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The following characteristics are based on Ways of Wisdom’s study of five families living sustainable lifestyles in rural areas of Northeast Minnesota.  

1. Sustainable living is a deliberate lifestyle characterized by resourcefulness, self-reliance, and healthy physical work.

2. The decision on how to live and where to live take precedent over how to earn money.

3. Most income is earned through self-employment that is both creative and diverse.

4. Families earn a portion of their income through resources on their own property or those that are locally available. This would include forest products like timber and maple syrup, farming, gardening and seasonal recreation.

5. Cooperation with others is more important that competition with others.

6. Financial responsibility leads people to be frugal and avoid debt whenever possible.

7. People have an ethic of stewardship for the environment and are mindful of their responsibility to it.

8. Appropriate technologies, like renewable energy, enable rural families to live a modern lifestyle.

9. Sustainable living allows people to create and maintain their own life support systems such as housing, food, water, heating, and energy systems.

10. People value their time and have the flexibility to create their own schedules. This allows them time for work, family, recreation, quiet time, and volunteering to help in their community.


1. Cons for Self-employment

(A) These individuals are often self-employed and therefore do not have the security of a "regular job". This creates financial uncertainty. Since they are self-employed they rarely have access to benefits that an employer would provide. If they purchase health insurance, it costs more or has lower benefits than a health plan provided by an employer.

(B) Self-employed people often find it difficult to borrow money. So they often buy a small fixer upper house or build on a pay as you go plan. This means that the house may not be finished because the time and money to complete it hasn't been found. If there is an unexpected expense, it is difficult to pay for it.

(C) Due to the financial uncertainty created by self-employment, families are frugal and avoid debt. This means they probably can't or won't borrow money for a newer car. People tend to drive older vehicles that are not covered by warranty. These vehicles often require more maintenance to keep running and if a mechanical problem develops it is often expensive to fix.

2. Cons for Living in Rural Places

(A) Sustainable families in our study live in rural or remote areas of NE Minnesota. This means they are further from emergency services like fire and health care. In fact people in rural Minnesota pay more for fire insurance than families living in town. They may not even have house insurance because they burn wood in an unapproved stove.

(B) Living in remote locations often means that there are no utility lines to hook up to so people have to live without electricity or produce it themselves. If they produce their own electricity, they have to invest in the equipment to do this and then maintain the equipment. Even if families have a renewable energy system chances are it will not support power-hungry electric loads like a freezer or washing machine. If they don't have power they must adapt to a non-electric lifestyle.

(C) If there is no electricity available, the house will not have running water. People may have a well with a hand pump or they must get water from a local spring or artesian well. Without running water families can't have conventional toilets or bathing facilities. In this case most people either use an outhouse or composting toilet. Even if they have power available, they have to install or maintain a well and septic system.

(D) In rural areas there are fewer people spread further apart. This makes it more difficult to develop a sense of community. People who have chosen to move to rural Minnesota often are isolated from their extended family. Philosophically, sustainable living is not a mainstream lifestyle that people understand. There is often criticism from family and friends who don't understand why anyone would want to live that way.

3. Cons for a Hands-on Lifestyle

(A) Sustainable living is characterized as a hands-on, do-it-yourself lifestyle. People either chose to do things for themselves or they are forced to fix it or build it themselves due to lack of money. Either way, it requires time, skills, tools, and hard work.

(B) It requires lots of hard physical work to grow much of your own food, cut and split your firewood, and maintain your homestead.

1. Pros for Self-employment

(A) Self-employment gives people an opportunity to work at income producing jobs that they truly take pleasure in. It is the principle of "following your bliss". Since people are working at jobs they really like, they enjoy their work more and consequently are more creative and probably have lower stress levels than someone who is working at a job only to earn money.

(B) Individuals who are self-employed cannot rely on only one source of income from one job. People have several occupations or trades so they have a financial buffer if one source of income fails.

(C) Families who are self-employed often work at home which allows them to have more time with their children. Parents who work at home have the time to home-school their kids. The children then often contribute to the family business and learn responsibility at a young age.

(D) Since people are self-employed they have the flexibility to create their own schedules. This allows them to spend time doing what they determine is important. They have time to work, spend time with their family, recreate, develop their spiritual life, and help their neighbors.

(E) Families who are self-employed and live sustainable tend to be financially conservative. They often live on less income than their urban counterparts. This requires them to be frugal and have a pay-as-you-go philosophy. People realize that borrowing money creates a risk to their homestead and lifestyle and avoid debt whenever possible.

(F) Because self-employed individuals tend to live on lower income people develop strategies for getting their needs met. One of these strategies is to develop cooperative economies with other people in the community. An example of this form of cooperation would be the bartering of goods and services with others. Another would be a group of people joining together to form a food buying club that saves everyone money. These types of relationships foster cooperation instead of competition.

2. Pros for Living in Rural Places

(A) With today's technology families living in remote areas can still be connected with the rest of the world through modern information systems. This would include the telephone, Internet, and satellite television. People can attain college degrees through distance learning, research information on the World Wide Web, and sell their products and share their ideas with others through their web site.

(B) Rural living doesn't have many of the stress factors found in urban environments. There is a lower ambient noise level because of less industry, fewer people, and reduced air and ground traffic. The crime rate is generally lower in rural Minnesota compared with the larger cities. Also the air and water have less pollution that congested urban areas and less light pollution means people can enjoy the beauty of the night sky.

(C) People who live in rural places have space for growing some of their own food. Gardening is an important aspect of the sustainable lifestyle because people have the opportunity to work outdoors, get connected with their food supply, and eat healthy fresh food. Food production can also be a source of additional income through sales of excess produce at a farmer's market or local restaurant. Some families operate small farms and sell food through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation or raise animals for sale.

(D) For the most part families who live in rural or remote areas have made a choice to live there. Where they live and how they live is more important than where they work. This makes for a deliberate lifestyle in an environment of their choosing. They are not tied to a job that dictates where they will live, they have the control to make this choice.

(E) When you live some distance from town, you tend to reuse and recycle items rather than buy new ones. People buy in bulk so they have it when it's needed and they don't have to drive to town for every little thing they need. Neighbors also share tools and equipment, which saves money and fosters the spirit of cooperation.

3. Pros for a Hands-on Lifestyle

(A) Families living a sustainable lifestyle characteristically are do-it-yourselfers who are self-motivated and self-taught. People are constantly learning new skills and new information because sustainable living presents the opportunities to do so. They like designing, planning, and building projects on their homesteads. So this lifestyle is, by its nature, a creative one.

(B) Individuals do much of their own maintenance and repair work because it gets done the way they want it and they save money by doing it themselves. They have the control over the work and can do it when it needs to be done. Hiring someone else to the work can lead to delays, frustration, and expense.

(C) Sustainable living requires hard physical work at times. This can be tiring but the hard work engenders both good physical health and great mental satisfaction.

(D) People have more control over their living environment because they can maintain and repair their own life support systems, such as housing, heating, energy, water, and transportation systems. They also grow a portion of their food supply and thus have some control of their food system.

(E) Families who live sustainably often cannot afford health insurance or if they have any it has a high deductible. This requires people to take responsibility for their own health. They tend to cook their own meals rather than driving to a fast food restaurant that would be some distance away from them. And you can't order a pizza because deliveries aren't made to rural addresses. Because people grow some of their own food they recognize a quality of freshness compared to what can be bought in grocery stores.


Few people who are trying to live sustainably would claim to have mastered this lifestyle because there is always new things to learn and experience. The following information can be used by individuals to adjust to a more sustainable lifestyle if they desire to do so.

A. Personal Finances  

1. Reduce personal debt and then eliminate it. Pay off the small debts first to build confidence. 

2. Live within your means. Don't spend more per month than you make. 

3. Save a portion of each amount of money you earn, before you spend it on expenses. Pay yourself first! 

4. Create "loop funds" so regular income is designated for certain fixed expenses. This way you know that routine bills will be paid. 

5. Diversify your sources of income so you don't depend on only one way to earn money. 

6. Make wise investments so they produce alternate sources of income.

B. Reduce Your Expenses 

1. Grow some of your own food. Plant a garden. You not only save money but you get fresh air, good exercise, and fresh food. 

2. Buy in bulk from a local food co-op or join a buying club. 

3. Eat at home more often, its cheaper than dining out. 

4. Learn to do routine maintenance on your car or truck. 

5. Learn how the different life support systems of your home work so you can maintain them and even repair them. If you own your home do you know how the heating, water, waste disposal, communications, and electrical systems work? Knowing how something works will allow you to properly maintain it, thus extending its useful life and reducing the need for repairs. 

C. Be Kind to the Environment and Save Money  

1. Reuse and recycle common household items. Wash and reuse plastic bags, save milk cartons to start plants in, and keep scrap lumber for future projects. 

2. Reduce your electric bill by substituting energy efficient compact fluorescent lights for incandescent bulbs. Turn off lights when not in use. 

3. When you buy a new appliance purchase one that is energy efficient. 

4. To get the most from your transportation dollar purchase used vehicles that get good gas economy and have excellent repair records. 

5. Walk, bike, carpool, or use mass transit if available. Bunch up your errands so you reduce your number of shopping trips. 

6. Be kind to the Earth's ecosystem that not only supports your life but the life of every creature on the planet. Ask yourself how you can diminish your impact on the environment. 

D. Cooperate with Others 

1. Understand that in competition with others someone wins and someone loses. While cooperation with others is a win win situation. 

2. Support cooperative economics like trading and bartering goods and services, joining a food or financial cooperative, shopping at a local farmer's market, or purchasing a share in a local community supported agriculture (CSA) operation. 

3. Help your neighbors by sharing tools and equipment or lending a hand when it is needed. 

4. Volunteer in your community or at your church, join a service organization, or become a member of a county committee.

E. Planning and Goal Setting 

1. Evaluate your life and examine your values. Are you working at a job you love or working only to earn a paycheck? Does your lifestyle bring you joy? Are you using your talents and abilities the way you would like to? If you could live anywhere you wanted and do whatever pleased you, where would you be and what would you be doing? Would your life make a positive difference for others? 

2. Outline your personal and professional goals, then create a plan to accomplish them. Once you decide who you want to be, take steps to realize this vision. 

3. If you want to live more sustainably read books, research the Internet, attend workshops held at a sustainable living fair, talk with people who are trying to live sustainably and tour their homestead. 

4. Live intentionally. Make choices that actively support your ethics and the realization of your goals and objectives.

F. Take Responsibility for Your Own Wellbeing 

1. Get adequate exercise at least three times per week, spend a minimum of 10 minutes a day in the fresh air, eat a balanced diet that is preferable organic, get enough sleep each night so you are not drowsy during the day, and take a nap if you get tired. 

2. Take off one day a week and do whatever you want to do. Recreate, take a nap, just hang out, or enjoy your family and friends. 

3. Take an honest look at your habits, are they really good for you of not? Do you smoke cigarettes, drive while intoxicated, or eat fast foods too often? 

4. Manage your schedule rather than have your schedule manage you. If your life is so busy that you have no spare time for yourself perhaps it's time to cut back on some of your activities. 

5. Do you acknowledge and connect with the spiritual portion of your being? Do you take time each day for a quiet period of reflection and introspection, prayer and meditation?

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