It was 2006. My husband, Karl, and I had a three-year-old and an 18-month-old. We had dreamed of opening a restaurant since 1998 when we met in Boulder, Colorado, at the Full Moon Grill where Karl was the sous chef and I was a server. After moving to central Florida where the housing market was at an all-time high, we decided to finance a restaurant with the equity in our 100-year-old purple house that we had completely remodeled.
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We realized our dream after gutting and rebuilding a crumbling fried chicken restaurant and turning it into the New Day Café—a from-scratch local food, music and art hot spot. We were critically acclaimed, and on the surface it seemed to be going great. But we were riding the wave of economic collapse. Our town, St. Cloud, was especially hard hit. We had to close our doors after 18 months on August 23, 2008—just weeks before the corporate collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Losing our business was heart wrenching. I even wrote a eulogy. We grieved for a few months, and while we grieved we regrouped, found jobs and tried to make up for lost family time. Our house was tied to the restaurant debt, so we lost our house. Our mortgage and credit card debt would have taken the rest of our lives to repay. We didn’t want to raise our kids struggling to overcome the loss of our business, so we made the decision to admit defeat and declare bankruptcy with a clear and firm commitment never to use credit again.
Karl and I were stunned, but we quickly realized that the loss was the best thing that could have happened to us. The life we were living was killing us—working 80 to 100 hours a week was not our dream. The gift in any loss is the opportunity to take a new path. We wanted to grow our own food, learn from others living a similar lifestyle and to live a radically simple life without the burden of debt. We wanted to own our home outright. These were big dreams for a couple in our position.
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On September 1, 2008, I posted a giant calendar on our bedroom wall and wrote $300—the money in our savings account. From there, we created a budget and tracked every penny we spent. This helped us notice mindless spending. Trips to the beach, spontaneous meals out, numerous trips to the grocery store, driving without thinking about the cost of gas—we stopped these money leaks.
We stopped buying everything except food. It is liberating to stop consuming in a culture that tells us to buy, buy, buy. Instead of buying, we downsized. It took two years just to free ourselves from the bulk of our stuff. The money from selling our stuff also went to savings.
We not only decreased our spending, but we increased our incomes; we each got a second job. We began hitting $2,000 a month in savings. We juggled our schedules so one of us was with the kids at all times, and when we needed an occasional sitter, my mom and friends helped out.
Our discussions and web searches led us to Mortgage Free by Rob Roy. His subtitle, “Radical Strategies to Home Ownership” was fitting. No one I knew had ever gone this route, but the steps in Rob Roy’s book made it seem quite possible. We had already begun the first step, saving for land, and we were ready to think about where we wanted to move.
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This phase of planning was a lot of fun. We imagined our dream lifestyle and came up with a list of criteria. This included mountains, a good growing season, a local economy, a natural lifestyle, live music, a community with similar values—artistic, healthy, active, environmentally conscious—a location only a day’s drive from family, a climate with four seasons and affordable land at $10,000 or less an acre.
After six months of research, we found home in Floyd, Virginia. And by the end of 2009, we had saved $25,000, which was enough to pay cash for our 3 acres of raw land. Now we had to decide on shelter.
It would take years to get our family-sized main house completed, and we didn’t want to spend money on rent. We decided on a tiny house because we wanted a stick-built home, not a travel trailer or a shed. We wanted this structure to be an attractive addition to our homestead for decades, and we wanted to build it ourselves. We found a salvaged mobile home trailer on Craigslist and went to work. Our tiny house cost $12,000 in materials and took 10 months to build.
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In May of 2011, we moved into our little house and realized our mortgage-free dream. Our kids were six and eight, which is the sweet spot for kids in a tiny house. They loved our fort of a house, and we had a couple of adventurous years as a tiny house family. I started my blog, tinyhousefamily.com, and we ended up traveling to New York to appear on national television. It was a surreal experience, but we were grateful for the opportunity to share our story with others who were experiencing similar struggles. As time went on, the kids started taking up more space and, as they enter adolescence, they will need more space. Luckily, when we set out on this adventure, we knew we couldn’t live tiny forever; building as we grew was part of our plan.
In October of 2012, we broke ground on our big house. Living tiny while designing and building a bigger house is a great way to go. Since we stripped away the excess, and felt the joy of living with less, we wanted to make room only for what we missed. Our big house has just the right amount of space for each of us to retreat to our own room for solitude and enough space to gather with friends. Our kids will enter their teenage years with the space to explore who they are without a sibling a few feet away.
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We’ll move into the big house soon—some seven years after the close of the New Day Café. We’ll put our feet up for a few days, then move on to expanding the garden and adding more animals. We’ll open our tiny bed and breakfast. And we’ll have a big house dance party where we’ll leap across the room without whacking each other in the face. It’s going to be a whole new world.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.