Frugal Living 101 — Your Living Environment

by Ramona Creel

A House That Costs Less

If you're like most people, your home is your major monthly expense. It's not unusual these days for rent and mortgage payments to eat up a third or more of your disposable income. Of course, when you've got empty rooms, there's a strong urge to fill them with “stuff” — and once you start shopping, it's often hard to stop! You may have even accumulated so much over the years that you're paying for a couple of off-site storage units, as well. Then when you add in utilities, property taxes, maintenance and repairs, homeowner or condo association fees, and all those “extra” services required to keep your home looking nice (lawn care, housekeeper, the pool guy, landscaping, decorators, etc.) — you might be spending half or even three-quarters of your paycheck on a place to live. A lot of folks are finding themselves “house poor,” with every penny they make going toward their living environment. That's just crazy! But the good news is that every single one of these expenses can be reduced — you just have to think a little differently about that roof over your head.

  • ask yourself how much home you really need (more is better in America, at least that's what the advertisements tell you! Wink — here are some interesting facts from the National Association Of Home Builders and the National Census — in 1950, the average American home in was 983 square feet and household size was 3.37 people, which translates into 292 square feet per person — by the mid-2000's, home size had risen to 2,349 square feet and household size had dropped to 2.61, leaving folks with 900 square feet per person — of course you want enough room to be comfortable, but there comes a point when a large home is simply too big for you to maintain on your own — chores like housecleaning, yard work, and repairs become unreasonably time-consuming, possibly even unmanageable without paying for outside help — wouldn't it be nice to devote less energy on the upkeep of your living environment, and more on actually living? — Thoreau was quite comfortable in 150 square feet on Walden Pond, intentionally simplifying his material world so he would have the freedom to contemplate and philosophize and suck the marrow from life — are you sucking the marrow from your life? — do you have enough time for all the projects and activities and people that you claim are a priority to you? — or are you always too busy with that “honey-do” list to get around to the really important stuff? — and don't forget that, with increased home sizes, prices have gone up, too — again according to the Census, that modern-day home costs about 3x what the 1950's house did, in inflation-adjusted dollars — if your casa feels like a burden, the way ours did, it might be time to ask yourself if you have more house than you really need)
  • reconsider your layout (what is it that makes houses so dadgummed big these days? — Matt and I are perfectly content to share less than 200 square feet — but then again, we haven't set aside entire rooms of our home just for games or watching television or entertaining — our spaces are multipurpose — for example, in an Airstream, the living room converts to an office during work hours, then to a dining room at meal times, then to our bedroom at night — this might seem like an extreme case of downsizing, but it's actually not that unreasonable, when you realize that most people spend the bulk of their time in one or two rooms of their home — I'm not suggesting that you need to move to an efficiency or an RV in order to simplify! — but think about how much of your home is unused on a daily basis, saved for special occasions or special activities — why? — where is it written that you must have both a breakfast nook and a “formal” dining room? — a den and a “formal” living room — who lives that formally these days?? — take a second to do a quick inventory — make a list of all the rooms in your house, and then estimate how much time you spend in each during an average month — you may discover that you've got a lot of wasted space, parts of your home that really do nothing except store furniture, need to be cleaned, and cost money — and in the course of simplifying, you may consider downsizing to eliminate those unnecessary rooms)
  • look at your location (have you become disenchanted with your neighborhood? — maybe you were willing to pay more for a good school district back in the day, but now your kids are grown and gone — perhaps the cost of living has slowly crept upward over the years to the point that you can barely afford the property taxes — you might have changed to a job on the other side of town, and your commute has grown to 3 hours round trip each day — or you think about how this used to be such a nice quiet place to live, but now it's noisy and overdeveloped and just not where you want to be — it's not at all unusual to find that your neighborhood just doesn't meet your needs anymore — places change, people change, priorities change, and it's amazing how much a simple geographic shift can positively impact both your quality of life and your wallet — if the country club and the homeowner's association are no longer worth the cost to you, ditch them — if you're being priced out of the market, go find a cheaper house in an up-and-coming transitional area — if the commute is driving you crazy and costing you a fortune in gas, move closer to your job — we did that in the 90's, going from a 2BR apartment in the burbs to a 1BR condo in-town, a block and a half from Matt's company — he got up about 5 minutes before he had to be at work, walked to the office, and was able to come home to exercise, eat lunch, and even take a nap — the convenience, reduced stress, and cost-savings more than balanced out the smaller living space, and our quality of life shot through the roof — if you could change just one thing about your location, what would it be?)
  • clear out the excess (it's a fact of life, clutter costs money — you pay when you bring something new into your life — you pay every time you have to clean or store or repair it — you pay when you insure it against loss or damage — and you're paying big time for the square footage in your home that is given over to things you never use and don't really need — let me emphasize again that living frugally is not about going without — if you love it, keep it! — I'm never going to suggest that you get rid of something that adds value to your life just for the sake of saving money, but why keep a bunch of stuff that serves no purpose? — the reason it's hard for people to clean out is because so much of our clutter comes out of good intentions and plans for the future — it's that “I'll use it someday” syndrome — but the goal here is to take a good hard look at how you actually live your life and only keep those items you truly need — are you honestly ever going to use that exercise equipment that's been gathering dust in the basement for the past 5 years, or are you more likely to work out if you go to the gym? — you thought it would be cool to own a pool table, but now it's just a another surface on which to pile papers and laundry and stuff to put away — and no matter how many cookbooks you buy, you still can't convince yourself that you enjoy spending hours in the kitchen preparing a gourmet meal — it's time to face facts! — besides, you might even find a new source of income in selling those things that you never use — most people have an absolute goldmine cluttering up their closets and attic and basement — how much could you get for those water skis you haven't touched in 20 years? — or that silver you got for your wedding, used once, then packed away? — or that bread machine that you haven't even taken out of the box? — what if cleaning out valuables that you never use could fund your enjoyment of life today? — would it be worth letting a few things go?)
  • be happy with what you have (of course, clearing out the clutter is just the first step — the harder part is keeping it from coming back! — many people have become caught up in a vicious cycle that I call “search and consume” — we're always looking for the most efficient time-saving gadget, the coolest toy, the sexiest technology, the latest fashion, or the newest trend to make our lives “complete” — last year's TV has an inch-smaller screen than the model they just released, so I need to buy a newer, bigger, shinier one — oh no, flowers are “out” and stripes are “in” this season, I'd better hurry up and redecorate! — and how will my family ever survive without a refrigerator that makes ice cubes?? — as a society, we're suckers for whatever the media tells us is hot and hip and happening, buying into this false sense of urgency and lack created by Madison Avenue — and in the process, we've managed to become perpetually discontented and broke, always thinking that the next purchase will make us “happy” — why can't we just be satisfied with what we already have? why do we always need more? — here's a challenge for you — Matt and I are currently trying to go a full year without making a single consumer purchase, aside from things like food and toilet paper and cleaning products — we decided that we've got everything we need for the coming 12 months, plenty to keep us busy and entertained, clothed and comfortable — we just want to see if we can stand strong in the face of constant consumer pressure to buy, buy, buy — want to join us, even just for a month or two?)
  • cut back on some services (these days, I don't know too many middle class people who attend entirely to their own household needs without hiring someone else to help out — in fact, some of my peeps literally have teams of “professionals” coming in every week to water the flowers, clean the bathrooms, pay their bills, make their meals, repaint the guest room, and look after their children — for many folks, the knee-jerk response when a chore pops up is “hire someone!” — I certainly understand consulting an expert if a task requires tools/skills you don't have, but so many of these little jobs are things we could do for ourselves but can't seem to find the time to tackle — we bring in plumbers to unclog our drains, auto mechanics to change a tire, and lawn care people to cut the grass, but it's a vicious cycle — we hire people because we don't have the time to do the job ourselves, because we're working so many hours to pay the bills for having people do these things for us — try tackling a few of these tasks yourself, enjoy the sense of accomplishment, then spend the time and money you've saved on your true priorities!)
  • get smart about energy usage (folks love to moan and groan about high utility costs, acting as though they are trapped by their power and gas bills — but it actually takes very little to keep these expenses under control, just a small bit of advance planning — for example, it costs almost nothing to install a programmable thermostat, then set the air for 78 degrees in the summer and the heat to come on at 60 degrees in the winter — changing your air filter regularly also keeps your unit from having to work as hard or use as much energy — and why waste money “climate controlling” areas of the house that you aren't using? — a small space heater or a ceiling fan is perfect for heating/cooling one room at a time — and if you're living in a canned environment 365 days a year, you'll save money and probably feel better if you open the windows and enjoy the fresh air Wink — washing your clothes in cold water and allowing them to air dry on a rack or clothes line will not only save on utilities, but your wardrobe will last longer — and if you're feeling really squirrelly, you can also clean your refrigerator coils to improve cooling efficiency, plug up air leaks around doors and windows, lower the temperature on your hot water heater, and wrap the entire unit in an insulating blanket — last but not least, did you know that any item plugged into a wall socket draws electricity even when it's turned off? — installing surge protectors on EVERY socket and turning off the main switch when those items aren't being used prevents them drawing “phantom electricity” — you just cut your power bills by 1/4 to 1/2 with barely any effort — see how easy that was?!)

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at www.RamonaCreel.com. And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.