Guest post from Suzi

I’ve noticed some of the “smaller living” posts on MoneySavingMom.com lately and wanted to share our story.

We are a homeschooling family of five (plus an 85 lb. German Shepherd) living in a 990 sq. ft. downtown Chicago loft. We relocated four years ago from a 2800 sq. ft. ranch home. Not only did we downsize our living space, but we’ve completely changed the way we now think about our home and what we actually need.

We knew that downsizing would take effort and careful consideration, but having lived it now for four years, we now know that we are a changed family.

Things we used to consider necessary or “worth holding onto,” we now think of in a completely different way. We’ve managed to shift our thinking and boil it down to a few key principles.

Our main philosophy is: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” – William Morris.

Our family’s key principles to living small:

1. Purge everything you don’t need before you attempt to organize your space.

Purge on a regular basis — especially if you are in a purging mood. I get rid of a lot of “stuff” and I can’t say there is one thing I miss or have needed after the purging it. Shocker alert – I even got rid of my crock pot last year because I realized the few things I did use it for, I could make on the stove top!

Be super selective about what you keep and pare down to the absolute minimum. I promise that if at first this seems difficult, you will be so glad you did in the long run. Living with less means less to organize in the future, less to keep clean, less to FIND A PLACE FOR and with all the LESS in your life, you’ll have so much more time for other, MORE important things!

You’re not going to hurt anyone’s feeling if you get rid of something. The card someone sent you last year was thoughtful and meaningful and how nice of that person to think of you. However, in short, it’s paper. Which in turn becomes piles and boxes of paper.

Keep things that are most meaningful, don’t keep everything anyone has ever given to you. We have a “keep box” that is in actuality a drawer. Things that we find meaningful, kids art, notes, and special cards, go into this drawer. At the end of each year we sit down and go through what is inside. We again, revisit each item and purge yet again. The most important items, we place in a large ziptop bag, label it with the year and place it with previous year collections in a bankers box). This helps us not only stay organized but to save what is truly meaningful to our family.

If you buy a new items, commit to getting rid of an old one. We have a pretty bare bone approach to the items we do have. Take the kitchen as an example. We have one spatula, two serving spoons, one set of measuring cups, one set of pots and pans, etc.

I truly ask myself, when do I use this? If it’s a cake pan I use once a year, I likely don’t need it. If, for some reason something breaks, then I can go buy a new one and have a reason to get rid of the item I’m replacing. It’s amazing what spacious kitchen cabinets can do for mood and organization.

Consider not having so many knick-knacks in your home. For us, these are not something we consider useful in our home. Because we don’t have a lot of space to put things, like shelves or nooks, we’ve decided to not have many knick-knacks. They need a place, they need to be dusted regularly, and they don’t always go well with three little ones running around!

2. Make sure your efforts are sustainable.

This seems like an easy solution, but it really is a tough one. It’s tough to get in the habit of keeping something organized that you spent so much time organizing in the first place!

When we organize something, we think about it long term and ask ourselves, is this really an easy and effective way to store something. Will it be easy to put “away” and is it accessible and sustainable? Over the years, we’ve tweaked and made adjustments to areas that were not sustainable and after constant effort, we’ve (for the most part) got it down. The best advice here is stick with it. There is a proper place for everything. Which brings me to my next point…

You don’t need to buy all kinds of fancy organizing “equipment” in order to get organized. If you don’t already have a place or location for something, you might not need it in the first place. Use the space you currently have and work with it. No need to add more stuff to hold all your stuff!

Always take the time to put things away, BEFORE doing anything else. Now, I know as a parent, this one is easy to overlook, but I promise it’s completely doable (even with crying kids at the door, or tantrums in the car making it so you can’t even get in the door)! Been there, done that too.

When it’s 6:00, you’re just walking in the door from hours of kids’ activities or work, you have three little ones that are hungry, cranky and need dinner and baths, it’s super easy to throw down your jackets, shoes, bags, etc. and make a beeline for the kitchen to get the train moving just so you can have some peace and quiet, STAT! However, if you just take the extra 1-2 minutes to hang up the coats, ask the kids to put their shoes away and unpack bags, it prevents a few things from happening.

It prevents you from having a “catch all” area that contributes to frustration and disorganization later.

It prevents YOU from having to go back and do it later, when all you really want to do it sit down and relax for the first time today.

It’s a missed opportunity to show your children an easy way to take responsibility for their belongings and where they should properly be put away when they are finished with them.

3. Be prepared to put forth consistent and continued effort.

It takes constant effort from everyone in the family to assess and reassess their belongings on a regular basis. It takes teamwork and a shared philosophy that together WE can make this work and, therefore, we can enjoy the small, shared space that much more!

We consistently go through things, talk about them, discuss them and make decisions on them. Our children know that 990 sq. ft. can only hold so much, and over the years they’ve become quite the critical thinkers. They ask themselves the questions that my husband and I ask ourselves when it comes to our things. They make difficult decisions and are not only gaining reasoning skills, but learning that “stuff” is exactly that…it’s stuff. And what is truly important in life is not stuff.

This is an invaluable lesson that I did not foresee when we downsized, but one that I am truly thankful for.

4. Get creative!

Play the room switcheroo game. We’ve given our kids the Master Bedroom! It’s true…we gave the kids the room with two closets and the most space. We took the room with ZERO closets and about 12 inches on each side of our queen size bed. It’s crazy, but it works. We figure the kids need the most space and all we do is essentially sleep in our room. So, our girls have the larger room and it works out just perfectly.

Use vertical space. Granted, we live in a loft with 15 ft ceilings, but we utilize the upward space as much as possible. Because we are in a loft, all of our walls are “soft” walls. They only go up about 8 ft. The rest is wide open. However, the only room that is enclosed is our bathroom.

We’ve gotten creative by adding “floor boards” to the top of the bathroom and stacking our bankers boxes that house things like seasonal items, our wedding dishes or those ever important “keep items” that we purge each year.

We’ve also added boards above the girls closets and used the space above to store off season kids’ clothing and items. It works like a charm and looks pretty decent too.

Take off the doors and who said you had to put clothes in closets? We found that in our small space, the bi-fold doors weren’t doing us any favors, we decided to remove all of the bi-fold closet doors (there are only 3 closets, two of which are in the girls room) and add curtains instead. It opens up the space quite a bit and allows easier access for the kids. In the kids closets we’ve designated 1 for toys and the other for books.

So, where do we put their clothes? We opted to use a slender IKEA wardrobe in their room. It takes up less space, blends in, and allows us a place for everything for all 3 kids!

Create a space for everything. One of our highly coveted closet spaces houses ALL of our toys. Everything has a place and is organized with photos so there’s no confusion on where things “live.” The small closet holds our play kitchen, all of our board games and countless buckets of toys, all labeled with photos and sorted by type. It seems a little crazy but it works for us and my kids like that clean up is a breeze.

When we organize, we make sure all things have a home. But some things have unexpected homes. For example, my make up and hair things that you’d find in a bathroom are in boxes below our TV cabinet (because our bathroom is way too small!) I have a small folding mirror that lives there too and I get ready there each morning.

Another “secret” spot is where I homeschool. ALL of my teaching supplies are housed in the cabinets next to our dining room table. They are all hidden so we don’t “live” in the classroom. (We’ve also painted the cabinet doors with magnetic/chalk paint so I can teach here everyday and then close it up at night and have our house back)! Win-win. Seems strange, but again, find what works with what you already have and embrace it!

In closing, I should say that small living is likely not for everyone. And sure, there are days when I think about our old basement that housed so much of our past “stuff!” However, after living small, teaching small, and embracing small, I have absolutely fallen in love with small!

I find joy in the fact that I can plug my vacuum in to an outlet in the center of our loft and vacuum the entire house. I find peace in knowing that I only have one bathroom to clean, and I find excitement in the fact that staying organized and living tiny allows our family so much more time to do the things we want to do…that are fun!

Suzi is a former elementary school teacher turned SAHHM (stay at home homeschooling mom) to three fantastic girls ages 8, 6 and 4. She is extremely lucky to have a wonderful husband that supports her and is just as crazy about organization as she is. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with her kids, running, enjoying the city of Chicago and taking way too many pictures.


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