The Upside of Downsizing

Posted April 4th, 2009 by Heather and filed in Issue 2: Downsizing

I think there is a moment in everyone’s life when suddenly, everything becomes crystal clear; when you realize that all those stumbles and falls and lessons learned along the way have been leading you up to one, magic moment. That’s what it felt like when I discovered the concept of living in a tiny home.

shipping_container_homeIt truly was like falling in love, or finding a hidden treasure that no one knows about but you. Everything around me just stopped, and I was left marveling at this gem of an idea. I felt like suddenly, I was holding a diamond in my hand.  That was six months ago. And ever since then, I’ve felt like I’ve fallen into a life of grace; impossibly lucky that I discovered a way of living that is so perfect for me, and even more impossibly lucky that my husband happens to love the idea as much as I do.

We’ve both fallen in love with the idea of living in recycled shipping containers. Our current plan is going to give us around 500 square feet of living space. I’d like to go smaller but with both of us working at home and sharing space with two energetic dogs, I’m hedging my bets and giving us some breathing room.

Still, 500 square feet is much smaller than the home we’re currently living in, which comes in at 1,200 square feet (not counting the basement and garage). We’ve never had a lot of “stuff”, but when you start looking at what you’d actually be willing to take with you to your mini home, you begin to realize that there’s a whole lot you can live without.

What I’ve Learned Downsizing For My Mini Home

I’ve been on a decluttering binge since I discovered small home living. As I said above, we’ve never had a lot of stuff, but it’s amazing how much you realize you have once you start asking, “Would I take this to my mini home?” For me, the answer is almost always, “no”.

So, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in the past few months, as I get by with less and less “stuff”…

1. Give yourself time to go through your stuff
You might not realize it, but you’re tied to your things. It could be an emotional tie (like a special gift, or an item that brings back a specific memory, time, or place), or a financial tie (“I paid good money for that sweater, even though it’s ugly and doesn’t fit.”)

These ties take time to break. If you’re planning on making the small home transition within the next year, then start going through your possessions right now. If you’re forced to go through stuff at the last minute, then you’re going to bring a whole lot more with you than you planned on, simply because you’re still tied to all that stuff.

2. Make downsizing a daily affair
I stay in constant decluttering mode now. Every day I get rid of something; I keep bins in my garage, and when they get full of donations then it’s time for another trip to Salvation Army. You’ll make countless passes through your home, passing over something one day only to realize next week that you really could live without it.

As you walk through your current home, living your life, start looking at everything. Ask yourself, “Do I love this enough to take it to my small home?”
Remember, your storage space is going to be minimal at best. Everything you take with you must be either infinitely precious, or inherently useful. If it doesn’t fall into one of those two categories, then it might be destined for a life with someone else.

3. It helps to identify what you WOULD take with you
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then start small. Go through your house, room by room, and start making a list of the items you would take to your small home. What can you absolutely not live without?

Figure out why you’re taking these items. And then start looking at what’s left.

You might be surprised that as you go down your own downsizing road, your “can’t live without” list gets smaller and smaller. That’s happening with me, and it’s a good thing.

4. Identify your weak zones
We’ve all got them; these are the things that you can’t help but love. It might be shoes, handbags, tools, art…for me, it’s definitely books.
Your weak zone is going to take longer for you to trim down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken sacks of books to my local library for donation. I’ve gone over, and over, and over my books, and it’s been a slow process.

I was stuck for months on my books, unable to get rid of more than a few volumes at a time, until I came to an important realization: I was holding on to my collection because to me, reading was a major part of my identity.

Because of my love affair with books, I felt like the sheer number of volumes in my library made up an important part of who I thought I was. Which frankly, is ridiculous. I am more than what I’ve read.

And I shouldn’t need a towering collection of books to prove that.

This realization took months to finally hit, but only after it did was I able to start donating books in droves. Since then I’ve donated hundreds and hundreds of books. The ones that are left are my most precious, and they’re the ones I’ll be taking with me when I move.

If you have a collection of your own then you might want to hold onto it because you feel that those things make up your identity. Ultimately, these things are only that: things. But you probably won’t be able to get rid of them until you realize that you are not your collection. You’re way better.
Again, this will take time. If you’re anything like me, it will be hard. But you won’t be able to let go unless you start now.

Last Word
I have to admit that getting rid of 90% of your possessions to move into a home the size of some people’s closets sounds crazy. But, it’s a kind of crazy that I love thinking about.

And you know what I’m learning? I’m learning that the more I get rid of, the happier I am. I’m learning that I’d much rather sit with my husband and eat wine, bread, and cheese than go out shopping for stuff I don’t really need. And I’m learning that the emptier my house gets, the fuller I feel inside.
The best part is that this journey has only just begun. Good luck on your own.

8 Responses to “The Upside of Downsizing”

  1. RobynNo Gravatar says:

    I love this post! I’m loving all the posts on SMJ. I too am in a constant state of purging. Sometimes I hit a plateau and don’t know what to get rid of next. Sometimes there’s even backsliding and I bring something into my space I don’t need. I often hear folks mention the book dilemma. I’ve recently joined This is a great way to log/catalog/keep track of books you’ve read. I’m finding it easier to let go of books once I’ve logged them on my profile at good reads. Think of all the library books you’ve read that you don’t keep. You don’t have to carry those around, yet you can keep a record of them and remember the value (or not) they’ve added to your life.
    Thanks for this great post,

  2. TysonNo Gravatar says:

    I like that you wrote about downsizing as a process. For myself, I definitely downsize in strokes, and stuff that I can’t bear to part with in one ‘stroke’, I may be able to get rid of on the next.

    Books seem to be a common feature in this issue, and are probably a common denominator problem for a lot of people on this journey. Personally, books are the very last thing that I’m giving up, right before shoes. And Amanda’s got a load of books of her own to contribute to our library.

    I’m actually thinking we could probably do a whole issue on this subject alone, as I’m realizing my response is already getting long. But long story short, I’ve always loved to be surrounded by books, knowing that they’re within arms reach for reference, independent of electricity or html, underlineable and margin-noteable. So every tiny house design I’ve worked on is based around a living room that is first and foremost a library, preferably even complete with a rolling library ladder for access to the loft.

    And unfortunately, I have yet to meet a piece of 20th century + technology that I can’t crash. But worst case scenario, I could probably fix a broken book.

    My own case may be different from other people’s because I tend to re-read books that I particularly love, and having given up television 13 years ago, reading is my best outlet for zoning out.

    As Cicero said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul,” and, “Anyone who has a garden and a library wants for nothing.”

    Anyway, thanks for the great addition!

  3. HeatherNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for writing in and sharing your stories!

    It’s kind of funny how many bibliophiles are drawn to the small house movement. I might be going off on a limb here, but I wonder if the solitude and introspection that reading offers is tied in, somehow, with the kind of person who would be willing to give up almost everything else to live in a tiny home?

    If you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Reading is so intimate, and quiet. It’s a way to enjoy and relax on the inside, versus being “entertained” and distracted by loud televisions. Perhaps there is a connection between this personality type and the small home movement.

    Of course, this isn’t to say that non-readers aren’t interested in small home living. I’m just making a connection based on what I’ve read online, and comments readers have left on my own blog on this issue. Just a curious thought!

  4. betsyNo Gravatar says:

    WOW! what really hit home with me here is what you said about feeling fuller inside the emptier your house gets. it’s empowering! in fact, there are some days i feel i could live without almost ALL of it just because of the feeling of freedom it gives me :)

  5. betsyNo Gravatar says:

    PS: oh yeah, the BOOKS! me too, i am a big book lover. however, after moving 5 times in 10 years (3 of them because of real estate turnovers, so i quickly decided to live in an apt complex!!), the things i was sure i needed quickly became things i was SURE i could live without…and i haven’t missed one thing i have thrown out, donated or sold :) but the books were last and i am still working on that part!!!

  6. HeatherNo Gravatar says:

    My husband and I built a small home and we plan to build a smaller one as soon as I get into graduate school and we know where we are going to live for a few years. This article hit on a personal note because I also am a huge book reader and I dread going through my own stash and leaving behind “old friends”. It’s good to see other book lover/down sizers struggle with this as well. So far I have been trying to look at the boxes of them and decide which ones I really will read again and if not, they go. Thank you for the Good Reads link I think it will help make this process a little easier.

  7. gus gregersonNo Gravatar says:

    O.K. Make it unanimous. I grew up with books and the 3 wall library, today, is nearly all about tools and how-to’s. I’ve used the excuse that they are easier to reference than waiting from Saturday night to Tuesday noon when the public library opens (& yup, the computer in front of me is just one big resource book, too). Thanks for the inspiration and tips for letting go of the goods. Really enjoy your posts. Gus

  8. EllenNo Gravatar says:

    It’s all about the books for me too. I have thought often about moving to a smaller home (although I must admit, not THAT small) and the most daunting prospect out of going through all of my stuff is the realization that I would have to give away the vast majority of my books. I’m gradually moving to all-digital for new purchases, but I have an accumulation of a lifetime’s worth of books and to me, they do spell a history of who I am. Letting go of those tangible reminders of my journey so far would be difficult, but sooner or later I’ll have to do it, so maybe I should choose sooner.