Saturday 18 April 2009

Economic survivalists take root

By Judy Keen, USA TODAY
When the economy started to squeeze the Wojtowicz family, they gave up vacation cruises, restaurant meals, new clothes and high-tech toys to become 21st-century homesteaders.

Now Patrick Wojtowicz, 36, his wife Melissa, 37, and daughter Gabrielle, 15, raise pigs and chickens for food on 40 acres near Alma, Mich. They're planning a garden and installing a wood furnace. They disconnected the satellite TV and radio, ditched their dishwasher and a big truck and started buying clothes at resale shops.

PHOTO GALLERY: A survivalist family

"As long as we can keep decreasing our bills, we can keep making less money," Patrick says. "We're not saying this is right for everybody, but it's right for us."

Hard times are creating economic survivalists such as the Wojtowicz family who are paring expenses by becoming more self-sufficient.

Reviving "almost lost" skills and preparing for tough days make people feel more in control, says Charlotte Richert, consumer sciences educator for Oklahoma State University's Extension Service in Tulsa County.

Karen Gulliver, MBA program chair at Argosy University in Eagan, Minn., expects the movement to grow as the sour economy forces people to reassess priorities. People are asking, "Do I really want to be 100% vulnerable with no self-sufficiency skills if something happens?" she says.

Some signs of the trend:

•Stockpiling. When the stock market drops, orders surge for freeze-dried food, survival kits and emergency supplies, says Nitro-Pak president Harry Weyandt. One best seller: a $3,375 food reserve that feeds four people for three months.

•Gardening. Sales of vegetable seeds and transplants are up 30% from 2008 at W. Atlee Burpee, the USA's largest seed company. The National Gardening Association says 7 million more households will grow food this year than in 2008 — a 19% rise. A book on building root cellars is the top seller at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine, supervisor Joann Matuzas says.

•Canning. Jarden Corp. says sales of its Ball and Kerr canning and preserving products are up more than 30% from 2008. Sonya Staffan, owner of The Jam and Jelly Lady commercial cannery in Lebanon, Ohio, is offering twice as many classes this year.

•Sewing. More people are learning to sew so they can mend clothes and make home d├ęcor, says Rachel Cohen, spokeswoman for SVP Worldwide, owner of sewing-products makers Singer and Husqvarna Viking.

•Relocating. Steve Saltman, general manager of, a national real estate company, says more customers want to "live simply in a less-expensive place." Jonathan Rawles of says more people moving to rural areas "are specifically worried about economic and social instability."

Patrick Wojtowicz's family decided to transform their lives when his paycheck began to shrink last year. A truck driver, he was spending more time on the road, paying his own expenses while waiting for loads. He disliked being away from home for weeks at a time and worried about losing his job. Melissa Wojtowicz is self-employed and works from home.

Their dual paychecks allowed them to live comfortably, but they weren't satisfied, Patrick says. "We would basically buy stuff to feel good," he says. "When that stuff stopped filling the voids we had, we started analyzing what it was that we were really missing. We were missing being around each other."

The Wojtowiczes made a list of the things they could give up if Patrick quit his job and they relied on Melissa's income. They already lived in a house on property Patrick inherited from his father a few years ago.

Gabrielle "put up enough resistance to qualify as being a teenager," Patrick says, but soon she was reminding her parents to turn off lights to save electricity.

Steps such as that, and keeping the thermostat set on 63 degrees this winter, cut monthly electric bills from $300 to $150, Patrick says. He hunts deer and turkeys. Instead of buying books and going to movies, they visit the library weekly. For Christmas, they got canning gear so they can preserve the food they grow.

"The earn, spend, earn era has come to an end for us," he says on, their blog. "The idea of living a fuller, more satisfying life seems simple to us now. ... Money, cash, credit, maybe they don't matter. Maybe, just maybe, it is those things that impede our ability to be truly happy."

Whatever happens to the economy, the Wojtowicz family hopes to remain self-sufficient. Instead of spending their tax refund, as they usually did, they used it to pay down debt. They stopped using credit cards and they're trying to build up savings. "I'm working harder than ever," Patrick says, "but it's more satisfying work and ... it's much easier to sleep at night."

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