Dear Jon,

January 14, 2009

Thank you for the comment you left on About Living Small. So thoughtful, and such great questions, that I thought I should share it. My answer is below; please, everyone, offer your answers, too. I may live in a li’l house, but I’ll be the first to admit that these questions are like itsy heads of cabbage. So many layers.

Q.

I’ve read about tiny houses, and living small, from time to time. I have a question/problem that’s hard for me to resolve… it’s a little bit of a chicken/egg thing. What kind of shift in thinking do you have to make in order to be able to live in a tiny house? What I mean is, I’d love to “simplify” to the point where we could do that, but I have:

– bikes
– electronics
– books books books
– kitchen wares
… that all take up space.

I realize some stuff is just “stuff”, but some stuff is stuff you do use and could say “need”. Who has talked about really scaling back? I want to read about how people manage without the things that traditional large livers have and tiny livers don’t. And how they can transform their outlook to arrive at a comfortable system that doesn’t involve accumulation, but still answers the “needs” one feels are there? I know people out there must have answered this question; I just need someone to point me there. Final question — who has resources on tiny living with children?

AND A.

I hear you. Have you read about my closet? About my bookshelves? About the masses of paperwork, the craft circus that is my life? Likewise, we have a bike, electrical gizmos, books, cookware. Hard to live small when you’ve got transportation and communication devices, reading materials and eating necessities to contend with.

To cope, Mr. Living Small and I have had to adopt some new habits, certainly. Perhaps you could call it a shift in thinking, which stems from our growing concern over a cultural need to have, to get, to grab, to buy. We’re aware of dwindling resources and burgeoning populations. We’re nervous about how the planet can sustain this take-centric lifestyle. (It doesn’t hurt, too, that we’re suckers for secondhands. Garage sales, Goodwills, Grandpa’s house — all these beat the pants off a mall in our minds.) To scale back on our living space and take up less square footage — or, if you will, to reduce our “carbon footprint” by existing in a living space that doesn’t require much in the way of heat, electricity, etc., and which is located within walking distance of almost everything we need (the grocery store, the pharmacy, our jobs, arts palaces — you get the gist) — means we’re scaling back on our impact on the planet. For what that’s worth, I suppose.

In terms of filling the tiny house, well. My. We’ve had to shift our thinking on that front, too. From using the “one thing in, one thing out” model, to ever-evaluating the usefulness of our things, to leaving space in the closet for the perpetual donation bag, we’re always trying reach a balance between the space we have and the stuff we own (kind of like David Bruno, the 100 Things Challenge guy). Trust: I’m no Spartan. I like cush. I like tchotchkes. Figuring out how to maintain my junky collection of figural animals and vintage bottles and funky trays and, yes, books, has been a challenge. I’ve had to put the kibosh on regular jaunts to the thrift store. Inevitably, I will find something (and for just 49¢!). So, restriction. I’ve also had to part ways with the literary classics, from a 1950 illustrated edition of the Rubiyat to a 1980s-era paperback copy of The Great Gatsby. Breaking up is hard to do, but there’s always the public library, right? By the same token, we’re music people, too, but we don’t keep discs around; everything is stored on our computer and played through an iPod dock. (Though I’m toying with resurrecting the record album, space permitting.)

Smart storage is key. I disconnected a handmedown hi-fi from its moldering, smelled-like-burning parts to make room for my sewing paraphernalia, for example. Some other Small solutions:

  • Trad bike? Get a folding version. Easier to store, naturally.
  • Bananas for gadgets? Assess what you really need to communicate. Does everyone in the household need a cell phone and a Blackberry? Are multiple computers a given? Ditto what you require entertainment-wise. Is the Wii enough game? Do you super-duper need that Commodore 64, too? Do you watch enough TV to justify owning a set? Would a DVD projector be sufficient to watch the movies and television series you pick up at the library? How much music do you listen to? How many iPods does that equal?
  • Bookwormsville? LIBRARY! And a classy shelving system for the ones you can’t bear to give up, like Gail Brewer-Giorgio’s searing exposé, Is Elvis Alive? The way I see it, if you’re going to keep yer books, you should treat ’em like art. Display, display, display.
  • Too many pots, too little kitchen? Cutting back on kitchenware has come back with a vengeance for us. We’re cookin’-folk, and selling off half of our cookin’ supplies in the name of downsizing has cost us and the planet, too. I think it is important to evaluate how much you cook, and how and what you cook, and base your kitchen decisions on that. If you’re a strict weekend warrior, maybe you don’t need three crepe pans and a Dutch oven. If you cook big meals daily and host elaborate dinner parties, maybe it’s worth taking up some extra space somewhere else in the house. (Who says your tagine can’t hang out in the hall closet until it’s go time?)

As for resources, I’d like to point you to a few good ‘uns:

Small House Society. A collective of small-house dwellers.

Little House on a Small Planet. The book (and the website) about rethinking what is “necessary.”

Simple Living Manifesto. Maybe a little woo-woo, but the articles on simple living are worth a read.

No Impact Man. He’s fiesty, he’s driven, and he has a little kid.

NYT on Maxwell and Sara Kate. The Apartment Therapy power couple dish about life with a little one in just 265 square feet.

To close, I like what Dee Williams, who lives in one of Jay Shafer’s famous-famous Tumbleweed Tiny Houses has to say on the subject: “Living in this [84-square-foot] house, I get a chance to feel like I’m saving energy, I’m definitely limiting my consumerism, and all of that gives me a sense of giving something back. And, you know, that’s pretty darn cool.”

Thanks again, Jon. Bravo, and best of luck.

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11 Responses to “Dear Jon,”

  1. John, just to add a couple more suggestions…

    If you haven’t read Gregory Johnson’s “Put Your Life on a Diet”, he details the process by which he significantly downsized his life. His book also provides a series of questions and room for your responses around several area of how you might like to restructure your own life.

    My advice would be to pick a single area to start with (say electronics or kitchen items) and see how you might be able to streamline your possessions. Do a little at a time and see how it feels to you. I think most people discover it actually feels better to have less. For me, the rush from the process actually became kind of addictive. My point is, you don’t have to get rid of everything tomorrow. Take a small step and assess. Proceed forward (or not) from there.

    Keep in mind, too, that “small home living” may mean very different things to different people. Not everyone needs to live in a 120 foot Tumbleweed Tiny House. My place happens to be 550 square ft.

    Also, just in case it helps, here are some of my entries on streamlining belongings:

    http://www.comingunmoored.com/category/decluttering/

  2. Huh-
    This whole discussion is really interesting to me, because well, we live small and we’ve never thought that much about it. At least not quite like this. The better half and I both spent the first years of our adult lives (him 4 years, me 9) living in NYC. So, in our adult reality a 750 square foot apartment is GINORMOUS (like, wooooowwwwwww!) So, even though we are rolling up on 30, we never had a chance to accumulate a bunch of stuff.

    But, some thoughts from our particular perspective:
    – Go through you living space every few months and get rid of stuff. If you haven’t used it? If it’s kind of worn and you wish you did use it but you don’t? Goodwill, baby.
    – Focus on quality, not quantity. It is really amazing how saving up for one really nice thing makes A) stop buying small ‘ehh’ things and B) makes you stop wanting small ‘ehh’ things.
    – Organize. Small spaces give you the advantage of knowing what you have (you can see it all at once) which usually means if you organize, you can stop getting duplicates.
    – Put art that you care about on the walls! Wonderful framed family pictures makes my space meaning, which makes me want to clutter it less. Also, art doesn’t take up square feet.
    – In conclusion: books are our problem. We love them. Lots of them. The library is never going to cut it for us. So, we have floor to ceiling bookshelves crammed with books. More books, less floor space.

    We haven’t handled small children yet, but when we do (and hopefully we’ll have a tad more space, though we’ll still be living small by suburban standards) we’re planning to approach it the same way. A few items of quality, relentless clearing away of clutter.

    It’s so interesting to realize how lack of space changes your perception of things. Thanks for the post!

    (oh, and we have very compact electronics – two small laptops, one flat screen TV tucked away, one Tivo, that were all items of quality we saved up for. We love them, we use them, they take up less space. And serious cooks don’t actually need that many pans… read up on the minimalists Kitchen suggestions, and get hooks to hang pans on the walls.)

  3. The Choir said

    FYI, I have sold almost everything I want to get rid of on EBay by using Buy It Now/Best Offer options–leave a thing on there long enough–usually for only 5 to 15 cents per month–and it will sell. I don’t small, but I live steady–something comes in, something goes out.

  4. Emily said

    I live small, with a child – but I have also lived large. It’s just a matter of focusing on what is truly important: your family and time with them – and not “things”. I gave up my big food processor for more time cooking with my daughter. Instead of cupcakes we make muffin loaf because that pan is more versatile. Life is simpler with one really nice baking sheet that’s the perfect size for our oven. Fewer dishes in the cabinet means fewer dishes to wash.

    Something that I have noticed is that my transition to a living small has also meant an appreciation of a *slower life*. You’d think with everything closer at hand that things would speed up and be more efficient, but for me things have slown down and I have more time to appreciate what I do have.

  5. I remember hearing a suggestion somewhere in the recent past that you should put tags of some kind (like masking tape?) on your items that you really don’t use a whole lot. If you use the item in the coming year, then you get to keep it, if not it goes to the thrift store/rummage sale. If you think about it, why keep stuff in storage in your basement or closets or garage that you don’t use?

    And when you DO get rid of stuff it feels sooooo good! It really is the figurative weight off your chest. It drives my mom a little nuts that I can get rid of things so quickly or without too much thought (from her perspective)– but, she’s from a different era where you work hard, save your money, buy stuff on sale, and never part with it on the off chance you may need it for, say, future grandchildren.

    Once you get in the habit of paring down and discarding your stuff with a critical eye it will become an easier task. Like any habit, work on it a little for the next straight 30-40 days (decide on ONE item per day to ditch) and soon you won’t notice that your thinking changes to “do I really NEED this? No, I really don’t.”

    Happy Discarding :)
    Anne at small-house-building.com

  6. Amanda said

    Here are my thoughts about being in small spaces with littles: In my experience, you do all the stuff you normally do as a caretaker—-you just do it more consistently.
    -Favor fewer toys, more creative toys, over lots of toys, quality over quantity. Kids do well with this. Choose a toy to donate for every new one.
    -Read a lot of books. Keep glue, pipe cleaners and pom-poms around at all times.
    -Put things away. Have specific places for books and toys and crafts, and ALWAYS ALWAYS put them away. When you walk in the door, put coats away. Put shoes away. Every. Single. Time. Children are happier with a space they have a hand in caring for, and are more likely to care for it when they do so consistently. And you won’t trip over toys 60 times a day until you finally throw that stupid dino at the wall.
    -Ensure children have some space that is theirs, be it a room or a closet or a shelf or a smattering of flor tiles put together. This gives everyone a place to calm themselves, to play, to create. Everyone needs a little space.
    -Get outside. Go to the park. Establish a garden, at home or in a community space. Go to the beach. Fly kites. Play hard. Then, when you’re at home, make it a centering, laughing, tickling experience rather than “This space is so tiny and we’ve been here all day and I’m going to SCREAM.”
    -Stay calm: If children know what to expect from their surroundings, things go more smoothly, especially in close quarters. A consistent schedule works wonders toward eliminating hungry/tired/confused fits, and a yoga practice allows children to soothe themselves.
    -Engage children in cooking, in housework, in grocery shopping. Help them understand that they are an important part of your community, and that they have a role to play.
    -Finally, for me, being in small spaces with children means no TV. This isn’t for everyone, certainly, but not having a TV helps me do all of the above things, reminds me to engage, include everyone, no matter how tiny, no matter how small.

  7. Amanda said

    (Sorry. That got really long.)
    xo

  8. These are incredible tips, everyone. Thank you so much for chiming in. Let’s hope all of these awesome ideas help Jon in his search for Small.

  9. […] spaces, this little grouping has all kinds of inspiration for those who live in little digs and those who are considering the big […]

  10. riotflower said

    Thanks for a fantastic post! (And thanks to all the tip commenters as well.)
    I’ve always wondered how to really begin- besides the simple “declutter” lists on websites. This post goes past the comfort zone of simple “if you don’t use it, get rid of it” to start me thinking about all of our possessions
    Thanks again!

  11. Thanks, riotflower. All of these comments are awesome, aren’t they? Good luck with your downsize.

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