We are living in an age of conspicuous consumption. We are constantly surrounded by images of luxury, with marketers whispering promise of a life of ease and comfort in our ears.
This creates a situation where we assume that freedom and happiness are just a purchase away. This goes against the reality that many work their lives away for luxuries they don't need or even want. In the process, they miss the very things they were looking for in the first place: closeness and intimacy with their friends and family, and a simple enjoyment of life's finer things.
Hari Berzins is the author of the website Tiny Home Familys, where she blogs about living simply and within one's means to actually have a future, rather than scrambling to keep up with the present. She took a moment to dispel some myths about "simple living" (like life has to be all hardship and deprivation) in order to save money and have an enjoyable life.
Can you introduce our readers to Tiny House Family? When did you start the site? Where are you based out of? What made you want to start a blog?
We are a family of four (Hari, Karl, Ella  and Archer ) building a debt-free homestead in Southwestern Virginia.
We bought 3 acres of land for cash in 2010, built an 8' x 21' tiny house and moved in on May 1, 2011.
I started the blog in August, 2011 to share our tiny house living experiences with our family and friends.
We continued to save and broke ground on our big house in October of 2012. We've continued to live in our tiny house for almost four years and will finish the mortgage-free big house sometime in 2015.
On your website, you share what you've learned from living simply and debt-free in your right-size home. First of all, what would you say to people who think that "living simply" means a life of hardship and deprivation? Secondly, why do you think people feel the need to live in houses bigger than what they need?
Living simply is actually the opposite of hardship and deprivation. It means that your values are so in focus that your life is full of what you love. Because you are so clear on what matters, the things that aren't important fall away. So maybe you drive an older car. It still gets you where you want to go, and status isn't important to you anyway. Driving an older car rather than a new car frees up the funds for other things.
Living simply means to strip away everything that doesn't bring joy. When you get really clear on what does bring joy and only have those things, you can experience the simple joy of living your life on purpose, without the clutter of junk you don't love.
There are a lot of reasons people might live in a house that is bigger than they need. Needs change over a lifetime. Maybe it was necessary to have a large home while the kids were growing up; but now that they're gone, the house is too big. Sentimental attachment is the hardest thing to break, so letting the home go is challenging.
More and more people are realizing that a smaller home has a lot of benefits, and there is a real movement toward smaller housing and simpler living.
What are a few of the things that you've learned from living simply and debt-free?
- We don't need most of what we want.
- There is usually something we already have that can be modified to fill a need.
- We don't have to spend money to have fun.
- Working hard on your own home is incredibly rewarding.
- Budgeting and sticking to it gets easier with practice. The impulses to spend money go away with this practice.
- Cooking at home is imperative.
Tiny House Family is separated into seven categories - simplify, grow, build, breathe, remember, parent, and cultivate community. Could you give us a brief overview of each category, and talk about how they can be used to create a sustainable financial plan?
Wow, that's a good and challenging question. I've never really thought about the blog categories in the context of a sustainable financial plan; but now that you mention it, it seems to be the very basis for our financial plan. Because we practice each of these daily, our values and goals remain in focus. If you spend with your values and goals in mind, a financial plan becomes second nature.
- Simplify - Clearing the excess from our lives helps us clearly see what brings us joy. Simple living isn't the easy road; actually, it often means more work, but work of a new sort. The reward is a deeper connection to ourselves, each other, our community and this land.
- Grow - Here we grow a garden of food to cook, share and preserve. We grow closer to who we are as we get more in touch with this place we call home. We grow a homestead and a life of earth-based joy.
- Build - Everything in life is built one step and one board at a time.
- Breathe - Mindfulness is the key to living a life of intention. Living in a tiny house inspires us to be mindful of many things, including the waste we produce, how our money and time are spent and each other's limited personal space.
- Remember - Here we reflect on the path that led us here. Life is a ride!
- Parent - Parenting in a tiny house is rich with opportunities for improvement. Our parenting successes are reflected as quickly as our failures, and we take each opportunity to reflect and discuss our constant effort to raise conscious, respectful, resourceful and resilient kids.
- Cultivate Community - Here we share the wisdom of our community - a community made up of not only our neighbors in our dirt-and-dig world, but also our friends who share with us online.
So how does this translate to our financial plan? By simplifying our lives, we reduce our outgoing expenses. By growing our own food, we reduce our grocery bill. We get plenty of exercise, so we have no need for a gym membership. We eat whole foods which help us stay in good health. And we enjoy being outside; gardening and raising animals is a source of entertainment, so we don't spend much money on outside entertainment. By staying committed to the slow and steady process of building for cash, we slow down.
Along with this commitment comes a deliberateness that helps us stay away from impulse decisions. Staying mindful of all things means we are mindful of our spending, and remembering where we've been helps us learn from our mistakes and celebrate our successes. If we constantly reflect on our decisions and readjust, then our financial plan is alive. Parenting helps our financial plan because we are not only working for ourselves, but our choices teach our children. This keeps us accountable.
Cultivating community helps build social capital, which is priceless. In times of need, we help our community and our community helps us. Being able to call on a network of friends to help with the garden or other large projects saves money and is fun. We've even organized a crop mob where we rotate a work party each month and attack one family's chore list. It's amazing what we've gotten done in an afternoon.
This lifestyle supports our financial plan, but we do take the time to track every penny we spend and visit our budget before spending.
What are some reasons why people might want to simplify their lives? What have you gained by doing so?
You might want to simplify your life to reduce stress. Owning a lot of stuff takes time. We found that the more we let go of, the less stress we had. Simplifying your life will also lead to less overhead, and will free you to choose work that might earn less but bring more happiness.
The less you have to take care of, the more time you have to explore the world. Experiences are way more valuable than things, so creating a life where your priorities are in focus brings a lot of happiness.
You wrote a blog post about buying presents for your husband's birthday, where you said, "There's nothing we need so badly that we go out at once and buy." (except half and half). How does this fit in with the immediate gratification culture that we live in here in the United States? What are some of the benefits of delayed gratification?
We decided to step out of the immediate gratification culture so prevalent in the United States when we made the decision (after losing our business and home in 2008) to build a mortgage-free homestead. Every penny is accounted for in our budget, and there was no room for the immediate gratification of running out to buy something we thought we needed.
As we prepared to move into our tiny house, we were spending so much time getting rid of stuff we accumulated that we became aware of the time commitment of stuff. Before we buy anything, we think about it for a long time; because when you do decide to go out and buy something, you are not only trading money for it, but you are giving up the time it will take to care for the item, to put it away, to dust it, and to ultimately get rid of it. During our downsizing process, I spent many hours taking pictures of stuff, writing Craigslist listings, meeting people, organizing for yard sales, and hauling stuff to the thrift store. I knew for sure that we had to be careful about bringing in any more stuff.
Over time, delayed gratification has become second nature for us. We keep a wish list on our bulletin board. A thing has to be on that list for at least 30 days before we allow ourselves to buy it. By that time, we almost always find that we don't need it, don't want it, or found something else we could repurpose.
It feels great to make conscious decisions about what we buy. When we do buy something, it's because we've thought it through and have determined that it will add value to our lives. It's empowering to spend in this way.
Hoarding is practically an epidemic at this point, particularly among older generations. First of all, why do you think this is? Secondly, do you have any tidbits of wisdom for people who want to reduce, re-use, and recycle? Why would they want to?
Things represent possibility, and it's hard to let go of possibility. Like that pasta maker you've never used? You might get around to it someday; and if you get rid of it, you are also admitting that you aren't going to make spinach and feta stuffed ravioli, at least not with that pasta maker. Many people hold onto things because they're afraid of making the wrong decision. But the truth is, if you ever really want to make pasta, there will be other pasta makers; and if you haven't used it in the ten years it's been on your shelf, then you probably won't ever use it. Better to let it go so someone else can make use of it.
An assignment in my eCourse is to commit to a certain amount of time every day, and spend that time sorting your stuff. Spending even 10 minutes a day sorting stuff and hauling it off to a donation center or preparing it for a yard sale is liberating. I think the challenge is looking at the amount of stuff one accumulates over a lifetime. It's overwhelming to imagine the work involved in sorting, evaluating and then letting go. It feels like too much. If you look at the tiniest shelf in your house and start there, you'll get started. Commit to a certain amount of time a day and get to work. Do it until you've sorted everything in your house.
Just by going through all of your stuff, you'll find things you forgot you had, and you can make use of them. This will reduce your expenses right away, and using up what you have is fun. Once you reclaim the space in your home, you can use it to showcase the few beautiful things that made the cut. Cleaning is easier because there's less to put away, dust and arrange.
If you get rid of the excess, you'll have room for the rest. Maybe it's people because you love to host your friends. Maybe it's an art studio. Maybe it's an extra bedroom for guests. Maybe you let go of enough that you can move to a smaller house to free up the funds you need for travel. Maybe it's just the peace of mind of knowing what you have. This process is for everyone.
How has living within your means affected the relationships within your family, for better or worse?
Living within our means has deepened our family bond. We spend a lot of time discussing money, stuff, and what we really need vs. what we want. We make room for wants that bring us happiness. Most often, these are outdoor gear items for camping, biking, etc. or art and music supplies. Things that have a purpose are allowed and encouraged. We spend a good amount of money on our kids' musical education because we value music and want our kids to have the ability to enjoy playing music with friends. There has been nothing negative about living within our means, but that doesn't mean it's always easy.
Because we live within our means, we parent with this philosophy, too. Our kids don't have lavish requests, and when they do want something, they've had a lot of practice in thinking it through before acting on the impulse.
At this point, you don't necessarily have to go primitive to simplify your life and live closer to the earth. Do you have any technological aids, particularly software or websites, that are useful for optimizing your financial life?
When we first started budgeting, I used one of those blue budgeting ledgers you can buy at the office supply store. Then I created a spreadsheet. We also used Quickbooks and Mint.com. We now use YNAB.com to keep our budget and track our spending.
Finally, is there anything you would like to say to people who feel like they're trapped, like they can't scale down or cut back, or they'd be terribly unhappy if they did? What stands to be gained from the proverbial (or literal) tiny house?
You don't have to move to a smaller house to scale down, but you can. Just imagine you are a sculptor and the cutting back process is part of your art. Imagine what beauty is hiding inside. Your job is to cut away the excess and find the joy. You can do that one tiny step at a time. The trick is to keep doing it. We're still doing it. It's not something you ever stop doing. You'll be happier than you can even imagine if everything in your life was there because you consciously invited it to stay.