Monday, April 28, 2014

Keep Calm And Make Do

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a love-hate relationship with my home.

Some days I'm so proud that our family has been able to make do with the house we have. I'm happy that the small confines of our space force us to be together more often. I'm thankful that I can always hear the boys, even when they are tossing and turning at night.

Sometimes I love our minimalistic lifestyle. There is simply no room for excess. We've learned that we don't need many of the things that society tells us we need: highchair, dishwasher (ok, that I would LOVE to have...but I don't really NEED it), more than whatever six kitchen cabinets will hold. We have two towels per person. No one has their own room. When our toy storage gets full, everything that doesn't fit goes straight to Goodwill (some kids fear the Boogie Man, my kids fear the Toy Nazi). My dining room table serves as my desk, my counter, my kids' art table, and everything in between.

I'm very proud of the way we've slowly made our tiny home a comfortable place that meets all our needs. I'm proud to give my children a lifestyle where they learn that stuff is not important and that they do not get to have everything they want. These are times I look smugly at my friends with giant houses and think, "we don't need all that excess!"

But there are times when I dream longingly of more space. There are times when I get tired of having to constantly juggle what item gets to stay versus what has to go. I'm exhausted constantly trying to find things to give away in order to stay afloat. I slightly dread birthday parties and any gift-giving holiday. Sometimes I get claustrophobic. Despite our best efforts to keep clutter to a minimum, the lack of space makes me feel like the STUFF is closing in. And yet, I want more room to hold more STUFF.

These are the times I want to give in and give minimalism the giant EFF YOU. These are the times I'd do just about anything (even consider foreclosure!) to have more room. These are the times I look at my friends' giant houses (anything over 1,000 sq. ft. seems giant to me), and feel nothing but envy. Why can't I have that? What did I do in life to deserve to live in a sardine can? The extent of my self-pity is loathsome.

These are the times I force myself to remember that I made a conscious decision to be happy and make do. It's not an easy task. But I can usually find a reason to snap myself out of my self pity and be thankful for what I have. I mean who says that every child has to have his or her own room? Who says we need a separate room just for playing and watching tv?

If you have read Dave Ramsey, you are familiar with his theory that people go into debt buying things they don't really need because they want to keep up with the Joneses. They have to keep up the appearance that they have the same status as those around them. This partly connected with me but I found it a little trite to think that people around the world are buying cars and backyard trampolines and fancier grill sets just because they are in a possessions war with their neighbors.

I started to think about it more and I realized that Dave Ramsey is right but only to a certain extent (unless I clearly misunderstood his message, which is possible). It's not really about trying to match our neighbor, swimming pool for swimming pool. It's not that we are trying to compete. It's about expectations. I think we look at our neighbors to define our own living standard. We think we are entitled to the average American Lifestyle and whatever all of our neighbors and friends have MUST be part of that standard. We don't consider the baseline of our needs. We think, "well, all my friends have giant flat screen TVs so that must be the standard of living to which I am entitled." Our horizon of expectations expands. Our "wants" suddenly become "needs." So we go buy those TVs. And if we cannot afford them, we feel like we're being duped, cheated, robbed.

Why do I get upset about my 950 sq. ft. home? From 1900 to 1950, this was the average size home in America (isn't that shocking?!- now it's 2,200). It's not because I actually stop and consciously evaluate how much space our family "needs" It's because everyone I know has a much larger house for a smaller family. They all have separate rooms for separate activities. They have enough counter space to prepare three meals at one time. They have 2 car garages and offices and workout spaces. More than one bathroom- what a luxury! I see this and I adjust my expectations, which become insanely inflated.

We do this with many aspects of our lives. We build our expectations up to unrealistic levels and become depressed when things fall short. It starts even before we become parents. Even before the baby arrives, parents are told to make these things called, "birth plans." Isn't that hilarious?  We are told to plan how we want our children's births to go (as if the birth is not about the child but our own expectations). Wouldn't it be nice to have that much control? We cannot even control when we have a poo, much less how we will have a baby. I'm not saying it's bad to be prepared or to have preferences, but when we expect to experience childbirth a la carte, we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment.

I was pondering these thoughts last night. And coincidentally, someone I know on Facebook posted this article. This article made me want to vomit in my lap. Essentially, a family pulling in $90K a year is complaining about how much they are being financially squeezed because they do not have $60K extra dollars to buy "extra things" they want instead of having to just drool over them. This family talks about how they could barely afford a vehicle when their old one died, spouting on and on about how they had to pinch and sacrifice because reliable transportation is simply not a luxury. It just so happens that they chose to buy a 2012 Dodge Caliber. Oh, really? A brand new car? That's not a luxury? Boo hoo. (But maybe I shouldn't be the standard either since I'm driving a 17 year old Subaru with $260K miles).

And yet this family, with its brand new car, three ipads, three big-screen TVs (apparently the husband "needs" them for his work, excuse me? no one NEEDS three big screen TVs, I don't care what you do for a living), and $300/month in cell phone expenses (God knows what else), is complaining that they cannot keep up with their bills, that they are living paycheck to paycheck, and that they have to scrounge to buy $12 boxes of clarinet reeds for their daughter. My favorite complaint? Money was so tight one year they had to do all their Christmas shopping at a "discount store." Oh, the tragedy.

If you are living paycheck to paycheck with a house load of fancy luxuries, then I'm sorry, you are doing it wrong.

The article blames this phenomenon on cheap luxuries and expensive necessities in our American economy. But in reality, I think we just have higher expectations (the article claims our expectations and standards are the same as back in the 50's but I'm sorry what family in the 50's would expect to pay $300/month on a handheld electronic device for each family member?). We decide we are entitled to the comforts our neighbors and friends have and, rather than put anything in savings, we spend until we have passed our limit. Rather than spend $90 on satellite TV each month, this family could put away almost $1,200 more in savings each year for contingencies. But families don't do this. Because we have to achieve the standard of living that we believe constitutes the "basics." And if society tells us satellite TV is a basic family need, we are justified in purchasing it. (Oh and, the government should really subsidize our food and healthcare please, because damn it, our cell phone plans are too expensive- note: it' entirely possible that this family pays more for cell phones each month than health insurance).

Sorry that this post turned into a rant. I didn't mean to get so negative at the end. I meant only to highlight how our spending habits and our own happiness is ruled by the iron fist of societal expectation. I know I have been harsh on the family highlighted in the article and it's really not my place to judge THEM (I can judge the article all I want though) because I only know a few snippets of their situation.

But I think the article sums up what is wrong in America very nicely. We have no concept of what is a need versus a want. We let other people dictate our own living standards. And we fall into self pity and rely on subsidies when the financial choices we make prevent us from living and consuming responsibly. I am just as much a culprit as anyone. But as I said, I'm trying really hard to refocus my expectations, to be happy with what I have, and to see my blessings instead of my temporal deficiencies.

Squeezing 5 people in a 950 sq. ft. home? No problem, bring on the challenge! This was, afterall, the norm back in the day.


  1. Yup. I am with you 100% on this.

    My family is always pressuring me to spend money. Buy a new car! (Even though my car functions just fine and I'm not even in the country to drive it.) Buy new clothes! Live in a two bedroom apartment! (Even though I'm single.) Etc.

  2. Yeah I totally agree. We be crazy in this society. I hate upgrading when things already work perfectly fine, and have been working well for a decade. Sorry that you feel claustrophobic sometimes, but good for you that it forces you to really think hard about what you accumulate. As they say--tis a gift to be simple! It truly is.