By Natalie DeYoung
My greatest skill in life has been to want but little.
When we decided to move from a 1,100 square foot house to a 485 square foot house, it was not a decision to be entered into lightly. Sure, it was just the two of us—plus our giant dog and assertive cat—but shrinking our home from three bedrooms, two baths to one bedroom, one bath would certainly be an undertaking.
Where would I work? became the question uppermost in my mind. As I do 95% of my work from home, my office was the room in which I spent most of my waking hours. Now, I would have to do my work from the couch in the cozy living room, or the outdoor sitting area that boasted a grand total of zero power outlets, or in bed, which was conducive to spontaneous napping.
Then there was the question of our stuff. What to do with all of our stuff? We each had our own full-sized closet, plus an extra one that remained half-empty, mostly a wasteland for my husband’s computer supplies and camping equipment. I had an entire space to devote to my books and art supplies; where would I make space for my creative life? How would I find room for my collectible Irish Barbies? [Cringing that I, a grown-ass woman, just typed that sentence.]
So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.
Americans in general certainly have no shortage of stuff. In the years following World War Two, an economic boom helped foster the need for gadgets, and consequently, more space for those gadgets. Storage units became part of the everyday American’s lexicon. The average American house size more than doubled during the last century, ballooning from 983 square feet to 2,349 square feet, despite the American family’s shrinking size. Little wonder that while house hunting, the historic Craftsman homes in our area seemed positively tiny.
Armed with this knowledge that smaller houses were once the norm, I began preparing, both practically and mentally, for our move. We watched a documentary called Tiny, all about the tiny house movement—people choosing to live in spaces ranging from 100-400 square feet. Their reasons for doing so varied: a desire to simplify, to free oneself from swollen mortgages, to live a higher quality life without the prohibitive price tag, to shrink their ecological footprint. This led us to watch Kirsten Dirksen’s We the Tiny House People, and a rash of Treehouse Masters for good measure. Tiny houses and the people who deliberately chose them fascinated me. At 485 square feet, our house barely landed outside the scope of tiny, probably pushed over the edge by the comfortable size of the kitchen, but I felt kinship with these people.
The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode…
Soon, I warmed to the idea of shrinking not just our living space, but also our lifestyle. I had always wanted to travel, to live lightly on the land, but what stopped me? Was it my subconscious devotion to stuff? Perhaps my long-term underemployment played a part in this inquiry, as a stiffening of our budget made bearing the cost of modern living much harder. Or maybe I was just weary of the constant manipulation of advertisers, who all clamored for my purchasing power. I definitely wanted to live in a way that was friendlier to the earth, and here was a way I could do it without spending a fortune at Whole Foods or dropping several Gs’ on a hybrid car.
I started paring down. Gone went the scrapbooks I bought eight years ago with every intention to fill them with memories. With them went the collection of odds and ends that would make a fantastic collage…if only I took the time to assemble it. Also, the fabric I saved in case I wanted to make it into a dress, the juicer we kept at the back of the cupboard in case we ever amassed enough wealth to juice on a regular basis, the clothing I hoarded in case I finally got around to losing those twenty pounds I kept meaning to shed.
Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.
After a garage sale, two trips to the local thrift store, and a hefty pile of what turned out to be trash, we had just enough to fill our little home without overfilling it. Once everything was gone, I immediately felt lighter. Those unfinished projects no longer weighed on my mind; those garments that no longer fit stopped preying upon my sense of inferiority. Our housing costs had dropped so dramatically we could begin to think about living again; dining out, travel, and other activities we had put off until “we could afford it,” some nebulous time in the future that never came.
The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
By owning less, we are now freer to focus on our passions. We are being kinder to the earth. Work is no longer a hamster wheel of getting what the Jones’ have, but a fulfillment of a purpose unchained to a specific dollar amount.
Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
With our little house, we’ve made space for more life in our lives—and that space is a truly big expansion.
All quotes from Henry David Thoreau, from Walden and Civil Disobedience.