At first glance, there’s nothing all that unusual about Michael Cellini’s house.
There’s a long driveway, a large kitchen and a dining room that offers a sweeping view of the front lawn. His young sons share a small bedroom upstairs, and during the summer, much of the yard transforms into gardens.
But Cellini can point to features that make his home, located on the outskirts of Scotia, a little different — a little simpler — than the average house. There’s the programmable thermostat, which is set at 63 during the day, 65 in the evening and 55 when the family is in bed. The family still uses oil but mostly relies on wood, which they cut on their property. Because the house faces south, they can take advantage of the heat from the sun, and on a sunny day, the heat doesn’t switch on until 4 p.m.
“Every article of clothing we wear is used,” Cellini said. “The toys are recycled. The crib was passed down.”
Cellini, 38, helps coordinate Simple Living, a group for people who want to live more sustainably.
Founded in 1991, Simple Living meets on the fourth Tuesday of every month at the First United Presbyterian Church in Troy. Those who attend are interested in buying less and reducing their energy consumption, and generating as much of their own food and power as they possibly can. Though many of them decided to live more simply because they wanted to be good stewards of the environment, they’ve seen another big benefit: financial savings.
“For those of us who practice voluntary simplicity, we’re not necessarily doing it to save money,” Cellini said. “But we do save money.”
Cellini and other simple livers believe that with the country in the midst of a severe recession, people are becoming more receptive to their ideas than ever before and more willing to commit to a more frugal lifestyle.
“Without a doubt, people are starting to realize we’ve been trying to live way beyond our means for far too long,” he said.
Many of the people interviewed for this article have practiced “voluntary simplicity” for a long time — some even live “off the grid,” which means they have no connection to the power grid and generate their own electricity — but Cellini said that people can reduce their consumption and live more simply even if they don’t own a lot of land.
“Sustainable living is a conscious evaluation of every consumer decision,” Cellini said. “It means you think about whether you turn a light on or not. You look at your life and say, ‘What’s something I could do different?’ So you start with a conscious evaluation of what you consume. You don’t have to live off the grid and consume your own food.”
Cellini and his wife, Olivia Cellini, decided to live more simply when both were studying at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. One night, Cellini attended a lecture by Dave Smalley, a Glen resident who helped found Simple Living, and decided that he wanted to change his life.
“Because we come from New York City, we had no idea that we could live this way,” he said. “We thought the whole goal of life was to make money. That’s what New York City did to us.”
Smalley lives off the grid in a well-insulated solar house that generates its own electricity using photovoltaic panels. As a result, he closely tracks household consumption.
“Every time we want to add an appliance, we have to think about how much power it uses,” he said. “We limit ourselves to things that fit in with our power supply.”
They have an electric refrigerator and freezer; they also have a computer.
Their goal, he said, is to live in a way that doesn’t take from others. They buy their clothes used, from the Salvation Army — “they have a really good selection” — and grow most of their own food.
Smalley is retired but worked part time for the state for years; his longtime partner, Sarah, commutes to Albany for work. Before moving into their house, they saved money by serving as caretakers at a research reserve on the Hudson River.
Smalley, 63, believes that right now people are more interested in frugal living because the economy is bad, but he worries that as soon as the economic situation improves, they’ll return to wasteful habits.
“My fear is that all of these things are cyclical and that this is the time when these issues are coming around and are considered,” he said. “As soon as things change, we’ll go back to this profligate baloney, buying SUVs and being willing to accept debt load and stress and pressure. I have no stress and no debt.”
Ballston Lake resident Rochelle Runyon believes in living simply, but she approaches the issue more from a financial perspective rather than an environmental one. She teaches a series of courses, titled Daily Dollar Decisions, that teach people how to save money in a number of ways. A particularly popular session focuses on how to stretch grocery dollars.
“The area where you can make the biggest difference in your budget is at the grocery store,” Runyon said.
Runyon said she’s always been very frugal and attributed her outlook to her mother’s Alaskan roots.
“They have a different lifestyle up there,” she said. “It’s more of a subsistence lifestyle. They hunt, can and freeze. There’s very little waste. The waste we have around here is phenomenal.”
Runyon said people can do simple things to cut down on food waste, such as reheating their food properly and eating it rather than throwing it away and buying food with more nutritional value.
“The No. 1 item in the grocery store that’s taking up space is soda,” she said. “I try to steer people to eating as close to nature as possible — not necessarily organic, because organic is expensive, but less processed. I encourage them to consider growing their own. When my kids want to snack, I have fresh fruit. I do like to buy local, but because of my focus on finances, I might not. A lot of times, I buy meat in bulk from the butcher, which is cheaper.”
Because of the economy, there’s more interest in her classes, Runyon said. A mothers club in Ballston Spa has invited her to speak; many of the women in the club, she said, are experiencing reductions in their work hours or have husbands who have been laid off.
Runyon, a stay-at-home mom, said she tries to focus on every aspect of life in her courses. Another big topic, she said, is saving on car-related expenses. She talks about how to maintain your car for as long as possible, when to trade a car in for the best value and how to buy an economical car.
“Some maintenance doesn’t need to be done as often as the manufacturer says it does,” she said.
And she encourages people to barter — to trade for goods and services, rather than pay for them.
“People are more open to that than they used to be,” she said.
Waste not, want not
When the Cellinis first became active in Simple Living, they lived in an apartment near the RPI campus. But today they own 50 acres, where they harvest and grow their own food, and they have plans to build a root cellar. They make their own wine and soda — last week a batch of ginger ale was brewing in a storage room — and use cloth diapers to cut down on waste. They drive as little as possible. They can their own food, avoid processed food and always use fresh vegetables. Two small ponds are stocked with fish that the family eats. They compost in their kitchen.
Their consumption is so low that they cancelled trash pick-up and instead bring their waste to the transfer station six times a year. This has saved them money because a trip to the transfer station costs about $6 and trash pick-up costs about $400 a year. They don’t eat a lot of packaged foods, and so they don’t have a lot of packaging to throw away, but the waste packaging they do have is often reused. Yogurt and sour cream containers, for instance, make good pots for seedlings.
But their lifestyle is still a work in process.
“I’d love to go off the grid,” Cellini said. “We’ve had folks site the place. I’d love to get some animals — some goats and chickens. This never will be finished.
“We feel like we’re bringing good to the planet,” said Cellini, the director of marketing for Tribune Media Services. “Even though we all take and give a little back, I feel like we’re giving a little more back.”
Olivia, 32, a structural engineer, now stays home with the couple’s two sons, Phoenix, who is six months old, and Sage, 2.
Taking lessons to heart
Scotia resident Lisa Medokowich, who works as a medical transcriptionist, and her husband lived off the grid in rural Idaho for six years; about four years ago, they returned to the Capital Region to care for Medokowich’s ailing father-in-law. But even though they are back on the grid, they are still trying to live simply. They dry their clothes on racks and drive a 20-year-old car. They’re hoping to move to a bigger place where they can garden, but if they remain in their current house, they’ll take the pool out and plant vegetables and berries in raised beds.
A Troy native, Medokowich, 40, had never considered growing her own food until she met her husband, when she was 23, and saw his father’s garden in Halfmoon.
“I’d never seen a garden in my whole life,” she said. “I had been a young, single mother on welfare. I knew the value of food. It blew my mind that you could provide it for yourself. I became the complete self-reliance queen. I saw that I could take personal responsibility.”
Scotia resident Bill Faulkner, 35, is building a “super-insulated, passive solar house” that will be heated by wood.
“It’s about stewardship of finite resources,” he said. “We’re building a smaller house, and so we’re not filling it up with stuff. We’re not buying on whims as much.” The insulation, he said, was recycled from factories and schools. The cabinets were salvaged from a friend’s house, as are the frames and windows. The house has radiant tubing in the floors, which provides heat by circulating warm water. The metal roof will require maintenance but should last longer than a shingle one.
In addition, the Faulkners live on one income; Bill’s wife, Amanda, teaches English at Scotia-Glenville Senior High School. This arrangement “allows us to shape and live the life we want, rather than our job dictating what we do,” he said. “We like the country life.”
Growing up in Charleston, S.C., Sabrina Wells, 29, never spent a lot of time outdoors.
“I grew up in a semi-urban environment,” she said. “I had no real exposure to environmental concerns. My family doesn’t recycle.”
But when she went away to college, she began camping and fell in love with the outdoors. Eventually, she decided to live her life in a more sustainable way.
“I feel a spiritual connection to the natural world,” she said. “That’s what drives me.”
Wells, who runs the green building campaign for the Albany-based Citizens Environmental Coalition, deliberately purchased an older house in the Bought Corners section of Colonie. It’s brick, she said, and so it’s energy-efficient. She and her boyfriend will garden, can and freeze and dry their own food. What they don’t grow, they purchase from farmers markets.
“Local produce and meat are expensive, but we’re probably breaking even because we have a garden,” she said. “We’re composting, so we’re providing nutrients for the garden that we don’t have to buy.”
Wells said that there are lots of things she and her boyfriend would like to do that are still too expensive, such as convert to a gas furnace, and so they’ve looked at getting a wood stove to offset their use of oil.
“We all have financial constraints,” Wells said.