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Trade-Offs That Matter

A few years ago, when both the national and world economies seemed unstable, my husband and I began casually prepping. It wasn’t much. We picked up a few extra items here and there and stored them away, just in case.

I also decided that I was too dependent on the luxuries of modern life. If I needed water or electricity I could just turn a handle or flip a switch. It was a simple matter to run to the store to pick up any food or other items I needed. But at some point I asked myself what I’d do in the event those conveniences were no longer available. It was a scary conversation, to say the least.

So, along with storing a little bit of food away, I decided to learn some new skills. Not the general baking and sewing skills that I already had. But I wanted to learn how to make stuff that I’d always purchased in the past. I began using goat milk (we have goats) and making my own soap. I also used goat milk to make yogurt and cheese. I got hold of some vanilla beans and made my own vanilla. Then I decided I should grow my own vanilla. I got fruit from the store and learned how to do canning. And then I decided to start growing my own fruit. And on it went.

It was a great exercise, but the biggest thing I learned was that there is a trade-off for nearly everything. For example, alternatives to paper towels and toilet paper will most likely require water and soap. Water is easy if everything is up and running. But if the water system goes down, where will I get water? I could dig a well. But that takes time and money, and then I’ll need to hand carry all that water. And making my own soap? I’ll need to have lye and lard, along with various types of oils on hand. And I need heat. So all I will have accomplished is that I’ll have substituted store-bought soap for store-bought lye, oils and lard, and electricity. The amount of labor required for making my own lye is too enormous, and I would need to get the wood to do it. The same is true for the oils and the lard. By the time I’m done, a single bar of soap will have cost me a fortune in materials and labor.

Growing fruit trees isn’t hard, but it requires that I get water and fertilizer in place of paying the grocery store for the finished product. In the long run it will probably be cheaper, but it certainly won’t be free. One way or another, it’s going to cost me to get that fruit. I either pay the store, or I pay for water and fertilizer, and I put in some effort.

The moral of the story is that it is possible to become more self-sufficient, but it’s still going to cost us one way or another. There will always be some sort of trade-off. I can substitute solar for electricity, for example, but I need the stuff that goes with it, such as panels, wire, inverter, charge controller and batteries. And those things won’t last forever, so I must consider replacement value. I can have a well dug, but it means a lot of hand carrying of water, unless I’m going to spend the money on having it routed into the house. Then I must have the water tested periodically. And consider food items, such as meat. It’s possible to get away from buying store-bought meat in order to raise my own, but instead of paying the grocery store, I pay for feed and healthcare, along with barns, butchering, and all the equipment that’s needed. It’s better for me, undoubtedly. But it’s not free.

It’s always good to be more self-sufficient, but it will still cost something. I either buy it, grow it, build it, or trade for it. A good example is sugar. I must either purchase it or trade with someone for it, or live without it. Otherwise, I have no way to producing enough sugar on my small piece of property. Or hay, for that matter. My goats and horses need hay. I don’t have enough property to grow it. So I must find someone who does. I either trade for the meat, or I trade for the items to grow the meat myself. Either way, I pay for that meat.

Nearly everything convenient has a cost or labor-intensive trade-off. I need to understand what those trade-offs are, and make a decision on what’s most important. A good way to start is by paying attention to everything I use and do throughout the day. As I discover something, such as needing a way to charge my electronic devices, I can look around for an alternative, such as a solar charger. Then I can weigh the costs and benefits and decide which way is best. Some things aren’t worth it. For example, I find that it’s just plain cheaper to buy vanilla from the store. But if things go sideways, I at least know how it’s made. The same could be said for other types of food. It may be cheaper right now to just buy it. But it’s not a bad idea to know how to do it myself, and know what type of equipment or supplies are needed in order to accomplish the task.

It’s a wonder our ancestors accomplished as much as they did, knowing now how much labor is involved in manually doing some things we have machines for these days. They spent hours on washing, cooking and building because they had to first grow and develop their resources, and then gather them by hand before any work could start. And though it’s a lot of work, I highly recommend that people go through this exercise. Why? First, it makes them appreciate our modern conveniences. But second, and more importantly, it helps them think through all the trade-offs that will be required. They can then make more informed decisions on what things are important and what, ultimately, can be cast to the wayside.

We can’t live without the basics of food, water, clothing and shelter. But if I can no longer charge my cell phone? I can live without that. It’s critical that I focus on the trade-offs that really matter. Then I’ll be prepared with the supplies and time for the important things so that I can not only survive, but thrive through the hard times.

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