In 2005, Tammy Strobel and her husband, Logan, were two regular newlyweds with an apartment, two cars and a pile of debt, living in California. Today, they live in a tiny house with just 128 square feet of space. For those of you in the corporate world, that’s about the same size as 2-3 standard cubicles. In the course of their six-year transition they downsized several times, progressively reducing their stuff, their living space, their debt and their stress levels. In 2012, Tammy published a book about her adventures in small-sizing called You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap). She recently took a few minutes out of her day to talk to me about the process and share some of her best advice on living smaller and happier.
The Journey to Mortgage-Free Living
The first seeds of what has grown into a full-fledged, flowering new worldview were planted in Davis, Calif., about eight years ago. Tammy described it as being stuck in a work/spin cycle. “I was working at a job that wasn’t a good fit for me, I was commuting two hours a day, I was in debt and I was shopping too much and things were just not good. I was really unhappy and just felt stuck in my life.” Like a lot of people, Tammy felt the uncomfortable combination of having so much and still feeling unhappy. “I knew that I was really fortunate and privileged to have what I had. Not everyone has a safe place to live and the ability to buy food and all of those things, but still I was frustrated.”
As that frustration built, Tammy and Logan began to have more and more conversations about living differently. They considered a variety of ways to break out of their rut – Logan was the first to suggest that maybe they should pare down their possessions. But when faced with the idea of simplifying, Tammy was not sure at first that it was a good plan. “Logan and I started talking about how we could change our lives for the better, and he suggested that we simplify. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to give up my stuff.”
Tammy wasn’t alone in feeling that way about the things she had collected over the course of her life. The CDC estimates that over 1 million people in the United States suffer from compulsive hoarding and that’s only the few for whom it’s truly a disorder. 46.7 percent of American households had credit card debt averaging $7,117 in 2013. Not only are most people accumulating more and more possessions, but they are going into debt to do it. Tammy Strobel and her husband were going against the grain when they decided to live smaller, but looking back now, she feels that the change has been a great one. “Seven years later we’re living in a tiny house and we’re debt free. I’m a writer and photographer, so now I’m just doing work that I really love and that resonates with me, and I just have a lot more time and space to not only engage in work that I like but to spend with the people that matter most.”
The Tiny Home Transition
Of course it wasn’t a simple transition. Tammy describes the process of progressively scaling down over a period of years in her book. They shifted to smaller and smaller apartments, working through a long, slow phase of eliminating things that were “wants” but not “needs.” But by taking it slowly, Tammy says the habits become more ingrained and there’s less opportunity to backslide.
“We started the simplifying in 2003 and we didn’t get into our tiny house until 2011, so we definitely took our time. I didn’t de-clutter my life overnight, it was a long process. I think that was better for us, because our behavior changed for good. I’m not sure if I’d downsized more quickly whether I would have been able to keep those habits.”
In addition to the process itself being a challenge, life continues to have its own bumps and obstacles even when you’re simplifying. In 2012, Tammy spent much of the year being with her father as he battled a serious illness. She says that one of the biggest benefits of simplifying was the flexibility it brought to her life. Without that she doesn’t think she would have been able to take the time to be with her father through the final months of his life.
“Five or 10 years ago, if my Dad had become so seriously ill there’s no way I could have taken the time to help be his caregiver or to be with him when he died and you know those are the things that I think people regret when they look back. Why didn’t I make that time? We’ve been intentional about creating a life that’s really flexible so there’s that time for our family members. And you know life isn’t going to be perfect – it never will be, but you can build in a little resilience, I think, when you simplify.” That resilience helped them weather multiple moves, the loss of Logan’s job, and all sorts of other challenges.
Living On (And With) Less and Loving It
These days Tammy feels like their life has settled into a pretty normal pattern. Normal, that is, for people who live simply in a tiny space. Tammy spends her mornings focusing on writing, either for her blog or for her next book. In the afternoons, she keeps up with social media and email, but not having to commute makes it feel like there’s much more time in each day. And the flexibility to adjust to whatever comes up during the day works well, too. Tammy and Logan are currently living next door to her mother and helping her with various things. “Today during my lunch break we helped my mom take wheelbarrows of gravel into her garden. We’re going through a process of renewing her garden and building that back up again, which feels really good. So, taking four hours out of my day to do something like that isn’t something I could have done 10 years ago, for example.”
And there’s a big contrast between Logan and Tammy’s tiny house and her mother’s 2,300-square-foot home. We talked about how comfortable the tiny house is in terms of heating and cooling, and because of the small size of the space, it turns out the little space works better. “Tomorrow it’s going to be 100 degrees. We have a mini-AC unit that keeps the house very cool, whereas my mom can’t turn on the air conditioning to cool off her whole house because she can’t afford it. It’s an older house, so it’s expensive. It would be over $400 per month during the summer and for us it’s maybe $15. So for me it’s a whole lot more comfortable here in the tiny house. We keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”
Having traveled to other parts of the world, the Strobels have a strong sense of appreciation for what they have, even living as simply as they do. “These types of houses that we think of as so small, you know if you were in India you would see a whole family living in this amount of space. And it probably wouldn’t be as nice. So I think it’s really important to check our values. I think a lot of people have more than they realize here in the U.S. I spent some time in Mexico and I saw a lot of poverty and it just made me realize that I’m so spoiled you know, that my life is so good.”
If you’re thinking that living in a tiny house is sounding pretty good right now, there are a few important things to understand about living super small. Most of the tiny houses from Tumbleweed and Portland Alternative Dwellings (PAD) are built on trailers in order to stay clear of building codes that apply to permanent homes. That means no connection to the sewer system so you’ll gain an entirely new understanding of waste management. Most people who choose to live in a tiny house have composting or incinerating toilets, and there is a wide variety of models and systems from the simplest sawdust toilets to advanced incinerating systems costing thousands of dollars. The debate over the relative merits of each toilet system is always a hot topic on tiny house blogs, along with active discussions on every other aspect of small space living. It’s a strong community and it allows anyone who is interested in the idea of living this way to benefit from a tremendous amount of research and information sharing.
We talked about the relative benefits of solar panels vs. being connected to the electrical system. Tammy said they did some research and went with the grid because solar panels are a big investment. “We did a cost/benefit analysis with solar panels and they’re so expensive. It’s very inexpensive for us to plug into the grid. Our electric bill is between $5 and $25 per month. So with the air conditioning on this month it will probably be $15 or $20. We’ll probably go the solar route eventually but right now we’re holding off.”
To Be or Not to Be Off-Grid
While Tammy and Logan hook up to the grid for electricity, and have running water in the kitchen, they don’t have a shower. No shower? Well they had an outdoor shower but quickly realized that in the winter that just wasn’t feasible so they use the gym shower or borrow from family members. And while that may seem extreme, Tammy says there are ways to make up for anything. “My friend has a tiny house in Portland and she loves baths – it’s one of the things she misses but maybe once per month she’ll treat herself to a hotel that’s kind of posh with a nice bath or a day at the spa and the nice thing is that you can do that because you have lower expenses. Sometimes I miss the shower but not all the time. And I certainly don’t miss the rush-hour traffic.”
Despite the huge changes and the many things they have given up to pursue this lifestyle, Tammy has no regrets and really only sees the change as positive, especially in light of needing to be there to support her parents and her family through a difficult time. “Making the choices we have and then having our systems in place before shit hit the fan last year really helped. So I’m really grateful for that. And those beginning conversations when we were thinking about what do I want and what do I not need – they were really important for Logan and for me in particular.”
Embracing change has become a lifestyle for Tammy and Logan, and they would recommend it to anyone who is just starting out down this path. “I learned so much last year and I continue to learn and move forward. But in terms of specific advice that I would offer to folks who are just starting out it’s just to be open to new perspectives and to have conversations with your partner and with your family about those short and long term goals and think about what you really want out of life. Because you know circumstances can change in an instant. I’m so glad now that I have the time to spend with my family and that I was able to take care of my Dad as he was dying and I think it’s so important to really step back and ask yourself those big questions. It’s overwhelming but if you can do that and then write down the things that are really important to you, you can start taking steps forward if that makes sense.”
Now that she’s made the changes in her own life, Tammy has come full circle and wants to help others find their way along this path. She considers herself incredibly lucky to be living the way she does, and being conscious about that motivates her to reach out with her story so that others can be inspired to change their lives if they want to. “I think it’s about being aware of how fortunate you are too. I think if you’re happy with yourself and your circumstances you have the opportunity to help others as well.”
I loved talking to Tammy about how living in a tiny house works for her and for her family. Check out her blog at www.RowdyKittens.com and you can keep up with all of her adventures!
Tammy Strobel is a MOTHER EARTH NEWS Blogger. Her blog posts are about small house living and simplifying one's life.
Read more from author Katy Tynan at www.BigLittleLiving.com.