Small-Space Living...With Two Wild Primates

Hey, it’s Alex. My husband and I started out in the family home (1900 square feet). Too expensive. 

After the foreclosure, we moved the family home to a small rental cottage (1100 square feet). The kids stayed put in the cottage, while we rotated in and out for our days of care. (We had separate bachelor accommodations for non-kid days.) Still too expensive.

We finally decided to get our own places. In theory, I could have taken over the cottage for myself. But the total of rent, insurance and utilities was too much. Rent was $1550, and the utilities in an 80-year old cottage with single-pane windows averaged $300. Total: $1850. Even when the boys’ dad and I were sharing costs, YNAB’s circle graph showed me I was spending a shocking percentage of my income on housing. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t want to pay all that just so my kids could have their own yard to play in.

So I made an extreme choice. Forget the townhouses and duplexes. I found a one-bedroom apartment to share with my boys, reasoning that if I only had them half the time, I could handle living in half the space. And save a little bit of money to boot.

Nowadays we live small. Really small. Like, subatomic small – about 600 square feet, including drawers. When I have the boys, they share the bedroom and I sleep on the sofabed. The books in my bookshelves are stacked two, sometimes three deep. Our old wagon doubles as our recycling bin. If there were an Olympics for stacking Ziploc food containers, I would own the podium.

I live in an IKEA catalogue.

When I have friends over, I put our old country dining table in the middle of the living room. And nobody cares, because the food is just as good and the wine flows just as fast and the laughs come just as easily.

The rent is a little more than most because of our location. But, all in, I’m saving about $700 over what I’d be paying had I kept the cottage for myself. I could have done. My ego desperately wanted me to. All my friends – married and single alike – have single-family homes, yards and space for the kids to run.

But at what cost, for me? In my situation, it would have been a bittersweet exchange. For the price of a yard, a playroom and the feeling of keeping up with the Joneses – a hella powerful urge – I would have traded the boys’ music, swimming and skating lessons. Camping trips. The toys-and-books budget. Trips to Whistler. Our museum and pool passes.

For now, we have chosen to live small. The boys’ dad settled close, only six blocks away, in his own apartment. Their school is five kilometers up the road. The store is 850 meters away. And the beach is right behind our building.

And the money I’m saving? It feels good. YNAB channels some of it into retirement, some into our long-distance travel fund and another chunk into our regional vacation fund. I can’t give my kids great experiences and a big place to live. I had to choose. And I’m pretty sure I chose right.

And…I don’t know. The fierce, anti-establishment part of me loves living small, and giving the finger to the rest of the high-living population in my posh Oak Bay neighborhood. This is how most of the world lives (including one of my clients, who grew up in Vietnam with 10 people sharing 600 square feet – like I should be grumbling?).

Another part of me knows I’m doing less damage to the environment by shrinking my footprint in this way.

And still another part of me delights in the idea that I’m teaching my kids to live small, because by the time they’re old enough to move out on their own, they’re not going to have a hope of affording a house of their own – at least not in Canada. Living with them in this way will help them avoid the shock that so many of their middle-class peers are going to experience when they start looking for a lifestyle that mirrors the one they grew up with.

But despite all the perks, I’ll be honest with you: it’s tricky to break from the North American ideal. I still want the house. I still want the yard. I still want that…status. If you handed me a wad of cash tomorrow – say $800,000 – enough to buy a house around here – I know I’d burn it to the realtor’s office as fast as my Escape could squeal me.

I hear Mr. Money Mustache shaking his head. I know, I know.

I still have a little bit of walking to go along with my talking. Baby steps.