In their classic book The Millionaire Next Door, authors Thomas Stanley and William Danko offer a simple message.
Plenty of millionaires don’t live lifestyles of the rich and famous. They live in ordinary houses, drive used cars, and don’t care about conspicuous consumption.
In other words, the rich are boring.
Since the book was published in 1996, it’s gotten some well-deserved criticism. The authors interviewed millionaires. They didn’t interview people who did all the stuff in the book and didn’t become millionaires.
Fair enough. But I’ve been thinking about The Millionaire Next Doorrecently because of something that’s been happening on my block—practically next door.
What’s the hottest hot-button issue in Seattle right now? Marijuana? Same-sex marriage?
Been there, legalized that.
No, my neighbors are arguing about microhousing.
Microhousing developments are apartment buildings full of small studio apartments. One is currently under construction on my block.
The apartments are furnished and have their own bathrooms but share a kitchen. It’s typically one kitchen per eight units.
And when I say “small,” I mean really small. The smallest micro-apartments are 120 square feet, and the largest are around 300. They’re basically dorm rooms for grownups.
Here, for example, is a microhousing development near where I live. (The photographer really went all-out to make the apartments look spacious, didn’t they?)
Depending on how you look at it, micro-apartments are relatively cheap or very expensive.
Because they’re built in desirable urban neighborhoods, they’re expensive on a square-foot basis.
But because you don’t get very many square feet, you can typically rent a unit for $500-$750 per month, including utilities, internet, and furnishings, in neighborhoods where people don’t bat an eye at a $1500 one-bedroom.
I don’t want to rehash the arguments over microhousing, which are mostly about parking and about the size and appearance of the buildings. I just want to look at it from a frugality perspective.
The people who live in micro-apartments are a diverse group. Many are young professionals. Some are divorcees and single retirees.
Here’s what they have in common: they’d have to work really hard to overspend on housing.
Housing can consume an unlimited portion of the family budget—up to 100% and beyond.
Big houses come with big mortgage payments. Then you pay for repairs. Utilities. Property tax hikes. Kitchen remodels.
When we imagine people living in 120-square foot apartments with a shared kitchen, the image that comes to mind is a disease-ridden tenement.
That’s not the reality of this new housing. As one microhousing resident, Judy Green, told USA Today last year, “I can afford the rent. The unit is lovely and the building is attractive. It’s nicely finished and it has large windows with lots of light. I’m comfortable with the size.”
(Disclaimer: I was quoted in the same article.)
My point, of course, is not that everybody should live in a tiny apartment. Microhousing in its current form is only for singles, and certainly not for all of them.
But the high demand for microhousing offers us the opportunity to rethink our own housing choices.
You want to live like the Millionaire Next Door and quietly sock away a nest egg while your neighbors go broke?
Great, how small are you willing to go? If not a micro-apartment, how about a one- or two-bedroom?
Many readers, I know, will find this argument preposterous. The young and poor live in small apartments, and grownups live in houses with backyards.
But I know plenty of adults who are starving their retirement accounts while spending lavishly on housing, which doesn’t strike me as a very grownup way to live.
If, God forbid, I were to find myself single, I would move into a micro-apartment without hesitation.
I have fond memories of dorm life; I hate housecleaning; I like living in a dense urban neighborhood; I don’t own a car; and I don’t have any hobbies that require a lot of space.
Oh, and I like saving money.
The microhousing project on my block is almost finished. Soon, a few dozen new neighbors will move in. They will vary in age, income, and inclination to be frugal.
Some will, no doubt, take the opportunity to save aggressively. They’ll be Millionaires Next Door on steroids: tiny house, no car, bulging 401(k).
They haven’t even moved in yet and I’m already jealous.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.