The typical American home is around 2,600 square feet, whereas the typical small or tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet. – The TinyLife
In the span of a few decades, we Americans have traded in our penchant for ridiculously oversized, overpriced McMansions (too much room for even the Waltons or the Brady Bunch) for tiny houses. In this current trend, two adults – often along with a pet and a child or two – donate most of their worldly possessions, leave said McMansion, and cohabitate in a state of domestic bliss in 300 square feet.
Let’s check back in a few years to see how that works out.
Can I say something radical yet obvious?
What about just enough space? Just enough stuff? Just like Goldilocks’ porridge: “Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right.”
I call it Midimalism.
Minimalism– good theory, knee-jerk reaction
I can’t find anything good to say about overconsumption. It is detrimental to your finances, the planet, and your state of mind. But at the other end of the spectrum, minimalism does have some advantages, at least in theory. It benefits your wallet, the planet, and your state of mind – at least in the short term – until you decide you want to invite someone over to dinner and you realize you only own one plate, and there is no where for the guest to sit.
True, Americans have too much stuff and shop too much, while we lack meaningful experiences and real social connections. But I think extremism is dangerous in whatever form it is expressed. This includes radical minimalism – the kind that professes you can only be happy by living with X amount of items or by living in X amount of square footage. Playing the part of armchair sociologist, I see this prescriptive minimalism not as a viable longterm lifestyle, but rather as a knee-jerk reaction to rampant consumerism and overconsumption. Ironically, some minimalism gurus are making skads of money preaching the gospel of less. I’d like to see where and how they are living in a decade or so.
I was glad to discover I’m not the only skeptic. In the New York Times, Kyle Chayka skillfully deconstructed minimalism in this fantastic article. “The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness,” he writes. In the Atlantic, Arielle Bernstein maintains that minimalism is a “privilege.”
True enough. My Babci (grandma) emigrated from Poland when she was just 14. Her husband, also an immigrant, died in the coal mines at age 35 during the Depression, leaving her a widow in her adopted country in her late 20s. She was too busy trying to feed and clothe her 5 kids to worry about decluttering her living room and reorganizing her pantry.
Still, I’m fascinated by the minimalist movement for several reasons. First, I am hard-wired to despise clutter. Clutter and excess make my heart palpitate; I feel this way even when I stand in someone else’s cluttered space. I look around and think, “How on earth are they going to take care of all this stuff?” and it makes me feel anxious.
Encountering mountains of unopened gifts under the Christmas trees does not invoke feelings of holiday cheer. It makes me tense. I feel bad for the parents who will have to assemble, store and keep track of all those toys. And I also feel bad when I think that roughly 50% of the gifts given to adults have a good chance of being regifted.
I also enjoy how minimalism gently reminds you to remain in the present. Material things and shopping can distract you from facing your feelings and reality, just as much alcohol or drugs can. When you have less stuff, or at least only things that make you happy, there is less to distract you from, well … being you.
My experiments with minimalism
Regarding decorating, my ex husband (with whom I am still friends) is the exact opposite of me. He is an artist, is very visual and loves color and piling decorative things on top of things – on top of more things in a baroque style. I, by contrast, enjoy the peaceful vibe and quiet color palette of Scandinavian design which is minimal by default, yet still warm. After we went our separate ways, the first thing I started doing was ditching excess stuff (giving away, donating, recycling).
That was almost a decade ago. And I never stopped. My culling went far beyond interior design. Over the years, this English major pared down her massive book collection from over 600 tomes to less than 100. I actually enjoy looking at and reading the volumes that made the cut. The others were just collecting dust (Kindle books do not count, since they take up only the space that my iPad consumes.) In fact, just this weekend, I gave away about 30 more books.
I used to be a clothes horse – especially when I worked in an advertising agency – but I culled my wardrobe in half. I think it could use another trim. Il était one fois, when I ran a vegan cooking blog and wrote cookbooks, so I had amassed countless plates, placemats and props to use when photographing food. Most of those are also gone. More recently, I tidied up my running gear.
Culling my possessions definitely made me happier and made life a bit easier, because there was less to take care of or worry about. What separates me from being a minimalist or a maximalist? I would simply say the absence of needing to achieve an extreme to feel like I am doing it. There’s a difference between simplicity and minimalism.
Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.
– Henry David Thoreau
Balance is elusive, and balance is different for everyone. Minimalism means getting by with the very least, and McMansion living means living with an extravagant amount of stuff. Midimalism concerns harmony and falls somewhere in the middle. Not exactly a radical idea. But we Americans are prone to extremes and quick fixes.
I will never be like Dave Bruno who pared down his possessions to a gimmicky 100 items . Over time, I found I prefer having enough stuff, not just the barest minimum. I like my creature comforts, and I’m not ashamed to say I enjoy some things that make my life easier or more peaceful. I like, for example, having enough dishes to entertain guests, and I like owning a spectrum of nail polish colors so my manicure matches my mood. I am creative so rather than wearing the same outfit over and over, I relish having a variety of clothes to change up my outfits. I like having kitchen gadgets and appliances that make cooking easier.
The same is true with space. Although I watch Tiny House Hunters on HGTV with a sort of morbid fascination, I live contentedly with my kitties in a 1400+-square-foot loft with 16-foot ceilings – certainly more space than one woman needs. But having grown up in a literal tiny row home in a coal mining town where my bedroom window “view” consisted of the neighbor’s aluminum siding within 10 feet, I unapologetically enjoy having all this space around and above me.
Thinking about what you really need and want in your daily life is a great barometer to determine excess. I agree with Marie Kondo’s philosophy of only keeping things that “spark joy.” I’ve read both her books and found them super helpful. She advises that you intentionally rifle through all your possessions, category by category, and remove items that do not truly make you feel happy (other than neutral stuff we all need, like a toilet-cleaning brush and contact lens solution). Kondo maintains that once you do this you will never have to do it again.
Since I have always been something of an organizing nerd, fine-tuning my organizational skills is actually dorky fun to me. I Kondoed my stuff almost 3 years ago; I am still culling, but it’s mostly for maintenance. Since we are works in progress and are forever changing, what “sparks joy” can change over time. But following her methods, my possessions really have stayed in order and my home feels more peaceful.
How do you know what’s enough?
Only you can answer this. Everyone is different. I own several houseplants; they bring me joy and purify the air. My aloe and cactus sit on the windowsill; they need loads of light and very little water. My dracaena prefers to live in the shadows with continually moist soil. And my snake plant is so chill that he is happy in either of the above situations. What kind of plant are you? What do you need? What do you want?
I Kondoed my socks almost 3 years ago, I swear the drawer still pretty much looks this organized.
Make a list
To help you come to this realization, make a list of 10-30 things you like in your domestic life and home. This sounds deceivingly simple, but so many of us have been so influenced by advertising and by the important people in our lives, that we have lost touch with what truly makes us happy. Try it. Then, make a list of what you dislike, so it becomes abundantly clear. These lists will help you determine what you really need and want in your life. And maybe even whom you need in your life. Here are a few of mine.
- Walking into my home after encountering chaos in the city and being greeted with order and peace. Oh, and kitties, too!
- Red, grey black, white – often together
- Graphic posters
- Scandinavian design
- Scented candles
- Everything in its place
- Good music and wine while I am cooking
- Hot baths with scented oils or bath bombs
- Having some empty drawers: I have many. Empty drawers, to me, represent tranquility – room to learn and grow. Many people need to rent out a storage unit to store their excess stuff. This is obviously when you have to question how much is enough.
- Getting cozy on my couch after a long day, preferably cuddled with my boyfriend and maybe a few bonus cats
- Industrial style – exposed bricks, wooden beams, original floors, stainless steel
- Contemporary style
- Compelling quotes
- Handmade things (images, pottery, blankets, etc)
- Natural materials (wood, terra cotta, stone)
- Knitting in winter on a comfy chair with an afghan over my lap, while sipping herbal tea
- Cold, clinical looking spaces
- Papers, bits and bobs everywhere
- Cleaning. (I also hate dirt. So I am always cleaning!)
- Too much furniture – I like a feeling of airiness and being able to move around
- Dark walls
- Dark spaces
- Low ceilings
- Garish colors
- Baroque and Victorian styke
- Moldy or rank smells
- Feeling cold. I would rather be too warm than too cold.
Still finding your way? Try these ideas.
Here are some other great ideas and resources to help you map your place on the minimalist-maximalist scale. I promise you will learn something from every experiment you try.
- Try a year (or a month, or a week!) without buying clothing. Try to reinvent and appreciate the items you already own. Shafrah Combiths is currently embarking on this journey, but she is far from the first person to do it. Cait Flanders seems to be one of the original “do without IT girls,” and I am loving her new book, The Year of Living with Less. Mrs. Frugalwood also did a clothes-shopping ban years asgo, as did many other simplicity and frugality bloggers.
- Or up the ante and do a year or a month without any unecessary shopping, like Cait Flanders did. Settle into you space.
- Do an über-frugal month. This is one of the tricks that enabled the Frugalwoods to semi-retire to a Vermont homestead in their early 30s.
- Kondo your condo. Tidying up really can be life-changing and help you determine what you truly cherish
So where are you on the scale? Are you a minimalist? A maximalist? Or are you somewhere in between, like me?