ON THE WINE DARK IONIAN SEA – We drove from Palermo to Agrigento, thence to Syracuse and finally Catania. This was a quick visit to Sicily, not enough to learn very much.

Sicily is complex. It deserves time. If we had more, we would rent an apartment and get to know it better.

But now we are on a ship, headed to the Greek island of Santorini.

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We’re back-tracking the route perhaps used 2,800 years ago by the Greek settlers who colonized Sicily in the eighth century B.C.

They set up shop at Syracuse and spread all over the island. A few decades later, they were fighting for their lives against the Carthaginians. Then, in 264 B.C., it was the Romans who aimed to take over.

It was the nearly 50-year-long battle against the Romans that displayed the full range of the classical era’s greatest genius – Archimedes.

Chockablock with History

A stone fortress sits at the edge of the Isola Ortigia, guarding the entrance to Syracuse’s harbor.

To take the town, the Romans had to dislodge the Syracusans, including Archimedes, from the fort. It wasn’t easy, because Archimedes invented novel machines – such as “the claw” and the “heat ray.”

“The claw” was mounted on a giant crane. It reached over the walls of the fortress and lifted Roman ships up out of the water, dropping them so they broke up on the rocks.

The “heat ray” consisted of a series of mirrors that focused the sun’s rays on the Roman ships’ sails, causing them to burst into flames.

Recent tests have found it difficult to reproduce Archimedes’ results, making us wonder if the reports of his genius were not exaggerated.

Despite Archimedes’ innovations, the Syracusans lost the battle after a two-year siege. According to legend, Archimedes was so lost in his thoughts, pondering the significance of circles, that he didn’t even notice the Roman soldier who advanced to kill him.

Sicily is chockablock with history. And prehistory. If we were in the mood for it, we would take the time to dig deeper into it.

A Better Life

Houses are cheap in Sicily’s forgotten mountain towns. Food and wine are cheap too – and plentiful.

We’ve been wondering about how we could live better on just $500 a month. And our brief périple in Sicily reminded us of how taste and style figure so largely in what is “better.”

An apartment in the town of Piazza Armerina, where you could dine on the plaza… hear the bells of Sant’Anna… and discover Sicilian culture, history, and the unique Lombard dialect – would that be better than living in a motor home in a Walmart lot?

It depends.

Our aim is to live better. An obvious way to live better is to live in a better place and eat better.

Of course, “better place” can mean a lot of different things to different people. Some will want to live near the sea; others will want to live in the mountains. Some will favor the suburbs; others will prefer city life.

De gustibus non est disputandum, as the Romans said. You can’t argue about tastes.

A Simple and Easy Idea

But one idea seems simple and easy. At least to us.

In theory, it must be possible to buy small farms in many parts of the U.S. for just $30,000.

If so, we could buy one if we could save $500 a month for five years. Or financed at 5% – this is only about $150 a month.

But when we looked to see what we could find for that price in West Virginia, we found almost nothing of interest. Most everything that was interesting (to us) was about $150,000.

So, either we already have some capital available… or that idea won’t work. Even if we saved $500 a month for five years and used that money for a down payment, assuming we could get something for $130,000, that would leave us with a $100,000 mortgage. Too much for a $500-a-month budget.

But if you can swing the purchase, then you have an environment that you can control.

Many of the small farms you will find are isolated. Many are surrounded by natural beauty. Many have old farmhouses that can be fixed up to match your tastes. (It helps if you are handy!)

Trading Up

Put in a wood stove and fireplaces for heat. Build a greenhouse onto the main house for heat and food. Plant a garden. Create an orchard. Make sure you have an Internet connection and learn to preserve food by canning, drying, and freezing. Raise a pig. Keep a cow. Bees. Rabbits. Chickens. Buy an old pickup truck.

You will develop calluses. But they may be happy calluses – the kind you get from doing things that you like doing.

Property taxes on the little farms we looked at were only $300 to $500 a year. Some come with free natural gas. Almost all have substantial timber. Your food and utility costs could go down to almost zero.

Would your quality of life go up? Or down?

In our imagination, it could take a big leap upward. No more planes to catch. No more Terminus Nord in Paris. And say goodbye to the Charlotte Street Hotel in London.

Oh, and cruise ships in the Mediterranean?

No chance.

In exchange, we get a life of quiet labor and calm routine. Like Diocletian, who gave up power in Rome to grow cabbages in Split, we think we might be trading up.




Further Reading: Our colleagues at International Living have more than 100 reports about where, how, and when to buy and live in Italy for less. And you’ll get unlimited access to them when you take out a trial subscription to International Living magazine.

You’ll also get immediate access two bonus special reports – “7 Great Retirement Towns You’ve Never Heard of… Where You Can Live Better for Less” and “Your Escape Plan: Safe Haven Strategies to Reduce Your Taxes, Preserve Your Privacy, and Reclaim Your Freedom Overseas.”

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One sign that all is not well in the market is the “spread” – or gap – between yields on risky junk bonds and safer Treasury bonds.

As today’s chart shows, the spread hasn’t been this high since June 2012. That’s when the euro-zone debt crisis was at its peak.

100715 High Yield Spread

Yields and bond prices move in opposite directions. As investors’ risk appetite wanes, they tend to sell risky junk bonds and buy safer Treasury bonds. This causes the yield on junk bonds to rise and the yield on Treasury bonds to fall – widening the spread.

But we are still a long way from 2008 levels – when spreads widened to as much as 20 percentage points. That’s about three times higher than they are today.

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Today, more readers weigh in on how to live better for less. But first, if you have a personal story about buying U.S. farmland, Bill and the team would love to hear from you.

Write to us at [email protected].

Have really enjoyed the Mailbag feature. So, I have a good story that started just after the crash in 1929. My parents were young marrieds with a small child. Of course, my father lost his job and my mother was a homemaker.

My father was a guy who could do anything. Although he had no farming experience, he was given a job working for a local farmer for $1 per day and free housing on the premises in a log cabin with no indoor plumbing.

Mother, father, and sister moved to the farm. My mother had a large garden and canned the results. She made clothes for the family. My sister attended first grade in the rural one-room school, which was heated with a potbelly wood-burning stove. The privy was nearby. My father often worked 12-hour days, especially during harvest.

My dear mother, who lived until age 96, said it was one of the best times she remembered. They weathered the economic storm and returned eventually to the city. My father got a decent job and recovery was under way.

That story has always given me a great feeling that I could persevere if I had to. We are all more resourceful than we think we are.

Our main message to our children and grandchildren is to get a good education, use all of your resources, and LIVE BELOW YOUR MEANS. Not always easy to do, but a good goal.

– Norma M.

For three years in the mid-’70s and three years in the mid-’80s, I lived for substantially less than $500/month. For free actually…

I worked on privately owned yachts, all about 100 feet long. You live onboard for free all year and travel with the boat. South Florida and the Bahamas in the winter, and New England in the summer…

There are some drawbacks, but it was an easy way to save a lot of money.

– Dick M.

You missed the absolutely best parts about building a home in a shipping container. They are virtually indestructible compared with a mobile home. And all you have to do to move them anywhere in the world with ease is ship them… like the shipping container they are.

A truck can pick them up and haul them to an intermodal yard, where they can be shipped by truck chassis, flatbed train car, or container ship, anywhere in the world… as long as you retain the basis configuration within the carrier’s requirements. No more moving vans…

– Bill F.

In Case You Missed It…

Jim Rickards just made a major update to his currency wars thesis. Here’s the note we sent about it on Sunday.