Is Downsizing the American Dream a Bad Thing?

An article posted at TheAtlantic.com laments the findings of interviews and surveys that show that an increasing number of Americans, particularly young Americans, are more concerned with hanging on to what they have than moving up in the world, and are also more interested in becoming debt-free.

Clearly this is a reflection of the stagnating economy that we’ve been dealing with for many years now. Young people in particular are overloaded with debt, especially student loan debt, which keeps them tethered to whatever job they might have and limits their ability to buy a car or house.

One thing missing from the article, however, is that many of these young people saw their parents overloaded with stuff, and the debt that comes from buying more stuff than you can afford. They grew up watching their parents buy houses with three-car garages when they only had two cars, just so there was more room to store their stuff. They watched them clean around all their stuff and lose spare rooms to all their stuff. And of course in extreme cases they saw them hoarding stuff.

The real theme I see in this article is that people want freedom. They want to be free of debt, and they don’t want to become loaded down with stuff they have to pay for, for years to come.

They also want affordable housing, but not necessarily impressive housing. Note the survey reference to owning a nice home. In recent years, “nice” meant “bigger and more impressive than your friends’ homes.” Given the survey and interview responses, perhaps “nice” can go back to meaning “affordable and comfortable.”

The sad tone of the article could use a little optimism. The fact is that downsizing your lifestyle can be freeing. Moving to a smaller place means you spend less time caring for your home and more time doing things you’d rather be doing. Moving to a more affordable place means improving your financial bottom line, and maybe even helping you become debt-free.

Yes, it can be painful to go through a downsizing of the American Dream. It sure hurt when my family was forced to go through it. But it only hurts for a little while because the freedom you gain is so worth it. Eleven years on from our involuntary downsizing, we are thriving, and enjoying debt-free life in a small, nice home.

Giving Up Your Furniture When You Downsize

What do you do with your furniture when you downsize your life?

Most likely you’re moving to smaller quarters and you just can’t fit all of your furniture into it. So you’ll have to make some decisions.

We moved from a 5-bedroom two-story house to a 3-bedroom ranch when we downsized. As a result, we gave up a lot of furniture, something you may also have to do.

The downside of this is that you won’t get much for your furniture, even if it’s very high quality, solid wood, leather, etc. Most of today’s young people would rather spend $600 on an iPhone than on a solid oak end table, so the demand for high-quality furniture is not what it once was. But it’s not dead, either, so you should be able to sell your unneeded furniture, though you probably won’t get what you think it’s worth.

We were in the middle of moving, so we wanted to get rid of things quickly. We put a sofa sleeper on Craig’s List for a few hundred dollars, and it sold fast. We put a loveseat that had seen better days on the curb and a neighbor snatched it up within a few hours. We also had a sale at our storage unit where we sold our kitchen table and chairs, a few dressers and some other pieces of furniture.

We didn’t make a fortune on our old furniture, but we got it out of our way quickly, which was our primary goal.

The upside to today’s listless furniture market is that you can find some really nice pieces for reasonable prices that will be better suited to your new (smaller) home. After we downsized, we did buy a few new pieces, because we needed smaller-scale furniture.

Our best purchase was a leather loveseat, built like a tank and in pretty good shape, bought from someone who was also downsizing and didn’t want to take it on their cross-country move. It cost us a whopping $200 and fits perfectly in our modestly sized living room, where a sofa would be too large.

The person we bought it from moved to the other side of the country after selling all her furniture, then outfitted her new smaller home with quality wood and leather pieces as well as appliances that she found on Craig’s List. She said it was well worth the money she paid to rent a small truck to carry the larger pieces to her new home.

Of course there’s always IKEA, Big Lots and Target if you prefer cheap, trendy furniture. But if you like quality pieces, a little legwork can get you well-made furniture at a very reasonable cost in just the right scale for your new home.

A Great Reason for Building a Tiny House

I’ve posted many stories about tiny houses on this blog. But this is one of the best tiny stories I’ve shared, not because the tiny house is so fantastic (though it’s certainly nice).

The beauty of this particular tiny-house story is that the college student who built this tiny house is using it to save himself a small fortune, which is what it costs to live in a college dorm. (Residence halls can cost five figures a year, depending on where you go to college.) Since he’s debt-free, the money he saves on dorm costs is pure profit.

Since this video was made, he’s begun renting out his tiny house on Airbnb while he tours the U.S. on his motorcycle. So his tiny house is earning an income for him. This young man is one smart guy!

 

Career Loss Amplifies the Need to Be Completely Debt-Free

We paid off our last mortgage when we were 44, one year earlier than this guy says you should pay it off.

His reasoning is this:

“The reason I say 45 is the turning point, or in your 40s, is because think about a career: Most careers start in early 20s and end in the mid-60s,” O’Leary says. “So, when you’re 45 years old, the game is more than half over, and you better be out of debt, because you’re going to use the rest of the innings in that game to accrue capital.”

I agree with him, but let’s take it a step further. For an increasing number of people, “the game” was over by the time they were 50 or 55 or 60. Their job went overseas, or they were let go in a downsizing, or younger people willingly to accept much lower pay were promoted over them and then they were sent packing. Now they’re working at a job beneath their capabilities and earning far less than they did in the career they spent most of their life on.

When you’re in that position, there’s no time to “accrue capital.” You’re in survival mode. And when you’re in survival mode, the very best place to be is debt-free. When you own your home outright, no one can kick you out unless you don’t pay your taxes (which is why if you’re forced to downsize your life, you should move to an area where you can afford the taxes). So you’ll always have a roof over your head.

We were forced to sell our paid-off house five years after we paid it off, because a career loss meant that “the game was over” for us, and we could no longer afford the skyrocketing property taxes. We did not reinvest all the money we made from the sale of that house in a new house; in fact, we spent less than a third of that money on the next house.

This worked out very well for us. But the point is, we had the option of doing this because WE WERE AND ARE DEBT-FREE. So whether your “game” ends at 50 or 80, pay off all your debts as soon as you can, including your mortgage, and you will be in the best position you can be.