The cost of living simply

Homesteading sounds like a wonderful lifestyle, but it is also utterly unattainable for many in Newfoundland and Labrador who are working low-wage jobs and lack capital.

When I was 18, I moved to Newfoundland with, literally, not a penny to my name. My last $50 was taken at the airport for a baggage overage fee, and I had to ask my boyfriend to pay for my cab to my new apartment.

Without parental or family support, no savings, and a boyfriend living off of student loans and scholarships, I got a minimum wage job—then $5.75/hour—and did everything I could to find full-time work.

Struggling to get by is putting it gently, as in 2002, the economy of Newfoundland was rather terrible. Fast forward 13 years, and we now live a simple and frugal lifestyle, as both of us remain terrified of falling back to that place of stress and illness caused by poverty.

So sometimes I fantasize about the homestead life. It’s come up a few times on my radar, most recently in an article by Steve McBride, and I can’t deny the appeal. I love animals, and nature, and grew up in rural Ontario surrounded by farms. There’s an appeal of living a more active, hardworking, and physical lifestyle that has me more in touch with nature and curbing consumption.

I imagine, as most do, a sense of connection with the world around you that can’t be attained in our digital age, and a comfort of self-sustaining living. No doubt there’s many people for whom this lifestyle has worked out for, but each time my fantasies go too far, I’m reeled back into reality.

I live in an apartment in the west end of St. John’s. I rely on public transportation. I’m debt averse, and housing prices within the city form an incredible barrier.

The cost of homesteading

So for anyone looking at becoming a homesteader, they’re looking at the following issues:

  • High start-up costs if they don’t already have a home and a maintained vehicle
  • Lack of options in where they can find housing, based on their job, their commute, their friends and family, and other necessities
  • A need for a yard, preferably a large one, or at the very least a basement or other space where they can set up a hydroponics lab; shelter for any livestock they plan on housing; storage space for firewood, preserves, etc.

These are not small issues, especially for the generation that is graduating university now with less job prospects—and the coming loss of 24,000 high paying jobs over the next three years—a nationwide recession, an aging population, more children needing to care for parents, and little certainty about what the future holds.

When I look at the realistic cost of starting homesteading, it’s unfeasible for me and many young people. It’s often heralded as a way to save money, and perhaps in the very long term, that’s true. There are programs available for the working poor, after all. If I could find a house for under $250,000 within the city, I would be eligible for an up to $12,500 loan from the provincial government to cover my 5 percent downpayment as a first time homeowner (a $237,500 mortgage [$250,000 less deposit], paid over 10 years would be $2,396/month at 3.92 percent interest, for the curious).

I could go cheaper if I look outside of the St. John’s Metro region, but as anyone who lives in rural Newfoundland knows, not much cheaper. And should I live out there, I look at the added expenses of having to own, fuel, and maintain a vehicle, plus the higher cost of food.

 To come home at the end of the day and cook a healthy meal, then chop firewood and feed the animals before settling in to read a paperback book by the fireplace sounds so romantic, wholesome, and utterly unattainable.

Fifty-plus years ago, land was in abundant supply in much of Newfoundland, but most of the prime realty has been bought from the Crown by private developers. Homes that used to cost $100,000 may now cost $600,000 in central St. John’s, or the growing towns of Mt. Pearl, Paradise, Conception Bay South, and Clarenville.

Things are, undeniably, much more expensive than what our grandparents or parents had to deal with.

Crown land is still available for rent, however you’re required to pay a $100 non-refundable application fee which may take a year to be approved. On top of this, there will be land surveys required, a processor will have to inspect the land, and you may be required to build a septic system, as well as the yearly rental price and other fees as required. Then there is the additional cost of construction for your home or cottage.

And the cruel fact of Newfoundland is that growing food takes a certain finesse. The winters are long, the growing season is short and erratic, and many plants will refuse to grow.

Besides those issues is the larger, looming issue over all of our heads — jobs. Unionized positions, and full-time jobs, are on the decline in favour of freelancing and contract work. We are expected to be more mobile, more willing to move for a job, and less willing or able to plant roots in a location. Industries outside of the large cities have faced countless difficulties over the past three decades, to say the least, and the job landscape has changed a lot across the entire country.

Homesteading seems to me a lot like a familiar little tidbit that often goes around. If you invest in a $200 pair of shoes, you won’t have to replace them for decades. They will, over time, cost less than buying many $20 pairs of shoes. It would be more environmentally and socially conscientious to buy the more expensive pair of shoes; however, a poor person being able to invest $200 in a good pair of shoes when the need arises is a next to impossible task.

And perhaps all of the above makes homesteading more important, but it doesn’t make it any more attainable.

Yearning for The Good Ol’ Days

There’s a certain romanticizing of the past that’s involved, a general feeling of goodness, that permeates what I’ve seen of homesteading culture. An idea that life was better back then, when people were more in touch with nature, with the items they owned, with the clothes they wore, and the food they produced. No doubt our current level of industrialization is designed to alienate us from the production of goods and the people who supply most of the things we surround ourselves with.

In that, I can completely understand why it feels better to know where your food and heat are coming from, and to yearn for a more present lifestyle, but it is such a luxury to have that opportunity. To come home at the end of the day and cook a healthy meal, then chop firewood and feed the animals before settling in to read a paperback book by the fireplace sounds so romantic, wholesome, and utterly unattainable.

When so many people in this province are working multiple jobs, or are on call at all hours, or are expected to travel often for their job, or have long commutes, or are wondering how they’re going to pay off their student loan and their mother’s home care worker at the same time, it’s nothing more than a fantasy of a happier and more carefree life that doesn’t actually exist for most of the lower working class.

The promise of homestead as a cure, as a relief for the pain of modern living, seems to cost a great deal with relatively few savings. If you’re financially struggling, it might be wiser to simply make frugal cut backs and turn your back on materialism and consumerism rather than invest in a total lifestyle change.

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