Friday, May 25, 2012

Making a House a Home

My mantra for the life of this blog has been stay where you are.

It's been our houses are homes, not ATMs.

It's been about defining the "American Dream" not as a pursuit of wealth, but as the pursuit of independence, and in my definition, that independence comes from being self-sufficient - that is, being able to take care of one's self with regard to basic human needs: food, water, and shelter.

It was with great interest that I read this article entitled Real Homes: Small, Frugal and Green and is about the growing trend toward shrinking - the size of our homes and the overall size of our footprints on the earth.

What I loved best about the article is that it was a validation of all of the things I've been saying for so many years, in particular, that we've been fed a pack of lies, and we've eaten those lies like little Edmund eating Turkish Delight with no less the avaricious appetite or willingness to betray than he showed.

The main points of the article are that the economic downturn has forced people to downsize their living quarters. The result of the housing bubble burst has been that McMansions are out and Tiny Houses are In.

And we're starting to better evaluate need versus want.

So many people have been negatively affected by the last few years, and I have no desire to minimize the difficulty they are experiencing, but if the ultimate result is that we start to live more simply with a more realistic ideal of what will make us happy, then I'm thinking it might not be such a bad thing.

Many years ago, I read this article on Mother Earth News entitled Live on Less and Love It!. The author, his wife, and their son have a smaller - per person - annual income than the average American spends on Starbucks coffee per year - which was, in 2005, less than $4500, and no, I did not leave off a zero.


It wasn't his list of 75 things that were important to me. What struck me, and what stuck with me, was the income on which they lived, which is one-third the income that a person making minimum wage for 40 hours a week would earn, and we spend so much time, in this country, talking about the need for a higher living wage ... and here is this man, and his family - three of them - living on a third of the income on which so many people struggle to just survive. His article is not about surviving, but rather a thriving - without money.

What's interesting, also, is that none of the things he mentions as "money-saving tips" are terribly imaginative or would be difficult for the average person. Amy Dacyczyn, the Frugal Zealot, has a lot of other, less-intuitive, money-saving ideas, and hers often require a much larger commitment - both in time and in habit-breaking.

But mostly, the best advice that anyone can give, the single piece of advice that we're all offering, is that the way to financial freedom and "happiness" is to be shelter-secure, which means:
1. downsizing our homes to something that's manageable, both in the size and cost of the structure; and
2. redefining our houses as "homes" and not as "investments."

I don't read paid economist reports, and I pay even less attention to the news articles that declare we're coming out of this recession. In fact, I've said for years that we're just in the beginning of a major economic DEpression, and it's not that I think I know more than people who analyze financial data and trends for a living, but rather that from my objective viewpoint and as a student of the 1930's Depression, what I'm seeing doesn't look like recovery, but rather like a slow slide.

I don't pay a lot of attention to the American news media, but I do read a lot of writers online (who are not financially benefitting from writing their opinions about world events), and for the past five years, they have mostly been correct about where our world is headed - especially when their thoughts contradict the news media (which does financially benefit from saying what people want to hear - rather than reporting the reality of what's happening).

They say that collapse is here, that we're in the firm grip of resource depletion, and any hopes of mitigating the ill effects of catastrophic climate change were dashed several years ago.

It's not a pretty picture, for sure, and while we may not save the world, there is hope that we can make a better life for ourselves where we are. As Roosevelt is quoted as saying do what you can with what you have where you are - and that is the Thrivalist motto.

For me, it's not been about having for a very long time. Rather, for me, it's about doing, and my ultimate goal is to live - happily, healthily and harmoniously - on one-third of the income most people consider inadequate to satisfy their basic needs.

I'd rather go there voluntarily, while we still have other options, but whether by choice or by force, chances are really good most of us will find ourselves there ... probably sooner than we thought possible.


  1. Thankyou for a great post! Mark has decided to take the plunge. We are going to pay off some debt (his student loans) with his state retirement account. I found that freelance blogger site. There was an online apprenticeship program I might try to get so I can get a little more experience with another sort of writing than I do. I also will try to find a little part time gig until we get our feet under us and figure some stuff out. Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. Great post Wendy. We too chose to adapt in place, and made it a home to live in when times get tough. We are paying down the mortgage quickly and expect to be debt free in 3 years which will take a huge load off of my shoulders. But in the mean time we continue to build community, prepare for collapse (not as advanced here in Australia), and live each day to the fullest!

    Gav x

  3. I am heartened by the way more and more people are awakening to realize that they cannot always believe what they hear/see in the media. They are also starting to realize that making the most out of where you are, including forming stronger local communities, is probably one of the best things we can all do right now.

    We relocated to a new neighborhood this year, and one of the draws for me was seeing so many folks in this somewhat "suburban"-type neighborhood growing their own food, raising chickens, etc. I realized that this might just be a good place to drop anchor (at least for now) and work on being more self-sufficient.

    My goal now is to deal with student loans. We're considering some extreme ways to earn cash in a rather short amount of time so that we can lower my student debt and pay off more on our home. To me, eliminating debt is in the top 5 goals for the next 5 years. Five years from now, many indicators point to a deeper energy and financial crisis, and getting more debt out of the way will free up our resources to hopefully keep our heads above the water during a crisis period.

    We don't want to work harder to survive, but smarter...which, of course, may require working a bit harder in the short term to adapt to a lifestyle that will become more second nature as we practice it. Thankfully, to ME it's also fun, and not just "work"!

  4. Wendy,

    I’m a country gal stuck in a medium-sized city. I only moved here because it was what I could afford after my divorce. Since then, I’ve obtained a decent, but not great paying, job about a 10 minute drive away.

    I would LOVE to move back to the country so I could have large gardens again and some chickens, maybe a goat or two and some fruit trees, but the kicker is my home in the city is essentially paid for. I participated in a city rehabilitation program that provides interest-free loans for improvements to older homes and had my 100 year old home insulated and re-sided and had all new energy efficient windows put in (all 22 of them!). So, I do have a “mortgage” but one I don’t have to pay until I sell, and in this economy, my home is barely worth what I paid for it, even with the improvements. To sell and find a place in a more rural setting would mean taking on a much larger, pay-every-month, mortgage. I *could* cash in my meager retirement account to buy a place in the country, but then I would have very little to live on once I retire. Other than that interest-free mortgage, I have no other debt.

    Being 52 years old and not exactly a spring chicken, I am thinking I should just stay put and not take on the debt and extra work of a more rural location.

    Many things are within walking or bicycling distance – grocery stores, library, hospital, farmer’s market, municipal buildings, etc.

    My city recently turned down a proposition to let us city-dwellers have a small number of chickens so having a small flock is not an option. But, I have been slowly but surely turning my tiny lot (42’ x 80’ on which sits my 2-story house and 1 car garage), into gardens (perennial, herb and vegetable). I’d rather weed than cut grass any day!

    I would love to be more self-sufficient, but living where I do limits what I can do. I can’t have chickens, I can’t plant fruit trees, I rely on very expensive city water (although I do collect rainwater). I’m not sure if I could put in a wood stove, but I don’t have any inexpensive sources for wood (or even a place to store it if I did).

    If you were in my situation, what would you do? Can city-dwellers obtain a decent level of self-sufficiency? Or should I cash out my retirement fund and find a place where I can be more self-sufficient?


  5. Laurel - I can't give you financial advice, and I won't.

    You asked, specifically, what *I* would do in your situation, and if you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you know what I'm going to say. *I* would stay where I was

    You should check into whether or not your city ordinances specifically prohibit quail - as an alternative to chickens ;).

  6. Hi Wendy,
    I really like your message about doing what you can where you are; however, what if you are nowhere?? I'm the reader who was living in the Middle East-we've recently moved back to the US and are staying with family in New England while we look for a place to call home, but we have a dilemma! Do we choose to live in a place that has the people/community/agriculture/etc. we are yearning for, or do we try to create those things where our families have chosen to live? We can't stay in MA where my husband is from (too expensive). So we are faced with a move to VT for the land/lifestyle (but no family), or MN where my family is from.

    I wonder if you or any of your readers have been in a position where you could go anywhere (we'll be creating our own jobs when we get there) and had to choose family in a 'closed' community or an open/supportive community with no family. We're driving ourselves nuts trying to rationalize this move! and we need to settle somewhere soon.

    I don't expect anyone to solve my dilemma :) But am interested to hear any ideas that might give us some food for thought.

  7. Lorna, that sounds like a really tough situation. Sometimes too many choices are just as tough as not enough ;). For me, I think the answer would lie in how supportive of my hopes, dreams, and concerns my family was.

    And I'd also like to point out one other ... we live in a very mobile society, and - at least here in Maine - everything is a fifteen minute (or more) drive from where ever you are :). Things are pretty spread out. In a lower energy world, we won't be as mobile, and so if you choose to live near family - by today's standards - you may find that you're not really as close to them as you thought.

    You never know ... if you choose community over family, and you have a roomy enough place, your family might just decide to join you - and then, you'll have both ;).