Meet Melanie. She’s a blogger by day, librarian by night, living in the beautiful North Carolina wilderness (or some family farmland with lots of trees. Whatever!). In 2013, she and her husband decided to quit their fancy pants loft and move into an Airstream trailer. Sounds a little nutty, but once you hear the story, you might find yourself thinking that trailer livin’ sounds smart and classy, not trashy. Here’s how it all went down.
* * *
Let’s get down to business: What did you quit & why?
In May 2013, my husband George and I were at a crossroads. At the time he was a school teacher and I was a librarian. We were newly married and I had just landed a new job closer to our families.
We were also broke. We didn’t have an extravagant wedding by any standards, but we did spend the majority of our meager savings on the event. We took a look at our budget, started looking at apartments and we were instantly discouraged. We knew that we couldn’t get ahead financially by renting an apartment. We also knew that we wouldn’t qualify for a mortgage. We had no credit and almost no savings. We saw an endless cycle of debt in front of us and we wanted out.
We were laying in bed one night talking about our dilemma and I casually mentioned that I had once read an article about a couple that lived in a Winnebago. George took that idea and ran with it. That night we stayed up most of the night surfing the web for travel trailers. The Airstreams we saw on Craigslist were the most appealing— they were stylish and cool and I didn’t feel like we were losing anything.
The next four months were a whirlwind of downsizing, moving, buying and fixing the trailer. In August 2013 we quit traditional housing and moved into our 1978 Airstream Sovereign.
What did your life feel like before you decided to become houseless (NOT homeless)?
When we lived in our 1,200 square foot, overpriced loft I was always overwhelmed. Half of my paycheck went to simply paying the rent and I had no idea how to save money. If I had any money left at the end of the month, I spent it on clothes or expensive dinners. And I spent every weekend cleaning our big, beautiful loft. My life felt like a hamster wheel.
There were so many places that I wanted to visit and so much life I wanted to live, but I knew I needed money for those things. I also deeply wanted to help my husband pursue his art full-time, but I didn’t know how. At the time he was teaching by day and doing his art by night. He slept about three hours per night and I knew he couldn’t keep up that pace forever.
What pushed you to finally say yes to Airstream living?
My husband is the one who finally pushed us to Airstream living. I liked the idea, but I’m a detail person and I often have trouble seeing the “big picture.” He could see it and he convinced me that we could do it.
Was the decision scary for you? Why or why not?
The decision was scary, but it was much less terrifying to live in a tiny trailer than to take on massive debt from a mortgage or never pursue our other dreams.
Pardon the rude question, but how much did you shell out for your new home? What kind of work did it require?
I don’t think it’s rude at all! I wish people were more open about money. We bought our Airstream off Craigslist from a very nice hippie for $5,000. It took about $1,500 to fix her up. That’s more than we had hoped—it was our entire savings, but in the meantime we had sold the majority of our belongings for a profit so it all worked out.
Our Airstream was fairly structurally sound, but it required so much cosmetic work. Luckily George is handy and I am crafty. We’re a good team. It took months of working in the southern sun to get her to our standards. George endured an epic bout of poison ivy from clearing the land our trailer sits on and I had so much paint in my hair that I had to cut it out. We cleaned out rat’s nests and bleached old smoke stains. We pulled up moldy carpet and we laid new floors. We painted so many coats of paint, we built our bed, a desk, a bench and a shelving unit. We sewed curtains and a bench cushion. We replaced the window screens and the fridge. I also learned that I love to caulk and I proceeded to caulk every tiny hole and crevice in the trailer. It was extremely challenging and extremely rewarding.
The questions we’re all wondering…. showering, doing your bathroom business, cooking… how does that all work? How do you deal with the wastewater? What about electricity and the Internet?
About 30 years ago, George’s uncle had a traditional mobile home on the land that we’re currently on. We live on a beautiful farmed and wooded plot. We stay on the land in exchange for chores. We are hooked up to well water, septic and the “grid” just like a regular house. We have Internet through our phone providers.
We can do everything here that we do in a normal house, it just requires more forethought. For example, we can’t have our hot water turned on while we’re cooking or we’ll flip the circuit breaker. We are also very open with each other, but we let each other have their own space. That helps with all the bathroom issues and helps us from feeling stifled.
I can only assume while the prospect of living in an Airstream was exciting, it was also emotionally taxing. Who or what helped you cope?
Wine. Just kidding. It could be emotionally taxing at times. The weather that first summer was rough. It rained constantly and it was incredibly humid. We were basically working in a giant tin can with no air conditioning. It took way longer to renovate than we planned and I ended up having to start my new job before the trailer was finished. But my husband is incredibly optimistic and the most visionary person I know. He soothed any worries or concerns that I had.
What’s the biggest misconception about your new lifestyle?
That other people “can’t” do the same thing. I often hear that “I want to live small, but I can’t do what you do because I don’t have family land to live on.” Or “I want to live small, but I can’t because I have kids.” Everyone’s situation is different, but there are solutions for every problem. And I’m not the only one out there living in a trailer. There’s people out there with kids who live in Airstreams, there’s people out there who live in mobile home parks in very cute campers, and there’s people who have solar powered, mobile tiny homes. If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen.
Happiest moment since moving into the trailer? Saddest/most frustrating?
The happiest moment since moving into the Airstream was adopting our dog, Bambi. When we lived in traditional housing we didn’t have enough money for a dog and we didn’t want to leave him or her alone all day while we were at work. Now I come home from work to my husband and my super happy dog. I love her a stupid amount.
Little things can be frustrating in the trailer, but we’ve really learned how to work around them. We can’t have too many things plugged in or running at one time. We have to be very mindful of the hot water. Navy showers aren’t elegant or relaxing. There are times when I really just want to take a long bath and listen to the hum of a dishwasher, but I don’t have a bathtub or a dishwasher. We also have to be very cognizant of the things that we bring into the trailer. There’s only 188 square feet, so if we bring one thing in, something else needs to come out.
How has quitting changed your life?
Quitting traditional housing has vastly improved my life. It’s opened up my eyes to a new way of life and new places. Since moving into the Airstream, and thus saving money, George and I have been able to travel to Portland, Memphis, Austin and we took a road trip to Florida. I’ve also managed to save about half of my paycheck each month. I now have emergency savings, a 401k and a Roth IRA. I didn’t even know what those things were a few years ago!
It’s also made me more resilient. I know that there are solutions to problems and I can do so much more than I (or other people) think I can. I can use an electric drill, I can sew a pillow, I can plant a successful garden and I can cook a filling meal with just one pan. I also don’t “need” much to live. If there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, I’ll be a good one to have on your side.
Think this is a forever thing, or do you see yourself eventually living in a more traditional home?
I don’t know if we will ever live in a “traditional” home again. We have plans to travel more. We just bought a van that we’re going to convert into a mobile home. Ironically, we think the trailer is a bit too big for travel. We hope to travel the country in our van for at least a year. We’ve also talked about purchasing land and building non-traditional housing like a tiny home or a container house. Anything is possible!
What three trailer-living lessons could everyone benefit from knowing?
1. Embrace lifelong learning. The Internet and your local library is a wealth of knowledge. We live in an amazing age where there are YouTube videos and tutorials of almost everything you can imagine. Learn how to use those power tools, ladies!
2. You “need” so much less than you think you do.
3. You can go against the norm. You don’t need permission or approval. You don’t have to live in a 2,700 square foot home (yes, that’s the U.S. average!) with 2.5 kids and try to keep up with the Jones’ the rest of your life.
Advice to someone who’s thinking of living a minimalist lifestyle?
Ask yourself if this: Do you truly want a more minimalist lifestyle? It isn’t easy to do. There are going to be times when your family, your friends and society question your sanity and pressure you to buy more, more, more. If you truly want a minimalistic lifestyle, you have to commit to it, practice it and make it a habit every. single. day. It isn’t easy, but it is rewarding.
* * *
Check out other Quitters here.
PS If you want to share your quitting story, email me at email@example.com. Things I’d love to hear about: quitting a marriage, dropping out of med school/law school/doctorate program… and whatever else you’re quitting!