Downsizing sounds like a failure–we didn’t live up to our dreams.
Maybe we need to see it a different way!
This month we’re looking at doing marriage on hard mode–are we making marriage, and life, more difficult than it needs to be? And one of the biggest things that contributes stress to marriage is financial problems. So today I’d like to take a step back and ask: could downsizing help your marriage? I first ran this post a few years ago, but it stirred quite the conversation then, and I thought it might be time to revisit it–especially because so many people are moving, relocating, or doing work differently as COVID ends.
Look at this picture of a typical post-war house:
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 by and large, they 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, under 1000 square feet. And they survived just fine.
In fact, I’ve heard it said that the quality of sibling relationship is inversely proportional to the size of the house.
The smaller the house is, the closer kids turn out to be, because they have to play together!
I think that may be true for families as well. When we first had our children we lived in a tiny apartment in downtown Toronto. The kids would get grumpy if we stayed in that confined space too long, so everyday we’d do an errand: the library; a playgroup; the YMCA; the museum on free days. We didn’t spend money, but we got out of the house. And when we went out, the kids had my total attention. They used up a ton of energy. Then, when we got home, they’d play together better and leave me alone a bit more.
When we moved to Belleville and lived in a medium sized house, suddenly it was easy not to go out everyday. And I noticed we were missing something important. So we resumed our habits of daily outings.
We had a great life when we lived in a small apartment, and we were able to save in those days for a small house. But the most important thing, to me, was that we were together more.
What if you’re missing out on relationships and family time that you could have because you’re focused financially on the wrong thing?
Disposable income, you see, is directly related to expenses almost as much as it is to income. Lower the expenses, and your salary is not as much of an issue. Increase the expenses, and you have to work–a lot.
Some of the thorniest reader questions that I get on this blog have to do with work. Someone’s working 60 hours a week at two different jobs, and someone else is working full time as well to pay off debt, and they have no time together and no time with their kids. Both of them work opposite shifts and have no time for sex. They’re in so much debt that they fight all the time and the kids are picking up on the tension.
Money problems can wreck marriage.
But money problems can be the result of choices–choices that we make about what kind of life we want to live.
What if we could decide to live a smaller life? What if living small could actually help us to love much larger?
Let’s do a little thought experiment here to see what I mean. What was the quality of life like for people growing up in those tiny houses or apartments? 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. 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 together. They made Lego. They used their imagination.
And that was okay.
The two biggest choices that we’ll likely make that will impact our expenses are the kind of housing we want and the city we live in.
Yes, some people, no matter how they choose, will always be strapped for money. But the cost of living is so much cheaper in some cities or towns than it is in others. And often the pace of life is very different too. Can we ask ourselves big questions about what kind of life we want to lead?
When you were 13, did you love bridal magazines? Did you 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. We want to have “arrived”.
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?
Imagine how we could change the culture if we just said, “Enough!”. Enough working round the clock. Enough stress from living beyond one’s means. Enough of both of you working opposite shifts and never seeing each other. What if instead of valuing our lifestyle we valued our lives?
Now, I understand that some people are barely making ends meet on very limited income, and this post is likely not for you.
But I have known so many couples in their twenties and thirties who have bought huge houses in expensive cities when they also have massive student debt, and life is just very stressful. What if they had stayed in an apartment for ten more years–even if they weren’t building a nest egg? Wouldn’t it have been less stress? Or what if they could have moved to a cheaper city?
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The Benefits of Downsizing
For some people, the best financial move you can make, and the move that would add so much less stress to your life, is to sell your home and downsize. In Canada, at least right now, real estate prices are through the roof. It is seriously a great time to downsize!
Or maybe it’s not about a home. Could you get rid of a car payment and buy a used car instead? Could you look into how to save money on your biggest monthly expenses, like electricity, insurance, utilities, car payments. Many spouses basically “earn an income” by staying at home and putting a lot of time into saving money, even on things like groceries!
Is downsizing 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 family board 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. That’s why, when I was raising our kids, one of my biggest aims was to teach them how not to need a lot of stuff. And they both are the best thrift store shoppers and budgeters and planners that I know!
But let’s go beyond just saving money. Let’s ask: can you change your lifestyle so that you can actually enjoy life more?
- Can you downsize your house so you’re not as burdened by debt?
- Can you move to a cheaper neighbourhood?
- Can you move to a whole different city where the cost of living is much lower?
- Can you or your husband stop working an insane job and start a small business that you’ve always wanted to?
- Can you drastically reduce your expenses so that you don’t need to do the shift work anymore?
Because it all comes down to this:
Can money be the vehicle that you help others with, instead of something you’re always desperately worried about?
Again, if you’re already seriously struggling and you don’t feel you have a lot of options, this post is not for you. For many of us, though, changing our habits and our lifestyle could be what helps us live with less stress for the next few decades. Can we dream differently as a society? Can we aim for less, rather than always thinking about moving up? Can quality time with family be our measuring stick, rather than our lifestyle? Just thought I’d throw that out there to think about today!
UPDATE: A Facebook commenter made a good point here: “My ex convinced me to sell our home and pull out the equity and rent. Worst mistake ever. All it did was continue to enable his extremely poor financial decisions.” Yes! This needs to be a decision that you make so that you can be in a better financial position with more breathing room and a better life, not something where you end up doing worse. Financial abuse is a real issue, and if you’re facing this, please see a licensed counselor or call a domestic violence hotline (they can often help with abuse issues even if they aren’t physical).
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!
Posts in the Marriage on Hard Mode Series
- Podcast: Are We Making Marriage Harder Than It Needs To Be?
- 6 Ways You May Be Doing Marriage on Hard Mode
- Identifying the One Thing that's holding back your marriage
- Are You Doing Too Much as a Family?
- Why Downsizing Can Be Worth It
- Are We Doing Sex on Hard Mode?
- 10 Red Flags about Marriage and Sex
- How Gender Roles Can Make Marriage Harder than it Needs to be
- Dealing with the Primary Breadwinner Stereotype so it doesn't hurt your marriage
And SIGN UP for my emails to get our end-of-the-series activity to work through this with your spouse!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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