I’ll be honest with you – my childhood was a good one, but also a pretty rough one. This goes probably for most kids growing up on a working farm: your parents are always busy, there is seemingly never enough cash and if you don’t do your chores, somebody might actually die. So like it or not, you learn a lot and you learn quickly. And in today’s article I’ll tell you about some of the more useful skills which have nothing to do with financial literacy but which save me a bunch of cash in everyday life.
Cooking without a recipe
The fun thing about living on a farm is that there is always some food around. But it also means that while there is always food around, you are likely to be missing ingredients that are not grown on the farm and you might not have the cash to run to the store to buy them. In my case, I’ve been in the kitchen since I can remember and I took on everyday cooking for the family as a tween. One of the things I learnt pretty early on is that you can make 5-6 different meals with the same ingredients. As example, if you have some potatoes, a beetroot, an onion and some carrots you can make: veg tray bake, a beetroot soup, potato beetroot gratin with a grated carrot side (add salt, pepper and vinegar or just mayo for the world’s simplest side) or even just mashed potatoes with a side of roasted veg and (since we had chickens), a fried egg for some fat and protein.
The idea is simple – what ingredients can you afford and how many different meals can you make with exactly the same set of base ingredients? I continue this now, making majority of my meals with very simple, affordable ingredients and only occasionally I splurge on something fancy. Over the years I’ve learnt which flavours I like, what I should keep in my pantry and how to manage a basic ration of carbs, fibre and protein ratios.
Appreciation for clothing
I am trying to remember an occasion where my parents would buy clothes for me outside of Christmas/birthdays past the age of 14 and I honestly struggle to find any in the memory. This doesn’t mean that I had no clothes – of course I had things to wear but it was also my job to take care of my clothing.
One thing worth pointing out is that I grew up in Poland, a country near-bankrupt because of the communism imposed by Russian occupation and at the time of my adolescence, with one in 9 people living below poverty line at the time. So really, even if you could afford clothes, you’d want to make them last.
In order for my clothes to fit properly and look nice I learnt to sew, hem, add/remove buttons and zippers and generally operate a sewing machine, courtesy of my maternal grandmother (she had an ancient Singer) and a friend, who happened to have a sewing machine at home. I also learnt promptly which fabrics last in a wash, what’s worth spending my hard earned money (I started earning my own money aged 12) on and what is not. This knowledge and skillset came in particularly handy when I was at university, barely making enough money to pay for food and clothes just weren’t in a budget – if something tore, it would need fixing and not replacing.
Now I use these skills to save few pounds on hemming trousers and skirts, fixing small tears (why does coat lining always tear so easily???) and plainly avoiding bad purchases.
Respect for everyday objects
In an economy where you have very little choice, you learn to take care of and fix things before you attempt to queue overnight to replace them. You wouldn’t throw a bike away just because the chain broke – you’d just fix the chain and take better care of it next time. You wouldn’t abandon a bucket just because there was a hole in it – you’d either fix the hole or use it for things which are not liquid.
Learning to respect items for the function they fulfill, learning to take care of things that belong to me and remembering that it’s usually more affordable and less wasteful not only result in me having a nice house, they also result in me keeping a lot of money in my pocket. Example? My sofa is close to 10 years old, but it’s in great condition. I spend a lot of time on it, but I make sure that if I drop anything which might stain or spill some wine over it (rare occasion, I try to drink at the table), I get it sorted right away. It’s the same for everything else I own – I use it, but I try to go easy on it. It might be why if I resell a handbag or an electronic, they’re always at A grade and fetching a good price. If I am giving something away, people think it’s near new. And if I keep things – they look and work well for a long time.
Ability to paint walls, unblock drains and spot house problems early
I remember that one time my mum and aunties decided to wallpaper the kitchen and I spent the weekend mixing the glue. And that other time when uncle and dad re-wired all the outdoor buildings and I learnt that electricity is really dangerous. And that time I spent a weekend on my knees trying to get plaster out of the carpet because one or other relative didn’t cover it properly when they were working on the ceiling. And that other time when my friend accidentally flooded the kitchen and I spent the next 2 hours moping, hoping that there is no water damage to the walls. And that other time when my parents were updating the old porch and I got to lay some of the new roof tiles. And that one time when my uncles dismantled the old wooden staircase and put in a new one and I got to use the big saw, and that… By the way, I didn’t grow up in a weird self-building commune, I just grew up in a really old house that needed a lot of work.
This is a curse and a blessing – living in an old house was just a tad traumatizing if you ask me. But learning how to maintain a building, take care of its insights and the decorative order have been incredibly useful. Now, instead of calling out a plumber I’m comfy unblocking drains and resolving air locks. If I want to redecorate a room, I’m fine saving a bunch by painting it myself. And as it turns out, my relentless quest for a house that is not falling on my head also benefits my neighbours because I simply do not let go and will pursue whoever needs to be pursued until work gets done. Yes, once it took me almost 2 years to have a tree cut down – right in time to stop it messing with the whole building’s foundations.
A strange mix of scarcity mindset and detachment from the fear of loss
I am starting to believe that what I’m about to talk about is unique to people who grew up in uncertain times. And what I mean is this: I often find myself thinking that I never have enough in my emergency fund. Or I never have enough in my retirement savings. Or I never have enough in my wardrobe. And yet, if I lose my wallet or a phone I don’t grieve for that loss – because while I never have enough, I also have so much that a material loss can always be replaced because most of them are not unique. Why being a nutcase like that is useful, you might ask? Because if I never have enough, in particular money, then I am able to priorities growing my wealth over things which hold less interest for me. And if I happen to risk losing some of this money, or a physical item, I don’t mind because I managed to obtain it once before and therefore empirically I know that it can be replaced easily.
Ability to accurately estimate my abilities against a task…
…and where needed, willingness to bring in professionals. My parents, ridiculously resourceful and skilled as they are, did not hesitate to ask for help. My dad knows nothing about wiring, but my uncle (RIP) knew quite a bit and therefore ended up being the brain behind the successful rewiring project. I know nothing about rewiring (other than what the current regulations are) and therefore I hired a company to rewire my flat. I know nothing about fixing walls, so my best friend’s husband popped over and replastered my living room wall. And when in work I was planning an augmented reality project, I had a tech lead, developer and a creative director on my project board. However, if a task seems within my reach, I will learn about it and I will push myself to do it. As example where I did not agree with my work’s financial adviser’s recommendation and found a pension pot which is better for me than the one he was proposing. Or instead of paying £15 to the vet every two weeks, I’ve learnt to trim my cats’ claws at home.
Throughout my childhood I’d occasionally help out either in my mother’s or grandmother’s garden. These gardens were typical at the time – small patches of land next to the house, full of vegetables. Aside from these, every Autumn ‘the kids’ would go into the field and pick dug out potatoes, beets and all sorts of other bounty grown on the farm. Being so close to your food supply really teaches you how to take care of plants around you. Now one of my favourite side hustles is growing plants and selling them on FB marketplace or gumtree for a small profit. Over the year this time consuming but very pleasant activity brings me around £50-£60. I also grow my own herbs such as rosemary, basil and parsley. These translate into small savings of around £0.50 – £0.80 per week (which is as much as Mr and I would spend on a pack of cut herbs on average). Most importantly, this hobby also gives me a tiny element of control over my environment and the satisfaction of sustaining a trace of control over what goes into my food.
I hope this article was interesting. If there are odd skills unrelated to how you make living paying off in your life, what are they?