A Tiny House, A Bit Of Cash, And An Awful Realization

Charles: I understand, cash on the barrel, and that’s the way I like to deal and wheel, just as soon as I get that first crop to sale.

No. That isn’t a very lame line to a highly ridiculous rap song. Rather, it is a line that is echoed regularly on the long-running TV show Little House On The Prairie. For those that don’t know the Michael Landon vehicle, LHOTP is a show about a salt-of-the-Earth, farming family who want little more than to live, contribute to the world around them, and be happy. The show itself seems awkward now with its morals and ethics but for some it brings about some ideas that resonate louder than ever. One of them is the idea that Charles and the family held closely. Even when credit was available to them they chose cash-on-the-barrel. Charles did not want to owe anyone anything. How convenient then that that is a major tenet of the tiny house ethos. So many involved in the tiny house movement believe in paying cash as you go so no debt is accrued and only freedom is attained.

I can sometimes get on my soap box when talking about paying cash-on-the-barrel. There is good reason though.

When Tiny r(E)volution first came about in 2009 we were little more than a “standard” American newlywed couple who had dreams of this Norman Rockwell-esque future complete with house, picket fence, couple of youngins, and a dog or something. Truth is we were only “standard” in that we owed about $46,000 in consumer debt and were employed in dead-end jobs working just for the privilege of getting up each morning to work another day! Something had to change. We knew we had to take control and when we fell in love with the idea of a tiny house it was more about the size and the design than anything. The idea of it being a way to free ourselves financially came second (or was it third?) How did we do it though? How did we build a whole house cash-on-the-barrel?

First it is important to understand that we live in a society that says “pay with credit.” We are told it is easier to swipe a card and even more beneficial to our fiscal future. Credit cards allow us the opportunity to establish credit (so long as we pay them off in full at the end of each month) and even earn rewards! I mean, without a credit history, securing a mortgage, car loan or other type of loan can be all but impossible, right? And what about reserving a car or hotel room? Our commercial businesses have made having a VISA or Mastercard of upmost importance. No credit, no rent. (which kind of makes me laugh since it is unsecured credit and could actually end up costing the business). And let us not forget that a growing number of business subscriptions don’t allow cash payment. Afterall, isn’t that why PayPal exists? Try paying your Amazon.com checkout with cash. No can do! Thankfully though with a desire to free yourself from debt, a resolve to only use cash, and patience to build your house, you can pay cash-on-the-barrel and walk through the threshold on move-in day with a free conscience and no debt.

Cash exchange

It took us nearly 27 months to complete our tiny house. It cost us $26,790 to build. Our first purchase was the trailer which we got used on Craigslist and cost us just $600. Once we purchased it we had just a twenty dollar bill left and realized quickly we overestimated our thriftiness. The next step of our build was sandblasting the trailer, priming it, and painting it. While the expense was one of labor more than anything we still had to purchase 1/2 case of primer spray paint and 1 full case of semi-gloss, high-heat, black spray paint. Looking back at our receipts I see that set us back about $74. Considering I was only making $10/hour at my job at that time and Crystal was not even working, that paint became something of the sacred. With that example as a guide think of how we took $10 here and $20 there to build our house. Some weeks we would install a window which we had recently bought. We would then have to wait 2-3 weeks to get more money to even caulk the window. There were times when it was that tight. It was and it is possible though. Here are some tips we found to work well for us in order to save money for the build:

Create a coffee caulking fund. A cup of Grande, Iced, Sugar-Free, Vanilla Latte With Soy Milk from Starbucks cost roughly the same as a tube of all-purpose window and door caulk. So instead of buying an obnoxious coffee drink next Saturday afternoon take the money and put it in your “Cup of Caulk” envelope.

No nail left behind. If there is residential construction in your area stop by one day and ask the foreman if you can come everyday after sunset and pick up any nails that may have fallen to the ground each day. It is important to ask though so you don’t get accused of thievery and you will be surprised at how many nails you can pick up from just a day’s labor.

Measure once and cut twice. We’ve all heard the saying but it is surprising how much money can be wasted when we have to use a new piece of material because we cut the wrong size or angle. Take a minute to protect your lumber investment by measuring twice and cutting only once.

Make a trade. Does your uncle run wire for a living? Is your nephew “strong as an axe?” If so, you may have found two laborers who are willing to work longer than the money flows. It is called trading, bartering, or exchanging commodities. So you only build web sites or take photographs. Well, who doesn’t want a little computer help or some nice family photos for Christmas gifts? Strike a deal. “I’ll trade you a 30-minute photo session with post-processing touch up work if you’ll help me run the wire (up to code, of course) for my electrical outlets.

Stick to a budget. Make a realistic budget based on actual prices. Double check the budget. Stick to the budget and adjust it when needed for fluctuating costs.

Granted some weeks were harder than others and many times we did choose the coffee over the caulk going for instant gratification rather than the “big picture.” But with hard work, determination, encouragement, and a hard budget, we built our tiny house and was able to move in in a reasonable amount of time.

What methods have you enacted to stay out of debt yet still build in a timely fashion? Do you have a spreadsheet built out? Are you independently wealthy? Did you find a benefactor? Or are you just taking each day as it comes and making the most sound fiscal decisions you can? Let us know!


16 thoughts on “A Tiny House, A Bit Of Cash, And An Awful Realization”

  1. Andrew,

    I LOVE YOU, LOVE the article, but I must do you a favor by pointing out one WEE LITTLE THING: the word is TENET (not ‘tenant’):

    : a principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true; especially : one held in common by members of an organization, movement, or profession

    It may have been one of those ‘fingers flying so fast’ moments; I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.
    But just so the ‘young’uns’ out there don’t LIKE your phrasing so much they start using some points in their own tiny-house evangelism and wind up perpetuating a BIG ENGLISH faux pas (because it didn’t end up being ‘just a typo’, it’s an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT WORD) … and because there’s kids out there using the word RATCHET in place of WRETCHED (I SO wish someone could have stopped THAT ONE) because NO ONE CORRECTED THEM at the ‘git-go’… well, I hope you’ll take this in the way it was intended…
    To be helpful, occasionally.

    And if I didn’t like you I would’ve just said nothing.

    GREAT piece, of course. As I said, I’ve always liked your writing contribs, even those we might not see eye-to-eye on, because you write well and ‘talk to people’ and not down at them….

    • I blame it on auto-correct jipsi. HAHAHAHA. Seriously, thank you for the correction. I am NOT perfect at all so I appreciate folks pointing out my fast fingers. And yes, when I get an idea in my head that I want to write about I promise you my fingers can’t keep up. I don’t know the word RATCHET though so you won’t find me using it. I mean, I know RATCHET as in the tool that has teeth and allows a nut to go only one way. But I don’t know it in place of ‘wretched.’ Again, thank you for the correction. Well taken.

      • Many years ago my then youngest daughter (adult now) would click the add to dictionary button rather than look to see what was the correct spelling, so my when the autocorrect was turned on, it destroyed every email and document I typed!

    • As long as you’re nit-picking the article I’ll just point out that “and because there’s kids out there” should have been “and because there are kids out there.”

        Thank you, Becky, for pointing that out. I typed and sent it from my Kindle, and though there should be NO EXCUSES (considering the gist of my friendly and – hopefully! – gentle correction), just as Andrew mentioned, ‘auto-correct’ got ME that time. And that makes me want to go even more ballistic about grammar and spelling because ‘auto-correct’ should BE CORRECT, not allow ME to hit send on such a gross error! I am guilty that I didn’t proofread MY post before sending…
        But thank you for that, because it DID make me smile and ‘get humble’.
        Andrew, thank you for being the SUPER GUY you are and taking my grammar-prodding in good humor.
        If, an another article, you had mis-spelled tenant as ‘tenent’, I wouldn’t have even mentioned it (typo’s HAPPEN, and are often quite obvious). But I had to say something, as *I* knew what you were going for even though you wrote ‘tenant’ – but others might not…
        Anyway…. All good here.

        This was just one of those situations where two words can often sound ALIKE but be entirely different concepts, like the ‘ratchet’ vs. ‘wretched’ foul-up I referred to…
        I STILL don’t get how someone started THAT mess – I mean, if PRONOUNCED CORRECTLY they do NOT sound alike… but the hip hop crowd tends to turn the English language into another language altogether, so someone heard ‘she’s wretched and sad’ pronounced as ‘she’s wratched and sad’ so thus turned it into what they ASSUMED was the ‘word’: ‘She’s ratchet and sad’. (ick. gag.)

  2. Pallets, just use dismantled pallets and salvaged lumber for everything the result will be ugly but it will get you inside. Then bide your time and things will turn up demolitions skips etc slowly replace everything pay check to pay check. The important thing is to move in and the savings will empower you to pay everything.

  3. I totally respect your financial values, but I do think you’re overlooking a couple things that actually costs you more. What’s wrong with borrowing money at 0% that builds up your credit score – so long as you already have that same amount sitting in a savings account? You can get cash back by using that credit card, thus additional savings plus we all know it’s not just the cost of borrowing money that’s determined by our precious credit score, but even things like insuring our home and car. If you’ve got the cash, but then use credit wisely, I think we can have our cake and eat it too. Congratulations on EVERYTHING you two have accomplished and may your best days still be ahead.

    • Bob, you just put into one paragraph what I couldn’t figure out how to. We used a Home Depot card twice during our build that was essentially a “loan” to ourselves. It gave us 15% the purchase though. We paid the card off before the end of the month. Smart thinking and I am sorry I didn’t talk more about that option. To be fair though it is an option not all are responsible enough to proceed with.

      • Some credit cards give you a cash incentive to use them, so if you can be responsible and always pay it off without accruing interest you can even come out a little ahead. The key message is not to spend above your resources, however you actually manage the transaction. BTW, a magnet on a stick is handy for collecting nails and cleaning up staples and other metal detritus around your build site. No bending and kids love to help out too.

  4. “Measure once and cut twice.” This paragraph’s lead proclaims the *opposite* of the famous saying you invoke. Intentional, maybe?


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