Life Outside Medicine

Why you should consider living in a tiny home during residency

Keeping costs down and the opportunities for adventure are two major reasons to live in a tiny home.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Seven months ago, my fiancé and I moved into a 100-square foot mobile tiny home (12 by 8 feet) in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. At the time, I was in the middle of my physical medicine and rehabilitation residency.

My fiancé is a solar engineer; we are currently surviving our first winter fully off-grid with solar electricity and propane heat. Our tiny home is an inherited camper from Texas that was gutted, insulated for winter and turned into a cozy home. We also have a ‘tiny guest house’ next door, which is a utility trailer my fiancé bought in 2018, turned into a tiny home, and lived in for two years in North Carolina and Vermont prior to moving to Ohio.

Our tiny homes are currently ‘docked’ in the backyard space of our very kind neighbors. We are saving money on rent and utilities by living this way; we are also saving up for a year-long honeymoon after residency, when we plan to travel the world (and pay off loans). Below are some of the key reasons I recommend that physicians consider living in a tiny home during residency training.

Kelsea Sandefur, DO, and her fiance sit in their tiny 'guest house,' which is currently docked alongside their tiny home in Cleveland, Ohio.

Why choose a tiny home in residency?

One obvious reason to live in a tiny home is that it lessens your financial burdens. It is possible to build a tiny home entirely of scrap material found locally, or to acquire a family camper and stay rent-free on someone’s land in exchange for weekly chores.

The savings on rent alone can range from $6,000-24,000 a year, depending on your geography and how ‘fancy’ you like to live. Going by an average of four years of $24,000, you would be able to save almost $100,000 during a typical residency just on your housing.

Of course, you’ll have to subtract from those savings the initial cost of acquiring and setting up a tiny home. Our tiny homes cost roughly $4,000-6,000 each.

This is a little different compared to what you find on the internet, which reports a range from $8,000 to $150,000 per tiny home, with an average cost of $30,000-$60,000. We were able to keep costs down via our two thrifty families and our connections to the solar industry.

In addition to money saved, some other reasons to live in a tiny home are centered around adventure. Let me go through some of my ‘whys’ in detail.

New look on relationships

Looking to improve your relationship? One of my patients told me he had a very happy marriage of 50 years. When I asked him what the secret was to make his marriage last, he told me it was because they never went to bed angry. They could be angry all day, but the bed was an anger-free zone.

I have learned with my 6’4 partner in our tiny home that a shortcut to creating an anger-free zone at night is to share a twin-size bed. There is no possibility of sleeping unless we both are in full snuggle mode, and that can help bring you and your partner closer. Physical contact is a good way to connect with your partner and is guaranteed in a tiny home.

Disconnecting from work stress

I used to have trouble disconnecting after work. My PGY-2 year, I began to bike to and from work and found it to be the best reset.

Along with either biking or a 5-minute meditation, a jump into a tiny home project can be a great way to disconnect and reset. It helps you focus on priorities in life and re-rank the level of significance you give to stress and various situations. Perhaps that one negative comment during the day doesn’t matter as much when you must go home to winterize your house or fix up your cozy space. 

Gaining gratitude and perspective

Thirteen percent of the world does not have access to electricity, which translates to roughly 940 million people. It is easy to live inside your own societal bubble, but it is necessary as a health care provider (and a human) to pop that bubble.

The best way to learn gratitude for something you grew up with, and often forget, is to learn to appreciate it from the bottom up. In a tiny home, you can learn how much electricity it actually takes to blend a smoothie, and how much sunlight can make that happen. That morning smoothie tastes even better when you can really appreciate where it came from.

The opportunity to simplify

Living in a tiny home is an opportunity to simplify. When we work with patients who are at the end of their lives, they are not talking about what material goods they had, but instead their loves and experiences. Living in a tiny home forces you to keep only the necessities and goods that will really bring joy to your life and provide you with what you need.

Nature can be like medicine

Nature should always be one of our top prescriptions for patients. We have long known the healing power of connecting with nature, and by traveling in a tiny home, you’ll have more ways to experience it than you might have before. What better way to connect with nature than to live in greater harmony with it? In a tiny home, you sleep with the pitter-patter of rain on the roof and are always only one wall away from the elements. Waking up with the birds can help you and nature reconnect and get comfortable.

The view outside of Dr. Sandefur's tiny home, during an Ohio winter.

Therapy in the wild

Have you heard of wilderness therapy programs? They take groups out into the wild and survive there. The individuals learn about teamwork, gain self-confidence, and explore self-actualization, the realization of a person’s potential. The secret ingredient is focusing first on your basic needs and pairing that with being in the wilderness or an environment of adventure.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, set up like the old-school food pyramids. At the bottom are the physiological needs: air, food, water, shelter, warmth and sleep. The hierarchy then progresses to safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and finally, self-actualization.

The idea is that, in order to meet a higher need, you must first start with the basics. In fact, it was Maslow himself who invented adventure therapy (a kind of wilderness therapy). Wilderness therapy essentially combines a focus on the basic needs and an integration of adventure experiences to encourage self-learning with the end goal of enhancing meaning in one’s life.

Living in a tiny home is like a personal wilderness therapy program. You must first focus on your immediate needs of filling your water tank and sweeping the snow off the solar panels. Then, you are in an environment with more adventure opportunities, which is the recipe for more self-actualization and meaning in life!

Travel opportunities galore

Finally, the greatest reason to live in a tiny home is the freedom to travel, without worrying about a place to stay and money to spend on hotels. Of course, this depends on your personal setup, but I would recommend a tiny home with wheels that you can tow behind your car for convenience and accessibility. You can take it for weekend trips to the mountains or nature areas near you and save money on lodging. You can also live in various locations throughout the years with less hassle than moving between traditional houses.

We initially moved to Cleveland and lived on farmland by a running stream. I’ve enjoyed telling people that while I have moved, I still live in the same home. This winter, we have been traveling in our ‘tiny guest house,’ driving it to ski mountains, where we enjoy being the first ones on the mountain with free slope-side lodging!

If you are someone who seeks adventures, living in a tiny home can make life a big one. In addition, you can gain appreciation for your basic needs, enhance meaning in your life and your relationships, re-prioritize and simplify your life, connect with nature, and travel more. It’s a great way to make the most of your years during residency.

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