Monday, July 28, 2014

Hot Off the Press: Secrets of Small-House Living

Today's the day! My newest eBook, Secrets of Small-House Living, is now available! The publisher is offering it for only 99 cents for a limited time as an introductory special.

I wrote this book for people who want or need to downsize to a small house but are used to living in a much larger house, or even a McMansion. I learned a lot on my own journey from large house to small house, and I share my experience along with the research I did while making the transition. In my book, you'll learn: 

The advantages of living in a small house
How to find the right small house for your needs
How to choose which furnishings to take with you
Decorating tips to make any small house feel comfy yet roomy
Strategies for living well in a small house

Living small is a whole new way of life for us, and we love it! Here's an excerpt from my new book:


The McMansion Era is over! We’ve learned that a big house may look impressive and feel spacious, but in a lousy economy, its negatives really stand out. They include higher taxes, higher heating and cooling costs, and higher decorating costs. Worst of all, McMansions eat up a lot of their owners’ free time because there are so many rooms to clean (and keep clean). Even when a cleaning crew does the housework, someone has to work to pay the cleaning crew.

No wonder more and more people have decided that they want to live in a small house. Whether it’s due to a financial reversal, an empty nest or a desire to live sustainably, today’s home buyers are snapping up small houses while McMansions linger on the market.

I’m one of those people. Several years ago, my family and I sold our large house with its two-story foyer and 42’-long kitchen/family room combo. Now we own a 1,000 square foot ranch, and we’re very happy with our little home.

But it wasn’t a seamless transition, logistically or psychologically. It took time to downsize our possessions so we could fit in a smaller home, and it also took time to get our brains around the idea of living small. But it’s been well worth the effort. We now have a much more manageable cost of living. We’re no longer burdened by too much stuff. And we finally have time to relax because there’s far less upkeep around here than there was at the big house we lived in for years.

Some people don’t need this book. They’ve always lived in small places and know how to do so successfully.

No, this book is for people who don’t know or don’t remember what it’s like to live in a small space. Maybe you were raised in a large house, or you’ve been living in one for years. Now, you want to downsize, and you’re just starting to realize that living small requires a completely different mindset. In fact, it’s actually a different lifestyle than the one you’re accustomed to living. But you want the freedom that comes with living in a small house. You just need some help making the adjustment.

I’ve been in your shoes, and I’ll share more of my own story shortly. But first, let’s look at what you’ll learn in this book. You’ll discover:

  • The advantages of living in a small house
  • How to choose the right small house
  • How to move from a large house to a small house
  • How to make your small house a home
  • Living well in a small house

There are things you can do to make life in a small house very enjoyable. As you read this book, you’ll find many ideas that you can apply to your own situation. So let’s get started!

The Joy of Small House Living

For years, some in our society have looked down on those who live in small houses. They assume people live in small houses because they don’t make enough money to live in large houses. Fortunately, this attitude is becoming less common (though certainly not rare yet) thanks to the economic downturn, the trend for single households and smaller families, and a renewed appreciation for living sustainably.

That said, you may have grown up believing that bigger is better. It’s a common malady of our times. But it simply isn’t true.

Yes, there are people who need very large houses. They may have a large family, or run businesses from their homes, or entertain frequently and on a large scale. For them, bigger may very well be better. Hopefully, they can handle the high expenses, the high purchase price and taxes, and the high maintenance costs that come with a big house.

But many of us can’t, or don’t want to do so. We value time over space. We want to spend our free time doing what we want to do instead of devoting our lives to taking care of a large house, or working long hours to pay for one.

We also like the idea of having less stuff (a functional result of living in a smaller space). After so many years of living in a consumer-driven economy, badgered by commercials and pursued by advertisers, we’ve become overwhelmed by all our stuff. The idea of paring down our collection of possessions has become very attractive to us.

Fortunately, we’re seeing more positive examples of small-house living as our culture changes. There’s even a trend toward tiny houses (less than 500 square feet) that’s gaining steam. It appears the pendulum has begun swinging back toward a more sensible, sustainable way of living.

But it’s been a long time since small houses were appreciated. We need to learn (or relearn) about small-house living. That’s what I had to do a few years ago.

I grew up in a series of spacious ranch houses. Then I went off to college, where I learned to squeeze my belongings into half of a dorm room.

Had I gone straight from modest college dorm rooms and a few tiny apartments to a small house, I wouldn’t have needed any instruction on how to buy and live in a small house. But I got married while I was in college, and my husband and I bought our first house less than a year after graduation. It was big and cheap because it had a lousy location and terrible decorating. So we spruced it up. Several years later, we sold it for a nice profit, bought an even bigger house, and filled it with kids.

Over the years, we were too busy raising kids and working to mess with clutter, but we had plenty of room to let the clutter sit and grow, so we did. And a large family can produce a lot of clutter! Our basement slowly filled up with outgrown clothes, forgotten toys and sports equipment, and many, many boxes of paper clutter that were mostly unnecessary but contained important papers, so that we couldn’t throw out a single box because it might be holding one of the important papers.

Then there were the birthday gifts no one played with for long and the old television that still worked (so why not put it in the basement just in case?) The giant air hockey table the kids finally tired of quickly evolved into the perfect place to park bags of paper and old clothes. Soon it was piled up like Mount Vesuvius, getting ready to blow should someone accidentally bump it.

Plastic boxes full of old crayons and tiny cans of dried-out modeling clay sat next to bags of old cassette tapes that had arrived with books that were in boxes elsewhere in the basement, or possibly in one of the younger kids’ rooms. After the computer age arrived, tangled piles of old cables began to appear here and there, along with old modems, a few spare keyboards and the occasional burned-out CRT.

Eventually, the kids began leaving home, taking some (but not all) of their things.

“Sure, you can leave that stuff in the basement until you get a bigger place, dear,” I said to more than one adult child. By this time the basement and crawlspace were full, save for a narrow path leading from the steps to the washer and dryer.

About that time, the economy began its steep decline, and we had to sell our big house and downsize our lives. A traumatic event to be sure, though we came through it in better shape than we expected after we moved three times in four years, all the while juggling a couple of storage units that had to be rented, filled, emptied and given back again.

We were forced to deal with our many possessions once and for all when we bought a small house, because there simply wasn’t enough room in it for all of our stuff.

You might be wondering why we bought a house that wasn’t big enough to hold all of our belongings. The answer is that buying a small house made sense: our nest was nearly empty, so we didn’t need lots of bedrooms. We didn’t know what the future held financially, so we wanted to keep our expenses low. And at just the right time, we found a little house with a great location. So we bought it, figuring we would just have to get rid of most of our things so we could fit comfortably into it.

Once we moved in, our small house education began. Living in a small house is so different from living in a big house. It’s not just a matter of square footage. It’s a matter of attitude, of mindset. I’m a different person, living in this house, than I was in our big houses.

I loved our big houses, but I think I’m happier in this one. In A Pattern Language, author Christopher Alexander suggests that people like small spaces, that they feel safer and more protected in them. That may be true, but in my case, there’s something else going on. As much as I loved our two-story foyer, big roomy living area and a master bathroom larger than the bedroom we sleep in now, life in a big house was too much work and worry for me. I realize that now.

For one thing, I had to psyche myself to clean house, which was a multi-day job that required all my energy. (Yes, I had children who helped clean, but let’s face it, that may be character-building for them, but it doesn’t make the cleaning job much easier. Either you have to crack the whip on them, or go back and finish it yourself.)

Our utility bills were big, and often huge: every heat wave required that we either run the central air conditioning and dread the impending electric bill, or sweat guilt-free. Every fall brought with it the annual discussion about how low to set the thermostat, while the kids complained that we were trying to turn them into popsicles. Sub-zero days meant heavy sweaters and slippers. Since we both worked at home, there was no escape to a comfy office via a heated or air-conditioned car, either.

Then there were the property taxes. As house prices soared, so did our taxes, to the point that they were becoming a pretty big burden at over $500 a month. By this time, our house was 20 years old, and we could see that some home improvements needed to be made; ironically, making improvements would drive up our taxes even higher.

Issues like these made us decide to go the small-house route. Benefits include:

  • Lower rent or purchase price than a large place
  • Lower tax bill
  • Lower maintenance costs
  • Lower utility costs
  • Less time spent cleaning (leaving more time for fun, friends, etc.)
  • You can afford a better neighborhood than you could if you bought a larger house
  • Resale is easier for small houses because today’s families are smaller, and there are more single-parent households and lots of baby boomers who are looking for something smaller and easier to take care of.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the advantages of a small house.

 To buy my new book now, CLICK HERE

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Creative Retirement: 7 Reasons to Sell Your Big House…Now!

Although financial experts urge us to think about retirement soon after we begin working as 20-somethings, most of us don’t think very much about retirement planning until we reach a certain age…you know, once we start feeling that age, with the usual aches, pains, and thoughts like, “They stopped recording good music in the 70s.”

The fact is that most people don’t like to think about planning for retirement. And with all the experts out there insisting we have to have at least $1 million saved up (right, that’ll happen for most of us), who can blame them?

But there’s one thing you can do right now that can only help your retirement plans: sell your big house. A big house is nothing but a burden to anyone in their 40s or older. Here’s why you should sell, now:

1) A big house requires many hours of your time paying for it and keeping it up, hours you could be spending on the golf course or reading good books.

2) A big house usually means higher taxes, costing you dollars that you should really be putting away for retirement, especially if you have no pension or retirement account to speak of.

3) A big house encourages your adult kids to move back home, or to never leave in the first place. Times are tough, I know, but how will they learn to cope if they have your basement to hide in?

4) A big house lets you keep the clutter instead of dealing with it. One reason people postpone freedom in the form of downsizing their lives is that they don’t want to go through their possessions and make decisions about what to keep and what to give up. But if you don’t do it now, the job will just hang over your head until you (or your heirs) are finally forced to deal with it.

5) Big houses aren’t as popular as they used to be, thanks to smaller families and a lousy economy. Sell now so you don’t take a bigger loss down the road.

6) Big houses are often two-story or multi-level houses; at some point you’re not going to want to deal with stairs, or you may not be able to. So it’s unlikely that you’ll want to stay in the house in your old age.

7) If you have enough equity in your big house, selling it and using the proceeds to buy a small house, townhouse or condo will let you face future retirement with a paid-for abode.

I think that last point is especially important if you don’t have a pension waiting for you. The biggest item in most budgets is the mortgage payment or rent. Imagine not having to pay that someday if you have only a modest retirement income to live on!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Embarrassed by Downsizing?

We recently saw some distant relatives at a family gathering, people we hadn’t seen for years. One asked my husband why we had moved from our big house in the suburbs to a small house in a small town.

One of the things I love about my husband is that he’s honest and direct. He simply replied, “After my industry moved overseas and I had to close my business, we couldn’t afford to live in our area any more.”

Simple enough, right? But it’s very hard to admit that despite your best efforts, things aren’t going well financially. The responsible way to handle things is to be proactive and downsize willingly, before you’re forced to sell everything just to keep the electricity on. But there’s a huge temptation to pretend like nothing has changed.

It’s dangerous to live in denial. Many people face financial difficulties in these hard times, and some actually make things worse by using credit to continue a lifestyle that they can no longer afford. Even when they reach the end of their rope, and are finally forced to downsize to a smaller house and/or a less desirable area, they may try to keep the fa├žade going by putting a little spin on the situation (“We sold our house because we’re going to travel a while before moving to the Hamptons.”)

Being honest about your situation means you don’t have to wear yourself out pretending that nothing has changed. You also free others who are having financial challenges to be open and admit that the smart thing for them to do right now is to downsize. Your example can show them that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about and that life goes on…..a happy life, too.

Years ago, I would occasionally see bumper stickers on cars that said “Don’t laugh. It’s paid for.” I’ve thought about putting a little sign with that slogan in my yard (don’t worry, my husband would never go for it!) But we love our little house, and we’re happy with it. No, we don’t live in the McMansion anymore, and we don’t live in the suburbs, either. But I’m being completely honest when I say we’re fine with that. Downsizing our life has actually made us quite comfortable. And we don’t care who knows it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Burden of Collections

I love going to estate sales.

I love rifling through books from long ago. I like to see juice glasses like the ones my grandma set on her breakfast table, and framed pictures like those people had in their homes when I was little.

Since we downsized, I’ve learned to admire these things without buying them, because we simply don’t have the space for them. If I should find something I absolutely must have, I’ve promised myself that some item I currently own will have to leave the house before the “new” (to me) item can come in. That’s the only way I can stay on top of my possessions and not let them get out of control, as I once did.

Recently I went to the estate sale of an elderly lady. It was held in her 1930s frame two-story house, and run by a group of tired-looking middle-age women that I assumed to be her daughters and/or daughters-in-law, because they kept referring to “Mom” in their conversations.

They had done a great job of setting up the sale, and what a job it was! All through the house were tables covered with tablecloths and neatly arranged items for sale. I could barely walk around the L-shaped living/dining room full of tables without bumping into someone or something. Every surface was covered with stuff.

There had to be at least five long tables of glass and ceramic figurines, all neatly arranged and shiny, as if someone had recently cleaned them (what a job!) Along one wall was a long display of costume jewelry, many pieces in their original boxes, all priced individually. There were also tables with lamps, glass and metal ashtrays (remember them?), wall plaques and artificial flower arrangements. There was no furniture except a few chairs for the sellers to sit on; the furniture must have already been distributed within the family or sold before the sale.

The kitchen was packed to the gills with dishes, pots, cooking utensils, and other kitchen items, many with mushrooms on them. Apparently “Mom” was into the 1970s mushroom craze and had amassed quite a collection of mushroom-decorated items.

The rest of the house was filled in a similar fashion, with various collections displayed neatly and price tags on each item. I can’t imagine how hard those women worked to get that sale ready. But I have to wonder how they really felt about all of Mom’s collections because no one seemed to be choosing many of those items, buying more useful things like lamps, yard tools and clothes instead. If they didn’t mark down Mom’s collections toward the end of the sale, they were likely left with the items and more decisions to make about what to do with them. Ugh!

I once had quite a few collections myself. When we downsized, I still liked my collections and didn’t want to give them up. I put off making decisions about them for a while (there were certainly plenty of other things to do at that busy time anyways) until it finally occurred to me that there is no law that you have to keep a collection together, and that if I was honest with myself, I really preferred some items in my collections over others. Hence it was OK to break up my collections.

Once I made that realization, I could finally do what I needed to do. I reduced my teapot collection from dozens down to three. I reduced my enormous collection of back issues of Country Living down to one small stack of clippings after committing to flipping through a few issues while on my exercise bike each night and tearing out anything I just had to keep. I did the same thing with my many quilt magazines, some of which had been published in the 1980s (!)

Both my husband and I have always been bookworms, so we had hundreds of books, maybe more than 1,000 counting paperbacks. We gave up about 2/3 of them.

I won’t list my other collections that were broken up; to be honest, I can’t even remember all of the stuff we got rid of! But I’m doing just fine without it, and someday when I die, my kids won’t have to go through all of it like that elderly lady’s family did for her estate sale.

I sure felt sorry for those gals.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Why My Profile Photo Looks Like Carlotta Vance

I chose Marie Dressler as my profile photo (see right column of this blog) in homage to her character, Carlotta Vance, from the classic 1933 film, "Dinner at Eight."

Carlotta is a woman who once had fame and fortune, who knew what it was like to live in luxury. But in the movie, she is no longer young and beautiful, no longer pursued by men who want to woo her with furs and diamonds. In fact, as her career wanes, she finally reaches the point where, as she tells her dear friend Oliver Jordan, "I haven't got a sou!" Yet she faces life with courage, concern for others, and as you see in the clip above, a sense of humor.

The character of Carlotta is a role model for me. Over the last decade or so, the lousy economy has dealt my family some hard blows. We lost a business and had to sell our family home. Our income is nowhere near what it once was.

It's often tempting to feel sorry for myself, and sometimes I do. But most of the time, I want to be like Carlotta. I want to face the future with a sense of hope and charity.

In that spirit, I wrote Downsizing Your Life for Freedom, Flexibility & Financial Peace. It's had a good response, and I'm grateful. Now I'm writing another book related to it that I hope will also help and encourage others.

Times are challenging for many people these days. I want to help my readers by sharing what my family has learned, and by telling everyone that being proactive about change, especially change you didn't ask for, is the best way to get through hard times and keep enjoying your life.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Where Should You Go When You Downsize Your Life?

For some, downsizing their life is simply a matter of finding more affordable and smaller digs within commuting distance of their job. But if you don’t have a job or you’re about to lose yours, it’s possible you may need to find a new town to live in, possibly even a new state.

Yes, I’m aware of the increasing number of ex-pats out there (people who have left the U.S.), But I’m assuming most people, like me, want to stay in this country. They just need to know how to find a good place to live that doesn’t cost as much as where they live now.

I shared a great tool for discovering your perfect new town in Downsizing Your Life for Freedom,Flexibility and Financial Peace. Now I have two great links to share, which I’ll probably have my publisher add to my book, but that you can check out right now.

First off, here’s a wonderful document (PDF) that lists all the metropolitan areas of the U.S. in order of affordability. What a find! It starts with the most expensive areas. We moved from page 1 to page 5, making our lives so much more affordable in the process. Find your current town in the document and start looking further down to see where you might go to make your life easier, financially and otherwise.

Then, if you’re wondering where other people are moving, check out this amazing interactive map, which shows who’s moving where and what the per-capita income is in every single county in the country. Be warned, though, you can waste a lot of time playing with this, it’s so interesting!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Moving Back In with the Folks? Eeeek!

Oh, the joy, fear and excitement of leaving home to go off on my own. How well I remember it, even though it’s been, um, a while.

Once I was on my own, I couldn’t imagine moving back home with my parents. So when I read this article about how the economy is forcing some adults in their 50s and 60s to move back in with Mom and/or Pop, I was both alarmed and sympathetic.

But when you think about it, it makes sense. Wages are stagnating but costs are rising. It’s been this way for several years, and something’s gotta give. If moving in with the folks keeps a roof over your head, what can you do?

Most people won’t be “moving back home” anytime soon. But to make sure it doesn’t happen, we need to be realistic about our personal financial situation. Are we facing layoffs at work? Are we barely making it on a pension? Do we see lower income but bigger bills in the future?

You have to be honest with yourself. If you refuse to face reality, you’re only postponing the pain, and you may be making it worse, in the long run. But if you make the tough decision now to downsize your life, and make your bills (and your lifestyle) more manageable, you may be able to avoid the fate of those who are moving back in with their elderly folks.

We downsized after an income loss and came through in much better shape than we expected. Life in our McMansion is just a good memory now, but everyone once in a while I look our old house up on Zillow to see how high the property taxes have gone, and think about how we dodged a bullet there. Even the $300+ monthly electric bill is just a bad dream. Best of all, we’re now so comfortable that the thought of moving in with my folks (who are still living and just as hard to get along with as they ever were!) doesn’t even turn up on my radar.

My motto is: Bite the bullet and do what you must so you don’t end up sleeping under the watchful eye of your Bobby Sherman poster ever again!