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Buying time; The role of outsourcing in a self-reliant family

As a couple that is striving to be more self-sufficient and self-reliant, we find that we both have strong internal drives to do things on our own.  Everything.  Always.  Regardless of the number or complexity of projects going on, we would constantly worry about how we would find the time to get them done, let alone how we would learn the skills that would be needed to do some of them that were new to us.

Personally, I felt like I was not doing things “sustainably” unless I was doing them all on my own.  Of course, if anything is unsustainable, it is trying to do everything by yourself!  Funny enough, this realization came to me as I was reading to our kids one night from the “Little House on the Prairie” books (a great read for kids that are just getting into “chapter books”, by the way).  The family in the book has the skills to do almost anything required on a homestead…build a house from scratch, hunt and forage for most of their food, make their own clothes, you name it.  But even they needed to rely on their neighbors or visiting family for help once in a while.  In reality, it is nearly impossible for anyone to be completely self-sufficient.  The amount of skills, resources, and time required to do so are just not attainable for a single person/small family.

After a few years of crushing ourselves, Maria and I finally gave in and opened ourselves up to the idea that others could help us too.  At first, we had a really hard time picking which projects we could call in the cavalry on, and which to still tackle on our own.  Enter outsourcing!  As a person that manages people in my day-job, I routinely need to make decisions about what to work on myself, what tasks should be given to others, and who they should be given to.  At the core of this decision making process is a series of questions that you should ask yourself for a given task.

  1. Do I have the skills and tools that I need to do the job myself? If not, is it a skill that I want/need to learn?  If so, is now the right time, or is this the right job to learn these skills on?
  2. Can I do the job better than anyone else?  If not, what are the consequences if I do it incorrectly?  Could I use outsourcing the job as a way to learn some skills in a safer way?
  3. How long will this job take if I do it?  Can I afford for it to take that long, and what other things will not get done if I decide to do it myself?  Are there other places where my time would be more well-spent?
  4. How much would it cost for me to do the job myself in both time and money?  How does that compare with what someone else would charge to do the job?  Is it worth it?
  5. Is this something that I will get a significant amount of pleasure from doing?  Is there a strong personal driver that makes me really want to do it on my own?

Hopefully, by answering these questions, you should have a pretty good feel for what tasks/projects you want to get help on.  How different people answer these questions for the same task will very greatly depending on their skills, personal capacity, and finances, so don’t feel bad if at first you are making the decision to outsource some important projects.  We have been doing it much more often now, and have found some consistent themes for ourselves. The three most common examples of scenarios where this has led us to considering outsourcing are:

  • There are others that can do the job much better than us, and the consequence of doing the job incorrectly are high.  Good examples include felling large trees near our home, installing a transfer switch on our junction box for the generator, and building an elevated deck off the back of our house.  I felt like I could do most of these, but if I did them wrong, someone could get seriously hurt.  In these cases, we seek to take an “apprentice” approach to the outsourcing, offering our labor as a way to safely learn some skills and perhaps get a small discount on the job.  As an example, when we put our deck on a few years ago, I really wanted to learn how to frame, so I took three days off and helped the contractor to do the job.  He cut a few hundred bucks off the price, I learned some new skills, and in the process, I got hooked on country music!  Not a bad deal overall…
Tree down on power lines after Sandy in 2012.  Not a job to tackle on your own!!

Tree down on power lines after Sandy in 2012. Not a job to tackle on your own!!

Large elevated deck that we put on in 2011.  A little outside of my comfort zone, and a big safety issue if done wrong.  Great opportunity to learn from an expert!!

Elevated deck that we put on in 2011. A little outside of my comfort zone, and a big safety issue if done wrong. Great opportunity to learn from an expert!!

  • We need/want the job done quickly, but don’t have the time/skills to do it ourselves right now.  A good example here is replacing flooring in our bedrooms.  I knew how to do the job, but couldn’t dedicate the time needed to do it without significant interruption to sleeping arrangements, and we really wanted to get the old carpets out fast to alleviate the allergen load on Maria and the kids.  These are the hardest ones for me to let go because I know that I could do them if I had the time, but having a structure for the decision definitely made it easier.
New bamboo floors to replace carpets.  Not a terribly difficult job, but very time consuming to do alone.

New bamboo floors to replace carpets. Not a terribly difficult job, but very time consuming to do alone.

  • Routine tasks that are preventing us from making progress against other important objectives.  Our best example here is hiring a cleaning service.  We spend SO MUCH TIME cleaning our house, and it still feels like a wreck most of the time.  We currently only have a cleaning service in once a month, but the time that it frees up is amazing and totally worth the money.  Also, the relief of knowing that we don’t need to constantly be chasing dirt around the house in order to keep up is extremely liberating.  Another great example here is periodic short term child care.  Certainly, no one wants to think about the outsourcing of their own children ;-) but done in small bits, it can be very effective.  For example, Maria has found a small playgroup where she can drop off our youngest son for 2-3 hours once a week while the older guys are at pre-school.  While it seems like a short time, the amount of productivity that she can achieve with those few hours to herself is awesome.

“No man is an island”, and no family can be 100% self-reliant all of the time.  Once we came to this conclusion, we found that outsourcing could be a highly effective way of staying focused on the important things.  We are now able to get so much more done around the homestead, even freeing ourselves up where we are able to help others out and pay it forward, giving us an even higher feeling of community sustainability.

How about you?  Are there things that you are struggling that could benefit by getting some outside help?  We would love to hear examples of things that you have outsourced in your life!

Happy Easter!

Happy Homemade Easter!

I have to admit, holidays stress me out.  There is so much to think about – decorations to make or get out of storage, family events to plan or attend, food to make, gifts or supplies to purchase ahead of time, haircuts to schedule for three handsome boys, fancy clothes to be dug out of the back of the closet, the list goes on and on.  And now that we have started a family of our own, we are trying to create our own family traditions that we hope our kids will one day look back upon fondly and say, “remember when we all used to dye Easter eggs together?” or “remember those family Easter egg hunts when we would run around like crazy to see who could collect the most eggs?”.  I have to be really careful that my lists of preparations don’t get in the way of making those memories.  Because I don’t want my kids to remember a stressed out Mommy that didn’t enjoy our time together on the holidays.  And I certainly don’t want them to grow up thinking that Easter and Halloween and Christmas are just about the “stuff” that they receive from a fictitious animal or a big guy in a red suit.

To give you a mental image of my internal struggle, you can imagine me with a miniature Martha Stewart sitting on one of my shoulders telling me that I can do it all by hand and make it look effortless while a teeny tiny Dalai Lama sits cross-legged on the other shoulder urging me to live in the present moment and remember the spirit of the holiday rather than the commercial side that we see everywhere we turn (watch out, the stores will be carrying Halloween decorations before you know it!).  And I know that, for me, the answer is somewhere in between.  Because the truth is that I truly enjoy the homemade recipes and crafts that go along with the holidays.  But maybe I don’t have to do it ALL.  Maybe just one recipe and one craft per holiday can be enough.  And if they don’t turn out perfectly, maybe that’s okay, too.  We will still have fun making homemade memories together as a family!

Here are two traditions that we have decided to include in our annual Easter celebrations…


Natural Easter Egg Dyes

homemade Easter eggs with natural food-based dyes

not bad for our first try!

We tried this for the first time last year and the kids really enjoyed it!  It was a fun family activity that we definitely plan to repeat.  It was also a great way for the kids to understand the difference between those artificial dyes that Mommy is always griping about when they are on the ingredient list and natural food-based dyes that are totally safe to eat.  We started with this wonderful blog post from EcoCrazy Mom and chose one thing from each color to try out.  I only had to pick up a few things at the grocery store – pomegranate juice and tea bags – the rest of the ingredients were already in our fridge, freezer, or cupboards.  Here are the ones that we tried:

RED – pomegranate juice

ORANGE – paprika

YELLOW – ground turmeric

GREEN – spinach leaves

BLUE – frozen blueberries

PURPLE – Red Zinger tea bags


Spring- and Garden-Themed Easter Basket Surprises

Easter baskets filled with homemade candy and non-traditional gifts.

Easter baskets for our three little boys

Another tradition that we talked about a lot last year was what to put in the kids’ Easter baskets.  Thousands of years ago, Easter celebrations were a way to celebrate the end of Winter and the arrival of Spring.  That seems to fit naturally with what is happening around our homestead in March and April of every year.  We are typically planting new seeds , starting new garden projects, and getting outside as much as possible.  So we decided that the Easter Bunny will be filling our baskets every year with small gifts related to Spring or gardening or the outdoors.  Last year, that meant flower seed packets and caterpillars that we grew into butterflies and released outdoors.  We also included some homemade chocolate hearts, homemade coconut treats, and finger paint.  (And some wooden toys for the one-year-old.  But we plan to include him in the fun this year!)


Last year, I also gave in to the mini-Martha Stewart figure perched on my left shoulder and helped my four-year-old son to make Envelope Bunnies filled with homemade dark chocolate-cherry bark for each of the fifteen kids in his preschool class plus all three teachers.


homemade envelope bunnies to make with your kids for Easter

A fun Easter craft – Envelope Bunnies!

While this seemed like a great idea at first, it ended up being a bit more than I wanted to take on and I spent a few late nights cursing and trying to finish cutting out all of those bunny envelopes and silly pink ears and tying pastel-colored strings around each bag of chocolate bark.  (I never seem to think about all of the parts of a craft project that the kids cannot do when I plan it out in my mind!)  So, the moral of this little story is…I think it would be a fun craft to make for one or two or three people – maybe to put in your kids’ Easter baskets or to help them make as a gift for their grandparents.  But please do not attempt to cut out thirty-six pink bunny ears in one night.  Take it from me, it will only lead to frustration and scissor indentations on your poor little fingers.  Just stick with the caterpillars, they are much easier to manage and turn into beautiful butterflies all on their own!


releasing a butterfly into the wild after growing it from a caterpillar

releasing our butterflies


What family traditions are you starting this year?  What do you include in your kids’ Easter baskets?  Do you have any favorite Easter recipes to share?  We’d love to hear from you!


Have a very Happy Easter and enjoy making memories together!