At ATWS we’re interested in challenging the norm of debt and spending. That’s why once a month we feature people who have gone to (what some would say) extreme means with their living situations to get out of debt, save money and live a simpler life. Today we have Melissa and Rusty Miller. Melissa and Rusty live in New Mexico and have been living in an Airstream since June of 2015. Take it away, Melissa and Rusty!
We are Melissa and Rusty Miller. We live in Santa Fe, NM and have been married for two and a half years. Rusty works in the bicycle industry and Melissa is the HR person for a small solar company. We live with our sweet dog Pepper and are expecting a little girl in March!
We met and fell in love while living in Chicago over riding bicycles, good beer, and midnight picnics by the river. We got engaged on a 75 mile bike ride and decided to leave wintery Chicago for the high desert of New Mexico, in search of sunshine, mountains, and all of the adventures.
Why did you decide to move into a tiny house? (Financial reasons, more freedom, ownership, etc.)
We wanted to live minimally. As we were preparing to leave Chicago we felt so burdened by the sheer amount of stuff we had. It was an expensive move and we were both moving boxes we hadn’t even opened for our last three or four moves in the city. Once we got to New Mexico, we met and became close friends with some amazing people who live completely on their bicycles and travel the world. It made us realize how truly little we actually need in order to be happy and live a beautiful life.
Another deciding factor was money. New Mexico is cheaper than Chicago but not by much, and the wages are terrible. We were only paying $100 a month less in rent than we had been, and were making about 30% less. After a year or so we grew very tired of living paycheck to paycheck.
After doing research we realized we couldn’t afford the up-front costs to build a true tiny house. A vintage Airstream was a much more affordable idea and we were able to save for it in a few months of pretty hardcore budgeting. The added bonus of having something that is travel ready satisfies multiple levels of wanderlust, you can just hitch up and take it with you.
Please describe your home.
It’s a 1979 Airstream, 31 feet long, 200 square feet. We tore out nearly everything that was inside and rebuilt it to our own liking. We wanted long, clean lines, and to use reclaimed materials as much as we could. We used pallets to make both our 12 foot and 4 foot counters. (Tearing apart pallets is much harder than people make it look online. But I’m proud of them and they definitely are my favorite part of our house.) We also wanted to maximize head space as we’re 6 foot and over, so we did a lot of cabinet relocation. We built a micro loft bed with a space for our pup to sleep underneath.
We’re hoping to eventually make it off grid. We have a composting toilet, a wood stove for heat, and we’re working on solar next. Once it’s completely off grid, we’ll dub this our Airship, much like the completely sustainable earth ships in northern New Mexico.
If you feel comfortable, we’d love to hear about the financial part of buying or building your home? What was your budget?
After several months of serious scrimping and saving we had a little over $3,000 in our bank account. We were scouring Craigslist and having everything bought out from underneath us. Then I found a used RV lot that had three Airstreams just rotting on it in a fenced off area in the back (these people obviously hadn’t heard of Craigslist). The one in the best condition of the three was listed at $4,500 and was full of trash (seriously). It was pretty obvious it hadn’t been moved in about 10 years. Rusty and I exchanged a look and I offered the owner of the lot every penny in our bank account for it. He laughed and said he could scrap it for more than that, but surprised us by taking the offer. He said it was “nice to have young folks getting into RVing.” We laughed at that later, and became homeowners on that day.
Did it cost more than you anticipated to build/buy your home?
Yes. We knew that gutting it and re-doing everything would take some cash, but I don’t think either of us thought we’d spend as much time and money as we have. I keep telling Rusty now that we’ve done it and learned some serious lessons, we should do it again and sell these things refurbished. Rusty laughs and unequivocally says no.
What has been the most surprising cost of living in a tiny house?
The renovation. Since it’s so small we thought it would be cheap and super-fast to fix up. But there are so many standards that just aren’t around anymore. The tire size, the power converter, the size of the screen spline, you name it. We’ve spent days at Home Depot and hours researching information, only to have to do things twice or three times.
The information is out there but it’s all stored in message board format. It feels like doing a project in 2002 sometimes. But it’s heartening when you find the information you’re looking for, or someone else who has solved the exact issue you’re facing.
Have you saved money since living in the tiny house?
Yes, tons. Starting from literally nothing we have amassed over $20,000 in 9 months! It just started piling up. We’ve definitely budgeted seriously, but we’ve also taken a couple of trips to see family in that time.
How do your costs compare to your life before the tiny house?
Our costs have been drastically reduced. Rent is down, utilities are down, and any repair money we put out really does go back into our own pocket.
What we’ve found is that living a minimal lifestyle makes us think about spending money differently. We made over 25 trips to goodwill as we were moving into the Airstream, and we still likely have a few more to go. We also adopted a “buy once for life” policy. Nothing that we buy should ever need to be replaced with a newer model. That means we buy more expensive things the first time around, but it really makes us very considerate about how we spend our money.
I cook every meal from scratch for us and we pack lunch for work every day. For dates we pack picnics to have on top of mountains or on bike rides. Our biggest expense is about $600 a month eating mostly organic, plant-based, and home-cooked food.
Please describe your daily life (i.e. How do you work, exercise, eat meals, etc.)
It’s really no different from how it was before. We came from living in tiny Chicago apartments and have always loved being outside as much as possible. Our house has 100% more counter space than our last Chicago apartment did. It feels luxurious! In the spring, summer and fall we spend every minute we can outside. We have a little fire ring which we have a fire in every night we can. Luckily New Mexico winters are pretty mild and short.
During the week Rusty always gets up first, packs a lunch and breakfast and then rides his bike to work, rain, snow, or shine. I get up right after he leaves, pack lunch and go to the gym every morning before work.
We get home at around the same time every night; I start dinner while he works on projects around the house. We have dinner together and talk about how to make the world a better place. Or, you know, watch movies, read, and draw just like we did in a normal house.
On the weekends we have one breakfast date somewhere, and always seem to have one or two projects we want to complete. We plan hikes and bike rides around that. We are looking forward to being done enough with this project to start doing long weekend camping trips again.
What is your favorite part of your home?
It’s an amazing conversation starter. It’s lead to some life changing conversations with folks I would have never thought had dreamed of this way of life. People usually are in awe that we made such a drastic decision and ask us “how and why” with this striking sense of urgency. I love those talks. A Toni Morrison quote I saw recently said “If you are free it’s your job to free somebody else.” The wanderlust I see in people’s eyes solidifies our decision every time.
We consider on a near weekly basis that we could buy a $4,000 plot of land in Taos and be done – mostly retired (meaning working minimally at something we love) in our 30s if we wanted to. It’s tempting some days.
On a day to day basis our favorites are the amount of light we get (an Airstream is like 60% windows), how quick it is to warm up with a wood burning stove, how it takes only about an hour to clean, the fact that it’s a classic beauty, we own it outright, and that we could take it with us anywhere at a moment’s notice.
What is the best part about living in a tiny home? The worst part?
The best part is just the feeling that this is all ours.
The worst part (actually the only bad part) has been the learning curve. Going from knowing nothing to having to learn it all very quickly– that’s life sometimes.
What advice do you have for other people who want to live a similar lifestyle?
- It’s not as hard as it sounds, it’s way worth any sacrifice you think you’ll have to make for space. We had one challenging week at the start – when I moved in full time, but we quickly figured it out.
- Look for the magic in people. I put an ad on Craigslist with a few pictures and our little story, looking for a small piece of land to rent. Within a few weeks we had three offers from people who wanted us to park in their yards or driveways to help them pay their own bills. We chose an amazing lady with a quarter acre of beautiful land and have been here for 8 months now. She let us name our price and we settled on $500 a month.
- You will get push back from everyone in your life that it’s too drastic. You don’t have to follow a cookie cutter life plan. People’s expectations of what your life should look like can destroy you. We both have our reasons for our choice to live this way. In her early 20s Melissa worked for FICO – the credit scoring giant and became utterly disgusted with a system that is created by banks for banks. Period. Rusty left the video gaming industry that required 60 – 80 hours a week out of him. He was lonely and his schedule left no time for life.
We live in a crazy broken consumer society where everything must be new and financed or it’s just not “worthy”. We think worthy is having the time and money to live your life. The feeling of being this free and having this much money to fall back on for little to no extra work feels incredible. It’s not for everyone but it certainly works for us.
Thanks Melissa and Rusty! What a cute and inspiring couple. Do you live in a tiny house, alternative dwelling or RV? Email me to be featured!
P.S. Looking to declutter and minimize? CLICK HERE to learn about the Fearless Minimalist Guide