01/14/2015 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Journey of Right-Sizing, or How Big Is Big Enough?


Nearly five years ago Thom and I bought a new home in the "village area" of La Quinta, CA. We called it an experiment because we weren't sure if we could live in a house that was nearly a 1,000 sq. feet less than the one we had before. Never mind that the new house had 1,400 square feet with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and was plenty large enough based upon comparables around the world. But with huge changes happening in the economy, and our personal growing awareness in the "green" movement, Thom and I felt it was time to discover if the American obsession with size was just a habit we'd adopted, or a true necessity. What we've come to know during the last five years is that smaller is plenty big enough, especially when it fits perfectly within your needs.

One of the first unexpected responses we got from our experiment was reaction from others. When people heard we were selling our previous home and moving to a different area of La Quinta, we were asked several times if "everything was alright?" Some people seemed to assume that because we were selling in a down real estate market that something must be wrong -- and some seemed to assume that because we were buying a smaller, visually less impressive house, that something must be really wrong. Without being said, the implication was that the size and stature of our home was being used as an indicator of our well-being or success.

When did that happen? When did everyone start using the size and quality of a person's home to evaluate a family's happiness and prosperity? I think we all know on some level that such a superficial comparison has nothing to do with true happiness or contentment. After all, if you ask most people what is most important to them, no one will admit it is the size of their house or car or television set. Still, much of the time if anyone makes a move that seems contrary to "bigness" or even pauses on the ladder of success, observers tend to think something is abnormal or wrong. Maybe it is time to rethink that reaction.

So, what were the personal intentions behind our experiment? One goal was the quest for fewer hassles. As any one who has one knows, the bigger the home, the more time it takes to take care of it. Sure we had lots of nice furniture, and a big lovely yard with a pool and spa. But based upon how often two of us actually used some of those amenities, they just didn't seem that important to us. We also decided that although our mortgage on the bigger house was something we were able to easily maintain, the thought of a home completely free and clear seemed daringly extravagant. Lastly, we wanted a home in a certain neighborhood that offered dozens of free benefits and the only ones available in our price range were more modest in size. Again, the trade-off seemed beneficial.

Five year later, we fit perfectly in our home with no regrets. Not only does our home contain everything we need, we also love our neighbors. One thing we never expected was the advantage of living in a denser neighborhood and being physically closer to people. We feel much more a part of a community and enjoy spending time walking and participating in everything that happens around us in a much more personal way. Daily we walk or bike to grocery stores, the library, restaurants, parks, and all sorts of other outlets. Instead of merely living in the suburbs, we now live amongst friends.

Interestingly enough, once we cleaned out the excess from our previous home we found our new home was plenty big enough for all the stuff we really wanted and needed in our lives. Again, the more stuff you have the more it has to be cleaned, taken care of and maintained. Now, instead of having to manage and take care of a bigger home and yard, we get to spend that excess time doing things we enjoy.

Lastly, by buying a home that we could purchase free and clear we have created a freedom in our lives that was unexpected. While we realize that not everyone is in the same financial position, it is drilled into most of us (especially those of us in the real estate field) that buying as big a home as possible with a mortgage and then using it as a write-off is as American as apple pie. Trust me, the freedom that comes from not having to make a house or rent payment month, after month, after month is incomparable. Not only do we not have a house payment, we are entirely debt free and our new (smaller home) uses much less utilities and therefore, carries much less cost. All the money we used to pay out for mortgage, higher taxes, higher insurance, maintenance and stuff from our previous home allows us to travel and do things that feed our passions -- not pay bills.

While I am obviously overjoyed to have right-sized our home and life as we have (can you see me smiling?) I don't share it to brag. On the other hand, wouldn't it be good if we all did? Wouldn't it be nice if we all started talking about and discussing the freedom, advantages and joy that come from living within our means? What if we ignored obvious displays of grandeur and bigness and instead looked with admiration on people living lives of passion and purpose -- in a sustainable and moderate way? What would happen if we started congratulating each other for being able to relax and enjoy what we had, rather than working our butts off to pay for stuff we don't really need? What if we all started making choices and decisions that were based on living SMART, instead of living big?

Much of the time, sustainability means taking care of the planet -- cleaning up after yourself and not using more than you need -- being eco-friendly in all that you say and do. However, what I have come to learn is that sustainability starts at home, literally and figuratively. I now believe that sustainability is living within your means, and loving what you have instead of always striving for something bigger and better. When it comes down to it, having the room to breathe "mentally" is way more important than having extra rooms in your house.

Kathy Gottberg believes in living healthy, authentic, fearless and SMART. Follow her journey at SMART Living