As a young child, I distinctly remember playing around in my parents’ garden and dreaming about building a cabin in the woods and living off the land. I did not tell anyone. With a child’s intuition, I felt certain that it would be considered naive and silly. So instead of exposing it to the world, I tucked it away in a secret corner of my heart.
Later, as I entered my early teens, the dream faded into the background. I had always done reasonably well in school, and as so many others who did reasonably well in school, I was expected to get one of those ubiquitous educations. Influenced by those around me, I allowed myself to go with the flow, further and further away from my childhood dream.
It still cropped up in my life through hobbies and interests, such as working as a landscape gardener in summer, learning to sew and weave through a Viking reenactment group, and my ever-present interest in cooking, particularly electricity-independent preservation techniques, such as canning and fermenting. But it was always on a hobby basis. I assumed that I would do what everyone else was modelling. Which was getting a job, finding a partner, buying a house, having children, and pay off a mortgage. Not necessarily in that order. Because this was modelled all around me, it was a truth I never questioned. And like a leaf on the wind, I let life carry me along wherever it seemed to go.
It was as much irresponsible as it was entirely normal. Which is why this post is all about having goals and working towards them.
That daily grind
I’m sure many of us can recall a time as children when we were given a shiny coin and admonished to take good care of it, maybe even save it? I don’t know about you, but I was horrible at saving for any length of time as a child unless I had a set goal. If I was saving up for that book or that CD, it was not as alluring to buy candy and snacks. At the same time, I seemed to lack ambition. I never really thought I would ever be able to afford one of those more expensive wants, such as a telescope, musical instrument, or large jigsaw puzzle.
As adults, I think a lot of us are the same. Humans, as a rule, are bad at planning far ahead into the future. If something takes more than a handful of months’ paycheck to save up for, it seems nigh insurmountable. Mortgages/rent payments are something we just pay every month because we’ve always done so. That is, until we have paid so much off that we regain flexibility and freedom in our budget (or receive a raise). Then, we sell and buy something more expensive (or upgrade, in the case of renting), putting ourselves back in debt shackles again and keeping us working. It is the normal we have come to expect, because everyone has mortgages, right?
I was much the same. I aimed towards a 9-5 Monday-Friday day job and saving up for a house, even if that thought did not particularly excite me. During our two years in London, I was stuck in jobs where I was unhappy and was left exhausted and sick, mentally and physically. This lesson taught me, irrevocably, that 9-5 Monday-Friday without escape was a prison I would rather not spend 40 years in.
While my present position is a much better fit, I still know that working full time for someone else is not something I want to do for the rest of my life. Those two years were also a time where I had the strange attitude that all we had to do in London was to survive. So terrified was I of not being able to pay our rent for the full two year period, that it was my only focus. Once the rent, food and my student loan were paid, we spent what little was left on cinema, going out, food treats and even (gasp) once on a dress that nearly set me back £100. What was I thinking?
In retrospect, it’s easy to see what happened. When we first got to London, Mr. E. had his scholarship, and I had some £5 000 saved up to get us started. The first job I got paid less than my half in rent, so I had to drain the savings even while working full time. This galling experience and endless rejections made me solely focused on surviving. With this as my only goal, it was also the only thing I did. Anything and everything else (like hey, saving?) were eaten up by the ever-present fear of not having enough money and going into debt or worse yet, being evicted. That never happened, luckily, but I spent many a restless night fretting over it.
One thing that kept me going during this time, was the dream of one day building an eco-house with Mr. E. and surviving largely off our own produce with nothing but property tax and the odd coffee or chocolate on our bill. But at this time, I was only a dream, we were taking no actionable steps towards it. And no, sharing lots of pretty pictures of your dreams with your significant other in a shared folder in Dropbox does not count.
Reclaiming our goals
During this time, Mr. E. and I had been dabbling at writing, Mr. E. much more so than me. Writing is a really kind hobby in the sense that it cost next to nothing. Got a laptop? You’re set.
While I didn’t dare really believe, I started kindling a small dream that one day, if I just kept my expenses low, I’d be able to pay my half of the bills through something not related to my main job. One of my problems, though, was that I was often too mentally exhausted after a bad day at work to have any leftover energy for creative work. While I enjoy writing, I also enjoy making things with my hands. I entertained ideas of sewing, working with clay, even selling sauerkraut and other fermented goods, but eventually scrapped all those ideas for various reasons. Some I saw as too complicated (food safety laws), and others as having too high start-up costs (ceramics).
In the end, I realised that “Hey, you have a chemistry background, and you like making natural things. Why not revisit your brief array into cold-process soap making?”. That idea latched on, and when we returned to Norway in May, I slowly started looking for supplies and experimenting. I was both carefully optimistic and at the same time trying to take charge of my own life.
This invigorated me. So, while staying with my friend in their newly bought house with a garden, I started looking at ways to make my own garden in the woods a reality. This was when I discovered Mr. Money Mustache and later the Frugalwoods. It was a message I was more than ready to receive, and I devoured the content in a few weeks. I could feel myself regaining confidence in my childhood dream of a large garden (now the dream of a forest garden), and to hell with keeping up with the Joneses. I would not settle for 500 square meters of suburban garden sadness. Not that there is anything wrong with a lovely 500 square meter garden, it is just not what I want.
In short, I was finally starting to throw out the goals I had been fed and replacing them with my own. Goals that I, hitherto, had thought of only in vague dream-like ‘one day’- phrases. Previously, I had felt trapped when I realised my education as an environmental chemist locked me into targeting major cities for jobs (something I had not realised when I started). Now, I knew that if we buckled down and both saved hard and worked on our side hustles, we could achieve our shared dream of living in the woods with hiking opportunities and berries, mushroom and other amazing treats right outside our doorstep, and it could happen within a decade. It was an amazingly empowering experience, and it is one I try to remind myself of every day.
For us, the way to get there is largely through frugality. Let me tell you, this is joyful frugality to the bone. Working towards a goal like that, how can we feel anything but joy? Thinking of the house we’ll have one day, I have no issue packing food every day or pouring boiling water into my bowl of oats for lunch. It makes us say no to the cinema and invite friends over for board game night instead. It makes us hike through the woods in autumn to pick lovely, tart, underappreciated lingonberries to make jam with (which we both love), instead of buying it at the store.
In short, our dreams and our frugality combined is already providing us with a better quality of life, and we have just barely gotten started.
Are your goals keeping you on the path to plenty?