The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

How to Live Small and Still be Happy

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Suppose you’ve been reading all these ideas on this blog about mixed use developments and public transportation and inner city living, and you finally feel like giving it a shot. I bet the first thing that stops you is the cost. You think you couldn’t possibly afford to live in one of those fancy downtown condos, and that’s the only way to live in the city. Plus, you couldn’t fit your whole life—kids, dog, etc.—in one of those anyway, even if you could afford the cost. Well I think you’re wrong. In fact, I know you’re wrong.

What follows are a series of questions to ask yourself before you say that city living is not for you. They’re also a great set of questions to ask yourself if you’re just trying to save some money, no matter where you live. This is about downsizing without losing your sanity or your happiness. I know it’s possible because I’m living it right now.

I currently live in a small (I would guess between 400-600 sq ft) apartment near downtown Milwaukee with my partner. It’s a 1 bedroom with a tiny bathroom, a tiny kitchen, a tiny dining room, and a tiny living room. Inside that apartment, we fit two peoples’ stuff, a cat, and plenty of fun gatherings with friends and family. We love it. And it is 100% within the price range of two young people not making very much money.

Here are some questions we asked ourselves to help us find our current downtown apartment in an affordable way (and the photos to prove it). I hope that considering them helps you recognize that you can live small and still be happy.

How many rooms do you need?

This is a good place to start. Most people, when they’re house hunting especially, have an idea in mind of how many rooms they need: One master bedroom, one office, one guest room, and so on. If you’re serious about wanting to live in the city (and I can’t recommend it highly enough), I would encourage you to think in terms of what needs to be accomplished in your home before you think about how many rooms you need to do those things. Is your house primarily a place where you eat, sleep and cook? If so, you might not need a bedroom at all, and you could get by with a studio apartment, but having a nicer kitchen might be a priority. Is your house a place where a two-year-old girl, a dad and a home office need to coexist? If so, you might need a bedroom for the child, but maybe the adult could put his bed and his office in the same room.

There are so many creative ways to make all your household uses fit in a small space. In our apartment, we have just one small bedroom. In my dream world, I would definitely like another bedroom to use as an office/guest room, but for now, my little writing desk fits just fine in the corner of the living room, and our guests are okay sleeping on the couch in the living room (see above photo). I recently saw some photos of an apartment in Vancouver where a couple living in a one-bedroom unit had recently had a child and ended up installing a Murphy bed in their living room so that they could sleep there and the kid could have the bedroom. The sky’s the limit.

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Our (somewhat) organized closet

How much storage do you need?

Ditch the stuff you don’t truly need on a frequent basis or put it in a basement, on a high shelf, or somewhere far away. We’re lucky that our apartment has a surprising amount of storage for its size (3 large closets, plus a glass cabinet in the dining room, and lots of additional cabinets in the kitchen). Nonetheless, our space has still required us to think strategically about where to put everything and what to get rid of. My clothes are in one closet in the bedroom, and my boyfriend’s are in the living room closet, along with linens, out-of-season clothes, and tools. Our hall closet has all our cleaning supplies, suitcases and the cat’s litterbox. Anything we don’t need on a regular basis can be put on higher shelves, or into boxes stacked on the floor.

Think about what you use on a daily or weekly basis and get rid of or stash everything else so it doesn’t clutter your life, leading you to think that you need more space. Prioritize space for people, not possessions. This is one of the biggest steps you can take to make downtown living possible.

Do you really need a microwave/toaster/full-size fridge/dishwasher, etc.?

Nine months ago, when we moved into this apartment, we realized we wouldn’t have the space for a microwave, and we didn’t want to spend our money on one either. At first, I thought living without a microwave would be a big hassle, but in just a few short months, I completely adjusted to it. The vast majority of items you would normally pop in the microwave can just as easily be cooked on a stovetop or in an oven, and often they taste better that way anyway. At this point, I may never go back to microwave ownership. Our apartment also lacks a dishwasher or toaster, but we’ve made due, and as a result, we have more space in our kitchen to actually cook. If you’ve got three kids under the age of seven, maybe a dishwasher would be a gift for your sanity. But if you have just one kid, or none, I bet you can get by without. Same goes for the toaster and microwave. Would you rather have these electronics cluttering up your space, or more room to live the life you want in a lively neighborhood?

A 15 minute jog from my house, this is so much better than any backyard.

A 15 minute jog from my house, this is so much better than any backyard.

Do you really need a yard?

There are so many alternatives to having a personal, private yard. If you’re craving a place to grill out and sunbathe, find an apartment with a balcony. Or even cheaper, just head to the nearest park. You might even make some new friends in the process, and it’s guaranteed to be good people watching. If it’s gardening space you’re after, consider getting a plot in a community garden, or asking a friend if you can plant at her house, or planting some window boxes. These options might require you to think a bit more creatively than if you had a huge open yard, but on the other hand, it means prioritizing what you grow and not having to worry about caring for an entire yard. Apartment buildings also sometimes allow their tenants to plant in communal spaces. It never hurts to ask. If you need space for a dog to roam around, think about carving out more time in your day to run home and take your pet for a walk. If you live in an inner city area, you’ll most likely end up having a much shorter commute, making this a reasonably feasible suggestion. Of course, there are serious benefits to not having as much outdoor space. For most apartments (and even some rental houses), it means less yard work, mowing, raking and shoveling snow!

Do you really need a car (and accompanying garage/parking space)?

I explored my own decision not to buy a car (in spite of living in a city where the majority of people insist they have to own cars to get around) in this post, so I won’t repeat everything. Of course, not having a car will save you tons of money, but it’s also an important option to consider if you choose to live in the city. First of all, inner city apartments or houses are usually located close to more transit lines than the rest of the area, so it’s doable to take public transit. Second, having a car in the city can often end up costing more and taking up more space, because downtown apartments usually don’t have parking, or require additional fees for parking. If you’re addicted to your car, you can keep one in the city, but you might consider downsizing to just one vehicle if you live in a two or three person household.

So many people can’t seem to fathom how they would live a car-free life and still be happy, but I’m here to tell you, I’ve made it work for me and my life is better for it. It is not a punishment, it is a liberation. I don’t come home every day stressed out from sitting in traffic; I come home refreshed because I spent 20 minutes decompressing on the bus reading a good book. I don’t avoid an event downtown because I’m worried I might not find a parking spot or I might have to spend $15 on one; I just hop on the bus fifteen minutes before the event and I’m there. I don’t insist on going to the gym five times a week to get my exercise in; I spend my days walking and get some of that exercise naturally.

So now you have a few questions to ask yourself and the other people you live with. Even if you’re not contemplating a move to the inner city, these are questions that might help you save money and spend it on things that matter more than a microwave. Happy house hunting!

Here are a couple of my favorite blogs that talk about how to live small and be happy:

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2 thoughts on “How to Live Small and Still be Happy

  1. Nice! Thanks for all the good thoughts Rach.

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  2. We live in a small cottage on a farm. The one thing we really wanted was a yard, so it worked out perfectly for us, a smaller space, that my hoarder man couldn’t clutter up, by just saying he can put it away. Limited space has helped him let go of sooooo much crap.

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