I went back to Tennessee this past weekend to visit family and friends. It was my first trip there since the massive tornado outbreak in late April. Although almost all the debris has been cleaned up, plenty of evidence of the destruction remains, and everyone wanted to talk about their experiences. Coming face to face with the raw power of Nature makes an impression.
About a month later another tornado devastated Joplin, Missouri. Here’s a link to a story about a man who survived that tornado but lost his house. He’s planning to rebuild, but he’s going to build a much smaller house this time.
Why does it take a tornado to get us to re-evaluate our housing needs?
I’m not picking on this person – I’m sure he has good reasons for his decisions and his timing. But according to NPR, the average American house has doubled in size since the 1950s at the same time the average family size has shrunk. The reasons for this trend (a trend that has experienced a small reversal during the current recession) go beyond my expertise, and to be honest, beyond my interest. While I can’t be comfortable in a Tiny House (though I admire those who can), I’ve never understood the desire for a McMansion either.
But larger houses consume more land, more materials, and more energy. They require more upkeep. Perhaps most importantly, they encourage us to fill them with more and more stuff. All this siphons away limited resources – from our planet and from our own money. Every extra dollar you spend on a larger house payment or a higher electric bill or more furniture is a dollar you can’t spend on education, travel, causes you support, or saving for your retirement (even if you want to work at a paying job for the rest of your life, there’s no guarantee you’ll be healthy enough to do so).
“I get the point” you say. “But I couldn’t move right now if I wanted to.” Fair enough. But you can still downsize – or to use the corporate euphemism, “rightsize” your house.
Some years ago I worked for a large manufacturing company that graded all its factories on a monthly basis. Many of the metrics were “per square foot” – production per square foot, utility cost per square foot, and so on. But you could make the metrics go up by taking floor space out of use. If you roped it off with a sign saying “reserved for new business” you could deduct that space from the denominator of the metrics. Some people (many of them engineers and accountants who should have known better) thought that was silly: “we’ve got the space, why not use it?” The purpose was to encourage more efficient use of floor space, and by extension, more efficient use of everything else (and woe be unto the plant manager if a surprise inspection found anything sitting in the roped off space!).
You can do the same thing with a house that’s larger than your true needs. Close off a room – you’ll save on heating and cooling bills. The next step is to empty it out – sell what you can, donate what’s reusable, and trash what’s not. Now you’ve got space reserved for new business – for something new to come into your life. Maybe you can rent it out to a college student or someone else who needs a room. Maybe your coven or grove or other magical group can use it for rituals in inclement weather. Whatever you do, DON’T use it for storage!
Maybe you’re a family of four living in a two-bedroom apartment – you don’t have enough rooms, much less a spare room. Can you clean out a closet? A cabinet? A shelf?
Rule of thumb: if you haven’t used it, read it, worn it, or looked at it in a year, it needs to go. You say it has sentimental value? How much sentimental value could it have if you haven’t looked at it in a year?!
Clearing out the clutter and downsizing our houses consumes less resources and leaves us with more to save or spend on things and experiences that are more meaningful. More importantly, it begins to break the mainstream mindset that we always need more more more.
Remember: the goal isn’t to be perfect. The goal is to be better. Don’t wait for a tornado to get started.