It’s been about nine months since our last post, but we have made a lot of pretty big moves toward simplification during this time.
1. We sold the house.
Colette had purchased the house five years earlier, in a gentrifying neighborhood, and with Austin’s current hot real estate market, she stood to make a handsome profit on the sale.
But the deciding factor, to sell, really, was that the house had become a moneypit for us — as well as a time-pit. The regular maintenance expenses — it seemed that every time we turned around, something else was breaking or needing an update or some professional upkeep — were keeping us locked in a cash-poor lifestyle. We found ourselves just scraping by every month. And this was extra frustrating because we both had “professional” jobs and were working our butts off, more than full-time, each. “We are working so hard…. And we have no money.” That can be depressing, as you might know.
But as much or more than the money issue was the time issue. Many people seem to love owning a house, but when it came right down to it, our situation was driven more by a sense of “Well, this is what people our age, in our culture, should be doing.” But in truth, neither of us really wanted to mess with it. We wanted to be spending our time and our money going on adventures, or lounging about — reading, pursuing hobbies, playing, exercising, and spending time with friends. But instead, on the weekends we were raking leaves, or trying to keep 1500 square feet clean, or trying to keep the back yard from turning into a jungle, swamp, junkyard, or some combination thereof — or we were just too exhausted from working so hard to pay the bills that we hadn’t the energy for doing anything else.
It was amazing how consistently we could trace our unhappy moments back to the fact of home ownership.
The decision to sell was itself emotionally taxing — especially for Colette, since it really was her investment — and also she did not have the same ‘pick-up-and-move’ mentality or history that I have and with which I am more comfortable. And of course there was no shortage of well-meaning “advisors” or just curious skeptics out there who would say or insinuate that it was a crazy idea to sell the house, which would lead to second-guessing. But ultimately, we held firm to our own values. And we found a great realtor who guided us expertly through the process.
2. We got rid of a LOT of stuff.
Prior to selling the house, we had come to realize that, though we had made good progress in this simplification process, we had reached a plateau of sorts, as regards simplification. And we couldn’t take it to the next level while also owning that house. Not that owning a house and leading a simple life are necessarily incompatible. It’s just that, for us, now, leading a simple life and owning that house were incompatible goals.
So, anyway, selling the house gave us the opportunity to purge a lot of possessions, in the process of downsizing and getting the house ready to sell.
Among the things we unloaded from our metaphorical shoulders was: a full-size bed frame & mattress, two couches, a loveseat, three tables, four chairs, a desk, a refrigerator, rugs, a lawn mower & other lawn maintenance equipment, toys, books, clothes & jewelry, camping equipment, a cat, half a closet’s worth of no-longer-used Montessori materials, three truckloads of miscellaneous household stuff given to Goodwill, and many containers of paint & cleaners & other hazardous materials that had to be taken to a special disposal facility.
Some of these things we sold, through a variety of channels, and we converted these no-longer-needed things into about 500 very usable dollars.
And most of these things we haven’t replaced. We did buy a perfectly sized table with three chairs, for $35 via craigslist, in the process helping someone else get rid of some of their stuff. We are enjoying, for now, the wide open spaciousness of our living room, which has almost no furniture in it. We just loll about on the carpeted floor….
3. We found a great apartment, at a good price.
Colette and I had slightly different ideas about what kind of place we wanted to move in to, but we stumbled onto a great place, which fit the bill wonderfully. The house was 1500 square feet; our new apartment is 1100 square feet, which is more than a 25% reduction — and is plenty. There are 2 bedrooms here, 2 bathrooms, with a very spacious and open living/eating/kitchen area.
The property has been in the same family for three generations; the matriarch lives on-site, one of her sons serves as the property manager, and at least one other family member lives in the original house, which is also on the property. The apartment complex, built in the 1980s, only has 16 units, and the place has a funky, eccentric, Austin vibe — with Spanish, Mexican, and mountain-cabin aesthetics. We are upstairs on one side of one of the buildings, so we have windows on three sides of our apartment — and front and back doors and a front porch complete with porch swing. The property has lots of trees and other greenery (none of which has to be maintained by us!), as well as a large green space complete with a volleyball net, garden, and room for our trampoline, which the owners graciously allowed us to bring over.
We felt at home quite immediately. We’re amazed that days and weeks go by without our even thinking about the old house — that thing that we fretted about getting rid of.
And Noah likes it here — which is a relief, as well.
4. Our financial life is significantly simpler and stronger.
While we choose not to own a house right now, we have to acknowledge that Colette’s decision to buy five years ago indeed had quite a payoff. The sale of the house this summer has allowed us to become completely debt-free: no mortgage, no student loan balances, no car loans, and no credit card balances. And there’s quite a bit left over, even with all that paid off. So, with gratitude and humility we acknowledge that, thanks to the modest inheritance from Colette’s mom that allowed her to make the down payment back in 2010, and also to the natural and cultural and technological forces that have contributed to Austin’s current standing as a hot “place to be” — the timing of which has led to a low inventory of and high demand for housing right now, which contributed to such a quick gain on her investment — we are the beneficiaries of good fortune.
After clearing away debts, the proceeds have been spread around a little bit, in what we believe is a pretty smart mix of investments. One avenue we’ve taken, for part of the proceeds, I first learned about from The Minimalists blog (here and here) and had already begun using myself, before we had any house proceeds to invest: and that is an online investment tool known as Betterment.com. A smart, simple, and relatively safe investing philosophy, with a great (and simple) user interface — and the returns we’ve got so far from that have been downright eye-popping (I suppose the timing was in our favor, cuz we kinda jumped in when the market was down a month or two ago).
Our apartment choice has also simplified our financial life — as not only are there no more large and unpredictable home-maintenance expenses, but also our landlord pays our water bill and even provides internet service for a scant $25 a month. With no more loan payments, we are down to monthly expenses — beyond rent, food, and taxes — that consist of our electricity bill, cell phone service, and insurance. Pretty simple.
5. We got married.
Though sometimes people react with a sarcastic “Oh, well that’s romantic” when I explain the largely pragmatic reasons for which we decided to get married — and reasons which have a lot to do with life simplification — I maintain that our romantic life is a private, personal affair between the two of us, and the whole idea of being “married” seems to us to be largely a legal, civil arrangement (and so, yeah, I guess that doesn’t sound very “romantic”). As the financial and parenting and taking-care-of-each-other aspects of our lives gradually became more intertwined — a process that we largely have allowed to happen gradually and organically — it just started to seem more and more necessary, or at least advisable, from a legal and life-simplification perspective, to “make it official.”
And, we had an extremely simple wedding. Total attendance was four people: Colette, me, the judge, and Noah (age 8) — who served as best man, man of honor, witness, and official photographer. Total expenditures amounted to less than $100 and consisted of the judge’s fee, the cost of the marriage license, a new shirt for Noah, and cake and coffee afterwards at our favorite bakery. And two of our dearest friends just happened to be available to join us, with zero advance notice, there at Quack’s, to help us celebrate. (Thanks, Kristy and Leslie!)
A couple of weeks later, during an already planned reunion with Colette’s family, we celebrated with them, with a wonderful dinner-and-champagne “reception” in the mountains of Colorado. Additionally, for one night that week, Colette’s sisters watched Noah for us and sent us packing, off to a nearby resort in the mountains, for a little honeymoon/wedding gift. (Thank you, Heather and Elise!)
Probably sometime in the coming months, we will have a similar celebration with my family, here in Texas.
And — at some point — we hope to throw a little party with our friends here in central Texas, as well.
It just seemed like too big and too complex of a project for us to plan a single event, at which we would: get married, have a party, arrange to have all of our family and friends converge at one place, at the same time — and keep our sanity through the whole process. The idea alone, of that, was keeping us from getting married, for a while. But breaking it up, into simpler, more manageable chunks, has allowed us to at least get started on the process. It may take us a year or more to “complete” it: we still plan to get some (cool, unconventional, inexpensive) rings; celebrate with my family and with friends; and take another, longer “honeymoon” trip. In due time, we hope. But we also hope to keep our attention focused mainly on the actually important aspects of being married — our relationship. That’s a pretty-big-enough challenge right there; we’re OK with letting those outer symbols take a back seat….
Related note: We got married on the same day that we closed on the house. Yep — a 1 pm appointment at the title company’s office, followed by a 4 pm appointment at the Travis County courthouse. Kind of a big day! 🙂
6. A new school for Noah
One realization about which I have come to a lot of clarity, having attended and worked in a variety of educational settings, is that every child is different, and no one educational philosophy or setting is right for every child. Some ways of educating work great for some kids, and not for others — and what may work for those others also won’t work for others still.
And we (as well as Noah’s dad) are quite sure that a traditional public school would not be a good fit for Noah (though such a system works great for many). And Noah had been going to a private school that was very good, but certain aspects of it were not working out. It wasn’t an ideal fit, and that ill-fittedness was spilling over into our family life and causing unnecessary stress and strain and strife.
It is a big decision to make a change in schools, but Colette and Noah’s dad found another alternative school, and Noah seemed to be generally in favor of the change — and, fortunately, he has been attending for several weeks now and it is working out very well. It’s called Radical Roots Community Schoolhouse, and it is a very small democratic learning community, with a fair amount of self-directed time, weekly field trips, project-based learning, and time to run around and be a kid. And, relative to other private schools, it is not very expensive.
We all like it.
And when your kid is happy at school, he’s happier at home. And when your kid is happier, your life is simpler.
Conclusion: Our new plateau, and our next big simplification challenge
We are happy to be at this new simplification plateau — with a smaller home; fewer things; a happier child; fewer responsibilities at home; fewer bills and a simpler financial life; and more clarity in our relationship and family structure.
Our biggest remaining challenge — and it is a big and vexing one — has to do with time, and work. A teaching job is a demanding one — and Colette and I are both teachers. We both like many aspects of this work — it feels meaningful and fulfilling, and it feels like we are making a contribution back to the world.
However, the general expectation for teachers seems to be that, as a teacher, you are “on” for 7 or 8 hours, working with young people, being unfailingly prepared, patient, and inspiring. And then you have to do whatever it takes, after those 7 or 8 hours are over, to get ready to do it all again the next day.
Given this expectation, Colette and I struggle mightily to achieve “work-life balance,” and we have so far yet to figure it out.
Sometimes, it feels like we figure some small thing out, here or there, which seems to help — but at other times our strategies seem more like just “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” — not really helping, just shuffling an unrelentingly overwhelming work load from one pocket of hours to another.
But the benefits of the job make us hesitant to throw in the towel and make a change to something else (again, in my case). The money’s not great but it’s decent (and in Colette’s case there is the potential for a retirement pension), the intangible rewards are undoubtedly significant, the holidays and summers off are an undeniably huge benefit, we work fairly autonomously, and job security is quite strong. If we can reduce the time commitment (which currently consists of long weekdays and a lot of hours every weekend), it would be just about perfect.
At my school, the students attend academic courses on Monday through Thursday every week, and then attend electives on Fridays. I currently teach one elective on Fridays, but if I resign from that, I could have a three-day weekend every week, which is very tempting. But it would also mean more than a 10% reduction in salary. But maybe that’s OK. I probably won’t make this choice for the coming spring semester, but I might very well make this choice for next fall and beyond. That will give us time to see how our new financial situation looks over time, between now and then. If such a move seems viable, as we continue to live a simpler life, it might very well seem like the right choice — to work less, even though it would mean a reduction in income.
Colette, too, could make a change. She could take a year’s “sabbatical,” and rest, take a breather, maybe experiment with other work options — subsisting during this time at least partly off of a portion of this past summer’s house proceeds. She could always go back later if she wants to; she has a great reputation where she works, and it probably would not be difficult to return if she chose to. Or, she could, possibly, transition to another position at the same school — maybe even one in which she works, say, “30 hours a week” instead of “40.” (I put quotation marks around those because, since it could be another teaching position, it would probably really mean 40 hours a week instead of 55.) Anyway, there are options to explore. Maybe she will write her own blog post one of these days, about that.
Future blog post(s) to come, about our successes or failures in addressing this next, persistent challenge — in reaching the next plateau.
But I wanted to document the big changes we’ve made in the past several months. Thanks for reading. Comments/responses/suggestions are welcome.