Just for laughs, I pulled out my phone and looked up property values next door to our new apartment. My husband and I decided early in our marriage that we wouldn't bother with home ownership. This has gotten easier in our local housing market, because you can buy an entire neighborhood in some places for what it costs to get a little shack here. When I say 'shack' I'm not even exaggerating. We got our apartment because one of the three available rental houses in our city literally did not come with a heater, much less air conditioning. There are "houses" here with bedrooms that can't physically accommodate a king-size mattress. Originally built as vacation bungalows, they now cost more than what would qualify as a mansion in other markets. Now that I've set the scene, do you want to know what the houses near us cost? Do you? Do you really?
One point eight million dollars for a two-bedroom. Just over 2000 square feet. The estimated mortgage is $6700 a month. This is the single-family home closest to our apartment.
The two next door to it cost four million and eight million, respectively. It's like a Monopoly board over here! Of course, that's because we literally have a boardwalk, because we live on the coast. These million- and multi-million-dollar homes look directly on the Southern California beach, with yellow sand close enough to have in your carpet and your sheets at all times.
Why should I care how much some rich person's house cost? I know that lifestyle is out of my reach. I also know it's totally irrelevant to my interests. Anyone who comes to our place to socialize is presumably more interested in our conversation and our charming pets than our comparative wealth or networking abilities. Visiting the Denham Ranch isn't going to get you any introductions to famous people or a chance to get your screenplay read. Check that. Of course I'll totally read your screenplay. I just don't know anyone useful to whom I can give it next.
I care about how much the houses near us cost, because we're benefiting from the same neighborhood, the same geography, the same climate, the same restaurants, the same delivery options, the same customer service, the same public infrastructure, and all the other amenities that they have. We're just doing it at a far lower cost.
Oh, but equity! you say. You're throwing your money away on rent! This is exactly what your realtor wants you to say. Excuse me, Realtor. You have to capitalize it to show that it's a real profession, in the exact precise way that a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a surgeon, or an astronaut never do. For legitimacy. I don't doubt for a moment that a Realtor can tell me all sorts of things about the housing market, and help me to find a house that's perfect for me. One that will develop just as many wiring problems and plumbing problems and roofing problems and extermination problems and mold problems and slipped foundations and cracked walls and loose windows as every other house. Now that I'm to be a homeowner, all of these expenses can be my responsibility - the American Dream!
I'm just as comfortable allowing my landlord to cash in on that particular Dream. Reason being, the stock market out-performs real estate as an investment.* If making money is what I want to do, there are tons of ways to earn a higher return than there are in speculating on a primary residence. If I want to own something that gives me pride of ownership, I can own my own business, and the bar to entry is much, much lower than the down payment that would be necessary where I live.
The cheapest property for sale where I live is a mobile home that costs over $400,000. Nearly half a mil for a trailer!
Why not just live somewhere less expensive? Somewhere where I don't want to live and don't know anyone? Somewhere that lacks the career opportunities we have here? My husband is an aerospace engineer, so surely we'd be better off in a cheaper housing market nowhere near space industry firms? High rent is the price of the ticket. Sure, we'll move somewhere cheaper, when he decides to retire. Somewhere where a fixed income will stretch farther. In the meantime, it makes sense to chase down the highest income possible, putting away more cash at the same savings rate, possibly earning a higher payment if social security survives another twenty years.
We live in a stupidly expensive area. Price per square foot is, I think, around that of my parents' and both of my brothers' homes put together. It has its advantages, though. We were able to ditch our car (and accompanying payments) because transit is so good here and because everything we need is within walking distance. A bunch of stuff is weirdly cheaper. Our internet is half what we were paying in our last place, and our dog's expensive monthly shot is also half-price. Our entire monthly utility cost is under $100 a month. My husband gets his bus pass reimbursed at work, so his transportation cost is zero. Due to his schedule, we get a three-day weekend on alternate weeks. Since our place is right on the beach, we're essentially on beach vacation all the time. We refer to our tiny apartment as "the room" because it feels better to think of it as a big hotel suite than as a micro-apartment. A 680-square-foot room can be either big or small depending on how you look at it. We're starting to understand why retirees who downsize are so relaxed - they don't really have to do any housework.
Walk out the front door. Turn left and go down the hallway. Open the outer door. Now you're on the staircase landing. From here, you can watch the sun set as the sailboats and rental canoes come in to harbor. Often you can hear the sea lions from out on the rocks. Walk down the stairs and along the path for a few yards. Go down the stairs. Look, you're on the marina! Walk south another couple hundred yards and check that out. Sandy beach sand. People come here on vacation, and it's basically your yard. This is what we can access with our monthly rent, and all we had to give for a down payment was a month's rent, rather than, say, $200,000.
Figuring out whether a house is a good investment for you is a mathematical exercise. It has actual numerical, objective answers. There are handy calculators* out there where you can put in various factors and learn whether this little building you're looking at really qualifies as a sound investment. It wouldn't for us, even if we knew we could stay for more than five years, although I haven't lived in one home for more than five years since 1990. We understand the stock market. Honestly, we can outdo the housing market as an investment just by striving for raises and bonuses at work. Other people may get a warm and fuzzy feeling from "owning" a house, which is the shorthand we use for "the bank owns this house and I pay them for the privilege of pretending it's mine." We'd rather collect on the experiences of living in a particular place than in a particular building, especially when considering the cost per square foot.
An elliptical trainer
A stair stepper
A ten-top dining table
Ten dining chairs
A ten-foot ladder
Five sets of garage shelving
A shop vac
A circular saw
A metal bandsaw
A hydraulic jack
A weed whacker
A set of sawhorses
A fire extinguisher (we kept one)
Various scrap lumber
An insulated lunch bag
A travel mug
A salad bowl
A box of plastic food storage containers
Three potholders, two made by me
A coffee mug
A gravy boat
Three muffin pans
A glass baking dish
A roasting pan
A metal breadbox
A cake rack
A butter dish
A pasta maker
Four drinking glasses
Eleven wine glasses
A bottle of wine
Two tea balls
Three kitchen knives
A pasta server
Two sets of tongs
Three sets of measuring cups
A kitchen timer
A bag of refrigerator magnets
Two kitchen aprons
A dust mop
A plastic dish tub
A shelf organizer
An old jacket
A travel pillow
A set of colored pencils
A box of crayons
Three packages of index cards
A package of Post-It notes
A roll of wrapping paper
A stack of blank books and sketch pads
A box of CDs and DVDs
A CD organizer
Five thumb drives
A box of photographs (digitized and stored in the cloud)
A bulletin board
Three picture frames
A set of flannel sheets
Two bedspreads with pillow shams
Two bed pillows
Four throw pillows
Five small moving boxes full of fabric
Two sewing machines
A rotary cutter and cutting mat
A set of pottery tools
Two embroidery hoops and an embroidery frame
A set of gouache paints
A bag of paintbrushes
Three folding tables
Three milk crates
An extension cord
A coil of rope
A set of closet rod hardware
A package of wall hooks
A set of gardening gloves
A bag of seed packets
A set of loppers
A 12-pound sledgehammer
A pick hoe
A weeding fork
Two toy crossbows
A box of sprinkler heads
A box of drip irrigation hoses and supplies
A box of PVC fittings
A dryer duct cleaning kit, still in the package
A box of wooden hangers
A pair of rubber boots
A set of camping mugs
A set of tomato cages
A hummingbird feeder
A computer keyboard
A wicker hamper
Five wicker baskets
A set of wooden drawers
A wooden trunk
A plastic drawer organizer
A small jewelry box
A ten-foot shelf
Four board games
A bag of old shoes
A bag of old clothes
A box of sequined fruit
No idea how many books
Three potted plants
A bag of paper grocery sacks
Everything in our fridge and freezer
Sixty-two moving boxes
If you were twice as big as me, you would:
Live in a 1360 square foot house
Have two cars
Have two bathrooms
Have two televisions
Have twelve dinner plates, ten cereal bowls, and twelve coffee mugs
Have eight bath towels and eight hand towels
Weigh 240 pounds (or be ten feet and eight inches tall)
Have four laundry baskets
Have 28 pairs of shoes
Have 56 hangers in your closet
Have ten skirts
Have 26 pairs of pants and jeans
Have twenty dresses
Have 54 shirts
Have 14 sweaters
Have four pairs of shorts and two swimsuits
Have 44 pairs of socks
Have 158 books
Have two craft projects in progress
I made myself count stuff in my ever-present donation/sale bag, because technically I still have it, and I've wound up moving with "donation" or "eBay" or "yard sale" bags more than once. I also counted our car, even though we sold it after I wrote this.
This is a silly idea in many ways, because presumably you don't have two drivers licenses, two dishwashers, or two ...I ran out of ideas there, because people may well have two refrigerators, two houses, two beds, two couches, or two spouses. Anyway, the point is that we can always look around and consider how much territory and how many accessories and accoutrements it takes to "be us."
Hopefully you just have twice as many friends, twice as much fun, twice as much energy, and twice as much love in your life as I do!
As we were going through the TWENTY-SIX PAGE LEASE for our new apartment, we discovered that we were required to show proof of renters insurance before we could have the keys. We already had renters insurance, but figured we'd change to their suggested provider, since we were radically downsizing as well as relocating. The main purpose was to insure against potential damage that we might cause to the apartment, since we are such party animals. Secondary was a worksheet estimating the value of our possessions, and this is where it gets interesting. We had until the end of the week to put a price on everything we owned.
We did it in twelve minutes.
We've had numerous conversations over the years about what we would keep and what we would downsize in various situations. We've also had the conversation about how much insurance to get on our stuff. In the world of insurance, there is a lot of fine print, such as whether the policy includes earthquake coverage. (Assume that whatever is the most likely threat of natural disaster in your area, your insurance specifically excludes it, whether that's tornados, UFOs, giant ants, or what-have-you). Our concern was the concept of "replacement value." If our place really was completely destroyed by one of the many hazards of our fair state, not limited to flash floods, landslides, wildfire, typhoon, or earthquake, what would it cost to start from scratch? What would we actually replace and what would we shrug off?
Obviously we would replace our bed, couch, dining table, computers and desks. We would need replacement sheets and towels - but would we buy as many as we currently had? We would need to completely outfit a new kitchen - but again, would we buy as much kitchen gear as we had in our real kitchen? How do you insure food? We would need to replace our clothes and bathroom stuff. Predictably, if we started from zero, with nothing but a blank spot for a house and a big insurance payout, would we really buy the hundreds of items we had in our bedroom and bathroom again?
The shock and horror of losing everything you own must be truly devastating. It wouldn't do to be flippant about such a thought. However. My husband rode out the Northridge Earthquake, a topic that I find endlessly fascinating. We know that disaster is real. For us, a little black comedy helps when contemplating serious crisis. As long as nobody dies, if one of the many temporary homes we've rented were to be destroyed, well, we're insured and so are our landlords. The idea of starting over again, with nothing but a check, can be a cute little fantasy. If we went on a mandatory shopping spree, with hardly a sock to our name, what would we buy?
Lids without matching containers! Junk mail! Dried-up pens! Rusty paperclips! Sheets that don't match any of the mattresses in the house! Shopping extravaganza!
The sad yet liberating truth is that most of our stuff is relatively worthless. We can't calculate a replacement cost for photographs, because we can't go out and buy them again. We can't put a price on souvenirs, mementos, or memorabilia for the same reason. We can't assess the market value of his engineering drawings or software, or my manuscripts, because money wouldn't reproduce them. The only stuff we can buy with money is generic housewares.
That's exactly what insurance money would cover: generic housewares. It's not like we would suddenly be able to level up and hire an interior designer. Also note that when we pay for insurance, the more we buy, the higher the premiums. Insurance is like a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit: you hope you never need them. If we're lucky, we'll have paid hundreds or thousands of dollars over the years for insurance we never need. That would be awesome; let's pick that one.
When we learned that we would need to estimate the replacement value of everything we owned, we were undaunted. Most of what we had, we'd bought together during the past eight years of our marriage. We both attend to the value of a dollar. We had a solid memory of how much the bigger-ticket items cost, and if we didn't, we could check our digital financial records. We were ready.
There was a "Property Worksheet." It had a field for each room, and as I entered numbers, it kept a running total at the bottom. Bedroom 1. Bedroom 2. Office. Den. Kitchen. Bathroom. Living Room. Dining Room. Other/Misc. Additional living expenses.
Well, let's see. We only have one bedroom. We no longer have an office. We've never had a "den" and I have no idea what would go in one. We no longer have a separate dining room, but what the heck, let's put the price of the table and chairs there. We were chatting back and forth over text message, a conversation that included a couple of 'crying laughing' emojis. We did our own independent estimates, and got within $400 of the same amount. Then my husband recalled that none of the rooms listed included the garage, and had to come up with an estimate for his tools. Wow, that's a pretty big number, we thought. I input it in the insurance company's website.
The total price we had estimated for all our worldly goods was barely over half the lowest amount offered.
We fell about laughing, and laughed even harder when I tried changing the optional jewelry coverage. I could replace most of my wardrobe with the default option! Never spend a lot of money on anything that will fit down a drain, that's my advice.
We wound up with the lowest coverage and the highest deductible we could get. After tacking on earthquake coverage, it's still less than a dollar a day. I'd have to check, but it's almost identical to what we were paying before. Now, if our upstairs neighbor leaves the bathtub running or the sprinkler system malfunctions, we'll be financially fine.
The most important consideration, whenever our attention wanders to crisis and disaster, is to think of the living. We plan escape routes. We check our go bags. We rehearse what we'll do if we need to evacuate and get our animals to safety. We bolster our finances, maybe tuck a few more small bills in our go bags just in case. We insist on discussing emergency preparedness with our friends, who usually don't even have a jug of water set aside. We do what we can to try to make sure we'll be on the emergency response team, helping our neighbors.
It also helps to think about the priceless things. Are our work products and tools backed up? If even a single irreplaceable file exists only on one computer or one storage medium, that's asking for trouble. BACK UP YOUR DATA! If we have legacy or heirloom items, have we recorded them in some way in case the original is damaged? Photographs, letters, documents, vital records, family trees, and anything else flat can be scanned. I like to see these things distributed across a family, so everyone has a copy. Pictures can also be taken of the 3D stuff, like furniture or textiles, so that at least some visual record will survive.
Ultimately, it's all just stuff. What's important has a heartbeat. What really makes a legacy is the rich tapestry of stories, relationships, recipes, shared experiences, inside jokes and alternative song lyrics, and little mannerisms that make us family. No physical object of any description is worth a plug nickel in comparison to a strong bond of affection. Maybe we'd do better to make worksheets of our love and loyalty.
BE RIDICULOUS was my quest for the year, and the most ridiculous thing about that is that I didn't give much thought to the many ways the Universe would interpret this command. Every single thing I planned to do with my brand-new, freshly minted 2017 has already been completely upended. Our lives have been in total upheaval every single day of the year so far. I keep talking about the desire for transformation, and now I'm going to stop that for a while and talk about the desire for tranquility!
There are certain things I don't talk about on this blog, namely personal, familial, and health events. Suffice to say that we got hit with two of the three, plus a bonus veterinary crisis. It's been...interesting. Eliding over a trillion details, my husband got an offer for his dream job, and we suddenly found that we had twelve days to move to a new city. Cut to us packing up our house in between giving our dog eye drops three times a day while he can't get his Cone of Shame through the dog door and needs to be let out constantly. Most of First Quarter 2017 was an epic disaster for us, but hey! Now we live at the beach and my husband is working in the space industry!
Unconnected to any of the above, we decided to get rid of our car and try being car-free. It's been three weeks. My husband has been taking the bus to work, and he just ordered a little scooter (toy kind, not internal-combustion kind) to get around between bus stops. Our new place is within less than half a mile of almost everything we need or want, so it's been an easy transition.
My major personal goal for the year was to "follow a set schedule." I choose a counterintuitive, uncomfortable goal that is contrary to doing what comes naturally for me. That's where the juicy stuff is hidden, in the radical change of perception. I used to hate running, and then I pushed myself, fell in love with it, and ran a marathon. I used to have an abiding dread of public speaking, and then (last year) I pushed myself, and started winning ribbons and learning to work a crowd. I thought, heck, what's left on the list of things I hate and also suck at? Then our life went crazy and a schedule was the least of my worries. Then the unexpected happened. Even though our new bedroom window faces west, (my parrot and) I have been waking up around 7 AM every day. We're not quite done unpacking yet, but I'm already moving toward a more natural-feeling, biologically appropriate daily rhythm. Ridiculous.
My career goal has somehow been moving forward, despite everything, mostly because my business partner is a person of great dedication and industry. Sometimes just not saying no is enough to maintain momentum.
My physical goals of doing P90X and running five miles have not happened yet. What has happened is that I've spent the last three weeks lifting and moving heavy objects. Moving is moving! The other thing that's happened is exactly what always happens when we move, which is that I rapidly gain five pounds from eating convenience foods. Now that we're in an apartment, the dog needs to go out at least three times a day, and we're also car-free, meaning I am walking to the grocery store about 5 out of 7 days. At this rate, I can lose five pounds in roughly... three months. [(3500 calories per pound x 5 pounds)/65 calories per mile]/3 miles per day] = not quite 90 days. Or just quit eating my stress and get more sleep.
My home goal was to "digitize, downsize, minimize." I will call that a SUCCESS+. All I was planning to do was to clean out the garage! Now we don't even have a garage. Or a car. Or a yard. Or a... Our new place is awesome, but it's smaller than our tiny house, with significantly less storage. We're still getting rid of things after a yard sale and something like six carloads of donations.
We haven't done our couples goals yet, which are both summertime things. Shared adversity will either drive you apart or bring you closer, and in our case it's closer. We're feeling pretty smug about living in this tiny shoebox apartment; it's like living our twenties all over again, even though we could almost be the parents of most of our neighbors.
I haven't done my stop goal, my lifestyle upgrades, or my wish yet. I will say that my lifestyle has been massively upgraded anyway. Looking at the tiny postage-stamp sized square of ocean we can see from our balcony while wild parrots fly overhead definitely does not suck.
My "Do the Obvious" goal for the year was to transform my appearance. I am also going to call this one an early SUCCESS. Speaking of my quest to BE RIDICULOUS, I got this wild idea to apply to be on a game show, and I actually got a screen test! Of course I didn't get selected, because I am not in the least bit telegenic. But I did go out and get my hair blown out and have my makeup done beforehand. I couldn't believe the results. Suddenly I looked both younger and smarter. My husband absolutely couldn't take his eyes off me. He took me out to dinner, and I think he spent more time making eye contact with me than he did at our actual wedding. All righty then! I learned how to straighten my hair, and astonishingly, it only takes me ten minutes. I finally have the answer to my depressingly unmanageable hair, which has been the plague of my existence for 35 years. If I'd learned to do this when I was 14, I would have had a completely different life. Now I'm 41 and I already have a completely different, completely different life.
2017 has been a very weird, whirlwind year for us so far. Topsy turvy and all that. Now we're starting Second Quarter and it's like we're the ensemble cast of a TV series that just went into a new season, like American Horror Story with slightly less horror. Now I've gone off on a mental tangent, trying to figure out whether there has ever been a TV show much like our life, but there really aren't any sitcoms about engineers, and someone else would have to play me anyway.
This is the short version of my 2017 goals, resolutions, quests, wishes, etc.:
Personal: Follow a set schedule
Physical: P90X, run five miles
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS
Wish: Pay off my student loan.
We tried an experiment on this, our most recent move. If I'm counting right, this is the sixth time we've moved in eight years of marriage. The idea was to track what is in each box so that we could find anything we needed. We've never done anything like this before, so I thought I'd report back on how it worked out.
Answer: It was AWESOME! Still is, in fact, because we started unpacking on Saturday afternoon and we only have seven boxes left. That means we're already 90% done!
It worked like this. We went around the house, visually estimating how many boxes we would need of each size. This worked really well; we were short about five small boxes at the very end, but otherwise we nailed it. Then we set up a numbering system so that we could both number boxes while working independently. My series started at zero and his started at 100.
We didn't do anything about trying to keep boxes of the same size together. We didn't stage them in numerical order. They didn't get loaded on the van or stacked in storage by numerical order. They were simply numbered and labeled. My husband taught me to write the number on all three corners on the same side of each box, so they would be visible from the top, front, or side.
The labels are the most important part, aside from the inventory list. We started with the ROOM and then a few of the key items in the box. Such as: BEDROOM, machete, yoga mat, ukulele. Getting the boxes staged in the appropriate room in the new house is the most important part. This is why I don't believe in the concept of 'miscellaneous,' also known as MISC (the dreaded misc). Everything is "a thing I use in this room." If the room a thing belongs in is not clear, then it is probably a useless thing.
The inventory is the slightly more complicated part. It's especially complicated when you accidentally delete it off your phone and then have to hunt it down. (Don't do that). It could easily be done with paper and pencil; index cards might be useful. We only had about 70 boxes, so even a handwritten list would not have been unmanageable. I dictated our list because my phone has speech recognition. I would list the number of the box and then list off the contents in detail - more detail than we wrote on the box itself. For instance, Box 106 included a pair of ski gloves. I was able to indicate that the base of the blender went into one box, while the pitcher went into another box of more fragile items. Like that.
Having this inventory while we unpack has been incredible. It is SO helpful to know what you're getting into before you open a box. There have been several occasions when we needed something specific and were able to go right to it, such as the dog's bowls, the mattress pad, and the power strips. In some cases, we were even able to figure that certain boxes could go on the bottom of a stack with more urgent boxes on top.
Almost everything on this move was boxed up. In previous moves, we have always wound up with a lot of loose items. Last time, we made a couple of trips per night over about a week, and I hand-carried the most fragile stuff, one load at a time. That method makes it really challenging to estimate how many boxes you'll need, and thus there are never enough. The van winds up being full of all kinds of loose items, like garden hoses and lamps, and it's really hard to unload. All the loose things are much harder to unload than they were to cram into every available nook and cranny of the moving van. I am now a total convert to boxing every possible thing, even myself if that means I can hide and avoid having to carry another mattress down a ramp.
We have had professional movers twice, once when they stored everything for three weeks between homes. While professional movers are incredibly hard-working people with great spatial skills, I would rather avoid ever having to hire a service to do this job again. After a certain point, they just start carrying things in and setting them down wherever they fit. Last time, we had a floor lamp next to the toilet, because, isn't that where everyone puts their lamps? They even pack wastebaskets with stuff still in them. I can honestly say that with this move, we were more organized than professional movers. That is when minimalism really starts to pay off.
We got rid of three carloads of stuff before our move, after holding a yard sale and eliminating roughly another carload. After we saw our new apartment, we realized that a lot more would have to go, and we dropped off the equivalent of another pickup load, mostly consisting of plastic garage shelving. By far the easiest way to take inventory and pack up for a move is to get rid of as much stuff as possible first! Start with the fragile stuff and continue with anything irregularly shaped or hard to pack. Fill grocery bags with as many small items as you can bear to eliminate. When you are twelve hours in on moving day and haven't had dinner yet, you will thank yourself.
Moving does not have to be a horror show. The better organized and the more streamlined, the easier it is, and the sooner we can all get back to relaxing and playing with our phones, the ultimate proof that we don't use, need, or even enjoy most of our possessions anyway.
Things get complicated. Life itself gets complicated all the time, of course, and the things in our lives can add to that complication. An example of this is when my husband got an offer for his dream job, and we had TWELVE DAYS to move or accept a four-hour daily commute. This is when theory meets practice.
We had three things to do. The priority was for my husband to fill out the numerous Human Resources forms for the new job. Second was to find a new place to live. Third was to pack our stuff and vacate our house. Oh, and the timing just happened to fall during the same week we were getting rid of our car. The game was to balance the schedule, the finances, the transportation, the pets, and the material goods in the optimal way.
Bonus rounds: try to get a refund of prorated rent from our current landlord if he can get a new tenant in early; find a new home with mass transit access; find a new home that does not cost more than the current place but also takes exotic pets.
Due to the tight timeline, we realized that we simply wouldn't be able to pack up the house and look for a new place at the same time. There was just too much to do and it was too far to commute to screen new places. We made the unconventional decision to move our stuff twice, using a storage unit as a temporary stopping point and sleeping at an Airbnb. If we owned as much stuff as the standard American household, this would have been crazy talk.
Everything we own fit in a 20' moving van.
The next constraint was that we were moving to the beach, and there are two basic choices in our price range. A sad shack with no garage or yard, or a relatively nice apartment. There were very few houses available at any price, and they included: two that were only available for a 3-5 month lease; one with NO HEAT that recommended using space heaters in the actual ad; one with a bedroom too small to contain a king-size mattress. The standard seemed to be original 1960's linoleum, no dishwasher, and sub-600 square feet. Meanwhile, the apartments all included gyms and a long list of amenities, some of which were nicer than a few hotels where we've stayed. Hmm. Depressing hovel, or permanent vacation? Apartment it is!
A 680-square-foot apartment at that. A two-car garage is 400 square feet if that tells you anything.
I should take a moment to talk about the dream job. Space mechatronics. My husband is an aerospace engineer, and after 24 years, he's finally getting the chance to work on what he wanted to do when he was still in school. He's so excited it's completely adorable. Honestly I think he would sleep under his desk if that's what it took to get this job. Living in an apartment instead of a house is a perfectly reasonable tradeoff, especially an apartment on the beach.
The standard response to most unconventional choices is I COULD NEVER DO THAT. That statement is never literally true. It's only emotionally true. Anyone CAN move to a new place. Anyone CAN get rid of physical possessions. It's not complicated. We decided several years ago that we would relocate anywhere for the right job. We also decided that our lifestyle was more important than our stuff.
This is how it worked out:
Got boxes at 6:30 PM on Tuesday
Picked up moving van at 10 AM Friday
Finished loading van AND doing full move-out house-cleaning by 8:30 PM Friday
Moved entire contents of van into storage unit between 12 and 5 PM Saturday
Found and applied for apartment on Sunday
Started new job on Monday
Reserved rental van on Tuesday
Picked up keys for new apartment on Friday
Picked up van at 8:30 AM on Saturday and returned it at 9:30 PM
Unpacked from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM on Sunday
Dropped: one bedroom, two-car garage, laundry room, yard, 48 square feet of living space
As of right now, the bed, couch, and dining table are set up. I was able to cook a proper meal in the kitchen. We still need a shower curtain, but over the weekend we turned an empty apartment into an 80% functional, messy home.
We were able to accept the job offer and relocate in only twelve days because we had the savings to cover double rent, move-in fees, and a security deposit, pet boarding, two van rentals, and a storage unit; the credit scores to get accepted in the new place; the physical ability to pack and haul our own stuff twice in the same week; and the emotional wherewithal to downsize and get rid of an entire garage's worth of tools. Yes, we get to live our dream life and play on the beach now. It came as the result of being stringently frugal savers and yet profligate in donating and giving away anything that wouldn't fit in a 680-square-foot apartment.
If you could live your dream life, what would you keep and what would you give away?
Do you have a dream life?
Which do you spend more time thinking about: your stuff or your life?
Guess what? You'll never guess. Actually, you probably will, if you've followed my exploits for more than a year. Surprise, we're moving again! Cue party noisemakers and confetti. This will be our first move in... *counts on fingers*... fourteen and a half months. This is why we're minimalists, and getting to be more so every year. I'll be writing about this process over the next few weeks, as we strategize, pack, move, unpack, and get settled in.
We decided not long after we got married that we will probably never own a house. The reason for this is that mortgages are structured in favor of the bank, and the interest and fees are front-loaded. If you aren't completely positive that you'll still be living in the same house at LEAST five years from now, it's financially extremely risky. You are almost guaranteed to lose money. If you're underwater on your home loan and you're forced to sell, you're sunk. We looked at our situation after the crash of 2008, realized that we were unlikely to spend THREE years in one house, much less any longer, and accepted the nomadic life. Now, when my husband gets an enticing job offer, it's a simple matter for us.
Accept offer. 2. Give notice to landlord. 3. Order moving boxes. 4. Reserve moving van. 5. Pack. 6. Move to whatever new city has the latest most awesome job opportunity.
We did the first four of these steps in about an hour. Two days later, we advertised a yard sale. Now, we're still waiting for the delivery of the moving boxes. We're not sweating it, though, because our house is only 728 square feet. We can fit both our entire wardrobes in a pair of large suitcases. We've scheduled three days to pack so that we can take breaks.
I plan to use a stopwatch when we pack each room, so I can get an estimate of how long packing really takes. This is one thing I've never done before. I've counted the number of moving boxes we've used before, which is 100, but I haven't tallied them by room yet. I have a strong suspicion that we won't be needing 100 moving boxes this time.
Minimalism is all about strategy. We made a policy decision not to buy a house. We made a policy decision not to spend more than a certain percentage of our income on rent. We made an aesthetic agreement that we prefer small houses, and for comfort, we both prefer putting our bed in the smallest bedroom.
When my husband began his job search, we understood that we had about a 5% chance of being able to stay in the same neighborhood. Another of our policy decisions is that it's not worth it to us for him to have a long commute. We'd rather spend one week packing and unpacking than have him sitting on the freeway for five hours or more every week in perpetuity. I married him and I kinda like seeing his face from time to time.
The clock started ticking two months out. We started planning meals around what we had in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Points for every meal that finishes off a container of something. The last time we had professional movers, we learned that they would not take certain items overnight, including food, any kind of liquids or chemicals, explosives, firearms, plants, live animals, and various other items. We wound up with an entire truckload we had to haul ourselves, partly consisting of our suitcases and the crates for our pets, but mostly made up of pantry boxes. I was very embarrassed and annoyed, and made an effort from that point forward to eat it up and buy less. That is another policy decision: a streamlined, minimal pantry.
Every time we've moved, we've wound up in a smaller house with a smaller garage and less kitchen storage. We wind up downsizing twice: first, before we move, and second, after we try to unpack in the new place and realize that certain things just won't fit. This will be our sixth move in eight years, and we're much more serious about it this time. Anything we don't use physically, literally, every single day, is under scrutiny. Even some of the things we DO use every day are subject to analysis.
We base our plans around our emotional experience of life. What do we do in our living room? We lounge around relaxing with our pets. What do we do in our kitchen? We cook a lot and we like to talk at the dining table. What do we do in our office? We like to work on our passion projects. We plan what we keep in each room based around how we are using the room. Heaps of junk mail, mounds of dirty laundry, stacks of dishes, and piles of random, unsorted stuff are not on any of our lists for Favorite Use of Space. Knowing how we like to spend our time at home is a big help when we start scrolling through pictures of dozens of houses and hundreds of rooms, looking for our new place.
The less stuff we have, the smaller a place we can fit in. The smaller our home, the better the neighborhoods we can afford. We have found that our quality of life improves immeasurably when we can live close enough to work for a short commute. That often means fitting in a really small home. It's not just about high rents: a lot of areas don't even have large homes at any price. We learned that a 1500 square foot home in our current city would cost $1000 a month more in rent, and I don't know about you, but... yeah, no. Most people probably would choose the larger house with the longer commute explicitly so that they can keep all their stuff. We're the opposite. Calculate your hourly wage including your commute time, and then go and get your crying pillow, because you're going to need it.
At time of writing, we have a moving van to pick up on Friday, a storage unit reserved for our stuff, and a pending Airbnb reservation. What we don't have yet is anywhere to live in April, because WING-IT METHOD. Watch this space for exciting dispatches from the Place of Uncertainty!
I just sold my elliptical. Man, I loved that thing. I tried out at least half a dozen different models before settling on it, the one with the stride that felt most natural to me. I put more miles on it than I have on some of my shoes! It was hard to say goodbye, but I made the decision. It had to go.
BUT IT'S WORTH SOMETHING!
Stuff is worth its use to us. If it's not being used, it has no value. In many cases, it has LESS than no value. Most stuff costs us money, time, and convenience to keep. It gets in the way, gathers dust, and ties us down in ways we don't even realize. I've moved so many times that I see physical possessions as a liability. The elliptical I loved so much is something I really shouldn't have bought at all. I knew that going in, so I already had an exit strategy before I went shopping.
Exit strategy - how you're going to get out of a situation, whether it's a job, neighborhood, relationship, or anything that won't last forever, whether that's good, bad, or neutral.
Why did I buy a 300-pound piece of exercise equipment?
I knew with absolute certitude that I would use it. I have a long track record of self-discipline with working out. In fact, sometimes self-discipline means I don't allow myself to work out, because I'm tapering or nursing an injury.
Compared to a monthly gym membership, the cost would eventually be fully amortized.
I bought it used, and it cost significantly less than a new model.
I had the space for it, in our oddly shaped, disproportionately large living room. It would also fit easily through the sliding glass back door. (But then we moved, and it would only fit in the garage).
I lost 25 pounds on that elliptical. I did part of my marathon training on it. There were a lot of late nights when I used it out in the garage, rather than make my husband nervous by running around the neighborhood.
Okay. These are reasons the item was valuable to me. It sounds like a list of compelling arguments to keep the thing. The way I look at it, this is actually a list of reasons why I derived full value from its use. I used it up, in the same way I would use up an apple or a pair of socks. The only difference is that it still retains value that can be used by someone else.
How much was losing 25 pounds worth to me? That would have been full value.
How much was running a marathon worth to me? That would have been full value.
How much was it worth to me not to pay a gym membership for three years? More than the cost.
According to my calculations, I've gotten more than triple the sticker price out of this machine.
More importantly, though, I consider the cost of ownership. There are several reasons why it would now cost me money to keep.
It's obsolete. The model has been discontinued. It's huge and bulky and heavy and it lacks many of the features of new models. New models do more for a lower price. Thus, if I waited another couple of years, I might never be able to find a buyer.
It might have cost me money to dispose of it. Not only might we have had to pay a dump fee, we would have had to rent a vehicle big enough to haul it off, or pay someone else to do it.
If we kept it and took it with us to our new place the next time we moved, we would either have to rent a bigger van just to make room for the elliptical, or make two trips. It was bigger than a couch.
Moving it had elements of risk. Either we moved it ourselves and risked an injury, or we would have had to pay someone else to risk the injuries. That would be sad and awful and also a legal liability.
Our new place wouldn't have enough room to keep it. It would be really, really dumb to rent a bigger place specifically to accommodate a depreciating asset. How many thousands of dollars would that be?
The default answer when most people consider getting rid of something involves cognitive bias. We value our own stuff much more highly than we would value the same item if it belonged to someone else. We also tend to drive away opportunities because we refuse to let go unless our mental price is met, even if that price has no basis in reality. This is how we get stuck. We stay rooted in one spot, missing out on who knows how many opportunities, until we finally decide we're ready to let go, and then find that we missed the peak sales window. Our treasures have turned into old junk.
Eventually you can't even give it away.
I used to have an elliptical. I had some great times on it, and it's a good memory. But my life changed, and it was time to let it go. It would have cost me so much to keep it that I would have paid someone to take it away. I got so much value out of it that I could have given it away for free. It would have been expensive to keep, but I managed to sell it! The purchaser rented a van to haul it away, and for that plus the bidding price, he could have bought a new model. I believe I sold my used old elliptical for as much as the market would bear.
Two of the most expensive mistakes you can make are made by the majority of people every single day. One is to pay a higher mortgage or rent because you have so much stuff that you need extra rooms. Calculate the price per square foot of your place and then ask yourself why you're in debt and can't afford to go on vacation. The second, and far more expensive mistake, is to stay nailed down in one area when you could have a more interesting and better paid job by relocating. There is also the factor of a long commute time. Many people choose to live farther from their place of employment so they can have a bigger house or yard, which they can then never enjoy because they are always on the freeway. We live in a tiny house because it means my husband can walk to work. This is so awesome that we'd live in a studio apartment if we had to.
Stuff versus lifestyle. That's really what it comes down to. There is no piece of equipment so excellent that it would be worth needing a bigger house, having a longer commute, losing our geographic mobility, or eating into our travel fund. I wouldn't drag around something that big any more than I would strap a boat anchor to my back. Nothing is worth as much as our freedom and peace of mind.
If you've tried other organizing and decluttering books and been stymied, then you need Scaling Down: Living Large in a Smaller Space. While the book is aimed at a more mature audience who are downsizing to smaller homes, the way it addresses the thought processes and emotional work of decluttering would be good for anyone.
The authors, Judi Culbertson and Marj Decker, have been professional organizers for many years. They have obviously heard it ALL. Scaling Down includes many anecdotes of various people who succeeded (or failed) at downsizing in different scenarios. There are cartoons and a lot of humor, although there are some sad moments. For instance, it never ceases to amaze me how grown adults will allow a trivial family trinket to destroy relationships, and there are examples of that here.
The most valuable part of the book is the way it walks through the way to make different kinds of decisions about stuff. Not just physical possessions, but downsizing to a smaller home, clearing out storage units, disconnecting from a career at retirement, setting boundaries in new marriages or with adult kids, and more. There is a chapter on dealing with the possessions of an older relative who has become incapacitated or passed away. For those of us who haven't yet had to confront the types of issues that are common to senior adults, it brings true perspective to the effort of downsizing. Future Self is simply not going to need all this stuff. It's so much easier to make the decisions and do the sorting now, while we're relatively hale and hearty.
I'm currently living in a space slightly less than half the size of the house we moved into as newlyweds. We've had to downsize the kitchen four times in seven years of marriage. We've found that we prefer a cozy, snug, human-sized space, the type that was common in the early 20th century. It feels more homey. It's also easier to clean, easier to find things, and cheaper to heat and cool. With two middle-aged adults and two messy pets, we can attest that everything in Scaling Down is true.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.