I Lived Off the Grid—And I’m Still Broke

“After a couple months of cold mornings dumping buckets of composting shit, I’m as broke as ever.”

Dec 3 2021, 11:30am

When I went off the grid, it felt like the right move spiritually, environmentally, and financially. Moving to a cabin in the woods with my partner seemed like a clever way to get cheap rent in notoriously unaffordable southern British Columbia, while learning to fend for ourselves in a chaotic world.

But after a couple months of cold mornings dumping buckets of composting shit, I’m as broke as ever.

Going off-grid is looking like an increasingly viable option for young adults as cities become harder to afford. VICE World News reported in October that Vancouver, B.C., North America’s most unaffordable city with an average house price of $1.2 million, will face a widening chasm between the rich and poor as climate change threatens to wash out low-lying houses. Weeks later, dramatic floods and heavy rain cut Vancouver off from the rest of Canada, sank portions of major highways, and put whole towns underwater in B.C. 

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Many young adults who aren’t pushed out of cities by rising costs or rising tides are rethinking their own environmental impact and turning to remote work or quitting their jobs altogether. 

The author with his chainsaw. Photo by Danika Henderson

“There’s this phrase, ‘fuck-off money.’ Well, you need a lot less fuck-off money if you’re living off-grid,” said Nick Rosen, a British filmmaker and author of the book Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America.

Rosen said affordability is the No. 1 reason people disconnect from municipal water and electrical grids. Other reasons are political, like a desire to reduce their carbon footprint, prepping for social or ecological collapse of society, or just being generally weary of consumerism. 

“Another one is that it’s very romantic; it’s a great thing for young lovers to do,” he said. 

Having recently started my own off-grid journey renting a small run-down cabin with my partner in the South Shuswap region of B.C., five hours northeast of Vancouver, I can attest that few things are more romantic than cooking dinner by candlelight while a hot fire crackles in the wood stove. 

Dumping out our own excrement every day because we don’t have a flushing toilet, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly scream Hallmark special. 

The composting toilet (Canadian Tire bucket) with a mulch bucket next to it. You scoop the mulch on top after you use the toilet, so it composts into humanure. Recycling! Photo by author

But while we’ve drastically reduced our resource consumption and learned invaluable skills, I’ve started to question the wisdom of going off-grid to save money. 

The rainy fall climate means we get all our drinking water from the sky for free. But it also renders our diminutive solar-power system effectively useless and leaves us paying for diesel to run a noisy, exhaust-spewing generator for daily power.

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Without enough time to collect and dry a sufficient amount of wood for winter, we’ve spent over $600 buying firewood to last us until spring. The propane stove is efficient, but even propane prices are skyrocketing

Add a chainsaw ($250), battery pack ($300), and a cellular signal booster ($600) so we can work from home, and I’m not sure we’re paying less than we would be in a place with a furnace and a constant flow of electricity. 

Jaymie Friesen, a 26-year-old who runs off-grid workshops on a large plot of land in B.C.’s southern interior with his brother Shelby, said going off-grid does not necessarily equate to cost savings. 

He breaks it down like this: To start out, you should expect to pay at least $700 a month for a tiny home (he recommends this over living in a vehicle for Canadian winters); $400 to rent space on someone’s land; plus insurance, fuel, and other bills. Among other things, you’ll also need a power source, a water source, tools, at least one reliable vehicle, and a backup generator.

But the savings come down the road, especially if you can actually buy a plot of land. At Azhen Sanctuary, the Friesen brothers teach people how to crowdfund, set up eco-villages, and source cheap building materials as ways to make land ownership attainable for those who can’t afford to buy a house. 

Off the grid at Azhen Sanctuary. No comment. Photo supplied by Jaymie Friesen

Generally, the further you’re willing to go from the city, the cheaper land will be and the more freedom you’ll have to do what you want with it. In some parts of southern B.C., you can get several acres for under $200,000 (the average city house lot is about one-fifth of an acre). 

Land also provides an opportunity to grow food, which is alluring when there’s flood- and pandemic-related panic-buying at grocery stores. 

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“The financial benefit would be that they could own a larger area of land. And with that comes opportunities for equity, and if they play it smart in the long term, I think there’s many options of how a person can use their land to increase their financial wealth that would be impossible with an apartment or townhome,” Friesen said. 

More off-grid living at Azhen Sanctuary. Photo supplied by Jaymie Friesen

He stresses the importance of doing due diligence before disconnecting. 

Dozens of popular YouTubers glorify living off-grid in homesteads or tiny houses, or as digital nomads and van lifers, sometimes glazing over the more mundane and tedious aspects of their lives—like waking up freezing because your fire went out in the middle of the night, or hauling bags of garbage to the city to discreetly hurl them into a dumpster behind the nearest Walmart. 

Friesen said some people come into off-grid life overvaluing their own skill set and underestimating the work and learning required to survive. 

Recently, he’s seen “a lot” of people looking to go off-grid out of fear of COVID-19 or vaccine mandates. Off-grid Facebook communities can be dominated by anti-vaxxers, some looking to start communities of people who see vaccine passports as an infringement on human rights excluding them from a crumbling society. 

“Imagine someone buying a trailer and not really doing much planning and moving off-grid in the spring, they have the best summer of their lives—and then winter hits,” Friesen said. 

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“Now they realize their trailer has slim to no insulation, their water lines are freezing, their generator dies, they don’t have a backup heat source, they’re snowed in without machinery to plow, and they’re 50 kilometres away from the nearest town. They put unnecessary stress on themselves and their family, and possibly put lives at risk.”

Cooking hot dogs in the wood stove because fuck it. Photo by author

I’ve restructured my life to avoid 9-to-5 work since losing my last full-time city job nearly two years ago. This is a common shift for millennials, who tend to be less interested than previous generations in climbing career ladders.

Some of the time I would otherwise spend in an office is now traded for physical labour and troubleshooting when things inevitably break down and no one’s around to fix them. As someone raised in the city with almost no mechanical skills, this can get frustrating. Soon, the snow will make our driveway unpassable, further limiting our contact with the outside world. 

Not everyone is prepared for these kinds of inconveniences, but the trade-off can be rewarding.

Friesen, who is Ojibwe, said going off-grid has allowed him to take full responsibility for his environmental impact, eat healthier food, find a stronger sense of community, and improve his mental health by being immersed in nature. Indeed, a March study in the Ecological Economics journal found living near 14 more bird species improved participants’ happiness as much as making an extra $190 a month, based on a monthly income of $1,837.

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I find few things more joyful than the jumbled melody of songbirds at dawn, or the soft coos of an owl under vivid stars in an unpolluted night sky.

Having to work for heat, power, and water has helped me develop a keen awareness of my consumption. I’ve learned to get by with a fraction of the resources I would use in the city and reframe some of my “needs” as luxuries. In the daytime, we can live without lights. Instead of daily showers, a bath every couple of weeks will do—talk to Jake Gyllenhaal before you pass judgment. 

“I genuinely believe it’s something that’s wholesomely good for people, families, communities, and the planet,” Friesen said. “Living life in that way, in that order, is a way of life that is ingrained in our Indigenous culture and something our elders teach us.”

Elvin Wyly, a University of British Columbia professor who studies market processes and state policy relating to urban inequality, said the acceleration of remote work during the pandemic coincides with an “intense rising consciousness of environmental issues among a new generation of people” to set the stage for a shift in urban and rural populations. He notes we are the first generation to live primarily in urban centres worldwide, a threshold crossed in 2007.

Wyly does not anticipate a mass exodus from cities but rather a “dramatic sorting effect” that will separate people in and outside of cities based on factors that include their ability to afford housing and configure their lives digitally. 

“We’re in the midst of this big national experiment about how many segments of the workforce are going to stay remote when we bounce back in some sort of way from the pandemic isolation measures,” he said. 

While there are moments when I wish I could flip a thermostat or take a long, hot shower, a different kind of satisfaction comes from living more in tune with nature in a world crippled by overconsumption. That’s not something I’d trade for steady office work or a downtown apartment. 

If you’re looking for an easy way to save money, however, you might want to do more homework before leaving those city lights behind. 

Follow Kevin Maimann on Twitter.

Tagged:

housing, Off The Grid, affordable housing, Canadian News, worldnews

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