How to Save and Invest Regeneratively: The FIRE/FREE Path to Financial Freedom

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Rosemary Morrow, author of the Earthuser’s Guide to Permaculture, one of the great early Permaculture teachers/authors

(This is the third part in a series, but it stands alone. See parts 1 and 2 for more depth)

For a lot of us homesteaders, permies, eco-minded people, artists, activists and simple-livers, money is part of the problem, “the source of all evil” and even bringing it up makes people suspicious that you might be some sort of counter-revolutionary capitalist stooge. In our crowd, it can be tough to convince people that talking about money just might be as important as eating weeds.

No wonder so many of the best people I know are stressed out, in financially precarious situations, and so many regenerative businesses and farms fail.

Simply put, whether we think about it or not, we’re investing with each purchase we make, and the future we’ll get is the one we invest in: for ourselves, for our kids, for the world.

The real promise of being mindful about money is exactly that: we can divest from things that aren’t bringing about the future we want to see, and reinvest in what we do want.

In this article, we’re going to talk about strategies to help us save money without supporting our dystopian nightmare of an economy, and where to reinvest our money so that it creates the lives and world we want to see.

For those of us who already dream of simplicity, homesteading, or farming, our goal is already that sort of self-sufficiency, but there’s little practical information on how to structure our lives to realistically achieve that goal.

As we discussed in parts one and two, it’s easier said than done. Most of us are trapped into relying on systems that aren’t even intended to meet our needs or help us meet our goals, and supporting systems that we know are hurting the planet and ourselves. For many of us hippie types, the answer has just been “abandon ship, and sink or swim!” We’ll quit our jobs and jump into farming as a job without understanding the first thing about farming as an INVESTMENT. This is why nearly all small farm businesses fail.

So, we need a serious plan to help us escape that bind.

For those following the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire early) path, the goal is to do whatever it takes to save up enough money in the present that at some point in the future we’ll have a nest egg large enough that we can live on our own terms. Basically, the idea is that depending on our needs, with as little as $250,000 in the right investments, we can retire and live off our savings. And while the process of cutting costs can free us from consumer culture and teach us about what’s really important, it’s still about deferred reward: sacrifice now for freedom later.

I’m still a big FIRE fan (anything that reduces consumption) but I’ve come to the conclusion that our planet and society can’t wait for us all to reach financial nirvana before we start divesting from the systems driving the destruction.

So we introduced our own alternative goal of being FREE (Financially Resilient, Economically/Ecologically Empowered) which is more about consciously aligning our finances so that we can live more in accordance with our dreams and values NOW in the present, and focus on what really matters.

The FREE path recognizes a few major factors that FIRE doesn’t:

1. Working for our keep isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a fundamental human experience that connects us with community in a vibrant way, gives us purpose, gives us a chance to practice mindfulness in our lives, and allows us to serve people. It isn’t a problem if we’re doing work we love, in a place we love, on our own terms, in a way that balanced. That should be our goal, even in retirement. That’s the lifestyle of the happiest people I’ve ever known, not ungrounded playbobbles wasting their lives blowing between resorts. The problem is working under exploitive circumstances in a way that’s utterly unbalanced, even if we’re working for ourselves (self-exploitation is real and a lot of us lie to ourselves about it.) Nobody should be working longer hours than medieval peasants.

2. Once you understand ecological constraints and resource limits, 99.999% of stocks are a risky investment that literally builds a worse world.

3. Smart alternative investments that avoid exploiting the earth, people, or toxic forms of capital CAN provide cashflow to meet our needs, but USUALLY require some inputs to prime that cashflow. A smart agriforestry system or craft business, for example, can cash-flow on a minimal time investment (doing fulfilling work) but it requires that time investment. (Though an honest accounting would show that even a stock-based FIRE plan would require labor, too.)

4. We don’t have much time on this beautiful world. Live in the present.

How can we save money, and where do we put it?

To me, what’s exciting is this is where Permaculture design and the Transformative Adventures offer a variety of great tools that usually aren’t in the toolbox of your average FIRE author – and the classic book Your Money or Your Life (YMOYL) offers many tools to activists, artists, homesteaders, and farmers that aren’t usually in their toolkit.

To help people reduce their living expenses by tapping into their non-monetary resources, YMOYL author Vicki Robin uses the framework of the ABCs, which is your skills, your network, and your community.

With our analysis of simple horticultural lifeways, understanding of land-based incomes and how to convert sun energy into meeting our needs, Permaculture and Transformative Adventures builds on this nicely.

For example, Permaculturists have long pointed out that we have multiple forms of capital available to us, including social capital, informational capital, experience, political capital, spiritual capital, and natural capital (such as a food forest, or a valuable rare plant collection.)

With a good mindful process and design, we can put all of these to use to save on our expenses (yes, even spiritual capital!)

From our Transformative Adventures perspective, we can also look at what places have the most leverage for savings.

So, as an example of the kind of thinking and design we can do, let’s look at some leverage points for saving money and transforming society:

First, we need a good benchmark to understand how much we can actually save.

Doing research across Permaculture, homesteading, and FIRE communities, it appears a realistic, achievable goal for low-cost living is around an average $10K US dollars per person. For a young person, that could be as low as $6-8k. In some cases, 2 adults can live on significantly less than that a piece, because they share costs. Children are hard to figure, because it depends so much on values, but I’ve seen some report that they raise a family of 4 on $25k in the US. It will be different in different countries, or even counties, but this number is doable for many. Even if it’s NOT achievable in your county (because of high cost of living, for example) it’s still very good to consider. Perhaps if your lowest possible housing costs $60K/year, you may either decide that staying in that area is not conducive to meeting your goals, or you may have to adjust your expectations.

With that benchmark, you can see why I consider food one of the best leverage points for saving money. According to the US government it’s the second largest budget line item for most families after housing.

Even the lowest 20% of American families spend $4500/year on food, or $2500 for a single adult. An average family will spend around $6000/year on food.

And while the mainstream Youtube approach to gardening will honestly only INCREASE a family’s food costs while costing a lot of time while harming soil and biodiversity, using a well-designed Permaculture or Transformative Garden, it’s a very realistic benchmark for many to grow nearly all their produce and even most of their calories on 1/2 acre on a few hours of labor per week. So, just putting a few hours/week into a basic garden can realistically save you thousands of dollars/year on food, while producing extras for social capital, repairing the ecosystem, protecting water, stewarding biodiversity, and sequestering carbon.

Better yet, food is a major leverage point for luxury.

Wealthy families spend over $13,000/year on food. Yet this is a place where people spending almost nothing can actually eat far more luxuriously than those spending the most extravagantly. The luxury value of a good garden and good chef game could easily be $15k or more, on a few hours/week.

Wines, beers, and meads can also flow from the garden, and since the average American household spends nearly $600/year on alcohol, this is another potential for savings and luxury.

Meanwhile, the corporate food system is the #1 cause of climate change, the #1 cause of soil loss, the #1 cause of habitat loss and extinctions, the decline of fisheries, pollution of the oceans, human illness, and many other problems, so divesting from that system is potentially a powerful pressure point for change.

Of course, housing and healthcare are the two biggest areas for savings, and there are regenerative strategies we can use to save on these, such as co-housing strategies, home herbalism, etc. and I could write a whole series of articles on each of these.

Yet another is home energy savings. In my state the average cost of annual heating and cooling is around $2000, and that goes straight to supporting one of the word’s most destructive industries. In many cases we can cut that bill by a third with just a few hundred dollars of investment so that we start saving money in the first year. With really smart design and investments, we can actually heat our homes in most climates in a way that costs $0/annually and actually sequesters carbon!

If you’ll forgive the crass self-promotion, I’d like to point out that we’ve selected and designed our Transformative Adventures to focus on exactly these high-value leverage points in the ways that will actually have a transformative effect (such as avoiding conventional garden approaches that just cost people more money and support agribusiness corporations, or home energy investments like “energy efficient windows” that actually waste energy, support big corporations, and only increase our costs.) Just following and meeting the Transformative Adventures basic objectives will necessarily save you money and help you reinvest in better systems.

Where to put money: Transformative Investments

Looking at our potential for savings, what becomes clear is how much benefit we can get out of putting efforts into frugal living. If you already make $100k/year, and you’re still living payckeck to paycheck, your path to financial freedom is clear, and you can easily save tens of thousands of dollars per year with a little effort.

But if we’re already living on $15K, there’s not going to be much financial return out of investing in living more frugally. So we need a different strategy. First, that might mean focussing on “investments” of your time and money that will free up more time for yourself, such as reducing yard work, systemizing household chores, etc. Next, that might mean choosing frugality investments that increase your standard of living at the same cost, such as the gardening example above.

But still, at $15k, the biggest leverage point may be finding more income. The classic FIRE approach is simple: “get a high-paying job.” Well, duh. But easier said than done in today’s economy. Besides, our goal is to avoid being exploited and feeding the beast. What we probably need are smart investments of our energy that can generate the capital and cash flow we need.

So, once we’re saving money, the place where Permaculture really shines is helping us figure out where to put it to do that.

In the original edition of Your Money or Your Life, the main investments that made FI possible are no longer the good investments they once were.

So, many in the modern FIRE movement focus on the stock market.

But for those of us who care about creating a better world, the stock market usually isn’t an option. We understand that we can’t create alternatives while literally investing in the old systems we hope to replace! And besides, once you understand the problems or current society faces in terms of climate disruption and resource depletion, the stock market looks like a very risky bet.

Others promote traditional approaches to real-estate schemes, ones that use harmful corporate materials, destroy community character, cut down lumber, drive gentrification that destroys urban communities, and inflates farm land prices so that food costs more, gets shipped from further away, requires more chemicals and better farmers can’t get land access.

Yeah, I’m not down for that.

For FREE, we choose a different path: to invest in ourselves, in the health of the natural world, and in the kind of social structures that really serve us.

Here, the problem is the solution. All the broken, destructive systems that prioritize plutocrat profit over providing actual goods or services, each one is an opportunity for you to invest in providing alternatives for your community: food, education, garbage, recycling, childcare, housing, home maintenance, landscaping, radio, clothing, decorating, furnishing, home heating, the extremely destructive plant nursery industry, vacations… I know people actually getting good returns on investments in each of these!

For one example, we can make smart investments in our own intellectual capital. A couple of my dearest friends chose to do exactly that in prioritizing their art business. They used a strategy of maintaining income from other streams while both investing in their own creative hobbies. Eventually, they found a market for one, they decided to prioritize it, and this autodidact without a college degree now earns more than any of my degreed friends, and they both spend their time making art that they love. His art pieces will be a good long-term investment, too, as will the social and political capital he’s building with his fan base.

In another case, a friend who was passionate about native edible plants started a plant collection that eventually became very sought-after, and now that is a viable full-time business that earns an income large enough it can cash flow. Plants as natural capital can provide us with several very high-return investment strategies. Don’t forget the story of MC Byles, who was able to quickly pay off his mortgage with new vareity of tomato, the “Mortgage Lifter.” I myself have one plant in my garden that’s currently in-demand, that often sells for as much as $10/plant and can produce as many as 100 clonal plants in a single season in a few square feet. Do the math on that one.

Others have looked at the destructive systems we have for housing and farming, and have found smart, viable investments that have really paid off. Keep in mind, that’s not a given! Most “farming” models, especially the “profitable” ones, are terrible investments! (IF something has to convince you it’s profitable, it probably isn’t.)

For example, I just spoke with a friend who invested in land some time ago, and is now able to get a significant return on agriforestry by selling lumber in a way that will increase the health of the land while sequestering carbon. There are many smart ways to do agriforestry plans that end with a big ROI, while providing savings or reasonable cashflow in the meantime – on minimal time inputs. But you have to do your homework! Most of the stuff I see online is terrible advice on terrible investments. (For example, I see a lot of “food forest” instructions that have no value flow for the first several years, requiring huge inputs of time and labor while giving back no yields. This is the most common approach I see! These projects are highly likely to fail and highly unlikely to ever pay back a single dollar on their investment.)

I’ve seen farming also be a good investment, but here’s a hint: working 70 hours/week selling the same 10 vegetables as everybody else on the internet, and that industrial farms can provide at 1/40th of the cost, is never, ever, EVER going to get you anywhere. Doing the research to find a real market for a niche product in ways that create long-term returns on minimal inputs – that’s where the value’s at.

In each of these cases, I’d argue these investments help create a better future, and each of the provide opportunities for cash flow and ultimately, cashing out when that time comes. That makes them good investments!

Now, mind you an “investment” is an investment, it isn’t a guaranteed windfall. In each of the cases above, these COULD have turned out very differently.

So, we also need a comprehensive strategy for how investing in anti-fragility while generating cash flow and having a mix of some moderate-risk/moderate-return investments, and a few higher risk/high reward investments.

If you’d like to get started on creating that kind of comprehensive strategy, and start designing your own financial life and investment plan, we’ve created a free class to help you out.

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