Home ownership is part of the American Dream, and to some that means having the biggest house on the block. While the size of one’s home is truly a matter of preference, today we’re going to explore the benefits of living small.
With larger homes comes the responsibility of maintenance and upkeep which takes up time and money -plus there’s pressure to fill the space with more stuff! So perhaps on the home front…bigger isn’t always better.
Today’s guest Laura Fenton is the author of The Little Book of Living Small and the former lifestyle director at Parents magazine, where she oversaw all the home content for the publication.
A writer with more than fifteen years of experience, her work has appeared in major publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Country Living, Good Housekeeping, and on leading home websites including Remodelista, HGTV.com, ElleDecor.com, Curbed, and Refinery29.
Through her writing she has explored the topic of living small for more than a decade. She lives small with her husband, a photographer, and their son in Queens, New York.
Her book, The Little Book of Living Small is a comprehensive guide to small-space secrets and real-life solutions for living in 1,200 square feet or less- but today we’ll also cover ways to “live small” in your existing space.
By the end of this class you’ll have actionable tips for down-sizing, motivation for making changes in your everyday life, and advice for maximizing your square footage.
NOTE: You’ll notice that our show notes are a lot meatier this episode. Laura was kind enough to send answers to all of our questions pre-interview, and we thought everyone would enjoy her in-depth information.
What are some benefits of living small?
A small home will cost less—both to buy or rent and to keep up.
A small home is easier to maintain. Less space means less to clean; fewer belongings mean less to keep organized.
A small home is better for the earth. We use less energy to heat, cool, and power smaller homes. We also take up fewer resources to furnish and maintain them.
A small home forces simplicity. With less space to squirrel away our belongings, we can live with the things we truly love and use.
A small home fosters closeness. Families and couples that live in tighter quarters spend more time in each other’s presence, allowing for more moments of intimacy.
What are some guidelines families can create to acquire less “stuff”?
For me, my journey to less stuff involved a lot of reading to help motivate me and keep me going. I loved Bea Johnson’s The Zero Waste Home, The Simplicity Reader, by Elaine St. James and after becoming a mom Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, by Kim John Payne was a big help.
Here are some other ways to change your relationship to stuff:
Always shop with a list—and stick to it. It’ll help prevent you from overspending and acquire things you don’t need.
Distance yourself. Unsubscribe from all the retailer email lists you’re on and call to be removed from their catalog mailings too. Stop following brands on social media or, if you’re really looking to disconnect, take a break from social media altogether.
Use the 24-hour rule. If you see something you really think you need, bookmark it or ask a store to put it on hold for you, and then wait a day to see how you feel. Chances are the “need” might be less pressing than you think. This is particularly relevant now when we’re all staying at home—I’m making it a 48-hour rule because it’s hard to sort out needs and wants.
Stop shopping. If you cut out browsing stores for leisure either IRL or online, you’re way less likely to bring home things you don’t need. I was never the type to go to the mall or spend an afternoon at boutiques, but I used to go to the flea market every weekend. I still love second-hand markets and thrift stores, but now I limit my trips and try to enjoy the fun of finding things—not actually taking them all home.
Say no to freebies. This is where even avowed minimalists can get into trouble. When something is free, it is so hard to pass it up. But even a free object comes with a price tag: it’s going to need dusting and cabinet space.
How can you gently ask family members not to buy you things?
Just tell them why you would like to forgo the big gifts and why you value experiences or a few well-chose gifts over an avalanche of ones that will be forgotten; they may not listen. My parents are very understanding of our small space—and I am so grateful for that, but we do have other relatives who are less sensitive. Don’t feel bad about donating or throwing out toys and gifts that are not played with. I have done it often because our space just can’t hold excess that is not being used.
You can also lead by example and Give differently. You’ll stop the culture of living large by giving experiences instead of things. Or if you really prefer to place something in someone’s hand, make it something consumable, like food, flowers, or special soaps.
What are some of your favorite decorating tips to maximize space?
The fastest, easiest way to make your small space feel more spacious is to declutter. Period. Less stuff equals more space. Whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime Kondo-style purge or a weekend here and there of editing, decluttering is key to living small.
Take photos of your home to gain a fresh perspective on where clutter lurks. Decorator Celerie Kemble once told me that looking at photographs of my home would help me with the finishing touches to my decor, but when I tried it, I found it surprisingly effective for decluttering! Don’t believe me? Take photos of your home and you may be surprised at how untidy it really looks.
Take down whatever blinds or shades came with your place. Wash the windows (inside and out) and let the light shine in. If you feel exposed without the blinds, try self-adhesive privacy film: you can obscure the view into your home without losing any daylight. Basic options like a frosted glass look-alike are available at hardware stores and Stick Pretty sells sophisticated patterns.
Keep tinkering. Our place is in constant flux: I’m always rearranging, buying new secondhand things and selling our old things. Sometimes a little switch will make a difference. For example, we swapped out the chair in my son’s room with something smaller and the whole room felt instantly bigger.
Expand your openings. To open up the space without knocking down all the walls, consider heightening doorways and windows.
Vaulting a ceiling will make your space feel much larger. It’s also an excellent opportunity to add skylights to maximize interior natural light.
Traditional doors take up a whole lot of floor space. Replace interior doors with pocket or barn doors, consider a curtain on a closet opening, or go without a door altogether. In my own apartment, swapping a barn door for the existing French ones on my tiny bedroom was key to making my small space work.
What is your philosophy on paint/color?
Use the colors you love; I really don’t think there is a “right” or a “wrong” color for a small space. Personally, I’ve had a lot of white rooms over the years, because the old adage to paint it white is not inaccurate: What really can open up a space and make it feel lighter and brighter. But there were plenty of colorful rooms in my book, including blogger Shavonda Gardener, who painted her living room black—and it is amazing! White is also sometimes the wrong choice: When we moved into our apartment, we painted everything white to replace the oppressive Band-Aid-y beige color that had been there previously. We’ve realized that our son’s room that doesn’t get as much daylight would actually look better with a bit of tone on the wall: The white just looks dull. But now we’re negotiating between his vision of “digger orange” and my idea of a pale, sea foam blue.
What are some of your favorite storage hacks?
I love putting a bed to work for storage. This goes against all feng shui principals. We have a bed with six storage drawers built in—and as a result my husband and I can store all our folded clothes in our teeny 8×10 “bedroom.”
If you’re renovating a kitchen I love to install cabinets that go all the way to the ceiling for extra storage: I don’t know why so many kitchen have that gap between the top of the cabinet and the ceiling: it’s just a place for dust to gather.
Sneak in storage everywhere. A narrow bookcase at the end of a hall, cubbies in the entryway, shelving in a headboard—there’s almost no place that’s not ripe for storage.
Build in flexibility. When designing built-in bookshelves, opt for ones with moveable (rather than fixed) shelves so you can adjust your storage space as needs change.
Can you share some organization tips?
The old advice that everything must have a place is gold. If there’s a clutter hotspot in your house, I can guarantee it’s because there are things that are homeless. An example from my own home: Every winter the hats scarves, etc, would drive me crazy: this year I finally make a proper “home” for these things (a fabric shoe organizer on the back of our coat closet door) and now they’re not littered over every surface. We’re still mastering the school papers system, but that’s another common one.
I also love my friend professional Shira Gill’s #15minutewin concept: You just tackle one tiny part of your house in 15 minutes, like a sock drawer, a kitchen cabinet, the door of your fridge. If you do a bunch of these 15-minute projects, they really add up to a more organized home. Gretchen Rubin, the author of Happier at Home suggests a twist on that that she calls the Power Hour—where you set aside an hour each week to tackle the annoying home tasks. This is also great—and I try to do both!
How do you implement this lifestyle with kids?
I think it’s harder if you are downsizing and kids have to make a change, but for us, it’s been our son’s way of life since Day 1: He doesn’t know anything different. He has definitely had moments where he’s expressed envy for a big house: We visited a friend of mine from college in her huge 9-bedroom house (her in-laws live with them) and afterwards my son kept asking, “but do they LIVE there all the time?” We’ll have more of that as he gets older and we’ll try to help him understand why we chose to stay in our small space.
I’d also advise parents to take it day by day, month by month, Children also have a way of making a home feel too tiny. New parents feel their home is overrun with Baby’s gear and others find themselves wishing for a third bedroom when a second baby arrives. Again, these seasons are relatively short: the bouncy seat and stroller will be gone before you know it. In just a few months, your baby will sleep through the night and can begin sharing a room with your big kid.
When a friend’s daughter turned sixteen, she no longer wanted to share a room with her brother. My friend was seriously debating selling her much-loved apartment when I suggested she consider remodeling instead. My pal and her husband invested in a custom-made loft bed for their kids’ shared room, closet systems for all the closets, and a down-to-the-studs bathroom remodel that made the sole bath space feel more spacious. The work was expensive, but even the cost of more than twenty thousand dollars was nothing in comparison to what she’d spend on the expenses associated with moving (not to mention buying a larger apartment). Plus, many of the upgrades on her bucket list added value to her home in the long run. The remodel was also inconvenient, but it was temporary. Once the family settled back in, they felt like they had a new home, one that was better suited to their needs.
So, remember the long view. Life’s stages come and go, sometimes quickly and sometimes ever so slowly. If your space has begun to feel too small, take a step back and examine what’s happening now. Don’t let today’s temporary discomfort force you into moving into a space that’s bigger than you really need.
I think this advice applies to our current moment too: People who are uncomfortable in their spaces might be eyeing a bigger home (if they are lucky enough to have their financial situation still intact), but these months of staying home will come to an end too. We haven’t stayed in our apartment, but I’ve realized there are some changes we need to make to our apartment as a result of all this time spent together at home. It’s hard, but if you can try to analyze your discomfort, the solutions might not simply be: more space, but a different configuration of your current space.
What are some daily rituals that make living small more enjoyable?
It’s not enjoyable to DO, but tidying up every night makes my small space more enjoyable to live in. Thankfully, my husband is equally committed to a tidy home. Since having a kid, the time to complete this task has more than tripled, but we still take the time each night to clean the kitchen, put away the things that have migrated from their homes, and generally set things back to zero so we can mess them all up again tomorrow.
I do love making my bed and I take care to do it well. It’s such a fast, easy way to make your place look good and to set the tone for the day ahead.
We also have a nighttime mode at home with lights dimmed (we are BIG on dimmers) and candles on the dining table—since our apartment is small you can see those from all of the shared living space. We often listen to music at this time too. Putting the house into nighttime mode signals that the workday is done and that it’s family time—this has been an especially important ritual during these strange times when we are all home all day.
How can people in larger houses live “small”?
I have a section in my book called “test drive tiny” where I talk about ways to dip your feet into living in a smaller space. I recommend that people Give yourself a false sense of small. Close the doors to the guest bedrooms, the attic, the formal dining or living room, and any other infrequently used rooms. Note how long you go before entering these spaces and what causes you to enter when you do. You may discover it’d be cheaper to pay for guests’ hotel rooms twice a year than to maintain a larger home or that your attic or basement is only housing the things you no longer want or need.
Another thing I suggest: Tackle your offsite storage. I tell people to think of it as a debt that needs to be paid off first before you can start saving for your dream house/vacation/education. Address the issue head on rather than continuing to pay rent on your space every month. If you’re thinking of renting storage to make your small space work, don’t do it. The costs are likely to add up to more than the value of the things you plan to store. Instead, do the hard work of sorting through your things, paring back, and living within your allotted space. This advice sparked some really strong emotions from people who are storing things they have inherited, but I really believe that our relatives who have passed wouldn’t want us to be storing all their stuff in a storage locker: They’d want the things to be loved and used by someone rather than a financial burden.
What are some of your favorite swaps/products?
Murphy beds! For people living in particularly small spaces, a murphy bed is often a huge game changer.
Corner desks – we have one and it’s a game changer.
How has this lifestyle positively impacted you? Have you had any struggles along the way?
First struggles: When my husband moved in with when we were dating it took us a while to adjust—and we even decided to move out of an apartment that was probably big enough for us to have stayed in, but that experience really kicked off both of our journeys to a more minimalist point of view. So the struggle was a worthwhile experience.
The financial impact is the biggest positive impact. Having a small mortgage has helped up be able to save—and it means we are comfortable when tough times like the present moment come to pass. Living in a converted in one-bedroom in the city has given us the financial freedom to buy a small vacation home that we rent out on AirBnB to offset the costs. Last year my husband’s father found himself without a home, and we were in a position to buy him his own tiny apartment because we’d chosen a smaller apartment when we bought our own place. If we’d bought a “real” two bedroom back in 2013 like we’d planned, we wouldn’t have been able to own an investment property or help my father in law out.
How has this lifestyle served you during a time where you’re home a lot?
I’ve talked to most of the people featured in my book and here is what I have heard that they are most grateful for their lower and manageable costs. One mom, who lives in a very small space, wrote to me and said, “ Imagine if we had an insane mortgage right now and jobs in flux or an hourly job. I’m realizing that with this smaller life, i am able to maintain during a downturn. it has definitely put a lot of things into perspective for me.” This is so true for us too: With my husband out of work, I’m so grateful we have lower costs for our living expenses.
Like many New Yorkers, we have not stayed in our small apartment during the coronavirus outbreak. We chose to head to our vacation home when schools got closed for a number of reasons: We wanted to be somewhere with outdoor space for our kid and we wanted to bring my husband’s elderly father with us, since we were not confident that he could keep himself safe in his usual city routines. We’ve turned down rental inquiries and lost out on that income, but it felt like the right decision for all of us.
We didn’t know it when we packed up, but our neighborhood has become the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the outbreak, so we are beyond grateful we had a place to stay. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what this experience means for our life in a small apartment in the city, and I can honestly say: We want our life back just as it was in our small space—with a few minor tweaks (for example, we’re thinking of rejiggering our pantry storage to be able to store more staples so we can make fewer trips to the grocery and we’re also planning to reconfigure out work from home set ups, since it’s likely school will not be on a usual schedule next year). I am hopeful that these times are not the new normal—hopefully in a year, we’ll be able to live something more like our normal lives. Even though we are not there now, we want to stay in our neighborhood and in our apartment for the long haul. And we’re trying to support our community from afar with donations and activism.