Mark and Becky Break Free: A Simple Living Case Study

What if, right now, you could make one decision that would catapult you right out of half your stress?

That’s right. One decision can make all the difference, my friends. You simply identify your greatest stressor and then boldly move to cut it out.

“That’s impossible,” you say. “It can’t possibly be that easy.”

Easy, no. Possible, yes. The real question is this– do you have the guts to make the decision and then follow through?

Because that’s where most of us actually run into trouble– we’re gutless. We know what needs to be changed, but we don’t have the strength to do it.

Today, for your encouragement and inspiration, I have a real, live case study. Mark and Becky just summoned all the guts they had in their bodies and climbed onto the catapult. Ziiiiiing! They launched themselves out of half their stress by selling their seven-year old house and buying an older one. A smaller house. A cheaper house. A house much, much closer to Mark’s job. A house that let Becky quit her stressful job and stay home with their boys, making daycare an obsolete item on the budget.

becky's quote

Of course, if doing the right thing was easy, we wouldn’t need this blog post. We’d all be doing the right things and making nothing but good decisions. We’d be living on clouds and riding rainbow-colored unicorns, tra-la-la.

Mark and Becky aren’t riding unicorns or strumming harps. They’re bumping elbows in a kitchen that’s a tiny, inefficient box compared to their old kitchen. They’re getting used to an old basement that smells musty if the dehumidifier doesn’t run around the clock. They’re all sharing one bathroom and don’t have room for their beautiful dining room table. There have been snake sightings on the porch. Yikes.

Saturday we spent the afternoon at their house, and after the burgers were gobbled up I pulled out my interview questions. I asked about the blessings, and I asked about the challenges. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: Why? Why did you do this thing?
Becky: “Family was more important than stuff, and I couldn’t be the mom I wanted to be and have that house. We were chasing our tails, trying to keep up with daycare and the other expenses.”
Mark: “I told her, ‘I’m not married to the house. I can let it go.'”

Q: So how much have you cut your mortgage?
Mark: “In half. We cut it in half.”
Grandpa (who was sitting at the table and listening in. Did I mention Mark is my brother-in-law? He is.): “And they’ve cut their taxes by a third!”

Q: You’ve not only cut the mortgage, but your driving costs as well. How much did you drive before?
Mark: “I was driving 30 miles each way to work, five days a week.”
Becky: “I drove about 25 miles each way, five days a week.”

Q: And how much do you drive now?
Mark: “It depends on if I take the short cut or not. If I do, it’s 1.3 miles to work. And I come home for lunch, so that doubles it. If I go the long way it’s 1.5 miles.” (Insert his snicker here.)
Becky: “I don’t have to drive to work anymore, but I do still drive the boys to school in Portage. But I take the little, gas efficient car.” (Blogger’s note: the boys go to a charter school and haven’t had to change schools.)

Q: How much money are you saving in gas alone?
Mark: “Almost $350 a month! I put gas in the van every two months, whether it needs it or not.”boys in hammock

Q: What other benefits are you finding?
Mark: “I’m eating healthier because I come home for lunch, where we actually have fruits and vegetables and stuff. No more Little Debbie treats from the vending machine. During the summer we eat lunch as a family, but now the boys are in school Becky and I have a little lunch date every day. Also, we love our new property. We have a lot more trees and shade.”
Becky: “Quitting my job means I don’t have to worry about finding day care all summer, which cost almost as much as I made working full-time. I have time to get organized now, so that’s what I’m working on now that the boys are back in school.”

Q: What about the challenges? 
Mark: “We cut our square footage from 1500 square feet to 800, and I really miss having an extra bathroom. This house is older and I’ve had to fix things already, like the faucets. The appliances are older, too.”
Becky: “Well, our pride has taken a hit.” (She smiled.) “But also, we have so little closet space here, and the kitchen really is a challenge.” (Blogger’s note: the kitchen really is a challenge. Designed by a someone who must not have cooked at all.) “And I had to get rid of my piano.”

So there you have the bare facts of their situation. They summoned their courage and made the hard decision, come good or bad. But reading their answers doesn’t give you the full experience of their story. You can’t see how much more relaxed they are, sitting on their small side porch grilling hamburgers and swinging on their porch swing. You can’t feel how Becky’s a totally different person now, much more like she was years ago when I first met her. You can’t hear the kids, running around and climbing trees and playing hide and seek all over their new property.

I don't know what Mark's shirt means. I forgot to ask him.

I don’t know what Mark’s shirt means. I forgot to ask him.

Yes, the hard decisions might mean four people have to share a bathroom and, quite frankly, that’s never fun. But peace of mind supersedes bathroom issues, right?

I hope you’re encouraged and inspired to sit down tonight and figure out what your stress is. Is there anything, and I mean anything, you can do about it? There might not be. You might be dealing with something far more difficult than a big house payment.

But if you do have the ability to make the hard decision for change, I hope you’ll do it! Then let me know and I’ll interview you next.

 

No, Sweetie. I Really Don’t Know Where Your Robot Is. (But the Garbage Man Might Have a Good Idea.)

I’ve been throwing away my kids’ toys for many, many years. Not right at first, of course. The few toys my daughter had at birth were lovingly gathered by friends and family who found the adorable elephant, the pink bunny, or the shiny little rattle. Only a monster can throw that sort of thing away.

But fast forward two years to when her brother was born, and suddenly we had a 900 square foot house full of dolls, cars, stuffed animals, princess costumes, McDonald’s toys, books, blocks, and also– a toy that lives in the dark corners of my memory– Pooh House.

Someone (I’ll blame my own mother) thoughtfully purchased her a little Winnie the Pooh house that came with a few stuffed animals and that child made us play with it for hours at a time for many, many months. There are only so many ways you can put a three-inch bear in a plastic swing and make him move. Even if I stretched to the limits of my imagination I could come up with two minutes of inventive play with that bear and his wretched stuffed friends. I was doomed to an infinity of minutes, bouncing him up and down and making him climb the stairs.

Oh, the agonizing memory.

Audrey finally outgrew Pooh House and, no matter what little old ladies say, I’ve never missed a minute of playing it. Do you hear me, young mothers? You don’t have to cherish every minute. Sometimes the minutes suck. Let it go and hope tomorrow is better. 

As much as I’ve been scarred by the memory, Pooh House really was a good investment. We got my mother’s money out of that hunk of plastic. But really, there are painfully few toys my kids have owned over the years that make that grade. My son has a bucket of Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, lovingly collected over nine years. That bucket still gets dumped out and played with on a daily basis. Both kids have iPods, and as much as I hate to admit it, they were good investments. The Legos have been wonderful and many are from my husband’s childhood. Arts and crafts supplies are always winners. The dress up clothes collected over the years are being played with right this minute as our little friend Emery is digging them out of the closet and and giving them a new twirl. how many toys

I will not bore you with the very long list of toys that got three minutes of play, then a year in a dark toy box, and then were silently moved out under the cover of darkness to the dumpster. We don’t have that many minutes left in our lives to list all the things.

Children do not automatically become happier because they have all the toys. As painful as that pout is in the store, when the lip comes out and the sad blue (insert your own child’s eye color here) eyes bat at you reproachfully, you can overcome, dear parents. It might feel like you’re hurting them and causing them sorrow, but making them eat their carrots causes the same sorrow. So do vaccinations. So do long, boring sermons at church where they have to sit quietly for consecutive minutes.

If we focus only on their comfort and temporary happiness, we’ll have spoiled, nasty children who think every whim needs to be met. Plus, our houses will bulge with toys they don’t really enjoy. Therefore and thus, I implore you to say no to stuff they don’t actually love. And if you already have too much stuff they don’t adore, smuggle that crap out in the middle of night and let Mr. Garbageman take it to Landfill Glory.

I mean, lovingly pack it up and donate it to a thrift store so another family can enjoy it. Whatever.

So, I have two questions for you today: What one toy have you played with and hated every minute of? And, what’s the next toy that’s going to magically disappear from your household?

Bank Street Farmers’ Market: Where the Crunchy-Granola Hippies and the Millionaires All Hang Out

I have this friend who owns a small business and a farm (here’s a link to their Facebook page) and they often take their wares and tootle on down to the farmers’ market in Kalamazoo on Saturday mornings. I finally got a chance to go to the market myself, instead of just hearing about it from their Facebook posts.Bank Street Famers Market baskets

I told my family they were in for a treat and we piled into the van early on a Saturday morning. My children, deeply suspicious of anything involving one of my crazy ideas and/or vegetables, set their hopes very low. They were anticipating a very large outdoor version of the produce department at Meijer, so they were pleasantly surprised when we drove through a somewhat dicey portion of town and then popped out at what appeared to be a carnival.

Sadly, no rides. But we did find hippies in the aisles and a Maserati in the parking lot. There were tents and delicious foods, so the kids decided maybe I wasn’t trying to torture them. Audrey quickly realized free samples abounded, and then Caleb spied the gluten-free booths, and suddenly we were all having fun. Eric is now a committed foodie, so all those booths of deliciousness put him in an excellent mood for the better part of two days. We bought goat cheese, and fancy breads, more cheese, street tacos, actual fruits and vegetables, and THEN we spied the gluten-free angel food cake.

Wait. Maybe we found the cake first and the tacos second. It doesn’t matter. We ate it all.

The four of us plowed down half of an angel food cake in less than ten minutes. I do not feel guilty, not even a little bit.

You see, we were doing it in the name of supporting local businesses.

All this reading I’ve been doing about simple living always mentions our obligation to local businesses, and I have to be honest– I’m pretty terrible about this because I’m very, very cheap. I get extremely agitated when I feel someone is trying to charge me more money for things than is strictly necessary. Why should I pay $4 for a box of cereal at a local store when I can pay $3 at Meijer or $2 at Aldi?

However, I have to admit that I often stand next to the employees at our local stores while we wait to pick up our children from school. Maybe if I really cared about my community I’d spend the extra buck or two and make sure his or her employer stays in business for a few more years. It doesn’t appear that the employees of Hardings or the embroidery/print shop are driving Rolls Royces or putting in gold-plated swimming pools, so maybe they’re doing something else with that money. Oh, something like feeding their children and paying the rent, perhaps. 

I’m starting small, so I don’t seize up and give my wallet some sort of panic attack. Today I went to a Kalamazoo-based shoe store to buy a pair of shoes, and I’m buying almost all our family’s meat from V&V Market on Sprinkle Road. I love the family atmosphere and the service at V&V, and the quality can’t be beat. I do pay a little more, but I’ve started making a few more vegetarian meals to make the meat I do buy last longer. They have a little sign up next to the cash register. It says something along the lines of “Thank you for shopping here. It really does make a difference.”

You’re welcome, local business people. And if you do put in the gold-plated swimming pool, please don’t tell me. Bank Street Farmers market flowers

 

Books: Causing Thinking People to Think Even More Thoughts

Bear with me, here. I promise I do have a point but it’s going to take me a minute to get there. Let’s start with this: I am quite finished with the concept of an over-booked schedule.

Do you hear me? I mean it. I’m tired of cramming too many things into every day and feeling like I’m wrung dry by the time I crawl into bed. This is no way to live.

If I’m understanding the cry of the culture, I’m not alone. Michael Hyatt’s talking about this problem, Lysa TerKeurst just wrote a book about it, and the faces of my friends who are caught in their own endless busyness clearly indicate that we are a culture who has lost its collective mind. We need to slow down. We need to stop doing it all. We need to catch our breath.

Part of my new campaign (such a fancy and official word– campaign. Heh.) on this blog is that we’ll be doing less and listening more together. I want to have less things to own, less things to do, and more time to build relationships that matter. So I’ve been picking up a few books here and there to help us refocus.

These books have failed me. Oh, if you could only peek in to my anguished, swirling mind. Because here’s the thing– you can take back a schedule and cut out the things. You really can. But then what? What are we really supposed to be doing with our time? Are we supposed to be cutting everything out so we can nap more? I don’t think that’s the point, either.

Busyness keeps us moving, so we never have time to consider this. The frantic pace shuts out the real question, which is what are we really supposed to be doing?

Jen Hatmaker’s book Interrupted was one of the books I thought would clear my head. Instead I’ve spent the last few weeks with increasingly crazy thoughts as my mind bounces from one option to another. At first, I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t buying Jen’s argument of what a Christ-centered life and church is supposed to look like. Her church is deeply rooted in service to the poor and needy in their community, and while that is certainly a crucial part of a church’s purpose, I don’t buy into the idea that the church is supposed to become another homeless shelter or social services agency or even a hospital.

Yes, Jesus fed people. And he healed the sick. He was adamant about social justice. But none of those issues was his main focus. A few years ago our church tried an outreach where we went down to the homeless shelter in Kalamazoo and had a cookout for anyone, in or out of the shelter, who wanted to eat with us.

Agonizing. The experience was agonizing. Because I am all about building relationships, but I am not at all excited about hopping in and out of someone’s afternoon with a hot dog in my hand.

The memory of how I felt completely inadequate and quite stupid and bulbously overfed rings in my mind years later. I wished I could have walked into the kitchen and spent an entire week washing the dishes. Then I would have had a chance to serve, but more importantly, to truly get to know those exact same people at the shelter.

This leads to the important question– so why didn’t you, Jess? Why didn’t you spend a week working in the shelter’s kitchen? The truth is simple. I didn’t have the time. I didn’t have the time then, and I don’t have the time now. I could make the time, but then I’d be right back to the main issue which is that my schedule is out of control. And, quite possibly, yours as well?

There are hundreds of good and worthy things we could all be doing right now. Feed the hungry, volunteer at the hospital, visit the elderly, read to the children, pick up the litter, counsel the youth, save the earth… But we also have jobs, we have children, and we have lives to live. How do we balance the needs of the world with the needs in our own lives?

Just as the crazy voices in my head were reaching a fever pitch, I found this in Interrupted and suddenly Jen Hatmaker and I were best buddies again:

How much more tangible is the gospel when someone experiences it over weeks and months with a real believer whom he or she can ask questions of and learn from by observation? When a Christian consistently treats someone with compassion or demonstrates integrity at work, the gospel wins a hearing. We can continue to invite unbelievers to church, but we must first invite them into our lives. Have them over, go to dinner, welcome them in. (pg. 205)

And then, a few pages over:

Believer, your pastor or your church can never reach your coworker like you can. They do not have the sway over your neighbor who has been entrusted to you. No one better than you can love your wayward brother. One decent sermon cannot influence a disoriented person in the same way your consistent presence in her life can. (pg. 207)

And suddenly my path was clear again. I don’t need to add more things into my schedule. I can love others right around me, right in the midst of my pared-down, sane schedule. So, be prepared. If you’re standing next to me after school as we wait for the kids to be released– you’re my new mission field. If you teach my kids–blammo! You’re up. Next door neighbors, consider this your fair warning.

Quote from Interrupted by Jen Hatmaker

Maybe one day, when my kids aren’t so little and I have a chunk of time, I’ll add in a new service project at the shelter. Maybe you have that block of time available right now, and if so, go for it! Reach out. But until that time, I’ll be focusing on the people right around me.

And, dear readers, if you’d like to join me in my crazy thoughts, I’d love to have you with me. Here’s my current reading list. I’d like two-page book reports on each tome, on my desk by Thursday morning. (If you’ve read any of these and like to comment below, I’ll let you skip the book report.)

  • Interrupted, by Jen Hatmaker
  • Life on the Vine, by Phil Kenneson
  • Slow Church, by Chris Smith and John Pattison
  • The Book of John, by John, Jesus, and of course, the Holy Spirit. :)
  • 1 Corinthians 9:9-27

Almost Amish: The Book That Will Make You Long for a Buggy and a Bonnet

I was trolling Pinterest the other day, looking for simple living ideas from other folks. I came across this picture and nearly dropped dead from joy at the cover of this book:Almost Amish by Nancy Sleeth

The full title is Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life. Nancy Sleeth wrote it, and although I’d never heard of her until that minute I was already a fan. I peeked into Amazon and took a look at the first few pages, then bought it sight unseen.

This almost never happens. I only buy books I already know I love.

Turns out it was money well spent.

Nancy writes with something I cannot overstate: rock-solid common sense. You might have zero interest in the Amish, and you’re still going to be convinced that you need to trade in your minivan for a buggy by the end of this book.

Or at least for a Prius.

Because horses are not the most convenient option, frankly.

Anyway, on to the point. The Amish are long known for their simple approach to life, pretty much ignoring whatever the fools in the outside world are doing. Their faith is strong, their families and communities are solid, their finances are often stable, and they don’t spend their lives mucked up in buying things or impressing people. Almost Amish finances

While the Sleeth family isn’t any more Amish than you or I, they have made purposeful choices just like the Amish. For example, they raised their children to play outside and use their imaginations, instead of filling them with video games and trips to the mall.

They often invite friends and family to their home to share simple meals. (Recipes included!)

They care for the environment, own the aforementioned Prius, and often ride bikes or walk whenever possible.

And this, my favorite, jaw-dropping choice they made– Nancy’s husband quit his job as a physician and director of the local ER so he could “spend the rest of his life trying to serve God and save the planet, even if he never earned another cent.” (p. xiii)

Yes, yes. Read that again. He quit his job as a doctor to be a not-doctor.

And Nancy didn’t even have a heart attack or a panic attack or anything. At least, not for long. She embraced the change and focused on these two words found many, many times in the Bible: Fear Not.

Well, okay. I should probably try that, too.

Without setting the Amish on some sort of idolatrous pedestal, the book takes their excellent example and then translates their choices into ideas we can incorporate into our own lives. We can also strengthen our families and communities. We can shop locally to support our neighbors. We can own fewer things and enjoy our people more.

Just like the Amish.

But without the burden of buying horse feed.

I’m in, are you? What’s the one thing you admire most about the Amish? Do you ever drive to the nearest community and just pray you’ll get to see a girl riding on a bike with her bonnet strings blowing in the wind?

 

Simply Impossible: Jessie and Her Dad Take on a Camper Restoration

So, some of you have met my father. This blog post is going to come as no surprise.

Some of you haven’t met the man yet, so let me tell you a few stories to give you a picture. This is the man who has given us several cars and then purchased them back from us years later. He claims this makes perfect sense. We always needed the money and didn’t argue too hard.

This is the man who, in 1995, drove four hours straight into the bowels of Indiana for me because my 1988 Escort named Gloria was acting up, and it was two days before my final exams of my sophomore year. He traded the crappy Escort for the good family car and then nursed it another four hours straight home, on a cold December night. I finished my exams then drove home in comfort at the end of the week.

This is the man who picked up hitchhikers all through the 1980’s, brought them home, and fed them soup. (He doesn’t do that anymore, because ax murderers like our woodsy rural environment very much.)

This is the man who rewired my entire old house, paying for all the materials and then doing all the labor for free. This labor included crawling through the dark, damp, spider-infested crawl space under much of the house.

All I’m saying is that my dad loves to help people, and he loves a big assignment.

Which brings us to the camper sitting in his barn.

This is my mom and daughter, enjoying the new fresh scent of the camper (bleach and Bounce dryer sheets).

This is my mom and daughter, enjoying the new fresh scent of the camper (bleach and Bounce dryer sheets).

Akin to the aforementioned giving and re-buying of cars, a woman he knows from church needed to get rid of the camper. He took a look at it, decided it was beyond his skills, and politely declined.

But he couldn’t quite get the project out of his head. Truth be told, he’s out of projects around the house. He volunteers a few days a week but what’s life without a huge hulking piece of metal waiting for his attention in the barn?

So he paid the woman (he probably should have charged her instead) and found a way to drag the poor beast home. My mother raised her eyebrows but realizes this is safer than an ax murderer at the dining room table, so she has made her peace with it.

rotted camper veneerAnd now, oh glory, we have a camper to restore. I say we, but we really all know this means he. It’s not like I’m going to be able to drive 45 minutes home twice a week to hang out in the barn with Dad. But I do plan on helping, once he gets a plan in place. We’re talking major renovations, here. The roof has been leaking for years, the interior veneers are shot, the tires are different sizes, the heater is an explosion/carbon monoxide poisoning hazard, and various rodents have made this place their loving home.

Pray for us.

Do I actually like camping? No. I don’t. But I do love little houses, and I love anything retro. I’m hoping to con my dad into finishing this into a glorious 1960’s time capsule and then parking it right on their farm. I will come and “vacation” at my parents’ house, which means I will use their modern plumbing, eat their food, and then go sleep in their living room when I get scared outside.

This is my vision. But whiter, and with more blue. I'm not sure what Dad thinks...

I took this photo at the Red Barn show this year, and this is my vision. I’m not sure what Dad thinks…

But until then, Dad and I will have many hours of happy planning, researching, and gutting ahead of us. Family time, one moldy kitchen cabinet at a time.

Anyone else out there taken on a huge project recently?