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Tiny-Home Living Means a Lifestyle Change

Adjustments in habits have to be made, and some possessions must go

Middle aged woman packing up

Catherine Ledner/Getty Images

Parting ways with some of our — or our children's — keepsakes can be difficult. While you can hang on to some, you can't keep everything when downsizing.

En español | More often than not, the decision to move into a tiny house is driven by financial considerations. At a time when housing costs keep rising beyond what people on a limited income can afford, the prospect of dramatically reducing living expenses by going tiny is hard to ignore. 

But while concerns about money often get the ball rolling, in time the process becomes more personal. The focus shifts to the reality of scaling back in often profound ways — from how you live, to what you buy, to what you shed from a long life.

“I encourage people to start embracing the tiny-house lifestyle as soon as possible and way before moving into a tiny space,” said Gabriella Morrison, who with her husband, Andrew, founded Tiny House Build. “One can live minimally even in a mansion, and this helps them enter the experience with a better sense of what their real needs are. It can be quite shocking to suddenly not only move into a tiny house, but also to live a mindful life, which involves keeping a close eye on spending habits, your relationship to material goods, dealing with your attachment to stuff and being OK with letting go.”

At first, many people don’t appreciate how much the transition forces them to scrutinize how they spend their time and what they own. It often means taking a hard look at habits that have developed through the years and possessions they’ve hung on to for decades.

Curating your life

Alexis Stephens and her partner, Christian Parsons, cofounded the Tiny House Expedition website and are making a documentary series about the tiny-house movement. She has gone through the moving process herself, and now is helping her mother work through it.

“You do need to get rid of most of your stuff,” Stephens said. “I tell my mom, ‘Walk around your house and look. What are things you never look at? What are things you never use, that you’ve even forgotten that you own? You can probably do without those things.’

“But there is this misconception that you have to be a spartan minimalist to live tiny,” she added. “It’s more like curating. You have to curate the things you most need. From there, it’s all about organization.”

Ryan Mitchell, creator of The Tiny Lifewebsite, sees the exercise of uncluttering as a personal journey of sorts, one that involves asking yourself a lot of questions about your motivations for accumulating things. He said it requires that you closely consider what needs a particular item fills, and if there are other ways you could achieve the same result. Ultimately, suggested Mitchell, you must honestly ask yourself, “What if I didn’t have this thing? What would the impact be?”

“People just need to get really clear on what their goals are, and what they want their lives to be like,” he said. “For older people, it’s ‘What do I want my retirement to look like? How does family fit into that? What’s my relationship with travel? With money?’ Then you can start to make decisions that get you closer to those goals.”

Scaling back

For those who have been through the experience, scaling back can become a mindset, said Pat Dunham, who runs the website Tiny House Advisor. She pointed out that when people have space, they feel compelled to fill it with things. When they don’t have a lot of drawers and closets, they start to view possessions differently.

“People get addicted to downsizing and they’ll continue to do it even after moving into a small space,” she said. “You continue to recognize all the more that you’re not using stuff.”

That can result in an unexpected sense of freedom to focus on experiences rather than objects. Dan Louche, founder of Tiny Home Builders, said he saw it happen with his mother. She moved into a tiny house for financial reasons and didn’t really think much about how it could simplify her life.

“But once she moved in, that’s all she could talk about,” he said. “Once she had solved the financial problem, she started to realize that there was no longer a benefit to killing time at Walmart. There was no longer a place for something she might pick up there. And that opened her up to doing crafts again. She started painting again. I saw her life change when she went into a tiny house.

“She actually spent less money on food because she was buying a lot fewer packaged meals. She started buying things that would take up the least amount of room. And it turned out a lot of the food she bought was healthier for her.”

The comfort of having enough

Others in the movement believe the deliberate decision-making that comes with living in a small space can help homeowners feel more in control of their lives.

“In my old house, I felt overwhelmed all the time. It was too much for me,” said Stephens. “Now everything feels more manageable, and when you have less house maintenance, it frees up your time to do more of the things you enjoy. My gratitude for what I have has grown tremendously. The feeling that you have enough, that you’re not lacking, is very comforting. Maybe not everyone will feel this, but I feel more grateful, and I’m more aware of how much water and energy I use. It’s a more conscious lifestyle.”

Still, it can be a taxing adjustment, often more so when it involves a couple relearning how to live in close quarters. Even tiny-house advocates like Dunham acknowledge that if a relationship is strained or distant, going tiny is probably not a good idea.

In her case, though, it has brought a positive change in her marriage of 58 years.

“When we were in a larger house, we would spend more time in different parts of the house from each other,” she said. “But in the tiny house, we are constantly having conversations. We have become way closer.”

Dunham insists that she has yet to meet an owner of a tiny house who has regretted making the move. She added, “I definitely haven’t met one person who wishes they went bigger.”

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