How to downsize, learning to live with less


Here’s my challenge to you: Free yourself from too much stuff and spending habits that keep you trapped.

This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there's actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?
This townhouse looks like it has two floors, but there’s actually a walk out basement in the back, not to mention a deck and patio under it. How much space does one person need?

I began the journey of downsizing a few years ago, right around the time the economy took a dive. The radical move was dividing my three-floor condo into two living spaces, a duplex where the renter got 2/3rds of the space and I lived in what was left. I converted the basement into a studio apartment and rented out the top two floors of my townhouse. Though someone else now paid enough rent to cover the mortgage, I was faced with living in a third of the space I’d had.

It’s true that I had already cleared out my storage areas, lightened up the closets and even completely emptied one bedrooms and bath. But it still looked like a daunting task. At first.

I took a deep breath and tried to look at the situation logically. First define your space—the basement studio apartment is less than 500 square feet.

But how much space do you really need?

How big is a home?

Home sizes in the US are HUGE compared to other places in the world. According to Apartment Therapy, these are average square footage of new homes constructed since 2003:

  • US: 2,300
  • Australia: 2,217
  • Denmark: 1,475
  • France: 1,216
  • Spain: 1,044
  • Ireland: 947
  • UK: 818

These are all developed countries, so you can assume even smaller spaces in “the Third World.” Basically, others manage to get by with much less space than we Americans do. One woman doesn’t need over 1,500 square feet! I could find a way.

This is my new entrance. I just walk around the back of my unit of townhomes and my door is under the deck. I have my on patio.
This is my new entrance. I just walk around the back of my unit of townhomes and my door is under the deck. I have my on patio.

Where to start reducing

First you get rid of duplicates. In a three-floor, three-bath house you have a lot of duplicate items:

  • Vacuum cleaner/broom on each of three floors
  • Two floors had “living rooms” so I had duplicate couches/end tables/coffee tables/lamps
  • Television/stereo on each floor (I got rid of cable, so ended up giving all three TVs away)
  • Towels/bathmats/hand mirrors/cleaning utensils in 3 bathrooms
  • Office supplies like scissors/stapler/pens/paper on each floor
  • I didn’t need a bed since the studio apartment had a fold-down Murphy bed
  • I kept only one of two chest of drawers and gave away two sets of shelves
  • I had two writing desks, but I didn’t sit at either of them, so they both went
  • I pared down my kitchen items to fit my new, smaller kitchenette

I sold the furniture I didn’t need through a re-sale shop. What was left was donated to charity (always get a receipt) or gave away to friends who needed them. I could have made more money on the items if I’d held a yard sale or sold through eBay or Craigslist. (I’ve held back a few items to sell this way. hint: future post!). If I’d been unemployed and/or had more free time I would have sold some of this. And if between jobs, it would have been crucial to make money off my unused possessions. But I was (am) working a fulltime job and was running a part time business at the time (Atlanta Culinary Tours, which I’ve closed except for a few private dinners). I had very limited time.

Then I moved into the studio apartment, locked the door to the basement stairway on both sides and learned to live there. The realtor found a renter and I started reaping the rewards.

It’s had its ups and downs, but I’ve made it work. The rental income from the top two floors has allowed me to pay extra on my mortgage so that I am no longer under water! I’ve also managed pay off everything I owe except for my house and save a substantial rainy day fund. What did this hard work buy me? Freedom!

Financial freedom is a good feeling

If living within your means doesn’t sound sexy, maybe it’s time you grew up. I don’t stress nearly so much when things at work look rocky. I don’t want to lose my job, but I’ve got a safety net if I do. I don’t fret when the phone rings or the mail comes because I know no one is hounding me for money. I don’t owe anything but my mortgage. And I spend my money where I want, like world travel. I sleep well at night.

Sure times are hard, but even the poor in American are better off than most of the world. We don’t face the hardships my grandparents did in the Great Depression. We don’t have rationing like in WWII. It’s about balance. Having your needs met plus items that are useful and improve your life. Do you need every electronic toy available? Do you need a new car every two years? No.These are wants and they come after your needs are met and only if you can afford them.

So here’s my challenge: Grow up. Take responsibility. Make the hard decisions. And Free yourself.


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I’m a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I’m exploring the world and you can come too!

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