In the last seven years, 35-year-old Ryan Mitchell has saved more than $100,000, paid off his student loans, traveled the world, and started a successful business. And he says it’s all thanks to his 150-square-foot tiny house.
“It’s hard for me to put into words, the impact is so profound,” Mitchell tells PEOPLE. “I attribute me living in a tiny house to me having a higher quality of life. It helped me to be more open to opportunities.”
In 2009, Mitchell had just graduated from Western Carolina University with a master’s degree in human resources and was six months into what he calls his “first adult job,” when he found himself suddenly unemployed: “My boss came in and said, ‘We’re closing the company. You’re all out of a job.’”
Mitchell remembers feeling helpless and realizing he had to take a serious look at his living expenses if he was going to get by.
“I realized half my income was going to rent, insurance and maintenance, and I said, I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but if I could eliminate housing from my budget, it would set me up to be in a better position.”
He discovered the tiny house movement online and knew immediately he’d found his solution. He started saving up to build a house of his own design using information he dug up on the internet. (He now runs his own website that helps aspiring tiny house dwellers). He worked at a non-profit during the week and every weekend, he’d work on the tiny house.
All in, the materials for the house and the solar panels to power it cost him $30,000. The labor — his own — was free, less the help of a licensed electrician and plumber.
“It took me a year and a half [to build],” he says. And even while working on the project, he had doubts about it. “I was nervous that living in this tiny house wouldn’t work, that it wouldn’t be for me, but I told myself I only had to do it for two years to get to the break-even point.”
Confirmation he’d made the right choice didn’t end up coming from the house, but from the apartment he was sharing with a roommate during the process.
“I realized I had boxes from when I’d moved in there that I’d never opened. I hadn’t needed whatever was in them for years. That opened my eyes to the role stuff played in my life.”
Mitchell says that made it easy to start getting rid of almost everything he owned in preparation for his tiny move. He sold some things, donated others and held on to the things he decided he needed. He kept a few books, keepsakes his yearbooks but not much else.
“In that process, it wasn’t just my housing I was rethinking, it was my whole life, my priorities and goals. I realized the thing that made me the most happy wasn’t stuff.”
Mitchell moved in to his tiny house located on land he says he helps pay taxes on (but doesn’t pay rent) in an upscale Charlotte neighborhood in 2014. Lots of windows and natural light make the teeny footprint feel larger than its 150 square feet.
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“My house is built just for me,” Mitchell says. “All the counters are the perfect height for me, the closet was designed around my wardrobe even the kitchen storage was designed for the foods I like to eat. It really is like a normal home. Everything is just on a smaller scale.” When you walk in the front door, you’re in the living room. In the back is the bathroom and kitchen, and a queen size bed is located in a loft above. He admits, he does miss having a guest room.
Thanks to his scrupulous saving and profits from his website, he ended up having some cash leftover after finishing the house and used it to launch a successful business.
“I had an extra $20,000 that I took and started a co-working space and then sold for a big profit,” he says.
He also wrote a book about tiny house living to help others, and runs his website full time.
And while he says he’s loved the lifestyle, he is planning to live in a more traditional house in the near future. He’s also hoping he will have saved enough money to retire by the time he’s forty.
“The tiny house fueled all of it. A lot of people see it as just a stepping stone and that’s how I went into this. I was going to use this to enable things to build income, build wealth, [and eventually] build a more traditional house.
“That’s what happened. It let me start a business, helped me reduce my debt. It let me live life on my terms.”