Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Point of Living Small

When I was 12 years old, I loved my music. Like the time we went on a camping trip, hours north into the Adirondack Park, with my childhood friend, Jenny. I had to have a radio. I had to listen to my pop hits, I don’t even remember what they were. Probably Wild Wild West, George Michael and Def Leppard or something like that. I probably had tapes. I remember my parents cocking their heads to one side like they just didn’t understand. But I brought the radio anyway.

Now, I’m 30 years older. Now, silence is a welcome gift. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my music, just ask my kids. I won’t drive their father’s car because the radio doesn’t work. I crank it like a teenager when I pick them up from school.

But today, it’s silence. It’s not the first day of fall, but it’s the first day that feels like it. And autumn always gives me a feeling of needing contemplation and reading, and finding peace. Maybe it’s the correlation of going back to school, and I always welcomed the start of each new semester and the idea of learning new and bold ideas and becoming a smarter – and better – person.

I let the dishes rest. I leave the radio off. I send the kids outside. I read. I make soup. I hear the wind blowing quietly through the slowly-turning leaves. It will only last a short time, a very short time, before someone bursts in the door and demands a snack or cries loudly from a booboo or insists I come outside to see something. So I enjoy every minute of it.

I have learned the importance of slowing down and being quiet. I don’t always do it, but when I do I thoroughly enjoy it.

This is the fire in me, to have these moments of enjoying silence mixed in amongst the rest of busy life: Work. School drop offs. School pickups. Grocery shopping. The one lesson or practice we allow each kid. It’s too easy to get sucked up into the void of busyness and forget.

We need – I need – to schedule down time. And guess what? It’s okay! Really, it is. I promise. Tell yourself: it’s okay to slow down. Tell yourself every day until you believe it.

It seems silly to schedule down time or time alone. But it is utterly and absolutely necessary.

I challenge you to schedule one time a week – maybe it’s an hour, maybe it’s 10 minutes, maybe it’s the whole day – for yourself. To be contemplative. To rest. To write. To run. To walk. Whatever brings you to your peaceful place. And to go there and not feel badly about it. Don’t pressure yourself about all the things you should be doing or haven’t done. Just one small moment to be free in your mind.

Let quiet be the gift you give yourself.

Thursday, August 9, 2018


I know I live in the Adirondacks, but - man, this summer has been HOT!
Air conditioning?! In the mountains??! No way. The mountains ARE our air conditioning.
But not when it's over 90 for weeks on end. Even 6 million acres of trees can't mitigate that entirely.

As I write I'm spoiled with the sounds of my dishwasher running. It's the first time this week. I decided to sacrifice my shower in return for not having to touch raw chicken juice. Our 10-foot, hand dug well, although generally reliable, is not to be trusted right now that it's less than half full.

As we move into a period of climate behavior unknown in human history, I need to be aware of ways to deal with weather extremes: flooding, freezing, overheating, and drought. And I need to stop taking our water resources for granted. This is not just a regional concern, either - California wildfires, worsened by drought, are affecting New York. Our brothers and sisters in Cape Town live with Day Zero looming over them. And what about Nestle?! There is responsibility everywhere for everyone to be good stewards, to take care of and not misuse the natural resources in their reach. 

Besides doing a rain dance outside every night after work, and religiously checking the weather radar, I've devised a few ways we can save water and hopefully keep our well from running dry.

1. Military showers

   It is just as regimented as it sounds. Rinse yourself fully, then turn the water off. Soap up, then rinse off.

2. Washcloth showers

  A sink, full of hot water. A washcloth. A squirt of soap. Easy peasy. One per person, please.

3. Wear those clothes twice!

   Or three times. I don't know anyone who has ever complained about less laundry!

4. Wash your own dishes...

   Half a sink of water (or less) will do. Wash separately - and last - any dishes or utensils that touched raw meat.

5. And don't rinse.

   Europeans don't rinse their dishes. Time to take a page out of their play book!

6. Paper plates

   Not those fancy sturdy ones - I'm talking the old-school food-will-fall-through-if-I-don't-eat-fast-enough ones. Throw 'em in the compost when you're done.

7. One pot meals

   As if you had to convince me.

8. Barbeque

   Because you needed another reason to use the barbeque this summer!

9. Only flush for #2

   It's not pretty, so make sure you close the lid so you don't have to look at it! Repeat after me: "it's better than a dry well...".

10. Wash your hair once a week

   This is not just a drought response - this is a beauty regiment. We spend serious $$ putting oils back into our hairs, after we spend hours, dollars and water getting them out. My hair stylist told me once a week is enough. The more natural the products you use, the better you and your hair will fare with waiting.

11. Capture rainwater when it's available. 

   I'm looking at some serious integrated systems, but it can be as simple as a barrel under a downspout and a bucket to move it inside when needed. (Just don't drink it or cook with it without proper treatment!)

Looking Toward the Future

I know these methods will help us get through the next month or so, because I'm fortunate to live in a place that usually has a good amount of year-round precipitation. But the future is not so bright for our stressed and changing water cycle in the northeast. I'm researching a greywater recapture system that would help us decrease our water usage on a regular basis. Thanks to Australians on YouTube, there's lots of information out there! It'll be a project, so I'll make sure to post an update if we decide to move ahead.

In the meantime, I have buckets outside waiting for their chance to help replenish our system. I'll be at the laundromat tomorrow, and a friend's house for a much needed head-to-toe washing for myself and the munchkins, who diligently rain danced on the porch with me tonight.

I hear thunder in the distance.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Three Years In: A Retrospective

That's right, I am three crazy years into our Living Small experiment! I thought this would be a good time to recap some of our life lessons, our wins, and what we would do differently if we were starting anew.

It was December of 2014 when we finally made the move to our 750 square foot house, with a toddler, a cat, and a baby on the way. We had a kitchen and a bathroom remodel mostly done, the deck finished and fenced in, and some minor touches on the interior and exterior to tidy up. After months of yard selling, trips to Goodwill and big and small decisions over what to keep, we boxed it all up and shoved it in a van and drove north to the mountains. [For your reading pleasure, start from the beginning of our downsizing project here.]

In three years, we've settled in. We've practiced living small. We've gotten rid of more stuff. We've made some changes. We had a baby! We lost the cat. We've learned and grown with each shift.

When one of us gets sick, (almost) everybody gets sick.

Living in a small house with two young children attending school means lots of illness going around. An open floor plan in both levels of our house means shared space and shared germs. As hard as we try, many times it hits us all. I think this will get better as our kids get older, but I do sometimes wish we had a separate room for quarantine. Lots of vitamins and hand washing here!

Private space means private time.

When someone wants their space they actually have to pick a time. I get alone time early in the morning or late at night (and that's not unusual for a mom with two kids in ANY size house any way!). My husband gets space when the kids are at school. Our daughter gets space when I read to my son on the couch. It's totally doable, but something to keep in mind for small house living.

We don't need to shout to be heard.

Of course, that doesn't keep the three year old from yelling! But living in a small house means we can have a conversation just about any time. There's no wandering around to find anyone. It gives us all extra chances to practice the art of communication.

We spend a lot of time outside.

In all seasons, we're playing outside unless the weather is bad. And by bad, I mean pouring rain or subzero temps. We've found a home at the local nordic center and fell in love with skiing, so the winter breezes by for us with lots of fun adventures shared with friends. Find an outside activity you can enjoy and you'll have no problem living small!

We still have too much stuff.

People give us things. Our kids grow out of their clothes. Occasionally we buy something we don't need, though we've gotten better at this by talking through almost every single purchase we make. When I'm out at the grocery store and see something I think would be useful, I text my husband a picture and ask. I still regularly go through our belongings and find things we don't need, and I still have to make lots of decisions about what to let go of, though it's not as intense as it was.

Having friends over means one at a time.

Okay, maybe not one friend - just one family at a time. In summer, we can hang out in the backyard and grill with as many people as we can get to join us. But when the temps drop, so does the size of our guest list. I sometimes miss big parties (remember our February whiskey parties pre-kids!), but I wouldn't give up all the benefits of small house living just for this. And small gatherings give us more time to actually chat and catch up with friends. I'd choose quality time any day!

We paid off our debts.

Except for our mortgage, we were able to pay off all our debts. Woo hoo! Any time we had extra money, two-thirds went towards debts (highest interest rate first). We used our income tax refund, too. Last November we celebrated our last debt payment by making a deposit into our savings account! And, just in case you think we're not having enough fun, we splurged on a bottle of wine.

We all love our house.

Seriously. When we travel, our kids look forward to coming home. Any time we leave, even for the day, it's bittersweet. We truly love where we live. Some of that is because we're happy in our cozy house, and some of that is because we're happy that our house is in the beautiful Adirondack mountains. Whichever way you spin it, we're happy.

Now What? 

Now that we've got some small living experience under our belts, what in the world is next? Good question. Well, we've got a new idea...

Our focus has shifted from downsizing our stuff and moderating life as a small family in a small house to working towards financial independence - sometimes known as FI or FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early). Because we're not spending money on stuff we don't need now, and we're not paying to live in a big house, we're hoping it will be pretty easy to set aside a good portion of our monthly income towards our future.

I've been exploring blogs and podcasts and websites and listening to other's experiences so I can work out a plan for us to Save, Save, Save. I've always been passionate about personal finance, and I'm really, really excited to share this next stage of Living Smart as we venture down this new path.

The Big Question

Okay, so I know what you've all been waiting to ask me, because you're thinking, "Is it worth it? Is it fun? Can you really live in a small house with kids and be happy?"

Yes, yes. Yes!

I can resoundingly say that this experiment has been successful. Because none of us would trade what we have now for a bigger space or more stuff.

Our munchkins in Denmark

Case in point: we lived in a bigger house this spring during a work trip to Copenhagen, where my son and daughter got to share their own room. Want to know what happened? Yup, that's right. They didn't want it. They barely even played in it, and they definitely didn't sleep there. They wanted to be outside, or inside together. It was awesome!

If you're thinking about a smaller house or downsizing, here's my best piece of advice: GO FOR IT!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My Best and Worst Spending - Vol. 1

It's no secret: cutting down on expenses is the easiest and fastest way to save money.

I've read lots of Real Simple articles about How to Save $1000 Right Now Without Trying but I'm almost always disappointed. We've already checked off all the boxes the article offers (cutting cable, ditching the latte, eating at home, etc.). We have a productive side hustle (we rent a cabin on airbnb). We wait and talk over each of our big expenditures before making the purchase, and we talk about the little ones, too - so we don't buy any thing we don't need.

Maybe you're having this trouble, too. So I thought I'd share a few interesting ways we saved a little money this week, sometimes by spending and sometimes not.

The Best

We got the brakes fixed on our car. 

Just to be clear, we didn't really get a choice in this matter: the Prius decided for us when it beeped and flashed warning signs that would give an ambulance driver a headache. It turns out our brake fluid reservoir was empty. Uh oh!

We tried a new mechanic at the recommendation of a trusted friend, and he was able to find the problem quickly and fix it at a reasonable charge. (If you're not doing the work yourself, a good mechanic is golden! I highly recommend Richard at Elizabethtown Auto Care.) He also found that one of the calipers was stuck, which was holding back the tire from moving freely.

Not only could we drive our car safely, but on our way home from the shop, our gas mileage was up 5 mpg easily. We just saved $86 a year!

If your car is due for new brakes, don't put it off like we did. And if you think I'm gaga over my mpg savings, check out this INTENSE blog post  about hypermiling by a favorite of mine, Mr. Money Mustache.

We bought a new refrigerator. 

Our old one was fine. I mean, it was 13 years old, it sometimes froze the food in the back, the bins were cracked, and it made some funny noises, but we were okay with all that.  When Memorial Day sales came up and I priced a new fridge, the cost of replacement - along with the money we'd lose if our fridge gave out - didn't seem so bad.

The good news: our new model saves us 100 kWh a year. We run off of solar and attempt to at least break even every year - so those kWh could help us avoid a large bill in the winter.

More good news: I learned that top-mount models (with the freezer on top) are much more efficient than bottom- or side-mount models. I was surprised - I always thought bottom-mount were better. At least I found out my mistake before the purchase!

The bad good news: the company screwed up our delivery, I had to reorder the product three times, and I spent several hours on the phone sorting this out. Because of the hassle, I asked the manager for an additional discount and was able to save another few bucks.

I asked for a(nother) discount. 

We had a hospital bill to pay off from our high-deductible health plan (per my calculations, almost always a better way to go financially - more on this in another post). We were not paying any interest, but the monthly payments were dragging on. At tax time many hospitals will offer a discount if you pay in full, but this year our hospital didn't offer that option.

So I asked for a discount anyway.

Since I had no idea what they had offered in years past, I low-balled it and asked for about 4% because I didn't want them to say no. BIG MISTAKE. After making my request, the customer service rep shared that they normally give 20%! I started to kick myself for being so docile, but then a brief discussion with the supervisor ended up getting me a 15% discount.

I could chastise myself for the 5% I missed out on, but instead I'm celebrating the 11% I got over my expectations. I call this a win!

The Worst

Now, for the fun part - here is my worst spending choice in recent days, and how you can avoid making the same mistake I did.

I put a dual-flush system in our existing toilet. 

We just came back from a trip overseas, where EVERYthing is efficient. It seemed nonsensical that our toilet has to use so much water, but I didn't want to purchase and install a new one. A dual-flush retrofit system seemed like a good compromise. I bought it for $30 at a big box store, thinking it could help save us from having to pump our septic too often. With a 10 foot deep well feeding our system, water savings is always on my mind.

So I put it in, and then I went right ahead and took it out. What a piece of junk!

While I was installing this disaster, I measured how much water our toilet was using for each flush with the old set-up. Turns out it was only about 1 gallon - about 60% of the advertised 1.6 gallon usage. [To do this, take off the tank lid, mark the top water line when the toilet is filled, then flush and measure to the dropped water line to get the height. For U.S. readers, multiply the inner dimensions (length x width x height) from your toilet tank in inches and divide by 231 - this will give you the volume in gallons.]

I was already skeptical.

Although the retrofit technically fit inside the toilet, the handle did not - it would not flush upwards when the toilet lid was on. The worst part is, when I tested it, it actually used MORE water than the standard flush system we had before, even when it was dialed to the minimum setting.

A quick trip back to the box store for a return took care of that.

The Take Away

- Don't put off car repairs. Keeping your engine and mechanics up-to-date can give you much needed savings and add life to your automobile.

- Update older appliances. Every kWh counts!

When you're in the market for a new appliance, check with your utility company FIRST to see if they are offering any incentives, which could be refunds, free removal of your old junker, or sometimes both! (Ours was, but the program ended before we could take advantage of it <insert sad face here>.)

- Save water the smart way, and save your time and money:

Instead of the dual-flush adapter in our basic model toilet, I modified the standard float system to use less water by lowering the float and adjusting the trip lever so the chain is connected to the hole closest to the handle. Flush and let go for liquids, or hold the handle down for solids.

I basically created the dual-flush without having to pay $30 or spend 45 minutes on installation (and removal!).

- Be bold and ask for a discount. You might be surprised by what you get!

Happy smart consumerism! Feel free to share your money-saving ideas this week, and thanks for reading!