Could you “flip the whole damn ship” in your home?
I recently posed a question on my Facebook page: “Is it necessary for kids to have their own bedrooms?” It could be expected that there are a variety of answers. Adults speak out of their own experience and parents comment on what works for them. One answer intrigued me. Jennifer Wernert wrote “I’m 32 and a mom of 4. This year I downsized my family’s home from 5 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 3400 square feet and a full finished basement to an 1100 square foot ranch with 3 bedrooms, 1 bath and no basement. “Now my boys have one room and my girls have their room.” Jennifer went on to write that this decision was made purposefully: while her family had normal financial concerns, the mortgage was manageable, and her family enjoyed the large house and a wonderful neighborhood. Her answer intrigued me. (“Who does that?!) I called to hear the details. Here is Jennifer’s story:
Jennifer and her husband Dustin have four children ranging in age from 2 to 13. When this story starts, they had three children, two boys and a one girl, which made workable what Jennifer described as a “very average” house of three bedrooms and two baths. The Wernert’s were halfway through a five-year plan of home improvement. Like many homeowners they had done renovations to the home so that it was just getting “like we liked it” said Jennifer. In what can only be described as incredibly impulsive decision Jennifer saw a Facebook ad for a bigger home in a neighboring community. She called her real estate agent and made arrangements to see it. With 2.5 years left on their five-year plan, Dustin balked, but eventually went along to see the larger house. While they didn’t get that home, they did get “the bug.” Now it was Dustin intent on moving their family of 5 into a bigger home.
They found another home that Dustin loved, Jennifer liked-not-loved the home. It was, well, big. The ceilings soared, the rooms were expansive, the walk-out basement finished. The Wernert’s doubled their square footage and their mortgage. Within months Jennifer was pregnant and had made a career change to a newly licensed Realtor. A professional change that promised to be ultimately profitable was, in the short term, a struggle. The mortgage became a burden, the work incessant, and the house that was big was now too big. Because Jennifer wasn’t crazy about the house to begin with “I fell out of love with it” she says. “I needed to work harder and make more money. I wasn’t a good Mom. Instead of being present with my kids I was always telling them to go somewhere in this big house. Go play. Go watch TV”. There were arguments with Dustin. The “feast or famine” nature of a Realtor’s career was a sore spot. When it was “feast” they spent the money as fast as it was made. When it was “famine” a not-so-subtle pressure to get a “real” job.
Jennifer began to see the effect on her kids. They rarely saw each other. “With a house that big there is always space to go off on your own. They would disappear into their bedrooms. We were losing the closeness we had as a family.” For a while Dustin and Jennifer tried to fill the space between family members with “stuff.” “Buy more stuff and throw it at the kids” she said. “I got to the place I was so unhappy with the direction my family was taking I was working more to spend more to work harder to spend more.” The isolation was not the picture of family life that Jennifer wanted. “I couldn’t stand how we lived a life filled with consumerism, excessive screen time and really everyone wishing they could be anywhere but home. The kids spent more time with their grandparents than they did with us, I worked as much as possible, Dustin liked to be in the house but wasn’t really present in the day to day happening of the household. All of us had turned to social media or friends from work/school for conversation.”
Around this time Jennifer began helping her brother renovate a small rental home he owned. It was 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, 1100 square feet and no basement. The more time she spent in the home the more she began entertaining the possibility of getting off the hamster wheel. “We could do this” she thought. “We could sell the big house, pay off debt, and move into the small house.” The option was a “hard no” for Dustin, remembers Jennifer. The kids need their own bedrooms, we all need the space. But Jennifer had been pushed to her limit and she was unwilling to compromise what she saw as the detrimental effect on her family. “To me I only had one choice, flip the whole damn ship and shake it. Hard! So, I did.” She said.
While they didn’t sell the large home (today it stands vacant, it’s future undetermined) they did move into the smaller home. The initial response to life in a relative shoebox was predictable and unpleasant. “We left pretty much everything behind” said Jennifer. “The toys, the clothes, the TVs, iPads, all of it. I didn’t even get internet for the first month or so. I worked off the hotspot on my phone and the kids had meltdowns.” However, over time Jennifer began to see a change. “The kids stopped crying and started playing with each other. They made up games, played hide and seek, colored pictures, my boys laid in bed late and talked and laughed, we started playing board games as a family and talking at the dinner table.”
Jennifer finds that it’s much easier to keep clean and organized. “Every space is utilized. Nothing is wasted” she says. The Wernerts don’t buy, collect, or keep “stuff.” Jennifer notes that the peace of mind is worth the sacrifice. In reflecting on the decision, Jennifer says “I think what was surprising and yet not really surprising at all was the amount of stuff that we left behind, and no-one seemed to miss. When we moved out all we took were the essentials.” Do they miss the big house? “We miss the neighborhood,” says Jennifer. The Wernert kids had friends there but they are working to recreate that “village” in their new neighborhood.
While there are sacrifices: the “dance” of one bathroom for six people and no basement for storage are luxuries that are sometimes missed, Jennifer doesn’t regret the decision. “I don’t want to go back to a life of excess. I don’t want to have to wince when I write the monthly mortgage check.” Jennifer says that she never wants to get caught up again in the “American Dream.” Jennifer says she is still living it, albeit redefined. “Living and doing life together is just all around more enjoyable now that we’re focused on each other and not on the stuff. As a society we all know and understand this concept but it’s so easy to drown in materialism before you even know you’re sinking. “