It helps to have goals

Travel is my passion. What's yours? This is Ayuttya, old capital of Thailand.
Travel is my passion. What’s yours? This is Ayuttya, old capital of Thailand.

A goal is the place you want to get to

Americans are amazingly inventive. If we know what we want to accomplish, most of us can figure out a plan to get there. But first you have to decide where you want to go. Today’s challenge: write down your goal and take one step toward it. I’m on my path. How about you?

I’ve recently shared how I started weaning myself from having so much stuff that I couldn’t find things and didn’t even know what I had. I’ve posted how I subdivided my house and now live in a 500 square foot studio located in the basement of my condo. I’ve explained how my renter pays my mortgage and given you some ideas of how I reduced what I owned to fit the space. This has allowed me to pay off all my bills except my house, AND save a nest egg.

But it’s just money. And this is a lot of trouble unless you have a good reason. Saving money is good. Living frugally is good and even fun for me. But not enough. This post is about WHY I did those things.

Yup, that's the pyramids in the background
Yup, that’s the pyramids in the background

Follow your bliss

My goal started out as a silly thought. I kept thinking I should be happy. I’m healthy. I have a job with benefits. I have friends and family. I can afford to travel on my vacations, have low debt and can afford all the things I really need and most of my wants. I’m lucky. There is a lot to be said about “growing where you are planted” and appreciating what you have.

And yet, I wanted more. I still want more.

I’m bored and I feel unchallenged. Yeah, I know. Most of the world strives to have the kind of problems I have. But I know I’m actually happier when I’m working hard toward something. You’ve heard it said, Follow Your Bliss. But can “what makes you happy” also pay your way? I hope so. Because that’s what I’m working toward. It might not work out. It probably won’t work out the way I plan. Few things do. But I don’t have anyone to worry about except myself, so here goes.

I took this during a balloon ride in Cappadocia, Turkey
I took this during a balloon ride in Cappadocia, Turkey

I won’t be bored

I want to be wanderer, fulltime. I want to be a nomad of the world. Hence the name of the blog: Wander For Life. I may never own a home or a car again, nor many more possessions than I can fit into a couple suitcases. I may move to a different place every year, or every month. I want to meet people from other cultures, eat food I can’t pronounce, form my tongue around words I never heard growing up in the Midwest. I expect I’ll have more real problems, but fewer imagined ones. I’ll probably be dirty and lost and confused a lot. I’ll probably never have a lot of money again. But I won’t be bored.

I don’t have every single step figured out to accomplish my goal, but this blog is part of how I’m going to get there. Part of the blog is documentation. It’s also part marketing tool. Eventually. And it’s a place to solicit ideas. My guidance counselor in High School didn’t have “Wanderer” on her list of job titles. Heck, there wasn’t even an internet when I went to High School. I’ll have to feel my way. But I’ll need help. Your help. NO ONE DOES ANYTHING ALONE. I’ll need ideas from you.

That's me in the great Library at Ephesus
That’s me in the great Library at Ephesus

Plan B

It’s not all mapped out, but here’s what I plan, more specifically:

  • First I want to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. It will take me about 6 months to walk the 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. I’ve asked for that time off my job next year, but the odds are slim that I’ll get it. I’m selecting my backpacking gear now.
  • I want travel, to live in a different country every year. On the short list is South Korea, Turkey, Thailand, somewhere in the former Soviet Union, somewhere in South America and somewhere in Africa.

I think I can pay my way by teaching English, supplemented by blogging, selling ebooks and tour services online. I’m also willing to wait tables, work at hostels, be a barista at a coffee house or tend bar. I’m willing to try any reasonable/legal means to meet my goals, even some that might seem a bit extreme. None of the ideas will make me rich, but I should have a very rich life.

This will involve a lot of change and at some point I’ll just have to stop planning and step off into it. This won’t be an easy life. As Donna Freedman says, “I can say with some authority that sometimes, change really stinks. But I can also say that while change is scary, it is not the end of the story. Change is the chance to rewrite the story – or, rather, to take it in a new direction.”

So here’s to new directions!

Today’s challenge Write down what you want and take one step toward it. If you write it down, it’s less a dream, more a goal. If you take even one step toward it, it’s a path.

I’ve taken my beginning steps: I’ve chosen a goal. I’ve saved money to fall back on and–aside from my home–have zero debt. I’ve gotten rid of many of my possessions and continue to do so (more on that in future posts). I’ve paid down my mortgage so that the odds are good that I can sell the house free and clear when the time comes. I’m refining the gear I’ll need to hike the AT (much more on this to come)  I’ve started this blog. I’ve connected with YOU!

I’m on my path. How about you?

How to downsize, learning to live with less

Here’s my challenge to you: Free yourself from too much stuff and spending habits that keep you trapped.

This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there's actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?
This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there’s actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?

I began the journey of downsizing a few years ago, right around the time the economy took a dive. The radical move was dividing my three-floor condo into two living spaces, a duplex where the renter got 2/3rds of the space and I lived in what was left. I converted the basement into a studio apartment and rented out the top two floors of my townhouse. Though someone else now paid enough rent to cover the mortgage, I was faced with living in a third of the space I’d had.

It’s true that I had already cleared out my storage areas, lightened up the closets and even completely emptied one bedrooms and bath. But it still looked like a daunting task. At first.

I took a deep breath and tried to look at the situation logically. First define your space—the basement studio apartment is less than 500 square feet.

But how much space do you really need?

How big is a home?

Home sizes in the US are HUGE compared to other places in the world. According to Apartment Therapy, these are average square footage of new homes constructed since 2003:

  • US: 2,300
  • Australia: 2,217
  • Denmark: 1,475
  • France: 1,216
  • Spain: 1,044
  • Ireland: 947
  • UK: 818

These are all developed countries, so you can assume even smaller spaces in “the Third World.” Basically, others manage to get by with much less space than we Americans do. One woman doesn’t need over 1,500 square feet! I could find a way.

This is my new entrance. I just walk around the back of my unit of townhomes and my door is under the deck. I have my on patio.
This is my new entrance. I just walk around the back of my unit of townhomes and my door is under the deck. I have my on patio.

Where to start reducing

First you get rid of duplicates. In a three-floor, three-bath house you have a lot of duplicate items:

  • Vacuum cleaner/broom on each of three floors
  • Two floors had “living rooms” so I had duplicate couches/end tables/coffee tables/lamps
  • Television/stereo on each floor (I got rid of cable, so ended up giving all three TVs away)
  • Towels/bathmats/hand mirrors/cleaning utensils in 3 bathrooms
  • Office supplies like scissors/stapler/pens/paper on each floor
  • I didn’t need a bed since the studio apartment had a fold-down Murphy bed
  • I kept only one of two chest of drawers and gave away two sets of shelves
  • I had two writing desks, but I didn’t sit at either of them, so they both went
  • I pared down my kitchen items to fit my new, smaller kitchenette

I sold the furniture I didn’t need through a re-sale shop. What was left was donated to charity (always get a receipt) or gave away to friends who needed them. I could have made more money on the items if I’d held a yard sale or sold through eBay or Craigslist. (I’ve held back a few items to sell this way. hint: future post!). If I’d been unemployed and/or had more free time I would have sold some of this. And if between jobs, it would have been crucial to make money off my unused possessions. But I was (am) working a fulltime job and was running a part time business at the time (Atlanta Culinary Tours, which I’ve closed except for a few private dinners). I had very limited time.

Then I moved into the studio apartment, locked the door to the basement stairway on both sides and learned to live there. The realtor found a renter and I started reaping the rewards.

It’s had its ups and downs, but I’ve made it work. The rental income from the top two floors has allowed me to pay extra on my mortgage so that I am no longer under water! I’ve also managed pay off everything I owe except for my house and save a substantial rainy day fund. What did this hard work buy me? Freedom!

Financial freedom is a good feeling

If living within your means doesn’t sound sexy, maybe it’s time you grew up. I don’t stress nearly so much when things at work look rocky. I don’t want to lose my job, but I’ve got a safety net if I do. I don’t fret when the phone rings or the mail comes because I know no one is hounding me for money. I don’t owe anything but my mortgage. And I spend my money where I want, like world travel. I sleep well at night.

Sure times are hard, but even the poor in American are better off than most of the world. We don’t face the hardships my grandparents did in the Great Depression. We don’t have rationing like in WWII. It’s about balance. Having your needs met plus items that are useful and improve your life. Do you need every electronic toy available? Do you need a new car every two years? No.These are wants and they come after your needs are met and only if you can afford them.

So here’s my challenge: Grow up. Take responsibility. Make the hard decisions. And Free yourself.

What to do when you have too much house

This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there's actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?
This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there’s actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?

I recently shared my experience of reducing my possessions, a journey I started in 2008. I’m working toward living an ultra-lite life. I’m not there yet, but I’ve made a lot of progress. Over 2 years ago, after I’d made significant progress on getting my possessions down to just what I used, it became painfully obvious that I had too much house. I was living in a three floor condo. At that time it had two bedrooms, two full baths and laundry closet (top floor); living room, kitchen, dining (middle floor) with French doors to the deck; and a basement with an unfinished storage room, half bath and finished living room with fireplace which led out to concrete patio in back (below the deck) .

I’d already emptied and shut off one upstairs bedroom and bath and was no longer heating/cooling them. The basement storage was almost completely empty (except for paint cans and Christmas decorations). As a single woman, I didn’t really need the second living room downstairs, so I closed off the basement too. I separately closed off the fireplace once I realized all the heat it leaked in the winter. The utility savings was substantial.

Could I do more?

I’d reduced what I owned and I’d stopped wasting money on rooms I wasn’t using. That’s all fine. But the real issue was that I didn’t need this much house. It was time to downsize.

In a strong economy I would have sold the condo. But the economic downturn, starting in the fall of 2008, changed everything. Real estate simply wasn’t selling. My condo association, like every place in the US, had its share of foreclosures, so property values dropped substantially. Even though I’d put down 20% when I purchased the home and paid my mortgage faithfully and better-than-agreed, I was under water. The value of my home had dropped to about a third of what I paid for it. If I’d needed to move out of the area (and if I lived in a non-recourse state) I would have walked away and claimed a strategic default. Despite concerns of stability, I still had a job, so I still needed a place to live in the ATL.

I’d have to wait it out.

Could my house pay for itself?

I had an empty bedroom and bath. I had an underutilized basement. If I wasn’t using the space, could I get someone else to pay me for it?

The most obvious answer is getting a roommate. This is a particularly good idea if you can room with trusted family members or friends you’ve known all your life. I am an import to Atlanta and have no family here. I’d tried a roommate before but with the increased utility costs, I didn’t make much money and I spent a lot of time cleaning up after another person. Still, I advertised and asked around. After vetting several people—each more unsuitable (read that: scary!) than the last—I gave up on the roommate idea. I considered taking in other people’s items to store, for a price. This is a great way to make cash off a garage, for instance, since people with fancy cars need a place to keep them. But I didn’t find the right opportunity.

I went with a radical plan

First, I refinanced my mortgage at a lower rate and shorter term. It was a terrible hassle and took over 4 months, despite excellent credit, but it paid off. For minor closing costs, the new mortgage took 8 years, 2% points off the interest, and $50 a month off my payments! And the new, lower interest meant that with each payment I took a more substantial bite out of the principle.

Next, I transformed my three floor condo into two separate living spaces. With the help of a trusted neighbor (who was out of work due to layoffs), I converted the walk out basement with a half bath into a studio apartment with kitchenette, Murphy bed and shower. I could have put a college student in the studio and earned a few hundred a month, but the real payback was to move into the basement myself and rent out the top two floors.

Renter pays mortgage

It took a few months to find the right renter, so I had my doubts about this investment initially. But it did pay off. Even after paying a realtor to manage the rental (he got the first month’s rent and a portion of each monthly rent) someone else now pays my mortgage!


With my new rental income, I initially made two payments a month on my mortgage to get ahead—giving myself some financial breathing room in the event I lost my job (which didn’t happen). With the economic recovery moving so slowly, I felt I needed more of a safety net, since I wasn’t sure of the stability of my job. After that, I added the rental income to the regular mortgage payment to pay down the principle even more. (In addition, the income from a side business I ran for three years also went toward the house payment.) With the new, lower bank mortgage, the extra really pay down the principle quickly.

My taxes were pretty impressive, though messier than ever. This living situation is a duplex and 2/3 of all fees associated with the house can be written off federal and state income taxes (Monthly HOA fees, building maintenance, property taxes, homeowner’s assessments and interest on the mortgage loan). I take a deduction for the value of the property plus the cost to convert it to separate spaces. And I deduct 100% of costs associated with the rental itself (my realtor’s fees, for instance). (That H&R Block tax course I took a few years ago really paid for itself!)

I could have made out better financially if I had been able to do the construction/conversion work myself. I could have chosen to find and handle the renter directly instead of hiring a real estate agent. But I know my skills. I’m simply not a handywoman and I’m a terrible landlord. Though a meticulous bookkeeper, I hired someone else to do my taxes, too, which helps me sleep better at night. Never mess with the IRS!

And now, my efforts are paying off! Though I can’t be sure until I sell the property—houses are only worth what someone will pay for them—I  believe I am no longer under water with my mortgage.

Was it worth it?

I realize all this may seem like a sacrifice, but it was worth it to me. Reducing my possessions, living in a small studio were changes I was willing to make to get myself out of mortgage debt. Was it easy? No. And this renter has been….difficult. But I had a goal (more on that in the future), a brain and was willing to make an effort. It’s the American way to try to improve your situation. This didn’t happen overnight. I’ve worked since 2008 toward this goal. But now the real estate market is coming back, the economy is (slowly) improving, and I’m in a better place financially.

Next Steps

The renter’s lease is up at the end of July and I’ve notified her that it won’t be renewed. I hope she’s not trashed the place and I have extensive repairs to do.

Can I sell? That’s my hope. It will be a good place for the right person. I’ve kept up the house, mortgage rates are still low, home prices are rising (roughly 16% in the last year), and the downstairs additions should make the condo more appealing than ever. If not, I’ve petitioned the condo association to let me rent out the entire house, but that’s a long shot.

Keep those fingers crossed!

Going ultra-lite, because less is more

My new backpack, a Jam 70 from GoLite
My new backpack, a Jam 70 from GoLite. It holds just 30 pounds.

I’ve been a backpacker for years, but my gear had been languishing on a shelf. I’ve recently closed a part time business and am using the open space in my calendar to do some shake-down hikes. I’m figuring out how to carry less weight on my back. My last lengthy hike was almost a decade ago when I was younger, stronger and …ahem….had a smaller waistline. Reducing your backpack to a very low weight–25 pounds for a week’s hike–is called Ultra-Lite backpacking. That’s what I’m striving for. To carry on my back only what I need to be safe, fed, warm and healthy. Anything else just weighs you down and subtracts from your enjoyment of the experience. Less is more.

But my real goal is to Ultra-lite my LIFE.

Since the economy took it’s downturn in 2008, my whole life has changed. I live in the same house and work at the same job (though that was a bit sketchy for awhile there). But my attitude toward “things” and what I value is very different. Outwardly, I have fewer possessions. I own perhaps a fifth of what I did just 5 years ago. Having less stuff allows me to focus on experiences and on the things that I really care about. Like backpacking. Or world travel. Don’t get me wrong: I have everything I need. I just have a lot less of what I don’t need.

How’d I do it? One space at a time!

Getting rid of possessions may sound daunting, but I didn’t do it all at once. Most of us would feel too deprived if we got rid of everything at once. My journey started with frustration. I had so much stuff but couldn’t find anything. I was tired of cleaning around things, ruffling through over stuffed closets and moving unmarked boxes with unknown contents. It started by going through all my storage areas, which were mostly overhead or in the basement and tough to access. Most of what was there were things I didn’t use, couldn’t find and mostly didn’t even remember buying. I had 4 large boxes that I’d moved through 3 states and 6 homes without once opening! There was not one thing inside those boxes that I kept. Except for Christmas decorations, most of the items in storage were scrapped or given away. If you pay for a storage unit, this can be a real cost savings. (If you’re using your parent’s basement and garage to store things, this can make the holidays much more pleasant.)

That’s when it got fun

Next I set a goal to make room in my overcrowded closets. If I’d used the item in the last 6 months it went back in the closet. If I hadn’t used it in a year, but I thought I would, it went in a special section of the closet WITH A DATE ON IT. If I didn’t use it in another 6 months, it had to go. Everything else went into one of three boxes.

  • Things to donate or share
  • Things to throw out
  • Things to repair (and it’s surprising how large this category is!)

After I’d cleared the boxes, I went through every drawer and did the same thing. I moved on to every flat surface in the house. I added a new category of items to keep:

  • Things I find inspiring, useful or beautiful

This isn’t about doing without or being in want. If you love an item, if it makes you smile just to glance at it, keep it. But make sure it is out somewhere that you can enjoy it and not cluttered behind items of less value.

I have no children, so I gave family heirlooms to my nieces. Goodwill got clothing, knickknacks and decorative items. Who needs reference books in the age of Google? I donated books I’d never read again to the library, to friends or swapped them online for used books I would read. I threw away bag after bag of useless paper and broken items. I scanned my photos and letters and reduced shelves of scrapbooks to a handful of thumb drives and back up CDs. I mailed the photos to friends and family and donated almost everything from my High School years to my school’s scrapbook project.

Suddenly I had more room than I needed

I hardly ever missed an item I’d gotten rid of. But here’s the real surprise: the place looked better than before without all the clutter and useless decorative things. It was easier and faster to clean. I could find the things I needed. I was calmer. I even saved money. I’d completely emptied a spare bedroom and bath. I’d greatly reduced the items in my dining area and basement. I closed those rooms off and didn’t heat/cool them anymore. And I stopped buying things I didn’t need or already had.

And most importantly: I had more time, energy and money to spend on what I wanted

And isn’t that really the point? You don’t have unlimited resources. You have to FOCUS on what’s important. By getting rid of distracting things, I’ve come a long way toward doing that. I literally and figuratively opened up space in my life for something more….something better. I have what I need to be safe, fed, warm and healthy. I am comfortable. Anything else just weighs you down and subtracts from your enjoyment of the experience.

Less. Is. More.