My Other Side of Technology vs Smaller Living

While I mostly love the way technology has progressed, I do have a couple of complaints about it. Like most, I enjoy the great benefits of technology for smaller living. I have written about these in some of my other articles here so I won’t repeat myself, but in general you can pack tons of music onto a tiny mp3 player, keep your e-books on a your computer and/or have a cell phone that will do nearly everything your computer can do. However, to be perfectly honest, there are some unpleasant experiences I have had in regards to technology when it comes to small, simple living…

For instance, I recently got rid of my land line in favor of a cell phone so I could have more privacy…only giving the number out to family and a few friends. I got sick of the phone ringing every night at suppertime with telemarketing calls. Even though I had an answering machine, I still hated the disturbance. Fussy me!! Anyways, I went to my provider of choice and picked out this fancy cell phone that did everything but tie my shoes…it did emails, text messaging, had applications for all kinds of things, games, surfing the net, shopping lists…a whole variety of convenient things. The problem was when I got it home, I got a crappy signal and couldn’t use if for my original intention which was…DUH…a phone! Now, I thought, that was just taking things a bit too far :)

So, I went back and they let me get a different phone. That one had the same problem plus it was so complicated that it made my head spin!! I finally ended up with a very simple cell phone, but even though I got the simplest, just plain phone they had, I still had to make 3 calls to customer service to put a lock on anything that had to do with surfing the net, emailing or text messaging, lest I get charged again for something I didn’t even know I used!!!

There are a whole list of places I like to go that don’t even give me enough of a signal to use  my phone. I like to take country drives with a picnic lunch and my camera, but if I got stuck somewhere, what good would this great technological gadget do me? I can’t even get a signal at my parents house which is far from a remote town!

My plans for simple living after retirement include someplace quite remote where I can get away from all the traffic, people and noise I have been living with everyday while I was trying to make a living, aka, a dying as some people would put it! Those places generally don’t have much of a signal. I have a friend that must drive to the top of a nearby mountain to get her cell phone messages or call out because she doesn’t get any signal at her cabin or anywhere on her property of 50 acres. What if she had an emergency?

I will want to have access to online so I can keep in touch with my family and friends the way I love to. This might be fairly difficult too. Getting cable for internet service is not always available, leaving me with the basic inconvenience of dial-up!! That means a land line again. I mean, I know dial-up is still internet service, but once you get spoiled with a fast connection, dial-up is like Morse Code!

My next complaint is that some of this technology is not easy to learn and it can be totally frustrating to simple folks like me! When things go bad, they can really go bad…like getting a computer virus or your computer crashing and losing all your stuff. It can be anything but convenient to fix this situation! It can make you so mad you swear you will never deal with any of it again, but then you do – because when it is convenient it’s damn convenient :) :)

So, even though I will probably never do without any of these conveniences, technology can be as much of a headache as it is an asset :(

Lowering My Costs of Living

Posted August 24th, 2009 by Betsy McCullen and filed in Issue 12: Small Spaces and Finances
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Looking into the village

One of my favorite apartments was in a little village in Upstate NY quite near the Vermont border. The apartment was part of the house in which my wonderful landlords also lived. MaryAnn used to invite me over for dinner often and I soon felt like part of the family :)

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Looking out over my deck

It was located high above the Batten Kill where the waterfalls thundered below. This blocked out the other undesirable noises of various sorts around the area. The deck off the back overlooking the river was like heaven!! There was a hand-built stairway down to the river where I used to go often to de-stress.

My half of the house was 3 stories high. The basement was largely unused, but being on the river meant colder and damper conditions that filtered up thru into the living areas. The drafts were MANY!! As an example of just how cold it can get on that river, the photo you see was taken at roughly 25 below zero!! It takes an awful lot of fuel oil to keep things warm at that temperature!

icy river e

Brutally cold January day on the river below my apartment

My Dad put plastic covering over every draft he could feel while Mom cooked us dinner one cold January day. I was so grateful for both since I had neither the ambition nor the energy from my 2 hour per day commute each week!

So, as noted, my payoff for this wonderful spot (and in my book, the very best apartment available in those parts!) was a very long drive to work everyday. In winter weather conditions it often meant an even longer, more dangerous trip. Then, when I added in all the other expenses that went with that, it became very apparent that I was defeating my purpose of country living:

  • Gas for the car (right when gas was getting totally ridiculous in price!!)
  • Wear and tear on my car
  • Higher car maintenance costs
  • Higher car insurance costs
  • Wear and tear on my body, mind and spirit

Plus, the rent itself wasn’t all I had to pay for. I also had the extra, separate expenses of:

  • Weekly garbage pickup
  • Water
  • Sewer
  • Filling a huge tank of fuel oil for heating

For all the peace that wonderful apartment and that river brought to me back then, I had to be realistic and make a difficult decision to move a lot closer to my job. Physically and mentally I just couldn’t take that long drive anymore and the costs of driving were becoming a financial burden. The job is non-negotiable at this point. I only have a few short years before a nice retirement plan will afford me to live almost anywhere I want to :)

So, my next place was only 3 miles from work. I moved to an apartment complex with lots of bells and whistles. It only took a couple of years there to decide I didn’t use most of the luxuries I was paying for…the dishwasher, the nasty garbage disposal that was stinkier and more trouble than it was worth, the tennis courts, the noisy, kid-filled swimming pool, the community room filled with smokers, a pool table and a fireplace, the basketball courts and the ever-so-crowded exercise room.

The rent was high, but not higher than my former rent with extra costs  & that brutal commute. However, in winter months the costs of heating with electric heat (even though zoned) was phenomenal. Most winter months I fought to keep them under $300/month. The worse part was that I was never really warm! I decided I had had enough and moved to the apartment that I live in now.

Although this move was 5 more miles out, my now 8 mile trip is still very painless! Not only is the rent cheaper, but my heat and hot water are included. I have never been cold on even the most vile, brutal winter days in the last 3 years. The apartment was much smaller, but more elegant. I have lots of light from the windows and a sliding glass door with lots of cross ventilation. I saved enough money to pay off some of my bills that would have otherwise taken a lot longer to pay. I have more peace &  quiet. The brand new workout room is uncrowded and quiet. I have the dumpster right nearby for my uncluttering endeavors. (For all you garbage-conscious folks, I always put my unwanted and/or unneeded stuff next to the dumpster and mostly it never makes it into the dumpster before someone decides to make it their own little treasure).  :)

So, with all this said, I have saved about 40% of my costs of living with these moves. Ironically, I have not been sorry for them. Of course, you tell me which way you would rather live: in surroundings of a beautiful environment complete with neighborly love or the savings & convenience of living near the job?

My Coming of Simplicity

Posted August 10th, 2009 by Betsy McCullen and filed in Issue 11: Obstacles and Solutions

Since I am about 85% downsized and already living a pretty simple lifestyle, I have chosen to talk more about a couple of my biggest past obstacles and my solutions to them in hopes they will also help others to simplify their lives in those areas:

First, a little from my background…

Although in the beginning I was never quite sure why I was so attracted to the idea of uncluttering my life, I am quite sure now that it had everything to do with building a mortgage-free Tiny House to live my retirement years in! Up until the last year when I first heard about the Tiny House Movement, I just wanted to live very simply. When I was in the Air Force I only had a single duffel bag and a large footlocker that carried everything I owned or needed for 8 years! I loved that kind of simplicity and after doing it for that long I knew it was do-able! However, it was not without costs!! Military life was not always an easy way of living. For me, it meant a single tiny room with a set of bunk beds, a desk and 2 lockers in the noisy barracks with a roommate who was often not of my choosing, the less-than-private community bathroom, the nearby chow hall for most of my not-always-so-tasty meals (when i wasn’t engaging in my then staple diet of drinking beer or California wine and eating travis_afb_postcardpizza, chicken wings & subs) and the nomad life of rarely knowing when I would be moving on to the next place – all the stuff I have no interest in dealing with at this stage of my life!! While it became a lifestyle I no longer wanted to endure, that transition into civilian life was very difficult for me. I was leaving behind my close knit family that I could trust my life with… I loved living within walking distance of work… I loved that everything I really needed was right on the base in a community where prices were affordable – like the base exchange (a smaller, cheaper version of Walmart)… mostly free work/hobby shops (like woodworking, the auto shop and ceramics, etc) with access to all their work areas, tools and machines…I was used to the military ways… and I loved the simplicity. It took me a few years to adjust, but in the meantime I started accumulating ‘stuff’ I thought I had missed. Now if I wanted to work on my hobbies, I had to invest in my own tools and have a place big enough to work on them. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was surrounded by lots of debt & clutter. Although back then there wasn’t really a term for it, I knew I felt boxed in with too much stuff!! Luckily, a few years later I was introduced to clutter, what it meant and how to deal with it… a then fairly new concept in the early 1990′s.

For the most part, this whole simple living procedure has been very cleansing for me. It took many moves, but once I got started, the process of every move meant a fresh new start with a lot less. I began to realize what was important and what wasn’t. Of course, the beginning was tough, especially when at least 2 of the moves were real estate turnovers and not my idea. I couldn’t seem to get settled in anywhere and I still struggled with what was important enough to keep lugging around with me and what wasn’t. Moving now is much harder than military life because they used to do all the work for me.

As you can see, the steps towards my Simple Life Endeavor have been a long and trying process. If you are just starting your Journey of Simple Living, you need to also understand that by stretching this process over a period of years, it was much easier for me to start letting go of the ‘things’ in my life that no longer served me any purpose. Each little step made the next step easier. The key was to keep on keepin’ on!!

Before I start though, I must tell you that everything I have let go of in my life so far, I have never missed for a second!! That fear alone was the single biggest mental obstacle that kept me locked into not moving forward in the earlier years of implementing my Simple Living Plan.

I have only chosen the 2 biggest obstacles I have faced in order to cut down on the size of this article. Here they are:

DEBT

Obstacle:

This has been, by far, the biggest obstacle I have encountered in my quest to ‘lighten up’! While I was in that ‘stuff’ culture, I accumulated a lot of debt. I can’t even remember some of the stuff on those credit cards, but at the time I was sure I just had to have them! As for the stuff I do remember, I don’t have most of it anymore. Impulse buying was one of the most unfulfilling habits I had and now that I finally had the room for all the clutter, I became overwhelmed with it. I began to call it Financing Unnecessary Clutter Karma!! And the acronym for that is what I said every time I opened my monthly credit card bills!! With each purchase, of whatever it was, the void I was trying to fill inside just got bigger. And with that, it made things more stressful with payments, maintenance and clutter. I longed for that simple military lifestyle without the government control. It took me awhile to discover that my ‘void’ needed to be filled from within. Thankfully, that was about the time I got into Shirley MacLaine’s works and the mantra…”Go Within or Go Without!”. I have now come to love just “BEING” (one of my alternate versions of doing nothing!)…a state of mind which only requires quietly finding the forgotten peace and tranquilty within myself and my simple surroundings. And it’s FREE :)

Solutions:

  • I moved very close to my job to save gas, insurance costs, maintenance and wear & tear on my car…have access to public transportation if I wanted to take advantage of it…have easy and close by access to almost anything…end the wear & tear on my body, mind and spirit from the stress of driving 2 hours a day!
  • I moved to a smaller apartment in which heat & hot water were included in my rent, a huge savings here in Upstate NY with our cold, harsh winters and the costs of fuel!! Little did I know that the new place was going to be one of the best places I have ever lived and the rent alone was cheaper than the apartment before it!
  • I got rid of my land line phone in favor of a simple pay-as-you-go cell phone plan. I don’t talk on the phone much so that part was pretty easy…and inexpensive.
  • I stopped watching those shopping channels!!
  • I changed to a cheaper internet provider.
  • I got rid of costly cable bills in favor of renting DVD’s from Netflix and online access to local news & weather.
  • I stopped all my magazines, book clubs and newspapers.
  • I simplified my eating habits.
  • I started drinking mostly water.
  • I take day trips with a picnic lunch rather than vacations that cost alot of money in lodging, food & travel expense.    cut credit card
  • I CUT UP ALL THE CREDIT CARDS!!!

BOOKS

Obstacle:

I think the hardest things for me to downsize have been my books! I had lots of them!! I was sure I would never be able to part with any of them. I am a real lover of books, but let’s face it, moving books around often requires alot of muscle power and sweating! It seems no matter what size the box is, it is still pretty heavy. Most of my books were information & technical books which are usually larger. I found that alot of the information in those was outdated by new and improved technology. All books spend most of their time on shelves…untouched and taking up space…sometimes for years! Slowly and painstakingly I have been able to let go of 95% of them. Here’s how…

Solutions:

  • I rarely read a novel more than once so the novels were the first to go…I mostly gave those away. I then started going to the local library or searching & reserving novels online that can be delivered from anywhere within the US Library System to my library for me to pick up and check out. I can even renew my books online if I haven’t finished them or can’t get to the library by the time they are due back. My library card is free!
  • It didn’t take long to realize that as much as I didn’t cook, the cookbooks would not do me any good!! I wrote down my favorite recipes (a pretty short list by the way!!). Then I used my computer to type them up and store them on a standard word processing recipe card template in my Recipe file. Mostly now if I want a recipe I search online for it, print it out and then throw it away or store it on my computer when I am done using it.
  • Nearly 80% of my books were arts, crafts & hobby instruction books. I slowly started to eliminate those by deciding which activities I would actually commit to. Happily I found alot of them would be more expensive in supplies and take up alot more room than I was willing to accept, so those books were the next to go! I found that selling them on Amazon was fairly profitable because alot of them were brand new. I made up my mind that I could always check out (from my library), rent, borrow, buy or download instruction books & videos if I changed my mind and wanted to take up something I no longer had those particular books for. By doing it this way, I was able to easily and effortlessly let those go. And guess what? So far, I have never missed any of them :)
  • Investing in the Kindle 2 from Amazon is a very smart idea. It will hold over 1500 books, is small and easily portable. This is, by far, the easiest & lightestkindle 2 box of books I will ever be carrying again! I have been lucky enough to find most of my favorite info & reference books that I use on a regular basis in Kindle format for roughly $10 each and delivered in seconds to my Kindle 2 via cyberspace…without an internet connection! Some of those books cost over $60 in the hardback, space-raping, heavyweight version!!
  • I started reading the local newspaper online instead of buying one…some of the more popular newspapers can also be subscribed to on the Kindle and delivered before the news stand copy comes out!
  • I download free audio books available at my local library website to listen to on my mp3 player or with my laptop software (available at the library’s website). Although the list isn’t all that big, it continues to grow.

THE HARDEST OBSTACLES COMING UP

The hardest obstacle I have yet to face is giving up all the space I have acquired by downsizing. I love all the open & unused space. Even though my apartment is small, it still allows for healthy air circulation and positive bandit-1flowing energy. It allows me room to move around freely and it leaves plenty of room to do Yoga or my (mostly small & portable) Artwork in either the living room or bedroom. Since the heat is included in my rent, I am no longer (directly) paying to heat all that unused space. My little cat, Bandit, can still run and play inside and we have a place to store his litter box.

The solution to this might be to design my Tiny House to be one large rectangular room with no interior walls, 8′ – 10′ high outside walls, a loft, lots of windows, a larger wood stove for heating & air conditioner for cooling and maybe a couple of support beams if necessary. Then build a small, simple, one-room Tiny House for my Yoga and Art Studio right next door…something similar to the Shed Cluster Concept that Michael Janzen mentioned on his Tiny House Design site back in May 2009.

I will find it really hard to give up the central location I am in. Although it is not very compatible with the way I want to live (the peace and quiet nature stuff), I am loving the conveniences. Everything is just around the corner…the grocery stores, small education centers, my medical, dental and optical facilities, Bandit’s pet hospital…stuff that is not always easy to get to or as inexpensive in a country atmosphere.

Then there is the question of whether or not (at retirement age) I will forgo power from the grid in favor of using solar or wind power. Do I want the maintenance it may require? Will the initial cost be worth it for me? Is it going to be easier for me to just pay the price rather than endure the hassle? These are questions I must answer after I have honestly studied these power alternatives.

ABSOLUTE NO NO’S!!

In closing I would like to mention a couple of things that (right now) I refuse to forgo:

  • A Real Flushing Toilet

I find the alternatives unacceptable to me at this point in my life! Of course this means a septic tank and a lot less freedom to move my Tiny House around the property. By then though, maybe something will come up that I am willing to accept…like some kind of RV or other portable plumbing system.

  • Running Water
  • A Bathtub

These 2 things really go hand-in-hand because surely I am not willing to haul water and heat it for one of my favorite luxuries…A NICE HOT RELAXING BATH :) :)

My Favorite Tiny House Features

Posted July 27th, 2009 by Betsy McCullen and filed in Issue 10: Why a tiny home?
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I hardly ever watch TV, so I had never heard of a tiny house. One day last summer my friend made a joke about how a tiny house would be perfect for me because I don’t have alot of ‘things’. The most common comment I get when someone walks into my apartment is – “No television!!?” It always reminds me of that movie “Secondhand Lions”!!

Most people I know are heavily into the ‘stuff’ culture so they are not only amazed that I have so little, but they look at me like they almost feel sorry for me. Actually, it’s the other way around…I feel sorry for them! I think all their clutter is mostly what weighs them down…i mean, besides some of the people they often hang around or are in a relationship with!!

Let’s get back on track though. After my friend mentioned this to me I got online and Googled “tiny house”. The first place I found (and seemingly the most popular) was Jay Shafer’s Tumbleweed website. This is where I formed my very first opinions of what a Tiny House is and what I think it will likely be for me.

Whatever size or model of Tiny House I do finally build will be from Tumbleweed. In the very near future, whether I take both of Jay’s Workshops and design my own, hire Jay to customize my plans, or, if money prevails, have Jay build it for me, I hope to be living in one within the next 5 years.

So, this is what I will base the rest of this article about. If you haven’t seen a Tumbleweed, it might help to check out a few of them so you will have some sort of idea what I am talking about. Then click the link below to watch a tour:

Jay’s Tiny House Tour

With all that said, I have several reasons why the Tiny House appeals to me. Here they are:

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  1. It’s just plain CUTE!!
  2. I absolutely LOVE the wood!!
  3. I love how the porch makes the place look so inviting
  4. It has windows on all 4 sides for ample cross ventilation & lighting. These are things I always look for in any apartment I move into. Living in something as small as a Tiny House would get pretty claustrophobic if it didn’t have lots of airflow and light
  5. The cozy bunk
  6. The fact that the ceiling (roughly 6.5′) is low enough to reach everything
  7. The efficient layout of space
  8. The built-in shelves & desk
  9. The simplicity of the whole design
  10. It will be easy & inexpensive to heat and cool
  11. It is virtually impossible to accumulate any clutter
  12. It keeps life very simple and focused
  13. I won’t have a mortgage
  14. I won’t have to spend half my time or money on maintenance and repairs
  15. It will be easy to clean
  16. It’s portable! Having my Tiny House on wheels appeals to me because:
  • If I decide to buy a piece of land in which to put my Tiny House, I can move it around each season to add more sunlight in winter and less in summer
  • I probably won’t have to pay real estate taxes on it because it’s considered mobile
  • I can spend a year watching nature (sun paths, rain/flooding, high winds,  snowdrifts) and move it accordingly
  • If I get bored with one view, I can change it
  • If I end up hating the land altogether, I can move it somewhere else
  • It makes moving almost anywhere pretty easy :)

My Simple Kitchen

Posted July 13th, 2009 by Betsy McCullen and filed in Issue 9: Food and Cooking

I am not a huge fan of appliances in my tiny kitchen. Besides the inevitable fact that there isn’t much room, I also hate clutter!! However, I do have 3 essentials that I consider my kitchen icons.

foodsaverDepending on how tiny my living space is, I always have room for my favorite small appliance, the FoodSaver. It comes in several different models, but mine will stand upright to save space on my countertop if I decide to keep it out all the time. Although most people are familiar with what they are, some are not. The FoodSaver is a vacuum pack system used to seal and store foods to keep them fresh for long periods of time.

As with many other appliances it comes with lots of different accessories like different sizes of bags, canisters, bottle stoppers, sealer tops, etc. But, I don’t have alot of those. I do have the Mason Jar Sealer and I love it. I save on alot of the accessories by buying Mason Jars instead of FoodSaver canisters which can be rather expensive. I can also save lots of foods, wet and dry, in Mason Jars without vacuum sealing them. For the most part though, I generally use the bags for meats and solid things while using the Mason Jars for soups & stews.

Now, don’t get the idea that I clutter up my kitchen space with jars and vacuum packed foods because I don’t! You might not think someone living alone would even use one of these things. They are primarily used for larger families that buy bulk food quantities at large wholesale stores. But, I don’t use mine for those kinds of things. I generally go to places that make me up meals I can pack up and save for later. I might buy a meal for 3 instead of 1 and then make them into smaller meals to refrigerate or freeze. Then, I just drop one in boiling water or heat them up in the microwave. In northeastern winters I make up my favorite soups & stews, while in summer months I use it to keep salad stuff and summer fruit items fresher.

freezerMy next favorite appliance is a compact freezer that stands upright and opens from the top. The size I get depends on how much space I have, but I never have a very big one. For now (and until I build my tiny house), I generally use just the refrigerator with a freezer that comes standard in an apartment complex.

convection ovenAnd last, but not least, I have a small convection/toaster oven that bakes, broils, heats, cooks and toasts. I almost never use the large oven that comes standard in the apartment complex I live in. It uses a lot of electricity and to cook for one, it is not necessary when I have my convection oven. I also use a small microwave to heat foods and make my tea quickly.

But, I don’t really even need all of that! With a little imagination from my simple mind, I create very simple meals like soups, stews and meat, chicken or fish with a salad or those steamer vegetables that you pop in the steamers2microwave for a couple of minutes. I never thought vegetables could taste so good yet be so easy…no tedious pickovers at the produce stand, no storing, no cutting, no cooking!! I don’t like alot of ingredients in my meals because I don’t like to store them. I can make very tasty meals with only butter, salt, pepper, sugar and a few select spices. All in all, I try to make all my eating needs very simple.

With all this said, I have to be honest. I am not really a big fan of cooking at all!! I am lucky enough to live in an area where I can get very tasty, healthy, home-cooked meals to go. More often than not, I take advantage of this method since the ingredients are fresh daily and it saves me from having to store alot of stuff for cooking it on my own. While this is a bit more expensive, it has always been cheaper for me than throwing away spoiled food I didn’t use up in time.