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How a peak boomer who moved from Texas to a tiny home in New York lives 'perfectly comfortably' on less than $30,000 a year

Noah Sheidlower   

How a peak boomer who moved from Texas to a tiny home in New York lives 'perfectly comfortably' on less than $30,000 a year
  • Sam Mitchell lives comfortably in a tiny New York home on less than $30,000 a year from Social Security.
  • He left a high-paying real estate career in 2008 before moving to Peru and road-tripping across the US.

Sam Mitchell, 64, has a yearly income of below $30,000 a year from Social Security. But he said he lives "perfectly comfortably."

He bought a 384-square-foot "little shack" on the side of a road in upstate New York, where he stays for half the year. He stays in a mobile home at the end of a dirt road in Florida the other half. It's a very different way of life from the corporate real estate job he had 15 years ago in Austin making six figures and owning five homes.

Last year, he made a "whopping" $15,000 from his Airbnb operation in the Finger Lakes region, all of which he reinvested in the business.

He thinks his way of life isn't that far out of reach for other people around his age.

"I have friends who are 80 years old who are still working because they're so terrified not having enough money, and I'm going, guys, look at me," he said. "I am making a fourth of the money I was making in 2008, but nobody is going to do it."

Across the country, many peak boomers — or those set to hit the traditional retirement age of 65 between now and 2030 — are worried they won't have enough saved for retirement. Some have told Business Insider they won't be able to retire ever, while others are concerned that with rising rent and food costs, Social Security payments won't be enough to cover basic expenses.

Mitchell, though, said people's definition of "comfort" may be too idealistic.

"I call it the 'C-word,'" he said. "A peak boomer's definition of comfort is the reason they're so freaked out and feeling FOMO. It's called stepping out of your comfort zone, but people are so terrified and can't do it. They have nobody but themselves to blame."

Leaving luxury behind

Mitchell was born and raised in Atlanta and went to college at the University of Florida. He worked as a journalist in Santa Cruz, California, for a few years, then switched to being a real estate agent, a transition he described as "absolutely absurd."

For two decades, he worked on and off at Keller Williams in the Austin market. He said he would "run up a bunch of money" one year, then take a few months off in countries like Costa Rica, before starting the whole process again. He also was a landlord and bought up rental properties across the state.

He recalled attending lavish parties with musicians performing at South by Southwest and Austin City Limits. He also had a nice car and truck, and he anticipated that by the mid-2000s, he was spending about $80,000 a year on expenses.

"The life I was leading in South Austin in 2008 was the life that 95% of this planet probably would have traded for," Mitchell said. "I had a beautiful four-bedroom, three-bath on the South Austin Greenbelt. I was up to five houses."

Around that time, he had a goal of wanting to own 40 houses in Austin by the time he turned 65, then sell one every six months until he was 85. He wanted to follow the path of one of his real estate investor friends.

But that year, he walked away from all of it.

"I made the decision to disentangle myself, this whole career hamster wheel," he said, noting he began liquidating his assets in April of that year. "The pressure just popped in 2008, even before the market crashed."

He sold his primary residence and three other homes, and his license expired at the end of that year. He paid off all his credit cards, got rid of many of his belongings, and left behind the luxurious life, knowing he could always go back to it and make $100,000 "without getting out of my chair."

Moving to New York and Florida

To start life anew, he bought a farm in Peru and built a small house. He lived in Peru and Ecuador for four years, mostly off the grid, before coming back to the US in 2012. He kept one Austin home that he rented to a tenant, who paid him $650 a month.

Upon moving back, he decided to live out of his pickup truck and drive through California, Oregon, and Washington at first. He had a bedroom in the Austin home he could resort to, but he spent 10 months of the year traveling with his dog, Sancho Panza. He did this for about seven years, getting to see much of the US.

He eventually found a home outside of Ithaca, New York, for $35,000 on 14 acres of land. He had almost no money left and was still three years from getting Social Security, but his sister helped him cover the cost with the promise that he would sell the Austin home to pay back his debt.

He put the Austin home on the market on March 9, 2020, perhaps the "single worst day to put a house up for sale in the 21st century," he said, coming just days before the COVID-19 pandemic would lead to lockdowns across the country. With the money, he bought a "new" 2013 truck that had 200,000 miles on it and been wrecked previously.

Once Social Security payments kicked in, he relied on the $900 a month to get by. He didn't have many expenses, as he had no children to support, no mortgage, and no health insurance. Though the $900 a month could not compare to his salary 15 years ago, he said it's enough to get by and live comfortably.

He started an Airbnb business on his property after constructing his first tiny house from an eight-foot by eight-foot toolshed. He moved into this property and rented out the 384-square-foot house to tenants who take care of the home during the winter.

He worked with a local Amish family to build two other tiny houses on the property. He also built a little community kitchen measuring eight feet by 20 feet. When all homes are rented, he lives in a 96-square-foot camper.

He said he's still on the red on this business, as he's only open five months a year, but he's hopeful it will soon be profitable. He has a small side hustle buying vacant lots in Florida with two friends, sometimes doubling the money on their initial investments and using their returns to purchase more real estate. Still, it's zero annual income as none of it lands in his pocket.

He also goes to Florida each November for a few months, living near a swamp in a 600-square-foot mobile home.

"If you are willing to do this, then you can easily live comfortably in these beautiful surroundings making less than $30,000 a year," he said. "I'm living proof of it. I have other friends who have made similar decisions, and we're all getting a little sick and tired of the whining."

He said many of his fellow peak boomers need to reconsider what they need to live comfortably, arguing that they need to get more creative with income streams.

"I'm not living under a bridge — I'm running a business," he said. "I live in these absolutely beautiful surroundings, but you just have to trim down on all your gadgets. I just traded in my beautiful i7 computer that was going haywire for a Pentium processor. The guy at BestBuy was absolutely horrified that I was making this decision."

Have you recently moved to a new state? Are you worried about retirement? Reach out to this reporter at