Intentionally Small Living: How Americans Are Embracing the Idea Living Small
(and How You Can Too)

The average American occupies more than 1,020 square feet of developed real estate, but many Americans are choosing to live differently—that is, choosing to live intentionally small (and it’s not just tiny house dwellers).

By: Beth Krietsch & Matilda Davies Small spaces
Photo by Naomi Hebert

Single-family home sizes in the United States reached a 2,661-square-foot peak in 2016, surpassing the pre-recession average size of 2,400. Since 1973, the average size of a single-family home has increased by 1,000 square feet, and the living size per person has nearly doubled. With an average household size of 2.54 people, the average American in 2018 occupies more than 1,020 square feet of house.

But for many, living small is an intentional act that comes along with many benefits, including time, mental and financial freedom, a reduced environmental footprint, and potentially closer relationships in the household.

What is intentionally small living?

There’s no formal definition for intentionally small living, nor are there specific guidelines for square footage, though generally in the US, a household that falls well below the threshold of 1,000 square feet per person would be considered “small living.” Intentionally small living is more about deliberately embracing the idea of intentionally small living with fewer things and/or less space.

From person to person and family to family, everyone’s definition of living small will be a bit different. The popularity of tiny homes and the movement of populations to urban areas are natural precursors to intentionally small living, but many in rural and suburban areas are choosing to live small for the freedom it affords.

Why live intentionally small?

And along with saving money on housing costs, the decision to live small often comes with increased feelings of freedom and happiness. With fewer belongings, there’s less stress over clutter, less time spent cleaning, and less money spent on household upkeep. Living small also comes a smaller environmental impact, as tiny spaces typically require fewer resources to build and maintain than do larger living spaces. You may also develop closer relationships with your household thanks to the close quarters.

Who lives intentionally small?

Kate Vives and her husband Kiku have been living small since 2009 when they moved into a 500-square-foot apartment outside of Barcelona, Spain. Kate says they stayed in the home for two years “in complete bliss,” living in the center of Tarragona just steps away from shops, restaurants, and bars, rarely accumulating any new belongings besides clothing.

Upon relocating to the US, Kate and Kiku wanted to continue to live small and settled on an 800-square-foot cottage in the Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh, North Carolina. They prioritized living small in town rather than finding a larger home farther away, moving in with just two suitcases each and no furniture.

Kate and Kiku Vives have been living small for nearly a decade now, having started in a 500-square-foot home in Barcelona and now 1,200 square feet in Raleigh, North Carolina

“Neither Kiku nor myself feel a strong need to accumulate ‘stuff’,” Kate says. “We both believe the accumulation of junk, which we consider objects that have no purpose to us or give us no visual pleasure, counters our happiness at home.”

Kate says storage is the biggest challenge, but can be addressed by maximizing the use of every storage space and belonging. Overall, it’s not challenging for them to live with less. In fact, Kate says it’s easier.

“In the end, I believe [living small] leaves you holding onto things that contribute to functionality of the household or happiness,” Kate says, adding that she believes it’s healthy to pare down belongings from time to time, though she understands the emotional pull of things. “Sometimes stirring up old memories is emotionally trying enough to make people avoid going through the process,” she says. “This is just one potential reason why accumulation may occur.”

The couple expects to continue living fairly small, though they no longer live in such a tiny space, having moved into a 1,200-square-foot home (which they now share with their two-year-old son). They enjoy the close proximity—it makes them closer as a family and also encourages time spent outside. “There may be less privacy,” Kate says, “but hopefully this generates more consideration for those you live with.”

Finding freedom in living small

Helen Marie Humphrey and her husband Jimmy embarked on a life of living small after realizing how much of their time was being occupied by household upkeep for their 1,400-square-foot home. Knowing they’d be content with a smaller space and fewer belongings, they decided to move into a 900-square-foot condo that wouldn’t demand as much indoor and outdoor upkeep.

 

Helen Marie and Jimmy Humphrey The North Carolina couple downsized from 1,400 to 900 square feet and found joy amidst fewer belongings and fewer chores

The move required some downsizing, but Helen Marie says she and Jimmy actually enjoyed the process of purging. They sold a number of things, taking joy in knowing that they wouldn’t need to move anything they sold or got rid of. They feel that they still have plenty of belongings, if not more than enough, and relish the freedom of fewer household tasks. Helen Marie encourages others to think about the amount of time they spend on household upkeep and to consider downsizing as a way of reclaiming that time. “We spend less time managing our space and our stuff, from mowing to dusting and everything in between,” she says. “Both my husband and I work full time and have benefited from curbing the required work time at home.”

Though the move was overall a positive one, the lifestyle change isn’t without its challenges, such as being able to host only a small number of guests at any given time.

“We like to entertain, but can only comfortably manage a couple of other people at once,” Helen Marie says. “This hasn’t been a huge change to our lifestyle, it’s just one of those things we sometimes miss being able to do.”

4 tips for living small

Living small can mean a drastic shift in lifestyle or just a few incremental changes along the way. Here are four tips to get you started.

1. Do your research, find a community, get inspired

There are plenty of resources for those who want to live intentionally small. Here are a few of our favorites.

Faircompanies.com

Kirsten Dirksen and her husband Nicolás Boullosa founded faircompanies.com, a site focused on simple living spaces. Prepare to get lost in their YouTube channel, where you can find tours of compact spaces all over the world. See how those who are living intentionally small make their spaces work for them.

Living with Less and Ending Up with More

We love Erin Boyle’s take on living small. Erin is the blogger behind Reading My Tea Leaves and lives small in New York City with her husband and two children. Her book, Living with Less and Ending Up with More, covers everything from decluttering to getting dressed to entertaining guests in a small space.

Living Small Blog

The Living Small blog features urban families of all sizes who are embracing small living with style and even luxury.

House Method: Small Spaces

Explore our articles on small spaces—from tiny house tours to making the most of small spaces, we’re always adding to our library of inspiration for intentionally small living.

2. You don’t have to give up your house to start living small

If you’re feeling completely daunted by the idea of on an intentionally small lifestyle, remember that living small can take all shapes. If you’re not ready to give up your square footage, start with trimming down your belongings. Your closet is usually the best place to start. Also take a look in your kitchen cabinets and drawers—these clutter hiders that often go overlooked.

If you are ready to take the leap in downsizing your square footage, then paring down is typically the first step. If you have children in the home, you may need to reconsider whether they’ll share rooms, but even this can be a great way to teach compromise.

3. Adopt an every item matters philosophy

When you’re living small, every item, every space, in your home matters. This includes everything from furniture and storage space to utensils and clothing. There are a number of methods for decluttering and downsizing your belongings. The KonMari Method is perhaps most in vogue right now, but it’s certainly not the only way. We also like this guide from Minimise with Me.

When you’re paring down on belongings, skip the dumpster as much as possible and opt for taking gently used items to donation centers local or non-profits, hosting a yard sale, or giving items away instead.

4. Make considerations for sound and privacy in your small space

If you have a number of people sharing a small space or if you’ve chosen an apartment or condo, noise can become an issue. To keep everyone peaceful and well-rested, consider using noise machines, white noise apps, or taking a few simple steps to soundproof your home.

It’s important that everyone in your intentionally small household has time for privacy and solitude. Create a quiet room or an outdoor space that can be used to get away from the rest of the house so those who need to can get some work done or just check out for a bit.


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