Erin Gleeson wants self-sufficiency to lead to financial independence
Published: November 10, 2010
There are bearded beekeepers colonizing Brooklyn; grocery store shelves are stocked with dish soaps offering vague promises of greenness. If this is the sustainable revolution, it might be the most trendy and expensive revolution yet. It’d all be easy to dismiss as yet another superficial marketing scheme—until you see someone who’s actually willing to get a little messy with her self-sufficiency.
Take the soap, for example. Last winter, local fledgling self-sufficiency guru Erin Gleeson gathered together the requisite lye, oil, and water; she recruited a friend to help stir. The idea was to end up with rose-scented castile soap. But as soon as she poured the lye into the pot, it started boiling and “releasing this weird gray gas,” Gleeson remembers. “[My friend] and I just started screaming, and I picked up the pot and put it outside in the snow.”
Turns out the aluminum pot she was using had reacted with the lye. (“Always use stainless steel or Pyrex bowls” when making soap, Gleeson cautions.) But in true self-sufficient style, Gleeson decided to make use of her near-disaster. What she needed, she realized, was something like a soap-making mentor—someone to tell her to pour the lye in more slowly, and that she shouldn’t be mixing lye and aluminum. And since there was no soap-making mentor to be found, presumably other people trying to live a similar kind of life were running into similar problems.
“I realized that I was making a lot of mistakes,” Gleeson says over gluten-free treats at a Charles Village café. “And I figured, well, I should start a blog to let people know what works and what doesn’t.”
So Gleeson started letsbeselfsufficient.com in February of this year. She first envisioned it as a no-nonsense resource with plenty of practical tips on things such as homemade dental products and how to clip a chicken’s wings.
But soon enough, she found herself including funny little stories about her own chickens—Frances Bean, Tooth, Apocalypse, and Sheila. Apocalypse laid a freakishly long egg that turned out to be full of blood. Sheila insisted on laying hers in a hidden thicket of poison ivy (“I put on my rain gear, helmet and dishwashing gloves and crawled between the chicken run and poison ivy. There were seven dirty, stupid eggs back there,” Gleeson writes).
Slowly, a few more personal stories crept in among the instructional posts. Gleeson wrote about not knowing what to wear to work when an inconveniently timed rainstorm soaked all the office-appropriate outfits on her backyard clothesline (she works as an administrative assistant). When she took a trip to New York to visit friends, she detailed her guilt at the higher-than-usual expenses. Gleeson’s reports from the frugal frontier are refreshingly frank and open—she lists her student loan calculations, and posts photos of hand-written expense logs. These details offer a glimpse of what it might actually feel like to live this kind of life in both its ups (a dinner that costs $1.25 per serving) and downs (dealing with a constantly breaking scooter).
It turns out that the internet is perfectly compatible with these old-fashioned activities. Gleeson found herself a community of similarly frugal-minded adventurers online. Daizy (who writes a blog at myfrugalfreedom.com) lives in a trailer in the desert and collects rainwater for laundry and showers. She’s trying to get her total expenses down to $600 a month. The Sufficient Self forums (sufficientself.com/forum) provide advice on everything from DIY solar energy to which roadkill is safe (or safe-ish) to eat.
Gleeson, who grew up in Philadelphia, came to her self-sufficient ethos in a roundabout fashion. “I was not raised making things,” she says. After graduating from SUNY Purchase in 2006, she moved to Oakland, Calif., and fell in love with the area’s food-centric lifestyle. But California-style sustainable living was hard to sustain on a limited budget. In Baltimore, Gleeson and her husband found a city that was cheap enough that they could afford a rowhouse with a small backyard.
Let’s Be Self-Sufficient’s take on sustainability is rooted in the need to develop financial independence—which means that, for Gleeson, frugality trumps nearly all other concerns. The way she sees it, we’ve all got bills—electricity, mortgage, student loans, whatever—and so we work 40 hours a week to keep up. But if you work hard to minimize your expenses, you can get away with working fewer hours—which means, of course, that you’ll then have more time to spend on things such as scouring the trash cans of local bars for bottles to reuse in your home-brew beer experiments.
For Gleeson, the tradeoff in terms of freedom is easily worth it. “Before, I was working full-time, and I’d spend money on silly things I didn’t really need,” she says. “But I justified it by thinking, ‘Oh, I worked hard.’ But now I realize it’s better to work less and need less.”
This attitude lends LBSS a refreshingly practical tone. While DIY soap might be a fun hobby, the expensive supplies and “gnarly chemical process that’s kind of weird and scary” make it not worth the trouble in the long run, Gleeson reports. (After her soap-making drama, Gleeson was chagrined when her husband came home with a three-pack of Ivory Soap from the grocery store at half the cost and a fraction of the trouble.)
Also not worth it? Baking bread (“unless you have a passion for it”) and knitting (“it’s just really expensive”). What is? Home-made tortilla chips. “I buy bags of masa from the grocery store,” Gleeson says. “And it takes forever, so I don’t end up eating them to excess.” So is home-brew beer and using a sewing machine to alter thrift store clothes. Sometimes, what makes a DIY project worth it depends on the resources available: Gleeson got some free leather recently, and made a video tutorial on moccasin-making. It’s great “if you don’t mind having real hippie-looking shoes,” she says. “But I can’t make shoes for work.”
And the moccasin video is just the beginning. Gleeson has begun to expand her site’s media offerings with forays into video tutorials and interviews. The long-term plan is to synthesize the blog’s information into a book that will help like-minded people with their own forays into backyard beekeeping, building compost bins, and performing minor bike repairs.
Because frugal living isn’t all about making sure the pantry is stocked for winter, Gleeson also writes about ways to make and share art without relying on mainstream distribution networks. She recently interviewed filmmaker Les Blank, who finances and distributes his documentaries. Blank nicely summed up how independent art-making has worked for him: “Well, I get to keep all of the money, but it’s really draining. It takes up a lot of my time.” This time investment appears to be the bargain that Gleeson and other independent-minded pioneers are making. Sustainability and self-sufficiently aren’t just an aesthetic choice; they’re a way of life, for better or worse. Gleeson’s long-term goals—to live off the grid in a self-built house, producing much of her food herself—are lofty, but she realizes that transitional steps are necessary.
For now, she sounds happy to keep working part-time, updating her blog, and coming up with more creative solutions for independent living. While the occasional indulgence in baked goods or store-bought tortilla chips sometimes makes her feel guilty for not living a model self-sufficient life, she tries to keep it all in perspective. “I have an idea of what I value—being surrounded by friends, sweet treats and drinking coffee, spending time with my husband,” she says. “As long as I hold onto that, I don’t get too obsessive about it.”