How I Did It: Shrunk My Life to 128 Square Feet

I live in a tiny house that’s 128 square feet—smaller than your average parking space—and I’ve never been happier.

Nine years ago, I was working a successful job in investment management, shared a huge apartment and two cars with my husband Logan, and was miserable.

I lived in Davis, California, where I was commuting two hours a day, stuck in traffic, saddled with $30,000 of debt–mostly from student loans–and constantly stressed. I started using shopping as an outlet for my emotions. Instant gratification! When I shopped, I felt better and didn’t have to deal with whatever else was on my mind.

Then one day, Logan suggested we “downsize,” get rid of our junk and move to a smaller space. He saw how stressed I was over my job, and knew how badly I wanted to go back to school and work in the non-profit world.

My response was pretty firm: no way.

I liked having a car and space in our home for guests. He was suggesting we get rid of our cars, but what if the cat got sick–how would we drive to the vet’s office? What if our parents got sick–how would we help them? For a long time, we held back on sizing down because of all of the “what if’s.”

But then we started defining our values and reprioritizing. I started reading a lot about living simply. We realized that the life we had fallen into wasn’t what we really wanted. I asked myself: Why was I spending time stuck in traffic to earn the money for our rent when I could be building my relationships or volunteering, for the things that were most important to me?

After much debate and discussion–not to mention pro/con lists–we decided the time had come to live a little smaller.

So We Took the Plunge!

We started downsizing in 2005, and in 2006 we made our first big move: switching from a 1,200-square-foot apartment into an 800-square-foot one-bedroom in downtown Davis. We also sold one of our cars. With one car and a lower rent, our debt slowly started going down.

With these reduced expenses, Logan and I finally had the time and energy to prioritize our life goals and focus on our health and happiness. We thought seriously about the stuff we had, and between friends, thrift stores and Freecycle, slowly continued scaling down. 

Then came the tipping point: On New Years Eve 2007, Logan showed me an online video where a woman, Dee Williams, showed off a beautiful, sustainable 128-square-foot tiny house. Dee owns a small woodworking company and built the house herself, using salvaged cedar, torn-up jeans for insulation and solar panels for energy. She also put the house on wheels, which let her drive it to Olympia, Washington, where friends let her “park” in their grassy backyard.

The Moment We Knew We Wanted a Tiny House

A tiny house like Dee’s seemed affordable, liberating and just the right size. We didn’t have the wherewithal to build it ourselves, so we reached out online and asked Dee herself to design it. She happily agreed.

We had a couple requirements: Like Dee, we wanted wheels on the house in case we ever wanted to move, and it needed to be small enough that we wouldn’t need permits or official permission to drive it down the highway.

In total, the house would cost us $33,000, a little more than we wanted to spend, so I became a tiny house monster, constantly researching and talking about how we could afford our own. Once we had the house, we’d take it to Portland, where two of Dee’s friends kindly offered to let us rent space in their backyard.

So we saved up, moving in 2008 to a smaller, 400-square-foot one-bedroom in Sacramento and downsizing even more. We wouldn’t be taking out a mortgage or anything to pay for the house, so we needed to have the full amount in cash. It took us a couple of years, but finally we reached our savings goal. In 2008, we sold our second (and last) car.

Finally, in October of 2011, we moved into our tiny house.

Between rent, utilities and our $5 electricity bill (we plug in to the main house through an outdoor extension cord), we pay about $500 a month in general housing expenses–better than the $800 to $1,100 we were paying before. Not too shabby … and best of all, no mortgage!

Of course, we had the same fears as any new homeowners: What if we moved in and hated it?

But now, ten months after first moving to the tiny house, I can honestly say there hasn’t been any buyer’s regret. In fact, we love our new lifestyle.

How the Tiny House Changed Our Lives

One of the biggest effects of having less stuff and spending less was I didn’t need to work at a job that made me unhappy!

Now, Logan and I can both do what we love. He finished up grad school in California, and now works in research at an Oregon health facility. I left the investment management industry and started working as a sexual assault and domestic violence victim advocate in 2007. I bounced around the advocacy field, working with crisis centers, doing research on domestic violence and working in public policy before quitting my day job in 2010 to write full-time.

I’ve also had time to volunteer. Between my work at an organization called Living Yoga and helping to organize an annual Portland summit of artists, I used to spend about ten hours a week volunteering. Then my dad got sick last year, so I wasn’t able to volunteer as much. Logan and I will soon be moving to his family’s cattle ranch in Northern California, which involves driving the house down Highway 5. Although we’ve never moved the house before, we’re excited to relocate where we can be closer to both our families, so hopefully I’ll be able to volunteer there as well.

Our debt stress? Gone, along with our debt! It feels great not to worry about car payments, student loans or credit cards, and to own a home of our own. This financial freedom has made such a difference. Mostly, it’s brought us a sense of relief.

What It’s Like When Your Home Is a Tiny House

128 square feet may not seem like a lot, but it’s really all we need.

We have a kitchen with a freestanding, ethanol-powered sailboat stove and a bathroom with a compostable toilet filled with moss and peat that we empty every few days, depending on how often we use it. The toilet can be removed to create a shower stall.

Our little window nook is a great sitting area that also doubles (well, triples) as the dining room and the guest bedroom. There’s a garden hose attached to the house so we have water for cooking and dishes, and we filter drinking water from the faucet.

We love the house, but we are not without our challenges.

Right now we have an inversion shower, which means we have to take off the composting toilet and fix up the curtain before showering. We usually shower at the gym (I spend about $50 on membership there) but some days it would really be nice to have a true shower.

A lot of people ask if I miss my privacy, but my husband and I get along really well—I don’t see him for most of the day when he’s at work, so when he comes home, I’m always glad to see him.

If we do need some personal space, he’ll go for a bike ride or I’ll take a walk. One benefit of having a small space is that if we argue, we can’t just ignore it. I think that’s good for us, to not worry about stupid arguments. And since getting rid of so many of our money worries, we definitely fight a lot less.

What Our Spending Looks Like Now

Driving hours to work (and paying for cars and gas) is definitely a thing of the past. In fact, because a lot of my work is in e-course development and writing, I mostly work from home or take a short bike ride to downtown Portland.

If Logan or I need to go somewhere–work, the grocery store, yoga–we’ll either walk or bike. Logan bikes about 6 miles to work each day, which takes him about 30 minutes.

We do spend more on food because we buy local and organic, and we don’t have a fridge (our house isn’t equipped), so we shop more often. Last year, I made about $19,000 from my writing projects, which include my book advance (I wrote about our “tiny house” transition to living a much simpler life), ebook sales, freelance projects and my e-course (I teach a course on minimalism). Although that’s way less than what I made at my old job, I’m doing something I love and the amount is okay when our expenses are so low.

As for my shopping bug, I find that now I don’t need to shop to soothe my emotions, because my day-to-day life is much simpler and more fulfilling. When I have the urge to buy something now, usually I’ll wait 30 days, just to make sure it’s really worthwhile. I also try to keep a “one thing in, one thing out” rule, so if I buy a new pair of shoes, I’ll donate one to charity. Just because we’ve downsized doesn’t mean I don’t want new stuff. In fact, I always want stuff! For me, it’s just a matter of knowing what my buying triggers are.

I have this incredible gift of time now, so if my family needs help I can be there, and I have time left over to give back to my community. The size of our house hasn’t prevented us from seeing friends and family; when we have friends visit, they can either sleep in the loft or we’ll put them up in a nice hotel.

Life is always uncertain, but embracing that uncertainty has really helped. You just have to take the plunge and do things. When it comes down to it, Logan and I aren’t really about austerity, but we want to spend on experiences rather than things. We save a lot, but are also able to spend extra income on going out to eat, biking, camping and traveling. I’m much more aware of my community and my environment–I notice the seasons change and participate in my community more. Not to mention with biking, walking and eating right, I feel so much healthier.

What Other People Think

When we first started, a lot of our friends and family–including my mother–thought we were nuts. Now, after seeing how satisfied we are, they think we’re at the head of the pack.

Whenever a friend says downsizing seems overwhelming, I just say to start small. Look at one room in your house, or one closet, and see what you can give away. Then, move to the next room. Trust me, it’s pretty surprising how much stuff you really don’t need.

We don’t expect everyone to move into a tiny house; we know it’s a little unusual. And Logan and I aren’t planning on having kids, though that’s not to say you can’t have children and live in a small space! We all make choices about how we want to live.

All of these decisions have taken on a bigger significance since my dad passed away in June. Especially since then I’ve felt an intense responsibility to live my life well. I’ve learned that stuff doesn’t matter in the long run … it’s people you’ll never get back. I want to make him proud.

The way we see it, everyone should be mindful of their choices. For example, I would definitely say I care about the environment, but I don’t live in a tiny house because I want to save the planet. I do it because it makes me happy and gives me the freedom to do the things I want.

If the suburbs are a good fit for you, that’s totally okay. If a tiny house with 128 feet and a fantastic cat is a good fit for you, that’s totally okay, too.


Simple living blogger Tammy Strobel is the author of You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and How You Can Too and self-published Smalltopia. She lives (in a tiny house) in Portland, Oregon. She writes regularly at rowdykittens.com. All images courtesy of Tammy Strobel via rowdykittens.com

Editorial Note: It has come to our attention that some of the specific numbers were off in a couple places for square footage and exact years, so we’ve made all the necessary changes. Apologies for the inconvenience!

  • Bernadette

    that’s just nutty

  • Itterc

    I think it’s great. I have too much stuff and am trying to make a conscious effort to get rid of a lot of it.

  • Lisatella

    I think some of the dates are off in this story. Aside from that, I’ve been following the tiny house chronicles for some time and have really enjoyed it. I won’t be doing the same, but it’s definitely motivation to downsize and cut back on how much I buy!

  • Sbux4me

    I wonder what books the author read during her transition to a simpler life.

  • Ncwardgirl

    Look at that big old Chevy truck (gas guzzler no less) pulling the tiny house. You could live in the back of that thing. Talk about expense, seems hypocritical to me.

    • Chels

      In the article, it says they sold both of their vehicles. She doesn’t indicate whether they own(ed) that truck to start with, but they definitely don’t own it now. 

    • thepixinator

      I was thinking the same thing.  Even though they don’t drive to work, I am guessing they held onto that gas guzzler, and use it for one of their hobbies, camping.  Part of their monthly $500 expenses must go into vehicle insurance and gas for when they do use the monster.  I guess they are holding onto the truck for when they move it to the farm.  I would ditch that thing and get a Prius if I REALLY wanted to save money and the environment, and space for that matter.

  • Galumphingwithglee

    I’m just amazed at how much her tiny house cost!  $33,000 sounded like a lot for such a tiny space to begin with, but I guess there’s a lot that has to fit into it.  But she’s also paying $500/month in ongoing housing costs (rent/utilities/electricity)?  First of all, I don’t know what “rent” even refers to since she paid for the whole house upfront, but what gets me more is that her “housing costs” for a 128-ft. space are actually EXACTLY the SAME as what I pay to live in a space several times bigger, near Boston (relatively speaking, one of the more expensive places to live.)

    Shouldn’t she be paying like half as much as I am for that space?  Or less?

    • Chels

      In the article, it says they pay rent for the space they use at someone’s home in Portland. They do own the home, but they don’t own the plot of land they’re on. 

      • http://twitter.com/latinAbroad A Nomadic Translator

        So they are still paying rent…and that much. Plus seems like the $50/mo. gym membership is for the shower too. And don’t get me started on the $33k paid up front for the house … Defying the purpose much? =S

    • http://fitorama.wordpress.com/ Lauren Lever

      I am assuming it is property taxes (I think you still have to pay those even for a tiny house) and maybe renting the land she lives on?

      500, do you live with roommates, how away from the city are you? 500 is pretty darn cheap for a one bedroom  anywhere, you must have gotten lucky!

      • Mel Mulyp

        I pay $525 for a two bedroom in fairly safe area. 15 min away from the lake Michigan, no roommates.

        It can be done if you don’t need to live *right next door* to hipsters  :)

  • http://twitter.com/latinAbroad A Nomadic Translator

    $500/mo. of on-going costs plus basically a $30,000 down payment? Uhh, I could find a bigger place WITH a much lower monthly payment (and a mortgage!), then pay it off in as much time it took them to save the $30k prob.

    Idk, downsizing is a great idea, but they are missing the boat here on something. Expenses seem excessive for such a TINY TINY place. And…what if they decide to sell it later? Would it sell for a good amount? Hmmm…

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/3OLLRHDVG7TJ774NVFTXH3KLL4 Vanessa

    I am assuming that they are never having children as this house would never be large enough for a family.  I also agree that 500 is a lot for living expenses.  I live in a huge house (3500 sq ft) and my mortgage and utilities (water, power, garbage, cable) come to 2500 a month for 6 people.  Yeah–that’s a lot of money but I have a lot of house and a lot of people.  Her house cost her 257 bucks a sq ft–that’s crazy!

    • Leanne

       She says towards the end that she and her husband don’t plan on having kids. I couldn’t do it because I love pets and children and I hope to have at least 3 kids so I don’t think this would work for me either. Going through and getting rid of unnecessary things is good though. I need to do that more often.

  • Bobotron50

    I like the idea. But you could buy a pretty awesome trailer for $30k with a full bathroom and kitchen, creative storage spaces, etc. already built in. Why not just do that?

  • Tschipferling

    Very interesting article. There are both pros and cons to living in a tiny house like this, but I give this couple credit for making the decision to better their lives and the environment.  I may not chose to live in a tiny house, but this article has spurred me to do some long overdue downsizing of my own.

  • Deewright1

    Thou I’m not moved to buy a tiny house, I’m considering downsizing to a smaller house, I live alone and I’m inspired to consume less, give more.

  • Amber

    I found this article really inspiring. Even though I can’t see myself doing this, I’m trying to live a life where the goal isn’t always attaining more stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  • Karmingreco

    I was totally inspired by this article. I have always felt deep down I wanted to live simpler. But I’m not gonna lie I love my space and the things I have. It allows me to also do for others that don’t have. However I’ll be going trough each of my rooms and taking a good look at them and see what is not necessary. 

  • Goddessicon

    I like the idea of living simpler. I am thinking that the costs are attributed to having an under carriage and solar panels. I personally love my small 1300 square foot home and can’t imagine something much smaller but I think living simply in our own way is important as it teaches us the importance of respecting what an amazing country we live in and what wonderful opportunities we have here. In so many other countries this wouldn’t be worth writing about since so many people live in far smaller places with more people.

  • Linda Heck

    I’d sure like to say I got just rid of some of this stuff, but then know deep in my heart that there are things I have that I really couldn’t, have a 3 corner hutch that goes back to 1830, and then another china cabinet that goes back to 1800, then there are my sewing machine and my serger, oh I couldn’t be without them and my fabric that I have done some down sizing but still have some that I know will get made into something one day till then, I’ll hang on to it all. Have a 4 bedroom 3bath home for me. I do have to down size, but it’s not the right time to sell now. It will be someday. I’ll just have to wait.I do look forward to that time though. Life will make itself known to me at the right time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/crjen Jen Visser

    I’m another person who finds the tiny house movement fascinating, but I’m not sure I could do it.  Fitting 2 huge dogs in a small space might be overwhelming.  If you want to see how the houses are built – check out  http://www.TinyRevolution.us – Andrew & Crystal Odom are chronicling their build and you can see where the costs come from.

  • Cubfanloca

    I used to live in a 3 story house with 4 bedrooms and 3 baths, Now I live in a top-of-the-line fully paid for, RV and couldn’t be happier. I have solar panels, satellite TV and all the modern conveniences yet I can move from place to place as often as I like. I have a real shower, stove, oven, fridge and sink. I have all the modern conveniences of a house, just mine is on wheels. Instead of commuting for hours to my stressful downtown job, now I work from my RV while living for free in an RV Resort, where my bills are all paid. I don’t make as much money, but my stress level is reduced and so are my bills. I am enjoying this smaller, simpler life. 

    • Ashleigh

       I want to hear more about this! I would love to do this. Do you live alone? What city/state are you in? What kind of RV do you have? Did you buy used?

  • Shazzer4400

    I agree with the other posters that pointed out that $500 in ongoing expenses seems like a lot. My husband and I bought our first apartment for cash (no mortgage) and our expenses for a 2 bedroom, 700 square foot apartment (maintenance, insurance, taxes, utilities) were less than $500 per month.

    • Riley Nevada

      Location? The rent of the land they put the house on may be pricey.

  • apushkal

    We camp every summer and I always come back realizing how little I really need.  Can’t wait to pitch a lot of my stuff.  Our house is small and, while it was a little crowded when the kids were younger, we won’t have to downsize or move when they leave. We do have a storage space but most of the stuff hasn’t been touched.  Can’t wait to toss that, too.

  • Golden Peace

    ANOTHER SMALL HOUSE:
    Here is a link to another small house that is a little bigger-500 sq feet– with a shower, normal kitchen and running water:
    http://www.mum.edu/achievements/2012_07_21.html
    I don’t think I could do without a shower. 
    But I think these small houses are a great idea!

  • Anne Daub

    We opted to stay in our small (not as small as your’s!) house; the results have been putting two children through college without student loans, traveling, having one car and making it work for us, trying to give monetarily a little more to our church, other para-church organizations and to other groups.  Life is good!

  • Virginia Degner

    Hi Jamie,
    I commend your choice and in a small way my husband are doing something similiar. We live in a small gold mining community near Sonora Ca. six months of the year in a 25 foot trailer. The other six months we live at our home a 1,600 mortgage free house that we have spent the last 10 years remodeling and now it’s done. After spending 50 thousand dollars on the remodeling we now have a beautiful home that is completely up to date and new kitchen, bathrooms flooring walls roof etc. When we are old we won’t have repairs other than miner maintence barring an earthquake. The house expenses without the mortgage are very low and when we are gone we shut everything off except our refrigerator. So it works for us. I do have to say that I love it when we come home for the winter. So I love both worlds.
    When I am at our trailer I write and it’s been great for keeping me focused on my writing. My first novel came out last July, Without Consent by Virginia Degner. I hope that my 2nd novel will be as well received as the first one was.

    Well Jamie this note has gotten quite long so I will sign off.
    Virginia Degner
      

  • Chelle

    This was a very interesting article.  I am not so sure I could live in a space that tiny, but I appreciate the perspective.  I have been simplifying in small doses and it is very liberating.  We sludge through life working jobs we hate to consume “things” that we really don’t need.  The bravery of this couple is amazing.  Not many of us would have the courage to stop trying to keep up with the Joneses!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PKJQ2KWCVDWFVLJA6NCW7Q3RMI Katherene`

    I love your story.  I think that’s awesome for you and your husband.  I think your home is very lived in and it appears that your happy.  And that’s all that counts in life your happiness.  God Bless!

  • Heidithen

    Glad it’s working out for them but anything is workable before children. Let’s see how a tiny house works with babies and children.

    • Shazzer4400

      She said they weren’t going to have any

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/katie-ferrari/43907774 katie ferrari

    This is so inspiring!

  • Craftersue2001

    Where did you get that tiny house?

  • Jon

    Tiny homes can be found at tumbleweedhomes.com. 

    • Jon

      I apologize that should be tumbleweedhouses.com.  Also the Wee Home is fun as well.

  • Gail

    wow.. a very cozy tiny house.
    we’re also living in a tinier house — 100 sq with three rooms + 1 bathroom – 2 storey. :)

  • http://www.kimolsonphoto.com/ Kim

    Your story is truly inspiring, Tammy! Two things I love most about what you said is that you gained freedom of time and prefer to spend your money on experiences rather than things. I couldn’t agree with you more on both points. The only thing we can all hope for is to make the most of the time we’re here.

  • ML

    Where does the litter box go?

  • especiallyeva

    I really appreciate that she isn’t judgmental or prescriptive. It’s great that she’s found a balance in her life but that she also acknowledges that it’s not for everyone. For instance, a lot of people (intentionally) live in tiny dry (without water) cabins here in Alaska. My friends from college (in another state) thought that was ridiculous. People get to make their own lifestyle choices, and that’s the beauty of articles like this. It’s good to see an article that provokes thought and does it respectfully! Thanks Learnvest!

  • KJMOM

    Interesting article. It does predicate having people who are willing to rent land/electricity to you to have you live in their backyard. The author notes that she has no plans for children, but this would probably not be a feasible solution for those with kids or families with more than 2 people under one roof, at least not this size place. Oregon is a fairly temperate and tolerant place; I don’t see how this would work in places with tougher climates, but perhaps I have a lot to learn on this. Anyway, kudos to the author for having goals and achieving them. This solution is not for everyone (which she notes), but it’s an interesting idea nonetheless.

  • Bernicejasper

    Well.  My Husband and I lived on a 45′ sailboat.  When we wanted a neighborhood change, we just hoisted sail.  Must admit that we lived in a warm climate.  We had no fridge’ or shower.  Just jumped overboard with a bottle of liquid soap, and
    if ice were wanted, just, on occasion, filled the ice chest.  We both worked and came home to greetings from the cat.  It was a great life.

    Alas!  We now have a house and furniture and two cats!  But
    we still go sailing.

  • Leah

    I think this is a GREAT way to present a personal finance concept, LearnVest! It’s not judgmental or obviously polarizing (a la “Should you hate Melissa Mayer?” and “Weddings are stupid”) and makes you think about your own situation.

    Could I  live with less? Totally. Will I toss some stuff as a result of this? Likely. Will I move into a 128 square foot house? Never. But I’m decidedly happy to have “met” Tammy Strobel.

    Bravo!

  • http://twitter.com/Lbeemoneytree Lauren Bee

    This article is great-it really gets to the heart of small living instead of just saying “Oh my life is so simple, it’s awesome now.” What a great writer!

  • Thirdof3atUMD

    I’m sorry, this is completely insane. I love the budgeting/account linking tool of learnvest, but most of the articles on here are batshit crazy. Also, some of us just want to be better with money than we already are, we aren’t necessarily in crazy amounts of self-induced shopping debt, formerly homeless, or some other financial extreme. a lot of these articles make it seem like women are either dumb or crazy with their finances. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/rsonnack Becky Sonnack

      Some people are bad with money. No need to get all judge-y.

  • Aplin13

    When I was doing my graduate studies I lived in a 6ft by 8ft darkroom office for over a year. I win! Of course I used a common kitchen area in the building and I ate out often.

  • http://www.facebook.com/onion.george Onion George

    Sign of future times.

  • Lucy P.

    What an amazing story! I remember my first place I got on my own.  It was a one bedroom with a balcony for a great price. It could have been big enough for 2. During that time when I was making decent money and could buy/do whatever I wanted, I started to realize that I didn’t need anything else.  I had enough clothes, shoes, dvds and home decor that I didn’t need to shop for more every weekend. 

    I also didn’t bother with expensive cable packages. I only had internet and used Hulu, Netflix, and my local library for entertainment. It felt great to know I was saving my money for more important things like paying down my debt faster, saving for my future and going on vacations with loved ones.

  • Dsuchmiel

    Zoolander would be proud.

  • Kievjaguar

    Dear Americans,

    Have you ever had a chance to see how Europeans live?
    My friend rents an apartment near the Louvre in Paris. Oh, boy, you cannot even gain a couple of pounds because a person with curves will not be able to get into the shower. The whole apartment is just like a one-fifth of the upper level where my husband and I live.

  • Bryce

    I think that touting the resource-reduction result of this decision is important to note.  Suburbs rely on cheap energy to suffice…and they also require a heavily maintained grid to exist.  What we need in this country is “small-house” thought where we can develop communities that are compact, efficient, and self-sufficient.

  • johnbraeden

    Thank
    you for do-follow list. However, I would like to know that how do you
    differentiate the spams

  • GTHSBB Momma

    So you managed to simplify and downsize, enabling you to pay off your $30,000 in debt. Then you decided to economize even further (a very sensible choice), so that you could save up $33,0000 to buy a depreciating asset (a not-so-sensible choice). You’ve pared down your living expenses to $500/month, but you’re dependent on the ongoing imposition to your friends who have agreed to host you in their back yard. And the bit about having to remove the toilet in order to shower leaves me wondering whether you’ve sacrificed personal hygiene, or if you’re further imposing on friends and family in order to bathe.

    While your desire to not be enslaved to material possessions is laudable, your attempts to achieve that goal are bizarre. The same $33,000 used as a down payment for a humble cottage or bungalow would allow you to still live modestly, but you would be building equity. Perhaps your home equity could be your retirement nest egg, or maybe you could use that accrued wealth to give meaningfully to causes near and dear to your heart.

    If, by sharing your story, you were hoping to inspire others to embrace a similar journey, I think you lost your audience somewhere between the filtered hose water and the toilet-in-the-shower.