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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.

Am I about to write a post telling everyone you should run out and buy that house? No, of course not. What I am saying is this: 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!

Today I want to talk about how to make decisions about work, because 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 tended to be together. 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? For it is not just women working that this quest for more stuff affects. It's also men working. A few years ago we made the decision that my husband would work less so he could be home with the kids one day a week. Because he was on call so much, he was often gone at night, and he was missing out on so much with them. So he decided to work less. We gave up some money so that he could gain some much needed time. That's what it all comes down to.

Not surprisingly, 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.

The two things to take away so far? 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. You see, the best things in life aren't things at all. But we seem to have forgotten that. We think our kids need stuff, when what they really need is us.

Photo by Andres Rueda

Here's a family that gave up the rat race and decided to "live in the middle":

His income has stayed steady at roughly $20,000 a year. Lola earns about $30,000 plus benefits working part time as a medical technician in a nearby hospital lab. A decade ago, the couple earned twice as much — about $100,000 a year. Gregg sold insurance, and they lived in tony North Scottsdale. But he wasn't happy.

"We were on this treadmill of making money, making as much money as possible every year, and feeling that we always had to increase that because we wanted to buy more things and live in a nice house and have nice cars and everything else," he says.

At the same time, Lola didn't get a job she'd dreamed of, working at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. That's a painful memory.

"I remember I prayed, I prayed so hard. I still didn't get a job. But there was a sense of letting go," she says.

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 the way it is, 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!

UPDATE: Welcome, Organizing Junkie readers! Glad to have you here! I've got tons more articles for simplify your life month, as well as lots on parenting and marriage, so stop by and look around! And if you liked this, be sure to share it on Facebook below!

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At 9:47 AM , Blogger Mary Joy said…

Amen! Amen! Amen! Amen!!!!! How true this is!!!! We don't have a lot of things. We live in a small house in which the kids play in the living room because their bedroom is too small for much of that. We spend LOTS of time together. And I wouldn't change that for the world! God has blessed us with our needs and occasionally a want. We love the library, thrift stores, yard sales, and dollar tree! Its not always easy...but it is always worth it! :-) I have never been happier!


At 9:54 AM , Blogger Heidi said…

Thank you Sheila for this post. My husband and I are in the middle of processing these very questions. We are expecting our first child in February, and I am finishing up school (Masters degree). I was planning on finding work before the baby comes so that I can at least have maternity leave, but so far that had not worked out, and time is running out.

We want me to stay home with our child, but know that many sacrifices will be required. We think we can do it though, and I am confident that the benefits will be huge. It's just all a little scary at this point. I do feel peace about the situation though, I am trusting that God will provide our NEEDS (how easy it is to get those mixed up with our wants)!

So again thank you for this encouragement.


At 9:57 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Mary Joy--

Glad you agree! What led you to do the "small" thing? Anything in particular? Did you always live this way? I'd love to know.

And Heidi--I know it's scary. We bought all our baby stuff at second hand stores and thrift stores, and really, you couldn't notice a difference. They say a baby costs $12,000 in the first year, but we spent barely $500, I would think. Cloth diapers, used crib, used clothes, and it was all fine!

I have a Master's, too, but I've never regretted being home. And I figured when the kids were young I could just use my brain power to figure out how to save!

You seem to have a great attitude, and sometimes it's in the scary things that God most shows up!


At 4:52 PM , Blogger Mrs.C said…

Another home-run on the post here.

So true, everything you've said.

Now before anyone blasts me for my latest post and how I mention that we needed 10 chairs for a table my husband & I built, please know, the table didn't cost much and it's meant for ministry, being hospitable. We love having people over and wanted a table where we could all sit around together and fellowship.

We are not wealthy by societies standards, we've lived on one income for almost our entire married life. God has blessed us abundantly in our frugal life, and life has been rich in other ways that money can never buy.


At 5:03 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Mrs. C:

You made me laugh! I don't think needing 10 chairs means you're not living small.

Here's what you're doing: you're not getting caught up in having everything; you're choosing to forego many things so that you can have what is most important to you: a place of ministry. Sometimes people will sacrifice a lot and then need to buy something expensive because it's what God's leading them to. Maybe it's scrimping on some things so that you can take a missions trip as a family, or so you can buy a big van so you can drive people to church, or a house with a bigger living room so you can host small group. There's nothing wrong with a big van or a big living room, as long as you're getting those things deliberately, for a purpose, with your eyes wide open, rather than just because you feel amorphously like you "need" to!

So I don't think you're being hypocritical at all! I think you're prioritizing, and that's a good thing!


At 6:24 PM , Blogger Angie said…

Wonderful! I'm striving to teach my son this although it is sure tough. I pray he and my darling husband start getting on board. (and Thanks Mary Joy for another awesome suggestion!):)


At 4:20 PM , Blogger Mary R. said…

Oh, gosh, I'm from the N.E., born in '53, and I remember those little houses. People were so proud of them because they were THEIRS, not rented apartments.


At 8:55 AM , Blogger Yvette said…

I enjoyed reading that. Actually I grew up in house like that in Ct. I can say my father is a millionaire maybe a couple times over. In saying that he has never in his life owned a new car. Growing up we didn't enjoy lavish cruises or extravagant vacations. His idea of a family vacation always involved a tent or camper. He took frugal to another level I now know it's called extreme cheap/tight..while growing up I had no clue, because that's all we knew..I have many fond memories because of my Dad...


At 12:03 PM , Blogger Hopewell said…

Great post! 6 years ago, with an 8 and 9 year old I moved into almost the same house you picture. We had way too much stuff [we were renting] and GASP! my son and daughter had to SHARE a bedroom. They had a blast. They loved the bunkbeds. Then I ruined our lives by buying TOO MUCH HOUSE. All the time we lived in the little house I thought "people were EXCITED to move into this house when it was new." The tiny closets? Well Sunday outfit, house dresses, a nice dress and hat, 2 or 3 pairs of shoes, 2-3 men's suit--doesn't take much space! I learned a HUGE lesson in that house--and the "Too Much House". Today we live in one slightly larger than the one you picture. It's well organized--no dressers for example, just closet organizers. We don't accumulate or KEEP junk anymore! No more magazines! If the kids want it to go it's gone! We have, GASP, one tv that's so old we can only watch dvds/vhs! It doesn't get broadcast. I highly recommend SMALLER as a way to Live LARGER.


At 9:48 AM , Blogger Seasons of Life said…

Hi Sheila ~

Well said...we are a family of 9 {that's seven children, one husband and me...wife, mom} living in a modest home {less than 2000 sq ft} on one income. All our children live with us ~ our oldest is in his 3rd year of college ~ and we homeschool. I help my husband in his business administratively, teach the children, manage the home and minister...yes, all on that one income.

It really is about prioritizing...time together vs. stuff. We don't spend on brand new very often...we take care of what we have to get the most life out of our belongings, trying to be good stewards of all the Lord has provided. Maintenance has been a key in keeping our home in good working order and a place of hospitality for all these years {built 16 years ago}.

A few ways to live within our means...I buy consignment, used (Craigslist...just purchased a beautiful sofa for us, a dining room set for my mom and swivel Windsor chairs for our kitchen table all almost BRAND new and VERY reasonable} and clearance whenever possible {which is often}. Clothing is saved and passed down from child to child, new being purchased when needed on great clearance sales or like new consignment. Our vehicles have always been purchased used...but still in very good condition with low mileage. We waited one year after our 6th child was born before we found (and could afford) a 12 passenger van...until that point we drove two vehicles when we had to go on family outings {due to seating, that's what we had to}. We just did not want the great debt of a new vehicle ~ so patience, prayer and sacrifice...for a short season with the fruit of still having our NEEDS met and really more abundantly than NEEDED.

We have never in our 21 years of marriage had cable TV or satellite {could not justify the expense...and really building a good video library was much more advantageous for us}.

We are very comfortable ~ just rearranging space to accomadate our needs vs buying a new house because we grow in size...much more economical that way AND the benefits that come from living TOGETHER are profound. Our home has comfortably been a place of fellowship gatherings throughout the years with many families at one time being hosted on several can work.

Sorry to ramble, but I just wanted to encourage anyone that may be wondering how it could be IS.

I have done several posts about organizing and time management this past year with more to come in the future for those looking for ways to improve and utilize the spaces they already have.

Blessings ~


At 2:45 PM , OpenID bernicewood said…

We have lived in our house for 21 years. We drive used cars. Our kids have not always had the latest and the greatest. They are mostly grown now and have survived!
I stayed home with my kids or I worked part-time around their schedules most of their grwoing up years. Two years ago I decided to go back to corporate america. This July I had a nervous breakdown caused primarily by the stress from that 80 hour a week job. It was not worth it. I have decided that I cannot handle working a stressful job like that. My health, marriage and family are more important!
I write more about my story here
Thanks for this post! More people in America need to think this way!

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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