On Walden Pond: Go Small

After discussing issues related to clothing, Thoreau, in Chapter One of Walden, next turns to the issue of housing.

(The picture here is one Jana took of the Thoreau cabin replica at Walden Pond Park).

Throughout this discussion Thoreau says things that sound downright Christian in calling out materialism and consumerism. Why buy bigger and bigger houses? Why not be content with less? Why enslave yourself to a mortgage?

Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.
Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?
[T]he cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
When Jana and I were shopping for our first house, which is the house we still live in and plan to live in (Lord willing) for the rest of our lives, we were given the following advice: Buy as much house as you can afford.

Anyone else ever hear that?

Trouble was, I was a student of Walden. So we went the opposite direction. We went small.

We figured, why tie up all our monthly income into a mortgage? Why not content ourselves with a smaller house and free up our money for other things? Vacations. Eating out with the family. Going to the movies. Savings. And charity. Lets spend our money on life rather than on a house.

From the start we called our house "Briarwood Cottage," because it is small and we live on Briarwood street. It is, square footage-wise, the smallest house of any of the houses of our friends and acquaintances. And I feel a sort of perverse pride in that, having the smallest house of anyone we know.

I'm not saying this to be boastful. I'm mainly wanting to share our story as it is, I think, interestingly unAmerican. In America the push is for bigger and bigger houses. And we've seen, in recent years, the ruinous effect this can have on people and upon our national economy. So if you are young, and your first house is in your future, let me pass on our story and the advice of Mr. Thoreau:

Go small.

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13 thoughts on “On Walden Pond: Go Small”

  1. The story of "Walden" is very American as is your own. We just have a generation that has yet to come to terms with the fact that much of the American story has more to do with sacrifice than extravagance. Our parents or grandparents sacrificed supposedly so that we don't have to do so ourselves; we think. Such a fanciful version of the American Dream will be met with a rude awakening every time.

  2. it's incredible the resistance I come up against when I suggest to friends, family or acquaintances that the bigger better deal is quite possibly not what we are called to as Christians (I have to confess that this resistance comes internally as well). That sacrifice in lifestyle in order to be generous should be something that we seek. The typical argument to that is "Sure, we could have a smaller house, but that gets ridiculous, where do you draw the line". While my initial premise gains resistance, my response to the typical argument about "the line" THAT gets gigantic ridicule. The argument being that I think it's an ongoing process, that we can often be content with less.

    Your posts about churches adopting a "generosity pastor" (I'm not sure what your terminology was...) is something I would really like to actively get my church to pursue. I think it's necessary, because I think you are right, one of the greatest issues facing "western churches" today is materialism and consumerism.

  3. Ah yes, I have forgotten about our good friends the Marcelain's. Now I no longer feel prideful! You'll now have to carry that burden. :-)

  4. Great advice! When my wife and I moved into our first long-term apartment in Russia 8 months ago I remember thinking how badly we needed furniture and other comfortable things to "make a home". At the time, we had a bookshelf and a table with no chairs in the main room. Some friends from the university we study Russian at came over (from Indonesia,  Russia, and elsewhere), and they were so excited to be able to sit on the ground in our home. We ended up waiting a month before we got a couch because we learned a valuable lesson...it wasn't the furniture  that made our home hospitable or things that made us happy. We felt most at home sitting on the ground and laughing with good friends. And we felt extremely rich and blessed to have such wonderful friends.

  5. That is a great lesson your parents taught you! I am hoping that we are teaching our kids the same. Glad that we could rescue you from your pride ; ) Enjoy Summit!

  6. I'm convinced that the "generosity pastor" is one of the best ideas I've floated. We need simplicity, charity, and hospitality specialists on staff to help with all sorts of things: Giving, sharing, simplifying.

  7. We still live in the 3-bedroom townhouse we purchased 21 years ago when our first child was a baby.  Having just attended my 30-year high school reunion, I am acutely aware of how much pressure there is to get the biggest house you can, even if it means moving out to the boonies, away from your friends and family.

    In addition to the financial benefits of staying small, I believe it is also an environmentally sound decision.  Suburban sprawl, here on the East Coast anyway, results in a lot of environmental destruction.  It's very discouraging to see forests and farms succumb to it.

    The effects of the "bigger is better" mindset also has national and international implications.  I have been reading about the 2008 financial meltdown lately, and while there are a lot of government and corporate villains to blame, a good bit of the problem stemmed from people overextending themselves on their mortgages, either to buy larger houses or to extract equity for additional possessions (vacation homes, cars, boats, furniture, electronics, etc.).

  8. You can see this in car choice as well: so many people have a kid and suddenly feel like they have to have a huge vehicle.  They don't tend to consider how this affects the rest of their life.  Americans not only have huge houses, we have huge cars (and huge roads and huge traffic jams).

    With houses, it seems everyone is under pressure to have a "guest room," even those of us with growing families.  I wonder what Thoreau would think of that - a room to be used entirely for guests (and not that often)?  If everyone had guests in their guest room constantly, that might be a different story... but most people don't.  None of the people that have ever stayed at any residence we've lived in have minded sleeping on an air mattress wherever we've had space. 

    We're blessed to be in a house that is more than sufficient for our needs, and is in a great location for our kids to grow up.  While it feels small at times, I think it's because we own too many things that take up space... not because we don't own enough house. 

  9. As with most things, there's probably a hidden dialectic here that owes its hiddenness to our rather blessed (!) socioeconomic context.  The accumulation of wealth in the form of equity - at least when it happens rapidly, within the first phase of one's productive career - eventually sets the person free from the need to work to secure life's basic needs.  When that piont is reached, of course, the ethical choices leap to the fore as the person elects to spend the newly unencumbered time and income for the sake of oneself or for the sake of others.  But it is not at all obvious that minimizing the size of one's mortgage necessarily results in commensurate blessings for others...at least, not automatically.  So we are back to square one:  the ethical posture of the person, irrespective of one's wealth.


  10. it's not just guestrooms.  many houses have formal living rooms and formal dining rooms that never get used either, but get furnished.  but people want them when they buy a house, because they're worried about resale value and their house being "normal" -- truly circular reasoning!

    there's an architect, sarah Susanka, who started her career with a book "the not so big house", (www.notsobighouse.com ), pointing out these problems, and nudging people towards smaller houses.  she's followed up with several more books, and the latest is "the not-so-big life", as she realized that for many people, it wasn't just the house that was too big, it was many things about their lives. 

    there's also the tiny house movement, a couple examples are:

    so, there are people seeing the same issues, in all walks of life.  it's even becoming a bit more mainstream now that the housing bubble has burst, and the "great recession" is squeezing the middle class.  frugality of many forms is making a comeback.


  11. I saw a news story a few years ago that talked about how families that live in smaller homes tend to have closer, more respectful relationships in the home. Studies showed that in large homes, family members would disperse to their separate rooms of choice, and when together showed more hostility and impatience with one another. Whereas in the smaller homes, where family members were forced to work together and accommodate one another in the smaller spaces, they demonstrated more civility, thoughtfulness and friendship.

  12. It's been strange to move from rural Appalachia, where you're wealthy if your house doesn't have a trailer hitch, to Northern Virginia, where you're wealthy if your house could be confused with a convention center. The houses here are sprawling but the yards are small-- in order to maximize the building footprint, people build as close to the street as city ordinance will permit. When faced with a limited plot size, people choose more interior space and less nature.

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