Years ago I was in the market for a new house. I was looking on realtor.com and made sure to check the little box so that the system would show me houses for sale that were at least 1,000 square feet or larger. “You just can’t really live in a house much smaller than that” I said to myself. And at that time, I would have argued the point.
Fast forward to the fall of 2014 and my Austrian husband and I were moving into a tiny house of 125 sq ft. We lived in our cozy little home for years and loved it fiercely. But how did I get from there to here? And what did I learn in the process?
What could any person stand to learn from the tiny house movement or, for that matter, my own Mennonite heritage of simple living?
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In the fall of that year, my husband and I were exhausted. We lived in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, and we owned a storefront in the charming town of Staunton, Virginia. It was picturesque, there was a brewery across the street and plenty of parking. It was the perfect spot for a casual gourmet restaurant with old world charm and great food. We began dreaming and planning for our new business venture.
We renovated the building to include a professional kitchen and bathrooms to meet code. We moved in our antiques and collected Thonet chairs from all over. We purchased a beautiful Steinway Concert Grand and hosted dinner concerts. We developed a great wine list. It was a magical place and we were living the dream. We had a strong sense of accomplishment and gratitude for that magical place and the people we were able to bless.
Unfortunately… it was taking us apart at the seams. We were in the ER a number of times when my Austrian was having chest pains. I was showing signs of advanced adrenal fatigue. We were frazzled and no matter what we did – we couldn’t seem to get out in front of the demands on our time and resources. We needed to take a long view, power through, and hope our bodies held up under the strain – or find a different way to live.
We talked about it. We weighed the dreams and hopes we had – against what was happening to us emotionally, financially, and physically. We put the restaurant on the market and it quickly sold to a disrespectful young hot-shot chef. We were officially retired restaurant owners. Honestly, it didn’t feel like retirement. It felt like the death of a dream. I was exhausted and a little sore around the edges. We both were.
In August we visited a couple who were reluctantly parting with their tiny home on wheels. We had an appointment to see it at 3:00 pm, and we knew another person was coming at 5:00 pm. We walked around it inside and out. I looked up at him and whispered: “Can we really live this way?” He just pulled me close and held me tight. We didn’t negotiate the price, we simply bought it. And just like that we were tiny house people. That fast. Heads and hearts a-whirl… away we went with our new home.
We parked the house in the driveway and I got busy with paint, textiles, and flooring. A week or so later it was super cute and cozy and packed with our favorite things.
I was an art gallery owner and a professional artist for many years. He is a pipe organ builder and had at least one (or more) of every useful tool and a hardware store’s worth of miscellany. We were retired restaurant owners with a collection of kitchen gear that would have made Martha Stewart nod knowingly. I wonder if Marie Kondo ever faced a mountain of belongings as big as ours. We sold things at yard sales, gave things to anyone who even feigned interest, and donated truckloads of stuff, and put the rest in storage. Our piano would keep. Nanny’s china would keep. Our collection of art and instruments would all keep. And what I didn’t know what to do with, I just stuffed in storage around our musical instruments. (BTW – that last part? Don’t do that.)
We parked in an industrial complex until someone complained. Then we moved to a friend’s property on the outskirts of town. We knew there was going to be a meeting of their Neighborhood Association on the 19th of May. We moved our house out on May 1st.
One winter we lived on a south facing hill with an amazing view and birds that flocked to our feeders. Even in the dead of winter, temperatures would climb to very comfortable weather in the middle of the day and I opened all the windows and enjoyed the fresh air and the sounds of the wildlife. Then our neighbor got chickens and told us that they would be “free range” and if our dog tasted one he would see that she was killed… so we moved.
Later we parked at a dairy farm and helped out with the chores now and then and sat under the stars around a roaring camp fire and told stories.
We also lived on a property owned by a little old lady who had been moved to a nursing home. We were there to keep an eye on the place but unfortunately the trespassing neighbors were hunting and doing target practice right by our house. There were times that I was absolutely terrified and when we called the sheriff, they declined to even send a deputy. There were vividly wonderful highlights of our life in a tiny house. There were also some scary times. One of the perks of living in a tiny house is that when you discover a bad neighbor, you can just move.
Living in a tiny house was life-changing. Our house was mortgage free and our electricity bill was sometimes just $15 a month. Our whole home could be plugged into a common 15 amp household outlet. We had no mortgage, no automotive or credit card debt. Imagine your life with a fraction of the bills you now have. Now imagine living that way for one year… three years… how about five years? What would be possible for you that is not possible today? What causes could you support? Who would you bless? What business or ministry would you start? What book would you write?
Each morning we sat together at our little table. He drank his coffee and I drank my hot tea from delicate china cups. We often enjoyed a pastry from our favorite Spanish bakery. We ate from china with beautiful mismatched silverware. We cooked great food on our little propane stove. We enjoyed fish steamed on spicy rice and topped with sauteed vegetables. We baked fresh bread, and delicate pavlova with whipped cream and fresh berries. We made pizza on the grill. We baked cookies six at a time and kept the rest of the dough in the freezer. We ate a chicken with our dog on the banquet seat right beside me snarfing up every bite we handed to her. We savored the flavors and enjoyed each other. We were close. We were healing. We watched the stars from our pillows from the windows along our bed and listened to the night noises. We woke up in a burrito of warmth, no matter the temperature outside. Our little dog learned to sleep under the covers when it got cold. We embraced simplicity. It felt good.
In time we were ready to venture back out into the world, but on our own terms. We took on some interesting contracts in our pipe organ business, but only with clients we liked. We were choosy, because we could be.
The transition to tiny wasn’t an easy one, but I found that when I quit fighting my internal sense of lack, or when I quit fighting the confining nature of the too-small space – and instead embraced purposeful simplicity… the difference was like night and day. Small simple things brought us great joy.
We met friends for lunch and enjoyed a lovely meal and talked about all sorts of things, and pushed our work to another day – because we could. We got to do some volunteer work for causes that matter to us. We donated valuables to charities that matter. We got to help clear a way when a tree fell over in a storm. When a friend landed in the ditch, my Austrian was able to go help him out. We lived slower and helped out more. We needed less and made less money. There was a lot less rushing and much more open mental space. In fact, that’s the true gift of simplicity. It makes space. Minimizing the mundane things in our lives has a funny way of making space for purpose. For meaning. For great big dreams.
I know it is starting to sound like we were on one big vacation. There were points along the way when we really did vacation, but for the most part the pace changed but our lives went on. He still built and restored pipe organs. I took some time to reengage with various writing projects.
I’d like to say that our tiny house made my dream of becoming a published author come true – but that’s not quite accurate. A tiny house doesn’t have the power to change your life. I’m sure there is someone somewhere who can go tiny without the experience changing them at all. As a friend and fellow tiny-lifer would say “That would be tragic!”. Truth is, the lessons we learned and the freedom we gained aren’t based on square footage – they are based on three guiding principles.
The first principle: Pay As You Go. That’s the way Helen and Scott Nearing expressed it. They were pioneers of the simple living movement (1950’s through the end of their lives in the 80’s). I’m sure Dave Ramsey would use different language – but the principle is the same. Live in the home you can pay for up front and enjoy life mortgage free. This is the single most liberating aspect of going tiny. If that means putting your treasures in storage and living in your car, fine. If that’s a Sprinter van, that’s great. If that’s an RV, fine. If that’s a big house on the golf course, fine. This doesn’t mean you won’t go into debt to buy a house ever, it just means that while you are hitting the reset button on your life, getting out of debt is a key to maximizing your freedom.
I know how crazy it sounds – and the “can’t live in less than 1,000 sq ft” version of me also thinks this is crazy and she’s right. But the tiny house version of me knows I’ve lived it and came out the better for it. The tiny house version of me will never go back. I’ve gained too much to ever go back to “normal”. (I was never normal anyway.)
People all over the country (and world) are doing the very same thing. In many places, folks are still living tiny. It’s hardly a trend. It’s only “revolutionary” to those of us who have had way too much and felt the burden of all that stuff. Thousands of people are embracing simplicity. This is no longer a movement. It’s very much main stream! It is fun to watch tiny house and skoolie blogs and youtube videos – and now there are so many that you can find any information on how to create anything. However, just because it seems like everyone is doing it is not really a reason to go tiny. People are simply more empowered to imagine their lives without a mortgage. Perhaps qualifying for a mortgage isn’t a possibility so going tiny becomes the way to work around that. Both the idea of a mortgage free life and the reality of that life are absolutely liberating. And since I have found this so profoundly helpful, I’m happy to recommend this principle to you.
Is it really a sacrifice if you get to see your dream come true? If tiny living opens up space for you to live your dream life – is it still a sacrifice? Looking back on the last five years from the standpoint of being a published author – my answer is crystal clear. None of this… not a single one of those micro 125 sq ft was a sacrifice for me. I’m not saying that it didn’t feel sacrificial at times. I’m just saying that as I know my life now – none of that was a sacrifice. Feelings of sacrifice are just that – feelings. Fleeting feelings. The truth of being liberated from the gerbil’s wheel to live a simple life is far more than a fleeting emotion. That’s sink-your-teeth-in-deep level truth. That’s change you’ll feel.
In the last five years, so many people have put wheels under their dreams. People are out there living in cars, vans, buses, RV’s, and tiny houses – and we even come across an Airstream here and there. There is no wrong way to go tiny – home is where you park it. You can always trade out to a larger or higher quality home, but amazing financial freedom comes not from the small space – but from having zero mortgage.
When every last dollar coming in isn’t desperately needed to keep mundane things afloat, space opens up in your life. It’s space you’ve wanted all your life. You’ve seen needs that you wished you could meet, but you were snowed under. You saw causes that mattered to you that you wished you could support… but your money situation was constrictive. Here’s your chance. That generosity of your spirit that you wished you could honor is within your reach. The best part about this, and a little secret of a beautiful life, is that generosity is absolutely joyful. I don’t mean arrogance because you’re rich and so you can give things in order to get what you want in return. Nope. I’m talking about going through life in a posture of listening, and very quietly and gently working little tiny miracles here and there. Giving gifts, stepping in, lending a hand. And friend, you don’t have to be rich to make that happen. Generosity is absolutely exhilarating. It can also be awkward and weird, but those feelings are temporary.
There is little in this life that is as much fun a seeing a need and quietly working to meet that need with zero publicity. Only you need know the trail of good you leave in your wake. God knows, and that’s all that really matters. Going tiny can free you from a mortgage and make new levels of generosity possible for you.
The second principle: embrace simplicity. I really mean intentionally chase simplicity down and drag it home kicking and screaming… but I’ll be nice and just say “embrace simplicity” because it sounds kinder. What I mean is that you give intentional, specific time and focus to every mundane aspect of shelter, clothing, and transportation… long enough to discover your own way of minimizing and simplifying that aspect… then get rid of all the access. When you know your simplicity system, upgrade it to beautiful. Simplicity and beauty go hand in hand. I can’t say this strongly enough, because simplifying the mundane aspects of your life makes space for purpose and meaning. It is absolutely worth it to spend the time it takes working through the systems of your life in a systematic fashion to gain that level of freedom. I am absolutely flat out serious about this. This is not about sacrifice or payment for financial sins – real or imagined. It’s about gaining back your freedom. Freedom was yours all along, now it’s time to own it, instead of stuff owning you.
Embracing simplicity is preparation for Purpose. Full maxed out homes, schedules, and lives have no space to add one more thing. If you’ve got a big dream, a business idea or a ministry opportunity, you’ll need to start by trimming every branch on your life that isn’t bearing fruit. Start with shelter, clothing, and transportation. Live in a smaller house. Drive a simpler car (we’ve gone vintage). Own only the clothing you wear. If you are an entrepreneur, this is the first step in your new venture. If you are in ministry, embracing simplicity is the first step to fruitfulness. Simplicity is preparation for purpose and the best way to make space for your big dream.
We live in an incredibly wasteful society, and we’ve got crazy materialism angst and we really can be free of that exhausting mountain of schnitzel. When you live in purposeful simplicity, 95% of the marketing aimed at you will miss it’s mark. You’ll become impervious. You’ll hack life instead of having it hack you.
Values that inform Simplicity
Let me give you a feel for some of the values that informed the way we simplified things. Our entire tiny house was plugged into an ordinary 15 amp home outlet, so we learned power conservation skills very quickly. My Austrian hauled in all the water we used in our home, so we learned water conservation skills very quickly. We also discovered that disposables and single use items cause a huge trash problem in a tiny house very fast, not to mention the damage we are doing to the earth. So we embraced a low tech/low power, water conserving, and a more zero waste approach to simple living. That’s a lot of labels, but it translates into a lot of freedom! These became the values that informed our decisions on how we simplified our lives. And once we figured out those systems, we worked to also make them beautiful. This hand in hand cooperation of earth friendly, simple, and beautiful is a recipe for lasting and transformative change in how we live and what we require to live.
When I met my husband he had a fancy-schmancy coffee machine on his kitchen counter. If memory serves, it was one of the few things (besides car parts) that were in his kitchen at the time. I’m not a coffee drinker, so when I wanted to bring him a cup – there was a whole series of steps. And quite honestly – that machine was complex and made some crazy loud noises and I was a little bit scared of it. I did it wrong more times than right, and cleaning out the grounds was a real pain in the aspirin. Fast-forward to life in a tiny house where we didn’t have space or power for a coffee maker… he ultra-simplified his coffee routine by heating water in a whistling kettle, and pouring it over coffee grounds in the bottom of his cup. He allows the grounds to settle and drinks his coffee off the top and the grounds are left in the bottom of the cup. This is called “cupping” and coffee pros use this technique to test the flavor profile, roast and blend of a coffee product they are developing. So without realizing it, he had gone back to the way hard core coffee people enjoy the complex flavors of coffee. No Keurig coffee pods!! No coffee filter, no coffee maker… just coffee, a cup, and a whistling kettle. (I emphasize the whistling kettle part because more than once I have boiled a sauce pan dry because I walked away and forgot about it. Don’t do that.) When we moved into our 660 sq ft home studio, we upgraded the kettle to a beautiful copper one. That’s it. It still whistles. We didn’t go out and buy a coffee maker. He loves this beautiful simple system of making a cup of serious coffee-lover coffee. We aren’t going back to power hogging equipment and disposables. Not happening. Embracing beautiful simplicity has changed us. The system is squared away, the details are beautiful, and the routine is one of our lovely simple pleasures.
What systems can you detox and simplify? Imagine what space would open up in your life?
The third principle: Eat Well One of the first things that suffers when we are over-committed is our ability to eat well. We all know that convenience food isn’t good for us or the earth, yet events conspire to have us eating poor quality, easy, cheap food that is high in calories and low in nourishment. Yet, eating well is the highest form of self care. And the more we embrace self care – the less we need “health care”. (I have to put that in quotes because health care in the United States is no longer about doing no harm – it seems to be more about making sure no dollar is left behind.) The more we can stay out of the health care system by practicing great self care – the better.
In 2016, Lyndsey Matthews wrote an article for Country Living titled “I Thought I Wanted to live in a Tiny House – Until I Spent the Night in One” and one of her main points was that she loves to bake – and you can’t bake in a tiny house. Now listen carefully because this is important: Hogwash! All due respect, she’s absolutely wildlife-poo wrong on this one. Cold-and-broken-hallelujah wrong.
Maybe the tiny house she spent one single night in wasn’t great for baking, but that’s easy to change and it doesn’t even require a renovation project. Not a single whammer is required to fix this! No cra$h-boom-bang! Breville makes the Smart Oven Air – a counter top oven that makes baking (toasting, roasting, broiling, dehydrating, air frying, warming and reheating) in a small space a delight – including a convection oven feature, and even a “super convection” feature. What the heck is “super convection”?! #overachiever (And I’m not even a brand ambassador!) Honestly, I really love this oven because I can make yogurt in it! I gave away my dehydrator when we closed the restaurant and sometimes wished I had it. Now I can use the dehydrate function on this oven to make yogurt. It’s all the functionality in a fraction of the space – brilliant!
If you are planning to go off-grid, then a generator might be required to make this kind of practical magic work – but it’s still within the realm of fairly convenient possibility. And it’s far cheaper than purchasing a range! So don’t believe everything you read about small homes, of course you can cook and bake and have guests in a tiny house.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t readily apparent to us that we could cook great food in a tiny house. We didn’t have that oven when we first went tiny. At the beginning, we used the small kitchen as an excuse to eat out a lot. Unfortunately since we are both good cooks, we soon got sick of eating inferior food, plus it’s amazing how quickly health issues can pop up when eating common restaurant food. Chefs make fussy treat food – it’s delicious and amazing because it’s loaded with all the things you might not ordinarily put in your food – like loads of butter or bacon fat. Sometimes it’s cooked with products that make things easier for the chef – like Crisco and other toxic fats. If you fine dine too often – you’ll see the effects. If you go fast food to often – you’ll feel the effects. Either way, you are still the best judge of what is right for your body. Don’t leave that to a chef or a corporation. They will get it wrong. Cooking from scratch at home becomes your super power when it comes to health and wellness!
I think the act of cooking and baking in a small house has a way of concentrating both the efficiency of cooking and the delightful aspects of hand crafting beautiful fresh food into a lovely meal. All “The Joy of Cooking”, to coin a phrase, can only be intensified in a purposefully simple kitchen. This kind of cooking is not to be confused with making intricate restaurant food with lots of dishes and Pinterest product photography but rather – fresh authentic food, simply made, and simply plated. Cooking and baking are art forms, and one of the great pleasures of life right up there with sex and generosity, assuming you know how. Oops, did I just say that?
With all of our grand technology, we have managed to make food faster, but we have not managed to make food better. Processed foods have less nutritional value. Embracing simplicity means taking a hard look at the gear in our kitchens and finding the simplest solution that is light in weight (weight matters when you live on tires) and light on power consumption. That usually means a good cutting board and three really great knives: the Santoku knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife for bread and tomatoes and such. With these three knives and some good knife skills (look up Jamie Oliver’s knife skills on YouTube) you are your own food processor. A dishwasher (other than us) wasn’t an option in our case and I did not miss it. The only small appliance we kept in our kitchen was the blender. I have not figured out how to make a great smoothie without a blender so that was the one small appliance I kept. I didn’t do a lot of baking in our tiny, but I did learn that I could make Pavlova with whipped cream by hand with a whisk. It takes a tiny bit longer, but it’s worth it. None of those energy hog counter top appliances make the food better – just more processed. (Here is where my friends who love their Instapots can object.) Keep it simple, fresh and authentic.
When you learn to DIY your home – then using those same DIY skills to make your food is pretty simple. I found it only a simple step from there to DIY my own non-toxic household cleaners and personal care items. I loved experimenting with recipes for simple cleaner, bug spray – or even a “shower in a bottle” spray that cleaned me up and cooled me off on hot muggy days.
Another key pet peeve of tiny house owners is related to lingering, unpleasant smells. Nothing can make a tiny house too tiny like an unpleasant odor. A spray bottle with water and a few drops of essential oil is powerful and effective at eliminating (not masking) bad smells. The list of essential oils that work for this is very long since many oils have various cleansing properties. In the process of gaining a little collection of essential oils, we were also able to clean out the medicine cabinet. We learned to support our systems instead of treating symptoms. Great self care starts with eating well, continues with detoxing your environment and supporting your health and wellness with resources that work. By eating well and practicing great self care, we decreased square footage but increased the quality of our lives.
Jay Shafer brought us this idea that a home could be cozy, of high quality, and beautiful in every respect. Shelter can be intentional and fundamentally gentle to the earth. You can build your dream home in a very small but mighty footprint. You may have the freedom to park it in some really amazing places.
I’d like to expand that idea by suggesting that you can build your dream life just as intentionally as you plan your dream home. In fact, you don’t even have to pick out a trailer or choose a composting toilet to start going tiny. You can start right where you are, today. Go look at your coffee gear. Starting there makes as much sense as anywhere else. Why not?! (I’m off the hook – I don’t drink coffee.)
Take a look at your shelter, clothing and transportation systems. In what ways can you simplify and hone these systems to minimize the mundane and elevate the purposeful? What is one way you can embrace the pay-as-you-go life in order to be more focused and intentionally generous? What is one way you can eat well in order to experience a higher level of wellness? Eating well is the ultimate self care and you are worth it. I’m simply here to remind you of what you already know. You can go tiny, embrace simplicity and still eat really well.
It’s a paradox that going tiny would open up space in our lives. Minimizing the mundane things in life makes room for Purpose. The side effects of having Purpose are meaning and joy.
Our world needs a lot of work at the moment – work you and I can do! We can get out there and make a real difference. To begin: Go tiny, embrace simplicity, and eat well. Make space. There’s a world that needs the light only you can shine.
All my best,