Updated on 02.21.07

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

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Madame X says:

    Wow, he sounds like quite a guy. Does anyone still have his little black book? I keep meaning to write about my grandmother and my great aunt, as their lives also offer some good money lessons. That Great Depression really affected people’s behavior!

  2. imelda72 says:

    Hear, hear. I mean about the ‘blacklist’ of companies who lie, in particular. I had such a disgusting experience with American Airlines, when they delayed and eventually cancelled our flight after spitting out a litany of excuses I *knew* to be false, that I refuse to fly them ever again.

  3. Sandra says:

    This really made me smile because my father used to say he was going back home to live off the land all the time. He had stories about how he snared rabbits and helped tend neighbors gardens when he was young. This simple life seems strangely appealing.

  4. BillOGoods says:

    Fantastic piece!

    Your grandfather must have had a deaf ear for politicians—after they say their name it’s nothing but lies. He was a tough and resourceful character, sounds like. But this type of lifestyle, living off the land, is something very rare to this age. Yet, there are rugged people that live in “out state” Michigan, the term that describes that part of the state far out from its large metro areas, that still live this way. There’s a lot to be learned from this life, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t want to live it by choice.

  5. Computerpunk says:

    Wow …. This really sounds like a person that we’ll look up to. I think you have an inspiring role model . Believe that you’re looking forward to become someone like your grandfather.

  6. Kim says:

    This sounds so much like my grandfather, brought back some wonderful memories. My grandfather and father-in-law were very much like this man. I still miss both men very much. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  7. Andrew La Barbera says:

    I like living simply,great idea but please like my father use to say about life in general,”I also like toilet paper.” To those who do not get it,I apologize.

  8. Manuel says:

    Ohmigosh, I had to read this twice. I love the idea, it’s simple and straight to the point.

    My favorite is the black book…

  9. Deanna says:

    wow all i dream about is living off the land. I have been told by friends of mine that i was born in the wrong era.

  10. Samantha says:

    This is actually very influencial to me. My dream is to live off the land as well. I have been studying my wild greens, and making traps, distilling water, and such. I now just need to find someone to come and share it with me. One thing I know is that you cannot find happiness if you have no one to share it with. humans need human contact! I have actually been setting at my desk in this dispicable office all day pondering on which second I am going to get up and walk out of here. Anyways, great story…something I will alwyas remeber and tell myself over and over again when times do get hard! Thanks for that.

  11. Brian fitzpatrick says:

    Great story,I happened to grow up that way,and then became misguided and misled into chasing the Fiat dollar to buy things that i thought i wanted but really didnt need,I have been buying the things that i consider will be usefull in going back to the land as i could afford them for the past couple years.I am a merchant mariner working on a seagoing tug,currently in Puerto Rico.This is my last regular hitch,ive informed boss that i will fill in as relief for a period,but basically,I,M OUTA HERE.you have some really good reading,Goodluck,Godbless and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, Brian

  12. alan cox says:

    your grandfarther sounds like a top old digger, just been bush for the weekend meself could find it quit easy to live in the bush, the only hardship living in the victorian aussie scrub is water being in a drout.with the recetion goin to hit hard we might have to go back to our old roots.would be doin the earth a favour.Go green and be well.

  13. lynette says:

    Hi Trent! your website rocks! thank you for sharing, your story has touched my heart and your knowledge is truly appreciated and inspiring. I wish you well and look forward to learning more from you so that i too can free up. All of you good folks reading this, we are all doing the best we can, a little love and understanding for each other, ourselves, and all things will open the doors to the magic of the universe which is happening all the time and in all places. see beyond what you see. see what is constant, not changing and listen to the one thing that will always take care of you, your inner voice. it is speaking to you right now and always.

  14. Lee says:

    I love this!!! It has inspired me big time. I have been starting to work towards homesteading, and my wife and I have agreed that one night a week, we must power off our house, and live off the land for the meal etc etc.

    Our goal is to pinch every penny, and live off the land and what we can grow ourselves by the end of 2015 (assuming the aliens dont show up before Xmas 2012 hahahaah)

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