A cluttered home makes for a cluttered, scattered mind. You may not realize it until they’re gone, but all of those piles on your counters and in your closets? You end up carrying them around in your psyche. I’ve been asked more than once, usually by other mothers, how I went about downsizing all of our families’ “stuff”. Whether you are single, a couple, or have kids popping out at the seams; whether you have a big house, or need to squeeze into a tiny one, here are a few practical ideas for living small:

  • Clothes…

    Think of how much space all of the clothes for your whole family take up. In a “regular” house, there is traditionally a closet in every room, or at the very least you probably have a chest of drawers per person. Now ask yourself: how often do you do laundry? If you were to do all of your laundry on just one day a week, would all of the clothes you own (or even half?) be dirty and needing a wash? Very likely not. We all tend to have a few favorite outfits that we cycle between and endless other “choices”, things we don’t wear, pieces that are out of season, or sizes we hope we might fit back into one day.When I was trying to figure out how to squeeze our family of five into our Tiny House, the clothes were by far the biggest issue. Simple solutions I’ve found:

  • First, I downsized each of our wardrobes to one drawer. That one drawer is just about the amount of clothes it takes to get us through one week until the next laundry day. More than that and I find there are pieces we are not actually wearing. Think about it: how many outfits do you actually need? Wouldn’t it be far more freeing to own five to seven interchangeable outfits that you really love, than a bunch of stuff you never get around to wearing? For kids this works especially well, for a couple of reasons. One, kids tend to get stuck on a favorite outfit or two anyway, and never wear the hundred other cute outfits you’d love to dress them up in. Two, they grow out of their clothes faster than you can fold their laundry, so it’s far easier to constantly change out sizes when you only have a small amount of clothes. I’ve found when my kids have too much, they hardly get around to wearing stuff before they’ve outgrown it.

  • For the out-of-season stuff, keep one plastic bin for each person. Because obviously the outfits you’re going to wear in Dec aren’t going to work in Aug, and having them all in your drawer at once is a waste of space.

  • Set up a clothing exchange with other mothers. No one tells you when you have kids how constant the chore is of managing their clothes. You could easily spend a fortune keeping them in cute, in-season outfits. And what do you do with the never-ending pile of outgrown stuff? I swear I’ve probably spent less than $100 on clothes for either of my boys their entire lives, because I get hand-me-downs from friends, and then pass on their too-smalls to other friends. I keep too-big sizes in their bins, and simply go “shopping” in the shed whenever they outgrow stuff.

  • Buy used! Buying new clothes is a waste of money, especially for children. You can spend $20 on a brand-new onesie, which your baby will wear less than ten times before it’s too small, or you can go buy that same onesie used for $1.

  • Dishes…

    Another thing that takes up a lot of space is dishes and cooking equipment. But how much is really necessary? You generally wash dishes daily, right? So do you really need the dozens of extras that never end up getting dirty? Here is another place that sentimentality takes over. When I was going through our dishes, I found, for example, that we had tons of coffee mugs, most of them with sentimental value. But what do we really use? One favorite mug per person is plenty. I find I spend a lot less time washing dishes when I keep only enough for our daily use. For us, that’s one set per person, with a few extra water glasses, snack plates, and bowls; one set of glass storage containers; and for cooking, a few sizes of quality cast iron pots and pans. For the rare times that we have enough company over to need more dishes, I pull out the extra set I keep in the shed. This enables me to keep all of our families’ dishes on three small shelves—and that’s including the dish drainer!

 

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  • Food…

    How often do you shop? Once a week? Twice? When you go grocery shopping, are your cupboards empty (at least of all perishable items), or clogged with a lot of half-used boxes and unopened items? I find I use a lot less space, and, even more importantly, waste much less, when I plan a thorough menu for the week and make sure that everything has been used before shopping again. Every weekend I plan a dinner menu for the week, and shop accordingly. Some food for thought (pun intended):

  • plan multi-use ingredients. For example: today I have a big pot of black beans on the wood stove, which will be used tonight for our black bean burgers (can throw in the leftover quinoa from last nights’ dinner, and the half-eaten red pepper from lunch!), and tomorrow for black bean tacos. Any left over after that I can throw in a soup!

  • For breakfast, find your families’two or three favorites and simply cycle between them. Right now ours are oats with nuts/dried fruit, and vegan pancakes. Plus fresh fruit and tea. Makes shopping very easy! You don’t need six boxes of half-eaten cereal.

  • Re-use dinner leftovers for lunch the following day.

  • Toys…

    If you have kids, this is the biggest one, am I right parents?! Even if you don’t buy your kids a lot of stuff, it comes. Holidays, birthdays, etc, the accumulation never ends. And because we love and care about our children, and because every single item is “special” to them, we are loathe to make them part with anything. But are we really doing them a service? I would argue that we are in fact harming them. I won’t even bother quoting experts or studies, because they all agree: a few beloved, well-organized toys are far more valuable to a child’s imaginative play than loads and loads of “stuff”. A cacophony of over-stimulating noisy plastic can prevent a child from entering that developmentally all-important state of deep play. But where to start? How to organize? And how to keep it all from just accumulating again on the next holiday?

  • Keep toys imaginative. When evaluating a toy, ask yourself: must my child use their imagination to play with this, or does the toy play for them? This automatically rules out anything with batteries, buttons, etc (thanks heavens. Save yourself the migraine!). Keep it simple. Think wooden blocks, legos, trains and tracks, one or two special baby dolls or stuffed animals, and dress-up clothes. Avoid toys that don’t go with anything else.

  • Gifts for your kids is one place in life you might want to consider being controlling! It doesn’t have to come across as rude. Give a “wish list” to grandparents well before the holidays, and ask them to let you know what they want to be responsible for, so you don’t end up with doubles. Personally we do a lot of adding to sets we already have. For instance, my kids have a collection of animal figurines that they play with daily, and each Christmas they get a new figurine in their stocking. They get sets of wooden tracks to expand on what we already have, or maybe something for the dress-up basket. And gifts for a child don’t necessarily have to be a toy, either! This Christmas we got our five year old daughter a roll of yarn and some knitting needles. Our son, three, got a wheelbarrow. You can request non-material gifts like a membership to the zoo or a museum, or a contribution to a class your child wants to take. And of course books never go out of style! A word on books: keep only a few out at a time and all extras in a bin, so you can rotate them out.

  • Organization creates a calm space for kids to play. Once again, keep it simple. Baskets are fantastic for this. You can usually find baskets of various sizes at a second hand store for cheap, and they double as a plaything. Organizing toys in such a way that children can easily and quickly clean up after themselves creates less headache, and less wasted space. In our house, blocks go in the block baskets, trains in the train basket, costumes in the costume basket, etc., and everything gets put in it’s place by the end of the day.

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  • Make a habit of getting rid of toys before you get new ones. Prior to the holidays, I have my kids go through their toys and give something away before they get new ones. Be an example to them by doing the same with your own stuff. Kids don’t need a pile of toys to play! You’re not neglecting them if your house doesn’t look like Disneyland. You’re not abusing them by saying no. Kids play, whether they have toys or not. They play with each other. They play with sticks, and mud, and chairs, and pillows, and spiders, and the paper coffee cup you left sitting on the table. For an entire month, two of my kids played a daily game of “egg”, where one of them rolled in a blanket and pretended to be an egg, and the other sat on the egg until it hatched. As I type this they are attempting to learn how to fly by jumping off of chairs with blankets for capes, and feathers in their hands! If you find your child has difficulty playing independently for long amounts of time, try removing the vast majority of their toys and leaving only the most basic items until they re-learn how to focus. The greatest gift you we can give our children is the freedom to stretch their imaginations.

  • To give kids one place that is entirely under their control, you can make them each a “special box”. Kind of like a small treasure chest. In this, they can keep anything that is important to them, that they don’t wish to share. What a child keeps in their special box will change as they get older. The current contents of my sons’ is a perfect example of the fact that kids will play with anything: a plastic knife, a half-used pack of tissues, ten rocks, a pine cone, and a yo-yo.

  • Bedding…Not necessarily a problem in every home, but if you really need or want to save space, switching up your bedding solution is a great place to start! In many other cultures around the world, the bed is something that is laid out at night for sleeping, and put away during the day. This could be in the form of a fold-out futon, roll-away mats, etc. We opted for traditional japanese shikifutons, which we stack to make a sofa for daytime use. Our bedding we keep in a wardrobe. This solution means that the bedding for five people takes up precisely zero extra space during the day, versus “regular” beds, which would take up over 100 sq ft of space! That’s a lot of square footage just for sleeping. This solution was my husband’s idea, and I’ll be honest, it took a bit of convincing on my part at first. But now that we’ve made the switch, I find that I love the ritual of putting out and folding away our beds. It takes no more time than I would normally spend making beds, and there’s no underneath for random toys and dust bunnies to collect in! Not to mention that babies can’t roll out of beds that are on the floor.
  • Knick-knacks…
    Necessary? Hmmm. Personally I don’t like my space to look utilitarian, but beauty doesn’t have to be useless. Functionality can be gorgeous. Practicality can be sexy. In some cultures, empty spaces in your home are a sign of wealth. Find the beauty in emptiness. Make sure whatever decorations you choose really feed your soul.

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    • Sentimentality..
    Being emotionally attached to material objects just clogs up the creative pipes of your life, ending up owning you instead of you owning it. We give away our most valuable possession, time, just to obtain more stuff, which then clutters up the corners of our homes and our minds. Don’t hang onto stuff, just because it reminds you of something. The thing is not the memory. Snap a picture of your child’s artwork. Limit each family member to one “memory box”, and toss anything that doesn’t fit inside.
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    Happy downsizing, beautiful beings!

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