try using only half

Early in my time in Portland (before we hit our debt payment plan hard), I was exploring different ways to maintain quality of life, while living clean and healthy with less waste. Our little cottage is fully furnished but didn’t have much in the way of cleaning supplies. Since we were living out of our car for most of 2010, we didn’t have things like big bottles of shampoo or detergent sitting around, and were determined not to mindlessly clutter up our shelves with big plastic bottles full of chemicals. ((This was the time I discovered the wonders of Dr. Bronner’s, a nature-friendly soap that can be used for everything from doing laundry to personal hygiene. It’s kind of spendy when you first get the bottle, but a refill only costs about $3.))

One of the ideas that has been the most useful to me over the past year is a simple guideline: use only half. Whether it’s toothpaste or laundry soap or a sheet of paper, if you use half of something, you won’t need to refill or replace it as soon. You have doubled its value and shelf life. The easiest is with dryer sheets. I just take kitchen shears and cut all of the sheets in half or thirds and the results are just as fine, maybe better. There are certainly variations on this, and sometimes using half the recommended amount is not enough (start with half and then add to that amount a little until you reach desired end result). I was surprised at how many things in life, such as the daily dollop of shampoo, that I had defaulted into using as much as DOUBLE the recommended amount.

I don’t remember where I picked up this simple guideline; it was probably someplace like – but I have thoroughly enjoyed working that principle into the fabric of my life as we worked out our debt snowball and our struggle with materialism/consumerism in the past year.

It’s less about money and more about philosophy and habit.
Try using only half. It’s just a little thing but it can change your relationship with substances forever.

iphone or millionaire?

When the iphone first came out, I was not attracted to it at all. A lot of my colleagues – I was surrounded by photographers at the time – were really excited that they would take their “business” with them (and being able to immediately respond to wedding inquiries might mean the difference between getting a chance at a job and losing out to someone else). After going through initial curiosity stage, I began to see the iphone craze as just another expensive luxury that was being marketed as necessary to our overcaffeinated generation. And I was suspicious about the ability to check email from anywhere, because I already feel that I overcheck email as it is. I believe it is healthy to have some parts of life (vacations, car trips, and waiting in line) excluded from being plugged in.

As newer! faster! sleeker! generations of the iphone came out, more and more of my peers were sucked in. You could hear people calling into the Dave Ramsey show asking for advice to file for bankruptcy who had just spent a bonus check to purchase the entire family matching iphones instead of putting money toward paying off the credit cards or mortgage or putting food on the table. I shake my head, judgmentally, as friends who I know don’t have any extra money sign up for $40/month data plans and justify it with explanations about saving money because they put other family members on the same plan (what?).

I have to admit, I am still sometimes judgmental of iphone users.

I don’t want to be this way, and I have to recognize that most of the people I respect in life use these clever little devices. I admit that I too would check my twitter stream while waiting in the never-ending line at the Piedmont post office if I had a data plan in my pocket. I admit that I would feel a lot better if I had GPS with me at any time or could check a flight status in transit. And, if used properly, the device just might allow some of us to vacation better, leaving laptops at home.

But… iphone or millionaire, people? I choose millionaire.


I know it’s not perfect, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?

One little lifehack that has allowed me to have many of the benefits of the iphone but virtually none of the expense is the ipod touch. In the past four years, I’ve worn one ipod to death, and am dangerously close to wearing out a second. I use this daily to check in on blog feeds, twitter streams, and facebook in a noninvasive way, and also to reference my calendar and contact information on the go. The ability to access music, audiobooks, contacts, calendars, and photos anywhere, plus the ability to access internet, email and streaming pandora wherever there’s wifi available means that I can still travel light if I don’t need to access my photo editing software or write long email responses which encourages me to leave work at home. Note: suspicious of the “koolade” factor, I tried the ipad when it first came out but couldn’t justify the expense and the size versus the relative benefit against the simple little ipod touch.

So, I don’t mean to be judgmental about this, but I’m really glad I decided against the iphone and subsequent data plan charges back in 2008. There have been moments of weakness and data plan envy – especially when I am stuck somewhere and could really benefit from being able to access Yelp reviews or check for an important email notification… but I keep coming back to that idea expressed in the comic… iphone or millionaire? DELAYED GRATIFICATION!

Full disclosure: Ali does have a hand-me-down jailbroken iphone he hacks with a $10/mo data plan.

So, readers. I know I might have alienated about 80% of you with this manifesto. Do you love your iphone? Does it help you do life better? I won’t judge you if you share (unless you really can’t feed your kids this month).


My theme of the month is SPEND OUT. I want to wear dresses even on weekdays, use up the markers and notepads I have stashed around the house, and make sure to eat all the delicious fruit before it goes bad. I want to finish up gift cards I’ve been hoarding and read the good books I’m saving on my shelves. I want to spend it all, these resources I have stockpiled and these things that I have somehow come to believe should only be trotted out on rare and special occasions. What am I saving it for if not to enjoy today?

ABUNDANCE! I want to live in abundance mentality, not in fear of scarcity.

[Hat tip to The Happiness Project for the challenge]

Also, this wonderful little video is charming me today:

via @swissmiss

July Spencer Update

We have some big life changes ahead of us. With Rachel’s departure from her job and me going to Boston this weekend to move our stuff we are going to have to take a pause this month. Rachel is ramping up her photography full speed so once we get the numbers from her business figured out and I get reimbursed from my job for the move we’ll quickly get back on track. In the meantime, we are only paying our minimum payment this month.

STARTING TOTAL (12/1/10): $69,176.76
PAID SO FAR: $53,030.09
LEFT TO GO BEFORE 12/31/2011: $16,643.76 (plus accrued interest)

Well, that’s a change!

We’ve had an interesting couple of weeks over here in debt repayment land! Last Monday morning, after I delivered Ali to the Portland airport for his trip to Iran to visit his family, I received news from my boss that my job as an Office Manager was being eliminated due to budget constraints. I had five hours’ notice to finish up some work and say goodbyes to my coworkers. It was a bizarre feeling to be laid off; I have never experienced that situation before. Worse, I wasn’t able to tell Ali for a couple of days since he was in international transit mode. That was tough.

While I look for another job, I am going through the process of applying for unemployment benefits. Since my previous employment was not terminated due to performance weaknesses, I am eligible to receive up to 60% of my salary from the State of Oregon on a weekly basis, dependent upon an entrance interview and weekly accountability that I am actively seeking employment.

I have been through a wide range of emotions about this situation, and I am surprised by the amount of awkwardness I experience when sharing the news with friends and family. It’s uncomfortable to talk about being laid off, because people instantly register pity and I always wonder if it seems like I was fired because I wasn’t doing a good job.

Unemployment benefits are another source of awkwardness. It’s not like we wouldn’t be able to eat or pay the rent if I did not collect the benefit, and I know people in other circumstances need it much more than we would, but on the other hand it’s proper use of an insurance against this unexpected loss of income… and I have been paying taxes in some form or another my entire working life [eta: note that unemployment insurance funds come from employers who pay into it as part of their quarterly payroll tax].

At the risk of offending readers, I feel like I have some sort of “white guilt” class guilt surrounding the situation. (Am I using that euphemism correctly?)

I wonder why nobody really talks about unemployment benefits, or being laid off? Is it embarrassing?


Our good friend and loyal reader Maria has sent us the following email:

We feel readers might appreciate this.


Hurray! Congratulations – that must feel wonderful mdog! We are doing a happy dance with you.

Do you have any unusually large animals living uninvited in your house? What are their names? Send us a postcard and tell us about it.

Rachel & Ali H
PO BOX 11506
Portland OR 97211

June Spencer Update

Well, in typical me-fashion I am going to be brief once again. We are starting to see the end in sight, but there is still a lot to go. There are many things eating into our cushion, like the little monkeys Rachel blogged about and now we have our stuff in Boston that we need to move. My work is reimbursing us but we have to pay out of pocket up front, so you may see a decline temporarily in our intensity as we take care of that. Okay, enough talk, here are the numbers:

STARTING TOTAL (12/1/10): $69,176.76
PAID SO FAR: $52,750.00
LEFT TO GO BEFORE 12/31/2011: $16,881.34 (plus accrued interest)

SPENCER MAIL: Janna in Portland, OR

Spencer Mail, Janna
Spencer Mail Portland OR

This month’s Spencer Mail comes from Janna in Portland, Oregon. We are deducing that Janna lives in Portland, because her postcard was from Portland cult classic landmark Voodoo Donuts, and the postmark identifies as local. Janna could also be a recent visitor to Portland. We may never know! (Janna…?!)

Found your blog through a friend + I’ve enjoyed reading it. Congratulations on your huge success so far! My question is: Can we see more pics of your tiny cottage? I love small houses!

Love, Janna

PS: The rhino is too cute! :)

Thank you for the mail! We are so glad your friend passed along the link. We hope to encourage more people through our honesty about our finances and the debt we have hanging over our heads.

Janna wants to see photos of our tiny house. We’ve been reluctant to post too many images online so we don’t place ourselves too precisely, geographically speaking. So, chemically imbalanced readers, please don’t try to stalk us.

The truth is, our tiny cottage is too wonderful not to share.

simple living tiny home portland orsimple living tiny home portland or
simple living tiny home portland orsimple living tiny home portland orsimple living tiny home portland or

We live in 364 feet of divided space, lovingly handcrafted by our landlords using upcycled materials, clever cubby holes, and a miniature version of almost everything. The floor plan is compact and every inch goes to good use. The open storage in the kitchen can start to look a little bit cluttered for my tastes, but the decor and warmth of the lighting and wood makes this place incredibly liveable. See our tiny countertop fridge in the bottom middle picture? We also only have two burners for cooking – and it’s FINE. Our bathroom sink is also very tiny. The swing on our front porch (bottom left) is a recycled Dairy Queen booth!

If you’d like a virtual tour, this Canadian feature was made in our house – skip to 10:35 for more on Sassafras Garden Cottage.

Thank you for your postcard and the encouragement, Janna from Portland! We are happy to be able to share more images with you and hope you enjoyed a peek into our domestic space.

And PS: we don’t think Spencer is cute at all. He’s super annoying. We hope you don’t become too attached to him because we want to get rid of him as soon as possible!


READERS: If you have a story to share, or a challenge question for us, we’d love to hear from you! We’re accepting good old fashion letters and postcards about our project, and will do our best to answer your question, rise to your challenge, or share your story. You can reach us here:

Ali & Rachel H
PO Box 11506
Portland, OR 97211

Spencer Mail



I need to introduce you to the monkeys; from a debt-repayment standpoint, May is looking like a bad month.

First, a small indulgence: I signed up for a class with some local artists ($65) then I received an unexpected doctor’s bill ($320 – they charge for making you pee in a cup?), our car needed some work done ($1,300) and finally… I bought a small piece of original art from Therese Murdza ($110). Yikes. It almost sounds like a series of bad draws from the Chance pile in the game of Monopoly.

Car maintenance is to be expected – we figure have put about $1,500-$2,000 into Giorgio for the past few years with occasional misbehavior from rotors, glowplugs, belts, and the like. Overall I continue to be quite happy with my 2003 diesel-powered VW golf and wouldn’t willingly trade it for a newer model vehicle. I never did understand why people lease cars.

But… what’s up with doctors these days booking their appointment calendars and unable to take new patients? Don’t even get me started on the doctor’s bill. It’s been years since I have had a general practitioner. When I was sick for three weeks this past March, as a new patient I was unable to schedule an appointment with anyone local. I had to spend time in Urgent Care (= emergency room, kind of) twice within one week because they were the only people who would accept me. Urgent Care was completely inadequate, so the next thing I did from my sickbed was research doctors and schedule health appointments over the next couple of months so that I can at least get an appointment next time I am in need. Anyway, my advice for you when you go see your doctor: if they ask you “should we do that test right now?” or “do you want to take care of that today?” say NO and run far away, because they will bill you for things they know your insurance won’t cover.

Finally, the art. I wouldn’t have signed up for the workshop if I knew the car repairs awaited, but I was still thrilled to pick up a small watercolor from Therese at her first solo art gallery show this past weekend, despite the fact that I knew it was not in the budget. This was a case of willful rebellion, and I don’t regret it.

Luckily we have been paying more than our monthly allotment so we’re ahead of the game. I’m still sad that we are put back by unexpected expenses this month.