Wednesday, May 21, 2014

From 900 Square Feet to 5,000 Square Feet to 50 Square Feet

Here is an interesting juxtaposition for you. Can you imagine downsizing from 5,000 square feet to only 50 square feet? That is living in 1% of the largest amount of space I had ever occupied.  Just think about that for a few minutes and see if you can wrap your mind around that contrast.

In the Beginning - my parent's first house - about 900 sq. ft.
My first house was also about 900 sq. ft..
From my early youth, I remember, my parents' first home. It was around 900 square feet of finished living space. The next house was larger, the house after that was larger still and the next three houses were each slightly larger with the last home my parents owned, at the time of my father's untimely death, being the largest of the six homes they had.

I left my hometown of Clifton, New Jersey at 22 and moved to Syracuse, New York to attend graduate school at Syracuse University. I moved to a one-bedroom apartment. Then I moved to a two-bedroom apartment. Within less than two years I had moved to a four level townhouse about twice the size of the two-bedroom apartment. Then my Uncle Sam called me and I enlisted in the Air Force. Ultimately, I went to Washington, DC where I started out with a 400 square foot efficiency apartment.

Moving Up To 5,000 Square Feet

With the Air Force behind me, a wife and the future prospect of a family, I moved to my first house. Interestingly, it was about the size of my parents' first house, 900 to 950 square feet. From then forward, the houses got larger. When I moved to Winchester, Virginia in 1984 I moved into a house with a total of about 5,000 square feet. Unfortunately, it was while living in this house, after 18 years together, that my marriage unraveled.

The period from the end of 1989 until October 31, 2008 I lived in five houses ranging from about 1,000 square feet to approximately 3,000 square feet. I shared part of those years with a second wife, (less than six months) and about five years of an eight-year relationship sharing space with a significant other and my son. But, of that 19-year period, I lived alone for about 13 years. Of course, I worked from home all of those years, so my businesses shared the space with me. I believe it's fair to say I occupied an average of about 2,500 square feet during that period.

Let me say I have lived comfortably most of my 47 adult years (to date). However, looking back, it's also fair to say I really didn't NEED all the space I occupied. The only regret I have is that I don't have the money it cost to live in all those over-sized living spaces. Imagine if I had chosen to live comfortably in half the space at half the rent or mortgage payments, half the utilities and half the upkeep and maintenance. Hindsight doesn't count for much. There are no do-overs in life. I accept how I lived without regret. 

I can say the 400 square foot efficiency apartment in Washington, DC was probably the most efficient living space I lived in during my 47 years, of self-sustaining, adult life. I guess that's one of the reasons they are called "efficiency" apartments.

Rethinking My Space Requirements

During 2006 and 2007 I began to realize, as a single guy with the family (my, by then, adult son) long out of the nest, I really didn't need all the space I had. I had come full circle and had created an efficiency apartment of about 400 square feet in the master bedroom suite of the ranch house I had on my small 49-acre horse ranch. The balance of the more than 2,100 square feet of space had been offices, recording studios, storage, packing/shipping and "public" space. For most of preceding two years (prior to October 31, 2008), the extra space was just costly storage space.

I no longer had any employees and I was wrapping up the book publishing business with the intention of selling it or dismantling it. I was also downsizing my interests and capabilities in the recording business. I was approaching 65 and had recently survived prostate cancer a few years earlier. My interests, dreams, goals and desires for my future life had begun to take on new meaning. It was time to think about downsizing.

I had an interest in the nomadic, mobile lifestyle since I was in college. With few obligations at this time of life, I was drawn to serious consideration of this lifestyle dream. I also became aware of the "Tiny House" movement. Believe it or not, I always attempted to run my businesses with as small a footprint and as efficient operation as possible. Of course, the exception to this was during my early business career when I was thinking like an "empire builder."

The timing seemed right for making such a change. I was tired, drained, frustrated and disillusioned by the business world, the government, the economy and my businesses in particular. I had accumulated more stuff than anyone should be entitled to have. And, I no longer had a spouse or family to be responsible for. It was definitely time for a major lifestyle change.

Downsizing To 50 Square Feet

I began to research and design a plan to wrap up the second half and launch the third half of my life. It required downsizing the house, 49-acre ranch, all the "stuff," minimizing my lifestyle, reducing my cost of living/overhead, living frugally and reinventing my professional future. Little did I realize we were at the beginning of what would become the deepest plunge in our economy and lifestyle since the Great Depression. Whatever financial security I had would soon vanish very rapidly. Yet, it was the most opportune time for me to make these changes.

Ny friends', Roger & Joyce with their 40' motor coach.
This became "overkill" in my plans for simple, frugal living. 
The plan included acquiring a large (40') motor coach, a small car to tow behind and reducing my technology and recording equipment requirements to be accommodated in a 300 to 350 square foot condo on wheels. Ultimately, after the major part of the downsizing process and after the economy took its toll, I realized that, while I had lost a significant amount of my security, I was way ahead of the pack in so many ways. I had reduced my cost of living/overhead by about 80% in one day when I left the 49-acre ranch on October 31, 2008 and became, for all practical intents and purposes, happily "houseless" for the first time in my 47 years of adult life including all the expenses and encumbrances that represents.

My McVansion and its 50 sq. ft. of compact, efficient living.
I learned how to live in small rooms and spaces at a couple friends' houses when I wasn't traveling. The plan to acquire the behemoth motor coach downsized to acquiring (another) 17 foot high-top conversion van and building it into a 50 square foot, micro condo on wheels (or a mobile "tiny house") It had, fortunately, before I made the plunge, become very apparent that a huge motor coach, especially during this massive economic downturn, would be an expensive white elephant.

So, I began my new life. I'm still downsizing. I still have "stuff" left from the original downsizing in 2008. I find it enjoyable and a constant challenge to build and refine my tiny, 17-foot (50 square foot of living space) van, named "My McVansion," into the most comfortable, efficient tiny house on wheels. Just imagine at one time living in 5,000 square foot and then moving into 1% of that space. In future articles, I'll describe in more intimate detail the emotions, the challenges, the joys, the setbacks and the self-discovery of this journey.     

Sunday, May 11, 2014

My McVansion Food Shopping List

A favorite lunch or light dinner; a fresh, REAL tomato that I salt liberally on 15 grain bread slathered with Miracle Whip and a bottle of water flavored with Pomegranate-Cranberry powdered drink mix.  

My last article offering three tips for simplifying included comments about how I've simplified my diet as I travel in "My McVansion." Madmike, a blog reader, sent in a comment that he would like to see the list I have developed for my personal diet and tastes while traveling the highways and byways of America. So, to follow up on that article and to respond to Madmike's request, here is my shopping list.

Ed Helvey's My McVansion Travel Food & Sundries Shopping List

Meat (Protein):
            Canned Chicken*
            Canned Salmon*
            Canned Tuna*
            Pork including bacon (occasionally)*
            Fish, fresh, various
            Hot Dogs, all beef or turkey based*
            Sausage, beef or turkey based*
            Cold Cuts, prefer turkey based*

            Progresso Soups, Lite/low sodium*
            Yakisoba Soup

Cereal (Grain):
            Great Value Grape Nuts
            Great Value Honey Oat Crunch with Almonds

Bread (Grain):
            12 or 15 Whole Grain Bread*
            Rolls & Buns - Various*

            Dannon Lite & Fit Greek Yogurt or equivalent*
            Blue Diamond Almond/Coconut Milk
            Cream Cheese - various*
            String Cheese
            Other Cheeses*
            Butter (real - Land of Lakes)*

Crackers & Snacks:
            Carr's water crackers*
            Snyder's of Hanover pretzel pieces*
            Chocolate Chip/Oatmeal Raisin Cookies (one kind/small packs)*

            Black or Breakfast Tea*
            Chai tea
            Green Tea
            4C Lite to Go powdered drink*
            Bolthouse Smoothies*
            Juice, fresh squeezed, sugar-free
            (Never any soda type soft drinks or coffee)

Vegetables & Fruits:
            Celery Sticks*
            Romaine Lettuce
            Sweet Potatoes*
            Corn on the Cob
            Green Beans
            Other veggies as available
            Salad Fixings*
            Navel Oranges
            Fruit Cups - Del Monte, Dole or similar (in water)*
            Other fruits as available

Condiments, Spices, etc.
            Miracle Whip*
            Pepper, coarse*
            Chili Pepper*
            Onion Powder*
            Garlic Powder
            Italian Seasoning

            Peanut Butter*
            Jelly or Jam*

            Paper Towels*
            Paper Plates*
            Plastic Cups (reusable)*
            Plastic Eating Utensils*
            ZipLoc Bags (usually two sizes)*
            Aluminum Foil & Plastic Wrap*
            Toilet Paper*
            Lysol Antibacterial & Air Freshener Spray*
            Lysol Antibacterial Towelettes*
            Dawn Dish Washing Soap*
            Gain Liquid Clothes Detergent*
So, there you have it. Everything with an * is either currently on board or has been on board in the last year.

Important Notes

Now, let me make some important notes to clarify things a bit. I know there are some readers who are going to question my choices on how healthy and/or nutritious the items are. Let me first reiterate, these are MY choices and I am not suggesting or recommending that you have to consider all or any of these items for you and your lifestyle.

Second, everything on this list I have chosen very carefully. Not everything is on board all the time. There just isn't enough room (or weight capacity) to carry all of this all the time. 

Anything canned or packaged like soups, hot dogs, cold cuts (or lunch meat for those not from the New Jersey/New York metro area) and other foods are vetted by me on a few criteria. The criteria include, the amount of sugar, sodium and other ingredients that I can't pronounce. I look for packaged foods that have the least amount of these items. Another criteria is space. How much room do the items take up in a vehicle with limited space? Still, another criteria is convenience in preparation. I'm not always in a place where I can easily start an open fire to cook and grill on. Additionally, I don't have a full complement of cooking pots, pans and utensils, so I make my choices partially based on what I have to prepare foods with.

I like fresh meats, fish, veggies and fruit, however, I don't really have any serious freezer space in my 2.7 cu. ft. refrigerator. To be honest, a 2.7 cu. ft. refrigerator offers very little space to keep much of any of the items that must be refrigerated. I don't refrigerate catsup, mustard, Miracle Whip salad dressing, certain fruits and veggies, peanut butter, jelly/jam and other items most people refrigerate. These items (and others) don't actually require refrigeration, but I try to use them up reasonably quickly.

Repackaging to Conserve Space and Items Not on the List

I repackage some items eliminating bulky boxes and other containers and use flexible ZipLoc bags (that I often can reuse depending on what is kept in them). This list also allows me a fair amount of variety. Since I can't keep everything in the van all the time, I simply change certain items from the list to keep eating from becoming boring. And, if I see something that's not on the list as a standard item, I might buy it so I can enjoy the flexibility.

For example, I like sauerkraut, pork & beans, baked beans, chili, beef stew and homemade soups like 15 bean soup with sausage and split pea soup with ham and potatoes. I don't usually have a way to make large pots of chili, bean soup or pea soup, but when the opportunity presents itself, I jump on it. I love sauerkraut on hot dogs and with various kinds of sausage.

I also love baked beans and pork and beans, however, they usually have a lot of sugar in them, more than I like to eat very often. Plus, I attempt not to eat certain items like those when I'm going to be in close proximity to other people for reasons I'm sure you're aware of. So, they are occasional treats, along with a small pie or a couple donuts or bear claws from time to time.

I'm NOT a Newbie at this

Remember, of my nearly 50 years of adult life, I've spent about 50% of them being fully responsible for my own nutrition and meal preparation. I've been considered a very good cook by a lot of my friends. However, there is a significant difference when one goes from a well equipped kitchen to living off the grid in roughly 50 sq. ft. So, I know what I like. I/m careful to maintain a good level of quality nutrition and I balance that with the necessity to conserve space and accommodate a convenience factor. I feel that I eat well. My doctor finds no deficiencies in all of my medical lab work. Could I do better? Absolutely! But, I'm not going to deny myself the pleasure of eating the foods that sustain me and I enjoy.

Of course, this kind of diet/menu also allows me the freedom to enjoy a nice pizza, other Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Polish, Cajun, German, traditional American food as well as others from time to time. Life is to live. Food is fuel and is necessary for proper functioning, but in my book, it's also part of the pleasure of living.

Share Your List and Ideas

I hope this list and my notes are helpful for planning your own culinary delights, especially if you're a nomadic traveler. Submit your comments about my list and what you like on your list. I may be missing something that you're already enjoying. 

Friday, May 09, 2014

Three Tips for Simplifying Your Life and Being Freer

Living free is something each person has to define for his or her individual life and circumstances. We live in complicated times and for the mainstream more traditional lifestyle in most developed countries it is only going to get more complex in the future. One major step towards living freer and happier is to simplify your life as much as you can, allowing for your specific circumstances. So, here are three tips to help you live a simpler life.

#1. Simplify your Financial Life. There are numerous ways virtually everyone can do this. First, eliminate as much paper from your life as possible. This is good for ecology as well since it saves trees and all the energy to make paper and transport it in numerous ways. It also saves space and time since you don't have to handle, file and store the paper You can do this by receiving all your bills (or at least all that are available) electronically. Then pay them electronically.

Second, you can also simplify your life by eliminating extra bank accounts. You can use one or two accounts and simply maintain several ledgers for different purposes on each account, again, electronically. There are several very inexpensive, simple and efficient home bookkeeping software programs available. Some of these programs will even schedule and pay your bills.

Third, use debit cards in place of paper checks whenever possible. But, here's an important hint. Make sure your debit card is issued through Visa or Mastercard. Many banks are now charging a service fee whenever you use your debit card and enter your pin code. However, if you simply choose to use the same debit card, with the Visa or Mastercard logo on it, as a credit card (even though the funds will still be debited directly from your checking account) you will not be charged a fee by your bank.

Finally, eliminate extra credit cards and close accounts that you are not using like old department store accounts (Sears, JC Penny's, Target and so on). Select one or two, credit cards with low APR's, especially if you must carry a balance. However, I highly recommend you pay off each card every month and don't carry any balances. Keep your credit limits reasonable. The higher your limits the more tempted you'll be to buy stuff you don't really need. You may also want to consider keeping one high credit limit card, with the lowest possible APR, for emergencies. You might want to just keep it in a safe deposit box or a small home safe. Only use it for real emergencies like paying a hospital deductible, should the need arise. One other note, be careful when you close credit accounts. Make sure the issuing agency notes that closing the account was at the customer's request. Also, don't close them all at one time. All of these account closings will be reflected on your credit report (which you can and should check regularly on line) and it could be detrimental to your credit if not handled properly.

#2 Simplify your Wardrobe. Whether you care to believe it or not, you, like most other people (except those who have already simplified their wardrobe) only wear about 20% or your clothes. Like so many aspects of life, Pareto's Principle or the 80/20 Rule applies to your closet. Check it yourself. First of all, I recommend that you stop being a slave to fashion. I know! I know! We all want to look cool and chic. I've been there and done that. I had the bell-bottom slacks, the leisure suit, and the Nehru shirt with the big medallion. I fell right in lock step with the rest of the fashion lemmings.

Here's the thing. A good, simple, basic wardrobe never goes out of style, saves a fortune, always looks good and appropriate and makes your life so much simpler in choosing what to wear each day. Now, I know that women are really drawn into this fashionista stuff. And even worse, women's clothes typically cost so much more than men's clothes. However, I know many women who have just a couple pairs of neutral slacks, a couple easy to care for skirts, a few tops that go with the slacks and skirts, a few different belts and scarves and other accessories and, viola, they can mix and match those few items to create all kinds of combinations. They always look great. The same goes with sports wear like shorts and tees or tank tops. 

Men can apply the same ideas. Depending on your situation men can usually get away with two or three pairs of comfortable, quality shoes. Women should be able to do the same, again, depending on your specific situation. Keep underwear simple, practical, comfortable and easy to maintain. Ladies, I know you like to wear all kinds of sexy, frilly lingerie. So, have one or two sets for "special occasions," but remember I'm trying to simplify your life to make you freer and happier. Always think . . . comfort, ease of care, economy and least amount of space. 

Think of it this way. You are going on a trip. You can carry one bag with you and it's a backpack. You have to haul that backpack everywhere you go. How light can you make that backpack with enough clothes to get you through one to two weeks without having to wash anything? Now, let's make it a bit simpler. How much do you need to go for four or five days? This applies to both men and women.

At another time we'll talk about make-up, jewelry and other "stuff" that is nice, but expensive, can be distracting and is very often unnecessary.

#3. Simplify your Menu. Even those of us who think we have a very economical and simple diet are probably spending way more than has to be expended and the meal process is likely much more complicated than you realize. Interestingly, there is an opposite supposition. Eating out all the time, consuming fast food because it's fast and efficient and relatively inexpensive and eating all kinds of things that are bad for us.

Now, believe me, I love food as much as anyone. I am not a gourmet. I'm not impressed or usually satisfied with the food at a four or five star, very expensive restaurant. I'm not saying that it's not good or worth the price (mostly paying for the ambiance). I'm simply saying that I am very happy with good, properly prepared, simple foods. I honestly believe that most people are like me in that manner, however, because of peer pressure with co-workers, friends, family and so on, we end up eating food that is more expensive than it has to be, takes way more time to prepare it and is probably not the best for a long-term, life sustaining diet.

Here's what I do and suggest. Figure out what you like to eat. I don't mean McDonald's Big Macs, Arby's roast beef and the Colonels best greasy chicken with its secret herbs and spices. Break them down into meal categories i.e. breakfast, lunch and dinner. By the way, there is nothing wrong with eating breakfast food for dinner and lunch food for breakfast and so on. Variety is still the spice of life.

Select good, health-sustaining foods. Make sure you include lots of fruits and veggies. Watch out for too many grains and pastas. I love a good slab of cow (beef) from time to time, but decent cuts of beef can be pricey and we don't need all that much (if you're a vegetarian or a vegan you don't have to worry about this - but you are missing out on something good - oops, I'm editorializing, sorry). We need some protein in our diets and there are lots of ways to get it including eggs, chicken, fish (lots of fish is good) and other protein-laden foods.

My professional speaker friend in Dallas, Texas, Ed Foreman, always expounds on the concept that we should eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper. Many nutritionists promote this idea, as well.

Again, the idea is to simplify our lives to make us freer and happier. So, do I want to deprive myself of some of the nice pleasures that food can provide? Absolutely not! But, what I do want to do is have a simple, easy to prepare, nutritious, life-sustaining and economical diet that I really enjoy and can then enhance by the occasional excursion to a new (to me) or unique restaurant (not the chain places) or even just a favorite fast food place. I like Subway sandwiches; 6" is plenty, saving the other half for another meal. I load the sandwiches with all the spinach, tomatoes and other veggies they can cram on it. I usually only have them apply vinegar for a dressing because it flavors the "salad (with my meat and cheese of choice) on bread" without adding any calories. Oh yeah, and I like the taste that way.

For those of us who travel either in motor homes, vans, trailers or even backpacking, there is a limited amount of space available for food stocking. So, I've created a list of the basic foods I can mix and match and eat day in and day out. The list is pretty simple, yet, allows for lots of diverse flavors while being nutritious. And it's all designed to require simple preparation, thus saving me time, money and energy (since energy is a big consideration when living off the grid for periods of time).

So, there are three tips everyone can put to work to simplify one's life. None of them are hard to implement, however, the results will be to realize less stress and more freedom and that makes one's life happier and more harmonious.

I'll expound on these three ideas more in the future and I'll add more simplification tips as I go along.