What Hurricane Maria Taught My Family About Life, Money, and Community


In September of 2017, Hurricane María blasted the Caribbean, causing huge amounts of devastation, over 100 deaths, and a massive breakdown of infrastructure. (See also: What You Need to Know About Filing an Insurance Claim After a Natural Disaster)

I live with my husband and our young children in Puerto Rico. The hurricane itself was only the beginning. The real challenge came as we learned to manage life without a regular income, with limited transportation, and without power or running water for over two months. Here's what we learned about frugal living from that time.

1. Relationships are your greatest resource

As an introvert, I find it draining to spend a lot of time in groups. I used to resent the time and energy I spent on relationships and community building.

No more.

Hurricane María taught me that you're only as strong as your community, and that your relationships are your greatest resource.

When circumstances are good, it's easy to ignore this truth. You can feel independent when you're physically capable, financially solvent, and resource-rich. A crisis will quickly teach you that you need people. For example, there were no standard means of communication after the hurricane. We relied on each other for information, like which roads were clear and where the water trucks would be. The people you already know can provide you with valuable information. All you have to do is ask.

The day after the hurricane, groups from every barrio went out to clear the roads. We shared the tools we had to make it happen. My husband had files for tool sharpening, so neighbors would stop by to sharpen their machetes.

You don't have to own something to make use of it. If there's an item or resource you could need but don't need to use daily, you can borrow, rent, or pool money and purchase a shared resource.

2. Wise energy use creates efficiency

When you're functioning without electricity or running water, you become very aware of the energy cost of every task. We learned to combine errands and trips. If one of us was headed to the spring to fill our water jugs, we'd take the neighbor's empty jugs as well.

Energy is what creates value; by combining tasks and sharing resources, you use less energy to do your daily tasks, you create less waste, and you reduce your cost of living.

3. Everything has potential value

You can also lessen needless waste by sharing what you have that's not useful to you. Our 83-year-old neighbor was on a sodium-limited diet, so she couldn't eat some of the prepared meals that were sent with relief efforts. She gave them to my kids instead, who can (and will) literally eat anything.

If something isn't of value to you, it might well be of value to someone else. Sometimes we're embarrassed to share, or to ask, because we feel that we should be independent. This is nonsense. By sharing what you have, you reduce waste and make it easier for others to share what they have.

Empty flower pots and unused buckets became part of rain catchment systems. We turned old pallets into an outdoor shower. All around us, people looked at their discarded, unused items and saw new uses and new value.

4. Skills matter more than money

It didn't take long for most of us to run out of cash after the hurricane. When there's no power and no communication towers in service, it doesn't matter how much you have in the bank. It's as inaccessible as the moon. Luckily, we learned that there are other ways to get what you need.

My husband is a skilled mechanic with multiple certifications. That's not what he was doing for work before the hurricane, but it quickly became an in-demand asset after the hurricane. People with broken chain saws and generators started showing up. All of us were cash-strapped, so we bartered.

If you have specialized skills or expertise, you have a means of creating and exchanging value.

5. Overlapping needs are opportunities

A friend of ours was trying to contact his wife, who was off-island during the hurricane. There were a few satellite phones in use, but you had to stand in line, sometimes for hours, to get a turn. He dropped his kids off with us, so they could play while he stood in line; then he was able to make his call, and a call to our relatives, as well.

Look for overlapping needs and shared points of interest. These are opportunities to reduce wasted energy and accomplish more for less. It also simplifies life!

6. Expectations are your greatest drain

Things don't have to look the way you think they should look. Once you let go of your expectations, you are free to be more creative and make the most of what you have.

Because we are connected, constantly, via technology, it's easy to compare our choices and lifestyles with others. But trying to live up to standards set by people in different circumstances, with different goals, will always set you back. We need to tune out comparisons and tune into what works for us, in our current situations.

A satisfying, nutritious meal, for example, might not look like anything you'd see on a restaurant menu or on your Instagram feed. It might be a plate of beans and a handful of bean sprouts. It might be a huge avocado.

This lesson applies to every lifestyle choice: your clothes, your house, your furnishings, your hobbies, your food, your social commitments. One of the most powerful things you can do in your frugal journey is to ask how much you value something, apart from expectations and comparisons.

And if you don't truly value something, why spend your money and energy to achieve or maintain it?

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