simple living

Living within your means: Is it possible anymore?

Is it possible to live within your means? Why would you even want to try?

Living within your means is a nice idea, right? Like staying married to one person your whole life, or working thirty years for the same company, or being able to fit into your old uniform at your fortieth reunion. Nice, grandma-approved ideas, all of them. They worked fine for her generation. And for most of the generations before them, honestly.

Eric and I want to live within our means, we really do. And we’re mostly successful at it, if you take a broad, modern-day approach to the idea. If you take my step-grandmother’s approach, we’re sort of huge failures.

This is what I mean:

Housing

Yes, we have a mortgage. We borrowed money to buy this house because we didn’t have $140,000 in the bank to buy it outright. We could have bought a cheaper house but we didn’t have $90,000 or $40,000 or even $10,000 in the bank, either. And if we hadn’t bought a house, we’d be paying the same amount in rent (for a far less pleasant living situation).

However, when we bought this house we crunched the numbers mercilessly to make sure we could afford not only the mortgage, but everything else that goes with the house:

  • taxes
  • utilities: heat, electric, garbage, water, HOA fees, internet, etc
  • distance to our jobs: car maintenance, gas, etc.
  • exterior stuff: gas for the lawnmower, a lawnmower, landscaping supplies
  • interior stuff: curtains (America! Stop using blankets as curtains! It hurts my friggin’ eyes!), furniture, etc.

This is important, because we’ve seen some friends who’ve forgotten about all the extra stuff, and it’s a huge shock when a person realizes a propane tank can cost $800 to fill, several times a winter.

Vehicles

We have about the same story here. We do borrow for cars, almost every time we buy one. But we stay away from the $50,000 land yachts and head for the $10,000 used section of the lot. Eric spends (literally) months researching each option until he’s happy with the engines, the frames, the recall notices, everything.

AND I MEAN EVERYTHING. And then we buy the car. To date we’ve paid off every vehicle loan years ahead of schedule.

Moment of transparency: As of this writing, we’re seriously considering buying a brand new car. We’ve never done that before. But we like the idea of buying something with no mileage on it, then taking excellent care of it, and driving it for a decade or two.

College

Once again, we borrowed. We could have done a lot better, but we could have done a lot worse, too. I left school with about $8,000 total in debt, and Eric graduated two years later with $22,000. Because we soon had babies and a mortgage, it took us the full ten years to pay Eric’s loan back. This grieves me still. But honestly, there are only so many ways you can spread the resources in early family life.

But compared to today’s graduates who are leaving with over a $100K in college debt and then finding jobs that pay the same amount Eric and I made at our first jobs, we had it easy. I am not at all comfortable with the automatic assumption that going to an expensive four-year school is the best way for most students.

I’d be a lot more comfortable if these kids were forced to do a mock budget for a $30,000 salary that includes a $700 monthly student loan payment.

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Everyday Purchases

This is where Eric and I don’t do too badly. We track every penny, and I mean that. Thanks to budgeting software we can tell when we’ve overspent in our grocery, eating out, or gift budgets.

We’ve been married for eighteen years, and I can tell you this– it’s a combination of the very large purchases and the everyday stuff that keeps you living within your means.

Obviously, if w’ere going to go with the old definition (and probably the wisest definition), most of us probably don’t live within our means. If we did, we’d be living with our parents and walking to work until we had enough saved for a house and vehicle.


But if you use the broader definition, I think most of us could make it. If we’re able to save wisely and give generously each month, pay our bills, and then add in a few wants, I think we’re on track. It’s not easy, even with the looser definition of the term. But it’s possible with some planning and discipline.

Here are some of my favorite resources for helping me stay on track. I hope you find them helpful!

  • frugalwoods.com: The Frugalwoods have an amazing challenge going on in January of 2017! You’re going to be living within your means by February, if they have anything to say about it.
  • daveramsey.com: The ultimate king of debt-free living isn’t going to take your excuses. Rice and beans, beans and rice, until your debt is gone. Amen.
  • hisandhermoney.com: Tai and Talaat will have you cutting your expenses or growing your income with their podcast and blog.

 

How to find your blue carpet friends (and why you need to!)

blue-carpet-friends-3Are you surrounded by friends who get you? I mean, do you have friends who support you in all your life choices? I think they’re key to living out your calling and dreams, and here’s why.

I have this good friend, Betsy, who is also my hairstylist. Now that my hair care routine requires quite a bit of dye to restore my luscious locks to the color I remember them being at age 25, Betsy and I get quite a bit of quality time together every six weeks.

The last time I was in the shop we started talking about priorities in life, and the toll they take on our finances. For example: choosing to travel as a family and/or enrolling the kids in a Christian school. Both are wonderful options, but neither comes cheaply. We talked about making all the budget areas stretch so we could fit our priorities into our financial picture without taking on debt.

And then we really got on a roll and examined how our friendships can be the key to helping us stay on track with our life choices, or they can derail us in the most dangerous ways.

I told her about how many years ago we’d chosen a completely different preschool for Caleb, because the community at his older sister’s preschool included people who actually went to the yacht club. They drove SUVs the size of my living room. They gave birthday parties for three year olds that cost hundreds of dollars.

I was out of my league in my rusty Chevy and wee little house and homemade cupcakes. So far out of my league, that for Caleb’s preschool experience we chose a little school in a farming community to our south. I felt far more comfortable there, like my life goals made sense to them and then, in turn, to me while I was there.

Betsy understood exactly what I meant, and told me about their friends with blue carpet. “They can afford new carpet,” she said, “but they have other priorities. They just haven’t changed it yet.”

That blue carpet brings something important to their relationship. It’s a statement. A reminder that not everything in life has to be perfect. It’s okay to have financial limitations or life goals other people might not understand.


It’s camaraderie, too. When we can peer into a friend’s life and see tangible proof that they feel no need to have everything matching and new and shiny and perfect, we can hold our our mismatched little lives close together and feel like we’re on the same team. Someone gets us.

On Thursday nights I take our kids to a local youth group and pull my beat up Sienna in next to my friend Kris’s beat up Sienna. We open up our trunks together to try to locate the leaks we both have, leaks that soak our trunk carpets in a good rain. We’ve been bonding over weird things since our college days, but those leaky trunks are just one more piece in the friendship.

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It’s not like friendships start and blossom over things like wet carpet or blue carpet or even brand new carpet.

They blossom when something in me recognizes something in you, and we feel like we’re understood. We might not have the same life goals, we might not have the same blue carpet or old minivan, but we understand that you’re picking your important things and it’s okay for me to pick mine, too.

Friends who support us while we carve out our lives are one of God’s greatest gifts. So, today, I hope you’ll take a moment to notice your friends’ oddities and quirks and mismatched life. And may you say, out loud, how wonderful you think it all is. Your words might just give them the courage and joy they need today.

Flop down on their blue carpet and tell them it brings out the blue in their eyes. Climb into that minivan and say, “Oh, no. Mine smells so much worse than this. This is fine.”

Blue carpet is a way to connect and encourage. It’s kind of precious like that.

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Creative Contentment: how to have fun instead of slowly dying from despair

creative-contentment

I used to think that being content meant I was so blissfully, joyfully happy with life that I lost all desire to change anything.

I didn’t know how much room for change we have, even while living a simple life. There’s so much room in there. So much variety. So much freedom and creativity involved.

Being content is all well and good, but sometimes we get a little bit sick of the way things are.

We yearn for something different. Better.

Then perhaps we mentally chastise ourselves for allowing discontentment to creep into our thoughts. Or, at least this was the way for me. But I’ve realized something important recently– it’s possible to be content while absolutely changing everything.

It’s okay to want things to be different, even while we try to live simply, being thankful for what is.

We don’t have to live in drudgery and quiet despair for the rest of our days, relabeling it contentment and then fading into the gray. We don’t have to put up with clothes that have turned into tatters, or a 2002 Corolla that was a really good deal but makes you sigh every time you look at it.

Let’s talk about how creativity can help us be content and keep some fun in our lives.

For example, we have a house that I love, but there were some things that didn’t quite feel like home in our house. I absolutely knew that I should be nothing but thankful for that place, because millions of people would gladly trade places with me. But I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that something just wasn’t quite right.

Finally I gave myself permission to start changing things. Even though the cabinets were only a few years old (and I’d picked the dang things out myself) I started painting them. I repainted a few walls for a second or third time. I went to the nursery and bought a few excellent plants to fill in the landscaping. I framed some photos of our trip to Ireland and hung them in the kitchen, right where they make me happy ten times a day.

My goal was to be content with the house. It took a lot of work and creativity to get to that point. Sure, I could have passively accepted everything just as we found it the day we got the keys, but then we’d still be living with bare white walls and really, really ugly bathroom cabinets. Who has the time to live with that kind of hideousness?

Let’s take a look at a more challenging scenario– The Corolla. My husband loves cars. He loves them fast, he loves them quirky, he loves them sporty. The Corolla is none of those things. It’s a four door sedan with four cylinders and a radio that works only sometimes.

Creativity isn’t really going to help him much here. We could get him some fuzzy dice and maybe a pine tree air freshener, but it’s not going to help the gutless engine or the automatic transmission. I think what we need is creative financing so we can trade some vehicles around. I’m happy as a clam in The Corolla, so maybe it’s time to trade the van for something jazzy for him to drive. Or maybe we can adjust some of our financial plans so a different car is on the near horizon.

Maybe he’d like to ride this bike instead of The Corolla?

I think the man needs some hope, super bad. He’s absolutely committed to being a mature grown up about this whole vehicle situation, but I see him shudder every time he looks at The Corolla. I’m not making that up. The gray despair is swirling around his ankles, threatening to suck him under. I love this man; I can’t let him die slowly of a four-cylinder engine.

I don’t want you dying slowly of despair, either. Whatever is going on in your life, I want you to live simply and joyfully. Here’s what you do:

  1. Choose your priority. Whatever it is– staying home with the kids, getting your budget under control, running the organic blueberry farm– identify what’s very most important to you.
  2. Cheerfully make a list of all the secondary stuff that’s bothering you, and then find the antidotes to those problems. Think wide. Think long. Brainstorm with your most creative ideas. Throw out any ideas that interfere with your priorities, but just go crazy with trying new things.

I can’t wait to hear what changes for you! Please, let me know.

Home Contentment Series Part 5: Finally, now I can buy things for the house.

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You might be asking yourself if there will ever be a good time to buy things for the house. And I’m here to tell you that yes, there’s a time and a place! Let’s get right to it.

{Welcome to our home contentment series! You’ve joined us on our last day. You can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 and catch up with us.}

Perhaps by now you’ve lost hope. We’ve been at this home contentment series for four solid days and you’re just about to send me an email to tell me I’m an idiot and you hate these ideas. You are ready for the part where we get to burn the ugly old couch and get a new one. Please don’t email me hate letters, because I do understand your frustration. I totally agree there’s a time and place to buy things for the house.

You don’t have to put up with the old, the ugly and the stinky for the rest of your life. Just a few weeks ago I took my pizza pan for a walk–straight to the trash. It was awful and we’d put up with it for five years. Could we have afforded a new pizza pan before that? Yes, but I was feeling cheap and frugal. So I put it off and put it off.

But there’s a point where cheap and frugal are just plain dumb, my friends. We cross the line from good common sense to tacky and dumb. There’s nothing wrong with buying new things when we need new things. Furniture wears out. Carpet gets stained. The fridge dies.

Except this couch, which we purchased in 1999 and it REFUSES TO DIE. I will own this couch until I'm dead. Maybe they'll bury me on it, I don't know.
Except this couch, which we purchased in 1999 and it REFUSES TO DIE. I will own this couch until I’m dead. Maybe they’ll bury me on it, I don’t know.

This is part of life and it’s okay to buy new. But there’s a difference between buying a reasonable new tool, and buying things just because you’re in the mood for something flashy and you don’t particularly care how it affects your finances.

We know new things won’t solve the deeper problems in our souls, right? So let’s consider a few questions that will help us dig deeper. Are we trying to pacify something that needs to be addressed with prayer or counseling or a smack in the head, or are we actually making a mature and reasonable decision?

Here are things to ask yourself when evaluating a purchase:

  1. Is this a tool that will serve our family well? Will it serve us better than what we already have? Maybe the new couch has a hide-a-bed, and your guests can use it. Maybe it doesn’t smell like dog or Great Aunt Myrna’s Pall Malls. Fine and excellent. No-Aunt-Myrna stink is a dang good reason.
  2. Can we actually afford it? I know, huge bummer. But the fact remains that contentment is shot to hades when the credit card bill shows up and you don’t have the money to pay for it. Do yourself and favor and wait until you have the money for it. Or go on a long and serious hunt for a version that you can afford. I’ve dedicated serious portions of my life to searching for a high-quality, inexpensive couch/house/rug/bed. It’s fun! It almost makes me understand those weirdos who sit in the woods for all of November waiting for a deer to shoot. Except I’m warm and darting in and out of resale furniture shops, not sitting in a tree stand with a weapon.

    I found this chair at an estate sale for $150. Best purchase ever.
    I found this chair at an estate sale for $150. Best purchase ever.
  3. Have I waited a reasonable amount of time before replacing the old thing? If you’ve been living with the inadequate or hideous item for long enough, you’ll know. This isn’t a hard and fast rule you can memorize, but more a level of maturity you will know by instinct. If you’ve been a grown up for a long time while you suffered, then good enough.
  4. Is it really, exceptionally beautiful? Will it make us very happy? Happiness doesn’t always follow the rules of common sense. Right now I have a painting of two old, pudgy ladies in their old-fashioned bathing suits, and they’re tiptoeing into the ocean together. There’s no practical use for that art piece (I use the term loosely). It just makes me really happy, okay? I found it at the resale shop for $20 and love it every time I see it. If a purchase makes you feel the same way, then that’s a pretty good reason. Do we really want to go through life being practical and beige and safe? No! Sometimes we want to see fat old ladies going for a swim.

    Well, here we have Exhibit A. I don't have a good explanation, I just love it. The end.
    Well, here we have Exhibit A. I don’t have a good explanation, I just love it. The end.

Now that you know I have disturbing taste in art, let’s move along.

Back to one last point. I’ve found it helpful to have a plan for what needs to be replaced. This gives you the ability to prioritize your purchases, working slowly through the list as finances and common sense allow. Your plan will depend on you. What do you hate the most? What’s in the worst shape? What doesn’t fit your family anymore? You know. You know what your family needs. Come up with your plan and work it. (The free checklist below has a place to make this list. How helpful is that!?)

One day you will look around and feel so much better about your home. I know it might feel like it’s too far away and you’re still tempted to charge all the shiny things on your credit card. Before you make that step, may I make one bold suggestion? Pray about it. Now, God is not some magic genie in the sky, waiting to drop blessings on your head when you say the magic words. But I do believe, after many years of seeking God and learning more about Jesus Christ, that he is deeply and intimately involved in the lives of those who seek him.

This is the new couch we paid cash for. The Lord did not drop it out of the sky.
This is the new couch we paid cash for. The Lord did not drop it out of the sky.

He will not drop a new Pottery Barn couch from the clouds. Your carpet will not magically roll back and reveal perfectly restored mahogany floors just because you begged God hard enough to get what you want. He’s not your grandpa in the toy aisle.

But I know that many, many times over the years he’s provided things for me that I could not have provided for myself. Usually it’s when I’m in the middle of trying very hard to have a great attitude and hunt for something that’s close enough to what I want, within our budget. But he is a God who loves us and wants to provide for his children, and I have personally experienced that many times over.

If you think (or know!) you’re one of those children, try praying about it. See what he opens up for you. He might not choose to work miracles on your material possessions, but he might work a miracle in your heart. And trust me when I say that’s even better.


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You simply don’t have to live like everyone else. (Permission slip granted.)

Why does everyone think they can tell me how to live? How do I get permission to make my own choices?

Today on the blog we’re handing out permission slips.

They’re exactly as you remember them from your school days. They’re pink and sort of gritty and smell weird, like carbon copy paper always does. You’ll love them just as much as you used to, because you can wave them in the air wildly whenever an authority figure questions your location or motives or general life choices. “See? See right here? I have permission. Here’s my slip.”

permission slip for adults

Hopefully we’ve outgrown the need to get a slip to go to the bathroom, but I swear adulthood doesn’t feel much different some days. All we’re trying to do is live our life, but all these people have all these opinions.

No more! Today we’re deciding to do what we want.

You, over there. The woman who wants to have ten children and then homeschool them in the wilderness? Here’s your permission.

To the man who wants to learn to surf even though he lives in Nebraska? Even though he’s about to turn 65? Fine. Go for it, fine sir.

Start an organic farm? Go into ministry? Go to college? Drop out of college because you’ve realized you’ll never be able to pay it all back and actually live your life?

Have one child, have no child, get married, travel the world alone in a sailboat. We’re fine with all of that.

Permission granted. You simply don’t have to live like everyone else.

You simply don't have to live like everyone else. Permission slip granted

Now, cranky Great-Aunt Gretel might have a problem with that. And she’s likely to tell you all about her opinion of your life choices, and this is where you’ll need the permission slip. Print it out and hand it to her.

We’re all adults here.

We know our loved ones mean well. And let’s be honest, the status quo was pretty much developed because it’s quite nice to have warm, safe shelter and food on the table. When we run after our dreams, sometimes those dreams don’t come with things like stability or paychecks or health insurance. Great Aunt Gretel just wants us warm and fed and also not living in her house.

We can’t blame her for that.

And this is why we’ll be gentle with our responses when she comes at us. We’ll remind her that we really have thought it through, and we’re really sure this will eventually be a blessing. A weird blessing, maybe. But a blessing none the less.

I understand what might happen here, okay?

Because we’re adults we understand the consequences of our actions, and we have no desire to leave our loved ones in danger or despair. We’re trying to manage the dream and the reality, right?

Right. And that’s why we get our permission slip. This is going to be fantastic.

You can do it, I promise. You can make the changes needed to live your calling and your dream. And maybe one day Great Aunt Gretel will look around at all you’ve changed and smile a little, tiny bit.

We can always hope.

Why we need to rethink wedding costs and find realistic expectations for the big day

We attended a lovely anniversary party this weekend. Eric’s uncle and aunt have been married for fifty years so their sons and daughters-in-law threw them a bash to celebrate. One of the granddaughters had lovingly pieced together over four hundred old family photos to make a scrolling slide show, which I happily plopped down to watch when my small talk skills grew lame.

Out of control wedding costsI was enjoying the retro photos (bouffants! poofy dresses!) when all of a sudden I noticed a few odd things in the reception pictures. Things like heating ducts and a concrete wall. I turned to my father-in-law. “Did they have the reception in the church basement?” I asked in a tone that was meant to sound curious but probably came out astonished.

They did. They did indeed. Heating ducts and tiny windows and concrete walls and all. They somehow managed to greet guests, nibble cake, and open gifts below ground level. And from those humble beginnings they moved forward to build a life together. They had good careers, invested in their community, raised their sons, and traveled the world.

What the heck has happened to wedding standards, good people of the world? Cake and punch in a church basement just isn’t done any more. It was good enough for our parents’ generation, but not for us.

I ventured this thought to my father-in-law, and he (ever the teller of truth) shrugged and said, “Eh. It could have been nicer.” I laughed out loud, because he was probably right. There’s probably a happy medium between the basement and needing to rent a lesser French estate and flying 200 people across the Atlantic, which is probably what our daughter will want when she gets married.

I did some in-depth research, and by in-depth I mean that I quizzed our moms. Eric’s parents were married in their church and then had the reception right there, but not in the basement. They also served only cake and punch. Cheryl reports that by the time she got married (in 1973) that tradition was falling out of favor and more couples were having larger meals at their receptions.

Later that same year my parents were married in a Catholic church, had the reception at a little hall, then moved the party to my grandmother’s home where she and the Polish Aunties had prepared a traditional Polish feast. Also, my father’s Ford Pinto was loaded to the gills with booze he’d brought from across the state. The merry making was quite, quite merry, I’ve been told.

Picture these guys, but in 1973 suits and hair.
Picture these guys, but in 1973 suits and hair.

Contrast that with this week, when my sister’s getting married. She and her fiancé quickly determined that wedding costs are out of control, especially if you want to have something nice for guests. Who knows if it’s even legal to drive a Pinto loaded with hooch across county lines any more, what with their tendency to explode at any moment (plus I think most of the Pintos have actually exploded and it’s hard to find them anymore), but I do know the places Beth wanted to have the wedding wouldn’t have allowed such a thing.

Grown up guests expect a nice meal and a nice bar, and those things do not come cheaply. If Beth walks down the aisle and guests are directed to the basement where streamers hang from the heating ducts, eyebrows would lift.

Because Gary and Wilma were in full party mode this weekend, greeting their guests and politely feeding each other bites of cake, I didn’t have a chance to ask them about their wedding. But I can venture this guess– the wedding was exactly what they could afford. They didn’t borrow money for it like so many couples do today. Cake and punch in the church basement was what they and their families could afford, so they joyfully celebrated with what they had.

I think that celebration might be pretty much perfect.

Could we follow their lead? Is it possible for us to change the tone of modern expectations?

The wedding is just one day, the beginning of a life together. Could we as couples, but also as family and guests, help lower the standards to a more reasonable tone? A lot of the current standards are just plain dumb (Pinterest, I’m blaming you), but so many of the brides and grooms don’t want to disappoint their guests.

Maybe it’s time to give them more reasonable options. Maybe it’s time to tell them the church on the corner has a lovely basement and the concrete is quite cool in the summer. Maybe it’s time to suggest a potluck dinner or take out from the Lebanese place across from the gas station.

I just want to celebrate with them, knowing the fun isn’t going to put them or their parents in debt for ten years.

Thoughts? I’d love to hear them.

 

Finding contentment in renting

On Sunday we helped a young family from our small group move into their new townhouse. While we moved boxes from their old apartment to their new, larger home, I thought deep thoughts.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I thought a lot about ice cream because the day was hot and I was really sweaty. But I did think a few deep things before the sweat shorted out my brain cells.

I stood in their apartment-sized kitchen and looked around with fresh eyes. I’ve spent the last few years thinking about simple living and minimalism, so I pretended we were moving into that very apartment. It was a very exciting mental exercise, and I think I could have found a spot for almost everything we need in the kitchen. Easy? No. Possible? Yes.

Considering that I spent the first years of my marriage desperate for a real house with a real kitchen, this means I’m either mentally unstable or I’m actually learning something from all the simple living blogs I read.

While we can’t discount my probable mental instability, we can at least agree that it’s fun to look back at life and think about all the things we could have done differently. I wonder what would have happened if we’d chosen to move into a larger rental like our friends just did. They considered buying a house, but realized it’s not a good time for their family to be making long-term housing solutions. So they found an affordable option with a yard and a washer and dryer, and decided to be content with renting for the near future.

finding contentment in renting

I’m proud of them. When we were their age I thought we had no other option but to buy a home. I think we could have saved ourselves a lot of hassle over the years if I’d been content to rent a while longer.

But try telling that to a hysterical mother of a five-month-old who has to drag her laundry to the laundromat every week. Between the laundry and hauling the groceries up the stairs, I wanted a house and I wanted it RIGHT THEN. So we bought one. And we catapulted ourselves into taxes and repairs and the world’s ugliest bathroom, coupled with the world’s dumbest floorplan. Also, the house had the world’s most dangerous stairs.

Renting a while longer probably wouldn’t have been that terrible, is all I’m saying. We certainly could have solved the laundry problem without catapulting us into an ugly bathroom problem. I wish I would have at least looked at other options and calmed my nutty self down.

I’m sure there would have been other problems if we’d rented longer, because no choice in life is ever perfect. We would have been throwing money down the tubes in rent, but guess what– after we bought our house the market plummeted, so we just threw our money down a mortgage tube, instead. So even that huge point has been wiped out by the cold, hard truth of our experience.

I’ve learned a lot of things through the cold, hard reality. And that’s why it’s so fun to watch our young friends make their own decisions. I encourage them with this thought– it’s all sort of a giant crapshoot, really. You’re always benefiting somehow, and losing out somehow. Everyone gets to decide what benefits and sacrifices mean the most to them, and go from there. The best decisions can be wiped out in an instant from circumstances beyond your control.

So if you’re living in a tiny apartment, be thankful for the good parts. If you’re living in your starter house, be thankful for that. And if you’re almost forty and have already made a lot of your big life choices, watch your younger friends and offer a few words of encouragement when you can. That time of life is so hard, and every choice feels so important, and they need an old person to tell them it’s all going to be okay.

Because it is,  you know. It’s all going to be okay.

Why I’ve let go of my dreams for a tiny house

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ll be acquainted with my love of tiny houses. I can’t explain it, I understand it’s totally unreasonable, and yet I love them anyway.

 

why I've let go of my dreams of a tiny house

But sometime this last winter I finally let go of that dream because:

  1. Eric and the kids thought I was insane.
  2. The reality of a composting toilet for four people finally sank in.
  3. A private bedroom is good for married couples, and sharing a tiny house with teenagers makes that nearly impossible.

I finally acknowledged the tiny house wasn’t going to work, but then I just moved my sights slightly higher– three small bedrooms and a real bathroom. I just needed to find one close enough to the kids’ school.

My friends rightly pointed out that we’d moved out of a 900 square foot house a few years ago. I was going crazy in that place– what on earth would make me want to go back to another cramped house?

I understand my desire to downsize makes no sense. We truly did move out of a small house three years ago, and I couldn’t wait to escape that place. The day we moved out was an endless Happy Dance.

I couldn’t quite explain it, even to myself. I busied myself with some projects in our new home, and that squelched the desire for a time. But then, burning somewhere deep (possibly next to my spleen) was the constant and burning desire to downsize. I wanted less house and more available money. I wanted to be able to give wildly and generously, and to travel far and wide.

This is the closest explanation I can find– you know how some couples decide they’re done having children after their second baby? They give away the baby clothes, sell the crib, and get some surgical intervention. And then, beyond all reason, five years later they find themselves ready for a new baby. They get the vasectomy reversed or start filling out adoption paperwork.

It’s a desire deep inside that drives them, with no logic involved. They remember the sleepless nights and how difficult two year olds are! They haven’t lost their minds, but something deeper compels them.

And that’s how it was with me and downsizing. I hear the stories of people in Haiti and India. I realize many people are living in huts with metal roofs while monsoons rage in 100 degree heat. How can I continue living with two bathrooms and central air? Am I supposed to go on landscaping my yard in this planned community while a missionary school in India can barely afford to pay their teachers?

I finally asked Eric and the kids to pray about it with me. They weren’t totally on board, so I could see how this was possibly a new version of the tiny house ordeal. I was quite sure that after some prayer at least Eric would come around, because of course God was on my side. This desire fit in with the biblical ideals of sharing with those in need, so God and I held the holy cards.

I even had real life stories to back it up. My friend Amelia Rhodes did the same thing last year– sold a comfortable family home because of a simple desire to downsize. (You can read their story here.) And I recently read Amber C. Haines’ book Wild in the Hollow, and her family downsized into an apartment (with four little boys!) so they could be closer to their church community.

I’m not the only crazy one, is all I’m saying.

After three weeks of praying, the answer hit me hard and clear one morning. No. The answer isn’t moving to a smaller house. The answer is to stay right here, even with central air and two bathrooms.

I don’t understand why, exactly. I think it probably has something to do with being the aroma of Christ right here in this very neighborhood, where the children zip circles on their bikes and the families walk their children in strollers. It might have something to do with being involved in the schools, full of kids who need love and Christ. It could be that we’re called to be salt and light to this community, full of scrappy, independent (occasionally cranky) citizens.

I told Eric this a few days ago, and this was his response. “I feel like we prayed and felt led to be here. I don’t feel like that’s changed.” And the man is right. We didn’t land here without a lot of prayer.

It’s pretty clear that God plants his children all over the world. Some of us get the planned communities and central air and others of us get the monsoons and the huts. I don’t understand why. I don’t know why God doesn’t concentrate us, like an army, in the areas that need the most help. But he doesn’t ask me to have all the answers; I only need to be faithful in my own place and calling. I need to give as generously as we’re able right here, even with the larger mortgage and tax bill.

We can still be faithful right here. Although I have started negotiations for a tiny house in the backyard, because wouldn’t that be adorable?! It could be the Poopsie Hut! The Mom Cave! I could paint the walls sky blue and hide from children and writing deadlines.

I wouldn’t even need a composting toilet. Perfect.

 

 

A Little House Christmas (Where I Gleefully Pirate a Famous Author’s Work)

Gather round the fire, my friends. Settle the children around you in a circle, and make sure everyone is wearing their long woolen underwear and mittens that were hand knitted by elderly elves. It’s time for a little story, a story that will help us all remember how to have a simple, sweet, old-fashioned kind of Christmas.

The following excerpts are borrowed directly out of the Christmas chapter in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Little House in the Big Woods. I’m not technically sure I can borrow this much text without express permission from her publisher, but since Laura herself has been gone for nearly fifty-eight years and I make zero-point-zero dollars from this blog, I don’t think I’m in too much danger of getting sued.

So let’s push all thoughts of legal action out of our minds and settle in for that little story, shall we? First we set the scene:

Christmas was coming. The little log house was almost buried in snow. Great drifts were banked against the walls and windows, and in the morning when Pa opened the door, there was a wall of snow as high as Laura’s head. Pa took the shovel and shoveled it away, and then he shoveled a path to the barn, where the horses and the cows were snug and warm in their stalls.

Oh, the little log cabin deep in the snowy woods– how I swoon. Except I’m also a big fan of central heat that runs on natural gas, so I swoon at the idea of this winter scene. Actually shoveling paths through drifts is a lot of work, best left to manly pioneers. Onward we go, into the kitchen to make the holiday meal:

Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and rye’n’Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Lara and Mary lick the cake spoon.

Delicious! But who will join us to eat this feast, little Laura?

The day before Christmas they came. Laura and Mary heard the gay ringing of sleigh bells, growing louder every moment, and then the big bobsled came out of the woods and drove up to the gate. Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter and the cousins were in it, all covered up, under blankets and robes and buffalo skins. They were wrapped up in so many coats and mufflers and veils and shawls that they looked like big, shapeless bundles.

What’s this? They didn’t arrive in a minivan that has heat controls for the front and rear? No entertainment system for the children? And yet they still managed to travel to be together? So foreign.

The children played and then everyone settled in for the night, the adults telling stories by firelight while the children whispered in their beds.

They lay there whispering about it till Ma said: “Charles, those children never will get to sleep unless you play for them.” So Pa got his fiddle. The room was still and warm and full of firelight. Ma’s shadow, and Aunt Eliza’s and Uncle Peter’s were big and quivering on the walls in the flickering firelight, and Pa’s fiddle sang merrily to itself.

In the morning the children burst out of their beds to see if Santa had brought them anything. In their bright red flannel nightgowns and pajamas they found:

In each stocking there was a pair of bright red mittens, and there was a long, flat stick of red-and-white-striped peppermint candy, all beautifully notched along each side. They were all so happy they could hardly speak at first. They just looked with shining eyes at those lovely Christmas presents. But Laura was happiest of all. Laura had a rag doll.

little house christmas

Let’s take a minute to think of the kind of character those children had, to be delighted with a pair of mittens and a stick of candy. I realize we live in a different world now, and I also realize Little House in the Big Woods is a highly fictionalized version of pioneer life written for children. I can hardly toss a pair of mittens and a stick of candy into my kids’ stockings and expect them to think this is delightful.

But I still want to develop that kind of contentment in my kids’ hearts, and in my own heart. I want us to be thankful for every blessing, no matter how small. Finding joy in the smallest of details is a calling card of a beautiful heart, don’t you think?

Even the best of days must come to an end:

So they all got into the big bobsled, cosy and warm, and Pa tucked the last robe well in around them. “Good-by! Good-by!” they called, and off they went, the horses trotting gaily and the sleigh bells ringing. In just a little while the merry sound of the bells was gone, and Christmas was over. But what a happy Christmas it had been!

 

All I Want for Christmas Is a Clutter Free House

A flurry of texting erupted a few weeks ago as my sister-in-law and I tried to make Christmas plans. The goal– to not fill up each other’s homes with useless Christmas presents. “We don’t really need more toys at our house,” Becky texted. That’s her very nice way of saying “Dear heavens, I’m drowning in crap and I just can’t take any more!”

clutter-free-christmas

 

Although I’m willing to bet Becky’s not alone, they did just move to a new house this year (here’s the blog post about their house), and space really is at a premium in this radical new way they’re living. We decided to do for the kids what we’re doing for the adults, which is bringing a small gift of something delicious. Quality coffee, good chocolates, that sort of thing. Easy on the wallet and no need to store it for long.

(We will not comment on how the presents might actually turn into fat and get stored for infinity on our waistline, because it’s Christmas and holiday calories hardly count.)

Jenny and I had a similar conversation over the weekend. We decided that although our kids have swapped presents in the past, this year we’re going to skip it. This conversation took less than sixty seconds and we were off to something new, but what if a situation is more complicated? What if a person is facing a tidal wave of well-meaning relatives and friends who come bearing gifts in an endless parade of holiday wrapping and bows and scotch tape?

What then?

Here are my ideas. I don’t know if any of them will work for you, but maybe one or two of them won’t be super dumb and you can benefit. If nothing else, at least you might start thinking about how to keep Christmas clutter from overtaking your house. If you have better ideas than these, share them in the comments below!

  1. Communicate. It’s only a few weeks before Christmas so you might be too late for this round, but maybe you can start Grandma thinking for next year. Say the words out loud: “Mom, the kids have too much stuff. I have too much stuff. We need to stop buying all the things.”
  2. Clean out the stuff you already own. Whilst the little dears are snug in their beds, start hauling stuff out to the garbage (or recycling bin, if you live in California). Dump the broken toys, the mangled stuffed animals, and the puzzles that only have three pieces.
  3. Ask for presents that result in experiences, not clutter. Art classes, zoo memberships, theater tickets, or trips someplace fun. Think outside the hot-pink, plastic box.
  4. Buy Legos. The Lego company is not paying me to say this, I just happen to think they have an excellent product that is well worth the money. My kids are playing with the Legos my husband owned as a child. Those plastic bricks are 30 years old and work perfectly with the ones we can buy now. Endless fun, endless options, not a waste of space. Way to go, Lego creators!
  5. Copy your friends who have some brains when it comes to Christmas. Some of our friends give gifts this way: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read. Each child gets four gifts, and I think those categories are genius. I might rephrase it like this: Something to read, something else to read, here’s another book, and oh yeah, I got you some underwear. But you get the idea.
  6. Remember that adults are adults, not super tall children who need $400 gifts to experience the magic of Christmas. Things don’t only go terribly wrong when it comes to the children. Sometimes we panic when we try to buy a gift for a beloved adult. “They already have everything, so maybe I’ll spend $75,000 on that new Mercedes like the commercial suggested”, we think to ourselves. No, no, no, no, no. This is madness and we shall refrain from it.

What else? What did I forget?

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