Sweating the Big Stuff

This is a guest post from 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.

More about...Frugality, Home & Garden

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Emily@Under$1000PerMonth
[email protected]$1000PerMonth
11 years ago

Housing is one of the things we can save the most on. And realizing that a large home makes you less happy than a small one is something that goes against our ingrained beleifs about that “American dream.” I agree that above all, a small home is easier to clean!

Nick
Nick
11 years ago

Good article. Why cancel Netflix? At $10 or so a month it makes for one of the cheapest entertainment options available, especially with the streaming movies.

B
B
11 years ago

Although many of these decisions may make sense given additional context, some seem odd. Why not work part time to pay the bills and send the kids to a public school you already pay for with your tax dollars? Why buy a house from a friend when it’s a buyer’s market? Why did you take on new debt to move?

GJ
GJ
9 years ago
Reply to  B

How are you going to send an infant and toddler to public school? Maybe that isn’t an option for them right now given their children’s ages or perhaps having her stay home with their children is important to them.

bill
bill
11 years ago

This is a great post. If you look at where we spend money as a society, we spend less (as % of income) on food (including eating out), entertainment, appliances, and clothes than we did 40 years ago. The 3 things we spend more on are housing, transportation, and healthcare. Your decision to downsize was a great one in many ways, and for many folks (who aren’t stuck due to the current market), it’s a much smarter decision than trying to nickel and dime their way to solving debt problems. Congrats on making a really tough decision that makes perfect… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
11 years ago

We bought a duplex and moved our family of 4 in upstairs (former owner is paying us rent for downstairs) for similar reasons. Most people thought we were crazy, until the economy fully tanked. We still own an “extra house”, which we rent out for enough to cover mortgage and property taxes, but our monthly housing costs have been cut about 40%, and we can walk most places we need to go. Talking about “big stuff”, we haven’t had a car payment since 1996. And we’re grateful to have adequate, affordable employer-provided medical insurance coverage, and worry about losing that,… Read more »

MichaelM
MichaelM
11 years ago

I agree that changing the big stuff is the most effective, but I wouldn’t count out changing small stuff.

Saving $10 a month on Netflix hopefully won’t make or break you.

If you save $10 on Netflix, $30 by mowing your own lawn, $10 by installing low-flow showers, $25 on eating out less, etc. and soon you’re talking about real money. If you can make lifestyle changes that will save you money without too much impact on your happiness, why not?

Tyler@FrugallyGreen
11 years ago

Congrats Sierra, It takes a lot of guts to downsize in a world where we’re constantly given puzzled looks if we’re not upsizing. Someone yesterday posted a comment with a youtube link of George Carlin joking about why we need such big houses to keep all of our “stuff.” B, You ask some valid questions. If all you’re looking at is the numbers, then you’re right, they’re decisions wouldn’t seem to make sense, but it looks like they evaluated their situation pretty well and found a solution that gives them the quality of life they desire AND they’re saving $1000… Read more »

kenyantykoon
kenyantykoon
11 years ago

it is always nice to when peole share their life stories and the lessons that they learned from them because the readers most of the time get to know that that way does not work. thank you Sierra for sharing

beforewisdom
beforewisdom
11 years ago

@Sierra, great theme for a post.

Too many frugal people are actually cheap and OCD. I’ve seen too many waste hours to save 50 cents rather than taking on the big things like where they live.

KC
KC
11 years ago

My husband and I just moved to a new city. We had lived in a large city and he was 30 mins from work, had a more demanding job situation, but we still had the small townhouse we bought in our mid 20s. That townhouse was our saving grace. It was very nice, but small with a small yard. I could easily handle all the work myself, inside and out, and it was well within our housing expense range. Then we moved. We wanted a larger home with a larger yard, but we had stipulations. The main thing was the… Read more »

Little House
Little House
11 years ago

I love hearing inspiring stories, especially about couples who downsized their homes to save money and are happier they did it. I am curious about this comment:

We live in a vibrant neighborhood now, where people create and share a lot of community resources

Did you know ahead of time that this new house was in a great community? Or was it just a happy accident?

-Little House

Peggy
Peggy
11 years ago

I have always felt trapped since buying a home. It’s not too large for our family, there is barely enough room for all of us (there are four in one bedroom, two in another.) But we are unskilled at maintenance despite classes, instruction books and much trial and error. Now all I see is the broken toilet, the shower that refuses to hold a rod and is therefore unusable, the kitchen floor in bad need of replacement, and the bank balance that laughs at all these projects. We’ve never benefitted from the tax break of home ownership because our tax… Read more »

Financial Samurai
Financial Samurai
11 years ago

Great anecdote of someone who couldn’t afford to live in the big city, and has now moved in thanks to the housing downturn. Good stuff! So many think it’s cheaper to just buy a cheaper house in the suburbs and commute rather than pay for a more expensive house in the city. It’s just not true a lot of the time.

Life happens always, and if you are able to have a nice place in a vibrant community, then go for it!

Rachael
Rachael
11 years ago

My husband, daughter, and I live in a 1,053-square foot home (with a basement) and I always say I don’t want to clean any more house than what we currently have. Our home is still large enough to comfortably raise several children in, and our utilities are half of what some of our friends in larger homes nearby pay. We don’t always understand what motivates families to buy 3,000-square foot homes. We’d rather put that money toward other important things.

Ellen
Ellen
11 years ago

This is a really inspiring post. I often wonder how the American Dream turned into a owning a huge house that you never have time to enjoy, and having a big family that you can never spend time with. My parents never made a lot of money, but they spent a lot of time with my sister and I. When I look back at my childhood, I remember all of the fun things we did as a family, and I would not change that for the world. Not even if it meant designer diggs all the time and a fancy… Read more »

saving it up
saving it up
11 years ago

Way to go Sierra! I made a big change like this 18 months ago. Moved from big suburbia house to in-town and close to everything. I know my neighbors. I’m 4 miles from work. My kids can walk to school and to daycare (on the same street). And the neighbor boy mows my lawn for a small fee. I’m renting because I’m a single mom and am too busy to handle repairs myself. We are happier with less. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Claygirlsings
Claygirlsings
11 years ago

We did a similar move 10 months ago, although we rent rather than own. We moved from a house to a duplex, saving $175/mo on rent alone. Utilities are cheaper, because it’s smaller. My husband is now 1 mile from work and we are in town rather than on the edge of town, so gas is cheaper. We also save time and money by not doing yardwork anymore, the landlord handles it, plus we could sell our yard tools. In the process of the move, we sold furniture (that guest room suite that was only used once or twice a… Read more »

Jessie
Jessie
11 years ago

What a great story.

My partner and I are gearing up to purchase a home in the next few years – and we will really have to consider the location, the size, and what our needs and wants really are.

David@DINKS Finance
11 years ago

This is a great story. Time is our most valuable resource. Time both to ourself and to our family. I don’t know how your husband functioned with his total lack of time when he would get home around midnight. Your change looks like it saved more than just money and time – it saved your family. By that I mean you have so much more quality time together and you don’t always have to be rushign around. When I look to buy my first house with my wife a couple years down the road, I will take your experience into… Read more »

Jason
Jason
11 years ago

When you bought the house in the suburbs, was there any tingling of doubt at that time? Gut instincts that were going crazy when you bought the house, telling you it was a bad thing to do? I’m happy that your situation worked out, but it seems that you started out as a “city person” — loving your apartment and life you had then, but then you chose to go out and buy a house in the suburbs. What was that, and how has it colored other decisions you may have made? Are there aspects of your new living situation… Read more »

Honey
Honey
11 years ago

My best friend and her husband sold their suburban home in the down economy to go back to being renters for many of the reasons outlined here.

My boyfriend and I decided that we will always rent, and that while our current place (we downsized our rental from a 3 br to a 2 br) is at the edge of how small we can go, it’s certainly easier to clean and manage and is in a better area than we were previously.

gabe
gabe
11 years ago

i like the messages: most people have 100% more space than they need, commuting is wasteful and expensive (though many can’t avoid it), and city living has cultural and economic advantages, among others. essentially: the generic american dream is not a very good one and people should spend more time coming up with their own goals instead of buying into prepackaged ones. but i’ve got two comments related to the statement that you’re only using the one car 10% of the time: 1) you must not be going to work any more, right? did you quit to take care of… Read more »

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
11 years ago

It’s really great that you downsized your home–not many people are willing to do that until the sheriff is at the door. Congratulations on doing it in your own time and on your own terms. One of the issues with a big house not many think about is the quality of family time. In a big house–ten rooms certainly qualifies–kids can grow up in a family without ever participating in it. Everyone goes off to his or her own space–since there’s plenty of it–and not only do the parents not know where the kids are when they’re outside, but they… Read more »

guinness416
guinness416
11 years ago

I think Ramit gives the focus on the big stuff advice too? It’s pretty wise. Fantastic article, Sierra. Your location is so important to your psychic health as well as your finances. I have a number of friends who bought property they weren’t totally enamoured of because they felt it was the next step/the thing to do (at home in Ireland, where the housing market has not just collapsed, but slipped into the Irish Sea and sunk) and the constant-pain-in-the-chest stress they’re feeling is really upsetting.

Manisha Thakor
Manisha Thakor
11 years ago

Sierra – Thank you for a delightful, insightful post. I think the issue of “life-style creep” is not discussed nearly enough (ie that along with the big house comes… more to clean, having to bring a “nicer” bottle of wine when you visit the neighbors, pressure to dress “better,” etc.). There are so many benefits to downsizing – financial and psychological. Go you for highlight them! Manisha

cph
cph
11 years ago

@MichaelM #6: The way I convinced myself to give up certain small expenses (the big one for me being soda!) is by plugging the numbers into a debt calculator. I was buying a bottle of soda a day (at least $30 a month!). Once I realized I’d be debt-free six months sooner if I put that towards my credit cards, I quit buying soda pretty quickly!

Kevin M
Kevin M
11 years ago

Good reminder that the big stuff is where we really spend/waste our money. You’d have to find 100 “Netflixes” to get the benefit these folks found from buying a smaller home. I went through a similar experience with my ex-wife, wanting to downsize our then too-big and too-expensive home after struggling for a year or so. We didn’t and eventually it was too much and we divorced. (Other things led to it too, but money was at the top of my list.) Because of my experiences, I’ll sit my kids down before they consider buying a home and really explain… Read more »

Alexandra
Alexandra
11 years ago

Good for you! I also have resisted moving to the suburbs to be with all my friends and family, and have stayed in the city with my daughter. I have the advantage of being able to walk to work (therefore dropping one car from our situation), I have access to a vibrant city life with all its cultural and entertainment advantages, and I can clean my house all by myself without too much effort. I have to admit that I do have some regrets when I visit my friends in their shiny new, giant houses with huge backyards, but this… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
11 years ago

Excellent post! Not only did you save yourself money, but it sounds like you found a lifestyle that really works for your family. Many people aren’t willing to downsize and are left exhausted trying to keep all the balls in the air. Good for you – very inspiring.

Fat Bob
Fat Bob
11 years ago

I’m left with a 2300 square foot house after a divorce with a downsized family 🙂 and I would like a smaller house – maybe 1800 or even 1500 square feet. However, it doesn’t seem like it would save me all that much money – maybe $200-$300/month, at which rate it would take years to pay back the realtor fees.

Greg
Greg
11 years ago

Hi Sierra. It sounds like your family and ours share similar experiences and values. Last year we also down-sized (from a 2,600 sqft house to a 1,200 sqft house). We have a large garden, lovely new neighbors, and home school our children. We are enjoying many of the same benefits as you do, though I have to mention that we experience quite a bit of negative judgment – from both people we know and people we just meet. There has even been a little on this forum. Do you find this as well? Thank you for your post. It’s affirming… Read more »

Lindsay
Lindsay
11 years ago

To those thinking of buying a home, I recommend a piece of advice from Clark Howard: Try the commute (during rush hour) first.

This recently saved me. My husband and I found the perfect home at the perfect price. I did a “dry run” by driving out to the home early on a Monday morning and leaving the driveway of the home at 8am. It took an hour for me to get to work (half an hour more than I am comfortable with), so we had to call the agent and tell her that home was out.

Minderbender
Minderbender
11 years ago

Congratulations on making the move and finding a neighborhood which works for you. I am not sure where all the savings is coming from-is it from transportation costs? You mention that the mortgage cost difference is minimal. My suburban neighborhood offers the same type of community you have found- we share tools, babysitting and dogsitting duties, food from the garden, etc. I guess the hours you worked didn’t leave much time for friendships. I see this argument made often on blogs as a reason to move away from the suburbs, which many, like you, have concluded are sterile and isolating.… Read more »

Jason
Jason
11 years ago

I’ll concur with Minderbender about the community statement. I live in (and grew up in) a suburb. My parents were also active in my schools (PTA) and other community activities (church, Scouting, food pantries, dog clubs, etc.). They have met lifelong friends living in the suburbs. My in-laws live in an extremely rural area, yet participate in community groups like the Rotary, science club and singing groups. I’ve also lived in denser urban areas where no one talked to each other, too. Where I live now, my kids play with other kids and we know our neighbors to some extent.… Read more »

Deanna
Deanna
11 years ago

To each, his own. My DH and I both grew up in more rural places that a lot of people wouldn’t even call a neighborhood and where driving to a job is required if one wants a job. He hates the city and I was tired of small town busy-bodies so the compromise is the suburbs where we both work so no commute is longer than 20 minutes. We never thought of getting a big house. In fact, we lived in about 3 different states in the last 20 years and we have always tried to live close to where… Read more »

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

This post is already one of my favorites. It emphasizes balance, which is sometimes missing from frugality advice. Sierra understands that saving on the large items produces the biggest results, but she still canceled her Netflix because the little stuff matters too. It seems that she and her husband had/have good careers, but they recognized that they also valued time with their family. And she recognized that there’s a balance between being responsible and buying a good lifestyle. Sierra and her husband sold in a down market and took on additional debt. But it sounds like they’re getting a great… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
11 years ago

We have resisted moving to anyplace where we would have to commute by car. I’m extra glad of it these days – the half hour walk with my son to daycare each morning is some of our best time together. I would hate to lose that talking, jumping, hand-holding time to driving time.

There *are* suburban neighborhoods with great vibrant communities…but if you’re commuting for an hour each way, how do you have time to get involved?

KS
KS
11 years ago

Good post. Interestingly, a smaller house where I live would have cost us more than a larger home. They’re either new and shiny and in town and thus more expensive, or dumps requiring tons of rehab that would have cost us too much in time, money, and energy. In the end, we went with a bigger, slightly older home that was well maintained, outside the most “popular” areas in our town but not far away from work, etc, and gives us room to work on our room-intensive interests. Smaller may not be cheaper. It is about value, and it’s worth… Read more »

Adrian
Adrian
11 years ago

Sierra, I can relate to your story completely! Many times in North America we find ourselves lost living up to other people’s ideals instead of our own. Even our quest to remain frugal is sometimes used as an end to achieve the dreams of others, and this is NOT okay. Frugality should be a lifestyle used to achieve what WE want to achieve, not what others want for us. As for the experience with the suburbs, I too moved to the ‘burbs a little over six years ago, and found this area much more cold and isolated. Our commutes became… Read more »

yourfinances101
yourfinances101
11 years ago

I think that the “big” stuff and the small stuff deserve equal attention. I think depending on your situation will depend in which order you go. If you are in dire financial straits, the big stuff needs to get done first and foremost. Then, move onto the little things. If you are not so bad off, maybe knock out the little things first. I say this because most of the time the nature of the small things or the time involved to impact them is minimal. Most can be fixed with a phone call. The bigger things like mortgages and… Read more »

Kristen
Kristen
11 years ago

I must say, when I first saw the home of a couple we had recently met, part of me envied the nice new… well, everything. Our house is in the ‘burbs, built in the mid-50’s… well-built, but smaller, without the nicest amenities. However, this couple is house-poor and we are not (I’ve even hired a housekeeper so I don’t have to spend my weekends cleaning). AND we just refinished our hardwood floors in our entire main floor living space ourselves this past week, so I am especially grateful my house is a reasonable size. Hubby and I agree we’d rather… Read more »

Not My Mother
Not My Mother
11 years ago

Great article, but I think your problems started when you and your husband had jobs that were 80 miles apart, forcing you to live in the middle. No one’s going to be happy in that situation. I think the house itself was moot; you got happier when you gave up your job and you moved to be closer to your husband’s work.

MossySF
MossySF
11 years ago

Once you’ve experienced being able to walk to work in minutes, it’s hard to go back to commuting long distances. 15 minutes rush hour would be the max I could ever put up with.

honeybee
honeybee
11 years ago

Oh man, great post. Talk about analysis of opportunity costs. So many people would look at selling in a down market and balk — it would be a “loss” to them. But even if you forget completely about the time and sanity you save (which is no doubt beyond price to you), even going by the numbers you are saving cash that you would not have saved if you had stayed. What was the planning process for where to move? I assume since you’re now a stay at home mom (at least for now) you located close to hubby’s job… Read more »

Ann
Ann
11 years ago

Great post! Personally, I never understood the desire for McMansions. More space to clean, more rooms to heat during winter and cool during summer, more grass to mow, and unless you want to fork over $1.5 million or more for an inner city home, one hell of a commute.

I sacrificed a two-story, five-bedroom home in the suburbs for a 725 square foot home 7 blocks from my downtown office–and I love it. I save myself 10+ hours of commuting per week. I don’t get a reduction on the property tax bill, but the time savings is worth it.

Wisegolden
Wisegolden
11 years ago

Well done. Sometimes, you have to spend money to make money. Paying to move and downsize a house, in this case, is a fine example.

Linear Girl
Linear Girl
11 years ago

Making good choices on the big items saves so much money and aggravation over the long term. Loved this article for all the reasons others have stated – balance, frugality on a meaningful scale, evaluating priorities, analyzing opportunity costs. @Peggy (#13) – I sympathize with your situation as nothing makes me hate my house more than broken stuff that hangs around unfixed. We’re lucky in that my guy is fantastic at fixing stuff and I’m okay at it. My advice to you, since you’ve already tried books and classes, is to look to your kids or to friends with whom… Read more »

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

Great post, Sierra. I’ve known people who work so hard to have a bigger house only to find that the kids are grown within a few of years of acquiring the big house.

Avoiding long commutes and living in a neighborhood with friends nearby is worth so much. I wish there had been blogs like childwild when I was raising my son.

mythago
mythago
11 years ago

Excellent post. My only caution – which may not apply to the OP’s own situation – is that people often do not take into account the opportunity cost, long-term, of stepping out of the job market to be at home full-time. Of course there are other considerations that may be more important, but so often I hear this expressed as “but after you deduct daycare from my salary I only make $2 an our anyway so it wasn’t worth it!” and it makes me cringe. Rachael @14, for some people, a larger house may well be “important things”, if they… Read more »

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
11 years ago

There really is a deeper message here I think. When we think about being frugal or thrifty or what ever label that goes under, we often think about *trimming at the edges*. We start clipping coupons, passing on the Starbucks lattes, cutting back dinners out, etc. But sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes you have cut cherished lifestyle choices, like houses, cars and even education to make a real differnce. The big things (houses and cars) are what we have, the little things are often what we do (lattes and dinners out). By cutting out the big things, we leave more… Read more »

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