A few days ago, a British politician made a comment about how poor people should buy 2kg bags of fresh potatoes instead of the more expensive and smaller bags of frozen ready-cut chips, and it got me thinking about how many people have no idea what life at the bottom is really like. This is not, however, a post about that. If you’d like to read more on that, you can find a lot of thoughtful pieces on the Steel Magnificat blog on Patheos Catholic. Living in small spaces is an urban thing that transcends class: nowadays, London houseshares in zone 1-2 come for a minimum of £800-£1000 per month per room depending on area. You can’t pay that much if you are earning a retail wage. Even the houses that are large by city standards are not that big when you think of how much space you’d get in the countryside. The cost of a zone 1 flat can buy you a French castle. In fact, Savills has a few going right now for the cost of a 2-bedroom flat in Battersea, let alone a 5 million+ Chelsea penthouse.
I’d still rather have the flat in Battersea than the French castle, though, so I have long resigned myself to make the best out of life in small spaces. However, the flat we rent now is so tiny that it requires a lot of ingeniousness to make anything good out of it, especially since my husband couldn’t sleep long term in a futon so the bed is a permanent feature of the room. If I had the freedom, I’d definitely embrace the futon, which was traditionally created precisely as a way around the problem of multi-use rooms. Since the bed is here to stay, and it’s the largest item in the room, allowances need to be made in other ways.
It’s either doing the laundry or sitting on the sofa|
I guess this one is my fault for not buying a tall drying rack instead of using the big horizontal one I bought when I had a room in a house and a garden, but if the laundry is drying (and yes, I’m aware of the advice against mould, but what can you do without a balcony?) then it blocks access to the sofa, unless I go out of my way to squeeze it near the bed and free the space, which leads me to the next point.
Home exercising is not as simple as putting down a mat
First, no laundry can be there, which means I have to stick to a regimental schedule for timing my activities. Secondly, the table needs to be moved into the kitchen to free the space, and it’s still so limited I am slightly restricted in the type of activities I can do. No bear walks and even simple things like stretching the upper body on a side leg split, I can either do the split or stretch the upper body with my legs closed. It’s a first-world problem, I know that, but it’s a hidden aspect of the reality of making do with small spaces that you don’t think about unless you are forced to.
Every bit of space gets squeezed for storage
Compared to a lot of people, I have quite a minimalist lifestyle. I guess compared to others, I have way too much stuff. Still, we have enough between the two of us that we had to find creative solutions for using every small nook and cranny as storage space. In the end, the house looks as full as a Victorian one, while also being entirely free of decorations.
It gets cluttered really easily
It’s hard to hide clutter in plain sight in a small space. My husband emptying his pockets after work is enough to make a mess of the table (but there’s no space for an entryway catch-all, so the stuff has to go somewhere…). It’s enough to make one meal for the kitchen to be full of dishes to wash with no space to dry them unless someone is there to get them off your hands as soon as they’re rinsed (it’s crowded but the least bad scenario). You can’t afford to ever be lazy unless you are ok with a degree of messiness that goes beyond “lived in”. Contrary to popular belief, my tolerance for messiness is actually low, and I had to learn to live with it because chronic illnesses ask you for trade-offs, but it’s like living with someone you hate that you’ll eagerly throw out of your house as soon as you are able. I have a clutter-induced nervous breakdown at least once a week…
Buying in bulk is the luxury you really crave
It’s not news that I love cooking, but the kind of pantry you see in Nigella’s TV shows is the stuff of dreams. I have a tiny fridge and even tinier freezer, so I have to plan recipes in advance, only buy what I need for 1-2 weeks at best, and only keep a limited number of staples in the cupboard (90% of which are spices). I have often been in the position of not having enough space to store the shopping after it turned up (2kg bags of potatoes being one of the hardest things to fit, by the way).
Nowhere to go for privacy
I laugh bitterly when every advice column for insomniacs mentions going away from the room if you can’t sleep, or keeping the bed just for sleeping and baby-making. I guess I could go sit on the sofa if I put a reading light there, but it still means disrupting someone else’s sleep with a light on when watching anime on my iPad doesn’t. Since I don’t have set working hours I end up sacrificing my sleep, there is nothing to stop me from getting up at 2pm and working way past 9pm (yes, I am aware I just keep the cycle going). Sleep problems are not the only way, you can’t get away from the person you live with unless the tiny space has separate rooms. In a studio flat, it’s either the bathroom or outside. I guess yoga mats have the potential for multi-use (I slept off a migraine on the bathroom floor when the last bed broke…).
You might be surprised that I have some positives to bring to the table, but if I didn’t I’d have embraced the suburban lifestyle long ago.
You become extremely resourceful
My landlord could not believe what I did with the space to make a home out of a hole. I’d still prefer to have a futon, but I had to find creative solutions for how to make the best of a small space, and even with the downsides I’ve listed above, I’m quite proud of what I pulled off. I have everything I need if not everything I want, but I guess that itself is a positive if trying to break away from excessive consumerism and be more minimalistic.
I have a park, two bus stops, and two convenience stores within 500m of my house. In fact, I can get to a shopping area within 1km, and the main train station to the centre of London is a 15 min walk away (not that I like to go by foot, but it’s good if I have to). I would still like to move back closer to the city centre because I’m tired to work from home and it’s expensive to commute, but it’s not because the area is in any way inconvenient (council’s rubbish collection aside, it is the worst). Culture and food from all over the world are almost on my doorstep (it’s about 30 minutes to Zone 1 if not delayed) and I have easy access to most major transport routes to outside of London, including international ones, which truly makes me feel connected and at the centre of everything. It’s a feeling that is very important to me, and if I have to trade space for it then so be it.
You see things in a different perspective
When I say things, I mean literal things. Objects. Stuff. It’s easy to give up on minimalism in big spaces, as they seem too empty and sparse and I don’t like it. It’s also easy to buy more things on a whim because there’s no significant consequence to it once I take it home. Living in a small space has forced me to become more intentional about what I buy, and what is important to me about home (food and entertaining, if you had any doubts). I’m not the kind of person who stays at home much, mostly seeing it as a prison guarded by illnesses, so in an ideal world (no lockdown) I don’t really notice the space. I’m either unable to leave the bed, so I don’t really care, or out of the house treating it as a space to recharge the batteries before going out again.
So that’s my experience with micro-living. I’d love to hear from other people in the same boat so hit the comments with your experience if you’d like.