Sweating the Big Stuff

This article was written by Sierra Black, a long-time GRS reader. She writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale at Childwild.com.

When my husband and I first got married, we bought a house in the suburbs and promptly had a baby. Buying that house meant buying a piece of the American Dream — but we both figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t our dream.

I will never forget coming home from the hospital with that precious little girl and looking around my huge suburban home with a sense of confused dread. “What happened to my apartment?” I said. “What happened to my life?”

Big problems
I stayed home with our baby for a year, living on savings, and then went back to work full time. The baby went to daycare for ten hours a day, and most of my salary went there with her.

I was driving 40 miles north every day to work at a newspaper, while my husband drove 40 miles south to his research job at a major university. He’d leave the house at 8 a.m. and often come home after midnight. On a “good day” he could get home for dinner with me around 8 p.m.

Meanwhile, I’d come home exhausted with a cranky kid, only to have my boss call during our late dinner to tell me that something on my beat was on fire (sometimes literally) and I had to go cover it. On the weekends, instead of hanging out with friends or having adventures, we got to mow our lawn, clean the ten rooms of our lovely home and try to balance our finances.

We were exhausted, miserable, lonely and broke.

We lived like this for two years, and then things started to fall apart. First I left my job to have a second child. Having become a stay-at-home mom, I was starting to get serious about cutting the fat from our budget. I started with the small things:

  • canceling our Netflix subscriptions
  • scaling back on dining out
  • buying store brand groceries

It felt like I was bailing out a leaky boat with a teaspoon. Something bigger would have to change.

Big decisions
We started talking seriously about moving. The housing market was starting to head south, but an opportunity popped up to buy a house near his office from a friend who’d moved to California.

We decided to go for it.

The move has saved us over $1000 a month. We sold one of our cars, and drive the other one only about 10% of what we used to. Our mortgage is slightly lower, and since the new place is a little smaller, the utility bills are less. It’s also much easier to clean than the huge, drafty house we had before.

We save money in less tangible ways too. We live in a vibrant neighborhood now, where people create and share a lot of community resources. We’re able to barter or swap for everything from clothing to childcare to soup, something we could never do in our sterile suburban neighborhood. This network of community resources saves us at least $200 a month.

Even more precious than money, this move saved us time. My husband spends more time with his children now. He walks to work, and comes home every day for lunch with the family. The reduction in our expenses also bought us the ability to live on one income indefinitely, giving me the gift of time with our girls. That in turn allowed us to choose homeschooling for our children.

Our financial picture is far from perfect. We still have large debts, and I pinch pennies to afford small treats like a paperback book or an ice cream outing. But for the first time, I have a clear plan to achieve our financial goals. I’m seeing our debt go down every month while our savings go up. And I’m enjoying every day of it as I get more time with my family, and spend less time maintaining a suburban home and lifestyle.

Big returns
Moving is not for everyone. Many people love their homes and make huge sacrifices to stay in them. But if you’re trying to get your finances under control, I encourage you to look at your life and consider the big stuff as well as the small.

Making big changes is difficult. Staging our house for sale, selling it in a down market and then moving with two small kids was a series of daunting, painful tasks. The move was financially counter-intuitive: we sold our house at a loss and took on new debt to pay for our moving costs. But the rewards matched the effort. We’re getting a huge return on the investment we made in this change, one that far outpaces the savings we saw from cutting every magazine subscription we had.

Just in case you’re inspired to follow my particular example, here’s a recent guide to how to downsize your home.

J.D.’s note: Sierra’s experience reminds me of the advice that Elizabeth Warren gives in her book, All Your Worth. She urges readers to get the big stuff right so that the little stuff matters less.

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