This blog post is not about toddlers bombs. Sorry for the detour, but I had to get this out.
I love HGTV (Home and Garden channel). I love Pinterest. I love going onto real estate websites and looking at homes in my area and in my family’s price range (those two are mutually exclusive since we rent in an expensive area of North Seattle that we just love).
Why do I love that stuff? Because I love creativity, being inspired to try new things and, biggest one of all, I’m hoping to move my family of four out of the 450 sq ft basement apartment that we have lived in for the past six years.
Yes, 450 square feet (give or take).
Clarification: my husband and I moved into his grandmother’s basement apartment soon after we graduated from college and got married. It was perfect for us. Including the price: we only paid to split utilities. Since we were both working full time at the time, this allowed us to go on a couple cruises and pay for my husband’s Master’s Degree out of pocket (no loans! Don’t get too jealous, we still owe about $20,000 on his undergrad loans).
I won’t go into boring details, but the circumstances of life (job loss) and adding two new members to our family (my wonderful, mischievious children) have resulted in my family of four living in a 450 sq ft, 1 bedroom (technically), .75 bathroom (with double sinks!) basement apartment. Let me clear, I’m not complaining. We are very fortunate to have family who let us stay here on the family discount, my husband found a second job to supplement our income, and I get to stay home with our young children. We are working hard to pay off our car loan, etc. in order to change our living situation, and we are not ungrateful for our circumstances.
Having said all that, it kinda drives me nuts(!) when I watch shows like “Love it or List it” or “Our First Home” or any other of those home-finding/buying homes where all these people are complaining about how the master bedroom isn’t downstairs or their baby’s bedroom is too small. You don’t NEED it. Your kid does not NEED it.
Guess what? My two children share a room that used to be a storage room across from the only real bedroom. Their room is about 12 ft by 4 ft, it doesn’t have closets or even a window (which, to be honest, is AWESOME when it comes to daylight savings and days getting longer; their bedtime and wake-up time is extremely consistent). Do I wish they had windows or a proper place to put their clothes? Absolutely. But they don’t NEED it. Their precious lives are still perfectly fulfilled.
My years in this tiny apartment with my family has taught me a lot of things and one of the biggest things is what I’m going to tell you now: Whatever you are about to get or think you need, you probably do not.
Living in this tiny space with kids has taught us to adapt and really evaluate our needs and wants. Think you need a dishwasher (I would kill for a dishwasher some days), you don’t. I clean all the dishes for my family by hand. Yes, that means I spend a lot of time standing there cleaning and it sucks, but we survive.
Our front room is no bigger than a normal-sized bedroom. That is the hub of all activity. It’s where we come and go (because that’s where the door), we shove many of the kids’ toys in the unused fireplace there, we’ve managed to squeeze a loveseat and good sized fake leather rocking chair in there, a small filing cabinet and a desk that was already there to put our tv and books on. This is where we play. Where we change diapers. Where we get the kids dressed for the day and for bed most of the time.
Our kitchen literally has four cupboards and five drawers and ZERO counter space. The outside of the oven gets hot (so I have to keep my kids away) and it cooks unevenly, but it gets the job done.
Eating area? Ha! We have a table in the kitchen (again, the size of a bedroom because it used to be one) that two of us can eat at, usually my husband and daughter because also on the table is where we keep our computer (a laptop to conserve space) paperwork, pens, kids art stuff, and a raised shelf for our microwave. The baby eats at his high chair away from the table and I usually eat at the pull-out cutting board…if I ever get to sit down during the meal time (you know how that goes, moms).
So I get really irritated when I hear people complain about how the cupboards in their 2,800 sq ft house are “outdated” and how they would have spend thousands of dollars to replace them. NO YOU DON’T! You don’t need it. Trust me. If I can cook for four in my tiny, outdated, hardly functional kitchen, “outdated” cupboards is a REALLY stupid reason not to buy a house. Same thing for countertops that are not granite and appliances that are not steel (have I mentioned that my daughter broke the handle off our refrigerator a couple years ago? We still use it because it works just fine other than that.)
True, I would love to have a bathtub or more than one toilet (yes, we’ve all been sick at the same time. No, it’s not pretty.) But my kids love taking a shower almost as much as going upstairs to use grandma’s bathtub, which we do on occasion. Their lives have not been negatively impacted.
When it comes to toys for the kids (or even ourselves) we really have to consider “do we need that?” and “where would we put that” because we have almost ZERO space for big toys…and even little toys. The ones we do get are usually second-hand from the consignment store my husband works at as a vocational counselor. Guess what? They are perfectly happy. AND they are used to hearing “No.” Personally, I’d love to give them more toys and most of the time it wouldn’t be unreasonable in ‘normal’ circumstances. But we don’t have the money or the space. BUT, I also think it’s good for them to hear no. They forget about it and move on.
My kids pretty much go bezerk when we visit their other grandma and grandpa’s “farm” where there is tons of inside and outside space. They love it. But whenever I ask my 4 year old about moving, she says “I don’t want to move. I love our house. It’s perfect.” While the lack of space leaves us literally tripping over one another and it literally makes me cry sometimes, my children do not know the difference. It doesn’t bother them. I would love to have a huge window they could stand and look outside from, but they don’t even have a window in their room. But they are perfectly happy. They run up and down the only hallway we have, jump on our only loveseat, run to mom and dad’s room to jump on their King-sized bed (our bedroom is the only good sized space in the apartment) and they are in heaven. They love it. They are happy. And isn’t that all we really need?
True, we have had the “advantage” of being here from the very beginning of our family and have learned to adapt as our circumstances change (ie more kids), but I still inwardly laugh at people when I hear how they NEED a four-bedroom house because their three bedroom house isn’t big enough now that they have two children. Ha! It also makes me a little sad to see that some people may be overextending themselves to get those kinds of living circumstances/styles.
So I’m here to tell you: You do not NEED it. You are smart. Your family is adaptable, you can figure it out. Yes, it will drive you crazy sometimes not having as much space as you think you need, but not as crazy as being financially strained or sacrificing what is really important like time with your kids or paying off debt or saving for something important (like retirement).
As I thought about all this, I realized that I am part of the educated poor. My husband has two Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s. I have a BA and other various education and work experience (as a program manager of a non-profit). We are fortunate for our circumstances in that it has allowed us to pay off debt (including my education, medical bills, and a new car we purchased in 2010 that should be paid off in a matter of months) and for me to be a stay at home mom (something very important to us). I am also able to do a some contract marketing (blogging and website building) on the side after the kids go to bed. But we live in a basement. We don’t have a lot of savings. We don’t have fancy things. We don’t have iPads. Most of my clothes are clothes I’ve had since high school and college (I know, I’m lucky to still fit into some of them), stuff from second-hand stores, and hand-me downs from my mom (I know, I’m lucky that I have a mom who is about my size). We don’t go out to fancy places or concerts (part of that is due to having little kids, though). We go without.
Some days I HATE where we live, but I see the wisdom of it and have to remind myself that we won’t be here forever and these we will probably be the happiest years of our lives, looking back. However, as we look at future homes, I have learned what I REALLY need and what my kids REALLY need. We know that we don’t NEED the biggest, fanciest house with all the upgrades. Sure, it would be nice. But we’ve lived without it for so long, we know we can do without. And, honestly, we’d rather save money and spend those savings on other things like family vacations (or, for the love of pete, just a grown-up vacation).
Sure we live like college kids. My mother’s day gift to myself was going to be a comforter set. But I just can’t bring myself to pull the trigger to buy it. So my husband will continue to sleep with the gross blanket he’s had since college and I will use the nice King sized fleece we got for Christmas from his mom (we don’t share blankets…blanket-hog issues). Simply because I know I don’t really NEED it.
Neither do you.
Some of you may say I’m writing this out of jealousy. That may be partially true. But most of this comes from a place of knowing that we will never be rich and I know too many people who spend too much money on stuff they don’t need. My husband works for a non-profit, it’s a job he loves helping people improve their lives. I love his job, too. But we’ll never get rich (with money) doing it. And so we live our lives (currently) in a tiny box, slowly making progress to get where we want in what we think is the RIGHT way. Not with credit card debt. Not by buying things we don’t need to make it look like we have more money.
You don’t need that giant tv set. Really. The only tv we have is the one my dad gave me to take to college almost 10 years ago…and it was old when I got it. It’s a fat-screen (get it?) and has finally started to die on us. It spazzes at periodically when my kids are watching cartoons or when we are watching our shows at night. And every time it buzzes and the picture goes wonky (sometimes multiple times a minute before it settles down), we have to get up to turn it off and then turn it right back on (the remote won’t turn it off, so have to get off our butts to do it…so annoying). We’ve talked about not replacing the tv (which, as a mom of two little kids with few entertaining options because of our living situation, I’m reluctant to do). We even thought about buying a huge flat screen that came into my husband’s work (I got their too late). But we will probably end up spending a couple hundred dollars on a new tv from Wal-Mart or something. Nothing flashy. Nothing too big (because we don’t have the room). But we’re not going to do it until the spazzing gets completely unbearable or it dies completely. Until then, my kids know how to turn the tv off and back on again. Even my one-and-a-half year old knows how by this point.
We are not a part of this “tiny” living trend where single adults, couples or even families with older kids live in giant sheds with bathroom and kitchens. This is not something we set out to do. It’s not our goal. But I totally understand why people do that, it’s the same reasons we are doing it, mostly: to save money and resources for other things. In our case, getting out of debt, me staying home with our kids, paying for preschool, etc. I am not trying to lecture or chastise or set my family as an example of frugal living (we are certainly NOT that), but to tell you that I have learned a lot about what I don’t NEED in my home and for my home, especially if finances are tight or you want to put more money elsewhere. I want a bigger house with a yard my kids can play in and space where we can do crafts without messing with meal preparation and consumption. But, that time is not now for us, and I’m ok with that because we are headed in the right direction the right way for us.
While we don’t pretend to keep up with the Jones’, I’ll be perfectly honest when I say living in this small space has absolutely affected our social lives. We don’t have friends over because we have no where to put them. We can’t invite people over for dinner because we don’t have enough chairs (no room for more chairs). To be honest, I don’t invite babysitters to our house because I do get a little embarrassed that our home is so small and simple. So my husband and I don’t go out much (plus, we’re really cheap and don’t like to pay for babysitters; we’re very fortunate to have generous family in the area who think our kids are pretty cute).
I realize that this kind of frugal, tiny living is not an option for everyone. We are lucky that our landlord is my husband’s grandmother. Lucky that she lets us take over her family room so the kids can run around and get out some energy. Lucky that we can do late-night laundry when the flu strikes in the middle of the night and we get sympathy instead of angry looks. Lucky that we can simply wander upstairs and out to the backyard on that rare, warm sunny Seattle day. Lucky that we have hadn’t a rent increase in the six years we’ve lived here. I recognize that is not available to everyone.
But what is available is the ability to really think about what you NEED and what you don’t. Challenge yourself and really think hard about how you can adapt your life to meet bigger goals. Being in a tiny apartment with my kids is not ideal, but being practically debt free (except those darn undergrad loans) and creating a firm financial foundation for my family’s future is our goal and what we think we NEED to do. So the next time you find yourself day dreaming about a bigger house with a bigger mortgage payment or that purse that costs $500 or that huge toy you think your kid needs, take a step back and ask yourself if you really NEED that or if you could use that money towards a bigger goal.
This is one of the greatest lessons life has taught me by living in this frustratingly small space with my little family. I hope to take it with me when we move on to bigger and better things.