One year living frugally while renovating an old house in Spain. The benefits and failures. Want to live frugally? Here’s what we learnt…
One year ago in September 2021, we moved into our unfinished old house.
We didn’t have our official ‘certificate of habitation’ yet. The building work was far from complete.
Window panes empty.
No hot water.
We filled the many empty windows with plastic sheets to keep out the wind, rain and cold.
We made a ‘camping kitchen‘: a butane gas hob, an second hand fridge, DIY cupboards + shelves.
We washed up in what will eventually become a bathroom sink.
In winter, we huddled in blankets + woolly hats, to eat dinner + watch Netflix.
(– If we got cold we knew we’d been sitting still too long!)
We created a tent-like structure over our beds, to keep us warm while sleeping.
We had one chest of drawers each for clothes. The rest boxed away.
In summer, the window-less top floor heated up like an oven. The terrace tiles measured 55 degrees celsius!
You may think that living like this sounds like a living nightmare?
The fact is, we’ve never been happier.
Let me explain…
Are you a frugal person?
I always thought I was a frugal person, but in reality I was not.
Last summer, only a limited budget remained to complete our old house renovations.
We’d have to be REALLY strict on spending.
Otherwise our building permit would expire before we finish!
At this time, it became clear we’d have to do a lot of the manual labour ourselves.
(– Since moving out of London in 2016, I’d grown accustomed to ‘throwing money’ at problems. So, this last part I was really unhappy about!)
That being said, how did we end up in this situation?
Well, in 2017, my husband had decided to buy an old delapidated house in the centre of a town.
(– Actually, it’s two 3 story houses put together!)
We were already settled in a nearby apartment, and had spare cash left over from selling our London flat.
Parking money in a property seemed like a solid idea.
The architect’s advice was that the whole place could be made livable for the price we paid for it.
The project sounded manageable.
We jumped in!
After signing the contract in Barcelona, el husbando managed the project for a few years while I worked on my own business.
Ultimately, the renovation work included:
• fitting a new tile roof on the top
• creating a terrace from an old asbestos roof
• new plumbing pipework and electrics throughout,
• making existing windows larger
• extending a patio space at the back, and
• replacing wooden beams and floors on 3 levels.
The builders also:
• Dug up the ground floors + put down a damp-proof membrane and pipes.
• All the outside walls were sand-blasted and rendered with lime mortar.
I then helped project manage for one year.
In 2021, time was up. We needed to be in the house as soon as possible!
Beginners guide to living frugally
By last September, we were at the end of our savings, yet the repairs were nowhere near finished.
After moving in, we made the decision to live as frugally as possible.
We live on one salary + some rental income.
We can only spend what we have left over on the house.
Living frugally reduced decision fatigue and made us more settled in one place.
Frugal living also simplified life + made us slow down.
Over the last 12 months, some of our frugal living examples include:
The air-conditioning on our car broke – we haven’t fixed it.
My mobile phone screen broke – I haven’t fixed it.
The letter “E’ stopped working on my laptop keyboard – I haven’t fixed it.
My glasses broke at the ridge of the nose – the two eye panes are fixed together with tape!
We’ve bought no new clothes or shoes, except for 2 packs of knickers.
Other frugal living choices include:
No travelling anywhere abroad or far away.
No flying for 4 years.
We use the car about once a week only – for things we can’t fit on the bike, like manure, or if we treat ourselves to an excursion.
We cycle or walk most places.
We draw water from a natural spring, except during the drought.
We ‘make do and mend’. For example, salvaged old oak beams are becoming shelving + furniture. When my prescription sunglasses got scratched, I ignore the slight blur on one eye’s vision.
We re-purpose waste: using cartons + plastic bottles as containers for growing plants.
As part of living frugally, we up-cycle objects other people throw away. We’ve found in the trash:
• Sofa cushions
• Plants (aloe vera, climbers, Yuccas)
• Wood palettes
• Canvas frames for painting on
• Fabric (– separately we’ve found metres of perfect quality ‘Jute’ and ‘Burlap’ fabric. It is great for crafts and upholstery projects, and is usually expensive.)
We cut out sugar and processed / packaged foods.
We cook low cost meals, often with food from the allotment.
We bake our own bread.
All of these frugal living actions have made it possible to carry on renovations while managing a 20 x 20 metre allotment.
We also reward ourselves for hard work: we go for a worker’s lunch once a week!
Failures of living frugally
The reason we started living frugally was to save money for renovating the house!
Renovating an old house is not cheap. It’s not frugal!
We surpassed our architect’s cost prediction ages ago, due to extras, unexpected structural issues and the rising cost of building materials.
We are also restoring the house using traditional methods.
These old methods are generally:
more labour intensive
I’ll cover our house renovation in a separate post. However, to give context, here’s an example of the house renovation costs we’re dealing with.
Tiling the floor – Tiling with traditional ‘baldosas ceramicas‘ tiles involves:
- Buying the tiles at €22 per metre
- Washing the tiles
- Sealing the tiles with a €38 per litre sealer (– the tiles are porous, so this protects against stains)
- Waxing the tiles twice with a special wax (– €22 per litre from France!)
- Laying and grouting the tiles
- Washing the tiles again
- Sealing the grout to prevent stains.
Of course, it would be much easier, quicker and cheaper to use modern tiles + methods.
But renovating the old house is an emotional decision for us, not a financial one.
We love old houses and want to create a sanctuary.
• House Renovation costs: This is where our money went this year:
Floor and wall tiles, tile adhesive, tile sealer, French tile wax x 3 cans, tile grout, replacement wooden windows x 4, aluminium windows x 5, sacks of lime plaster, cement mortar, two huge sacks of sand, the odd power tool, 6 pine shelves, electric parts (plug sockets, etc) and wires, plumbing parts and pipes, a bath, 2 x bathroom sinks, screws and nails, wood varnish, lacquer and teak oil. Plus, builders and carpenters costs.
• 20 x 20 metre allotment costs: We also spent money on:
Compost, vegetable saplings + seeds, wood shavings and wood to make 6 'no dig beds', chicken wire, sheet plastic to cover ground, two apple trees. These investments should last years though.
Apart from renovation and gardening costs, it was a successful “no-buy challenge” year except for:
• Random Repairs: The hydraulic levers that open the car boot failed, a sander went up in smoke, a bicycle tyre needed changing.
• Dog – Vets bills, annual vaccines, food, poo bags, and an overnight kennel stay.
• Accountancy + Tax: I pay a UK and Spanish accountant for my personal tax returns.
• Post-Brexit legal costs – Lawyer fees. Travel to Barcelona for passport renewal.
• Odds + Ends: I got haggled into buying fabric at the market. We also bought a few luxuries: curtain fabric, non-brand Bluetooth ear pods, a shower head!
Benefits of living frugally
Far from being depressing and threadbare, life feels meaningful and fun.
This has surprised me the most!
Other benefits of living frugally include:
We feel younger because we both lived in similar conditions when we were in our twenties.
With no glass on some of the windows, we are exposed to the weather. It’s atmospheric! We’re more in tune with the seasons, bird life, our outside environment and the changing climate. For example, yesterday there was a ginormous rain storm with hail and thunder. Then there was a posh wedding in the church next door, with bells and excited guests! We can hear a cacophony of storks gathering in the trees around us, getting ready to migrate to Africa. As I write this, I can hear the cooing of doves and cuckoos at 7.09am!
Money – We’ve become more aware of our own money and the cost of things than ever before. We have good financial structures in place, a plan and good awareness of our finances.
Energy Efficiency – We’ve adapted to the lack of home comforts and this has changed our renovation plans for the better.
For example, we don’t need hot water, except for guests. We’ve scrapped underfloor heating and our earlier plans for a big, expensive gas boiler. We’ll recycle an existing small electric boiler (for radiators and hot showers) instead. We’ll use butane gas for cooking, instead of connecting the mains, and continue with butane gas.
Environmental impact – Our water and energy bills are lower. We’ve got used to cold showers. We wash clothes at 30 degrees and wash-up using cold water only. In the bedroom, we used a stand alone electric heater for less than an hour a day last winter. This winter we might cut that too. Winter water bills are only £30pm for two three storey buildings. In summer water use is higher, because the extreme heat = watering plants and increased showering.
Time Wealth – Because we have reduced our spending so much, I can work less and we both have more time.
Skills development – We have developed so many skills in one year – tiling, plastering, painting, lime, carpentry, gardening, growing fruit, vegetables and flowers, DIY, bread making, cooking, … Our greater skills set opens up future possibilities, like Woofing or Workaway.
Happiness – We do feel more in control and have higher self esteem. This is due to projects getting completed and ‘doing it ourselves’. There is a greater sense of purpose and a goal to aim for which helps us see the bigger picture, and not focus on things that don’t matter.
Resilience – The lack of many creature comforts and the relentless jobs, means that we have had to develop strong mindset + mental hygiene habits. For example, we are task focused, we celebrate and reward hard work, we rarely give in to fears and doubts, and we keep moving forward.
Minimalism – Though I have procrastinated and felt overwhelmed due to the building chaos, this is getting less / easier as we de-clutter and clear.
Physical fitness – We decided not to install a lift or create a ground floor garage, as most neighbours have done. Instead, running up and down three storeys all day, and not relying on the car for small trips, means we are very active and much fitter. Intense manual labour in the house and allotment has meant we’ve lost weight and gained strength.
Climate change ready – We feel prepared for the future. It’s as though life has given us a golden opportunity to adjust to having less, to live frugally and more self-sufficiently.
I fully realise this statement may sound strange because we own such a big building. Yet, tiny houses were impossible to find in this part of Spain. There are strict regulations about building new.
I feel we have been planted here to steward the house + allotment. At some stage we will pass the house and ‘huerto’ forward in better condition, for others to enjoy.
Last words on frugal living
We are not living frugally 100% yet.
Renovation expenses are not frugal living.
Nevertheless, we see the cost + work as an investment in our future + the community.
The frugal habits + mindset will continue once the building repairs are finally over.
We now realise how little we need to be happy.
That needs are not wants.
That we are actually more wealthy and healthy by frugal living.
Therefore, we plan to continue living frugally, even after the renovations, i.e. when we’ll have more disposable income.
By living frugally and simply, our lives have become more abundant, rich + free than ever before.
Article copyright Amy Garner 2022. Copyright Disclaimer + Notice.