The Questionable Value of a Top-of-the-Line Kitchen

I think it’s interesting that so many people will plunk down tens of thousands of dollars to create a top-of-the-line kitchen in their homes, complete with the latest design in cabinets and hip counter surfaces, even though they rarely cook. It’s all about having a kitchen that looks like it belongs in a magazine or on a cooking show, I guess.

Personally, I adore my hip cabinets. Check this out:

Those are genuine 1980s vintage cabinet fronts. Inside you’ll find sturdy plain old wood cabinets and shelves from the 1950s, when the house was built. I suspect that’s also when they installed my very cool counter tops:

That’s right, speckled Formica. We’re talking the height of luxury!

OK, so I’m being sarcastic. The fact is that I love my kitchen. It’s made of very sturdy materials that have lasted for years and still have a lot of life left in them. Since I cook from scratch every day, and we do a lot of dishes because we don’t have a dishwasher, we spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Yet it doesn’t bother me at all that I don’t have the latest cabinets or countertops.

You see, I’m a firm believer that there’s a trade-off between time and money. You have to give up one to get the other. Personally, I value time more than money, and the older I get, the more valuable time is to me. I can live without a $20,000 upgrade to my kitchen, because I don’t want to spend the time it takes to earn that 20 grand just to have a fancier kitchen. The one I have works just fine.

Some of my attitude stems from the fact that we’re debt-free. Most people will put a kitchen upgrade on their credit cards and think nothing of it. But we worked very hard to get debt-free, so we aren’t part of the how-much-a-month crowd. We also like to keep our expenses down so we can work part-time, which gives us more time to pursue other interests. Being able to live this way is much more important to us than having the latest kitchen upgrades in our home.

Besides, five years from now, today’s cabinets and counters are going to look outdated anyways.

Most People Don’t Need a Big House

Over at getrichslowly.org, they’re discussing how people who live in big houses only use a small percentage of their total square footage when it comes to daily living. That wasn’t true of us.

Our big house had five bedrooms and an office. We ran two businesses from home, and I homeschooled our children. For many years, every single room of our house was used every day. I used to say that we got more mileage out of our mortgage payment than anyone else we knew.

But that was then. The kids are in their 20s and 30s now and on their own; we downsized to a smaller house several years ago. There are three of us living in 1000 square feet, and we’re quite comfortable. However, had we stayed in our old house, we’d be rattling around with more space than we’d know what to do with. I can easily imagine that, like the people mentioned in the link above, we’d be spending most of our time in just a few rooms of the house.

Thinking about how you use the rooms in your house is a really valuable exercise. Unless you have more money than you know what to do with, you might want to consider whether your current house is really larger than you need it to be. A smaller house means lower costs; lower costs equals more freedom because you don’t have to earn so much money to support yourself, leaving you more time to do the things you really want to do.

I suspect that for many people, the big house ties them to their jobs. If they love their jobs, that’s fine. But many people don’t love their jobs. Living in a smaller house might free them to work somewhere that pays less but offers work that they love.

Some people love the status that a big house confers on them. If status is your goal, then you probably don’t care whether you use many rooms in your house or not. You’re more concerned about what other people think.

I certainly enjoyed having all the space we had in our big house (the master bath was bigger than the master bedroom in our current small house). But that house took a long time to clean, cost us a fortune in property taxes, and maintaining it would probably wear us out now, since we’re a little older (ahem) than we were when we built it 30 years ago.

I loved that big house, and I miss it. But I love this little house, too. Ultimately, some people actually need and use a big house, as we did, but only for a certain stage of their lives. After that, I think most people will find that living efficiently gives them more freedom.

Downsizing for Freedom

Our downsizing experience was driven by a desire to regain financial peace, but another by-product of it is that we gained a lot of freedom.

Did you know that freedom is scary? At least it is after years and years of falling into a familiar pattern. In our case, we always had to live near my husband’s job. Even after he started his own business, we had to stay in the area because that’s where his contacts (potential clients) were. This meant that we lived in the same metropolitan area for nearly 30 years.

Then economic change reared its ugly head, his business closed and we had to find a new place to live. Where? Anywhere. Sounds great at first, but for us, having far too many choices was scary. How do you determine where to go when you don’t even know how to support yourself anymore?

We did have a couple of small Internet-based businesses, but we could live anywhere we could get Internet access, so that didn’t really help us narrow down our range of choices.

In the end, we chose to move to an area where we often went on vacation. We rented a lovely house (quite cheaply because we were signing a one-year lease instead of a summer lease), and figured we would eventually buy a house there. But while we loved living up the road from the beach, we learned that it was not the right place for us to live full-time. The natives weren’t very friendly to outsiders, and we got lonely.

We ended up leaving after two years, and we did so easily because we had the flexibility of being renters. The experience helped us see that our ensuing freedom was quite wonderful. Having had a few years to think, we were ready to take advantage of that freedom. We traveled to different places, looking for a new hometown, and finally found one.

That was over ten years ago. In the new town, we rented a lovely restored house from the 1920s. Both of us had always wanted to live in a historic house, but we weren’t crazy about the time and money involved in restoring and keeping up one. Instead we got to spend two years in an absolutely beautiful old house, and whenever something went wrong, we just called the landlord. Now that’s freedom!

While living there, we got to know the town and its people, and found that we were comfortable with both. When the landlords told us they wanted to put the house on the market, we used our recently gained knowledge of the town to find and buy a very small house in a great neighborhood for cash. Our utility costs (and our property taxes) are quite low, giving us the freedom to live on a relatively modest income in comfort. Should we decide to move elsewhere, this house shouldn’t be hard to sell, or we could rent it out for a few years. That flexibility, in addition to the financial peace we still have, is due to the freedom we found by downsizing.

 

Downsizing for Financial Peace

Freedom…Flexibility…Financial Peace

Though I put those reasons for downsizing in the title of my book, they didn’t occur in my life in that order.

The freedom part had been an ongoing issue. With a big family in a big house, and despite organizing and donating things to charity over the years, there was still a ton of clutter in our house, and I never seemed to find time to deal with it. But it weighed on my mind daily, and I sometimes dreamed of waking up to find most of it gone.

The flexibility part did not come into play until much later, and it was actually the financial peace part that caused the entire downsizing episode.

I knew we would have to downsize a few years before we actually did so. I told my family about it, but they either didn’t believe me or didn’t want to believe me. But I knew.

How did I know? And how can you know if you’ll need to downsize in the near future?

It’s all about the bottom line. You have to know how much you spend, how much you earn, which number is larger, and which way the trend is going. It’s really that simple. But it takes effort to figure out the first part, how much you spend. Not a lot of effort, but regular effort.

For many years, I’ve kept track of what we spend in a notebook. (Younger people not so set in their ways might want an app for this, or even just an Excel file.) I round off amounts to the dollar, and categorize as I go along. I use one sheet of paper for each month, and I write down our expenditures under the following categories:

  • Utilities
  • Property Tax
  • House Insurance
  • House/Yard Costs
  • Health Insurance
  • Dr./Dental/Medical
  • Church/Charity
  • Food
  • Entertainment/Out to Eat
  • Car Insurance
  • Car Gas
  • Car Expenses/Repairs
  • Disability Insurance
  • Life Insurance
  • Books/Newspapers
  • Gifts/Cards
  • Cell Phone
  • Miscellaneous

At the end of each month, I add up the numbers to get a grand total of what we spent that month. And at the end of each year, I add up the monthly numbers to see not only what we spent in each category that year, but how much we spent for the entire year.

You can imagine how much my husband enjoys hearing how much we spent, given that he prefers not to think about how much anything costs him.

But I’ve always felt that it must be done, and by doing so year after year, I had a good idea of where we were at financially, and where we were headed. By the year 2004, I could see that despite our debt-free status, we had begun spending more money than we earned (the difference was coming out of savings). To make matters worse, our annual income was declining, because my husband’s industry was moving to China.

For me, it was like being on a hill overlooking a one-lane road, watching a car coming from the north and a car coming from the south heading at top speed toward each other; you just knew what would happen very soon.

As I said, my insistence that we were going to have to downsize did not make me popular. But it gave us time to talk and strategize about what we might have to do. As time went on and the numbers showed more clearly that we were spending more than we were earning, even my husband came to see that something would have to be done. To live in denial would only make things worse.

Besides, we had experienced many years of earning more than we spent and saving the difference. That’s where we found financial peace. And we wanted to get back to that place.

Next: Flexibility.