A few years ago in San Antonio Texas, we were out at a bar with our friend Mike. He was travelling across the country and went out of his way to meet us while I was there for some training. We have a running deal that wherever I travel to, he will come visit. We went out for drinks and had a ball. We wound up at “Howl at the Moon”, a dueling piano bar where they had two giant mirrors behind the stage where you could pay money to write a message. The deal was, pay a dollar more than the last person, and they would erase their message and replace it with yours. Our message was, “Being happy is the only thing that matters. If you’re not happy, it’s your own damned fault!”. It stayed on the wall for hours.
We are doing exactly what we want and we’re really happy! Seriously, it’s not some unattainable goal that you can’t achieve because of bills or debt or illness… All that is required is wanting it and taking the first step. We just found what really makes us happy, then took the steps to make that our life! I’ll talk about our journey, but I think the basic principles can apply to anything you want out of life whether it’s travel or restoring an old car or changing careers. Also, yes, you can totally do crazy random shit with kids. We see people all over the place with them. A girl in my scuba class has a 7 year old who goes to the international school in Koh Tao and runs around the hostel or plays on the beach all day! He is guaranteed to grow up and be awesome. We see him playing computer games and being a normal kid, who also speaks three languages. So sit back, grab a beer and listen to a part of our story. Or don’t, either way you should sit back and have a beer because it is Wednesday… I think.
Our lives were very different 5 years ago. The circumstances and details don’t really matter that much, but we both remember when it all started to change. We were on Christmas break from work and school and took a trip to Florida to visit my brother and his in-laws somewhere outside of Daytona. They had a second house on a beautiful plot of land where they kept their harness racing horses in the winter. They suggested a campground a mile or two down the road and Lauren and I, along with my folks, each stayed in the campground “Cabins”. In reality they were park model trailers with wood siding permanently parked on the campground which most resort style camping places will have. The trip was great, but that is not why I’m talking about it. About ten minutes after we got the keys to the cabin, which was maybe 180 square feet with a sleeping loft upstairs, we looked at each other and said, “We could live in one of these!” The trip came and went and we didn’t think much of it.
Fast forward a few months and we were living in an old farmhouse in Mississippi, driving 35 and 40 minutes to work everyday and thinking we had it made. I was flying my ass off in the Air Force and Lauren was finishing up her bachelor’s degree. We had plenty of money and were saving a bit while spending the rest. We spent several months there until one day we realized we had multiple rooms that had nothing in them but boxes and mattresses that no one slept on. We had been living in this house for months and hadn’t opened half of our stuff. Thus, the great idea was born!
It took a few months of brainstorming and ideas, but soon I was calling the campground in Florida to get the information for the manufacturer of the cabin. We had decided to minimize and build a tiny house. We had it custom built and lived happily for 2 years in our charming little cabin on wheels.
Here comes the first lesson we learned: You don’t need stuff! There are a dozen cliches about your stuff owning you and every one of them is absolutely true. We sold what was valuable on Craigslist and had a garage sale for the rest. We kept the toys that took us outside (bikes, backpacks, kayaks etc.) since that is what made us happy. At the end of the garage sale we were giving away hundreds of dollars worth of stuff just to get rid of it. We didn’t miss any of it! Space became our new concern instead of price if we bought something. We just made “compromises” like having the one cup Keurig instead of the giant deluxe model. We actually became stronger as a couple because we were never more than 10 feet away from one another. When we had company over, we had to go outside… Oh darn.
There was definitely some bad with the good, towing the tiny house was awful due to the fact that it was a barn door on the highway. Living in a campground in Mississippi introduced us to some very eccentric neighbors, but also we made some great friends and had some wild times. Overall we loved it. I got a new assignment in the Air Force and we towed it all the way to Tucson, Arizona where we had a sweet gig. We parked it in our friend Mike’s backyard and I paid $250 to have a 50 amp plug installed so we could have electricity. He was a Snowbird and only spent part of the year in Tucson, so we had a million dollar view for the low price of keeping an eye on his place while he was gone. Nothing great lasts forever and he ended up selling the place so we decided to downsize once again and moved into an Airstream trailer so we could be more mobile. The tiny house was a pain to sell but that’s another story.
We continued to downsize, even though we really didn’t have to. It became a habit to go through our closet every few months and get rid of crap we didn’t wear. We realized we don’t need 3 skillets, we need one. People in the Air Force gave me shit all the time for being weird, but I just smiled as they drove away in their brand new cars to their giant houses that were costing them thousands of dollars a month. Our cars were paid for with cash and I made another great discovery.
Mr. Money Mustache is a quasi famous financial blogger who is less about finance and more about living a reasonable life and not blowing all your money on stupid stuff. He retired at 30 and is living a dream life in Colorado on $25,000 a year with a family of three. Check out his website for the details. Loosely following his philosophy, we we were putting aside over half of our take-home pay to pay down debt and when that was done, we were saving that money. We made reasonable choices and didn’t buy things that didn’t increase our happiness. We weren’t living destitute by any means though. The small RV fridge was always stocked with top shelf IPAs and Lauren cooked gourmet dinners most days of the week. We tried to stick to a policy of only going out to eat for things we couldn’t cook like Indian and Ethiopian food. We obviously had moments of weakness, but overall the principles worked. The plan was to finish out my commitment to the Air Force, then go travel the world on bicycles, taking breaks when we ran out of money and doing part time work like caretaking, bartending or maybe becoming a scuba instructor. In the meantime, we spent a lot of time outside and made awesome friends. Life in Tucson was good!
Things do not always go as planned. I got hit with a curveball as I was finishing up my training in the A-10. I found out I have arthritis in my back and wouldn’t be able to fly fighters anymore. Long story short, I was medically discharged, and our adventures would be starting a little earlier than planned with a little less cushy financial cushion. We could have stayed in Tucson. I could have easily found a job with Raytheon making good money or flown for the airlines, but we didn’t want more money, we wanted to see the world. Sometimes life happens… You can either bitch and complain about how things aren’t fair, or you can not do that and find something else that makes you happy… We chose the latter.
I don’t know very much. I’m 32 years old and just trying to live the best life I can. I have had some shitty luck and some good luck. Actually no, there is no luck. You’ve got to make your own luck. Anything else is just an excuse. What I do know is that even if I had a billion dollars, I’d be sitting on the exact same island I’m on right now with the exact same person riding the exact same bikes. I’d still be drinking a Cha Tri Thai IPA and probably still typing this on a bluetooth keyboard on my cell phone.
Space has become the ultimate commodity for us living on bikes and we make all of our purchases (not many) based on that more than price. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m happy. The journey to that happiness was an unexpected one, and certainly didn’t happen overnight. You don’t need to sell all of your stuff and go ride bikes in a foreign country to be happy, unless that is really what you want.
What you do need to do, at least if you bothered to read this far, is take that beer in your hand, walk away from your computer and go outside. Sit on the cold ground for a few minutes and think about what you would do if you didn’t have to work anymore. It sounds like a high school guidance counselor exercise, but honestly go do it. Whatever the thing is that you came up with, make it your priority. Make it a financial priority over the new car you were going to buy or the trip to an all inclusive resort in Cancun or even that $60 steak from Ruth’s Chris (Unless it’s your birthday, then eat the most expensive steak you can find). Make it a time priority instead of wasting time on the internet or spending time at lame office parties with people you don’t like.
If you think it is unachievable, or retirement is too far off, the next time you are going to check facebook or watch cat videos on the internet, read a Mr. Money Mustache article or find some other way to get closer to that goal. Or don’t… Do whatever you want.
As I write this, am sitting here on a tropical island in a room that costs less than $9 a night. The air conditioner is not even connected because we don’t need it and my biggest problem in the world right now is the fact that we have to run to the border in Myanmar tomorrow night to re-enter Thailand so we can stay longer. Actually, that’s my second biggest problem, the first is deciding if I want to be a scuba diving instructor, or ride my bicycle with my wife up the Eastern coast of Myanmar. And it’s Thursday… I think.