Contentment

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.

 

I couldn't be the mom I wanted to be and keep that houseOf 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.”

cabo-sean-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.

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.

 

How to Hide Your Clothesline Under a Bushel

italian-underpantsI took this photo in Italy last fall. Yes, I had to sneak between fence posts and yes, I had to use my zoom lens. But how could I not take this photographic opportunity to observe culture at its most basic form?

Now we’re back home in America, where we love rules. And where there isn’t a rule we quickly make up a rule. Mostly people then ignore/break/bend said rule, but we can refer to the rule at any time it’s convenient, such as when a neighbor is doing something we find offensive. You can’t do that; we have a rule!

And specifically, our family lives in a  little neighborhood which is loosely governed by a Home Owners Association, which means we have a giant book of rules to ignore until a neighbor is being annoying and then we pull that giant book out of the file cabinet and prove our point. Look right here–here’s the rule!

I’m actually quite afraid of the rule book, because I don’t want to know what rules I’m breaking on a daily basis. I know our garbage can could fall under a technical default because we don’t hide it in the garage like we’re supposed to, but who wants a garage that smells like garbage? Yuck.

Lately I’ve been missing my old clothesline we had at the old house (until the supports tilted so far inward that the clothesline dipped deeply in the center, causing concern that a running child might be garroted by a plastic coated wire) for many years. I like the slow pace of hanging the clothes and the smaller electric bill. But I faced two problems:

1. I’m pretty sure the HOA rule book has a no clotheslines because they’re unsightly clause. Again, I assume. I’m afraid to check.
2. Ticks. The property behind our house is tick heaven, and I really don’t want to bring all the clothes in and then live in fear I’ve just made it very convenient for a tick to suck my blood. Here, Mr. Tick. Would you like to snuggle in this t-shirt, then attach to my armpit whenever you’re hungry? Super.

garage-clotheslineSo for a year and a half I’ve made peace with my clothes dryer, until just this weekend I’d had enough. I rearranged the garage and voila! A hidden clothesline.

Now, we do have a few problems:

1. No sun actually shines in the garage, and the wind only blows in from certain angles. This means that on a day with 90% humidity like yesterday, nothing actually dries. Bummer. But on most days the garage heats up like the sun and there are convenient vents at the top. It’s like a giant dryer without the tumble feature!
2. The cat’s litter box. Clean laundry isn’t supposed to smell like cat, probably. But I just kept rearranging the garage until the box was far away, next to the big door. Problem solved!
3. I don’t want the neighbors to think we’re hillbillies. I mean, we are hillbillies, but we’re pretending to be reformed hillbillies. I was afraid they’d see our clothesline and worry about their home values plummeting. But good news–it turns out Gertie the Minivan is big enough that she blocks almost every view of the hanging clothes! That van just keeps on giving, I tell you.

Now we have a lovely retractable clothesline for the warm months. I’m going to move it inside for the winter months, when the garage is cold and damp but the furnace room is warm and perfect.

What about you? Any clothesline lovers out there?

Decluttering for the Terribly Brave: Let’s Clean the Fridge

It’s lurking, right there in the kitchen. Every time you open the door, you cringe a little and then slam the door shut, pretending you don’t see the ancient condiments, the sticky shelves, and the food in cheap plastic containers that should have been thrown out right away but that voice in your head (she sounds suspiciously like Grandma) carped, “Wasting food is a sin. Save it and turn it into a nice soup this week.” So of course you listened to the carpy Grandma voice and now you have rotting food sitting in your fridge and no soup in sight.

No? Just me?

I don’t believe it. My fridge is a mess and so is yours. But not for long, my friends. We’re going to clean that thing right out and we’re doing it now! Well, I’m doing it now and taking pictures to prove it. You can do what you want; you’re a full-grown adult.

But full-grown adults always feel better with clean fridges, I feel. A clean kitchen doesn’t stress out out each time we walk into it. When we can find what we need to make healthy meals, the whole experience is simple and much more enjoyable. Join me!

clean the fridge

Step 1: Clean off the front of the fridge. My word, people! Why do we feel the need to pin everything to the front? I’m saving a few things: the friends we support in ministry, the cutie in Haiti who sends us adorable letters in return for tuition payments, and my hilarious magnets. Everything else goes.

Step 2: The condiments get a pass/fail grade. I went through a stir-fry stage a few months ago and thought I needed to buy fish sauce. I did not need to buy fish sauce. Because it’s sauce made out of fish. Ew. Also out: the pesto we didn’t eat (again) the runny, mostly empty bottle of brown mustard.

Step 3: Rotting meat and dairy is probably less than ideal. Out goes any meaty-animaly product from any date I don’t recognize.

Step 4: Leftovers that have actual possibility need to go to the freezer so they don’t become cesspools of botulism. I think that’s what happens to old leftovers, right?

Step 5: Show no mercy to the vegetable drawer. I know in theory a vegetable is healthy, but if you’re not going to eat it, you’re not going to eat it. Let it go, my friend. Let it go.

Step 6: Cull the miscellaneous. If we don’t have a specific, concrete reason to use it soon, we have no reason to keep it. Out, out, out! I nearly teared up at the thought of throwing out the almond meal and the flax meal. But my word, I simply have no idea how long they’ve been in there. Almost two years, at least.

Step 7: Swab the decks. Fill up your sink with hot, soapy water and scrub the shelves while they’re empty. Put back what food you are saving. Stand back, admire your work, and wonder why you need such a large fridge. Mental note: look for a smaller one when this one dies.

Doesn't the fridge look all mysterious and cool in black and white?
Doesn’t the fridge look all mysterious and cool in black and white?

Step 8: Do not allow children near the fridge for at least two days, to preserve that clean feeling.

And there we have it. Don’t we all feel better now? If you have the emotional strength, tackle the freezer. I don’t. Let me know how it goes.

Today’s question: tell me the truth, how long has it been since you cleaned the fridge? (I think I did this last summer.)

By the End of Today We Will Own Two Spoons and a Toothbrush

As a wife, I have many irritating qualities. One of them is my tendency to read long passages of a book to my husband. I had no idea of how horrible this was until my own children started reading me long passages out of the books they were enjoying, and then suddenly I realized I’d been torturing my husband for more than a decade.

Sorry, dear. So sorry.

I’ve tried to get control of myself lately, but sometimes a book is so good or funny I can’t help myself. Sixteen pages into The Big Tiny I lost my resolve to keep my reading material to myself and started reading to Eric.

It might have been earlier, actually. Perhaps page 2. I’m hazy on the exact page.

But the book is just so good and funny that I can’t help myself. Dee Williams, the author of The Big Tiny, had a health emergency (a wonky heart), causing her to choose a new life path. She literally doesn’t know if she has a year left, a month, or an hour to live. (Neither do any of the rest of us, but at least she has one of her issues labeled by the medical community).

So, of course, she built an 84-square-foot house. By herself. With a wonky heart. 

Photo courtesy of yesmagazine.com
Photo courtesy of yesmagazine.com

She sold her big house and got rid of almost everything, from her beloved art to her extra soy sauce. Now she can work part time and spends her life investing in the people around her– caring for an elderly neighbor, playing games with the kids next door, and volunteering. Also watching a lot of crappy Netflix, just like the rest of us.

I picked up this book because I have this not-so-secret burning desire to get rid of everything and live in the simplest, least-chaotic way possible. I don’t want to have any bills to tie me down, I want insurance to be a thing other people need, and I don’t want to trip over 19 pairs of flip flops and a garden clog when I try to let the cat in each morning.

Nor do I want a cat. But we’ve already discussed this.

As I read this book I get lulled into Williams’ prose, then startled awake by conflicting thoughts: I can do this, too. Wait a minute, no I can’t. Then I go back to reading and find another paragraph like this, which makes me want to try anyway:

Moving was hard, but not impossibly horrid, and in fact, over the long haul I found it incredibly liberating. After a short bit of time it became more like stripping naked on the beach, kicking off your clunky shoes and pulling your shirt off while simultaneously using your foot like a hand to yank off your sock, preparing for the way the warm sea will feel against every dimple and fold of your body. Letting go of “stuff ” allowed the world to collapse behind me as I moved, so I became nothing more or less than who I simply was: Me. (The Big Tiny, pg. 175)

This sounds wonderful, but is this for me? More importantly, is this for us? I’m not operating in a vacuum, here. Dee’s circumstances (single/no kids) allowed her to shed her old life and then invest more in relationships and people. Her choices have enriched her loved ones. I’m afraid that if I did this I might traumatize my children and husband. They apparently have no interest in getting rid of everything except two spoons and a toothbrush, sharing a wheeled home so we can glean fruit and take it to the homeless shelter each week.

Is there a happy medium that works for families? What do you think? What burden or responsibility would you most like to shed, and what would you have to do to release it?

Then [Jesus] said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15

Top 10 Things to Buy at ALDI

Is everyone familiar with ALDI? I hope so, or this post isn’t going to make a lick of sense. Hopefully you have an ALDI market near your home and after reading this post you can rush out for all these delicious things I’m about to recommend.

I can feel some of you hesitating from here. Especially if you’re American, because ALDI isn’t like our usual supermarkets. First of all, you have to put a quarter into the grocery cart so you can free it from its chains. That feels a little weird, I know.

And then we walk into the store and we think, “Where’s the rest of the food? I see chocolate chips over here, but where are the rest of the chocolate chips? Where are all my brands?” We hunt around and realize ALDI offers only one choice for most foods. Instead of eggs from ten different companies taking up fifteen feet of cooler space, we see one brand of eggs.

Just one.

And then we panic for a minute because we wonder if we’ve really just wandered into the USSR under Communist rule. Before we have a full-blown anxiety issue and rush back out to the haven of the supermarket we know, we see the prices on those eggs and calculate the savings. We think maybe pretending to be Communist for just a few minutes might be worth it, so we stick around.

But then we wonder if these brands are worth any money at all. If I get these groceries home and they all taste terrible, I’ve just wasted $90 instead of saving $30. Not so smart, even for a faux-Communist.

That’s where this post comes in. Here are the top 10 things that I love at ALDI, and these will give you a good place to start. I think the taste is great and the savings are big enough to make it worth the effort of going to a store where you have to bag your own groceries.

top 10 things to buy at Aldi

 

  1. Milk, half-and-half, and heavy whipping cream. Delicious!
  2. Cheese. ALDI has a great selection on all kinds of cheese, from shredded cheddar to fancy goat cheese. Pick up an extra package of string cheese for the kids.
  3. Eggs.
  4. Butter.
  5. Spaghetti sauce.
  6. Frozen green beans. ALDI sells a green bean that’s much thinner than usual. Sauté them up with some almonds and kosher salt. You’ll weep a little at the deliciousness.
  7. Fruits and vegetables. Check the quality carefully, but the prices are worth the extra couple of seconds.
  8. Flour and sugars (regular, powdered, and brown).
  9. Cooking oils.
  10. Bread.

There, that will get you started. Excellent quality and excellent savings. But I know some of you are wondering the obvious–what didn’t make this list? What is not so good?

We’ve run into a few things we do not prefer. Ice cream, for example. Also their version of Kraft singles (or flat cheese as we call it in this house). I bought a package and the kids were both fussing at me, telling me the cheese was terrible.

I told them it was fine and they were being too picky. But then I ate a piece myself and realized they were right–the fake pasteurized cheese is not so good. And my husband isn’t so excited about the granola bars, either. But give them a try and see for yourself.

What do you think? Do you shop at ALDI? Do you even have one near you? What is your opinion?

 

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