Living With Less: 500 sq. feet and just the essentials

Jim and I just returned from a wonderful 3 day vacation in Friday Harbor, a touristy town of about 2,000 on San Juan Island, Washington.


This was our first trip with Gadget and an unusual trip for us in that we spent almost half of every day inside our 500 sq ft hotel room!

Since our trip fell squarely into what is considered the “off season” on the island, most attractions were either running on winter hours or closed altogether. So while we may wake up at 6 and be ready to venture into the world by 7, there wasn’t much to do before 10am or after 5pm.  (Not a complaint, we love the quirks of off-season travel.)

When we travel we usually try to maximize the time we spend at whatever the nearby point of interest is. Disney parks have us up by 7 and in line for whichever park opens earliest by 8 or 9. Ditto and likewise for road trips and skiing vacations. On those kinds of trips, we return to the room and collapse into bed somewhere around 9 or 10. There’s never much time to enjoy the room, nor is there any point – the rooms we rent tend to be little more than a bed in a box.

But this room was different!

This room (at the Friday Harbor Suites) had an almost-kitchen including flatware, bowls and plates, a sink with Palmolive and a new sponge, microwave, medium sized fridge. It also had a dining table, a separate bedroom, a bathroom larger than any I have in my single family home, a living room complete with sofa and oversized coffee table, and a little sliding door that opened to a ground-level deck. If the room just had a range to cook on, I think I could have moved in.

Everything had a purpose, and almost nothing duplicated the purpose of anything else (well, except for the two flat screen televisions and the bar chairs at the kitchen ledge).



Living in this tiny space was refreshing! As a recovering stuff addict, I love an opportunity to see just how much stuff I don’t actually need.

Three days in the “mini house” also made it obvious how much of my home is just duplication.

Whereas this hotel room had just one table to eat at, my home has at least five places where we occasionally dine:

  • dining room table (where most of our meals are eaten)
  • TV trays in front of the blue sofa
  • computer desks upstairs (I eat here sometimes)
  • folding card table in living room
  • standing up in the kitchen (guilty…)

I can also sew at two different machines, shower in two different showers, sit on four different toilets, wash my hands in any of 5 different sinks, and lounge on two different sofas. If I wanted to sit somewhere, I count at least 11 different places I could have a nice sit. I have two televisions (and three laptops, plus an iPad) for watching things on, and I even have two separate beds I could sleep in.

That’s a lot of duplication.

If I removed all the duplication from my home (three of the four bathrooms, all but one of the bedrooms, one of the living rooms, etc), I’d probably have a 700 sq ft home instead of a 2200 sq ft home!

A lot of it happened accidentally – upgrading to a new version of something and retaining the old one is the most common cause of duplication. But it’s a lot of upkeep and management, time I’d rather spend making art or writing or walking outdoors with my family.

In a way, my home encouraged it. When there’s room for stuff, it’s easy to keep it around!

When we replaced our 7 year old sofa with one large enough to hold us both, the old sofa just moved to another room (at the cost of $125 for movers, since we couldn’t move it ourselves). The room that received it was otherwise empty – because for whatever reason, my 1977 single family home has both a family room and a living room to fill up. Sure, we’d left that living room empty for a good three years, but the looks we got from visitors made it clear that the social expectation was that living rooms should have at least a little furniture in them.

But what’s the point? I didn’t miss the excess while on my vacation, and I didn’t mind having “only” one place to sit or sleep. Why do I need two sofas if one will do? Why was my house (and so many like it) built on the assumption that someone would want so many duplicates of things? (It even has two fireplaces!)

The three days I spent in this little room were inspiring. I took three car-loads of unused stuff to the local charity dropoff the day after we got back. Feels good, man.

Decluttering: Closets and “Junk Room”

The ongoing war against clutter continues. This weekend’s decluttering target: the “junk room”.

Yes, where some people have a nursery or a hobby room, we have a “junk room”. I’m not proud of it, but we just seem to have so much more stuff than we have legitimate storage so we had to go rogue and turn a room into a walk-in closet. I already packed all the normal closets. Unfortunately, this directly violates the #1 rule of home harmony:

Volume of stuff shall not exceed capacity for stuff.

Much household harmony flows from adhering to this simple principle, yet it is very hard to follow. Stuff has inherent value, both sentimental and monetary. Houses have pathetically little storage, hence the need for constant decluttering.

Over the years, I’ve used techniques to expand my storage capabilities:

  • stackable bins
  • standalone shelving underneath/in place of existing closet shelving
  • those crazy bags you stuff items into and then squeeze the air out of so things take less space
  • additional standalone closet rods
  • using an entire room as walk-in storage (see: our smallest bedroom)

This was good enough for a while, but now I need to reclaim our smallest bedroom for potential guest use, which means its days as a glorified walk-in closet are coming to an end. This is it on a good day. Remember, I’ve been working on emptying it for six months now.

The focus of my decluttering efforts: my junk room in all its glory.

Getting rid of things is difficult for me. I blame…

  • Hoarding behaviors inherited from my parents (who basically have a time capsule starting in the early 1960s, covering all of my childhood, and all the life that’s happened since, packed into their basement).
  • My frugal sensibilities, and having to re-buy something I discarded would seriously send me off the deep end
  • My terrible tendency to anthropomorphize objects, that is, I (quite insanely) give them feelings and human characteristics. Throwing something away means sending it to the dump where it will be sad and lonely. WTF, evolution? (Also, big thanks goes out to whatever asshole wrote the junkyard scene in The Brave Little Toaster in which sentient cars are crushed for scrap. I saw it 20 years ago and I still bear the scars.)

The completely rational part of my brain says that keeping things I don’t need is ridiculous. I have to be in a particularly unsentimental mood to start getting rid of things, and when the mood hits it’s time to act. These are things I keep in mind as I de-clutter:

  • Hoarding is a serious problem. Watching just a few minutes of Hoarders gives me temporary super powers to get rid of things.
  • Space costs money – if we keep acquiring more stuff, we’ll need a larger house
  • Clutter has an emotional cost: the guilt of knowing I should be dealing with it, the wistful thinking that occurs when I stare into the cluttered abyss and wish for a useful room to take its place
  • Reorganizing stuff is a massive time-suck. I’ve lost countless weekends to shuffling crap around my living space.
  • Someone else needs this more than I do. 1000 times this – the world is full of needy people who only wish they had the things I’m

When I start on a room or a closet, I first go after easy targets:

  • Clothes that clearly don’t fit, haven’t for a long time, and probably never will again
  • Craft supplies I still haven’t found a use for
  • Anything I bought in Illinois (4.5 years ago) and still haven’t used/deboxed
  • Broken things of little sentimental value
  • Cheap things that I’ve since replaced with better versions

I immediately load these things into the car. If the Goodwill truck is open, I’ll drive to it immediately and unload. If not, I go on the way to work the next day. Sometimes in between deciding to get rid of something and actually getting rid of it, as much as a quarter of it comes back into the house. Taking things to donation immediately is critical to success.

Once that low hanging fruit was picked, I go after higher level targets:

  • Clothes I don’t feel awesome in, even if they do fit. Maybe someone else will feel awesome in them!
  • Broken things of mild sentimental value
  • Things of shitty sentimental value – that is, things I got from someone or some place that should probably have meaning to me, but actually just depress and/or anger me. I only have room for happy things in my house
  • Anything I bought, ever, that I haven’t used (or missed) in a year. I bet someone else needs this!

The hardest stuff to get rid of are things my mother purchased for me when I moved into my apartment. She wanted me to have all the comforts of home, and she lovingly bought me so many nice kitchen tools, dishware, linens, you name it. Some of it is an indispensable part of my household operations, some of it I never got the hang of or liked as much as things I purchased later. But all of it is imbued with Mom, and all of it is hard to get rid of for that reason. I try to imagine her saying, “Oh, just get rid of it and buy yourself something nice!” but it’s tough. The associations between stuff and being cared for are powerful. Now that I’m 2000 miles from my parents, who used to handle everything from scheduling doctor’s appointments to doing my laundry for me, being cared for is a rarer and more precious feeling. I feel like recognizing it is the first step. Hauling it to the car? That’s like ten steps.

Here’s what I accomplished on Saturday:

The black shelving was emptied and squeezed into the back of our master bedroom closet, which I “lovingly” refer to as a “galley closet”. Many of the things on it were either put in the car for donation or moved into the master closet.


I put this over the toilet shelf, IKEA laundry basket + bathroom organizer, and 17″ VGA monitor onto the free corner. Unbelievably, the toilet shelf never fit over any of our 4(!!!) toilets so I used it as standalone shelving for a few years. Decluttering over the last six months reduced my need for them, and finally, it was time to let them go. The monitor hadn’t been used in over 5 years as we’ve upgraded to larger widescreens.

the free corner: my best friend in the decluttering process

In typical household project fashion, working in one room somehow messes up another. Cleaning out the storage room necessitated cleaning and organizing my sewing room closet as well. From this closet, I filled two bags with clothes for donation and folded all of my club/concert wear into bins to free up precious bar space.


I am amazed at how much clothing I have. I’ve managed to fill the walk-in master bedroom closet and this sewing room closet. I’m not even fashionable, like, AT ALL. I don’t own any extra shoes, accessories, or jewelry. How do people who are actually into clothes and shopping manage?

Here’s where I left off by end of day Saturday:

My junk room now, after hours of decluttering effort.  Some items live on to see another day.

So what’s left in here now?

  • Hangars from a ton of donated and/or boxed clothing
  • River inner tubes I have no idea where to store
  • Empty closet bar I may collapse and store elsewhere
  • Upright cabinet (empty) moved from sewing room to make more closet space
  • Artwork not currently on walls
  • Ironing board that I leave set up
  • Broken oscillating fans (I should garbage these, but… Mom bought them for me! Ahhh!)
  • Bin full of kitchenware I haven’t used in a long time (I should donate these.. but… Mom bought them for me! Ahhh! And what if I want to make cupcakes even though I hate cupcakes? Arrgh!)
  • Our awesome Jaime & Cersei Lannister cosplay costumes
  • A box of sentimental stuff from my previous job and my childhood

These are decluttering challenges for another day, though. Another day when I’ve just seen an episode of Hoarders and am mentally refreshed. :)


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