How I Shrank My Overhead

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, the following will be old news to you. But I wanted to give a quick capsule summary for the benefit of the new readers who have stopped by recently (thanks and welcome!).

One, I don’t have a car. By some estimates, taking into account gas and insurance and car payments and repairs and all, car ownership costs an average of $8K a year (USA). Instead of needing a car, I make it a deal-breaker to live near where I work and near essential shops. I mainly get around by foot and bicycle, which doubles as my main exercise. (Pre-Covid, I did take public buses or Uber once in a while. And on occasion I rent cars; I rented one back in 2018 to drive up to Virginia for a time-sensitive family visit.)

Two — and this is the biggest cost item — I minimize my housing overhead. Before I owned my home, I always either found cheap apartments, or shared the cost with a roommate, or both. Back in Austin, I lived in an RV park for 10 years, from 2000 when I got my divorce to 2010 when I moved to Florida. The RV park rent started out at $220 a month, which included electric and water! By the time I left, it had gone up to $375 – still a bargain. (Now, the problem is, cheap housing rental options are becoming thinner on the ground. RV parks are getting bought up by fancy management companies that jack up the rent; apartments are getting expensive and scarce for various reasons. Modern zoning restrictions and NIMBYism make it almost impossible to reintroduce SROs, rooming houses, and other modest-priced housing where students, artists, single folks, and all sorts of people on the margins of society traditionally found refuge. This state of affairs has turned me into a crusader for restoring low-end housing options.)

I own my own home now because I inherited money when my Mom passed, and used it to buy my simple, sturdy beachside bungalow outright for 124K. My monthly overhead house costs, including insurance, taxes, and water/sewer/trash collection, are $350 a month, and I am often sharing these with housemates, though I go through periods of occupying my house alone. Really I prefer housemates even if it were not for the cost savings.

My electricity bill is $11 to $13 when I’m living by myself; $18 or $20 with housemates. I give tips about minimizing electricity use elsewhere in this blog.

I don’t have a TV, therefore don’t have cable service, etc.

My total phone and internet bill, including unlimited data plan on my phone, is $50. This includes 5 gigs of data for getting online with my laptop using my phone as a hotspot, but I usually don’t need it; my phone is my main work tool these days.

What else? I’m self-employed and work at home, but even if I didn’t, I just don’t like new clothes all that much. I buy almost eveything thrift, vintage, or hand-me-down.

I don’t buy many household cleaning products; mainly just sweep with a broom, and mop with water + a drop of essential oil or detergent. Not having carpet helps a lot.

These are the main ways I minimize my overhead. I can live fine on 12k a year before taxes; live very comfortably at 15k; and live lavishly at 18k.

Within this, I am able to donate money to community organizations, environmental preservation nonprofits, and other worthy causes.

I should mention that I have my indulgences. Books, restaurant meals (outdoors only these days), online classes. So I’m not at all deprived. There’s just a whole lot of stuff I don’t need to buy, and it keeps my cost of living low.

Why do I do it? In a nutshell, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time and energy chasing money. This gives me occupational freedom and creative space, including ample mindspace to be able to think about how to solve planetary problems. My belief is that Mother Earth needs for us to marshal as many of our neurons as possible front-and-center right now, and it brings me great satisfaction to be able to do this.

Regarding my experience of living on a low income and being housing-insecure a few years back, I posted the following comment in the “Socially Conscious FIRE” Facebook group:

I actually live in a place where rents are too high for workers’ incomes, but some houses in some neighborhoods are low-priced to buy (if a person can pay cash). I was able to buy my house in cash (124k) because I inherited money when my Mom passed. Before that, I was housing-insecure in one of the very few remaining cheap apartments. I turned a 1br into a 2br by making a “room” out of tall bookcases, so I could let an apartment-mate live in the actual bedroom. Our rent was $500, or $250 each. The creativity part was fun; the very small supply of affordable apts was not, and that’s why I continue to be a strong activist for expanding our menu of lower-priced housing options for renters, such as RV parks, SROs etc. Things that used to be a far more prominent part of the housing supply than they are today.

Further Reading:

Being housing-insecure in the past, and watching others continue to struggle, has made me passionate about addressing the structural ills on the U.S. housing landscape. This article on tiny-house villages is inspiring, and offers possibly the most astute summary of our housing crisis that I’ve ever read. Mentions SROs too. A long piece, packed with compassionate practical wisdom.

” … a tiny house village model is not just a solution to homelessness. It’s basically just a scale of housing, rather than any particular type of person. Lots of different types of people are attracted to this scale of development, where you have a modest, private individual space and then shared indoor and outdoor spaces. It’s something that’s attractive to a broad range of folks, and it’s an option that’s just not available in our city. You have the apartment building, or the single family house. There’s not a lot of shared housing options in most cities. So I see it as a way to both provide solutions to issues of homelessness and low income housing, and an additional option of how we house ourselves.”