A Normal life?
Five years ago, we lived the “normal middle class” suburban lifestyle. We were newlyweds with flashy rings, living in a two-bedroom apartment, driving two cars, commuting long distances to work and living well beyond our means.
At this time, we were living in Davis, Calif., which is notorious for expensive real estate and a negative vacancy rating (more people than rooms). In reflection, we had a life with too much stuff and stress.
Initially, we resisted the idea of moving into a smaller one-bedroom apartment because we were more concerned about appearances and space for guests than for our financial well-being. Realizing the source of our stress was our financial situation, we decided something needed to change. This “change” began by defining our values and prioritizing our needs over those of potential future guests.
After creating many long pro/con lists, the scaling down process began. We sold one car and moved into a one-bedroom apartment near the train station, the grocery store and downtown amenities. Driving everywhere was still a big part of our lives, but with lower rent we began chipping away at our debt. Our lives began to change for the better.
It wasn’t until last year that we stumbled across Dee Williams’s tiny house, the Small House Movement, and the concept of simple living. After doing a lot of research and making many to-do lists, we decided to move from Davis to mid-town Sacramento. We scaled down even further, to a 400-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment within walking distance to my work. Dee inspired me to go small and start thinking big.
Thinking big required setting goals and decluttering. Slowly we began focusing on the quantity and quality of our belongings.
Downsizing can be stressful, but the benefits are tremendous. Moving to a smaller apartment in the city opened up amazing possibilities. Once we sold our one remaining car, life became even better because we saved money and worked less. It sounds like a cliche, but without the car and the TV we had the time, money and energy to prioritize our health, happiness and life goals.
Below are a few tips that worked for us:
1. Going small. Downscaling to a tiny one-bedroom was a slow process that required a lot of work and many trips to the thrift store. Moving into a 400-square-foot apartment forced us to declutter our lives and seriously question why we needed so much stuff.
2. Divorcing our car. After months of talking about the pros and cons of selling our car, we decided to follow in the footsteps of a Wisconsin graduate student and divorce our car.
3. Becoming debt-free is indescribably liberating. Discovering the concept of simple living helped us become debt free. After giving away the TV and selling our car, we realized how many hidden ownership costs we were paying. We also discovered an amazing book, called “Your Money or Your Life,” that fundamentally changed our relationship with money.
4. Happiness counts. Purging our lives of clutter and debt has not only made us happier, but we have purchased less stuff. Since we started the downsizing process, we feel psychologically “lighter.” Since we eliminated our debt, I know I have options to engage in activities that make me happy. For instance, I’m a lucky person and enjoy my job. But if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to be tied to the position. That is a huge bonus of being debt-free and actually having money in savings.
Downsizing is a process, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I hope our personal story will help you remove clutter from your life, one step at a time.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment.
Good luck in your own simple living quest. Above all, pursue happiness and not more stuff.
One of my new favorite heroes is Grandma Gatewood, the first and the oldest woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (2,168 miles). She wore a pair of Keds sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat and a plastic shower curtain/tarp. That was in 1955.
She was an early pioneer of what is now known as ultralight backpacking, a subculture defining and re-defining what it is that we really need. The philosophy is simple:
- carry less stuff
- carry lighter stuff
- make one thing serve many purposes
In this world of mostly long-distance thruhikers it is commonly accepted that the base weight of your pack (including your pack) could be 10 lbs or less (not including consumables like food and water, which vary depending on the trip). For comparison, that’s like the weight of a healthy adult cat.
So we’ve established that what you need to safely survive on a 2000 mile long journey amounts to, well, not much. So what is everything else? It’s what I call cush: cleanliness, pleasant lighting, comfort and security, a sense of belonging. They are more subjective ideas, we all have different interpretations of them and have arranged our lives to suit.
At the extreme level it’s a psychological disorder called compulsive hoarding. Then there’s a more moderate place where most of America functions, making acquiring stuff a regular part of our daily lives, to greater or lesser degrees. Over time we had to live in bigger houses to keep all that stuff somewhere.
This is a great visualization showing how our houses have grown, even while the average U.S. household size shrinks.
And here is where I’ll tell you my secret to downsizing. Are you ready?
The shorthand is this simple little equation: Stuff = Weight < Freedom. The longhand is that our possessions carry not only a physical burden, but also a weight on our conscience and excess bulk in our creative thought processes, preventing us from moving forward.
This has been a very helpful realization for me in my own journey of moving into a 50 square foot trailer. Separating out my “comfort” items — memorabilia, collections, papers and gadgets of all kinds — from my “survival” items, which could be contained in a small box, makes me understand how burdensome comfort can really be. (Yes, paradoxes abound.)
During this downsizing evolution of mine, going on for several years now, I have found that (for the most part) my possessions bore me, and that what interests me most is not in the physical realm at all. Instead, I’m fascinated by the absence of things — giving my self space to think, create, and act spontaneously in harmony with the stuff of life, which is simple, free, and weightless.
“I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill–then what’s beyond that.”
–EMMA ‘GRANDMA’ GATEWOOD
Hillary lives in a 677 sq. ft. historic home with her partner while renovating a 50 sq. ft. tiny trailer. Her blog is located at thistinyhouse.com. She is a freelance writer and consultant.