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.
It 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.
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.
Empty that Barn and Start Downsizing Today
My parents were very young during the depression and it made a great impact on their lives and it was totally opposite to the idea of downsizing. They became collectors and never got rid of anything.
Living in the depression made my parents think that they should save everything as they might need it some day or surely they would find a use for it at some time. My dad still cannot turn down a free deal or a bargain from a friend and he has a barn full of stuff to prove it.
My grandfather had collected things for almost ninety years and when he passed away my father brought home most of his collection to add to his own. This is the type of lifestyle I grew up in. You must save, save, save, for you just might need it some day. This way of thinking was ingrained me, so how do you switch from that mentality to a downsizing mentality?
Enter my wife. She was brought up in a family of educators who tended to move from place to place on a regular basis. They used their job as a way to explore the country. My mother-in-law has gypsy blood and loves to just keep moving on. Every time they moved they downsized, had a garage sale, gave stuff away and moved on to the next location.
In our marriage my wife has been trying to train me to think along her way of upbringing. Keep what you need and get rid of what ever you don’t need or use.
I’ll admit it is easier when you move regularly as we did the first few years of married life, but it gets much more difficult when you stay in one place for a long period of time. We have been in our current residence for eleven years now and things start to collect.
So how can you downsize your life? Here are a couple of suggestions. If your not using something, get rid of it. Period. If you buy a new item, get rid of an old item.
My wife goes through each room in the house on a regular basis and pulls out items not in use and starts a box or bag for donations or things to sell. I have been slowly learning to do the same and you can too.
When the kids are completely out of the house we will step into downsizing in a major way, but in the mean time it helps to work on it daily. Get into a habit of removing the items in your life you don’t need or use, make downsizing a part of your your daily life.
Kent Griswold publishes the Tiny House Blog.
It’s true and I hate to admit it – I have become a product of the ‘stuff’ society. It’s shameful but I am fighting back!
I don’t exactly live in what would be considered a tiny house. At 28 by 32 feet, my current home has an 896 square foot footprint and 1100 square feet with the upstairs included. Even though it’s not tiny, it is quite a bit smaller than the current 2400 square foot average. I look at this as simply a bump in the road; I come from small house roots (grew up in 600 sq. ft; college life in 300 sq. ft) and my wife and I don’t plan on going any bigger than our current house. We do have one problem though…too much stuff! I have often asked myself what I can do about all of our positions but there are so many that I simply didn’t know where to start. Then I had an idea – why not start small!!
I like to think of myself as “mainstream small”. That is, I look for ways to scale down that are very doable for not only myself but also for the general public. For example, a family of 4 could not very easily live in 80 square feet but could quite easily “electronify” their files. This simple act could easily free up space to make living more comfortable, to eliminate the necessity of upgrading to a larger house, and could even spur on the movement to a smaller home! This is one small step that I have taken to downsize my life.
What started as a dare/challenge/New Year’s resolution at work has now become a way of life. As a person with approximately 64 cubic feet of filing space (yeah – it’s a lot), I became the resident librarian of my office. I didn’t really mind this as I am a natural packrat and actually feel good being surrounded by stuff. What was always problematic was having to wade through all of the stuff to find what I really wanted.
Going “paperless”, although initially time consuming, is one of the easier tasks that anyone can do to live smaller. All anyone with a computer needs to get started is a scanner, which can be purchased here (if it is a tiny-living model that interests you!) Once in your home, anyone can easily convert bulky paper files into ‘no-space-needed’ e-files.
After 3 months on-and-off work, I can now say that I have cut my paper files in half and am still going strong! Every free moment that I have at work is spent scanning a few documents. I am determined not to stop until I have a full e-filing system!
After seeing the results at work, I have taken my motivation home. I have begun scanning documents that I have kept in filing cabinets for years. Many of these documents are related to taxes and so are critical to keep for at least 5 years. I also tend to keep the stubs of bills that I might need a history of (student loans, auto and home loan info, etc.). What’s great about e-filing is that there is no paperwork to take up space! Much to my wife’s delight, my packrat ways are now taking up much less space.
One note of caution…be sure to back up files!!!
I should probably start this article with a confession… I’m really not a minimalist by nature. In fact, I seem to have a remarkable aptitude for collecting stuff. Lots of varied, interesting stuff that I’m convinced at the time of purchase will add to my quality of my life. And, in a strange way, I think that makes me particularly qualified to write this piece–because I recently had to go through the exercise in getting rid of more than 2/3′s of all my possessions in a little under six weeks. I wouldn’t say that was the least stressful six weeks of my life but, if I can do it, you can, too. (And, with any luck, you will have more time in which to downsize.)
To give you a little background on my situation, I had moved from a 3,000+ sq. foot house with separate garage to a 1,000 sq. foot adobe home + 300 sq. foot art studio during my divorce. While I took only those items belonging to me, I did a remarkably good job of filling the smaller place with my stuff. Due, in part, to my ex hiring a moving company to precipitously dump about half of my belongings on my new doorstep, the “art studio” out back pretty much spent the next year as a storage unit, packed floor to ceiling with boxes–each of which contained a near-random collection of my stuff. (While the picture in this article is not from my studio, I’m afraid it looked remarkably similar.)
When the legal proceedings were over and I pulled out of my depressed haze, I promptly bought a 550 square foot floating home with a grand scheme of simplifying my life. (Let me just say that there are definitely simpler ways to simplify one’s life than the route I chose, but that’s an article for another time.) Knowing I had a bunch of renovation costs in front of me, I then made my second less-than-fully-sane decision to be out of my current place when my lease was up the following month. My mission, whether or not I chose to accept it, was to take inventory of all my worldly possessions and reduce them by more than two thirds in just under six weeks.
Here are the strategies I used to accomplish near-Herculean task, and how I think you could also employ them…
I used eBay as my first stop in trying to find new homes for many high-dollar items I knew I wouldn’t be taking with me. Through this channel, I sold several fairly valuable musical instruments, electronics, and even one of my two cars. The trick for successfully using eBay was taking good, clear photos of the items and providing detailed descriptions. The more detail you can provide on an item, the better justification you have for where you set your price.
I think it’s also important to make an effort to respond quickly and honestly to questions sent to you by bidders. There’s an element of trust involved with buying high-dollar items online. Anything you can do to ensure a potential buyer that you’re not a con-artist operating from the Caymans is a good thing. If you’re using eBay to sell large or high-dollar items, be careful not to underestimate your shipping costs. I took a bath on the first to instruments I sold because of this.
I experimented with trying to sell some of my large pieces of furniture on eBay but found Craigslist was a lot more successful for this. (Although, I was able to find a local buyer for my large, flat-screen TV via eBay which I listed as “pick up only”.)
Most large cities now have a Craigslist for their area. Essentially, this is a free online classified service. Through Craigslist, I was able to see most of the large pieces of furniture I wasn’t planning on taking with me.
Like with eBay, good photos and descriptions can go a long way in attracting the attention of serious buyers, as can staying on top of email inquiries. My experience leads me to believe that most people hunting Craigslist want to buy a specific item in a short period of time.
I think it’s a good idea to post your general crossroads with the item but refrain from listing your address until you’re certain someone is serious about coming by to look at an item. Also, wherever possible, I recommend scheduling appointments to view items during daylight hours when you know neighbors will be around. Better yet, have someone else with you when you know you’re going to have people standing by. To be honest, unlike with Freecyle, I never had a scary situation come up with someone off of Craigslist. (In fact, I had a couple of buyers who I think were just as cautious about their own safety as I was of mine.)
Expect most Craigslist buyers to want to pay with cash. If you’re not charging an even multiple of $20, make sure you have bills handy to make change. I would recommend setting your prices on items slightly higher than your bottom line as two thirds of the Craigslist buyers I dealt with want to haggle over the price.
If you’re selling items that will be difficult to move, make sure you prep your potential buyers that they should bring help with them to transport the item. If you don’t, odds are good you’re going to be doing some heavy lifting.
3. Consignment Furniture Stores
I used a local consignment furniture store to deal with the last few pieces of furniture I was unable to sell off Craigslist. (My couch and loveseat, an entertainment center, and a bedframe.) I discovered both pros and cons to this approach.
Consignment stores are convenient if you don’t have much time to deal with individual buyers coming through your place. They normally pick up your items in one stop and deal with all the headaches of dealing with buyers.
Expect most consignment stores to take 50% of the sale price of an item. Some will also charge you an upfront appraisal and/or transport fee for your items. (I ended up paying $50 for my items.) On the plus side, the consignment store also priced my items for roughly twice what I was advertising them for on Craigslist. So, I’ll end up seeing roughly the same amount of cash for my items.
Most consignment stores issue checks once a month on items that have been sold. It’s not a bad idea to find out what day checks are being issued and call a few days before to check on the status of your items. The place I selected did eventually sell all my items where they were initially priced. But it took multiple phone calls to actually get the checks sent to me once the sales had been made.
Most consignment stores will ask for a couple of months to try to sell your item. If they are unsuccessful, they will give you the option of trying a lower price or donating your item to a local charity.
I had a couple of treasured items that really didn’t serve a purpose in my new home but which I also couldn’t bear to simply sell. In most cases these were things that had been deeply meaningful to me at a certain point in my life, either because of the purpose they served or because they were a gift from someone dear to me.
Of all the things I had to downsize, these were probably the most difficult for me to figure out how to handle. Ultimately, I chose people whom I thought might appreciate them as much as I had in the past and offered them as gifts. Seeing my friends excitement at receiving something special at an unexpected time allowed me to finally let go.
In the process of downsizing, I significantly culled both my wardrobe and small household items. This resulted in several bags of clothing and boxes of small items (most of which were small appliances, knickknacks, or other decorations). Stronger souls might have had the fortitude to host a garage sale or to Freecycle all these. I didn’t. Plus, I had the excuse that I was on a tight schedule and didn’t have an open weekend.
For these items, I opted to donate them to local charities and take the tax write-off. Clothes and household items went to the Salvation Army. An old cell phone went to a local battered woman’s shelter. The collection of stuffed animals and toys given to me by various exes (minus a few I couldn’t bear to part with) went to Toys for Tots.
Many communities now have a Freecycle program. Freecycle allows users to advertise items they no longer want. People interested in the items contact you. Most groups expect items to be offered for free and the normal expectation is that the person receiving the item is responsible for pickup unless other arrangements are made with the donor.
I have seen just about everything from used coloring books to an antique clawfooted bathtub posted on my local Freecycle group. In my case, I used Freecyle mainly to offload: small pieces of furniture that weren’t valuable enough to try to sell; lawn equipment; pet supplies I couldn’t use with my new cat; and some household appliances like an old, box-style TV.
I’ve had both good and bad experiences with Freecycle, some of which I’ve written about previously on my blog. Freecycle appeals to me because its a way to given items you no longer need directly to people who can use them. However, I found using Freecycle to be more time and energy intensive than several of the other methods.
If you’re going to advertise items on Freecycle, I recommend posting them early in the day. Don’t necessarily always chose the first person who responds to agree to give the item to. I found that in my local group there were a group of people who remained online all day and offered to take pretty much everything off my hands. After a couple of experiences accepting first responses, I learned to wait until I found someone who really seemed like they were going to benefit from the item. And who seemed on-the-ball about when and, perhaps even more importantly, how they planned to pick the item up. (Don’t get me started on the college student who tried to pick up an Ikea wardrobe on a bicycle.)
Only give directions to your place if there’s still several hours of daylight left. Otherwise, I guarantee you’re going to have someone tromping around your house later in the evening than you would like. (I learned this point when someone set off my security system banging around my porch at 1 AM picking up an old vacuum cleaner I was giving away.)
As a matter of safety (and also convenience for the person picking up the item) I also recommend wherever possible leaving items on your porch rather than inviting someone you don’t know into your home. And if you’re leaving several different items on your porch, label to whom each is supposed to go. I found this cut down on people showing up and helping themselves to items other than just what they were supposed to pick up.
7. “The Great Giveaway”
This one was pretty much my own invention. I have to confess to having a personal loathing of garage sales. I don’t like the experience of people showing up on my porch at 5 AM “to beat the rush” or sifting through my worldly possessions and trying to haggle over something priced at a quarter. But the potential to find homes for much of my remaining “misfit” items was too great to ignore, so I devised The Great Giveaway.
What this consisted of was inviting a bunch of local friends and college students I know to come by anytime during three different timeslots/days I named. I clearly marked everything that was up for grabs. All people were expected to “pay” was their effort to cart the stuff away. I used this method to divest myself of a bunch of craft supplies, camping gear, and old Target bookshelves I’ve been carting from place to place from my college days.
Undoubtedly many of those items could also have been donated but it would have taken multiple trips using my car. Moreover, I found it far easier to give away things like my treasured cache of fabric to friends than it would have been to strangers.
I’ve subsequently seen an online version similar to my strategy where someone posted a Flickr album of items they were giving away for free and allowed people to claim them. That is another way to do something similar.
8. The Town Dump
For some, strange reason I’d never actually been to a dump before my downsizing project. I don’t know if I thought there would be seedy characters there doing drug-deals or what, but it was definitely an eye-opening experience to see the mound of stuff people leave behind. (It certainly makes you think twice about the things you buy–especially when you see how much that has been thrown away that is still clearly usable.)
The trash was pretty much my channel of last resort, but I had two carloads of stuff like soggy cardboard boxes (that had never been successfully throw away after my last move), old xeroxed research articles, etc. that really had nowhere else to go.
For anyone else who’s never gone to their local dump, usually the way it works with residential vehicles is that they either charge you by the vehicle-load or they weigh you entering and leaving the dump and charge you based on weight. I ended up paying roughly $30 for two carloads.
9. Renting a Dumpster
As I progressed further into the process of downscaling, I realized I was going to either need to make several more trips to the dump (which was 45 minutes each way) or I was going to need to find a better way to manage the garbage.
I called my local trash service to see if it was possible to get a larger trash container and learned that most cities make available various size dumpsters for a rental charge. The dumpster you tend to find behind commercial establishments are referred to as “roll-offs”. I ended up renting something roughly half that size and paid approximately $100 total for a month’s rental, including delivery, pick-up, and disposal of the contents. Depending on how much garbage you have to get rid of, you can also schedule additional trash pick-ups during the term of your rental. I didn’t have that much stuff, however.
The dumpster ended up being a true godsend in terms of getting rid of a large quantity of junk quickly. I only wish I’d discovered this option earlier in the process.
The only negative I experienced with the dumpster is people coming by to dumpster-dive in the early mornings. More than anything, that was an issue of noise. It was actually a bit of a relief that people more motivated than I were finding homes for items I hadn’t managed to.
10. Photo Scanning Service
I had a large hatbox which is stuffed to the brim with pictures that has followed me from location to location since college. I always had the good intention of sorting through all the photos, organizing them, and putting them into albums. I felt guilty every time I caught sight of that box and, after ten years of this insanity, I decided that I refused to move the box one more time.
Instead of taking the box of photos with me to Portland, for a little under $100, I had a photo scanning service take my mound of photos and put them into nice, neat digital files which I could dump into my iPhoto application and sort to my heart’s content.
Now, admittedly, media formats will change over the years. But I figure it’s far easier for me to transfer my photos from an old computer to new one than to deal with fading paper pictures for which I no longer have negatives or any sort of organizational system.
11. Converting to MP3
Fortunately, I already had about 95% of my music collection converted to MP3′s on my laptop. I converted the rest to MP3′s over the course of a weekend while packing. Then I turned in my three boxes worth of CD’s to the local college used bookstore and donated the credit to a local literacy program.
While it’s possible that I might someday regret having given away my hard copies, I haven’t had a reason to use an actual CD in several years. I am also careful to back up my computer’s full hard drive on a regular basis. The cost-to-benefit ratio of continuing to cart and store those three boxes of CD’s as back-up was just didn’t make sense to me.
12. Giving Away Books, Going Digital, and Shifting to the Library
Of all the things I did to downsize, drastically reducing my book collection was probably the most difficult step I took. Over the course of about a week, I forced myself to go through all of my bookshelves and select the books I simply HAD to take with me to Portland. I packed them as I went.
Then, I pulled all the remaining books from my bookshelves and stacked them into boxes headed to the used bookstore. If anything else caught my eye in the process of packing the “donate” boxes, I set it off to the side. Then, at the very end, I went through this stack and picked out the true treasures I’d missed. Everything else went into a “donate box”.
Through this process I ended up reducing my collection by enough books to fill my PT Cruiser to the roof, with the back seat pulled out, TWICE.
To help ease the pain of separation, I took a portion of the credit I received for turning in my books and bought an Amazon Kindle, which allows me to acquire and store new books digitally.
As a further proactive step to try to slow my re-accumulation of books, I’ve forced myself to develop the habit of not buying any book if it’s available through my local public library system. There’s only been one book I’ve checked out from the library that I found valuable enough to subsequently purchase for my permanent collection.
And, that, ladies and gents, is how I managed to downscale my belongings by two-thirds in less than six weeks. Hopefully some of these strategies will be useful to you in your own attempts to downsize.
By way of a very quick epilogue to my journey in simplifying, I’d like to say that, with the exception of one or two items, I don’t regret anything I off-loaded. In fact, having been forced to store most of my remaining possessions in a storage unit for ten months while renovations were completed on my new place, I’ve come to realize I don’t need a lot of what I kept.
While the process of downsizing can be a lot of work, the end result more than makes up for it. I really enjoy the sense of space and freedom I have now. I’ve come to realize that clutter comes with more than just physical costs. It weighs down on you emotionally. Getting rid of it frees a lot of energy and resources that can be directed in far more productive areas of your life like spending time with loved ones, hobbies, or even possibly getting rid of more clutter. In an odd way, the cycle of decluttering can actually become addictive.
Give me some time. I just might become a minimalist yet!
One of my new favorite heroes is Grandma Gatewood, the first and the oldest woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (2,168 miles). She wore a pair of Keds sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat and a plastic shower curtain/tarp. That was in 1955.
She was an early pioneer of what is now known as ultralight backpacking, a subculture defining and re-defining what it is that we really need. The philosophy is simple:
- carry less stuff
- carry lighter stuff
- make one thing serve many purposes
In this world of mostly long-distance thruhikers it is commonly accepted that the base weight of your pack (including your pack) could be 10 lbs or less (not including consumables like food and water, which vary depending on the trip). For comparison, that’s like the weight of a healthy adult cat.
So we’ve established that what you need to safely survive on a 2000 mile long journey amounts to, well, not much. So what is everything else? It’s what I call cush: cleanliness, pleasant lighting, comfort and security, a sense of belonging. They are more subjective ideas, we all have different interpretations of them and have arranged our lives to suit.
At the extreme level it’s a psychological disorder called compulsive hoarding. Then there’s a more moderate place where most of America functions, making acquiring stuff a regular part of our daily lives, to greater or lesser degrees. Over time we had to live in bigger houses to keep all that stuff somewhere.
This is a great visualization showing how our houses have grown, even while the average U.S. household size shrinks.
And here is where I’ll tell you my secret to downsizing. Are you ready?
The shorthand is this simple little equation: Stuff = Weight < Freedom. The longhand is that our possessions carry not only a physical burden, but also a weight on our conscience and excess bulk in our creative thought processes, preventing us from moving forward.
This has been a very helpful realization for me in my own journey of moving into a 50 square foot trailer. Separating out my “comfort” items — memorabilia, collections, papers and gadgets of all kinds — from my “survival” items, which could be contained in a small box, makes me understand how burdensome comfort can really be. (Yes, paradoxes abound.)
During this downsizing evolution of mine, going on for several years now, I have found that (for the most part) my possessions bore me, and that what interests me most is not in the physical realm at all. Instead, I’m fascinated by the absence of things — giving my self space to think, create, and act spontaneously in harmony with the stuff of life, which is simple, free, and weightless.
“I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill–then what’s beyond that.”
–EMMA ‘GRANDMA’ GATEWOOD
Hillary lives in a 677 sq. ft. historic home with her partner while renovating a 50 sq. ft. tiny trailer. Her blog is located at thistinyhouse.com. She is a freelance writer and consultant.