Is Our Small Home Big Enough?

I love our cozy little house. La casita. Small houses make me happy. They have always felt like just the right size to me.

Of course, my vision of small house living did not include three sons, who would go from babies to toddlers to kindergarteners and preschoolers, and who will keep on growing.

By the time they are teenagers, will our 884 square foot house, with our itty bitty living room, feel cozy? Or just cramped?

How much space we have now

The house is 26′ x 34′, total 884 square feet (sf), a 3 bedroom, 1.5 bathroom space. Here’s the room-by-room breakdown:

Kitchen: Approximately 8′ x 11′. For a small house, this is not bad! It’s more open than a galley kitchen, and it’s big enough that a few people can stand around and have a conversation. There’s also a door to the backyard in this space.

Dining area: 12′ x 8′. In this area, we have a small round table, four chairs (we’ve been using a hook-on chair until just recently, and even now, the kiddos often like to sit with us for meals), and the dog couch along the back wall. (We sit on it too, but this one is the pup’s favorite.)

Entryway and living area: 11′ x 14′. This includes a 3′ entryway and 3′ hallway. If you take out the hallway and entryway (where we keep jackets, shoes, keys, outdoor stuff, and a small box for recycling), it leaves our living room at about 8 x 11′, which is still fine now, but is starting to feel smaller as our kids are growing, especially since it’s still an area we walk through.

Small bedroom: 8′ x 10′. This is the smallest bedroom, although it feels larger now because we moved around furniture recently to help open up the space! Currently occupied by our oldest, nearly 5 years old.

Medium bedroom: 10′ x 11′. We rented out this room for two years, and it has functioned as a guest bedroom at various times. Currently occupied by the twins, 2.5 years old.

Larger bedroom: 9′ x 13′. The slightly larger size of this room is offset by the tiny 2.5 foot wide closet. We have an extra Ikea wardrobe along with dressers to make up for it. This is the “master” bedroom. When we don’t fall asleep putting the kiddos to bed, we actually sleep here!

Full bathroom: 5′ x 7′. Small but functional. It has a tub and toilet and sink and a tiny bit of storage. And a nice big mirror!

1/2 bathroom: 4′ 4″ x 3′ 3″. It’s a glorified closet, but having this half bathroom makes a huge difference in our household happiness.*

The attic. Our previous roommate (from our pre-kid days) told us, “You guys use your attic more than anyone else I know.” And it’s true. Toys that are being rotated out, things that are handy only once or twice a year, winter or summer clothes, a small box of Christmas decorations, our tents and sleeping bags, hand-me-downs that don’t quite fit the kids yet, and other odds and ends are all up there. A “floor” of plywood boards installed on top of the blow-in insulation helps provide extra storage capacity for the mishmash of things we want close by, but not in our space.

Overall, previous owners did a nice job adding in extras here and there to optimize the space available – adding the half bathroom, the attic, the stacked washer/dryer in the hallway closet. They also did their best to insulate and seal the house as well as possible, which we appreciate from both a cost and sustainability perspective.

The yard

We do have a fantastic yard, which slopes down to a stream and backs up to a park. When I first saw the backyard, I gasped – it was beautiful, with big old trees. There were a lot of non-native invasive plants, so we’ve done a lot of work to remove and put in plants native to our area. We also have areas where the kids can run around and play.

But is it enough?

At less than 1000 square feet, this is definitely considered “starter home” territory. After nearly 10 years here, it’s still enough space for us for now, but doesn’t allow us to be as generous with our home as I’d like in the future. I’d love to have an extra bedroom for hosting family (or if one of our parents moves in with us as they get older?), a small office, a spacious living room area where we could have a playdate with a family with multiple kids without everyone stepping on top of each other – or even host a birthday party. We do have a great yard and deck and we spend a good amount of time there, but our small amount of indoor space has really felt constraining over the last weeks and months. Of course, it didn’t help that it was the dog days of summer, and thus hot and humid at all hours of the day and night, and also peak mosquito season.

After some discussion, and input from others*, I was able to turn around my perspective. I’ve been convinced to reframe my thinking – instead of small, our house and living room are an efficient use of space.* (Okay, they’re also small.) Plus fall is coming, and it’s already more fun to spend time outdoors compared to a few weeks ago.

We are committed to staying in our current space for at least 3-5 more years. At that point, our kids will be five and nearly eight (up to seven and nearly ten), and we can reevaluate our options and make decisions. In the meantime, we will keep doing what we’ve been doing when our space starts to feel constrained – move furniture around, get rid of things, or put stuff in the attic. 🙂

house

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For excellent reading and historical analysis on this topic, see the Fioneers’ We Live in a 1,000-Square Foot Mansion

Also Accidental FIRE’s recent post The State of Housing in America: https://accidentalfire.com/2019/08/27/state-of-housing-america/

* I am grateful to the Facebook group The Money Middletons for excellent points and discussion in response to questions I posted there about house size and feel. I haven’t given specific credit to specific people for thoughts and ideas because it’s a private group, but this post was very much informed by that discussion. Thanks!

 

Our Goal: The Gift of Two Countries

As parents, we want to give our kids the gift of being not only bilingual, but also bicultural. Our hope is that they will feel like they belong and have friends, family and meaningful place connections in both the US and Bolivia. We know that the best way to do that is to spend significant time living in both places. 

As a result, we have prioritized trips back to Bolivia. It’s a non-negotiable part of our budget and our vacation time plans. We go every year, without fail. By spending time there during our professional slow seasons, we can work remotely and extend our stays. For the last few years, we’ve been able to spend three to five weeks with Andrés’ parents, grandparents, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and our friends. It has been wonderfully enriching for all three of our kids, and importantly, gives them a close connection with their abuelos. (Son los únicos nietos de ambos lados de la familia.)

Of course, we’re not just doing it for the kids. Andrés made a huge sacrifice by coming to the United States – his parents, his brothers, his amazingly tight group of friends – they’re back in Cochabamba. He – like many other Bolivians in the US – only planned to come for a year or two, make some money, and go back. (Si la mayoria sí vuelve o se queda es tema para otro día.) For Andrés, it’s been nearly ten years now. His parents aren’t getting any younger and he wants to spend as much time with them as he can.

A New Experiment in Two-Country Living

This summer we tried a new experiment, where Andrés and our four year old went to Bolivia for three and a half weeks by themselves. It was the longest I’d ever gone without seeing my oldest, and I was nervous. But this is one of the most important, most vital goals we have set up for our family, and so, I told myself, it’s worth it.

And it was worth it. Our four year old strengthened his connections with his abuela, abuelo, Andres’ abuelita, los tíos (hermanos de Andrés), y fortaleció el idoma – he came back with new words, phrases and overall fluency. He took karate classes, got to know Bolivian teachers and other kids in the class, and loved it.

The transitions there and back weren’t easy. As a kid, it’s hard to get thrown into different cultural surroundings, expectations, rules, and then back. That’s not just culture shock, it’s cultural whiplash! But with time, we all got readjusted.

Financially, we were able to swing it by replacing four weeks of summer camps with the trip. Andrés was able to do some work remotely and push back his other work until he came back, and he had enough income that he could still pay himself that month. We had already been planning for Andrés to take an extra trip this year, so we didn’t count that as part of the math.

Experiment #2

The four-year-old doesn’t know it yet, but the first experiment went so well that there is now a part two, where Andrés will take the twins for a longer trip over the end-of-year holidays. The four year old and I will join them for a shorter time, and we’ll all come back together.

All told, this will give Andrés closer to two months in his home country, which of course, is still not even close to the 50% mark. Which brings us to…

And Beyond?

In an ideal world, we’d like to be able to spend even more of the year in Bolivia, or even take a full year and enroll them in school there. Straight up moving there at some point is also still an option on the table, although we would need to be ready with answers to many questions:

What would we do there? As one Bolivian who had lived in the US for many years said to me… “¿Qué voy a hacer yo en Bolivia?” How long would we go? Forever? Could we work remotely, if even part-time? If we could, how much would we want to? What if we want to come back? What if we’re not really ready financially, what if we leave too soon? How will we find community, connection, and meaning in our lives? 

You know, the typical FIRE questions.

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Do you have personal connections to more than one country? Did you ever feel like you had to choose between them?

Note: I purposefully didn’t mention the current US political climate, because it would have overwhelmed the post, but we are keenly aware of it, and there are other great FIRE folks speaking up about it and writing about it. Go read them.

The FIRE Community

I’ve been reading personal finance and FIRE (financial independence, retire early) writers for many years now. I’ll often focus on one writer or blog at a time, reading through all or most of the body of work and being inspired by their overarching story and experience, as well as nuggets of advice from the specifics of their journey.

Now that we’ve decided to dip our toes into the water, it’s worth thinking about what we have learned about the FIRE community.

Show me your rebel side

Purposefully living far below your means, leaving money on the table, downshifting, and turning down the glories of paid work, requires a certain ability to go against the grain. Independent thinking. Willingness to be the frugal weirdo.

As the FIRE community has grown, it may feel like less of an extreme, rare choice, but the reality is that opting out of the spendier conveniences of modern life is still regarded as a little strange by more conventional colleagues and friends. Being able to withstand the questioning gaze of friendly but confused people and carry on with your goals and principles with a simple, “no thanks!” is a necessary component of taking a different path. 

Does this fit us? Yes.

We both have our stubbornly independent or rebel side. For Andrés*, it manifested as questioning of the system, institutions, and the idea that you have to follow a career path that is not your passion in order to provide for yourself and family. For myself, it often meant that, once I had decided that a certain principle was logically or ethically correct, I would follow it to its conclusion, in both personal and professional decisions. We both resist being told what to do and highly value having a certain level of autonomy in our work. (We do actually get along with other people quite well, I swear.)

Take lunch to work every day? Check. Buy a small home? Check. Buy our stuff used on Craig’s list or thrift stores? Check. Take hand-me-downs? Check. They’re steps on our path.

Willingness to talk dollars

Talking about money is still somewhat taboo. It’s something you take care of in private, without trumpeting it out to the world. Except in the FIRE community!

Understanding the economic forces that shape people’s lives (and our own), from large to small, is like pulling back the curtain. You can better understand why people make the choices they do and why our world is set up the way it is. But even Bernie fans** and economists don’t offer up the same level of transparency and detail that the personal finance and FIRE community provides.

Move for money

Making intentional choices about where you want to live, taking into account money as a key factor. Also known as geoarbitrage. Spending a year or more in Bolivia, where Andrés is from, is something we’ve considered, thought about, planned for, negotiated and renegotiated, since we moved to the US. It’s still an option on the table. It’s neat to find a community of people for whom the cost of living is a key factor in choosing where to live, and where living outside of the United States is a normal decision.

Do what you want

Underneath it all, what is most inspiring about the people who write about their journey to pursue financial independence and early retirement is that they do what they want – fearlessly. We all know that there are people who feel trapped or stuck who have high incomes and there are people who feel free and open while living on modest budgets. Giving in to feeling trapped is not something that characterizes many people on the path to FIRE. They build up savings (aka FU money) to walk away from bad bosses and toxic work environments. They change jobs to get solid pay increases. They take breaks from working or reduce their hours to create the work-life balance that works for them.

Does this fit us? Yes.

By taking work that we enjoy, by knowing that we are at work because we choose to, by working as an independent consultant, by taking jobs that allow us flexibility and dialing back hours to spend more time with our kids, by pursuing passion projects and even by starting to write here once a week, we are choosing to do what we want. And we think that will help us live more fulfilled, happy lives.

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* Hey there! We’ve decided to share our first names. We’re Lily and Andrés, nice to meet you. Mucho gusto.

** I originally started writing “advocates for reducing socioeconomic inequality” in this sentence but it didn’t pack the same punch. Some of my best friends are Bernie fans, union organizers, and policy advocates. FYI, those categories don’t all overlap.

(A final note: I did not use the word “movement.” As the FIRE OG Vicki Robin said on the Fairer Cents podcast, a movement requires a power analysis, and that overall, FIRE is a community. Although maybe there’s a movement within the community?)

* * * *

What do you think? Are these impressions an accurate depiction of the FIRE community? Where did we get it wrong? Do you share any of these traits as well?

What’s Next: Tipping the Scales Toward Living

Our oldest is now 4 and a half (almost 5!) and the twins are 2 and a half. We are in our late thirties (almost 40 is not as cute as almost 5). We still have a long way to go to reach financial independence, much less retire early. So in some ways, we are late bloomers in the FIRE world. Who knows, we may keep working until a more normal/traditional retirement age.

However.

We are nearing a big turning point, one we have been working towards for the better part of 4 years, which is having a second property fully rented out. It has been rented for shorter periods during the last three years, but A has also made major improvements, adding a second bedroom and bathroom to the upstairs and making the basement livable, and it will be fully rented for the first time in the next month or two.

That additional cash flow will open up a series of new possibilities for us, for A to be able to scale back hours and tip the work-life balance towards living. Our almost 5 year old will be in kindergarten this fall, and A is planning to finish up his working hours in time to pick him up from school (or the bus) by 3-3:15 and spend time together in the afternoons.

Early in our relationship, we had a conversation about a colleague of mine who was a dad. He took time off from work every Wednesday to read a story to his daughter’s elementary school class. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went down, but A basically said, “I want that. I want to have that life, that kind of flexibility.”

Growing up, A wished he could have had more time together with his own dad, who worked long hours at multiple jobs to provide for the family. He was present and engaged during the lunch hour and on weekends, but other than that he was often exhausted at home. Completely admirable, but not the balance that we are looking for.

A’s mom, on the other hand, worked full time as an independent consultant but was able to take more breaks from her work to spend time with their four boys. In their shared office, they had a space where the boys would stay after school, doing their homework and having tea before heading home together.

So while it’s not FIRE, in the next few months we are going to undertake a major transition. I’ll continue to work full-time, A will still be working at least part-time, and we still have to figure out the details and logistics, but it will open up many more options in our future.

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Our Story

A brief history of how we got here.

We met in Bolivia in 2003. We began a relationship in 2007 and got married and moved to the US in 2009-10. We adopted a pup in 2011. Our first (human) baby was born in 2014. Then, we thought it would be nice for him to have a sibling. Our twins (!) were born in 2016. All of a sudden, we were a family of 5 with a dog. Three kids under three. Wild.

From the beginning, we had cultural differences but personal similarities and crossovers. L, who grew up in the US, was often running late and found the forgiving nature of “Bolivia time” a relief. This was frustrating for A, who is Bolivian, but had spent a year as an exchange student in Europe and preferred being more timely.

Living in Bolivia gave us a different perspective on money.

From 2007-08, we were both paid Bolivian salaries, which, while considered a good living there, are poverty wages in the US. When we lived together, we made above the worldwide median annual household income, but not by much. While the cost of living for day-to-day expenses was fine, purchasing plane tickets and traveling on our budget was financially stressful, and I frequently dipped into savings from a previous job to supplement. (But I had savings! Skip below for more on how my family helped make that possible.)

At the same time, we were incredibly aware of how fortunate we were. Our income was considered solidly middle class (if not more) by Bolivian standards. While income inequality and poverty rates have come down significantly since 2000, and GDP (total and per capita) has gone up, Bolivia is still the poorest country in South America, and that legacy manifests itself in many ways, particularly economic marginalization or financial stress for a large portion of the population.

[Curious about how Bolivia and US income inequality matches up these days? I was. Here’s the US GINI index for recent years. Here’s the Bolivian GINI index.]

Learning and knowing all of this – on a gut level – gave us a different appreciation for what things cost and a different way of looking at US salaries and what we can do with that money. It amplified our natural frugality.

We had a lot of help. 

This is not a bootstraps story. This is not a place where you will hear “How to…” or “And you can too!” We both had a ton of help from our families. They made sure we went to good K-12 schools (public schools in the US for me, private schools in Bolivia for A), fully funded our public university education, provided living space during periods of underemployment or when we wanted to supercharge our savings, cosigned a mortgage loan, taught us the basics of how to be good with money, are financially solvent and independent (retired) themselves, help us with child care, and generally have always been there for us. And that’s something we’d like to provide for our kids as well. We’d also like to be in a position to give back to our parents and families by helping them as they get older.

The privilege of choosing meaningful work.

One of the things that having family help and support allowed me to do was to choose work without having to worry about monthly student loan debt payments. I worked in the advocacy world and for small non-profits for six years for low to tiny paychecks. After that, I worked for a non-profit-like small government agency for eight years. I currently work for a local government, with a nice salary and great benefits. While I make above the median US household income, it’s not even close to the six figures many write about in the personal finance and FIRE world.

But I love what I do and I work with teams of people who care deeply about their work. This is the kind of career people try to get into when looking to downshift from a high-stress, high-paying job. (Not that there isn’t ever any stress, but I’m certainly not working 80 hours a week.) I have to acknowledge that it’s been an absolute privilege – and in many ways, due to my privilege – that I’ve been able to pursue this path. I’m sure this is something I’ll write about again.

Pursue entrepreneurship. 

Although he had the degree and some experience, suffice to say A was not able to arrive in the US in 2010 with a fresh green card and start working as a civil engineer from day one. He found other work (restaurant, retail) while building up training and credentials. In 2012, he reduced his hours significantly to focus on getting into his career field. It was a tough year of several false starts, but by the end of the year his efforts paid off and he found full-time work – well under the market rate, but as an entry-level civil engineer.

He hustled, getting his new bosses and coworkers and previous Bolivian professors and colleagues to provide references so he could take the professional engineer exams, translating hundreds of pages of syllabi and transcripts from every course he took during his college years, and studying hard to pass both exams on the first try. After his professional engineering license came through, he negotiated a raise, and then negotiated his departure as a W2 employee, continuing to work with them on a project-by-project basis, and launching his own company to work as a consultant.

Working independently gave A the freedom to set his schedule. It also allowed him to pursue a passion project, fixing up and renting out a single family home as an investment property (more on that in future posts).

We have been reading about personal finance for years, starting with Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary and then following various blogs. MMM, Frugalwoods, and Our Next Life, and more recently, the Women’s Personal Finance Facebook group, have played particular roles in inspiring our journey. There are a lot of amazing people writing about personal finance and bringing new perspectives today. We are starting Un País Libre to share our story and in an effort to be less anonymous in this community.

That’s some background on the path that got us here, personally, professionally, and to this particular place on the internet. Stay tuned for what’s next…

Un País Libre – Pequeña Serenata Diurna

Here’s the back story of our name here. Because we all like a good back story.

Un país libre comes from a Silvio Rodriguez song named Pequeña Serenata Diurna. Silvio Rodriguez is a Cuban folk singer/songwriter. Per Wikipedia: “Known for his … highly eloquent and symbolic lyrics, his songs are iconic elements of Latin American left-leaning intellectual culture.” Sounds about right.

In both English and Spanish:

Pequeña Serenata Diurna

Vivo en un país libre
Cual solamente puede ser libre
En esta tierra, en este instante
Y soy feliz porque soy gigante.

Amo a una mujer clara
Que amo y me ama
Sin pedir nada – o casi nada,
Que no es lo mismo pero es igual.

Y si esto fuera poco
Tengo mis cantos que poco a poco
Muelo y rehago habitando el tiempo
Como le cuadra a un hombre despierto.

Soy feliz, soy un hombre feliz,
Y quiero que me perdonen
Por este día
Los muertos de mi felicidad.

Little Daily Serenade

I live in a free country
Which can only be free
On this land, in this instant
And I am happy because I am giant.

I love a clear woman
Who I love and who loves me
Asking nothing – or almost nothing,
Which is different but also the same.

And as if that weren’t enough
I have my songs which little by little
I grind up and remake inhabiting time
As it befits an awake man.

I am happy, I am a happy man
And I hope that I may be forgiven
On this day
By those who have died for my happiness.

For this song to be named “Little Daily Serenade” and to be such a powerful ode to love, living, joy, fulfillment, connectedness, and freedom – anchored by the here and now, is a testament to the talent, abilities, and humility of the songwriter.

(Gender references: When I think about or sing this song, I switch the gender references to be appropriate to who I am and who I love. I encourage you to do the same.)

The song also holds many memories tied up in it. Two of our wonderful friends singing this as an impromptu duet in 2005. Many memories of A playing this on the guitar, surrounded by friends. Singing it as a lullaby to get the kiddos to sleep. And more to come, I’m sure.

I hope this sheds some light on why we choose these words to represent us. We can often get caught up and bogged down in the daily grind. Poetry like this helps us realize that we are here by choice, and that simple freedom can make all the difference.

Bienvenidos!

We are a bicultural couple with three (!) small kids who choose meaningful careers, ruthlessly prioritize spending, DIY & pursue FI/work-optional living.

We want to be thoughtful about this path and what it means to us.

What does Un País Libre – A Free Country mean here?

What is freedom? I’m sure we’ll write more about this as time goes on, but as poet Mary Oliver says, we are only given this one wild and precious life, and we are fortunate to have the freedom to choose and help make our path along it.