Money Is Not the Motive

What’s the use of happiness? It can’t buy you money.

Henny Youngman

I can’t say money doesn’t matter. A lack of it, as well as some fairly stiff standards to meet, has prevented my wife Emma and I from buying land after two years of looking. It has led us to places we’d never planned to live but where we could afford to buy property. We have currently stopped looking because we need to reestablish ourselves. In short, however far along the permaculture path we have wandered, we are certainly not out of the weeds of finance yet.

Nevertheless, even though it seems we need more of it, money is not the grand motive for how we live: In a studio with a loft, something akin to a student apartment. We work a couple of part-time jobs each, one that allows us green pursuits and another creative outlet. We have made more money elsewhere doing other things, but in essence, we’ve moved on from that life. It’s difficult now to retreat from the progress (though, financially speaking, it’s the opposite) that we’ve made.

Even so, we now find ourselves here, in this apartment, with jobs to walk to five days a week, and rent due at the beginning of each month. For us, this is getting back towards societal norms. We’ve been volunteering on farms, trading labor for room and board, for a long time now. We’ve traveled up down Central America, into Colombia and Ecuador, over to Spain, and ultimately found ourselves back where we began the trip: Antigua Guatemala. We hope to live here for the foreseeable future. The problem is that land is just too expensive for saving accounts built on teachers’ salaries we earned half a decade ago.

There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it, and when he can.

Mark Twain

Despite meeting very like-minded people during our travels, as really motivated permaculturalists, an issue we’ve continually encountered is that most folks just aren’t ready for the full permaculture ride, not right up front, and that’s what we are dying to create. Instead, we’ve been given patches of land to develop, generous gestures but, alas, ones that haven’t provided the opportunity to install lots of design elements we are anxious to implement. We have come to the conclusion that there is probably only one way we ever will: a place of our own.

After years of doing this, the projects had begun to feel unfulfilling, and though we were offered some amazing chances to stay here and there indefinitely, sometimes with money in the equation, we ultimately couldn’t live with the thought of pouring ourselves into yet another less-than-ideal design to have it disappear after we’d left. We knew that it must have been a clear sign that we were ready to cash in our chips and hang up our backpacks for a chance to design true to our vision.

As our skills have grown, so have our needs for the opportunity to realize them. We’ve worked extra hard. We’ve put in extra hours, immersed ourselves in the tasks at hand. We’ve done this because each project has meant something to us. We had the passion, but the overwhelming majority of people whom we stayed with were more content enabling impassioned people to do something than actually gardening and utilizing the systems themselves. For us, the trade was meant to be something more than room and board. We were creating for the betterment of the planet, helping others get there with us.

Video: TEDxO’Porto – Mark Boyle – The Moneyless Man

Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit.

George Carlin

It was never solely about what we were getting in return so much as creating gardens that were inspired and inspiring, learning and sharing, and collectively moving towards a more enlightened way of living. It was a joy, a passion, and money never really factored in so long as we were safe, sheltered, fed, and fulfilled. Neither Emma nor I would have ever worked this way for payment alone. What we were doing, what we strive to continue doing, is much more relevant than money, an economic system that is incrementally failing us all.

We’ve traded 20-25 hours a week for modest living accommodations—it’s been in tents, in open-air lofts, guest rooms, caravans—and food, which, with any luck, we’d soon be growing some of in the garden we’d created on the property. But, in the end, for our hosts, for most of them, I don’t think it was so much about the money, either. We became friends. We shared ideas about the world, how to improve it, and often they really appreciated ours, though most were not quite ready to go so far as we’d like to.

Permaculture work has never been a laborious for us or any great sacrifice, nor have we ever fostered any dream of a life of riches—at least not monetarily speaking— coming from it. Permaculture has always been something we wanted to do, so much so that we’ve scarcely earned a wage over the last few years and the thought of giving it up—the volunteer life—for “real” work has been utterly terrifying. But, that’s what we’ve done.

If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.

Woody Allen

We’ve been actively searching for land for years now. We’ve had some really close ones, times where we went all in only find ourselves come up short on buying something. Our last effort, in Belize, ended after six months of trying to sort out legal strings that just couldn’t be untangled. We took it as a sign to step back, to come at the situation differently, and for us, that meant moving back to Antigua Guatemala, where the adventure had begun back in November of 2013. We decided to rent an apartment, get jobs, and see what happened from there.

It’s a difficult thing, explaining our permaculture project to people. Everyone seems to focus on the financial side of things, “the business model”. We are not so pie in the sky that we’ve not thought about income, but what truly baffles most is that our idea is first and foremost a project for our life and home. It is meant to be a place to express, as best we can, all of the green, sustainable, and self-sufficient ideals that we’ve developed through our previous work, study, and experience. Money is only a factor so much as we have to pay for it.

After the initial set up, we imagine a low cost of living, achieved by growing most of our own food, by having renewable sources of energy and water that don’t require monthly bills, and by creating cycle “waste” systems that mean we won’t lean on outside inputs. For actual income, I can continue writing, and Emma can continue with her artisan projects. These have supported us for three years now, a time filled with learning, adventure, and genuine happiness, but one alas that seems to have run its course and landed us back where we started, now with fresh perspectives.

Check out this article: The Possibility Alliance: Ethan Hughes’ Educational Homestead

In spite of the cost of living, it’s still popular.

Kathleen Norris

We do hope the homestead can eventually provide some income through a nursery, small-scale products, classes, workshops, tours, and perhaps a campground. It will never make us rich, nor does it need to. In fact, we aim to stay away from that so as to not distract ourselves from sacrificing green choices in the pursuit of profits. The businesses—each a supportive role in the larger project, like a healthy ecosystem—are not our priority. A home is.

We have lived what most consider bare bones for years now, by choice rather than necessity, and doing so has led us closer and closer to a consciousness that better suits our lifestyle goals. Relying less on money has more often than not equated to better care for the environment and for ourselves. We are active and build forests. We eat healthy, homegrown food. We no longer use chemicals on our body or in our home, but actually make our own toiletries and cleaning products. We pursue things that stimulate our bodies and brains. Life is good this way.

Unfortunately, we are stuck with the fact that the price for the amount of land we want, roughly a hectare, in the place we want it, Antigua (or near), usually comes at a price beyond our savings accounts. We have tried different locations, where the land is more affordable, but ultimately could not make it work. We are back here to explore what other options exist: partnerships, sponsorships, and so on. We are unwilling to take out a loan, something we believe would put undue pressure on the “success” (financial, that is) of the project. We are unwilling to put business ahead of ideology. Consequently, we are without the immediate right move.

A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain.

Robert Frost

However, in this struggle, we are finding interesting solutions: Jobs in which we can work towards certain goals of our project, a strip of land in front of our apartment where we can grow some food (Emma also gets free organic veggies via volunteering), and a network of like-minded people through pursuing that which inspires us over what pays the most. We have many offers to help with exciting projects around here, and that may end up the route that gets us where we need to go. What it surely says is that now is not yet the time to let money start making our decisions for us.

Why, some readers may be asking, is this of any interest to me? The best answer that I can give is that I know there are many others out there, people working towards similar goals, and sometimes it’s just nice to hear that you are not alone, that other people also believe it can happen, that so much effort is not for naught, that there is hope and hope is worth having, that there are ways to get there poco a poco, just the same as we build our gardens, implement our clever designs, and learn to live a life that comes from the gut and heart rather than the bank. This is an important part of what we are doing in the permaculture revolution.

Feature Photo: Money IS Not the Motive (Courtesy of Pictures of Money)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. The perception of Quality of life or our individual effort to live as well within our Likes is a constant an challenging effort ! I have found also this changes over time….. speaking for myself only of course ! If we are fortunate an have children then the greatest Desire is for my children an grand/children to Find that comfortable sweet spot ….That draws you an challenges you to when you finally can say……Yes…..This is where I belong , this is why I enjoy the challenges that come with the way I Live ! Just My Thoughts !

  2. It is the journey that is most impacting. You have lived a robust journey and continue to do so. This is most important. The setting of roots you speak of may hold you back from your journey, so I commend you on not putting down roots too quickly, they take time and are often very diffiult to take up and move. Wake knowing the this journey is your own unique experience and share it, I connect with your drive and appreciate your words.

    Money is a challenge as it is designed to make us do certain things in certain ways. The mission hidden within Permaculture is to undo those habits and create holistic ones that build on themselves to benefit all, to step away from the brief satisfaction of a new disposable item and to step into the life of deep meaning, deep understanding and surrvender to the flow of nature. It is our time and our destiny to reconnect with what creates us and sustains us.

  3. A really interesting perspective. We are land owners who want to offer an opportunity and we are wondering what model of exchange in your experience works the best. Thank you.

  4. Im sorry for your troubles in pursuit of your dream. I would like to point out tho that for the past 20 years we have been going through a commodity cycle like none befor thanks in no small part to China. This has had the effect of pushing up land prices around the globe to outrageous prices. However that cycle appears to be over and I suspect just as commodities prices have dropped land prices will soon follow.
    There should be more than a few good land deals over the next few years as less successful farms enter into foreclosure. That will be a good time to enter the market

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