Imagine going to McDonalds and seeing someone – let’s call them Bobby – order a Family Favourites Dinner Box – four boxes of fries, four burgers, four Cokes, and a box of nuggets. It’s such a calorific meal, that even when shared between four people, each serving still contains over half of your entire daily allowance of kilojoules in a single meal. Bobby sits there, eats a tiny fraction of the meal, just enough to make up a single serving, and then throws the rest in the bin.
Why? It’s not like there weren’t plenty of smaller options on the menu. It’s not like there wasn’t a homeless person out the front who might have enjoyed a meal. It’s not like it was the least expensive option available – in fact, it was one of the most expensive.
If Bobby told you it was to look successful and fit in, you would most likely be perplexed.
In all-you-can-eat restaurants, cruise ship buffets, and pot luck dinners, we usually react with disgust or anger to those who pile their plates high and then leave them untouched, wasting vast quantities of food. But in other contexts, waste is practically celebrated. As Jacob Lund Fisker points out in his excellent Early Retirement Extreme book, for some reason, we are considered more successful if, in addition to the lounge in which you are sitting watching TV, you have another, unused room in which there sits and additional couch and TV! It’s not ‘greedy’ to have more couches than people in your house. But it is greedy to pile your plate with shrimp you don’t eat. How does this make sense?
The family home
For all the talk about ‘hardworking Australian families’ in politics and the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that families with children make up the majority of households. But according to the ABS, only 71.5% of Australian households consist of families – and the definition of ‘family’ according to the ABS (and me too, actually) includes couples without children. Of the households characterised as ‘families’, couples without children are now more common than couples or single parents with children. Combining these figures, just over half of Australian households consist of a single person or a couple, while nuclear, step, blended, and other families, as well as shared house arrangements, make up the rest. It is worth noting that many single parent households and share houses may also consist of two people – a parent with one child, two flatmates who share a home but are not in a relationship and hence are not considered a ‘family’ grouping. Thus, it is likely that the number of dwellings containing one or two people rather than three or more is a reasonable majority.
And yet, we all dream of the ‘three bedroom home’ – in fact, the ABS in a separate article reports that the average private dwelling in Australia does indeed have three bedrooms. And this is the national average and includes that ‘glut’ of small apartments we’re always hearing about – some suburbs have much larger homes, like in O’Malley, where the average dwelling has five bedrooms – but the population is largely made up of ‘older’, ‘established’ and ‘elderly’ couples and families, and only 0.8% are described as young families with children.
Take a look at the front cover of any home magazine, any real estate brochure, any bank home loan package, and chances are you’ll see a picture of the ‘Australian Dream’ or whatever your local version of that is – a brightly lit rendered brick home with an expansive lawn, a red roof, and bold front door.
Yesterday, we went to the beautiful Sigatoka sand dunes to do a 5k walk through the national park. On the way back, we saw a billboard advertising ‘dream homes’ in Fiji – clearly, the dream house is a universal phenomenon.
The ‘Dream House’
We are all sold the ‘dream house’ ideal – the McMansion, when for some of us, it doesn’t really suit at all, and for others, it may only suit for a certain amount of time.
A young couple or single who start out with a more modest unit, may be subjected to constant assumptions about ‘upsizing’ – fastfood terminology perfect for association with the McMansion phenomenon – regardless of whether they actually require additional space. Just as getting married appears to be a license for people to ask you about your reproductive plans, if you buy a place smaller than society expects, be prepared to be asked when you will upgrade.
On the other hand, say you have children living at home for 30 years- that’s about half of your adult lifespan. Surely there are better solutions than to stay in the same house for a lifetime. But we equate moving once the kids have left home with ‘not coping’, ‘getting older’, and nearing the end. ‘Downsizing’ we call it, in our dreadfully depressing vocabulary.
When we first started saving for a home deposit, I had been pretty much sold on the ‘dream home’. I wanted the white picket fence, the hedges, the red door. Fortunately, my husband insisted that, in addition to houses, we also look at apartments and units, and we eventually found a place we loved, that is ‘right size’ for us (more of a ‘Happy Meal’ than a ‘McMansion’). And it suits our lifestyle so much more. No lawn to mow. No external painting to do. No wasted rooms.
Some people buy a family home in anticipation of having children. But the average time a house is held for is only 7 years. As much as most of us think of our homes as our permanent addresses, they rarely are. Others, with no intent to have kids, end up buying a ‘family home’ simply because it is the only sort heavily advertised, and considered a milestone, just like buying your first car, graduating, or getting married.
It’s time we reframe how we think about buying houses and moving, and concentrate on ‘right sizing’ for ourselves and our families.
If you have a large family, by all means, buy the box set of burgers, the bucket of chicken, the 2.5L Coke. But if you’re single or in a couple, does it really make you look more successful to be sitting there eating a family size tub of icecream or 5 extra-large packets of fries?
What does your dream home look like?
Today’s featured image is my hotel room door in Fiji. It’s a small room, but it’s the right size for us!