As I write this, I’m sitting on a couch in the office area of our master bedroom, overlooking unfinished floors, narrow-but-necessary wardrobes (no closets here), and windows peeking out at the backyard where I can see my neighbor’s backyards just as well as my own.
For an American family of five in the 21st century, we live in a relatively small house: just under 1,400 square feet. A fixer-upper to the Nth degree, Kyle is in the process of renovating the entire thing literally by himself (he’s yet to hire a subcontractor or labor). Except for how slow it’s going, we both love that he’s doing it himself.
But I don’t think he would necessarily want to renovate it completely free-solo if it were any larger — I can’t even imagine the time it would take if we had a second floor, or several more bedrooms, or an extra living room.
Last week, Haley wrote a Twitter thread on the benefits of small-space living, and I made this little comment:
It got me to thinking about a statistic I found while doing research for my first book (now a decade old!): the average American family in 1950 had considerably more people than today’s families, yet the average home size in 1950 was 983 square feet. In 2004, the average was 2,349 square feet, almost 900 square feet per person for today’s average families of 2.62 people.
Somehow, we’ve bought into this idea culturally that we “need” a lot of space. But friends, there are genuine benefits to living in a small space. Here are my favorite reasons.
1. We have less to maintain.
Because we have limited space, we don’t have room for much stuff. I was already a fan of having only what we needed before moving here, but the size of this place officially requires it.
The kids each have their own room (it’s surprisingly a four-bedroom, thanks to Kyle’s skills), but they all each fit basically a bed, somewhere to put clothes (wardrobes or dressers), a desk, and a small nook for personal items. That’s it.
We have zero space for extra tchotchkes, collections of things that don’t also serve a purpose, or closet or shelf space for anything beyond the essentials. And I love it.
Yes, there are challenges, and sometimes it feels like one of those handheld puzzle games where you move the square tiles — shifting stuff from one place to the next to figure out where everything should go (especially during this renovation stage). But I’d still rather deal with that over filling extra rooms with things just because we have the square footage. I love looking around and knowing that everything is necessary and needs to be here.
2. It’s easier to clean.
Sure, smaller spaces look messy faster — leave a small pile of books and clothes in our living room, and it instantly looks disheveled. But the flip side of that coin? It doesn’t take long to straighten things up, because you can’t let things go more than a day.
We’re decidedly NOT perfect at this (our kids are very normal kids in this department), but when we’ve got a rhythm of quick daily pick-ups and regular chores, it doesn’t take much for our entire home to feel mostly clean.
And as I said on Twitter, I don’t love to clean, but I love living in a clean space:
If we lived in a larger house, I’d feel beholden to the house, having to spend more time maintaining and managing it. I’d rather spend more of my time living here.
3. We’ve got lower utility costs.
Because we’re heating and cooling a smaller house, as well as all the other utilities that come with homeownership — water, gas, and the like — our bills are considerably lower than they’d be with more square footage to maintain.
This is a huge one for me. Any time we’re at a friend’s large house, my mind starts watching the dollar bills rack up just to cool off the space. I’d rather spend our money on other things.
4. We’re forced to spend more time together.
This has its challenges, of course; there are times when I wish we had more space for us to retreat to our own private corners. It can also get really loud, simply because there’s really no room where kids and their friends can hang out together behind a closed door to be loud. It’s either outside, or right in our living room.
But here’s what’s wild: even with their own small bedrooms, the kids spend most of their waking hours together, out in our main living space. They do their homework together in the shared space, even though they have desks in their rooms. They read books out in the open, next to each other. When one of us is cooking a meal, we can chat with whoever’s in the living room just a few feet away.
I’m an introvert, so yes, by the end of the day I am DONE and need everyone to stop talking. I’m very grateful for the doors on our rooms. But I also know that I’ll look back and be glad we spent so much time together during these formative years. There are very few spaces here to run off and hide, and that’s mostly a good thing.
5. We theoretically could be here the rest of our lives.
Kyle and I are in our early 40s, and in our adult lives we’ve also never lived anywhere longer than three years, so it’s strange I even think about this. But technically, this is a great house for our older years.
Because there’s less square footage to maintain, we’ll never have much space to accumulate stuff. It doesn’t take long to clean the place. It’s a very easy house to navigate (from the outside, it’s literally one long rectangle; no weird angles or nooks). And heck, there’s no second floor, which isn’t a big deal now (sometimes I wish we had one), but it means we’d never have to mess with stairs if we’re here in our senior years.
I have no idea if we’ll keep this house that long — knowing us, if we did I doubt it’s because we’ve lived only here for another fifty years (just ask me about the list of countries where we still want to live). But there’s a strange amount of comfort in the idea of holding onto this house, knowing we could come back here and keep this as our home base.
After packing and unpacking 28 times to move in our adult years (I counted!), I love, love, love the idea of not moving again, at least substantially or permanently with our stuff. Spending a year here or three living in France, Thailand, New Zealand, or Costa Rica? Sign me up.
But I’ll be happy to come back home, here, in our tiny little cottage, and sit on our small front porch as we wave to neighbors walking by. Just like we do right now.
Yes, there are benefits to living in a larger space, and I think families need to do what’s best for them; living in a small house doesn’t make me a better person. But perhaps this is an encouragement if you find yourself wishing you had more square footage: there’s a silver lining to having less space than what’s considered “normal.” I’m choosing to lean into those benefits and enjoy them.
p.s. Nicole felt the same way and wrote about it a few years ago.
• Listen to the podcast episode about this post.