A number of readers have requested information on small spaces and finances, so we thought it would be interesting to devote an issue of the SLJ to this topic. In this issue, the authors discuss a number of financial benefits to small living.
Disclaimer: The authors in this issue are not financial advisers. If you chose to follow the advice in this issue, you do so at your own risk.
There are, I’m sure, many for whom the biggest obstacle is actually believing they can build/buy a tiny house, who sit and say ‘oh if only I could do what your doing’, or ‘I’d love to be able to do that but I’m not clever/rich/strong/free enough’, or even ‘I just have far too much stuff to downsize that far’. I spent years planning an off-grid home, always hoping that one day I’d have enough money to buy a piece of land and build the house of my dreams. It was never going to be some mansion in the mountains but even so it was a huge undertaking and I thought that if I worked solidly for enough years I’d eventually get to the place where I’d be able to take a year or two off work and build it.
Life, however, had other plans. I found myself unemployed, getting divorced and having a nervous breakdown. I’d moved from a 3 bedroom house to a room in a shared house. I was steadily going through my savings living in one of the most expensive cities in the world and starting to wonder how long it would be before I was out on the streets. It was during this time that I gradually became aware of the tiny house movement and, in particular, Jay’s Tumbleweed houses. I sat looking around my room and realised that a tiny house would, in fact, be bigger than the room I spent most of my time in. Add a small kitchen/bathrom to it and you’d pretty much be there. I once spent 3 months living in a VW camper I used to own doing fieldwork in the Hebrides, the space became more reasonable as I started figuring out how I might arrange storage.
So, once I decided I could live in the space, it came down to money. With savings dwindling, could I afford to build a tiny house? I’ve always been a bit of a womble and I figured I could recycle a fair amount of stuff picked from skips (dumpsters), freecycle, eBay etc. Reading about Dee William’s tiny house cemented the idea.
Even so, actually doing something about it was harder. I finally decided that I had about enough money left from my savings to pay the rent on my room for a year, just in case I couldn’t get more work in the current slack job market. I could easily see myself getting to the end of that year and then having nothing left. I made a bit decision, one that was very tough, with the agreement of my mum I would move in to their spare room in Ireland and build a tiny house in the back yard. It would mean leaving everything behind but I would have space to live and mum would feed me. I was 42 and moving home. Strangely it didn’t feel like defeat, I was going to follow my dream for the first time in ages.
Then a friend who was starting a new business offered me some part-time work and my girlfriend, who I’d only been with for a few months, offered to let me move in with her so I could stay in London and build it here. I had no idea whether I could, but making the decision was undoubtedly the hardest thing in the entire process. After that, it became much, much easier. Once you’re actually embarked on the journey sheer inertia tends to keep you going.
There have, of course, been many ups and downs. The trailer I bought turned out not to be a good buy, I should have spent more which would have meant I’d have been much further along with the building than I am now, as I’m still fixing the problems with it, although I should be moving upwards soon. Weeks of rain can become demoralizing as you just can’t really build in a downpour. However, you take that time to research, monitor eBay, scour the small ads and freecycle lists. Even though I was again made redundant when my friend’s business couldn’t attract additional funding, this just gave me more time over the summer to concentrate on building and I had a little bit of extra money from the work.
I have always been reasonable at basic diy, but I’d never framed anything, never wired or plumbed a house from scratch, never built a roof or welded anything. I love to learn new things though, and I love a challenge. It costs nothing to spend time on the internet, you can even go to the library or a coffee shop and use their bandwidth if you don’t have your own. I’ve spent many days lost online, learning about all the new skills I’ll need. No-one’s born with the innate understanding of electrical code, or the metallurgy of copper pipe, it can all be learned if you’re prepared to put in the work. I was time rich, and I’ve been using it to learn so many new skills. I’ve also gained many new friends online through the tiny house communities/forums and blogs. I’ve built a network of contacts through whom I can learn, exchange ideas and gain support.
At each stage there’s always been a reason not to do something, but equally there’s a reason to start. The old Confucian saying ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’. For me that single step was the hardest point in the entire process. I was having lunch with a very good friend of mine a while ago, just after I’d made the decision to build, not knowing how I’d find the materials to do all this on the budget I had. He looked at me, smiled and said the oft-repeated line from the film Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it, they will come’. So far he’s been right, things have turned up unexpectedly just when I’ve needed them. Maybe it’s all about belief.
A number of studies have shown the declining number of people involved in their communities. Some speculate that this is correlated to a growing sense of isolation and unhappiness in the United States. Living a small lifestyle promotes community involvement and offers a variety of solutions to the land of dissatisfied American consumers. How can a small lifestyle be a solution to this problem? Consider the suggestions below to reconnect with your community.
1) Reshape your worklife.
A great way to find community is by reducing your working hours and volunteering with community groups representing issues you care about.
Its easy to see why many American’s feel isolated from their communities when they typically spend 8 hours a day alone in a cubicle, then drive home (alone) to a big house and partake in our favorite analgesic: watching TV. I don’t think any of these activities are inherently bad, but they don’t promote community involvement or a flexible lifestyle.
Your day job doesn’t have to be your only identity. You are more than your job, you are part of a community. So how can you become more active if you are still working 40 plus hours a week?
If you work in a cubicle forest, talk to your supervisor about working from home or reducing your work hours. A majority of office dwellers can complete their work remotely. People don’t need to be tied to their cubicle to produce stellar work and many corporations recognize the importance of community service. The internet has changed how organizations do business and view local and global communities.
Best Buy’s programs are an excellent example of reshaping work culture.
2) Rethink transportation.
Selling one or all of your cars is good for your wallet and community. One less car on the road means less smog and more friends. Selling a car will open up endless possibilities.
How can this be? Going carfree forces you to expand your network of friends and allies. For instance, instead of driving alone to the office you can carpool, take the shuttle or the bus. A few of my work colleagues live in a suburb outside of Sacramento and either carpool or take the bus. Both of these amazing women are extremely happy with the money and time they have saved in addition to the strong friendship they have developed by commuting together.
3) Start exercising.
Exercising is a great way to create community and spend time with your spouse or friends. Instead of working out at your home gym, sell the equipment and join a fitness group or look into joining a gym, local running club, or some kind of interactive class.
If you can’t afford the time or money a gym membership or class require, incorporate exercise into your errands. Start running, walking, or biking with your spouse or friends to the grocery store, post office, etc. This is an inexpensive activity that improves relationships and builds community.
4) Rethink time.
Downscaling and disconnecting from consumerism is one way to free up your time and reduce debt. Rather than working lots of hours to pay for a big house and recreational shopping, you can use that extra time to volunteer or connect with friends and family members.
5) Live small and think big.
Downscaling and living a small lifestyle is about more than cute homes. It’s a movement connected to broader social problems, like consumerism, cycles of debt, global warming and poor community services. It’s about re-examining our lives and how our daily choices effect local and global communities.
Quiet Life. After considerable reflection, by the Spring of 2003, I had decided to commission Jay Shafer to construct a tiny off-the-grid home, the Mobile Hermitage. I felt it was time to live a quiet life, and I believed that dwelling in a 140 square foot hermitage retreat would be just the way to achieve that quiet life.
Media Attention. At the time, I didn’t realize that the decision to live in a tiny house would result in more news and media coverage than I could ever have imagined possible. Within a few years, my tiny home had been in Better Homes and Gardens, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times of London, PBS, National Public Radio, a CBS affiliate, and I’d even received a phone call from the Oprah Winfrey Show expressing an interest in having my house hauled to Chicago to be on their stage for a taping of their show on small living. It soon became clear to me that there was a substantial interest in simple and small living. Below is a video from PBS affiliate WQPT.
Making Small Work. Inside my home, there is a dining room, a living room, a kitchen, a study, and a walk-in closet. These are all the same room. This is possible because most tasks in life are accomplished at different times (cooking, eating, studying) instead of being done all at the same time. So, having a single room serve many functions is an excellent way to make small work.
Tiny Experiences Book. I wanted to share my experiences of living in a tiny space. Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living in 140 Square Feet is the book I wrote about my experiences in the tiny house. Below is a video from the launch of the book on 11 July 2008. The interview, book reading, along with the questions and answers that followed were aired on public radio and broadcast on television.
Spreading the Message. I recently spoke at Viterbo University on my experiences with living small and the larger issues of urban and regional planning. The presentation includes photos of my home. A video of that presentation is below.
I should probably start this article with a confession… I’m really not a minimalist by nature. In fact, I seem to have a remarkable aptitude for collecting stuff. Lots of varied, interesting stuff that I’m convinced at the time of purchase will add to my quality of my life. And, in a strange way, I think that makes me particularly qualified to write this piece–because I recently had to go through the exercise in getting rid of more than 2/3′s of all my possessions in a little under six weeks. I wouldn’t say that was the least stressful six weeks of my life but, if I can do it, you can, too. (And, with any luck, you will have more time in which to downsize.)
To give you a little background on my situation, I had moved from a 3,000+ sq. foot house with separate garage to a 1,000 sq. foot adobe home + 300 sq. foot art studio during my divorce. While I took only those items belonging to me, I did a remarkably good job of filling the smaller place with my stuff. Due, in part, to my ex hiring a moving company to precipitously dump about half of my belongings on my new doorstep, the “art studio” out back pretty much spent the next year as a storage unit, packed floor to ceiling with boxes–each of which contained a near-random collection of my stuff. (While the picture in this article is not from my studio, I’m afraid it looked remarkably similar.)
When the legal proceedings were over and I pulled out of my depressed haze, I promptly bought a 550 square foot floating home with a grand scheme of simplifying my life. (Let me just say that there are definitely simpler ways to simplify one’s life than the route I chose, but that’s an article for another time.) Knowing I had a bunch of renovation costs in front of me, I then made my second less-than-fully-sane decision to be out of my current place when my lease was up the following month. My mission, whether or not I chose to accept it, was to take inventory of all my worldly possessions and reduce them by more than two thirds in just under six weeks.
Here are the strategies I used to accomplish near-Herculean task, and how I think you could also employ them…
I used eBay as my first stop in trying to find new homes for many high-dollar items I knew I wouldn’t be taking with me. Through this channel, I sold several fairly valuable musical instruments, electronics, and even one of my two cars. The trick for successfully using eBay was taking good, clear photos of the items and providing detailed descriptions. The more detail you can provide on an item, the better justification you have for where you set your price.
I think it’s also important to make an effort to respond quickly and honestly to questions sent to you by bidders. There’s an element of trust involved with buying high-dollar items online. Anything you can do to ensure a potential buyer that you’re not a con-artist operating from the Caymans is a good thing. If you’re using eBay to sell large or high-dollar items, be careful not to underestimate your shipping costs. I took a bath on the first to instruments I sold because of this.
I experimented with trying to sell some of my large pieces of furniture on eBay but found Craigslist was a lot more successful for this. (Although, I was able to find a local buyer for my large, flat-screen TV via eBay which I listed as “pick up only”.)
Most large cities now have a Craigslist for their area. Essentially, this is a free online classified service. Through Craigslist, I was able to see most of the large pieces of furniture I wasn’t planning on taking with me.
Like with eBay, good photos and descriptions can go a long way in attracting the attention of serious buyers, as can staying on top of email inquiries. My experience leads me to believe that most people hunting Craigslist want to buy a specific item in a short period of time.
I think it’s a good idea to post your general crossroads with the item but refrain from listing your address until you’re certain someone is serious about coming by to look at an item. Also, wherever possible, I recommend scheduling appointments to view items during daylight hours when you know neighbors will be around. Better yet, have someone else with you when you know you’re going to have people standing by. To be honest, unlike with Freecyle, I never had a scary situation come up with someone off of Craigslist. (In fact, I had a couple of buyers who I think were just as cautious about their own safety as I was of mine.)
Expect most Craigslist buyers to want to pay with cash. If you’re not charging an even multiple of $20, make sure you have bills handy to make change. I would recommend setting your prices on items slightly higher than your bottom line as two thirds of the Craigslist buyers I dealt with want to haggle over the price.
If you’re selling items that will be difficult to move, make sure you prep your potential buyers that they should bring help with them to transport the item. If you don’t, odds are good you’re going to be doing some heavy lifting.
3. Consignment Furniture Stores
I used a local consignment furniture store to deal with the last few pieces of furniture I was unable to sell off Craigslist. (My couch and loveseat, an entertainment center, and a bedframe.) I discovered both pros and cons to this approach.
Consignment stores are convenient if you don’t have much time to deal with individual buyers coming through your place. They normally pick up your items in one stop and deal with all the headaches of dealing with buyers.
Expect most consignment stores to take 50% of the sale price of an item. Some will also charge you an upfront appraisal and/or transport fee for your items. (I ended up paying $50 for my items.) On the plus side, the consignment store also priced my items for roughly twice what I was advertising them for on Craigslist. So, I’ll end up seeing roughly the same amount of cash for my items.
Most consignment stores issue checks once a month on items that have been sold. It’s not a bad idea to find out what day checks are being issued and call a few days before to check on the status of your items. The place I selected did eventually sell all my items where they were initially priced. But it took multiple phone calls to actually get the checks sent to me once the sales had been made.
Most consignment stores will ask for a couple of months to try to sell your item. If they are unsuccessful, they will give you the option of trying a lower price or donating your item to a local charity.
I had a couple of treasured items that really didn’t serve a purpose in my new home but which I also couldn’t bear to simply sell. In most cases these were things that had been deeply meaningful to me at a certain point in my life, either because of the purpose they served or because they were a gift from someone dear to me.
Of all the things I had to downsize, these were probably the most difficult for me to figure out how to handle. Ultimately, I chose people whom I thought might appreciate them as much as I had in the past and offered them as gifts. Seeing my friends excitement at receiving something special at an unexpected time allowed me to finally let go.
In the process of downsizing, I significantly culled both my wardrobe and small household items. This resulted in several bags of clothing and boxes of small items (most of which were small appliances, knickknacks, or other decorations). Stronger souls might have had the fortitude to host a garage sale or to Freecycle all these. I didn’t. Plus, I had the excuse that I was on a tight schedule and didn’t have an open weekend.
For these items, I opted to donate them to local charities and take the tax write-off. Clothes and household items went to the Salvation Army. An old cell phone went to a local battered woman’s shelter. The collection of stuffed animals and toys given to me by various exes (minus a few I couldn’t bear to part with) went to Toys for Tots.
Many communities now have a Freecycle program. Freecycle allows users to advertise items they no longer want. People interested in the items contact you. Most groups expect items to be offered for free and the normal expectation is that the person receiving the item is responsible for pickup unless other arrangements are made with the donor.
I have seen just about everything from used coloring books to an antique clawfooted bathtub posted on my local Freecycle group. In my case, I used Freecyle mainly to offload: small pieces of furniture that weren’t valuable enough to try to sell; lawn equipment; pet supplies I couldn’t use with my new cat; and some household appliances like an old, box-style TV.
I’ve had both good and bad experiences with Freecycle, some of which I’ve written about previously on my blog. Freecycle appeals to me because its a way to given items you no longer need directly to people who can use them. However, I found using Freecycle to be more time and energy intensive than several of the other methods.
If you’re going to advertise items on Freecycle, I recommend posting them early in the day. Don’t necessarily always chose the first person who responds to agree to give the item to. I found that in my local group there were a group of people who remained online all day and offered to take pretty much everything off my hands. After a couple of experiences accepting first responses, I learned to wait until I found someone who really seemed like they were going to benefit from the item. And who seemed on-the-ball about when and, perhaps even more importantly, how they planned to pick the item up. (Don’t get me started on the college student who tried to pick up an Ikea wardrobe on a bicycle.)
Only give directions to your place if there’s still several hours of daylight left. Otherwise, I guarantee you’re going to have someone tromping around your house later in the evening than you would like. (I learned this point when someone set off my security system banging around my porch at 1 AM picking up an old vacuum cleaner I was giving away.)
As a matter of safety (and also convenience for the person picking up the item) I also recommend wherever possible leaving items on your porch rather than inviting someone you don’t know into your home. And if you’re leaving several different items on your porch, label to whom each is supposed to go. I found this cut down on people showing up and helping themselves to items other than just what they were supposed to pick up.
7. “The Great Giveaway”
This one was pretty much my own invention. I have to confess to having a personal loathing of garage sales. I don’t like the experience of people showing up on my porch at 5 AM “to beat the rush” or sifting through my worldly possessions and trying to haggle over something priced at a quarter. But the potential to find homes for much of my remaining “misfit” items was too great to ignore, so I devised The Great Giveaway.
What this consisted of was inviting a bunch of local friends and college students I know to come by anytime during three different timeslots/days I named. I clearly marked everything that was up for grabs. All people were expected to “pay” was their effort to cart the stuff away. I used this method to divest myself of a bunch of craft supplies, camping gear, and old Target bookshelves I’ve been carting from place to place from my college days.
Undoubtedly many of those items could also have been donated but it would have taken multiple trips using my car. Moreover, I found it far easier to give away things like my treasured cache of fabric to friends than it would have been to strangers.
I’ve subsequently seen an online version similar to my strategy where someone posted a Flickr album of items they were giving away for free and allowed people to claim them. That is another way to do something similar.
8. The Town Dump
For some, strange reason I’d never actually been to a dump before my downsizing project. I don’t know if I thought there would be seedy characters there doing drug-deals or what, but it was definitely an eye-opening experience to see the mound of stuff people leave behind. (It certainly makes you think twice about the things you buy–especially when you see how much that has been thrown away that is still clearly usable.)
The trash was pretty much my channel of last resort, but I had two carloads of stuff like soggy cardboard boxes (that had never been successfully throw away after my last move), old xeroxed research articles, etc. that really had nowhere else to go.
For anyone else who’s never gone to their local dump, usually the way it works with residential vehicles is that they either charge you by the vehicle-load or they weigh you entering and leaving the dump and charge you based on weight. I ended up paying roughly $30 for two carloads.
9. Renting a Dumpster
As I progressed further into the process of downscaling, I realized I was going to either need to make several more trips to the dump (which was 45 minutes each way) or I was going to need to find a better way to manage the garbage.
I called my local trash service to see if it was possible to get a larger trash container and learned that most cities make available various size dumpsters for a rental charge. The dumpster you tend to find behind commercial establishments are referred to as “roll-offs”. I ended up renting something roughly half that size and paid approximately $100 total for a month’s rental, including delivery, pick-up, and disposal of the contents. Depending on how much garbage you have to get rid of, you can also schedule additional trash pick-ups during the term of your rental. I didn’t have that much stuff, however.
The dumpster ended up being a true godsend in terms of getting rid of a large quantity of junk quickly. I only wish I’d discovered this option earlier in the process.
The only negative I experienced with the dumpster is people coming by to dumpster-dive in the early mornings. More than anything, that was an issue of noise. It was actually a bit of a relief that people more motivated than I were finding homes for items I hadn’t managed to.
10. Photo Scanning Service
I had a large hatbox which is stuffed to the brim with pictures that has followed me from location to location since college. I always had the good intention of sorting through all the photos, organizing them, and putting them into albums. I felt guilty every time I caught sight of that box and, after ten years of this insanity, I decided that I refused to move the box one more time.
Instead of taking the box of photos with me to Portland, for a little under $100, I had a photo scanning service take my mound of photos and put them into nice, neat digital files which I could dump into my iPhoto application and sort to my heart’s content.
Now, admittedly, media formats will change over the years. But I figure it’s far easier for me to transfer my photos from an old computer to new one than to deal with fading paper pictures for which I no longer have negatives or any sort of organizational system.
11. Converting to MP3
Fortunately, I already had about 95% of my music collection converted to MP3′s on my laptop. I converted the rest to MP3′s over the course of a weekend while packing. Then I turned in my three boxes worth of CD’s to the local college used bookstore and donated the credit to a local literacy program.
While it’s possible that I might someday regret having given away my hard copies, I haven’t had a reason to use an actual CD in several years. I am also careful to back up my computer’s full hard drive on a regular basis. The cost-to-benefit ratio of continuing to cart and store those three boxes of CD’s as back-up was just didn’t make sense to me.
12. Giving Away Books, Going Digital, and Shifting to the Library
Of all the things I did to downsize, drastically reducing my book collection was probably the most difficult step I took. Over the course of about a week, I forced myself to go through all of my bookshelves and select the books I simply HAD to take with me to Portland. I packed them as I went.
Then, I pulled all the remaining books from my bookshelves and stacked them into boxes headed to the used bookstore. If anything else caught my eye in the process of packing the “donate” boxes, I set it off to the side. Then, at the very end, I went through this stack and picked out the true treasures I’d missed. Everything else went into a “donate box”.
Through this process I ended up reducing my collection by enough books to fill my PT Cruiser to the roof, with the back seat pulled out, TWICE.
To help ease the pain of separation, I took a portion of the credit I received for turning in my books and bought an Amazon Kindle, which allows me to acquire and store new books digitally.
As a further proactive step to try to slow my re-accumulation of books, I’ve forced myself to develop the habit of not buying any book if it’s available through my local public library system. There’s only been one book I’ve checked out from the library that I found valuable enough to subsequently purchase for my permanent collection.
And, that, ladies and gents, is how I managed to downscale my belongings by two-thirds in less than six weeks. Hopefully some of these strategies will be useful to you in your own attempts to downsize.
By way of a very quick epilogue to my journey in simplifying, I’d like to say that, with the exception of one or two items, I don’t regret anything I off-loaded. In fact, having been forced to store most of my remaining possessions in a storage unit for ten months while renovations were completed on my new place, I’ve come to realize I don’t need a lot of what I kept.
While the process of downsizing can be a lot of work, the end result more than makes up for it. I really enjoy the sense of space and freedom I have now. I’ve come to realize that clutter comes with more than just physical costs. It weighs down on you emotionally. Getting rid of it frees a lot of energy and resources that can be directed in far more productive areas of your life like spending time with loved ones, hobbies, or even possibly getting rid of more clutter. In an odd way, the cycle of decluttering can actually become addictive.
Give me some time. I just might become a minimalist yet!