In recent years, some unconventional lifestyle trends have been gaining momentum across the mainstream media. The subculture of extreme minimalism (tiny houses and micro apartments) has earned a higher level of awareness within the general public here in North America.
The idea of living in a space as confined as a tiny house or micro-apartment may be impractical (and admonished) for the vast majority of people. That said, there are some valuable insights to be taken from the growing subculture of extreme minimalism that can be applied to a more mainstream lifestyle.
A little over two years ago, I made the decision to move to DC to live with my now-fiancé. After accepting and starting a job there, it took a few months to sell my home in Baltimore and complete my transition to a new city. My fiancé and I spent those months sharing the 425 square foot studio apartment she was renting at the time (there was no way I was going to commute between Baltimore and DC if I didn’t have to).
The apartment we live in now isn’t as small, but sharing a studio apartment wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been while it lasted. We still joke that if we could survive that, we can survive anything.
The transition period forced me to confront some decisions that I had never felt comfortable with before. I loved my house and was proud of the work I had done with it. But I learned a lot throughout the process of selling the house (while purging many of the things I had in it), and sharing a small space with my fiancé. I learned to better understand what’s essential to my happiness, and what just adds clutter to my life.
Here are some helpful decluttering strategies I’ve learned along the way.
Identify & Challenge Emotional Attachments
When I bought my house in 2008, I quickly transformed into proud home owner mode. It was difficult to feel satisfied with what I had, because there was always something more I wanted to have done. As a bachelor and a new homeowner, I felt a constant need to be showcasing refined taste throughout my home.
This not only translated into lots of time and money being invested, but also a constant feeling of wanting more. It lead to feelings of guilt with the things I had purchased, but never needed. They were supposed to make me feel successful and accomplished, but instead they made me feel weighed down.
The feelings of guilt created a cycle of negative energy. I had spent a lot of time and money bringing things into my life, so I felt pressure to use and enjoy them. The more I didn’t use or enjoy them, the worse I felt. And the worse I felt, the more I wanted to double down on my purchasing decisions instead of surrendering and reversing course.
Imagine the shock to my system when it came time to move on from these things and begin a new life sharing a smaller space with someone else.
The day I closed on my house sale was bittersweet, but it was more freeing than anything. There are legitimate reasons to own a home, and maybe I will again someday. In hindsight, though, the home I owned in Baltimore was based more on emotion than practicality. Challenging it (even if I chose to resist it initially) turned out to be very liberating.
Recalibrate Essential Needs
My house in Baltimore was 1,100 square feet, and I spent the majority of my years there living alone. The apartment I share with my fiancé in DC is 900 square feet, but we both feel that we could comfortably live in a smaller space. We certainly don’t need any more at this stage of our lives.
How can it be that I am more comfortable sharing a smaller space now, than I was having a larger space to myself before? The process of confronting emotional attachments helped to recalibrate my needs.
In our current apartment, there is a large nook in the bedroom which would be prime space for furniture such as a couch and TV stand. For a long while after moving in, we kept trying to brainstorm ways to use the space. As a certain gecko might say: unused space waits to be filled, it’s what unused space does.
After giving it some time, we decided it should just be left alone. If a compelling use for the space should arise, we wold revisit the idea. But no real compelling use ever presented itself.
Here’s the thing: the average home size in the United States has risen to nearly 2,600 square feet. That is a 66% increase since 1983! Any true need for this much space has been majorly fabricated, and it’s up to us to sound the B.S. alarm instead of buying into the hype.
A prime example of recalibrating based on needs is buying/renting the home you need, not the home you can afford. The bank might say you can afford X amount of square feet, but that doesn’t mean you need it. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t (housing markets and personal situations tend to vary quite a bit).
The key here is to evaluate for yourself instead of just taking the most you can get, and then spending hard-earned money to fill the surplus. While growing up, my five siblings and I shared an 1,800 square foot home with my parents. We all turned out just fine (about as fine as any family can be…to the untrained eye).
Exercise Your Delutter Muscle
Removing clutter and ensuring it isn’t just replaced at some point down the line requires practice. It’s like working out any part of yourself that you want to become stronger. If you want to be more frugal, you need to work that frugality muscle. If you want to be creative, you need to work that idea muscle.
How to work the declutter muscle? As with anything, and as I’ve written on this blog before, you need to start small and build from there. The key is to build and not stop.
Here are some ways to start right now:
- Find one item of clothing that you haven’t worn in a year. Ask yourself honestly if you could see yourself wearing it again in the foreseeable future. No? Off to the donation center it goes. I have a few embarrassing graphic T’s that ended up in this pile.
- Find another item laying around the house/apartment that you know won’t be used any time soon. You may have even contemplated getting rid of it before, but sabotaged yourself into holding on to it. Me? I had a cup on my bookshelf full of old pens, pencils, and various screws/bolts. I told myself I’d need it some day. Until now, I haven’t thought about that random cup since determining the trash can needed it more than I did.
- Find a gift you were given, and never used. I know. Gifts are hard, it’s almost a slap in the face to the person who gave it to you if you get rid of it. Think of it this way: just by picking up that gift, and thinking about the person who gave it to you, you have done right by them. Better than letting it just collect dust and also never thinking of the person. You sill love the person who gave it to you (maybe).
You will likely find that upon doing these things, you feel instantly more free. And the feeling will become addicting, leading you to easily shed possessions that you had a hard time letting go of before. Your future self will thank you when it comes time to pack the moving boxes.
How does this tie into the rest of your life? The less you need, the more time you have to focus on things that truly matter to you. If you aren’t working to afford things in your life that don’t really add value to begin with, you have more time to focus on the things that do matter.
As you train yourself to identify what you really need to add to your life, you will save yourself the trouble of adding things you don’t really want. This will free up resources (money, energy, headspace) for a more meaningful and productive life overall.
Maybe people living in tiny houses and micro apartments aren’t as extreme as society makes them out to be. They have simply mastered the art of simplifying their lives, and it would be remiss to overlook the wisdom it takes to do that.