“Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed by them.”
- Henry David Thoreau
The Back Story
At a time in my early adult life I wanted nothing more than to prove that a livelihood could be carved out of doing what one loved doing. For me that was being a potter. I was very good at making pots but struggled to find a way to make a living as an artist.
For several years I lived in a small cabin in Mendocino County in northern California. I had built a tiny studio and on weekends I traveled to crafts fairs and farmers’ markets to sell my pots. But after a few years of struggling I finally chose to get a day job to pay the bills. First I worked for another potter but eventually got a job at big corporation.
I felt like a total sell-out working for the man so I decided to refocus my creative energy on another emerging craft, web design. I discovered that I was pretty good at it and several years later found a web design job at the same big corporation with only one disadvantage, I had to move to the city. My wife Julia and I found a small apartment in Vallejo, California and left the tiny cabin and studio behind.
The web design job really took off. My approach to art and design has always been to focus on keeping things simple which actually really paid off in my approach to web application design because I was able to keep complex web applications simple and easy to use. I promoted quickly and ended up managing a team of designers and web usability researchers.
With success at work came more money and eventually Julia and I bought a larger home near Sacramento, California. Owning a real house came with some additional responsibilities. Our small condo had been very easy to manage but the house came with more square feet, more work, and more cost. I’m certain many new home owners go through the same adjustment especially now that money is so tight for so many people.
In 2006 Julia and I adopted a newborn baby girl, Katie. Luckily the position I had at the time allowed me to work-from-home most of the time which allowed me to spend a lot of time with my family. But I also noticed that it was becoming more and more difficult to keep up the the house.
Feeling the Downturn
In the summer of 2007 I began to feel the beginnings of the economic collapse. I had no idea how bad it was going to get but I began to do more and more reflecting on my values. As time went on it became clear that America was headed for hard times and that if I was going to pull my family through I’d need to begin looking for new solutions.
Ironically, or not, I found myself looking back at my early 20′s and the simple life I lead as a potter. I also stumbled on a simple idea that making better choices were the key to achieving goals. By simply changing our choices, big and small, we can dramatically change the course of our lives. This of course seems like an incredibly simple idea, so simple and logical you might even say it’s totally obvious. But the truth is that very few people stop to think about their choices or how they might be affecting their life. In fact if more people did this things like debt would be rare.
In late 2007 I bought Jay Shafer’s tiny house books and read them on a business trip to Los Angeles. By the time I got back I had a plan, or at least a direction, for getting back on a track that would lead me and my family to financial security and more time for each other.
A Tiny Plan
In a word, simplify. This simple logic can be applied to the people we choose to spend our lives with to the things we buy and collect. The more you surround yourself with the more responsibility you take on and the more time and energy you must spend taking care of those things.
The bigger your home, the more time and energy it requires. The more things you put in your home, the more time and energy they will demand. Even the things tucked away in your closet add up to an additional mental burden, effectively taking away our freedom.
When you add debt on top of all that you realize that you’re choices are diminishing. We’re not alone, millions of Americans are deep in debt and have mortgages higher than their home’s current market value. Theoretically housing values will recover and we’ll recover our ability to choose where we live. In the mean time every choice we make moves us closer or farther away from increasing our personal freedom.
The last two years have reminded me of some important lessons:
- A simple life increases freedom – The less you take on the more time and energy you’ll have for the things that are important to you. This effectively increases your personal freedom.
- The true value of a home – The true value of a home should be measured by the happiness and security it brings instead of its size and cost.
- Lowering risk exposure increases choices – Lowering financial risk is required for increasing happiness and freedom. Borrowed money can empower you if it’s paid back quickly. Long term debt, like a mortgage, can imprison you.
- Our time on earth is priceless – The way we spend our time and the people we choose to spend it with impacts happiness more than anything money can buy.
Future Goals & Tiny Houses
As a kid I always wanted to be an architect. In college I studied architecture a little but but finally gave into my love for pottery and graduated with a BFA in ceramics. What I’ve realized is that I don’t have to suppress my love for architectural design just because I don’t have a degree in architecture. I can’t say I’m an architect, stamp plans, and so on, but I can share that passion for small homes with others online.
In the not so distant future I hope to move my family to a home that is not mortgaged to the hilt. It may not be tiny but it won’t be so big that it’s a burden in any way. It will be safe, secure, and in a location that provides Katie with good schools and Julia and I a community we’ll want to grow old in.
The thing that drives me is searching for ways of achieving more personal freedom. A simplified life, efficient homes, low-impact living, social responsibility, respect for cultural diversity, and so on, are all tools for achieving this goal. The more of us that choose to live lite, the happier we will all in our own lives and together as a larger community. I suspect the silver lining to this current economic mess is that more people will realize their mistakes and turn back to the people around them and away from the things that imprison them.