This should probably be two posts, but that's just not how I roll. Grab some coffee and a snack. This'll take a minute...
I don't want to write this post at all. In fact, little pieces of my heart and soul are dying as I type these words, but then my brain tells me to STFU because it's not as bad as it seems on the surface. In reality and in the long run, it'll probably the very best thing that could happen to us on our tiny life journey.
We are moving back to Texas and into my dad's house in the next few months.
Now, before you think, "Oh look, another tiny houser who couldn't hack living tiny is going back to their big house life," allow me to make one thing absolutely, positively, crystal. frigging. clear...
THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE TINY HOUSE ITSELF OR EVEN THE ACT OF LIVING IN THE TINY HOUSE.
In fact, were we NOT living in the tiny house here in Colorado and instead renting one of the very expensive apartments in the area, we'd be much worse off than we are now. We'd be paying at least double the rent for just a one bedroom, likely triple the electric, and also be paying for water in an apartment. Really, the only advantage an apartment would have over our THOW is that I could potentially be walking distance from my job instead of 54 miles one way or a two hour round trip away.
We had a very specific list of reasons for choosing Colorado for our first stop in our tiny house adventure, which in no particular order consists of:
- Ability to live in our THOW full-time
- Ability to transfer within the company I've worked at for almost 5 years
- Having a stable source of income & legal parking = freedom to focus on debt elimination
- Remaining close enough to Texas to regularly visit family
- The Mountains! The Weather! The Everything-That's-Different-From-Texas! ;)
See the emphasis on the third line?? That's because that was THE reason we were okay with leaving Texas with debt left to pay off. We had some debt already, accrued a good deal more building the tiny house, and have no intention of traveling or moving to Washington until we have that debt totally paid off. We thought the security of having the same job and a safe, legal place to park and live in the THOW would be all we needed to really hunker down and start chipping away at the balances. We've had loads of credit card debt before and managed to pay it all off a bit at a time, albeit with two incomes instead of one, and we expected this time to be no different. Instead, though, we started a slow roll down the mountain that has surpassed snowball status and progressed to full on avalanche. We haven't been this broke since I was in nursing school and we were surviving off Brand's $7.50/hr maintenance job.
On paper, our overhead should be less than when we had our Big House. The cost of our truck payment, truck insurance, RV lot rent, electric bill, and our Texas cell bill (more on that in a moment) totals as much as our $2000/mo mortgage. Our electricity has averaged about $50-60/mo at the $1/kW rate the RV park charges, but because of the lack of reliable wifi (a must since Brand takes college classes online), our cell bill has more than doubled. We really weren't expecting a LOT of the pricing differences up here, and we blame that on being more focused on finishing the house and finding a place to park. Food costs more. Fuel costs more. There are state taxes here. We knew about the taxes, actually, but our entire grocery budget ($300/mo) is what that equates to every two paychecks. When your usual grocery budget is being usurped by the State with every check, it doesn't take long for your bank balance to start dwindling and you to start whipping out the plastic to pay for necessities. That, my friends, is a highly unsustainable way to live.
Really, that's not the whole problem, and really there aren't even just one or two issues I could point my finger at and say, "THIS is the reason we're broke." We knew it was a risk coming here with debt to pay off because yes, we did know the cost of living would be higher. What we couldn't have planned for was the hospital being delayed an additional two months, requiring me to drive those 54 miles ten times a week for 8 weeks in order to be paid full-time hours. Normally as a nurse we work three 12-hour shifts, which would have meant 324 miles of travel from Loveland to Westminster each week. Instead, I was driving 540 miles at $2.50/gal in a truck that was now getting 14mpg instead of the 18mpg it averaged in flat, 17-mile-one-way-commute-Texas where diesel was nearly $0.20/gal cheaper. Worse, on Thursdays and Fridays we all carpool to my work and R.A.D's school, which actually totals 164 miles in ONE day. Go ahead, do the math. I'll wait.
When we started realizing just how serious the financial situation was becoming, I began keeping a little list of cost comparisons in Texas vs. Colorado. Granted these aren't 100% apples to apples comparisons for various reasons, but I actually notated the differences for my own sake as much as for sharing it here. You'll notice that travel costs are a big part of the equation as made obvious in previous paragraphs, but what this chart doesn't show are the differences in things like food and laundry costs. Here we pay $3/load, which includes one cycle each of washing and drying. While not a big expense (we average 2 loads per week), it is still something we didn't account for. With groceries, for example, I found about an $0.80 difference between the FairLife milk I drink between our Target in TX and the one in Loveland, which, incidentally, isn't a Super Target. We have to drive another 36mi round trip to Fort Collins for food because that's still the cheapest place to go for us. Even the pizza we occasionally treat ourselves to costs more - $6.99 in Texas and $7.99 in Colorado. It all adds up quick!
If you're feeling like all the comparisons I'm sharing are just nickels and dimes on the grand scheme of things, let me tell you that I agree completely! As I said, there isn't any one or two or even three BIG, obvious reasons why we've been bleeding cash since we got here. Instead, the realization of just how maxed out and drained down our accounts have become hit me when I spent Friday morning 2/12 paying bills online. After paying the bare minimum payments on everything due between then and the next pay day, we have $104.00 to buy food and fuel for the next two weeks. ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR DOLLARS. For three people. And a cat. And a work period that totals 836 miles of driving in a truck that gets 14mpg. Needless to say, that was the final straw, the last nail in the Colorado coffin.
Can you see now why those nickels and dimes are more like thieves and black holes vanishing any and every cent we have or I earn?
I'm sure by now you're asking yourself perfectly valid questions like...
"Why doesn't she just get a second job or he start working, too?"
"Why don't they just find a cheaper, closer place to park their tiny house?"
"Why doesn't she just use mass transit or get a car with better gas mileage?"
"Have they even bothered to try to reduce their expenses further?"
...to which I dutifully reply:
I actually DID secure a 2nd job here that wouldn't start until the middle of March (which means I won't get paid until April), but in order to keep living here AND being able to not just pay our bills but actually start paying them off, I would have to work six 12-hr shifts per week AT LEAST. We need cash now, and seventy-two hours a week is brutal. Granted I wouldn't have to work that much fooorrr-eeeev-errrr, but it would be a longer period of time than I'm willing to commit to. Colorado was supposed to be a working vacation of sorts for me. At this point in my career I feel I've earned a little work-life balance for the sake of my kid if nothing else, and this would definitely NOT be that.
As for parking, go to the Denver Craigslist site and search "tiny house" under the "Housing" tab. You'll immediately see there a dozens of posts by people with tiny houses looking for a place to park. Colorado is a popular place to live for a ton of reasons, and sadly the State - for all its progressiveness with marijuana legalization AND as the home of the most professional tiny house building companies in the country - isn't exactly tiny house friendly. I sent a form letter with the specifics of our needs to every single RV site that shows up on Google maps over the spring and summer of 2015, and if I even got a reply the answers were, "We don't take tiny houses," or, "We don't have any long term parking available." In my desperation at one point, we were even looking at buying a mining claim in Florissant just to have a place to park, though since the BLM actually owns the physical land we'd still just be "camping." Think my drive to work is rediculous now?! Florissant is 113 miles ONE WAY from Westminster. More recently I had a few nibbles in Lyons, but none of those panned out for various reasons including the land being too steep, the land not being zoned to allow occupancy in the THOW (a very common problem), or us needing to be totally off-grid right now. We can handle everything except power right now, and solar systems ain't cheap. Just ask the great and varied folks of the Denver Tiny House Enthusiast group how easy it is to find ANY kind of tiny house parking that's not out in the boonies and/or totally off-grid, and you'll see we were super fortunate to even find Riverview in Loveland at all.
There's a transit route called "Bustang" that runs from Fort Collins down to Denver proper with a stop in Loveland where I could board, but the earliest it arrives at the Denver bus transfer center at 0700. I have to be at work at 0645, and I'd still have to take an additional bus to work that would make me quite late. Plus, the bus only runs Monday through Friday, and I work all kinds of random weekends. As for a cheaper car, during the time the hospital was delayed I actually did rent a car for three weeks because it was cheaper to pay the $125/wk fee plus about $20 in gas (it got 37mpg) than pay for diesel. With the lower gas and diesel prices now, however, that wouldn't be nearly as cost effective. We contemplated buying a cheap car in Texas to bring here (Colorado car registration fees are outrageously expensive: $600-800 vs. $63/yr in Texas), but that requires a lump sum of cash and a few prayers that it doesn't break down in the winter conditions. It's not really an investment worth making in the long run, especially since we'd eventually have to get rid of it.
I should also point out that while we have definitely not done as good a job with general expense reduction as we should have (did I mention we ate out too much when we first got here?!), we did get rid of several services we've used for years just to cut costs where we could. What good are Netflix, Hulu, Pandora One, and HBO Now when you have no wifi and streaming would burn through your meager data plan in mere days? Yes, I like having my gym membership since the weather isn't stable enough for me to run outdoors here, but I've only gone twice since I've been here. Buh-bye. I no longer subscribe to my numerous digital magazines (fare thee well, Tiny House Magazine), I've ended our Monster Muscle shake deliveries from Amazon (this is brutal, because that's my breakfast and I don't like coffee), and I've been tracking down other subscriptions I may have forgotten about (unused website addresses, phone apps, credit score managers, etc) as fast as I can to avoid surprise charges. They don't cost much individually - $3.99 here, $8.99 there - but they do start adding up fast.
I feel that I have done my due diligence and have exhausted all the avenues I can think of to find a way to make this work that would improve our present situation and not be so demanding as to be unsustainable for even a short period of time. As my dear, sweet husband told me recently, I have to be the one to make the decision to stay or go because I'd be the one having to work all those extra days and continue to drive all those crazy miles. It's not cost effective for him to get a job, as some have suggested, because my pay rate would be at least double anything he could earn right now. Plus, we'd potentially have to pay for childcare if our work days overlapped, which is yet another expense we can't afford. Nope, folks, it's all on me. I WANT to stay, I really, really do, but I also don't want to go insane trying to work 72 hours a week just to make ends meet when we can go back to Texas and immediately eliminate about $2500 of our monthly expenditures just by not being in Colorado. It makes me feel like I'm giving up too easily, it really does, but in the name of sanity and bankruptcy avoidance, "I'm out, Jerry."
Now, lest anyone think me ungrateful for the opportunities we have, the support of our family, and the fact that I'm even employed at all when so many aren't, let me be clear that I know dang well everything mentioned above is a First World Problem. I'll also give you my canned response to that observation, which is that admitting that doesn't make the situation suck any less. We are well aware that we are lucky to be able to choose to live the tiny life when many don't have the luxury of choice, so please don't mistake me providing a blow-by-blow of our personal situation as whining, lamenting, or otherwise seeking sympathy for our troubles. I share such specific, personal details because I want each and every person who thinks that just because you build a tiny house you will magically become debt free to know that is simply not the case.
Can we and will we eventually be debt free? Yes. Will we get to that point while living in Colorado? Doubtful.
We certainly weren't expecting to suddenly be swimming in cash, but some of the posts I see online espousing the financial freedom that CAN come with living in a tiny house border on unrealistic optimism at best and are sometimes outright lies. Yes, you CAN live a lower cost lifestyle in a tiny house, but it doesn't just happen overnight. Just like gastric bypass surgery doesn't instantly make you skinny or healthy, building a tiny house doesn't instantly make you debt free or better at managing your money. You have to change your lifestyle and spending habits to create and maintain financial health the same way you have to adjust your intake of and attitude toward food in order to become physically healthier. Our situation is essentially equal parts unexpected expenses, an inadequate safety net, underestimating the real differences in the cost of living, and not reining in our old spending habits enough. We could likely weather three of those four issues without too much strife, but the combination is overwhelming our resources. Hindsight being 20/20, we'd have been better off staying in Texas to pay off the debt and then coming to Colorado, but there's no point playing the "woulda, shoulda, coulda" game now.
I equate the situation we are presently in to being nearly identical to when we were cash strapped living in our 3200sqft house except in a house the size of our old master bathroom. Why would we want to stay here and just be making it when we could suck it up, go back to Texas, and really, truly pay off our remaining debt in a less stressful situation? Yes, this means another dreaded Texas summer (Whhhhhhhhyyyyyyyy???!?!?!), but it beats having to parking lot hop with our tiny house in tow and survive off ramen noodles because we have to cut costs so dramatically. We owe ourselves and, more importantly, our son more than that.
This was not a failure, friends. It was a trial run.
If you've followed our blog for a while now - which started on tinyhouse43.wordpress.com in December 2013 - then you know we've never set a specific plan for our tiny house life beyond wanting to eventually move to Washington state hopefully by the summer of 2018 for R.A.D to start first grade at the Waldorf school we've chosen for him. That flexibility was intentional, because we most definitely know how quickly life can throw you a curveball, and we want to be better prepared for them next time. I certainly couldn't have predicted my mom's cancer diagnosis just a few short months after our son was born, and I definitely wasn't expecting to only have another 17 months with her! Our initial thought for Colorado was only to be here six months anyway, and while returning to Texas wasn't on the radar at all, the reality is that we need to be debt-free AND have a large nest egg saved up so that we can be selective about where we live and also not have to take as many student loans out for Brand to finally finish his degree. See, even now we know we aren't really, truly done with debt. Life changes happen, for better or worse, and we simply have to roll with it. That's why I look at this winter in Colorado in our tiny house as a learning experience that will better prepare us for our future life in it.
In addition to now knowing Colorado is a gorgeous but expensive place to live, we learned of several quirks and kinks in the tiny house we need to fix before we finally travel with it. We can now come up with even better solutions to combat the mold issues we've encountered, including replacing all the loft walls with more resistant materials. We can now finalize the storage additions in the kitchen and nook areas after having spent six months using those spaces day to day. Our Kimberly wood stove is "breaking in" well, and we'll have the funds to get the cobb oven attachment for more off-grid cooking options. Really, though, the best part of all this is that back in Texas we'll actually have the time, space, and funds to really, truly FINISH the tiny house for reals. What could be better than that?!
We've also made some amazing new tiny life friends along the way, and we've witnessed the beginnings of a little tiny house community being created within the RV park we've had the pleasure of living at this winter. This really has been an unforgettable winter filled with many adventures and promising plan-making for the future. Riverview RV Park couldn't have been a better place for us to break in the tiny house, and we are so grateful they see the value in THOWs as homes. They're definitely worth considering if you need a place to park your tiny house for a spell!
Remember when I said the decision to move back to Texas has nothing to do with the tiny house itself or even the act of living in the tiny house? All still true! It hasn't always been sunshine and roses (schlepping to the bath house at 0-dark-30 in 2F weather because the water line froze despite being heated, what?!), but on the whole we've had a blast in our little abode. Our son adores his room and all his built-in play areas, we've been getting better and better at cooking in the smaller space (nothing will change our disdain for doing dishes though... ugh), and we've each carved out little areas of our own to spend quiet time reading, studying, or playing games. We enjoy our family movie nights just as much as we did in the Big House, and while we still aren't as successful with our Nature's Head composting toilet as we'd like, practice makes perfect! ;)
If we could live in the tiny house on my dad's acre we'd do it in a heartbeat, and if we could find a really cheap place to park it close to my Texas workplace, we'd do that, too. Right now, though, we're okay with only being able to "recreate" in the house while we finish the last of the build projects where we know the house is safe to be temporarily parked. Brand gets the wifi he needs to take his classes with ease, and he'll handle the remodeling projects my dad would otherwise have to sideline because of his new job's travel requirement. R.A.D will have our Pugs and the big boys across the street to play with, and I know my dad and in-laws are looking forward to seeing him more often. I'm glad to have more time with my dad when he's in town and to work with the awesome folks at my Texas hospital again. Looking forward to the Texas summer, however?? Not so much. Enduring one hundred degree days is, however, a small (sweaty? scorching?) price to pay to get back on track financially so we can really, truly get back to living our tiny life.
So, this is NOT goodbye to the tiny life, our tiny house, or any of our future plans.
It's merely a pause to regroup and refocus so we can get back to the life we've made for ourselves in our beautiful tiny house on wheels but on much, much better terms. We will still blog and share photos of the finishing process, and if we can swing it we'd like to make a couple open house stops on our way back to Dallas. The move timing is definitely still a work in progress right now - lots of pieces in play that must be dealt with first - but we expect to be back in TX by the end of March or early April at the latest. We'll give ourselves another year-ish to finish the house and get our debt paid off (except the truck payment) before we head out on our travel across the country. We may even work a summer in Alaska into our plans now, which is something we would have never even considered were it not for our time in Colorado and meeting three different tiny house dwelling families/couples from Alaska. It's opportunities like those that make the tiny house life and traveling so amazing, so now we want to take advantage of the opportunity to return to Texas to get our financial ducks in a row so we CAN enjoy the freedom having your house on wheels can bring!
We've got a ton of planning to do again, but we'll keep you posted about the move plans and any open houses we manage to work out. Thank you to ALL our readers for your continued support and encouragement. We don't have any kind of tiny house related business and have no paying sponsors of any sort, so we truly share our story because we enjoy our adventures and hope in some small way to help others thinking of going tiny to weigh all the pros and cons thoroughly. The TV shows on tiny houses show the glamorous side of the lifestyle, but owning and living in a tiny house (especially if you built it yourself) is as much or more work than a traditional house. This life is definitely not for everyone, but we know it is still for us and can't wait to get back on track so we can enjoy it to the fullest!!
💜🏡💙 With Tiny House Love 💜🏡💙
Meg, Brand, and R.A.D