I lived in New York City for ten years. I had a 500 square foot rent-stablized apartment in Park Slope. Every week I lived there someone asked me to tell them if I’m planning to move.
To squeeze into 500 square feet with my husband, we put our winter clothes in storage. Then our books. When our son was born, all our belongings went into storage to make room for his. And when we had a second kid, we got rid of the beds. The kids slept on a counter that turned into a bed and a dining room table that turned into a bed.
I had phenomenal window boxes in the summer. Not so much because I liked gardening but because it seemed like free space and no one gives up free space in New York.
But eventually my baby rolled off his countertop bed, and a kid at school asked my four-year-old why he didn’t have a bedroom. And I had began to dream every night that I had more space.
I was making $200K a year as a writer and it was getting me nothing bigger in New York. So we moved to Madison WI, because I read how it was a top city to raise kids. After moving there I discovered it’s the most overrated city in the US.
I got a house in Madison with five bedrooms. Because I could. They stayed empty for a year except for a few mattresses on the floor. In hindsight I think I had post-traumatic stress from small spaces and could not recuperate fast enough to enjoy the benefits of cheap real estate.
I married a farmer and moved into his farmhouse and woke up every day nearly in tears at the idea that I had my own 125 acres. I felt like I just got a huge house on Fifth Avenue butting up against Central Park.
I became a decorating maven. I tried turn-of-the-century decor because that’s what I was used to in my four-story walk-up. But you can’t force Victorian style on a depression-era farmhouse.
I got to work creating a style that could bond me and the house and farmers who had lived there.
I made a music room with a spoon chandelier.
I told my kids their Garfield beanbag chair does not meet my decorating goals and I forced on them furniture with grown-up pre-war shapes. (I need to enjoy the photos now because my kids will probably spend years in therapy talking about how I wouldn’t let them decorate their own bedroom.)
My favorite room in the house is the kitchen. I cook three meals a day, something I never in a million years thought I’d be doing, but there is nowhere to go out to eat when you live on a farm. So I made sure to love every little thing in my kitchen.
And, like all people who love a room, there’s always one more thing they need. Mine was the refrigerator. I looked at refrigerators for a year and everything looked too modern, and even the 1950s replicas did not fit my 1850s atmosphere.
So I found refrigerators refurbished in France. The company would ship me a shell of an 1850s ice chest and I’d turn it into a refrigerator in the US. But when I saved up the $20K, I realized it would be another $20K to get the refrigeration part done.
Then my husband told me we had to get rid of our current refrigerator which was twenty-five years old. It was leaking each morning and ruining the floors along with all the food it wasn’t refrigerating.
“We are living like slum lords,” he said. “No one has a refrigerator like this.”
“I’m not spending money on a fridge I hate. I’m saving for the one I love.”
“How much is it?”
He walked out of the room.
Then he came back. “This is crazy. We can’t keep living with that fridge. I had a better fridge under my desk in my college dorm than we have in our house.”
“Dorm room fridge? Okay. I hear you.”
Three days later six dorm room fridges arrive from Amazon. I paint them with chalkboard paint and stack them horizontally because I have decided that in 1850 there were not cupboards and the vertical look in a kitchen is modern. I won’t have it.
My husband says, “Where’s the milk?”
I point. “In the drink fridge, can’t you see the picture of the straw?”
No one can find anything in my new fridge system. Not even me. The kids open a new ketchup every time they can’t find the old one. So before long we have a ketchup in every fridge.
Soon I realize we are not using refrigeration because we can’t find anything if we put it there. I channel my days in New York City where I could learn to live without almost anything, and I throw out some of the fridges. I tell myself I’m saving money because I’m coming up with a solution that does not involve buying a fridge for $40K.
I realize vertical is fine, if it’s right.
I have three refrigerators. We use one for medicine for the baby kittens that come every spring and have eye infections that must be endemic to our farm. We use one for sauces that I always forget to use. And we use one for sushi that I bring home as a treat from Chicago.
We eat what I cook meal after meal until it’s gone. No refrigeration. We have a cow, cut up in a huge freezer in the cellar. I thaw a section out in the sink and cook it that day. We eat out of the garden in the summer.
In the winter we have potatoes and squash and things that don’t need to be refrigerated. It’s boring, yes, but it’s not far from how people have been eating for centuries. And it makes the coming of spring feel like a feast.
There’s a lot written about minimalism. About small budgets and tiny homes. So much is possible that we haven’t thought of. At first the idea of no refrigeration seemed crazy to me, but now it feels fine.
For years I’ve told people to do what they want to do and stop worrying about money. I tell them to quit the job they hate and get a job they like. I tell them to homeschool their kids, I tell people to relocate to a place they can afford with the money they can earn.
But people obsess over what we give up. Dan Ariely’s research shows that we obsess over what we might lose and downplay what we might gain. Which means we are loathe to give up anything.
Dan Gilbert’s research shows that we have a steady state of happiness. Even if we lose our right arm, we will not change our happiness in the long run.
What I learned from living in NYC, and then from giving up refrigeration, is that we can give up a lot. We are way more flexible than we give ourselves credit for. Be brave enough to give up a lot to get what you want.