When I was pregnant with our first child, we decided to take the plunge and invest in a small co-op apartment in Queens, which we planned to sell in a few years, hoping to upgrade and turn a profit.
We knew many families who lived in tiny spaces when their kids were young, and because I wasn’t working outside the home, it seemed wise to live minimalistically for a few years.
It seemed like a great plan…at first. But it was 2007, and little did we know that within the year, the economy would tank and the worth of our apartment would plummet along with it. It was a painful reality we had to live with for a few years, even as we began to outgrow our space — and then add another baby to the mix a few years later.
We stayed in that 600-square-foot apartment for 7 years until we finally gave up and sold it. Although I definitely did my fair share of complaining — especially at the end when I was trying to contain a five-year-old and an active toddler— living small wasn’t nearly as bad as you might think.
All it takes is a bit of decluttering (OK: a lot), some serious organization skills and a ton of creativity and patience. But it’s totally doable, and in the process you might learn a thing or two about life and how to live well.
Here’s what I learned:
1. You Probably Don’t Need Most Of What You Have
After living in the apartment for a year or two, it started to feel a whole lot smaller. Even though we were thrifty and minimalist, we’d somehow managed to acquire so much junk. So one afternoon I spent a few hours going through each and every item we owned to determine if we really needed it.
This was before Marie Kondo was all the rage; my need for sanity was my only guide. In the end I probably gathered five bags of stuff to donate and an equal amount to trash or recycle. And I didn’t end up missing any of it.
2. Decluttering Is Good For The Soul
When you live in a small space, even just a few pieces of excess junk will be an eyesore. Straightening up became a twice daily ritual for us. A complete house purge became a bi-annual event. (I still declutter regularly despite the fact that I live in over twice the amount of space now.)
When walking through my home increased my stress levels, I’d start to feel the itch to declutter. It was incredible to witness how quickly I was able to relax once my space was clearer. There is a definite connection between the state of your home and your state of mind.
3. With A Little Effort, You Can Make Any Space Work
Home organization doesn’t take much ingenuity, just a willingness to approach the situation with a creative spirit and an open mind. We had one clothing closet and a coat closet we had to share between two grownups and one (and then two) kids.
It was all about closet organizers and baskets. We used baskets everywhere, including under the beds and on the tops of dressers and bookcases. Speaking of bookcases, when you live small, you make use of every inch of vertical space you have. Our approach was to install lots of wall shelves.
4. Americans Live Much More Lavishly Than The Rest Of The World
Living small is a great lesson in humility and understanding your place in the world. Sometimes I would bemoan how much more space, disposable income and “stuff” some of my other friends had.
But then I would remember that much of the rest of the world lives as my family was living, often with extended family crammed into their tiny spaces as well. Many of these folks do not have amenities such as clean water and heat in the winter. It’s all about perspective.
5. Living Small Is A Great Way To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint
Because of our circumstances, we simply could not consume as much as others did. We became hyper-aware of everything we brought into our home, which meant we could make wise decisions about our purchases, choosing eco-friendly and sustainable products whenever possible. We also became experts in upcycling. We donated most of the stuff that ended up in the “no” pile during decluttering season, and became familiar with places in our community like libraries and daycare centers that would gladly accept gently-used items.
Small Apartment, Big Lesson
Probably more than anything else, living in a small space taught me gratitude. It’s funny — you really learn to treasure every inch of your living space when it’s as minuscule as ours was. I don’t think I’ve ever kept a home as meticulously clean as I did then, and I truly treasured every nook and cranny. Maybe I’m romanticizing it to some extent, but I really do love that tiny apartment, especially because it holds the sweet memories of when my boys were young.
I won’t lie. I was very grateful when we got the heck out. There comes a point where no amount of decluttering and home organizing can comfortably accommodate two raucous young kids. Still, I will never forget our little apartment and all the big, enduring lessons it taught me.
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