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!