Imagine going to the store to pick up some everyday item – say, body wash for the shower – and not being able to find your usual brand. In fact, you can’t find any brand. The store is completely out so you have to go with bar soap.
In the grand scheme of life, this isn’t a big deal. Soap is soap is soap, right? But in the United States, we have become spoiled with choices. In even a small-town store, there are dozens of options for body wash, lotion, toothpaste, and all the other things we consider necessary to live a civilized life. Don’t like the fragrance? Just go with a different brand. That laundry soap works better on your delicates and this one works better on work clothes.
This is NOT how it is in other countries. In fact, you regularly have to substitute something else entirely for the item you went to the store to purchase.
I would imagine that is also similar to how it may look in the US as the supply chain continues to crumble and personal finances keep plummeting. After all, in places like Venezuela and Greece, we watched on the news as people stood in long lines hoping to find basics like soap, diapers, rice, and cash from the ATM.
In the spirit of adaptability and resilience, let’s talk about life with limited options.
Some Americans are already accustomed to life with limited options.
Some folks are in positions in which you eat what you’re served, you use the products that are supplied, and you drink the coffee that is available. Your options are to take it or to leave it. People deployed overseas to dangerous places have a few choices on the base instead of the dozens of choices they’d have in the US. This has prepared them for the retail austerity that we’re just lately beginning to see in the United States.
Folks who have lived in poverty for a long period of time tend to be accustomed to a lack of choices because their decision-making is largely driven by price. You don’t see a lot of people who are truly struggling using salon-quality shampoo – they pick up a bottle of Suave or the store brand.
Also, folks in remote areas have fewer choices due to limited transportation. They have a couple of different stores to go to, and the stores must stock the products that most people want, not a broad assortment of specialty items. The advent of Amazon and other internet merchants has helped those in isolated areas have a broader selection, but if the item is needed right away, the choices are fewer.
But the culture of abundance in the US is changing.
We’ve published quite a number of articles on this website about the fragility of our supply chain. Not only are grocery stores showing the strain, but so are clothing stores, hardware stores, appliance stores, and places like Walmart and Target.
All you have to do is walk into any department store. Where do you see the bare spots? That’s where the products we used to get from China used to be. It should be a vast shock and an awakening that so much of our manufacturing has gone to China to give us our quick fix of shoddy yet shiny merchandise at low prices. Nearly all the things that are now limited are because either the product itself or a vital component of it is made in China. Months ago, I warned that we’d soon be seeing supply chain issues of these essentials that formerly landed on a regular basis from China.
And this is just the beginning.
The difference between a lack of options and shortages
The word “shortage” is being thrown around a lot and it’s being misused. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word shortage as “a situation in which there is not enough of something; a lack of something that is needed.” We had a shortage in toilet paper and cleaning supplies last year, but if we’re being pedantic, we are not currently suffering from “shortages” in food or consumer goods.
What we’re experiencing right now is a limit of options. No longer can you walk into the store and have 17 shades of beige from which to select your bathroom towels. When bopping around internet forums and chat groups, I’ve seen people complaining about this type of thing. We’ve lived for so long with such an abundance of variety that to many folks, it seems positively unthinkable to no longer be able to spend a half-hour waffling between cerulean, navy, and indigo for your placemats.
But it’s important to be clear that at this point, we may not have huge numbers of options, but we can still eat food from every food group, clean our homes, buy socks and underwear, and get dish soap. Real shortages are when there’s simply nothing to buy.
I’ve lived outside the US for most of the past two and a half years, in southern Europe and Mexico, and the type of choices we have in American stores is absolutely unheard of elsewhere. I wrote about the grocery stores:
Let’s take meat, for example. Here in the United States, our stores have a lengthy expanse with hundreds of packages of meat down one aisle of the store. Outside the United States (at least where I spent most of my time) you had a little corner with a couple of chilled cases of meat. In those cases you could find chicken in perhaps three forms – whole, cut up with bone-in, and chicken breasts. For beef, you might find a roast and ground meat. With pork, you might be able to get a tenderloin, a larger bone-in roast, and some pork chops.
Moving along to other sections of the store, produce is not a vast corner with 25% of the contents of the store. It was a small section and the options were fairly basic. You didn’t have 17 brands or types of potatoes from which to choose. You just had potatoes in general in a large bin where you reached in and bagged your own.
There was food, and plenty of it. It was just that you didn’t have 29 different brands of salad dressing. You didn’t have as much processed food. You had access to basics. (source)
So while right now it feels like we have shortages, there are really only a few things that are actually in short supply. Currently, in comparison with many other parts of the world, we still live in the land of plenty. The sooner you adapt to limitations, the better off you will be when true shortages occur.
Living with limited options
The key to not feeling deprived is learning to live within our current limitations. Whether that is a lack of food options, undesirable homekeeping items, or a lack of money, we need to learn to manage this. Here are a few tips to help adapt.
Try to think in terms of “different” instead of “worse.” The most important thing of all is to adjust your mindset away from one of deprivation. Where I live currently is beautiful with a year round growing season. Glorious, farm fresh produce is everywhere. But you can’t find the same kinds of processed foods that are readily available in the United States. At least in the part of Mexico where I live, you can’t pop into the grocery store and buy a frozen dinner or a frozen pizza or the same brands and flavors of potato chips they have in the US. I’ve heard ex-pats complaining about the “lack” of food when it’s literally growing all around us. But it’s different and some people are creatures of habit. Different is difficult for them.
I choose to look at the local food options and see them as a culinary adventure. I ask the local vendors how to cook things like jicama and plantain and they’re nearly always happy to make suggestions. (Although sometimes our conversations take place via a translate app on our phones.)
Your favorite brand of detergent isn’t there? Well, there are two kinds to choose from and the ingredients to make your own. Therefore, laundry soap is available.
Learn to cook with different cuts of meat and in-season produce. Maybe you wanted to make beef stew but there’s no stew meat available. Grab an inexpensive cut of roast beef and either ask the butcher counter to cut it up for you or cut it up into stew meat yourself once you get home. Learn to debone a chicken (here’s a quick video) and be sure to put those bones in the freezer to make some stock later on.
Start shopping for seasonal fruits and vegetables. You’ll save money, eat better, and you’ll be looking for what’s available as opposed to blueberries in December.
Buy locally. I can’t say this enough – you need to shorten your supply chain. By limiting the distance your products must travel to get to you, you will naturally have a more abundant selection. If I were to buy household goods here in Mexico, I could easily find pottery and copper, but stainless steel is an item that comes from much further away, and therefore, my selection is very limited.
This is true of household goods, manufactured goods, and food. Focusing on a local diet is essential for self-reliance.
Produce what you can. Are you producing or simply consuming? Surviving the current economy requires that you be a producer instead of a consumer. It’s not enough just to buy locally. You need to also be producing some goods. Building, sewing, needlecrafts, gardening, foraging, hunting, and animal husbandry skills will be more and more important.
Make sure to stock up on heirloom seeds while you can, as well as supplies and tools for the other items you produce. As well, learn multiple ways to preserve your extra food so that you have plenty to eat when harvest time has passed.
Make things last. Learning to mend, repair, maintain, and alter the goods you already have means you don’t need to replace them as often. Most folks really don’t think about how quickly things wear out when you use the same items all the time. My wardrobe is small since I’m mobile, so I’ve been wearing things out a lot more over the past two years. I hadn’t considered how often I replaced socks or how quickly I’d wear through shoes if I only have a couple of pairs for every day use. I’ve never darned socks so much in my entire life.
Being able to alter clothing for growing children and for hand-me-downs can help reduce your wardrobe budget as well. Maintaining your essential tools means they will be in good shape when you need them most urgently. Instead of replacing, start repairing. A lot of small components are becoming more difficult to find, so get your spare parts now. Keep a few handy items on hand for quick fixes.
Use creative problem-solving skills. Finally, the most important thing is to learn to solve your problems creatively. Whether you call it workarounds or MacGuyvering, figuring out ways to fix things or make them using limited supplies is one of a preppers most vital skills.
When you have a repair done in Mexico, sometimes the handyman will ask you if you want it done the American way or the Mexican way. The American way will be prettier and the “proper” way to fix it while the Mexican way will be a little more labor intensive, require easy-to-obtain parts, and will be a whole lot cheaper. That’s why the USB port in my Jeep was repaired instead of replaced and why my bathtub gets filled using a garden hose that hooks up under the bathroom sink.
You may look at these kinds of alternatives right now with disdain, but I assure you that the ability to create a “redneck repair” will serve you well in the future.
This doesn’t mean there are no shortages.
There certainly are shortages of things like deep freezers, canning jars, certain automotive components, and specific foods. But we’re still at a point where we can work around this and keep living a lifestyle that is fairly normal.
However, it may not always be that way. As our economy continues to crumble we’ll see fewer imports and less manufacturing. After all, how are people without money going to buy consumer items? We could reach a point at which even if you have money, the items you want to buy are unavailable.
Start living more simply and going by the Great Depression credo: use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.