What It's Really Like to Downsize to 250 Square Feet

What It's Really Like to Downsize to 250 Square Feet

(Image credit: Ana Kamin)

I always considered myself to be non-materialistic—a simple girl who isn't wrapped up in the things she possesses. After all, it's only stuff, right? But then I downsized.

Apartments in Washington, D.C. are crazy expensive, and a handful of years ago, my husband and I needed to do something to get a bit of a break in our living expenses. For us, downsizing to a smaller place was the logical first step. So from 1,325 square feet to 875 square feet we went.

I was so ready. I trained like an athlete, reading every article and book I could get my hands on. I watched every TV show on the topic (even the hoarding shows—which I'm not a hoarder—at least, I think I'm not). I approached it feeling confident, secure, and ready to tackle the task with pure logic and reason.

But when I opened my closet to start, I felt an overwhelming panic that I was about to lose everything. You know all those TV shows where the people make downsizing look painless, even fun? That wasn't me. I had meltdowns and hyperventilated (which really made me question some things about myself).

But eventually I did it. It was a complete paradigm shift for sure and I realized there's something about the stuff we collect: We want it and don't want to part with it. But—if we're all being honest with ourselves—there's some stuff we insist on keeping that we never use, or even see for that matter. It stays tucked in a drawer or closet, never seeing the light of day. At least that is how it was for me.

After realizing this, I took the purging in stages and eventually found that everything I truly needed to own could fit in the back of a compact car. I realized my pots and pans, cutlery set, and coffee pot were things I actually needed… everything else was just fluff.

I did eventually miss some things, but they were few and far between—a couple of books that were special to me and my extremely cool (but quite large) coffee maker. But saying goodbye to these ultimately left me feeling freer and lighter; I hadn't realized how bogged down I was. It was a simpler life, and I learned to love it.

(Image credit: Nasozi Kakembo)

So I spent a couple of years in 875 square feet of bliss (and 875 square feet of stuff). But my three-hour commute to work in The District eventually started to wear on me. And I found the competitive, agenda-heavy environment I worked in started to feel like sandpaper against my more idealistic nature. I started having migraines, heartburn, insomnia, and anxiety. I wanted to help people, but I felt like a fish out of water.

So when my branch downsized and my position was cut, I took it as a sign. I did not pursue other offers in other agencies. Instead, my husband and I chose to walk away from the six figure income and go simple—or rather simpler. I knew that there had to be more to life than what I was experiencing—and I was right. So, we decided to go tiny. Really, really tiny, as in 250 square feet of tiny.

And thus Downsize 2.0 began.

Even though I had gone through it before, a downsizing of that magnitude really shocked my system. I was an anxiety-ridden mess for a small portion of it but, just like the first purging experience, once I got my sea legs it wasn't so bad.

Now, a little over five years after my 250-square-feet downsizing, I look around my tiny space and feel even more comfortable. Life feels so light now. The biggest lesson I learned, I believe, is that sometimes we have stuff, but sometimes our stuff has us. Downsizing allowed me to break free from all that and get back to the things that are really important. I feel free, content, and really truly happy. I have less, that's true, but I have so much more. Now I wouldn't have it any other way.

Now, without further ado, the four things I realized that made downsizing so much easier.

(Image credit: David Telford)

1. I had to accept that that all my stuff wasn't going with me.

A moment of silence, a good cry, an earth-shattering scream—all are acceptable when you are breaking up with your stuff. I went through every single one. I learned to not suppress my feelings and to instead experience them in the healthiest way possible. Doing this gave me some closure and allowed me to move on. (Full disclosure: Eating a cupcake or two here and there turned out to be pretty helpful, too… although I would have opted for an entire sheet cake if only I had room for the pan!)

(Image credit: Lauren Kolyn)

2. I did the obviousI purged.

All the "downsize experts" love to throw this term around, like it's totally easy: It isn't—not at first anyway. Once you get used to it, purging your things isn't so bad. It has become a regular part of my life. I do a purge when the seasons change and now it feels pretty good. That first time, though: That one's a doozy. I was physically ill, mostly because I love, no adore, my books but the only way they would fit in my new tiny space would be if we slept outside. I was semi-OK with that (for the sake of the books), but my husband said no way. So, some books had to go.

At first, I found I was trying to keep everything. Absolutely nothing was going in the donation pile. I realized this was a problem, so I developed my own system using these six questions. If I could honestly answer "yes" to all six, the item stayed. If I could answer "yes" to three or more, it went into the "under consideration" box. If I couldn't muster up at least three affirmatives, it had to go.

  1. Do I need it?
  2. Have I used it recently?
  3. Does it have more than one purpose?
  4. Am I willing to give up one thing to bring this in?
  5. Do I have room for it?
  6. Is it something I can live without?

Surprise: A lot of stuff didn't make the cut.

But another surprise: Another thing those experts don't tell you is that you can trade some of the things you love for more appropriate alternatives. I stumbled on that fact when I discovered I could keep my dining table if I also used it as workspace. Now not only do we have dinner on it, but I also work on it and I even use it as an extra counter when I'm baking bread.

I have also seen people use multifunctional furniture. The Murphy bed is a great one; it can be a desk or shelves when the bed is stowed. Compromise is the name of the game and it isn't nearly as painful as it sounds. I also really liked the fact that I got to shop for those new multipurpose items. It was a really good excuse for some retail therapy which definitely got me through my "difficult time."

(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

3. I had to decide what I really, truly, honestly could not live without.

I am pretty sentimental and tend to hang on to old photographs and family heirloom pieces. I had some pictures—OK, a LOT of pictures. I am in the process of scanning them and will put them on CDs for my kids. I'll give the hard copies to my daughter (then if she ever downsizes she can figure out what to do with them). Problem solved.

I realized that I tend to be very black and white, all or nothing, so I had to learn that downsizing doesn't have to mean giving up everything. It just means prioritizing and paring down. I found that I was actually able to more fully enjoy those things I kept because I was reminded of just how special and precious they were.

(Image credit: Adrienne Breaux)

4. I discovered that vertical storage and utilization of wasted space is a lifesaver.

When I was looking at where to put my stuff, I found I was looking "out" and ignoring the abundance of space that was "up." A small space means significantly less surface area, but it doesn't necessarily mean significantly less storage area. Vertical storage is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I started looking for "supermodel storage": Tall, thin, and lots of attitude. I have a few sassy pieces (like this sleek bookshelf and this functional tower). I've also found that stackable containers work incredibly well to pack in food in the pantry and fridge. It was a blast getting creative and starting to look at each blank space as an opportunity to personalize my tiny living area with storage solutions that are uniquely me.

(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)
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