Is the joy of less stuff spreading?

New York Times essay about downsizing from a 3,600-square-foot house to a 420-square-foot studio is being widely emailed. But are people really living smaller?

By Teresa at MSN Real Estate Mar 11, 2013 11:46AM

File photo of Graham Hill (©Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)The most emailed story from The New York Times recently was not about world affairs or the latest pop-culture darling. It’s an essay titled "Living With Less. Much Less," in which TreeHugger and LifeEdited founder Graham Hill talks about his journey from a "giant house crammed with stuff" to a 420-square-foot studio apartment.

 

The essay struck a chord with many, ranging from downsizing empty-nesters to young people who are willing to live in smaller spaces if it means being in a desirable urban location. The recession has also brought involuntary downsizing for some.

 

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For Hill, who detailed his journey from a 3,600-square-foot home in Seattle to a 1,900-square-foot-loft in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood to his current cutting-edge tiny NYC studio, living with less was a choice, and one that he celebrates.

 

"Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me," Hill wrote.

He acknowledges that his story is not typical. Most of us don’t get a windfall from an Internet company, hire a personal shopper to furnish our homes or head off for months bopping around the world following true love and running companies out of a solar backpack.

 

But Hill is not alone in embracing smaller spaces and fewer things. The latest issue of Harvard Magazine profiles two couples who downsized and decluttered and are happier for it.

"It feels liberating to let go of all the material things that surrounded me," says Ronnie Mae Weiss, a Harvard administrator who moved with husband, Richard Sobol, into a townhouse half the size of their previous home. "I have more time and I feel freer to really focus on the more emotionally and spiritually satisfying parts of life."

 

Whether living in smaller spaces is really a significant trend is still to be determined. For every story of joy in smaller spaces, there is a contrasting story about families who want to build bigger.

 

The median size of a new single-family house built in the United States rose from 1,525 square feet in 1973 to 2,277 in 2007. It fell for a few years, to 2,135 in 2009, before rising to 2,169 in 2010, the last year for which figures are available. But those data don't take into account people who moved from a large existing home to a smaller one or from a house to a condo.

Some argue that it’s easier for a rich man to live with less stuff, because if he needs something he previously discarded, he can just go out and buy another one. A poorer person is less likely to get rid of things for fear he might need them again and not be able to afford them.

 

Most people also can’t afford the $365,000 it cost Hill to renovate his studio and build the multiuse furniture.

 

As Bob from Teaneck, N.J.,  who downsized after making  a career change, commented at The Times:

.. I sometimes chafe at the premise of articles like this one. For the 99%, "living small" is not so much a virtuous low-carbon lifestyle, as it a necessary survival skill. I cannot afford a customized SoHo apartment with a fold-down bed, not even at 400 square feet. My furniture comes from Ikea, and my basement regularly floods. …

What do you think? Are more Americans embracing minimalism, or are we just hearing more about the small number who do?

 
38Comments
May 11, 2013 5:51AM
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It's funny how people who live in ghettos call people who live in nicer houses "house poor." If small houses were so great rich people would be in them. Too much space is never a problem. Too little space is always a problem. Have a friend who lives in a less than 1000sq. ft. house. He just had two kids and refuses to move to an adequate sized place, because it will be paid off in less than 10 yrs. so now he has to build closets in his garage, because there's no room for his clothes. He can totally afford to move up, but he wants to be able to brag about a too small, paid off house. 
Apr 27, 2013 3:21AM
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My wife and I share a 400 sq ft cabin with our three cats. Not much room for more than essentials, but we like it that way. We have more time to be with each other. don't spend our free time dusting!

Apr 2, 2013 8:18AM
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This article is dead on. The reason why you hear things like this is because most people are living a life with no plan or vision. So life just "happens", things get acquired, and decisions get made. When you live life with a purpose and with a vision of what you want out of it... everything you acquire and every decision you make fits into the plan. It's something we've been sharing at http://www.Lifeonaire.com
Mar 23, 2013 7:15PM
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people buying, accumulating stuffs tend to be hoarders. i have observed this behavior among my relatives and friends. my younger brother with his tons of stuffs has to rent a storage, his apartment are full of stuffs, his wife who goes along with my brother's hoarding, living with their minor children. i am the opposite of my brother. i donate to salvation army or goodwill, if i find stuffs i have not used in 2-3 years, my husband is the same way. i have been a minimalist all my life, currently living in a 450 sq ft coop, with a second home 2300 sq ft, minimalist furnished, the opposite coast as an investment.
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I think as we grow older we find that we don't need all the "stuff" that we thought we needed. It seems to take years of living to realize what is really important. I'm now in my 70's and I have changed my attitude in just the last 10 years. One important thing that I would recommend to younger people is that "stuff" costs allot of money.  You would be surprised to see how much cheaper you can live without all that "stuff". I live in a 2000 square foot home and love it, but I don't fill it up with junk I don't need. The big downside to living in a small space, especially if you rent, is you don't have room to do much. Hobbies at home can fill your life with something you are interested in and may also make you money. Renting a small space and being subject to some landlord that can raise the rent on you is not for me . As I said living with less can save you lots of money. Do we really need 2 cars or more, motor homes and campers, expensive hobbies out of the home like boating, boats, motorcycles, golf, gambling, etc.,etc., etc. Think about what you spend money on every month, getting rid of some of it could save you hundreds each month. The people who run the big businesses in this country don't want you to think like that, they love to have you spend, spend, spend. Our government loves to have you work hard, hard, hard, spend, spend, spend  so they can tax,tax, tax. Think about this, its not so much what you make its how much you have to spend every month to exist.  Good Luck!!!!
Mar 23, 2013 5:12PM
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Folks are cracking me up with the bs idea that their stuff owns them.  It isn't the stuff it's your relationship with the stuff that is the problem.  My house is base camp for my life, not my life.  This house could burn to the ground and except for a few pictures, and other mementos I would be hard pressed a month from now to remember much of it.  I own this stuff not the other way around.  
Mar 23, 2013 5:10PM
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I downsized recently from 1700 SF to a 1000 SF house that was built in 1952. I got rid of a ton of stuff before I moved, and just today packed up 2 boxes of books to take to goodwill. I don't have a TV anymore, watching what little I'm interested in watching on the Internet or Netflix DVDs. The house I bought was a foreclosure, purchased for just 38K, and I put another 13K into it with a light bathroom remodel, refinishiing wood floors, etc. The kitchen is tiny but I still manage to cook pretty good meals in there.

 

I'm 48 and so I have a long time until I retire,but my downsizing is part of my retirement plan.  I picture myself gradually continuing to get rid of stuff. I think that once you've had it, and moved it and messed with it, and packed it, and dusted it and gave it away after paying a fortune for it, you just kind of figure out you really didn't need it or want it that badly. I'm not rich, but if there's something I really want, I'll get it. I just find myself not wanting much anymore.

Mar 23, 2013 4:57PM
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Not everyone's is the same.  I have a lot of stuff.  I have a 16000 sq ft house and everything that goes along with that. My family loves it, we appreciate the things I have worked very hard to get. Everything we have we use.  It isn't conspicuous consumption, as very few people know what we have.  What we have has absolutely nothing to do with who we are.  I am neither sinner or saint because of what I own.  It is stuff.  It isn't my beliefs, my passions, my strength or my weakness.  I don't feel the least bit compelled to apologize to anyone because of what I own, and I wouldn't judge anyone based on what they own.  
Mar 23, 2013 4:28PM
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Trying to impress others with a lot of stuff shows low self esteem. Others think about you much, much less time than than you think you do, and very, very few care what you think about them. 

 

It's a screwed up country where it's OK to build an ugly McMansion and drive a depreciating snobmobile, but it's considered impolite to mention your net worth during conversation at a family gathering, party, etc.

 

I'll take my little condo <1000 sq. ft, modest 6 y.o. car and LARGE asset account statements any day. 

Mar 23, 2013 4:17PM
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My family moved into our 31 foot travel trailer 5 years ago and have not had a single day of regret. We own everything outright, have no debt at all. We travel when we can as gas prices allow. Live in a very nice RV park year round, and have a very small carbon footprint compared to people who live in houses or apartments. We recycle everything we can, carefully manage our water, electric, and propane, and because our tow truck is diesel we can use old cooking oil when gas prices get too high.
Mar 23, 2013 4:12PM
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Maybe it's just me, but I find paring down and cleaning out cathartic. It seems that possessions are like water in that they take the shape of the vessel - our young family moved from a jam-packed 1,000 sqft townhome to a 2,000 sqft home 15 years ago; we rattled around in all the extra space for a few years, but the house seems to have filled up while we weren't looking. We're fortunate to have so much, but I do find that sometimes I long for those empty spaces.

Mar 23, 2013 3:48PM
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After many years and many moves ... I totally agree with the premise of fewer things, all that "stuff' becomes an oppressive burden and reducing it frees one up.  
However, sometimes we do not get to that point of "stuff-less" appreciation until we have acquired a lot of "stuff" and have felt its burden for years. Adding to the problem, most of us dread the prospect of having to dredge through all our long accumulated belongings and decide what has to go and what is worth keeping.  

In addition, when you have kids, the "stuff" really starts to accumulate big time.  Even though both my sons are in college, when the eldest came home last summer, he acted like he had found a gold mine of long forgotten goodies tucked away. He found numerous things he had told me previously he no longer needed, including his old nonworking computer - that suddenly became valuable treasures to him - as a result, out the window went my big plan to start discarding things in mass.

To complicate the process of discarding burdensome belongings ... what is valuable to us will change from year to year. There is nothing worse than tossing something out - only to realize a few years later, you really wish you had kept something irreplaceable.
Mar 23, 2013 3:33PM
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I hope so because people would be better off because it would help them live within their means.  Stuff is nice if you can afford it.   Marketing is just another word for brainwashing.  Nobody has to have it like they advertise.  Pick and choose wisely, then people would be better off.  Besides stuff doesn't make you any more happy. 
Mar 23, 2013 2:51PM
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I was just thinking the other day how much easier our lives would be if we got rid of some of the things that are crammed into a rather large house...and I couldn't decide just what it is I would want to part with. I grew up with more than enough, but lived "smaller" as a single mom for many years, smaller meaning nothing left in the bank after I paid the bills and put food (not enough for ME to eat every day)  on the table. Kept showing up for work with a smile on my face day after day and year after year and tried to learn everything I possibly could, which luckily for me was noticed and I worked my way up to a position where I could afford to live "larger." These days when I think I may actually stop working within the next 15-20 years, I think that may mean I will have to downsize, and I don't wanna!!!!! I like my stuff. I have a very full life, wonderful children of whom I am VERY proud, a very happy and loving relationship with my spouse, faith, a fabulous job that allows me the time to have a work/community involvement/life balance...we take great vacations every year and my favorite hobby is shopping, so I have stuff. I am the same person whether I have or do not have, I am just HAPPIER with my STUFF, and I would NOT call it materialistic. I HAVE my priorities straight. I just LIKE my stuff and I'm keepin' it! For now.
Mar 23, 2013 2:12PM
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I have all used furniture in my house except for the computer desk, one white swival chair, two telephone stands and a kitchen small stool.  When we go overseas, everything new and used goes.  Even the house!  Our 1,300 sq. ft. home paid off as is our car (which we will sell).  Everything overseas.  The only thing we will ship is a few household stuff, some clothing, a few books and our dog!
Mar 23, 2013 2:10PM
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Actually I'd prefer a lot more stuff.
Mar 23, 2013 2:02PM
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I have to admit that I was a happier in a small studio apartment in graduate school years ago than in a house where only three of the rooms are actually used... The rest of the rooms, which is most of the house, are not really used. I am planning an early retirement and in hindsight, I would never have bought all this "stuff" that I will now just give away. There is something to having the things you "need" and use versus having a lots of things that you don't need, don't use, and end up giving away. It is true that for most of us, having a lot of material things doesn't bring one happiness either; it is just stuff that is in the way.... There are other things far more important in life.
Mar 23, 2013 1:59PM
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George Carlin had a wonderful routine about stuff. The line I remember best is, "You don't own your stuff; your stuff owns you." I say that to myself every time I think about buying something. The other thing that helped me downsize is a garage sale I had a few years ago where I parted with things for pennies on the dollar. Now when I want to buy something, I ask myself how I will feel when I'm selling it for a quarter sometime in the future.
Mar 23, 2013 12:48PM
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After many trips to Jamaica, we realized friends, family and faith are the things we should place value on - not the stuff we have.  They taught us the most valuable lesson.  We downsized in 2009 from a 3800 sq foot home to 2200 duplex - no outside upkeep and so much less to do inside.  We lived a wonderful life - In 2012, my husband died of cancer and this home is perfect for one person.   I feel it was all part of God's plan - never did we miss one "thing" we got rid of in our downsizing.  Our life was so much simpler in our new home.   Realize stuff is not important before it's too late.
Mar 23, 2013 12:41PM
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Out of the nine rooms in the house we bought 6 years ago, we use three on a daily basis.  There's no time or need to use the others.  It's quite a waste of space and money...

 

Houses are getting to be like cars:  a huge expense for something you'll get a third of the use out of.

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