Like many people, Renee Benes feels her parents had a big influence on the way she grew up viewing finances—for better and worse. "I had what I call YOLO parents," she says.
Her dad, who she would see every other weekend, would scoop her up and take her to do fun activities. Her mom and her grandmother were both impulse shoppers. "There were attempts by my mom to teach me how to manage money," recalls Benes. "She wanted me to be better with it but didn't even know how to teach me to be better."
Thankfully, Benes stayed away from credit cards when she was younger to avoid accumulating debt. But that changed when she met her now husband at 20 and wanted to give his 5-year-old daughter, Destiny, all the opportunities she could.
"The credit card just became an easy solution," she says, remembering that she'd think, "Let's just purchase this. Let's just do this. She wants to be in this sport. We'll just throw it on this." She added, "It became so easy to do because I didn't have any other habits or practices already ingrained in me."
The Minnesotan married her husband in 2008, and they moved into a three-bedroom townhouse. In 2010, they welcomed their first daughter, and in 2011, their son followed. Motivated to provide the kids with more space and to live in their ideal neighborhood, Benes and her husband stretched themselves to afford their dream home, which was 3,400 finished square feet.
It was hard to pass up, but she says she can't stress enough "how little thought went into the purchase" of their home. "We kind of just jumped into it," she recalls.
They were paying $1,900 a month—a big increase from $1,200 for the townhouse. "Our taxes also went up about a $1,000 a year, and it was also in need of upkeep," says Benes. The additional cost of housing expenses was about $500 a month. She was also trying to pay off student loans.
"I would do a monthly budget, but I would budget only our needed expenses," says Benes. "I began to realize that the lifestyle we were living wasn't really aligned with the things that I wanted."
She remembers that both she and her husband started to feel a certain amount of pressure to keep up their lawn and fill empty areas of their home. "We were working so hard to keep up with the rest of the neighborhood or make this house grand and beautiful and put all of these investments into it," says Benes. "That's what we were doing with most of our weekends."
In 2015, less than two years after buying the house, the couple decided to put the house on the market. That's when they found out her stepdad had terminal brain cancer and her son wound up in the hospital, which left them with a great deal of medical debt. Benes started charging everything, and soon found herself in "a deep pit of financial despair." She says, "It was just this overwhelming fire that was lit within us to start paying off debt."
Benes curbed extraneous expenses, started doing free activities with the kids, and she and her husband began using Dave Ramsey's debt snowball method, which involves paying off your debts from smallest to largest. She also found ways to earn more money. "I started finding side hustles, working part-time, doing whatever I could, to bring in any additional income," says Benes.
The couple managed to make a profit on their home and put that toward a down payment on a smaller home that was 1,300 square feet and $1,000 less in taxes a year. Additionally, they reduced their grocery budget by about $500 a month, eliminated clothing costs by about $200 or more, as well as a $400 a month car payment, among other cuts.
Benes also began investing and saving, creating specific buckets for certain expenses, including vacations. Their game plan, which included being very intentional with budgeting, also made room for them to afford the younger kids' activities, like music lessons and karate. They can also support Destiny, who as a now young adult may encounter occasional financial issues like needing to pay for a car repair.
"The benefits of paying off that debt and simplifying our lives the way we did and shifting our mindset around what mattered more gave us everything we really wanted," says Benes.
The experience led her to start a blog in 2017 called The Fun Sized Life as a way to not only share her downsizing journey but to also make additional income for the family. Since then, she's gone on to become a minimalist mentor, creating courses and trainings to help other people figure out the best ways to simplify their home, their life, and their finances.
Here are a few of Benes' best tips for downsizing like she did.
Do Your Research
"Really dive into why you want to downsize," suggests Benes. Then, get a read on how much your home is worth, and if you're going to be able to find a home you want once you move.
She recommends connecting with a local realtor or even just checking numbers on real estate sites like Zillow to start.
Simplify Your Expenses
Even if you're not ready to downsize your home, you can still start to simplify your life financially, says Benes, who recalls taking a first step toward reducing the amount the family was spending on groceries.
Look at what you're spending consistently every month, whether that's cable, mortgage, car payments, or debt payments. "What of that can you eliminate?" asks Benes. "Then you start to get money consistently back every single month. That can be one instant way to just do a downsize to your finances and free up money."
Get Clear on Your Priorities
Really knowing what you want for your life in the big picture is key, says Benes. "It can be so easy for us all as humans to want to give into those quick gratifications," she notes. But, she says, perhaps ditching your $100 a month cable bill means you have $1,200 at the end of the year to take your family on vacation, which is your bigger priority. So it would be worth it to make a "mindset shift" and "be willing to let go of certain things that maybe bring you a small bursts of joy in order to work toward those bigger, deeper, more meaningful things."
Ultimately, if you connect yourself and your finances to those bigger goals, it's easier to reduce your spending on the little things, says Benes. She concludes, "Then, you can accelerate toward where you really want to go."
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