Downsizing and Breaking the Bonds of Materialism
As we travel further down the early retirement planning path, one recurring topic is that some serious downsizing is in order. Along with that naturally comes the question of what we really need in order to be happy.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve always had a combined mental picture of what our life would look like when we became empty nesters, but I can’t say downsizing was always a part of it. We have talked for years about selling our current house once our youngest son is out of high school so we can move further west than where we are today, which would place us much closer to Jeff’s employer and no further from mine.
We’ve even idly discussed some features of what our new house would likely have. It would not necessarily be bigger than our current house, but it would be a brick ranch. That’s a nod to the fact that we’re getting older and two story living will become inconvenient at some point. Tastefully furnished. Perhaps on an acre of wooded land. And we probably wouldn’t want to give up our three car garage because it’s so convenient to have the extra space even though we only have two cars. A larger family room and a large kitchen similar to what we have today were also envisioned. Add to that a nice patio area out back where we can enjoy the view and the wildlife. Overall we envisioned a not small and not inexpensive home. In fact, it would likely cost more than our current home when you factor in the extra land. Definitely not downsizing.
And as part of those plans it was assumed we would both be working into our mid-60s like everyone else we know. Once we retired we would enjoy our life, take some nice trips, and spend time with our kids and grandkids. I suppose I would call it a traditional retiree life.
The problem with that vision is we’ve decided in the last year or so that we don’t want to wait until our mid-60’s to retire. In fact, our latest mantra is that we CAN’T wait that long. The Jeff and Jenny Show is becoming burnt out. Work, and stress about work, is consuming us. We’re more tired. And grumpier. We’re spending our free time recuperating from the brutal weeks and bracing for the next week to come. More and more family, friends and acquaintances are getting ill or injured and we’re seeing it completely change their lives. By the time we get to our mid-60s we might not be in good enough health to travel extensively the way we want.
Must. Get. Off. This. Ride.
How can we get there sooner? The obvious answer is that we’re going to have to stretch our retirement nest egg further. Freakishly further. And if we don’t want to dip into our funds any sooner than we have to (because we’ll lose the investment return on it over the years), then we have to plan for what those years prior to normal retirement age look like. We have thoughts on how to do that, and one of those is to reshape where and how we’ll be living once we sell our house in a few years. With that comes a shift in our thinking about what we really need in our lives in order to be happy. It’s happened very organically as we discuss how to stretch our money so that we have more quality time together doing the things we really want to do at an earlier age, our list of things that we “need” has dwindled. Or perhaps “refocused” is a better word. This really sparked the need for downsizing.
If we want to travel a lot, how much house and land do we really need? If it’s too much then we’ll just worry about it when we’re gone. Who’s going to mow the lawn? Who’s going to check to make sure pipes haven’t burst? We don’t want to take the time to travel and then spend the trip worrying about our life at home. The larger the house we have then the more furniture we need to have. And things on the walls. And curtains, paint, faucets, door knobs, new windows, and all the other things that come with home ownership. Think about how much you buy over the years because you own a home. It’s pretty significant.
If we have a hefty mortgage here then we’ll be wasting money if we leave it to go spend money to stay somewhere else for weeks or months. That’s just throwing money away that could be better used or invested elsewhere. And if we divert money from our investment portfolio to cover the cost of the property, then there is the potential for opportunity loss.
We’ve also recently decided that we really want to live in a walkable community. Some of our favorite vacations have been in places where we could walk to bakeries, restaurants, public transportation, grocery, etc. and we really like that feeling of community and having options right outside our front door. That’s not something you easily get in the suburbs outside our city.
Walkable communities aren’t typically being designed (or renewed) with single family houses, but rather with apartments or condos. Cincinnati has some great new options for walkable communities downtown and in other smaller satellite towns so we’ve been discussing downsizing to a small apartment in one of those areas for a few years before we would even consider buying something again. That would give us a break from home ownership and the costs that go along with it.
So then the next decision is how do we fit our four bedroom house worth of things into a one or two bedroom apartment? The obvious answer is that we won’t.
We thought about our living habits and realized we really only live in four rooms of our house. That’s our bedroom, living room, kitchen, and Jeff’s office. Add it up and it is about the size of a two bedroom apartment. The rest is space the kids use, or that no one really uses often. Why pay month after month (and pay to heat or air-condition) for space we don’t use? When Jeff and I go on vacation we stay in one bedroom condos all the time and it’s perfect for us. We live very comfortably together in small spaces. Hence, we don’t think having a lot space is really a big issue for us.
But then there is our stuff. Lots and lots of stuff – and some of that stuff won’t be needed in an apartment. When I look at our garage, most of the stuff in there is completely unnecessary for downsizing to apartment or condo living.
When our kids are living independently, they will be needing furniture, so I suppose we’ll give whatever we don’t want to them, and actually it will probably ease the decision to know that it’s going to someone we love.
The kitchen has more dishes and miscellaneous equipment than I’ll ever use again. We all have those items we refuse to get rid of. You know, the ones buried so far back in a cabinet that I never find it even when needed. I’ve got a cabinet full of cookbooks I don’t use because I have Pinterest. There’s holiday dishes that get used twice a year – at most. Is my life really enriched because I have special dishes for Christmas? I think not. (And honestly, those are ones my mom gave me when she got new ones and not something I chose).
We have more towels than we’ll ever use and books that sit read (and some that have never been read) on bookshelves. There are drawers filled with an odd array of clutter. Much of it I can’t even remember where it came from.
Due to the size and layout of our home we have duplicates of many things: three toilet brushes, at least three sets of hand towels, three phones that are rarely used due to cellphones, soap dispensers, cleaners, etc. So much duplication. I mean, when I look around at all of our stuff, I wonder why we have so many things that are so rarely (or ever) used.
And those are the things that come immediately to mind. I could cut the cord on those aforementioned items without a second thought. I’ve always been a purger so it’s not new to me. I’ve constantly got a garbage bag of stuff sitting around that needs to go to Goodwill. No matter how much I get rid of there’s still plenty of clutter!
But then there are the sentimental things. They’re far more difficult. The very thought of what to do with them causes my heart to flutter. You know the things I’m talking about – picture albums, the boys’ Thomas the Train collection of tracks and trains, baby blankets, favorite child shirts or other clothing I couldn’t bear to get rid of, a plastic tub with some of their old school drawings, artwork they’ve made, and all the framed pictures on our hearth. What am I going to do with those? Obviously I can keep some things, and thankfully I don’t have to make the decision for a few years yet, but I’m already trying to wrap my head (and heart) around it.
We also have some really nice Amish-made bedroom and kitchen furniture. I thought we’d have it forever, but now we’re not so sure it’s what we’d need or want in a smaller apartment. We’ve thought about a storage unit. That would address a number of the situations above, but that can get expensive. We would be spending lots of money to store things because we can’t manage to let them go.
And so we circle back to that word again. Need.
What do we need to be happy?
We need time with each other, love and affection and laughter – lots of laughter. And we’d like the opportunity to experience new things together because it keeps us young and passionate about life. We crave more quality time with our family and friends. And we want time for continued opportunities to learn and to continue to experience nature and wildlife, music and culture, health, exercise, stability and the list goes on and on.
And you know what? Not one of those things are dependent on us living in a brick ranch on an acre of property. I don’t think we even need to talk about the three car garage. Downsizing to a small apartment or condo would actually enable what we want most. So, if we have to trade space and things for the chance to have time for the above experiences in more abundance then we’ve decided we will gladly make that trade. It won’t be easy, but we’ll do it for the things we want.
We’re not expecting that we’re going to be living like paupers. We’re not really willing to go to that extreme. But we will be making other concessions like driving older cars, eating at home more often, being wiser about groceries and other expenditures, etc. And we’ll do those things gladly because in the end I’d rather be spending my time with Jeff and our family than at work making more money.
So we’ve reset our expectations. That dream house above is now just a vague memory, a willing consequence of downsizing. And I couldn’t be happier with the newly drawn map of our future! That map doesn’t lead us to our home with a three car garage, it leads us on our journey to no clear destination in mind beyond being somewhere together enjoying life.
Have you thought about downsizing? If so, please share your experiences with us! What was the hardest thing to part with? Where there surprises as you went through the process? What tips would you give to someone else?
I think of all the retirement related issues we’ve discussed over the last year, downsizing is probably the one we’ve discussed most. We’ve even gone so far as to look at apartments to be able to envision the living space and compromises involved with downsizing into a much smaller space. While we’re in agreement that a small apartment or condo is the way for us to go, I have some nervous feelings about it. Our current home has great views out the back and we regularly see wildlife. I think I will greatly miss that, but not having it is a compromise and just means if viewing wildlife is something I want to do, then I can go someplace and do that. Hopefully, in semi-retirement, I’ll have more time to do the things that are important as we allege.
On the subject of “stuff”, boy do we have a lot of it. I definitely look forward to purging, donating, and “gifting” a good bit of it. But, I also have quite a few tools, house maintenance equipment, etc. I’m not eager to dispose of those items due to the high possibility that we’ll occupy a house in the future. As Jenny mentions, a storage unit could be leased, but since we plan to be in an apartment or condo for several years at least, the lease fees for a storage unit can really add up. That’s something I still need to think through and analyze and figure out the best solution. I’m sure we’re not the first couple confronted with difficult downsizing choices. I’d be interested to hear about yours.
Posted by Jenny