How My Grandfather Did It: Living Off The Land With Very Little Income

Recently, I wrote about my grandfather, the interesting life he led, and what lessons that life taught me. Mostly, I wrote about his past – things he did long ago during Prohibition and the like. I didn’t have the opportunity to know him until he was much older, a quiet old man living alone in an old trailer on a piece of land that an old friend allowed him to live on rent free.

What little money he had he spent on his family (he always had wonderful gifts for everyone on their birthdays and for Christmas) and on his one weakness: wine. Instead, he used a litany of skills to almost live entirely off the land. He gardened, fished, trapped, hunted, and gathered everything he needed to eat, and he reused all sorts of things that other people threw away.

Even though my life seems as far away from an old man living off of the land as possible, many of the things he did ring true for me today as a person trying to build up a financial life for my family. Here are five things that he did that I try to apply in my own life today.

Every gift he asked for had utilitarian value. Every single year, he wanted an Old Farmer’s Almanac for Christmas, which he used religiously to plot out his garden and the days he would plant various items. He asked for gardening tools, utilitarian hunting items, fishing materials, and other such things as gifts, and he basically eschewed anything that wasn’t utilitarian – except for a good bottle of wine, of course.

I basically do the same thing today, except my weakness is books. Except for a well-written book, I pretty much only want gifts that have some utilitarian value. I don’t mind clothes as long as they’re well-made, but if you want to buy me a home decoration or something along those lines, I’ll probably be unimpressed.

He reused everything he could get his hands on. He was delighted when he would find a sturdy cardboard box for storage. He would eat leftovers over and over again until they were all gone. I remember having a wooden rocking horse that had one of the rails completely splinter when I attempted to ride it down the stairs (yes, I was brilliant even then); rather than junk it like many people would do, he kept it, found another piece of wood that was appropriate, sandpapered the wood to be a perfect match one evening, then reassembled the horse like new. His philosophy was that no need to throw something away when it can be repaired.

This one is a challenge for me because so many things are electronic today, but we do find ourselves reusing things in interesting ways: an old cell phone is now my toddler son’s favorite toy, for example.

He kept track of all of his spending and other money in a little black book. This little book contained information on every cent that crossed his fingers. It was full of his own little annotations and such. Whenever he would think about buying something, he’d get out that little book, flip through it, and stroke his chin, trying to decide if he could afford a radical expenditure of $2.

I find myself today doing basically the same exact thing in Excel.

He placed more faith in those who took more effort to contact him. If a Jehovah’s Witness came to his door, he’d take the time to listen to them, even if he didn’t agree with his faith, but if a salesman called him on the phone, he wouldn’t give them the time of day. Why? The Witness took the time to come to his door, which meant that whatever they were saying was important enough to them to take that extra effort. If he were still around today, he’d immediately hang up on every telemarketer and completely ignore any unsolicited contact, but if you bothered to send him a personal letter or stop by to talk to him, he’d do anything for you.

This philosophy has brought me around to the point where I greatly value handwritten letters and personal visits. Even though this blog gives me the opportunity to communicate with many people at once, nothing is more enjoyable than shaking a person’s hand and talking to them one on one.

He refused to deal with liars. If you were misguided, that was fine; he’d do everything he could to steer you right. However, the moment you told him an intentional falsehood, his eyes would get this steely look in them and you might as well not waste your time with him any more. Once you lied or frauded him, he was no longer interested in much of anything you had to offer.

At this point in my life, I have a very low tolerance for poor customer service, and when companies misrepresent themselves, well, I actually have a “black list” of companies that I no longer purchase products or services from.

I guess I am starting to turn into my grandfather.

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