Live Small, Save Big: What You Can Learn from Minimalists

Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/MCT/Getty ImagesThis 238-square-foot house for two was built on a trailer frame that can be towed.
Unlike Henry David Thoreau, you don't have to live alone out in the woods to be a minimalist. And you don't have to live like a hermit to enjoy a simpler lifestyle.

Whether your goal is to save money by buying less and spending less on maintaining what you have, or you just want to declutter your home, then you might want to consider minimalism as a way of life. Or at least an important part of your life -- it doesn't have to be as extreme as living in a 150-square-foot house.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-"I think a lot of Americans have a lot of stuff that they don't use." --Ryan Mitchell %Or maybe it does. Ryan Mitchell of Charlotte, North Carolina, plans to move from an 800-square-foot apartment into a 150-square-foot house he's building on a trailer. "I think a lot of Americans have a lot of stuff that they don't use," says Mitchell, 30, who is writing a book about it called "Tiny House Living."

Anyone who has ever rented a self-storage unit to deal with the overflow of stuff knows what he means. And that's a lot of us: There are 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space for rent in the U.S., equal to 78 square miles under roof, which would cover an area more than three times the size of Manhattan, according to the Self Storage Association. The going rent for a 10-by-10-foot unit was $115 a month in late 2013, or $146 a month for a climate-controlled one.

Mitchell estimates he'll save $2,000 a month in his small house, mostly by not paying rent again because a friend is letting him keep the tiny house on a trailer in his yard in exchange for working on a website.

Less Extreme Options

Becoming a minimalist can start with simple steps. Cutting cable TV can save $50 or so a month, though the non-financial benefits of spending more time with your family may outweigh the cash savings.

Being a minimalist doesn't have to be -- as authors Joshua Field Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus jokingly write -- living with less than 100 things, not owning a car or a home or a TV, not having a career, living in exotic places, not having children and being a young, white male from a privileged background.

It's a tool to find freedom. While money can buy you some freedom, such as paying someone to cook you dinner or wash your car, earning that money can eat up a lot of your time.

'It Doesn't Have to Be Drastic'

Tracy Freese, a minimalist in Cedar Falls, Iowa, is a good example of living with less stuff without going off the deep end. She left a finance job in the corporate world a year ago to live a simpler life, selling two of her three vehicles and the diamond in her engagement ring.

Calling herself an "everyday minimalist," Freese has a website to help others plan their finances as minimalists and has a goal of not buying things anymore and instead is working to get rid of stuff.

"It doesn't have to be drastic," she says. Her family -- a husband who works full time and two children, ages 2 and 3 -- still has Internet service and basic cable TV, but they don't go out often, and they still live in their 1,300-square-foot home. However, the only thing she buys regularly now are groceries. Freese says they're saving $400 a week in discretionary spending.

Their previous household income was $120,000, and it's now half that, Freese says. That change has required a lot more cooking at home and much less eating out. "The life I used to live cost a lot of money," she says. It included $100 a month on facials at a salon and expensive clothes for work.

Reducing Excess

A good first step on the road to becoming a minimalist is to get rid of things you don't use anymore. One rule of thumb is if you haven't used an item in a year, you're unlikely to need it. An easy way to gauge this with clothing, Mitchell says, is to turn a hanger around every time you use something in the closet. If the hanger hasn't been turned around a year later, get rid of that item. He found that 80 percent of his clothes hadn't been touched. He also sold large pieces of furniture to help him downsize.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Another step is to keep what you have for as long as it works. Comedian Jim Dailakis says having a laptop computer from 2005 is one way he keeps from being a slave to owning possessions. "My dad always taught me to spend money and to spend it wisely," Dailakis says. "Spend it on things you need and not on what you want. Occasionally, buy things that you want to spoil yourself [with], but maintain that discipline."

Margaret Kelsey, a public relations professional in Miami Beach, Florida, has a system to keep her wardrobe from growing. "If I purchase a new item of clothing, I have to give one away in order to accommodate the new item," Kelsey says. "I find that it causes me to pause before purchasing something new, knowing that buying it will force me to give away something else."

Kelsey, 25, says she's saving more than $1,000 each month by "living small" in a 250-square-foot apartment without a full kitchen or TV. She has a two-burner hot plate and toaster oven. Not having a full-sized refrigerator requires her to shop more often, meaning less money wasted on fresh produce going bad, she says.

A Tiny House

Mitchell built his tiny house on a movable trailer to help him get around building codes and zoning laws. He estimates his electricity bill will drop from $100 per month in his apartment to $10, and the monthly water bill will drop from $60 to $15.

The front half of the house is an open room with a few chairs, computer and a chair that can be raised to turn into a desk. The back half is split between a kitchen and bathroom, and a loft with a queen bed is the bedroom. To get up to the loft requires climbing a ladder, not stairs, since stairs would take up more room. "With a tiny house, you look at how much you use something and how much space it takes up," Mitchell says.

The house cost him $25,000 to build, though building one can be done for as little at $10,000, he says. "I just really enjoy the smaller space and the lifestyle that goes along with it," he says. That lifestyle includes the flexibility to work only 15 hours a week, thanks to the much lower bills.

That sounds like something that Thoreau, the father of simplicity, would support.

A former newspaper journalist, Aaron Crowe is a freelance writer who specializes in personal finance, real estate and insurance for various websites, including Wisebread, insurance websites, and AOL.

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Live Small, Save Big: What You Can Learn from Minimalists

There is a reason this proverb has been around for decades. If you cut your crown molding, tile or paneling too short, you can't go back and make it longer.

Most people can change the insides of a toilet, but problems can still arise, as Prescott discovered. If you have just one bathroom, be prepared to stay overnight elsewhere if something goes wrong. Make sure you turn off the water before you start any plumbing project.

If you know what you're doing, you can change a light fixture. But replacing a light fixture with a ceiling fan involves more than just changing the fixture. Other electrical projects are even more complicated. If you do give it a shot, turn off the breaker before you touch anything.

You can find a YouTube video or detailed instructions for any project. But if that's all the information you have on a project that you've never done before, beware. A video on building a deck from someone in Florida may not tell you what you need to get the deck to withstand 80 inches of snow, and a video from Minnesota on building a deck may not have the instructions you need to ensure your deck can survive a hurricane.

Most hardware stores, and even some big-box stores, have experts on staff who can answer questions about home projects. If you're replacing specific parts, bring along the parts if you can rather than trying to remember what they look like.

You can rent or borrow some tools if you don't own them yourself. Hint: If you're going to assemble a lot of Ikea furniture, invest $20 in an electric screwdriver.

Some cities are stricter than others about permits, and only licensed contractors can obtain permits for some work. Doing major renovations without a permit could cause problems when you sell your home. Some cities require presale inspections, which can result in fines and the need for retroactive permits. That can mean redoing the job to city specifications.

"If you have to go to YouTube to learn something, you probably don't know what you're doing," Pekel says. Homeowners often "don't know what they don't know." If you mess up a painting project, you can always redo it. But if you take down a load-bearing wall and bring the second floor down with it, you've created a very expensive problem. With DIY projects, being cautious is typically the way to go.

If you earn $100 an hour and replacing a faucet takes you three hours, you would probably save money by hiring a plumber.

That includes both the quality of work and the time your house will be in disarray. Can you install crown molding well enough to be happy with the results? Or will it forever bug you that it's not exactly straight? That goes for more complex projects, too. If you gut the kitchen and end up taking six months to redo it, can you live without a kitchen that long?

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