Small Space Living When You’re Not Naturally Tidy…
When Daniel and I got married in 2010, we moved into a quaint, well designed one bedroom apartment in Tallahassee, Florida. Having just moved out of college dorms, we didn’t own that much between us, and so when we moved into a 2.5 bedroom apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia a couple years later, it was quite easy to get things organized without risk of overwhelm.
But when we were preparing to move here to New Haven a full 7 years afterwards, things were a little different, for a few reasons. For one, people have a tendency to fill the space they’re given, to spread out like water into every nook, cranny, and closet.
We had more space than we actually needed, which meant that two rooms became, essentially, storage rooms over the years. We didn’t actually live in them, and that meant they didn’t have to, well, be livable.
I worked at a thrift shop for five years, and thus frequently accumulated “good deals” and “replacements” for things I already owned, with things I intended to get rid of simply being pushed aside to unused rooms until it was absolutely essential to get them out of the house.
I receive free stuff as a blogger, and I didn’t always account for that accumulation in the old space, instead putting things in “to be photographed” piles that never found permanent homes.
I appreciate the tips and tricks of minimalists like Sophie at A Considered Life - they always make me think about what I could do differently - but I also feel a bit disoriented by them.
For a minimalist, some types of cleaning and organization feel essential, and thus the impulse to actually sort and pare down is strong enough to enforce a high standard.
For me, a self-described clutter bug, I really do have to trick myself into organizing. The system has to be fool-proof or I will fail.
Don’t get me wrong. I love/am obsessed by the initial challenge of getting a house or apartment organized. I wanted to be an interior designer growing up, so the initial layouts are exciting for me. But it’s actually living in a home when you spend a lot of time working or participating in outside activities that wears on my drive.
But I am realizing, especially during this move, how essential it is to have a plan and to live in a clean home when your mental health is tenuous and you’ve got a million other things to do. For me, living in a clean home - by maximalist standards anyway - is the first step in getting my brain and body in order.
Tips & Tricks for Getting Your Small House in Order When You’re a Maximalist Clutter Bug
The Just Right Size
My number one tip is to live in a space that is appropriately sized for you and the amount of stuff you want to own. When you live in an oversized space, you will want to fill it. When you live in a too-small space, you may feel like your quality of life is diminished. Think about how you need to use the space - for example, I needed a small apartment because of my financial limitations, but I looked for room dimensions and aesthetic details that would make it possible to do blog photography indoors - and then go from there.
Use hanging shelves in your closet instead of hangers | I am slow to put clothes away, but I found that folding the majority of clothing items - t-shirts, jeans, even skirts - instead of hanging them makes me put them away faster. I use simple hanging storage to make use of closet space.
Put clean laundry in the same bin you used for dirty laundry | Whether you have an in-home washer and dryer or have to leave the house (we have a unit in the basement of our apartment building), I find that using the laundry bin or basket that I store dirty clothes in during the week to put clean clothes in after laundering forces me to fold and sort clothing faster, because I’ll need that basket to put dirty clothes in later on. It may not be perfectly hygienic, but it beats having several weeks of laundry piling up on the floor.
Get a hanging shoe caddy, and only store what fits | I found an amazing shoe caddy at the thrift shop before I departed that fits all of my shoes and keeps them off the floor. I hang it in my closet next to my clothing shelves, and store seasonal items close to each other so I don’t have to rotate it too often.
Store linens on open shelves or in hampers | In my old apartment, we had tons of closets, so I kept a lot of old sheets and pillows I really didn’t need. In this space, I had limited options: an open shelf on a repurposed kitchen caddy and a thrifted wicker hamper. With limited space and open shelving, it became imperative to only keep what I actually needed.
Use guest pillows as throw pillows when not in use | We don’t have room to store spare pillows here, so I saved three pillows by putting thrifted shams on them (the exact fair trade ones are from Under the Canopy) and using them as bed decoration. When a guest comes, we can simply slip a pillow case on them and we’re good to go.
Invest in a raised bed frame | We got a 14” platform bed frame from Zinus (I highly recommend them) that doesn’t require a box spring, meaning we have tons of underbed storage space without having a Victorian-esque high bed.
Buy sealed under-bed storage bins, but also use what you have | I bought two underbed storage bins from IKEA that house most of my winter sweaters, dresses, and outerwear. Bulky coats and winter accessories are packed away in suitcases, and all fit nicely under the bed while still leaving room for the cat to hang out.
Store towels in an oversized basket | We don’t have enough shelving for towel storage here, so I use an oversized basket from Ten Thousand Villages to store towels in the bathroom. The open concept, again, ensures that I pare down and keep things tidy. I keep wash cloths and hand towels in a smaller basket on bathroom shelving.
Store odds and ends in appropriately sized bins, or in the medicine cabinet | We have a nice little wooden lidded box with hair trimming scissors, bobby bins, and other small items in the bathroom, and I try to store most of my toiletries in the medicine cabinet. Less frequently used things - like nail polish and remover, bandaids, and overstock toiletries - go in clear plastic bins in a corner cabinet in our living room.
Maintain clear organizational categories and invest in the right tools | We are lucky that our new space’s kitchen is actually substantially larger than our old one. The most important thing in a kitchen is that everything has a place, and that those categories really make sense for use. Invest in bins, shelves, and racks for your cabinets in order to maximize their potential.
Avoid storing too much on the counters | If you see your counters and additional storage space, they’ll always be too cluttered. Store as much as you can in cabinets.
Only display the best books | If you’re a book collector like Daniel and I are - and it’ll get worse once my grad program starts - consider seriously paring down. My rules for this move were:
If you can easily access it at a library or used book sale, donate it.
If you haven’t looked at it in 5 years - or ever - donate it.
If it’s a collectible book, yearbook, or part of a collection, store it rather than wasting precious shelf space.
This method helped us get rid of 15 boxes of books and pare down our collection to one large and one small bookcase rather than 4+ bookcases.
Mementos and Out-of-Season Storage
Invest in clear plastic bins and/or drawers | Store important things that you don’t need to access everyday in clear drawers or under-bed bins. If you don’t have a bed frame, or your bed isn’t high enough off the ground, I recommend this platform bed or bed risers.
Organize old photos, awards, and certificates in folders, bags, albums, and archival boxes | Take some time to seriously sort your old stuff instead of leaving it in a box your mom handed you when your parents downsized. That way you’ll know what you have, and where to find it when you want to take a trip down memory lane.
Only have as much furniture as your space can accommodate | That means getting rid of things that block passageways or aren’t being utilized well.
Purchase furniture that works for your space and organizational needs | In the first nine years of our relationship, Daniel and I only purchased two “new” furniture items and they were both bookshelves. Everything else was handed down, thrifted, or bought off Craigslist.
While this was good from an environmental and financial perspective, it meant we had lots of things - nine things to be exact - that were “good enough” instead of truly useful. We gave those things away and replaced them with a new sideboard, shelf, and table that actually suit the size of our space, and our organizational needs. If you can find what you want secondhand, do it! We found lots of good stuff this way. But take account of your actual needs before you start accumulating because it’s cheap or free.
Even with ALL of these strategies, I still struggle to keep my small space clean. But knowing where things belong and removing as many barriers to organizing as I can makes things much easier.