Living Off the Grid in Retirement
by Christine Tailer
There is necessarily a pragmatic side to retirement: how to figure out the nuts and bolts of a fiscally sound lifestyle that does not require a steady paycheck. When my husband and I began to look for a rural weekend getaway—a place to escape from the city once our children had grown—we knew that we really did not want to be strapped with two mortgage payments, and so we began to cut back on our non-essential expenses. We put every dollar we could into paying down the mortgage on our city home and paying off our vehicles. Thankfully we had never kept a balance on our credit cards.
For the next two years, while we looked for a rural property, we did not take any vacations. We stopped eating out on weekends. We even held back from buying new clothes, replacing only what was absolutely needed. We spent our free time dreaming and driving the back roads within a two-hour drive of our Cincinnati home, looking for that perfect piece of land. Finally, in the spring of 2003, we found and purchased a sixty-three-acre farmstead, in a little valley with a creek running through it with only an old barn and the stone foundation of the old farmhouse still standing.
We made the hour-and-a-half drive out to the property every weekend, at first sleeping in sleeping bags under the stars, until that first summer, when we began to build a small cabin. When most folk say that they “built a house,” they really mean that they hired contractors to do the work, but my husband, Greg, and I hammered every nail and cut every board that went into the little cabin. It was a bit of a challenge. The property had no electric lines running to it, so Greg designed an off-grid solar energy system, for which we purchased the component parts and, of course, also installed ourselves. The finished cabin measured sixteen by sixteen feet square and had an eight-foot-wide front porch. We also built a beautiful outhouse.
There was no running water, so we bathed in the half-mile of creek that ran through the land. I cooked our dinners on a small gas-fired camp stove. At night we lit oil lamps inside the cabin, and we would read. I even planted a small garden and set up two beehives, never having done either of those things before.
It is true that the first two years we owned the farm, we did in fact carry two mortgages, but we also continued to work our city jobs, still paying cash for whatever we bought. By the end of the second year, though, I was finding it more and more difficult to return to the city. I simply did not want to leave the peace and quiet of the creek valley, and, by the summer of 2005, the small cabin was really quite comfortable. A wood stove kept us toasty warm during the winter. We’d had a county water line installed, which ran to a frost-free spigot standing just in front of the cabin. We even built a solar-heated outside shower, though we still used the outhouse. Finally, one weekend as we were heading back to the city, we decided to make the move—to retire from our city jobs and city way of life and move to our off-grid farm.
We thought about it and decided to make the move the following summer of 2006. We announced our retirements to our respective employers and opted into their early retirement plans. I was a trial attorney with an in-house legal firm, and Greg was a mechanical designer. We continued to save every penny for that next year, and then, after fixing up the city house to its original 1907 beauty, we placed it on the market at a relatively modest price. We figured that, by the time we added up the taxes, insurance, mortgage, and utilities and waited for that perfect price, we would be losing money as we continued to carry the monthly payments. The house sold, and we invited our combined seven children to take whatever contents they wished. The furnishings of our six-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house would hardly have fit into our truly modest, tiny cabin, so we also advertised and held a huge yard sale, selling all of the contents that our offspring did not want, even moving the piano to its new home down the street.
That last year before our move, we did make the little cabin a bit more civilized. We applied for the necessary permits to install indoor plumbing and twelve-volt electric wiring. I had learned that outhouses were actually illegal in Ohio, even when placed square in the middle of a sixty-three-acre property, so we built a small room onto the back of the cabin to house a bathroom, a walk-in closet, and a utility room for the propane-fired, on-demand hot-water heater, as well as a washing machine that we ran by flipping a switch on our inverter, turning our twelve volts into one hundred and ten. Greg ran all the wiring for our solar-powered electric system, which now included satellite television and radio, cell-phone chargers, a refrigerator and deep freeze, as well as the washing machine. The size of the cabin was only a total three hundred eighty-eight square feet, but we felt so free! We had no mortgage and not a single utility payment.
For the next fourteen years I maintained my license to practice law, keeping just a few of my lawyer clothes, and took on appointments out of the county juvenile court. Greg took on some contract design projects, but at the age of fifty-two, I can say that for the very first time, I really was living my very own life. I was able to set my own part-time calendar. I was able to relax in the morning and enjoy a second cup of coffee, and I was always home well before the sun set. Granted, both Greg and I were fortunate to have careers where we could be self-employed and choose how much work we wanted to do. We were also fortunate to be able to work virtually, out of laptop offices, but our reality was that by choosing to live a minimalist lifestyle and by building everything ourselves, we were able to step aside from the rat race of monthly paychecks and bills.
Out-of-town family and friends were still able to visit us. When company came, we happily handed out tents and sleeping bags. We even built tent platforms and created a campground area. One night, several summers ago, we built a beautiful bonfire and had well over twenty overnight guests. So, if you think of it, we have really been living in a sixty-three-acre home.
We lived in our cabin for fifteen years. Time, however, does continue to march on, and as Greg and I grew older, we realized that we should make adjustments to our tiny-home lifestyle. Changes were coming our way and we were ready for the challenge.
Photo credit by Luke Stackpoole (London) @WithLuke or www.withlukestudios.com
Christine is a retired trial attorney who has lived for the past fifteen years on a sixty-three-acre, off-grid farm with her husband Greg, a retired mechanical designer. They have built everything on the farm themselves, from barns to their beautiful log home, and they farm themselves, using antique equipment that they have found at auctions and sitting unused in farm fields. They raised their children in Cincinnati, Ohio, and then, children grown, they followed their dreams, quitting their city jobs and moving to the farm. At first, they continued to work out of virtual home offices, but by the end of 2019, they gave up their professional careers and settled down to enjoy a fulltime farm life. Christine writes a weekly column for four local newspapers about her adventures in learning to live the country life, and, pre-COVID, both Christine and Greg gave presentations and hosted open houses on what they have learned about living with solar and wind energy.