Staying Small, Living Large

I’ve been downsizing my list of possessions for over a decade, gradually changing my focus from a life rich in stuff (I’ll be happy once I’ve got…) to a life rich in experiences. One of the unexpected consequences of this has been the challenge of finding a small enough living space for the stuff I enjoy using on a daily basis.

One of the biggest steps I’ve taken on this ongoing journey was moving from a modest three bedroom suburban house of nearly 2000 square feet to a smaller, 500-finished square foot, one bedroom house in the city, saving $500 a month on rent in the process. I spent two years happily living there, where my bikes “slept” in the bedroom and I slept on a futon in the living room, before the call of adventure became irresistible and I embarked on a bicycle tour along the Mississippi River, staying in a 21 square foot tent most of the 67 nights.

When I returned the little house had been rented to someone else, and I settled into a an ironically larger-but-cheaper 750 square foot duplex.

My current adventure, moving to Europe, was facilitated by a local employer and their fabulous relocation benefit. It seemed too good to be true: they paid to pack and move all the things I cared to bring. The downside is now I’m moving back, and I can’t justify the cost of moving a number of things I use on a daily basis, so I’m going to have to beg, borrow or buy them again.

For the furniture I’ve found it makes sense for me to own (futon, kitchen table and a couple of chairs) a small studio seems like it ought to be just what I’m looking for. Unfortunately, the studios I’ve found are in larger apartment buildings, meaning they don’t have their own outside door. Worse, there are usually stairs involved, and lugging a bike up or down flights of stairs is a real drag, especially in the winter when it leaves a dirty trail of melting icy debris that has to be mopped up in the name of good housekeeping and neighborly relations.

A place with a garage at first seems like a handy way around that, but raises concerns of security, because bike thefts from garages are distressingly common, and I’ve learned that sooner or later I’ll want to bring the bike inside for maintenance (usually about once a week in warm weather and more often in inclement weather) anyway.

Historically I’ve been unable to ignore the siren-song of adventure indefinitely, and I don’t see that is ever likely to change. Another constant is that most of my “tribe” of friends are fairly tied down in the Twin Cities metro area. One thing that does seem to change frequently are my so-called “plans.” Putting these three together means I could easily be stuck in a hysteresis loop of looking for an affordably small space at the end of the next adventure or trying to get out of that space at the start of the next-next adventure.

I could easily look for another small duplex, except they tend to be larger than I need these days, and then I wind up paying for extra space. What’s bad about Extra Space? Nothing, other than my all-too-human tendency to justify filling it with just-one-more-thing (i.e. “I’m paying for this spare bedroom, I could better put it to use if I had another table. And another chair. And a work light. And …”). And the cost of heating and cooling it. And the time it takes to clean it. It all adds up. And that’s a great way to inflate the burden of either selling-and-re-buying stuff or storing it when the next irresistible adventure comes along. That seems sub-optimal at best, which brings me back to the idea of a small house. Getting the monthly cost on a small house down to a reasonable level looks a lot like having to buy. If I rigged up a secure storage area in the basement then I could rent out the living space while I’m away to both pay for the cost of having the house and the cost storing my stuff. If I’m really ambitious maybe I find (or build) a house with a small studio apartment in the basement. Then I could rent out the living space full-time and still have my own basement to crash in and my own couch to surf, not just between adventures, but any time. This has the added bonus of passive income, which dovetails nicely with someday retiring from paid work. (Note to my Future Employer: my spreadsheets currently put retirement about 15 years in the future. Don’t Panic.)

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