will get more expensive if we don’t invest in our tiny towns. Your custom with local business will help you forge relationships which will get you better prices in the long run. If you don’t take an interest in your local shop you might find that it no longer exists next year.
While regular customers are the most valuable, you should try to share the love around. The most obvious example is to buy whatever you can from local markets and not from big supermarkets. At the market I even prefer the smaller, older stallholders who are not importing fruit and vegies, but growing it themselves. Your money goes directly into the local’s pocket and keeps the local economy working. Just now a neighbour proudly showed me some apples that have come from Argentina… can you imagine the real cost of those apples, and can they be so much better than what’s hanging on the tree outside? Maybe they are not paying the extra cost right now, but the economy and the planet’s environment is, and if you’re thinking big picture, it is relevant to your personal operation frugal.
7. Step Off The Gas.
Apart from the urgent need to stop burning fossil fuels, the cost of petrol and the distances you often need to travel in the country is a major handicap to the frugal life. I consider every hour in the car costs me nearly €10. Most of the time I’m better off spending more on individual items at the nearer corner shop than driving further to the supermarket. And I prefer to buy things from my neighbours for more than I’d pay elsewhere because of what I save on petrol. It’s a strong argument for using the bread, fish and veg trucks that visit the village. My neighbours, the dedicated bargain hunters, once recommended I buy car tyres about 1 1/2 hrs drive away. So those cheap €20 retreads really cost me €35 each… and they’ll need replacing again in a year’s time… see more about “false economy” below.
When you have to use the car, take your foot off the gas. Driving slower in this country may even save your life. And while on the road I try to encourage others to slow down too. I flirt lasciviously at men who attempt to overtake me, which works a treat. My parents had a test of not using the accelerator on the way home from the shops. In turn us kids would do it too, and make it more fun by not using the brakes either… I still do this today, when there are no other cars around, of course.
8. Beware of False Economy.
There are false economy traps everywhere. Initially I bought cheap vacuum cleaners, cheap power tools and kitchen appliances which all had to be replaced. Buying stuff at the bottom of the market is rarely worth it unless you are really only using it once. When I researched my purchases properly by using organizations like Choice (Australia) I bought things that actually worked, and still work today. Beware especially the lojas chinesas (el-cheapo import shops) in Portugal. I have some strict rules about the things I am allowed to buy in them. I can’t tell you how many hose fittings I’ve been through because I stubbornly refuse to spend three times as much for something that actually functions. So instead I buy things that break before I get them home. Clever.
Frugal shortcuts; Electricity is not your friend. Use the free Espaços Internet if you are only an occasional net user. Give up cheese, or save it for restaurants. Eat less meat. And if you like to take a coffee, you should do as the Porties do and drink espresso… a 55c café is the kind of treat you never have to do without.
For specific prices consult the following:
http://www.mosqueteiros.com/. They publish their brochures on line for both groceries (Intermarché) and hardware (Bricomarché). See “Folhetos”.
Groceries and larger stuff http://www.modelo.pt
Now, nudie hippie dude, go forth and frugal yourself!