Several years ago, we found ourselves in a situation where, for work reasons, we needed to temporarily leave Canada and move to a large US city. While moving two adults, one 5 year-old, and one medium-sized dog didn’t seem like a picnic, we knew it had to be done. So after a week of gnawing on the decision, we picked up everything, and moved across the border with about 3 months’ notice.

While the move was always supposed to be (sort of) temporary, we knew we needed to be there for at least a few months. That meant we didn’t necessarily need to bring everything we owned with us, but we did want to feel comfortable and at home. So, we decided to rent out our custom-built 3000 square foot house in a rural area of BC, and put all our belongings in storage near our house. We then packed a total of 3 suitcases, and prepared to move into our American home: an 850-square foot apartment, a level-entry 2 bedroom, in a large, managed complex.

When my mother saw our bags packed, she was shocked. “Where are your pots and pans?” was her first comment. I admit, it was mine, too. I knew that we’d be staying with friends for a couple of weeks, and I had planned enough to know which boxes I could easily retrieve out of the storage unit back here in Canada, while still leaving most of our stuff behind. But despite all the planning, there were moments of panic.

Still, we pushed on. After the second week, I realized that we wouldn’t need to bring nearly as much down from storage as I had planned. I had done one gigantic shopping trip for the basics, and another friend had recently left town, offering us several handy items of furniture. We settled in, enrolled our 5-year old in kindergarten, and after calculating the cost of renting a (very large) moving van to transport the rest of my stuff out of storage, I decided I would play it by ear, and only bring down items as we seemed to need them.

Here are my biggest takeaways from the experience.

  1. I really only need one chair, one dish, one cup, etc. At first, I tried to furnish the space like a new house: I went shopping. (Boy, did I ever!) I bought furniture, kitchen gadgets, baskets for storage, nicknacks, artwork… you name it. The full set of adorable checked dishes lasted until the first barbeque, when the new folding table I had purchased collapsed, and they all broke. The store had sold out of them, so while I was waiting to find something new, we just used one single plate each. We quickly realized that not only was the cute set of dishes crowding the cupboard, we didn’t really need them. When I was done eating, I simply washed the single plate, and left it in the drain tray. (Which now fit inside the cupboard.) That was it.
    Shortly after, I started seeing duplication everywhere. I mean, you can only use one chair at a time, one plate at a time, and so on. It just wasn’t necessary to keep extra copies of everything.
  2. Pets need dedicated space. We have always been dog-friendly family, and when we first entered the apartment, she immediately tried to leap on the bed, sit in my chair, etc. We quickly realized that she needed to feel at home, too. By purchasing the dog her own new bed, (Yay! More shopping!) she was not underfoot or getting into stuff she shouldn’t. We also made a fenced area outside on our little patio for her, so that we could truly relax and not worry about her getting in the road or bothering neighbours. She loved the freedom, and it was relaxing for her, too.
  3. Lighting becomes super important. I love using lighting to set moods and improve function of a space. But in the smaller apartment, I had wrongly assumed that one lamp would do everything in a small space. But when the same space was used for more than one task, it became clear that I still needed a close-up light for reading and knitting in my comfy chair, task lighting strips under the kitchen and bathroom counters, and general lighting in the space that created a warm glow in the evenings, or bright space in the mornings. This was one area where my shopping spree paid off, as I used 100% of the lighting I had purchased, both wall-mounted and tabletop. Tip: wall-mounted lighting is fantastic, because it saves space and can’t get knocked over.
  4. I had so much more free time, not cleaning and “doing” in the space. I’m told that most people spend up to three hours a day tidying, cleaning, picking up kid’s stuff, doing laundry, and doing dishes, rearranging clutter, etc. But in a small space, this was almost totally eliminated. If someone made a mess,  I was right there to see it, and all I had to do was ask them to hang up the jacket, wash the dish immediately, etc. There was no need to set aside time to be the family maid, because there was less space to clean, and less stuff in it to pickup anyway. If you’re spending a few minutes here and there picking up after yourself or children, imagine how that adds up. What would you do with a couple of extra hours a day?
  5. I spent a lot more time outdoors. Because we had a small patio, I found that I spent more time sitting out there, not only relaxing, but as a work space. By eating our meals outside, and generally just “being” out there, it cultivated activity that included more swimming, golf, long walks in the neighbouring park, and so on. Even in cold weather, we became more outdoor oriented, and still had a private retreat at the end of the day.
  6. I stopped wasting so much money. Once I got over my initial shopping frenzy, we would see cute stuff in stores, but realize we didn’t want to buy it. If there’s no place to put it, you have a very real excuse to say no. We also spent less on gas, because we spent more time just hanging out, doing the outdoors time I mentioned. The smaller space also forced us to change our thinking on how we prioritize other things, like groceries. A biggie was that we stopped buying all the food that we realized was going bad in the fridge at home. Our priorities simply changed, and spending dropped automatically.
  7. We spent a lot more time together. While I would still set aside alone time for myself, we had been so work-focused for so long that we’d forgotten how to relax together. Being together again in a small space, we realized we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. It was wonderful not to have to yell to the other end of a long house to find out what the other person wanted to eat for dinner. We talked to each other more than we had in years, simply because we were there to talk to. Instant relationship bonus, without any effort.

Eventually, we did move back home to Canada, and immediately back into our 3000-square foot home again. But I eliminated several large items of furniture, and many more small ones. Just because it fits into a space, doesn’t mean we need to fill it up. We now really only use about 3 rooms in the entire house – the extra bedrooms, storage room, basement, and so on are always ignored. Plus, I sure miss everything being on one level. Now our conversations are about how we can’t wait to downsize back to a 2-bedroom condo! And of course, how we’ll make room for our second dog. 😉