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Think Your Home is Small?

See how one couple shrunk their space down to just 128 square feet—seriously you will feel better after you read this.

Photo: Learnvest / The Nest

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I live in a tiny house that’s 128 square feet—smaller than your average parking space—and I’ve never been happier.

Nine years ago, I was working a successful job in investment management, shared a huge apartment and two cars with my husband Logan, and was miserable.

I lived in Davis, California, where I was commuting two hours a day, stuck in traffic, saddled with $30,000 of debt–mostly from student loans–and constantly stressed. I started using shopping as an outlet for my emotions. Instant gratification! When I shopped, I felt better and didn’t have to deal with whatever else was on my mind.

Then one day, Logan suggested we “downsize,” get rid of our junk and move to a smaller space. He saw how stressed I was over my job, and knew how badly I wanted to go back to school and work in the non-profit world.

My response was pretty firm: no way.

I liked having a car and space in our home for guests. He was suggesting we get rid of our cars, but what if the cat got sick–how would we drive to the vet’s office? What if our parents got sick–how would we help them? For a long time, we held back on sizing down because of all of the “what if’s.”

But then we started defining our values and reprioritizing. I started reading a lot about living simply. We realized that the life we had fallen into wasn’t what we really wanted. I asked myself: Why was I spending time stuck in traffic to earn the money for our rent when I could be building my relationships or volunteering, for the things that were most important to me?

After much debate and discussion–not to mention pro/con lists–we decided the time had come to live a little smaller.

So We Took the Plunge!

We started downsizing in 2005, and in 2006 we made our first big move: switching from a 1,200-square-foot apartment into an 800-square-foot one-bedroom in downtown Davis. We also sold one of our cars. With one car and a lower rent, our debt slowly started going down.

With these reduced expenses, Logan and I finally had the time and energy to prioritize our life goals and focus on our health and happiness. We thought seriously about the stuff we had, and between friends, thrift stores and Freecycle, slowly continued scaling down.

Then came the tipping point: On New Years Eve 2007, Logan showed me an online video where a woman, Dee Williams, showed off a beautiful, sustainable 128-square-foot tiny house. Dee owns a small woodworking company and built the house herself, using salvaged cedar, torn-up jeans for insulation and solar panels for energy. She also put the house on wheels, which let her drive it to Olympia, Washington, where friends let her “park” in their grassy backyard.

The Moment We Knew We Wanted a Tiny House

A tiny house like Dee’s seemed affordable, liberating and just the right size. We didn’t have the wherewithal to build it ourselves, so we reached out online and asked Dee herself to design it. She happily agreed.

We had a couple requirements: Like Dee, we wanted wheels on the house in case we ever wanted to move, and it needed to be small enough that we wouldn’t need permits or official permission to drive it down the highway.

In total, the house would cost us $33,000, a little more than we wanted to spend, so I became a tiny house monster, constantly researching and talking about how we could afford our own. Once we had the house, we’d take it to Portland, where two of Dee’s friends kindly offered to let us rent space in their backyard.

So we saved up, moving in 2008 to a smaller, 400-square-foot one-bedroom in Sacramento and downsizing even more. We wouldn’t be taking out a mortgage or anything to pay for the house, so we needed to have the full amount in cash. It took us a couple of years, but finally we reached our savings goal. In 2008, we sold our second (and last) car.

Finally, in October of 2011, we moved into our tiny house.

Between rent, utilities and our $5 electricity bill (we plug in to the main house through an outdoor extension cord), we pay about $500 a month in general housing expenses–better than the $800 to $1,100 we were paying before. Not too shabby … and best of all, no mortgage!

Of course, we had the same fears as any new homeowners: What if we moved in and hated it?

But now, ten months after first moving to the tiny house, I can honestly say there hasn’t been any buyer’s regret. In fact, we love our new lifestyle.

How the Tiny House Changed Our Lives

One of the biggest effects of having less stuff and spending less was I didn’t need to work at a job that made me unhappy!

Now, Logan and I can both do what we love. He finished up grad school in California, and now works in research at an Oregon health facility. I left the investment management industry and started working as a sexual assault and domestic violence victim advocate in 2007. I bounced around the advocacy field, working with crisis centers, doing research on domestic violence and working in public policy before quitting my day job in 2010 to write full-time.

I’ve also had time to volunteer. Between my work at an organization called Living Yoga and helping to organize an annual Portland summit of artists, I used to spend about ten hours a week volunteering. Then my dad got sick last year, so I wasn’t able to volunteer as much. Logan and I will soon be moving to his family’s cattle ranch in Northern California, which involves driving the house down Highway 5. Although we’ve never moved the house before, we’re excited to relocate where we can be closer to both our families, so hopefully I’ll be able to volunteer there as well.

Our debt stress? Gone, along with our debt! It feels great not to worry about car payments, student loans or credit cards, and to own a home of our own. This financial freedom has made such a difference. Mostly, it’s brought us a sense of relief.

What It’s Like When Your Home Is a Tiny House

128 square feet may not seem like a lot, but it’s really all we need.

We have a kitchen with a freestanding, ethanol-powered sailboat stove and a bathroom with a compostable toilet filled with moss and peat that we empty every few days, depending on how often we use it. The toilet can be removed to create a shower stall.

Our little window nook is a great sitting area that also doubles (well, triples) as the dining room and the guest bedroom. There’s a garden hose attached to the house so we have water for cooking and dishes, and we filter drinking water from the faucet.

We love the house, but we are not without our challenges.

Right now we have an inversion shower, which means we have to take off the composting toilet and fix up the curtain before showering. We usually shower at the gym (I spend about $50 on membership there) but some days it would really be nice to have a true shower.

A lot of people ask if I miss my privacy, but my husband and I get along really well—I don’t see him for most of the day when he’s at work, so when he comes home, I’m always glad to see him.

If we do need some personal space, he’ll go for a bike ride or I’ll take a walk. One benefit of having a small space is that if we argue, we can’t just ignore it. I think that’s good for us, to not worry about stupid arguments. And since getting rid of so many of our money worries, we definitely fight a lot less.

What Our Spending Looks Like Now

Driving hours to work (and paying for cars and gas) is definitely a thing of the past. In fact, because a lot of my work is in e-course development and writing, I mostly work from home or take a short bike ride to downtown Portland.

If Logan or I need to go somewhere–work, the grocery store, yoga–we’ll either walk or bike. Logan bikes about 6 miles to work each day, which takes him about 30 minutes.

We do spend more on food because we buy local and organic, and we don’t have a fridge (our house isn’t equipped), so we shop more often. Last year, I made about $19,000 from my writing projects, which include my book advance (I wrote about our “tiny house” transition to living a much simpler life), ebook sales, freelance projects and my e-course (I teach a course on minimalism). Although that’s way less than what I made at my old job, I’m doing something I love and the amount is okay when our expenses are so low.

As for my shopping bug, I find that now I don’t need to shop to soothe my emotions, because my day-to-day life is much simpler and more fulfilling. When I have the urge to buy something now, usually I’ll wait 30 days, just to make sure it’s really worthwhile. I also try to keep a “one thing in, one thing out” rule, so if I buy a new pair of shoes, I’ll donate one to charity. Just because we’ve downsized doesn’t mean I don’t want new stuff. In fact, I always want stuff! For me, it’s just a matter of knowing what my buying triggers are.

I have this incredible gift of time now, so if my family needs help I can be there, and I have time left over to give back to my community. The size of our house hasn’t prevented us from seeing friends and family; when we have friends visit, they can either sleep in the loft or we’ll put them up in a nice hotel.

Life is always uncertain, but embracing that uncertainty has really helped. You just have to take the plunge and do things. When it comes down to it, Logan and I aren’t really about austerity, but we want to spend on experiences rather than things. We save a lot, but are also able to spend extra income on going out to eat, biking, camping and traveling. I’m much more aware of my community and my environment–I notice the seasons change and participate in my community more. Not to mention with biking, walking and eating right, I feel so much healthier.

What Other People Think

When we first started, a lot of our friends and family–including my mother–thought we were nuts. Now, after seeing how satisfied we are, they think we’re at the head of the pack.

Whenever a friend says downsizing seems overwhelming, I just say to start small. Look at one room in your house, or one closet, and see what you can give away. Then, move to the next room. Trust me, it’s pretty surprising how much stuff you really don’t need.

We don’t expect everyone to move into a tiny house; we know it’s a little unusual. And Logan and I aren’t planning on having kids, though that’s not to say you can’t have children and live in a small space! We all make choices about how we want to live.

All of these decisions have taken on a bigger significance since my dad passed away in June. Especially since then I’ve felt an intense responsibility to live my life well. I’ve learned that stuff doesn’t matter in the long run … it’s people you’ll never get back. I want to make him proud.

The way we see it, everyone should be mindful of their choices. For example, I would definitely say I care about the environment, but I don’t live in a tiny house because I want to save the planet. I do it because it makes me happy and gives me the freedom to do the things I want.

If the suburbs are a good fit for you, that’s totally okay. If a tiny house with 128 feet and a fantastic cat is a good fit for you, that’s totally okay, too.

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