Granite Countertops

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As I read  Paula Pant’s recent interview with TIME, two sentences grabbed my attention, forcing quick images of the apartments and houses I’ve called mine over the past ten years to flash through my mind.

A lot of our friends were living in places with granite countertops. All we were thinking about was being as frugal as possible.

I left home at 18 when I moved to Johnson City for an attempt at doing what I thought I was supposed to do by pursuing a higher education. I flunked out three long months later, spent one night at home before deciding I am just not capable of having tabs kept on me, and I gathered my clothes and other few belongings the next morning. The next year or so was spent sleeping on guest beds, couches and air mattresses of friends and family until I landed my first real, stable job shortly after turning 20.

It wasn’t long before I set out on a mission of finding the cheapest apartment with no bugs in the beautiful lake city of Kingston.

The one bedroom and one bathroom apartment I chose was on the ground floor. It had one window between its four rooms, upstairs neighbors whose sole purpose in life seemed to be stomping around in circles all day and night, and no washer/dryer hookups.  It was in my beloved Kingston, 15 minutes from where I work.

I was told by my family, friends and random people who like to give their opinion that people sold drugs there. I didn’t care about that. 

The rent was $270 per month.

I decorated it as best and as cheaply as I could, and looking around my living room after painstakingly placing decals around the hot pink portrait of Audrey Hepburn that hung behind my light red hand-me-down couch, I was proud to be out on my own.

But when I climbed two to three sets of stairs to visit the very clean, bright Knoxville apartments of my friends, my pride was tested. With new stainless steel appliances, beautiful landscaping, gyms, pools, grills, and fun neighbors of the same age, my friends were living the high life. I was tempted each time to follow suit, but for the life of me, I could not bring myself to agree that $850 per month was worth it.

I did finally upgrade two years later though – by moving two units to the right. I signed a new lease with the same landlords for a $60 increase in my monthly rent. This increase gave me two extra rooms – a spare bedroom, and much more importantly to me, a laundry room. My favorite part? I now had three windows.

I’m not sure if my new neighbors were a rougher crowd or if I was just getting older and starting to actually notice what I had originally been warned about, but my apartment experience began to change fast. The fights outside my bedroom window late at night scared me. Yelling and the sounds of fists connecting to flesh six feet from where my head lay on my pillow made for nights full of anxiety and void of sleep. I found myself with a new neighbor who felt no need to hide his interest in me. He gave me the creeps and I dreaded arriving home to find him sitting on the porch we shared. Finally, a new exterior staircase was installed that covered one of my three precious windows.

My 23-year-old self thought it would be ridiculous to buy a home as a single woman, but I desired my own place. Therefore, I began a new search for the cheapest rental house I could find in Kingston with the same old criteria – no bugs.

Again, I did what I set out to do.

Kingwood Street doesn’t have the best reputation. The street curves at a 90-degree angle about six houses in, and the houses are increasingly foreboding in appearance after the curve. The house I chose was fourth in line, so I fortunately never saw any of the shady activity that goes on around the curve, but it was not a dream neighborhood or home by any stretch of the imagination.

However, the front porch was mine to use, and mine alone. I didn’t share walls or my ceiling with anyone. There were two windows in each room with the exception of the bathroom.  The rent was $600, and I remember just how broke I felt after putting up the first and last month’s rent, security deposit and utility deposits.

Even though I didn’t own the house, I made it mine by painting every room and decorating it to my liking. I loved that little house. It was a small, basic, two bedroom/one bathroom house, but it was a space all my own.

But before I knew it, my one year lease was only a few months away from being up, and I was beginning to feel that if I was paying that much in rent per month plus the cost of lawn care, I might as well be paying myself.

So I began a new hunt for as much house as I could purchase in or near Kingston for $100,000. The median house price in this city is $155,000, so finding a move-in ready home (at least what I consider move in ready) at this price took some patience. Twenty or so houses later, I found my new home just up the hill from one of the houses I grew up in. It was listed for $120,000, and I was able to cut it down to $100,000.

I bought my own TV for the first time after I moved in and decided to splurge on cable so that I could watch the FIFA World Cup that summer. The last time I had cable was before I left for college, so I had never watched HGTV until I was a new homeowner, and I have to say that I was really surprised by the first several episodes of House Hunters and other similar shows that I watched. I never knew that people spent tens of thousands of dollars renovating their kitchen. I never even knew what granite or quartz was. I didn’t know that people replaced perfectly good, working appliances just because they didn’t like the color. I had never heard of an en-suite and didn’t know that a bathroom should be a spa-like setting.

Moreover, I was astonished to hear the word “need” every single time one of these potential homebuyers alluded to these things.

The outdated linoleum floors in my bathroom and kitchen, two different types of carpet that meet between the dining room and living room, oak cabinets, Formica countertops and white appliances that make up our home would have never made the cut for the homebuyers on those shows. It’s not like I didn’t see these things when I walked through it the first time; it just never occurred to me that they should factor into my decision.

Other than a location close to where I work, all I “needed” out of my first home purchase was good, sturdy bones – a good roof, decent appliances that would not need to be replaced in the near future, absolutely no issues beyond cosmetic preferences, and a decent amount of windows. It took a little time, but for the third time, I did what I set out to do.

Since the beginning of our mortgage-free journey, one of the most common comments I receive is how lucky or fortunate I am to live in such a low-cost area that allows me to have a house for $100,000. I guess I am fortunate to have been born and raised in this area and therefore have the desire to stay here in order to be close to my family, but honestly, these comments have always perplexed me. It’s not as if this house just landed in my lap or that I am somehow stuck to this location. I chose a price range $150K lower than what my lender approved. I didn’t choose Knoxville, which is only about 20 minutes away or Lenoir City where I work, because I wasn’t willing to pay those drastically higher prices.

We are now having minor updates done to three rooms of our house now that it is paid off. New paint, trim and window casings, the installation of shiplap on the ceiling of our kitchen/dining room, and new lighting. We are very proud to be updating our house, not the bank’s house. I still can’t bring myself to pull down my solid oak cabinets to replace them with white cabinets or to replace our countertops and appliances. Our kitchen is definitely not worthy of Pinterest or Instagram, but it works just as well.

I suppose you could say that it all evens out in the end – take out a larger loan up front for the updated house or spend the money further down the road to update it. And maybe it does. But does the first option bring the same amount of gratitude and pride that I now feel when I look around our paid-off home and think of how far it has – and we have – come? Would it bring us any closer to our major goal of retiring early?

Paula has a spiel at the beginning of each podcast episode:

You can afford anything but not everything.
Every decision that you make is a trade-off against something else, and that’s true not just for your money but also your time, your focus, your energy, your attention – any resource that is scarce or limited.
So the questions become twofold:
1. What matters most to you?
2. How do you actually behave in a way that reflects that? How do your actions align with your priorities?

This is all it comes down to, right?

I want new flooring all throughout our house. I want to screen our porch and build the floating deck that my husband and I talk about from time to time. I want to completely demo our first-floor bathroom and design it how I want. I’d love to have granite countertops.

Some of it will wait, and some of it may never happen. While I’m trying to maintain balance by doing updates along the way, I’m not willing to push off the date that we will start saving money to purchase our first rental property. My ultimate goal of achieving financial independence is what matters most to me and therefore deserves my money, time, focus, energy and attention.

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  1. steveark says:

    I know it sounds ridiculous but we bought our four bedroom house for $32,500 on a full acre lot eight minutes from work in a great neighborhood where it was by far the smallest and cheapest house. Even on my starter salary it only represented about 15% of our take home pay. We are still in that house over thirty years later and it has been paid off for a long time. We are financially independent by a large margin so we did actually add granite counter tops and new appliances to the kitchen as a luxury purchase with cash. We even hired an architect and decorator to help move some walls around and redo the lighting and cabinets. Over the year we made several expansions and renovations on the place using cash so that we never had much house debt and paid off what we had pretty quickly. Being frugal back then means we can splurge now, though splurging isn’t easy for frugal people!

    We lived the path you are living and it paid off for us. We could go buy a new million dollar house with cash if we wanted to now, which we don’t, this place is more than big enough and nice enough for us. But we could do that only because we did not spend freely when we were younger.

    1. Ellie Mondelli says:

      I love, love, love this. Thank you so much; comments like this give me so much hope and excitement for our future. Congratulations on all of your success!

  2. Janel says:

    Love all your posts. But so far this is my favorite. ❤️

    1. Ellie Mondelli says:

      Thank you so much!

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