What one couple learned after a year of tiny house living
Tiny homes have intrigued many over the past several years. Media coverage of the phenomenon has revealed various motivations for tiny house living — debt-saddled Millennials trying to save money on rent, finding a solution for a housing crisis and a desire to live a simpler life are just some of the reasons.
No matter the reason, tiny house living (even for a little) is life changing. That’s what Curtiss O’Rorke Stedman and Kelly Tousley discovered when left their home of Juneau, Alaska to hit the open road in a tiny house. They sold the tiny house after a year of traveling but gained so much at the end of their trip including a new city to call home and a new view on life.
1. Curtiss contemplates a full-time career as a musician
Curtiss and Kelly had been living in Alaska for a few years after moving from their home in Michigan. Curtiss was teaching high school English as his day job but he played one-man shows as Cousin Curtiss nights and weekends. He started to wish he could play his music, a mix of folk and Americana, full time.
Curtiss started to form a new goal: “We really wanted to travel around and see if there was a new home base out there,” Curtiss told Finance101. “And to see if I could travel around and make it as a full-time musician monetarily and mentally.”
NEXT: This was Kelly’s inspiration for going traveling in a tiny house.
2. Kelly wanted a break in between graduate school and a career
Before her and Curtiss’ year-long road trip, Kelly was earning a masters in early childhood special education and working in social services. She wanted to take a break after graduating from her master’s program but eventually get back into the professional world. Like Curtiss, Kelly also loved traveling and the great outdoors.
“I think the biggest component with that was the reality of knowing it was going to cost money to travel,” says Kelly. “It was just too big of a leap almost to continue to pay rent and then hope that we had enough money to cover those other expenses.” Living in a tiny house seemed to be the best way to travel across the U.S. economically.
NEXT: Couples that travel together, stay together.
3. It made sense for them to travel together
Kelly and Curtiss essentially met and fell for each other while traveling on the road, they told Cosmopolitan in an interview. “Curtiss had accepted a teaching job in Alaska, and he needed somebody to be his co-pilot,” Kelly told Cosmopolitan. “He wanted somebody to make the week-long drive with him to Alaska.” Kelly accompanied Curtiss on his drive to Alaska.
After Kelly returned to Michigan, she kept in contact with Curtiss and talked with him every single day. Eventually, she flew back out to Alaska with just two duffel bags and moved right in with Curtiss. If they met traveling on the road, perhaps they could travel successfully together for a year.
NEXT: Planning is a key component of successful travel.
4. They researched tiny home building for two months
Kelly and Curtiss bought a 98-square foot utility trailer to convert into a tiny home for about $4,750, they told Finance101. Usually those kinds of trailers are used for construction. Kelly and Curtiss spent about two months just researching what they wanted to build before they even took a hammer to the trailer.
They looked on Instagram and Pinterest to see what other tiny home builders had done. They contemplated what they’d need on the road — kitchen, bed, storage, etc. — and decided they’d want separation from their home and car. They decided on getting a truck and hitching the trailer to it.
NEXT: Here’s how people without carpentry experience learn how to build a home.
5. They researched tiny home building on Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube
Curtiss and Kelly measured out their tiny house dimensions once they got the utility trailer to determine what living the tiny house lifestyle would be like. “We measured out with like ratchet straps and bar stools and painters tape in our living room and we’re like, ‘Wow, this is it! Seven by 14 [feet].’”
As most do when they’re trying to figure out how to do something, Kelly and Curtiss searched for tiny home building tips on Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube. “To look at this empty shell like this 98 square foot metal wall shell and try to imagine a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, a bed — it was overwhelming,” says Curtiss.
NEXT: They needed a specific type of tiny home.
6. Their tiny house was built to survive the elements
Most tiny homes in the media are professionally built tall homes with all the bells and whistles. “You build this tiny house to maybe move it a couple of times, but essentially it stays pretty still,” says Kelly. “Whereas I think our idea of a tiny house was a comfortable living space that didn’t feel like a camper that we could easily haul thousands of miles.”
Considering their main purpose of tiny house living was to travel, they needed something tough enough to survive the road, the elements and be able to stay intact during a cross-country haul. The utility trailer proved helpful as it’s built for tough construction work.
NEXT: They took their time building the home.
7. It took Kelly and Curtiss nine months to build their tiny home
The pair didn’t have professional carpenter skills to help them build a tiny house quickly. On top of that, they didn’t have a lot of downtime. Because of work, school and caring for their two dogs — Sawyer (left) and Doug (right) — Kelly and Curtiss could only fit in building time on the weekends.
Slowly piecemealing the home together over a span of nine months, Curtiss and Kelly said they came up with a weekly schedule for building: They’d brainstorm what they were going to build on Friday, go to Home Depot on Saturday for supplies and build on Sunday.
NEXT: This was the most expensive part of building their tiny home.
8. It cost Kelly and Curtiss about $10,250 to make their tiny house
In total, Kelly and Curtiss told Business Insider they spent $10,250 making their tiny house. The costliest part, they think, was probably the electronics. They told Business Insider they spent $1,600 on a Goal Zero Yeti solar panel. Not professional carpenters, they found other supplies to make the cabinets and decks surprisingly expensive.
“I think the part that always shocked me was the wood,” says Kelly. At one point they had a shower and a full cabinet set in the tiny home but eventually realized that was a bad idea. They removed the shower to optimize their tiny home. You live and you learn right? Some bad ideas aren’t always evident in the planning process of a project.
NEXT: They finally hit the road on this date.
9. They traveled to many places and had many adventures
Kelly and Curtiss said they officially hit the road on June 1, 2015. They traveled across the country, hitting stops like their home state of Michigan, and others like Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, California, and many more. During the day, they drove in their truck, worked, hiked, adventured, and more.
At night, they parked their truck and trailer to get some beauty rest. They stayed in campgrounds, parking lots, and even people’s agricultural land. Instead of paying rent or for a hotel room, they just paid things like campsite fees or participated in the Harvest Hosts program.
NEXT: Kelly and Curtiss weren’t the only two traveling with them in the tiny house and truck!
10. Unlike other traveling couples, they brought two huge dogs
Unlike a lot of young couples embarking on a tiny house or van life adventure, Curtiss and Kelly had to fit not only their possessions but two huge dogs in their trailer and truck. The dogs’ presence impacted some of their decision-making. “There were several times where we might want to do something,” says Curtiss.
“But it just happens to be middle of the summer in Tennessee and it’s 98 degrees with a 100 percent humidity — and we have two large dogs that were born in Alaska.” There’s a lot of back and forth and discussion when one has kids as well as when one has pets. Especially dogs!
NEXT: This is how they’d make money on the road.
11. They made money on the road through music and odd jobs
They told Business Insider that they had about $7,200 in savings when starting their tiny house trip. This was made in part from selling some of their possessions. “We used that money to help pay for the truck payment and insurance from June until now,” Kelly and Curtiss told Business Insider while they were traveling on the road. “Now we rely on music to pay for those things.”
For money on the road, they relied on what Curtiss made from doing shows and money from odd jobs Kelly did. Curtiss told Business Insider that he played anywhere from two to four shows a week or eight to 15 a month. Some of Kelly’s odd jobs included design work, data entry and substitute teaching.
NEXT: This might be a useful program for travelers.
12. Curtiss and Kelly stayed on farms through Harvest Hosts
“We used a great program called Harvest Hosts where you could stay on people’s agricultural land in exchange for buying the goods that they were selling,” says Kelly. Harvest Hosts’ website says that if you don’t see a product that you want or need from your host, you can buy one for family or friend instead.
“You’ll enjoy buying local products and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping a small business grow and thrive,” says Harvest Hosts’ website. To use the Harvest Host program, you’ll have to become a member first.
NEXT: Doing these other things helped Curtiss and Kelly save money on the road.
13. Buying less, cooking and splitting meals helped save money
If Kelly and Curtiss did the typical tiny house lifestyle, they wouldn’t have had to invest as much money in traveling. To save money on the road they’d try not to buy things they didn’t absolutely need — their 98-square foot trailer couldn’t hold all of it anyways. Selling most of their possessions helped the pair make space initially.
“We tried to cook as much as we possibly could,” says Curtiss. “But when push comes to shove, you’re tired, you just want to eat out. So we would go out to a restaurant, but instead of getting two entrees, we just split one.” Instead of spending $50 on dinner, they could spend $20 or $25 Curtiss explains.
NEXT: Here’s how they avoided squabbles on the road.
14. Taking breaks helped diffuse potential arguments
It’s easy for anyone to get on your nerves if you’re with them 24/7 either in a truck or 98-square foot trailer. Kelly and Curtiss say that their relationship has plenty of open communication and therefore not many fights. When they did feel like they were getting annoyed with a situation, they’d take steps to calm down.
“If that ever happened, we’d be like, ‘Break time!’” says Curtiss. “’Let’s go find someplace cool and adventure with the dogs.’ And that was really a saving grace for our minds, our hearts and the whole adventure really. I mean, a great deal of it was centered around the dogs and their happiness.”
NEXT: This is how they documented their trip.
15. They kept a blog called “Pay Gas Not Rent”
While traveling, Kelly and Curtiss documented their travels on their blog and corresponding social media channels, Pay Gas Not Rent. The blog is not active anymore but they still keep their Instagram active with details of Curtiss’ shows and adventures in the brand new city they ended up settling in.
On their blog, Kelly and Curtiss gave readers financial breakdowns of various aspects of their journey. That might be very helpful for those aiming to go on a one-year travel trip similar to the one that Kelly and Curtis embarked on.
NEXT: This is how much they might have saved on rent.
16. They spent about $1,500 on rent in Alaska, $0 on rent on the road
While they were living and working in Juneau, Alaska, Kelly and Curtiss said they paid about $1,500 for rent. Living in Alaska is pretty expensive they said, so, they definitely saved a lot more on rent while on the road. Curtiss said they didn’t spend 14 months worth of rent (which might have been about $21,000 over 14 months) but still spent money on other things.
Saving money all around wasn’t really the goal of their year of tiny house living — traveling was. “We weren’t really doing it to save money,” says Curtiss. “We were doing it to prove that it could be done, that you could live minimally and follow your dream.” Other Millennials’ tiny house living adventures have often been attributed to the money-saving aspect but that wasn’t this couple’s goal necessarily.
NEXT: This is how many states they made it to.
17. In total, they traveled to about 28 states
That’s more states than the average American has been to! They wouldn’t have been able to do this, they think, if they didn’t live minimally in their tiny house and truck. “I think for us had we stayed in one area or even like five areas, I think then the money-saving aspect would have been huge,” says Kelly.
“Our main goal was to be able to travel around the country for a year and not go into any debt by doing so…and by living in the tiny house, we were able to do that.” The pair said they think they made it to about 28 states over their year of traveling — including Michigan, California, Tennessee, and more.
NEXT: This is when they knew it was time to stop.
18. After a year, it was time to call it quits
It was the summer of 2016 when Kelly and Curtiss decided to finally set down roots somewhere. “It was time for a transition,” says Curtiss. “Kelly was in the experience for a year before she needed to chase her dream. And my dream continued.” A truck and trailer weren’t necessary for Kelly to chase her dream of working in special education.
Curtiss would still be traveling occasionally for touring but he didn’t need the trailer for that. “It didn’t make sense to own both the truck and a trailer as one person, let alone a tiny house,” says Curtiss. Instead, they decided that Curtiss would purchase a van for music tours and gut and sell the trailer.
NEXT: The utility trailer goes back on the market.
19. The trailer was sold for almost what they paid for it
Curtiss and Kelly were able to sell the utility trailer for a little bit under what they paid for it. Curtiss couldn’t remember exactly how much but says it was in the ballpark of $3,500 to $2,000. The utility trailer was gutted of the bed, kitchen and storage areas they’d used for the entire year.
The utility trailer went back to being a utility trailer — its true form all along perhaps? Having it be a utility trailer possibly made it easier to sell as more people are probably in the market for a trailer rather than a tiny house! Curtiss purchased a van big enough to travel and sleep in on tours as Cousin Curtiss.
NEXT: Kelly and Curtiss considered these cities to settle down in.
20. They considered living in either Asheville, Charleston or Telluride
After traveling all over the U.S., Kelly and Curtiss decided they had a few top favorite cities and then a bunch of other areas that they loved but didn’t want to live in. “Asheville, North Carolina — we loved,” says Kelly. “Charleston, South Carolina — that was a great area. Curtis had some phenomenal shows [there],”
“We loved being back by the water. And then Telluride. I would say those are probably the three coolest or favorite cities that we were in.” It came down to deciding between living by water or mountains. They eventually picked the city that reminded them of their former home, Alaska.
NEXT: This city had plenty of natural beauty and was reminiscent of Alaska.
21. Kelly and Curtiss settled in Telluride, Colorado
Telluride is a southwest Colorado city in the Rocky Mountains. With a population of 2,426 (as of 2017), Telluride is known for skiing, snowboarding, and other outdoor activities. Google photos of Telluride and you’ll find breathtaking images of snow-capped mountains. Seems perfect for a nature-loving couple like Kelly and Curtiss!
“When you pair [southwest Colorado] with parts of New Mexico and Arizona and Utah…they just have something that is just so incredible that isn’t like any other geographical region of the state,” says Curtiss. Kelly says that they discovered the mountains were truly where their hearts were.
NEXT: What about leaving Alaska?
22. Leaving Alaska was a bittersweet decision
When asked about leaving Alaska permanently and settling in Telluride, Colorado, Curtiss and Kelly said it was a bittersweet decision. “[Juneau, Alaska] was one of the most magical places either of us have ever been,” says Curtiss. “Telluride — as beautiful as it is — it’s a close second, I would say, to a lot of places in Alaska,”
“Juneau in particular. We weren’t really sure if we were going to end up back in Alaska or if we were going to find someplace in the lower 48 after we had completed our goal of traveling full time.” Ultimately, they said “Goodbye” to Juneau, Alaska and put roots down in Telluride.
NEXT: This what they’re up to in Telluride now.
23. They’re following their dreams in Telluride
As of February 2019, Kelly and Curtiss are both living and working in Telluride, Colorado, and going back home to Michigan occasionally to visit family and friends. Kelly works as an early childhood special education teacher and behavior specialist for an intermediate school district. Settling in Telluride gave Kelly the opportunity to follow her dreams.
Curtiss has continued his dream and works as a full-time musician. He’s considered getting another job to supplement his income from music but music proves to keep him too busy. “I probably play about 160 shows a year,” says Curtiss.
NEXT: This is one of the most important financial lessons Kelly and Curtiss learned on the road.
24. Taking it slow helps you save money on new projects
Kelly and Curtiss told Finance101 that one of the most important financial lessons they learned while building their tiny home was taking it slow. “We had these ideas,” says Curtiss. “But we piecemealed them all together so that we didn’t drop five grand in a day and then took nine months to put it together.”
Taking the time to plan before embarking on a huge and potentially costly project can save you a lot of money in the end. Research how to go about your project, the cheapest way to get supplies and don’t rush through things. These steps are essential especially if you’re new to a project.
NEXT: Traveling changed their view on strangers.
25. Accepting strangers’ kindness opened doors for them
Kelly and Curtiss said that they learned that there are more good people than bad while they were out on the road. Sometimes they’d meet people on the road and get invited to homemade dinners and a driveway to safely park in. “It’s so easy to say ‘no’ and talk yourself into all the reasons why you shouldn’t go to a stranger’s house and eat a meal,” says Kelly.
She goes on to say that stepping out their comfort zone opened doors for them and helped them meet so many cool people. “So often you hear in the news all these terrible things and you feel you want to close yourself off,” says Curtiss.
NEXT: Curtiss and Kelly still don’t own a lot of possessions because of this.
26. Kelly and Curtiss prefer traveling over having possessions
Kelly says that she and Curtiss have some “gypsy in their souls” and still love to travel. “Which means we don’t own a whole lot and we’ve both been totally okay with that,” says Kelly. “The emphasis for us is on exploring where we’re at and now being able to continue to travel,”
“The only way you can do those things is if you don’t spend money on materialistic things that you don’t need.” Instead of spending money on things, Kelly and Curtiss rather spend money on traveling and experiences because that’s more important to them.
NEXT: This is why other people decide to live the tiny house lifestyle.
27. Tiny house living makes sense in these situations
Harry Connick Jr. poked fun of the tiny house trend — in his tiny house challenge he ate “tiny” food, dramatically parted from his family and underwent “training” for his adventure. However, this is no laughing matter for some people. Their reasoning for tiny house living might be similar to Kelly and Curtiss’ or completely different.
Tiny homes have been used as solutions for paying less rent and a way to address housing crises. They’re ideal because they’re small enough to fit in densely populated cities and not as expensive as full-size homes to build and maintain. Regardless of tiny house residents’ motivations, they’ve probably dealt with similar situations: having fewer possessions, building their tiny home, and dealing with naysayers.
NEXT: There are various kinds of tiny homes out there.
28. Different tiny homes for different purposes
Kelly and Curtiss wanted their tiny home to be tough enough for the harshness of the open road, various elements and comfortable enough to sleep in. Many of the tiny homes you might see on Instagram and Pinterest are cute and immaculately made. Unlike Kelly and Curtiss, those individuals might look at their tiny homes as a more permanent place of residence.
Kelly and Curtiss’ tiny home was their home for just about a year. There are also entire tiny home communities made by different organizations like CASS Community Social Services for homeless people. Some cities that have tiny home communities like this are Dallas, Detroit, and Syracuse, says Curbed.
NEXT: This is the advice Kelly and Curtiss have for others that want to do what they did.
29. “You need to do it, you have to do it, you must”
When asked about advice Kelly and Curtiss have for other people that want to travel the U.S. in a tiny home for a year, Curtiss says “Do it.” There will be people that tell you not to, he says, even close friends and family, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from pursuing your dream.
“It’s going to be scary. It’s not going to be pleasant all of the time,” says Curtiss. “But it’s something that if you really feel you want to do it, you need to do it, you have to do it, you must. Otherwise, you’re going to resent the decision not to for the rest of your life.”
NEXT: The tiny house and traveling lifestyle isn’t for everyone.
30. Quitting your job and traveling isn’t for everyone
It’s easy to romanticize the idea of quitting your job, selling all your possessions and traveling the U.S. or even the world. There’s no shortage of travel bloggers online hashtagging their Instagram posts with #vanlife, #blessed, and #digitalnomads. Their posts look amazing but that doesn’t mean it’s always like that.
Beth Cabrera, PhD, had an interesting take on the travel life for Cosmopolitan: “It’s easier to deal with the uncertainties of travel when you have a nice, warm bed to come back to, even if it’s 5,000 miles away.” People always crave security — something you’re more likely to feel like you have curled up in your warm bed rather than out on the open road.