Living with less in a small space

storage for small spaces
© Margaret Badore

As part of our ongoing series, TreeHugger Town & Country tackles the nitty gritty of living with less. For Katherine, this means cutting back on the amount of stuff her four-person family keeps in their small home in Port Elgin, Ontario. For Margaret, it means creating more storage in her tiny NYC bedroom.

Katherine: “We need less stuff, not a bigger house.”

When my husband and I bought a house three years ago, it felt like a mansion. We had 1,200 square feet all to ourselves that, for the first time in our lives, we didn’t have to share with roommates. It was glorious, and short-lived. Add two kids, their toys, and furniture, and suddenly the spacious feel was gone.

Next came the unwelcome sensation of being cramped, of not knowing where to put stuff, of feeling like I was constantly tidying. Soon I started saying things like “It would be so nice to have an actual office” and “Imagine having a guest room! A bathtub! Or even a closet!” The problem was that we’d accumulated too much stuff, and my knee-jerk reaction was thinking we needed a bigger house to fit it all in.

I realized something had to change – and it wasn’t going to be our house.

little boys sitting on the step© K Martinko

So the ongoing purge began. I’ve developed some organizational guidelines to help me keep things under control.

• Bedroom contents are kept to a minimum, since both rooms are tiny. All we need is beds and dressers, which frees up floor space and prevents clutter.

• With only a single closet between all four of us, it’s better to reduce the number of clothes we own than to keep adding storage space.

• The kids’ toys must fit into two toy boxes and the bottom shelves of two bookcases. This decreases the number of superfluous toys that don’t get played with, and reduces time spent tidying up.

• I’ve had to break my book-collecting habit, which is hard. I recently downsized from two bookcases to one. (Heartbreaking.)

• Dealing with footwear is an ongoing struggle. I’m getting better at buying practical, versatile footwear, which means we have fewer pairs of shoes to pick up all the time.

• Kitchen implements are minimal. I kept the knives, pans, and dishes that I actually use on a regular basis and donated the rest. Anything that hadn’t been touched in a month got the boot.

• I sort all seasonal clothes and pack them away in boxes during the off-season. This is a necessity here in Canada, where bulky jackets and winter boots take up a lot of room.

• There is a permanent donation bag on the front porch, so anytime I want to get rid of something, it has a place to go… never to return!

At times I get discouraged at how endless the battle against stuff seems to be, but then I think about the $22-billion-a-year home storage and organization industry, profiting from people’s inability to get rid of excess stuff, and that gives me renewed incentive. I’d never want to think that my own belongings forced me out of my beloved house.

Margaret: Make space and store wisely

For the past four years, I’ve had a tiny bedroom in a moderate three-bedroom apartment. It’s a pretty standard setup for twentysomething New Yorkers. I have the kind of room that can go from cozy to crazy easily if you have too much stuff.

Before I get to the stuff, let’s talk about the space. My last room was about 9 feet by 9 feet (no closet) and my current room is about 9 feet by 11 feet (plus closet—BIG upgrade). Creating a good storage system is key. The most important item of furniture I own is an armoire that pretty much doubles the amount of closet space in my room.

It’s also helpful to think upwards. In both rooms, I mounted high shelves that not only provide more space for books and little pretty things, but also a spot to stash stuff that’s useful but not needed every day (knitting needles, nail polish, stationery). The photo at the top of this post shows an old CD cabinet that I mounted on its side and painted to match the wall.

My next recommendation is not going to sit well with a lot of people, but it’s been totally worth it for me. Consider ditching the big bed. I’ve had a twin bed for the past four years, and it gives me a lot more floor space and room for other furniture (bookshelves in my case). I used to joke that if a guy couldn’t spend the night with me in my little bed, he wasn’t worth dating. It seems the strategy worked pretty well because my boyfriend never complained about it and cuddling is awesome. So, that’s my one-person anecdote for why a twin bed won’t ruin your dating life.

Anyway, back to the stuff. Like Katherine, getting rid of books is really hard for me and to be honest, I don’t have very much advice to offer on this front. My only tip is don’t keep textbooks. Seriously, you passed that class, no one is ever going to make you re-take the final and there’s always Google if you need to look something up.

My other big downfall is clothing. I don’t have space to hang on to stuff that I never wear, but I tend to have too many things that only get worn once or twice a year. One thing that has helped me cull the contents of my closet is selling to second-hand shops, like Beacon’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange. You won’t make big bucks, but if you need to cut back on belongings it’s a good way alleviate some of the guilt that can surround getting rid of those-almost-never-worn items. Almost-never-worn is what second hand shops are looking for anyway, so don’t try to sell things that are shabby. For what can’t be sold, I like to donate to Housing Works, which also accepts books and home goods.

I’m also a big fan of purging at the end of a season. Winter is just about over, so now is a great time to get rid of anything you didn’t wear this winter. It’s a lot harder for me to justify keeping a sweater if I didn’t find the chance to wear in the past six months of cold weather.

Lastly, for me the biggest clutter-cutter is assigning “expiration dates” to things. If that magazine hasn’t been read after a month, recycle it. If that makeup or face wash hasn’t been used in year, toss it. If I moved here two years ago and never turned on that printer, it’s time to find it a new home.

Living with less in a small space
Margaret and Katherine share their advice for cutting back on clutter.

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