Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Paying their way

Budgeting and householding

October 25, 2010

The other day my husband said something startling. He is apt to be a tad clumsy in his phraseology, but even for him, the sentiment was bracing: “Your efforts towards householding are corrupt unless you pay your way.”

Now, I understood what he was saying. Nothing, not the food we eat, soil I grow it in, house we live in, or the everyday comforts of my life would be possible if he did not pay the bills. Someone, somewhere, needs to pay the bills. That fact does not elude me.

However, one of the reasons I wrote my book was in defense of a lifestyle that “did not pay its way.” Which is why I was taken aback. Did he not read my chapter on Budgets?

While I have never ignored the serious conversations about social and financial inequities associated to class, race, and gender, I also believe our value and worth is deeply entrenched in a economic language that has all but captured our lives and imagination.

But that is part of my fancy talk; the ideological and linguistic carbon dating of a system that is, in my opinion, doing us and the planet a world of hurt. Yet the fact remains that most folks do not live in fancy-talk land, which is what I think he was trying to say.

I understood his point, at least in theory. But I also assumed we were a “what’s yours is mine” sort of team working together towards the same end, which brings me to the point of today’s householding rant: What happens when and if your partner(s) (be they housemates or married mates) decides their end of the economic formula — I’ll work “out there” you’ll work “in here” — isn’t working for them?

What happens if you don’t have a lot of nuts squirreled away somewhere when the bloom is off the heirloom rose?

It would be lovely (and a tad idealistic) to suggest that everyone who takes on this life will have a partner who understands the value of this work. To be fair, I don’t think I ever asked my husband if he was really on board. A good part (huge actually) of his perception of our lives together involved dual incomes and a fat nest egg for our retirement and for sending the kid off to college.

The Home chapter from Harriet’s soon-to-be-released book.

Though it was not really in my game plan to give up work “out there,” I did. After years in the grind I was sick of it all and thought repairing the planet (given its health and all), seemed awfully reasonable. The problem is, I never really sat down and talked to him about it. Oh, in a vague way — but I’ll admit, I didn’t imagine he would have a problem with it. I guess he knew, on an intellectual level, that what I was doing made sense. But on an emotional level he was not really on board. Which is why I think frank discussions about who we are and why we want to return to this life is so very important.

Householding can be a hard sell

One of the reasons this householding life can be such a hard sell, as it were, is because there has been a slow and constant disregard for the skills involved in doing it well, and that is a big mistake. Frankly, I’ve worked on some pretty complicated projects in my life but almost none of them as challenging as householding. Doing a job well is not the province of the career-bound. Figuring out all that is involved with householding takes work. It takes smarts, a good work ethic, and a commitment to a fair amount of tedium (which suggests the need for a fair amount of maturity).

Yet ever since industry has lured us from rural lands to urban blacktop, from our homes to the office; convinced us that education must come from academia, and given us a boatload of labor-saving widgets and foods to enjoy our in leisure and/or to manage the stress of an ever-increasing work day and ever decreasing pay scale (compliments of our famous global economy), we have forgotten what it really takes to make this householding stuff work.

But make no mistake, this work is as hard and honorable as any other, and anyone who says otherwise simply has not tried it. Dismissive attitudes aside, even the most committed go-go growth advocate out there is beginning to understand the broken promise of industry and our global economy (going to bed with China will be our undoing). Slowly we/they are beginning to understand that growth projections cannot be sustained, that a “correction” is coming, and that we better start thinking about a new way of measuring our production and worth as a nation.

I suppose I should be thrilled about those conversations about the new GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and how we need to re-calculate our notion of production. Pundits, politicians and economists alike are beginning to consider the value that comes from community volunteerism, raising our children, growing food and cooking meals to support the health and well-being of our families and neighbors.

Not that we householders really needed them to tell us any of that but it is step in the right direction, particular if we want to restore the dignity of our efforts. Frankly, it is not just my husband who has a problem with what I do at times but many others who consider it anything from elitist to a sure-fire trap for gender subjugation.

I understand the concern, but facing off with concerns is the opportunity, not running from them. I welcome the naysayers if only in an effort to flesh out the debate (I guess Shannon Hayes has taken a fair amount of grief for her book Radical Homemaker from those who might prefer we all get out and work for industry).

Budgeting, in the book.

But where I say we need to stay firm in our convictions I also say we need to get real. Which brings me back to the real conversations we need to have about “paying our way” in the event your partner decides your efforts do not cut the homemade mustard in the world of empire.

As I said, I spent a fair amount of time imagining what would stand for the new householding budget even though I hate the notion of the budget — “Not,” as I wrote in the book, “because I am frivolous, but because I never know exactly how to do them. As commonly understood, budgets imply an equation entirely too constricted for me. They do not include the true costs involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of foods nor an honest assessment of the embodied energy found in all products.”

Fancy talk aside, I did offer some concrete ideas towards affording this life, and I believe they are doable — not just for me but for the kids that will be inheriting this planet (fact is, this book is a love song to them).

But what I did not offer is the template for a legal contract that might need to go with this budget. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what it would look like, but it does seem to make sense to consider one. For now I suggest you sit down and discuss your vision with your partner. Decide how much time your family and housemates want to dedicate to this life. Discuss what you value and why, and then get it down on paper. Tuck it away with all your other important documents and, when and if the time arises, take it out to review it.

Doing so might help to dissipate the perils of (a) fancy talk and/or clumsy talk or (b) being left out in the cold.

I close with another quote: “None of it — not the meal, not the family, not even the roof over our heads would be there if we did not care for the soil. It was from the soil, the healthy fertile soil, that the foods and opportunities sprang forth for those who came to this land such a long time ago.” What opportunity shall we leave for our children? Who shall pay their way?

There are 9 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Katherine Deumling on Oct 26, 2010 at 11:06 AM PDT

Fabulous Harriet! Thank you.

2. by Fasenfest on Oct 26, 2010 at 4:32 PM PDT

Not a problem. Glad it rang a bell.

3. by Wendy Gordon on Oct 29, 2010 at 12:00 PM PDT

Harriet, another insightful comment. I reviewed your book in my latest blog post (wendy’s opinion on just about everything). I enjoyed meeting you at Wordstock and if you are looking for another recovering New Yorker who remembers Woodstock (just slightly too young to actually go there) I might even have an extra cup of sugar.

4. by Fasenfest on Oct 29, 2010 at 4:49 PM PDT

Hey Wendy,

Read your blog. Thanks and thanks and as soon as the dust settles I am sure to need some sugar.

5. by Kathryn H on Nov 24, 2010 at 6:15 PM PST

Harriet, I just picked up your book from the library and it is obvious that I will next be picking it up at the bookstore! I think I may have to hide it for 24 hours or Thanksgiving dinner might be late! Excellent work--thank you!

6. by Debbie on Nov 26, 2010 at 8:11 PM PST

Harriet, I just found your book. I love it! Your book discribes what I have been trying to live the past few years, thankfully with the full support of my husband. He loves the lifestyle my efforts bring to our home. You have organized householding thoughts and pratices in a way that I have been looking for to explaine what I do. Thank you for your thoughts and wisdom.

7. by Fasenfest on Nov 26, 2010 at 9:02 PM PST

Thanks Debbie, that’s so nice of you to say. By the way, does your husband have a brother? Ahhhhh, just kidding. I’m going to keep the old grump.


8. by Sue Gee on Feb 4, 2011 at 9:47 PM PST

Picked up a copy of the Portland Woman with your picture on the cover today. So what I have been trying to do all these years while holding down a full time job is really “Householding”. Interesting piece above. Just gave notice that I will be retiring in June, so now when people ask me what I will be doing I can tell them that I will be a “householder”. It is great to see the renewed interest in food preservation and all that comes with being responsible for feeding ourselves. It is good to have your writing and teaching as a resource for the local community.


9. by Fasenfest on Feb 5, 2011 at 7:31 AM PST

Awww shucks. I so much appreciate the sentiment.

As I try to sort out what this life really means (particularly with the pulse and rhthym of the modern world all around me) I find solace in thinking other folks are trying it on as well. More and more I am meeting others who sense the opportunity in this life and we are creating personal connections. Do you live in Portland? Sorry, maybe we are not supposed to be so personal in this forum. I guess you must live in Portland if you picked up a copy of that magazine.

I’m glad you are “retiring” either by the letter of the law or by your own revolutionary act. I will admit that my husband has never really warmed to my householding mission but I persist believing that women (and men if they choose) must stand up to the healing and wise wisdoms inherent to this life. I think it is time uphold the space as creator/nurturer and keepers of the life force that surrounds us if only because the role and life has been so completely disbanded and maligned. I’m not saying it for everyone but surely it is for many. Power suit my ass......give me a/some pot, a shovel and walk in the garden picking berries any day. Hell yes. I’m letting my feminine freak flag fly. But lest you take me all together to heart let me say, I can be a reckless soul and the more prudent and security oriented among us should think seriously about the consequences about going outside the mainstream system. If you read my book you will see how totally nutty/reckless I have and can be. But thanks.

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Culinate 8

Kale in the raw

Eight versions of kale salad

Eight ways to spin everyone’s favorite salad.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice