Living Small Often Means Loving Large

Yesterday I asked “are you called or are you driven”? Do you feel like your life is out of control, or can you peacefully move forward, knowing God is leading?

Living Tight

Today I want to look at that question in relation to our finances. But before we do that, look at that picture of a house at the top of this post.

Small, isn’t it? And yet the majority of North American families in the 1950s lived in something that looked pretty much like that. After World War II, we radically expanded the idea of home ownership. Instead of renting, people bought these little houses, and they, by and large, thrived in them.

Was it tight? You betcha. Often three bedrooms with four or five kids, so 2-3 kids would have to share a bedroom. Bunk beds became major furniture items. The living room was small, so people sat on the couch and the floor to watch TV. Kids did homework at the dining room table.

My husband grew up in a house like that: four boys, one bathroom, small kitchen. And they survived just fine.

Many of the things we think are absolutely necessary are not. It is simply that we have listened to our society and we have turned many wants into needs. And that is part of what is making our lives so harried!

One of the biggest issues you will face when it comes to quality family time is whether or not both parents work outside the home. It’s just a fact. I’m not going to talk about whether or not you should leave your child in day care; I’ve already done that here. I’m not going to talk about how you can make money if you stay at home; I’ve done that here. I’m also not going to talk about the fact that often it costs so much to work that it’s not worth it, because I’ve done that here (and read the comments!).

What I do want to talk about is how we can get off this merry go round that tells us that we NEED so much stuff. Work, you see, is directly related to expenses. Lower the expenses, and a job is not as much of an issue. Increase the expenses, and you have to work.

So let’s ask this: what was the quality of life like for people growing up in those tiny homes? Of course, so much depended on the family. But the size of the home was not necessarily bad because people adjusted. It was all they knew, and they felt grateful to have a home. Let’s also remember that in most parts of the world, far more people are squeezed into far smaller spaces than even that house represents. We are the strange ones, living with our huge homes. Our grandparents, in these small homes, were not strange. They were more the norm.

What did people do with less space? The kids played in the living room together, or in the basement. They didn’t hang out in their own rooms, away from their siblings. They went outside more since inside was cramped, and thus they got more exercise, even in the winter. They didn’t spend as much time on television, because families usually only had one, and sometimes Mom and Dad would want to watch their programs, and the kids had to scatter. They played board games. They made Lego. They played with dolls. They used their imagination.

And that was okay.

Dreaming Big

When you were 13, did you love bridal magazines? Did you used to read them and stare at the pictures and imagine what your own wedding would be like? Many of us did. But many of us still do–we just replace the bridal magazines with Home & Garden, and we dream of a beautifully decorated, spacious home. It’s what we’re aiming for. We want to have “arrived”. We want the space, and the luxury.

But what if that space and luxury comes at the expense of massive amounts of your time–or your husband’s time? And what if there’s another way to peace?

When we trim our expenses, we’re often able to build wealth and increase our security. Millionaires, for instance, don’t tend to act like millionaires. It’s those with less than a million dollars who consume all the luxury stuff, because they’re acting like they want to be millionaires. Here are just a few stats I picked up from the Growth Matters blog:

•Eighty-six percent of all prestige or luxury makes of motor vehicles are driven by people who are not millionaires.
•Typically, millionaires pay about $16 (including tip) for a haircut.
•Nearly four in 10 millionaires buy wine that costs about $10.
•In the United States, there are nearly three times as many millionaires living in homes with a market value of less than $300,000 than there are living in homes valued at $1 million or more.

We can surely survive on less than we think, and yet at the same time society is lecturing us that we need more–and we’re believing it.

Think “Enough”!

Imagine how we could change the culture if we just said, “Enough!”. Enough credit card debt. Enough working round the clock to afford all the latest gadgets and the big cars. Enough stress from living beyond one’s means. Enough believing that life is all about entertainment and stuff instead of about family.

'Living on Credit Cards' photo (c) 2011, Images Money - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Perhaps you need two incomes to get you to the minimum that you can afford a house, even a small one like that. That’s okay, as long as you’ve prayed about and you’re trying to meet your family’s NEEDS, not WANTS. But many of us are on a treadmill trying to meet WANTS, and it doesn’t work.

Now, those who know me are going to say it’s easy for me to suggest all this, because I’m not in that position. I’ve got it made. And I do. My husband is a doctor, and we’re able to live quite comfortably. But it was not always that way. Both Keith and I put ourselves through school. While he was in training and the kids were born, we lived in a small apartment, without a car. I spent my life with the girls taking them to playgroups and museums, because the apartment was too crowded to stay in during the day. Others in training had taken out the massive loans the banks were offering, and they had bought vehicles and homes. We didn’t. We saved for a downpayment.

And then we bought a nice house, 1400 square feet, in a neighbourhood where no doctors ever lived. After ten years, we moved to the house we have now. We have always paid cash for our used cars. We buy our clothes at second hand stores. And we endeavour to take as many missions trips as possible and to give as much away as we can.

Yes, I have it easy, but even when we didn’t we made the decision to live “small” so that we could enjoy life more.

The Benefits of Downsizing

The best thing some people could do is to sell their home and downsize. Yesterday in the comments Kristy shared that’s just what she’s doing–downsizing to get their finances under control. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy right now with the glut of houses on the market. Many people will have to remain in the house they’re in simply because you can’t get a decent price right now. But maybe there are other things you can do. Buy a used car instead of a new one. Eat out less. Learn to save money on the big things, like electricity, insurance, utilities, car payments. And learn to save money on the small things, like groceries, eating, shopping. Many women basically “earn an income” by staying at home and putting a lot of time into saving money!

Is it fun? It can be! Think of it like a challenge to make the money last. Give up some extracurricular activities with the kids, but replace it with fun family time, where you play games or have parties every week. Stop going out for dinner and have people over more. All of these things are “fun”.

Our society cannot go on with so many living beyond their means. We are crushed in debt at every level–personal, state, federal. We have built a beautiful society, but it is built on sand. One day it will come crashing down, as it has already begun to. I want to be ready, by raising kids who don’t need stuff. Who don’t ask for a huge list at Christmas, but instead look forward to all the games we play that day. I want to live with less so I can live more. That’s getting back to what’s really important.

So here’s your exercise for today: examine your 10 biggest expenses on a monthly basis, and ask if they’re necessary. Can you downsize? Are these things you want, or things you genuinely need? Can your family develop a new way of looking at money, as something that works for you to build wealth, rather than something that slips through your fingers and is a source of stress? Can money be the vehicle that you help others with, instead of something you’re always desperately worried about?

For some it’s a hard switch, because you’re already living bare to the bone. For many of us, though, we just need to change our habits. Tell me in the comments what you think. Have you ever downsized? Have you ever chosen to forego something big? What did it feel like? Let us know!

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Sheila is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex.