Downsizing Into Freedom – Open Heart Story

Story By Cynthia Lee De Boer

My head was spinning with the memories created in my empty home.  This was a bittersweet moment, which ended by closing the door, and stepping into a new life.  After months of re-prioritizing, Dann and I were no longer bound to a piece of property.  We were free.

Downsizing at nearly fifty years of age was not any easy decision.  I never thought I’d leave my home like this.  Owning a home is a huge part of the American Dream.  A dream hammered into our heads for as long as we could remember.  But in America, a home has magically transformed from a place of shelter to a status symbol.  It represents proof of being a successful, and mature adult.  In this nation of independent thinkers, each unique person is worthy of living in a manner of his or her own choosing.  But conform we do.  We conform to public opinion; advertising and we have to keep up with our neighbors, and co-workers.

Dann and I were no different.  We owned a beautiful home complete with a backyard pool, vegetable garden, and roses.  Beautiful desert landscaping adorned our front yard including an amazing saguaro cactus.  Sadly, somewhere along the line of conformity, our true dreams were suffocated under the weight of the financial obligations produced from home ownership.  We simply accepted this because everyone we knew was doing the same thing.

Several years back, I’d learned the word mortgage means ‘death grip’ in Latin.  What a laugh, I thought.  Our house would be paid for in less than twenty years and then we could sell it and do what we always wanted.  What ever that may be.  Sound familiar?

I stopped laughing when the housing market took a dive.  Seemingly overnight, we were upside down over ninety thousand dollars with further decreases projected.  The truth was, we did not own our home—it owned us!  Nearly three-quarters of our income went towards the house:  mortgage, taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance.  Not to mention the countless hours we spent caring for it.  One of the main reasons we chose our home was to entertain family and friends.  This turned out to be a rare occasion because we couldn’t afford to entertain any one, including ourselves.  Unexpected job and health issues entered our lives as well.  Now what do we do?

Soul searching was our next step.  We discussed the plans, hopes and dreams we shared at the beginning of our relationship as well as or personal goals.  Next we wrote them down in order from most important to least.  Our true wishes were discovered.  A compassionate and loving marriage, our health and the health of our children, family and friends topped our lists.  Careers we enjoy ranked high, as well as the ability to travel and participate in the activities we love.  Reliable transportation and a comfortable place to live were also necessities for us.

Our words stared back at us.  People and experiences topped our lists, not things.  Having a nice place to live didn’t mean owning a house, or even renting one.  A comfortable place to live could be an apartment, condo, trailer, or even a boat.  We mulled our list over for the next few weeks and not much changed.

Researching a new life became the next step.  A move would definitely mean downsizing.  How would downsizing affect every aspect of our lives?  Could we eliminate our commercial trappings, and be all right with that?  Where would we move and what would the costs be per month?  We also owed a mortgage and felt responsible for that.   These issues needed answers.

We discovered a friend’s industrial condo was available for rent.  We would be allowed to make certain changes and paint it to our liking. This move would decrease our living space from nearly seventeen hundred square feet to eight hundred square feet.  It would also cut our overhead by two-thirds.  This would eliminate our other debt in a relatively short period of time, and give us the needed capital to pursue our dreams.

How could we walk away from all we had invested into the house?  The answer to that question was found in something called the Sunk Cost Fallacy.  This basically says no matter how much money you have poured into something, when the data changes, cut your losses and get out. It doesn’t make sense to sink more money into a losing proposition.  We analyzed our finances as if they pertained to someone else.  This method allowed us to take our emotions out of the equation and made our decision quite simple.  Our options were to be bound to the house for the next twenty years and/or hope to sell it while doing nothing, or cut our ties and truly live!

We decided to let our home go, and revive our dreams.  Several aggravating weeks went by without coming to terms with our mortgage company.  My husband and I moved out of the house and into the condo.  The foreclosure would affect our credit score negatively, but we left our home on our time, in a planned move.  Our utilities remained on and we maintained the house until the mortgage company took possession.  Our neighbors didn’t have to worry about an unsightly house in the neighborhood, and we felt good about our continued care.  We loved our home and wanted the next owners to enjoy it as we had.

At times the move was extremely unsettling.  Telling family and friends was difficult, and met with mixed reviews.  Some believed we had taken leave of our senses, while others commented on our courage to go after the life we always wanted.  A friend from England gave us an outside perspective when she observed these facts.  Many Americans store unused or unwanted items in their garages while their vehicles costing thousands sit unprotected in the elements.  Our country has acres of storage facilities that are rarely used for short-term transitional periods.  Monthly fees are paid to store discarded possessions.  In short, Americans purchase more things than experiences.  She thought this was quite sad and wondered why and how this came to pass.  So did we.

What do we really need?  My husband and I worked to find our answer.  By keeping our dreams forefront in our minds we stuck to our obvious choice.  We have defined our lives by who we are, not what we own.  Now, less than one quarter of our income is devoted to shelter and we live in a home we lovingly call our Flat.  Our home maintenance time is down over eighty percent, including cleaning and caring for all the possessions we use to own.  Dann and I enjoyed giving our things to our family, friends, and favorite charities.  We saved most of our special treasures, and those we couldn’t, were photographed and placed in a memory book.  By paring down our possessions we have decreased our stress and have never slept better.  Dann and I have more time and money to spend enjoying and experiencing our new lives.  What an amazing trade!

Author’s Note:  It’s been said; the more keys on your key ring the more complicated your life.  This simple analogy sums it up perfectly, as does the photograph.  Original Story Date:  September 2010.

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