If I had it to do over again, I’d consider getting to financial independence/early retirement by living in an alternative community.
A while back I had the chance to spend a couple of nights at Acorn, an egalitarian income-sharing anarchist commune in northern Virginia.
One of the members was an amiable guy a bit younger than me, and he and I were sitting on the back porch right before dinner watching the rain together. Food prep was going on inside. Several people were kneading gnocchi dough together, laughing and singing David Bowie songs as they worked.
It sounded like a lot of fun and I wanted to join them but I felt socially awkward about imposing on a group of strangers engaged in what seemed like an intimate activity among close friends (which in hindsight was obvious projection. Basically a case of feeling uninvited to the table I was welcome at, if that makes any sense.)
Anyway, this guy on the porch and I had been chatting about how the community worked, so I used dinner as an example. Did they rotate cooking and washing dishes and so forth? A schedule? Central planning?
He gave me a weird look. “Central planning? It’s like this: if you feel a vested interest in something, you better take some responsibility for it. Like, don’t complain if dinner doesn’t get made, because YOU’RE the one who didn’t make it.”
I asked, “So I could go in there right now and make a dish myself and everybody would be OK with that?”
He shrugged. “You still could.”
That night I needed to wash my clothes and the washing machine was open, so I used it. Then I realized the dryer was full of dry clean clothes that were just sitting there. I asked the woman who’d offered to host me what I should do with them. What was the etiquette. The commune members didn’t have a whole lot in the way of personal property, but I figured clothes fit that category.
“Just take them out and leave them in a basket,” she said. “Kind of inconsiderate, actually. It’s your own responsibility to take care of your stuff.”
There it was again. I liked that ethic. I’m sure it causes drama occasionally–vested interests obviously clash in a community with limited resources–but on one side of the dining room in the main house they had a big note-wall where members could post questions to the group.
“The transmission is out on the pickup again. Does anybody object to selling it and buying another truck? We need it for food-salvaging.” And then members were free to add their comments.
No comments = acquiescence and therefore action. If there was no money in the communal checking account, the person feeling the need for the new truck would have to raise some, and he’d do so by identifying a fundraising opportunity and inviting participation. So no participation = no truck. But nobody in the community had better complain of a food shortage. Etc., etc.
Not too shabby a way to live.
Another community I find interesting—although I’d be much less likely to move into—is an old-order Mennonite community about an hour from where I live While I don’t know them very well, I’ve spent a few hours with a couple of them in their (power and plumbing-free) homes.
The anecdote that sticks most in my mind is: one of them told me that by his estimate his wife and daughters had made—to the best of my recollection—something like 18,000 meals that year. It was a big family and they were always hosting guests. He asked me what it’d cost to buy that many meals “in society.”
I told him that even buying the cheapest crummy food at, like, McDonald’s, he’d be spending $5 a meal. $90,000.
I thought he was gonna have a heart attack. I doubt he’d made $90K in his entire life, and yet he lived extremely well. Healthy and loving family, plenty of food, good honest work, strong community, etc.
The way they look at it, withdrawal from “society” and union with God IS independence, and the only one worth pursuing. And they’ve certainly achieved that.
But in the case of one very specific kind of independence, i.e., financial independence: they still participate in the cash economy, but only to the extent that they need to trade with the outside world. To buy seeds and hardware they can’t make and lumber and so forth.
But they’re not selling their time; they’re selling surplus produce for just enough money to buy the things they need so they can live exactly the way they want…and they’re quite happy doing so. OK, so it takes some work to grow that produce, but it scales close to zero–an extra row or two of strawberries alongside the ten rows of strawberries they’re growing for their own family, for instance.
Big families. Their kids will care for them when they can no longer care for themselves. No need for Social Security when you have 97 grandkids, and failing them, an entire community, to look out for you.
And if society were to blow itself up they’d keep right on going. If there’s a better example or even definition of financial independence, I have yet to find it.
That said, their women are very far from independent.
Anybody in the community is free to leave at any time, but I can’t imagine being a relatively uneducated old-order Mennonite teenaged girl who wants to split the community but to do so will have to estrange herself from her family, learn to deal with a world she’s completely ignorant of, right up to not knowing the language (they speak this weird dialect of Dutch/peasant German in the home), having no money, very little clothing…not even a birth certificate or anything…well, it’d be practically impossible, so they stay.
So there’s a great deal of, call it communal independence, but not quite so much individual freedom. Strange hybrid.
Well…a final note on alternative communities. When word reached me that Scott Weiland (of Stone Temple Pilots) had died, it came as no surprise. Whatever the cause, yet another grunge god was gone. Cobain, Layne Staley, others, this.
It makes me feel a thousand years old. When Cobain died l told somebody close to me that everybody I admired seemed to end up dead, but I guess it’s as Chuck Pahlaniuk—another of my countercultural heroes—wrote: “On a long enough timeline the probability of anybody surviving drops to zero.”
Which at times is oddly consoling.
Jesus. But what the fuck right do I have to admire counter-culturalists, sitting here in an upper-middle class house with plenty of food in the fridge and a fat bank account after a conventional corporate career…in a nuclear family, about to drop my bright-eyed kid off at her magnet school in our Prius? And why am I even bummed about about the death of one junkie who brought his troubles on himself, not so long after fourteen innocents were killed in a mass shooting in San Beradino? Makes me an asshole, I think.
But hey, there’s the GenX angst coming out. If there’s been one constant, it’s that.
Financial independence. Bloody hell; nobody’s independent, financial or otherwise.