The Elements of Smaller Living

by Tammy Strobel on July 22, 2010

Over the last few months, I’ve been interviewing amazing individuals about simple living, location independence, financial freedom and more.

This week the feature interview is with Victoria Vargas of Smaller Living. She is a writer, archaeologist, historic preservationist, and loves small dwellings.

Enjoy the interview!

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Tammy: Can you tell us about your blog, Smaller Living?

Victoria: My byline is “live small and prosper” (a riff on Spock’s famous line, which always makes me smile) and that’s really at the heart of what my Smaller Living blog is about. By scaling-down and living more simply, we can lead much more prosperous lives – not just in terms of finances, although financial prosperity is a lovely side-effect of smaller living, but also in terms of our relationships, communities, health, careers, creativity, and the environment.

My blog is about creating positive change in our lives by adopting a smaller lifestyle, which gives us the space and freedom to live large. Most of us have had enough of debt, fear, stress, excess, and stuff. There’s never been a better time for reassessing how much is enough, our wants versus our needs, and what makes us happy, healthy, and productive ~ and then right-sizing our lives accordingly.

Tammy: What prompted you to start your downsizing journey?

Victoria: Although I’ve always been drawn to smaller living spaces, my downsizing journey really started in earnest during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I’d recently moved back to Phoenix, was living in a luxury apartment, and was considering buying a house. I was following the post-Katrina situation closely – I lived in New Orleans a few years earlier and had several close friends still there. I remember standing on my balcony in Phoenix after watching a heart-wrenching interview with a woman who’d lost everything she’d owned because of Katrina, but was so very grateful she and her family were safe. I stood there thinking about it all – Katrina, New Orleans, the woman on television, my housing angst – and made a decision that I was not going to jump into the real estate market frenzy and, instead, would downsize to a small trailer, save my money, live small, and let real estate bubble ride for a few years while I decided what was important to me and how I wanted to live.

A friend’s father sold me his vacation trailer, which was located in a retirement mobile home community on the reservation – and what a great community! It was the best decision I’ve ever made. Friends and I emptied the trailer of all household items and furniture (it came with all the contents) and donated them to a family in need. I got rid of a bunch of my own stuff too and then my cat and I moved into our 440 square foot home. I was adopted by my elderly neighbors and had a blast living there. I started the first incarnation of the Smaller Living blog within a few months of moving in, to document my exploration of a smaller life.

I sold the trailer after a few years and pulled the blog down to refresh my ideas and expand its content. I re-launched Smaller Living a few months ago and am once again happily writing about my smaller living adventure and connecting with others who are on the same path. There are so many more of us now! It’s fabulous to see the movement gain momentum.

Tammy: How do you define minimalism and/or simple living?

Victoria: Simple living for me is distilling life down to its essential bits to be happy, healthy, and able to creatively contribute to the world, and jettisoning the rest. For me this sparks from the realization, as Duane Elgin in Voluntary Simplicity so eloquently states it, “that the fate of the individual is intimately connected with the fate of the whole.” Simple living (or smaller living as I call it) involves covering all your needs, an occasional want, and a very rare luxury. This approach has an emphasis on life, relationships, and community rather than things. At its heart, simple living is about removing unnecessary complexity and complication so we can focus on what’s really important in our lives and in the world. Being debt-free, down-scaling our dwellings, possessions, and lifestyles, and walking lightly on the earth are all part of simple living.

Minimalism is an offshoot of simple living, whose proponents admirably scale down their lives and belongings to an even greater degree. Everett Brogue on Far Beyond the Stars is a good example of a minimalist approach to simple living, as is Leo Babauta on Zen Habits.

Tammy: A number of my readers want to start decluttering their homes, but don’t know where to start. How can folks start the decluttering process and avoid feeling so overwhelmed by the challenge?

Victoria: The first piece of advice I always give is to not consider the whole of the decluttering chore at one time – otherwise, becoming overwhelmed is almost inevitable. Instead, once you’ve committed yourself to decluttering your home (or office), just take baby steps. Post a picture on your refrigerator of a calm, clutterless room or closet that can serve as your inspiration.

Then, pick one area at a time to declutter. If a room seems too intimidating, then focus on one closet or one drawer at a time. Have some extra boxes or bags with you when you are declutter: one for donation, one for trash, and one for things you want to keep. Once you’ve gone through everything in that area, put only those things back that you’ve deemed important enough to share your space with you. If you can’t decide if you should keep an item or not, plop it into a box with others that you aren’t sure about, label it with the date, and put it in your garage or closet shelf. After one year, any items in that box you haven’t used, you can donate them to others without another thought.

Garage sales are a great way to reap some money from the items you are sending out of your life. However, people who tend to accumulate clutter are often busy and, although garage sales sound good to them, it will add one more chore in an already busy schedule. If that sounds like you, do yourself a favor and by-pass the garage sale. The goal is to simplify your life and lighten your load, not add yet another stress-inducing chore to your list. Just donate the items and be sure to keep a list of what you donated. You can take a deduction on your tax return if you donated them to a non-profit organization or charity.

The key to successful decluttering is to ensure there’s a dedicated home for everything in your possession and to put it there. Once you let go of what you don’t need, want, or use, you can then assign homes to what remains. Use the rule “one in, one out.” If anything new comes into your home, something equal in size needs to leave.

Tammy: Earlier this year you made the decision to go car-lite and start biking and walking more. What inspired you to take that leap? And what tips do you have for someone who does not live in a bike-friendly city, but still wants to move toward a car-lite or car-free lifestyle?

Victoria: Your writing on RowdyKittens and your e-book Simply Car-Free were actually the inspiration that got me back on my bike last Spring and doing a bike/Light Rail commute to work 15 miles away. With the brutal summer heat (it was 115F here yesterday), biking and walking in Phoenix has become extremely difficult the past month and I’m struggling with how to pull it off and still be presentable (and functioning) at work. My biking has now become more of an early morning activity on the weekends. I’m looking to try ride sharing with some friends in the upcoming weeks until the weather cools down a bit.

For anyone who lives in an inhospitable environment (either due to weather or because they don’t live in a bike-friendly city), I’d suggest connecting with others who face the same challenges and brainstorm with them and find mentors who have mastered those challenges.

Don’t reinvent the wheel – find your tribe, share your experiences, and suck up the group knowledge. I met with Tony Arranaga, the Light Rail Blogger, a few weeks ago and we chatted about how to manage the heat while bike commuting, as well as some of the logistical challenges of biking around Phoenix, which is anything but bike-friendly. There’s also a group of us on Twitter that live in Phoenix and have car-lite/car-free goals and we’re planning to start a regular meet up in the next few weeks to share ideas and give each other support.

Tammy: I’m always curious about what other folks are currently reading. What books have you read recently and do you have any recommendations?

Victoria: The written word is very central to my life and I’m a voracious reader – I usually have three or four books going at any one time, both fiction and non-fiction. Two books in particular that I read recently really impressed me: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben and The New Good Life: Living Better in an Age of Less by John Robbins. These are two books I wish I could make required reading for everyone in the U.S. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Tammy: Everyone has unique skills; skills that I call superpowers. What is your superpower?

Victoria: I’d have to say in my case it’s an ability to easily see to the heart of things. In my day job as an archaeologist and historic preservationist, I’m barraged with a ton of complex data and input. For whatever reason, I’ve been blessed with an ability to quickly sift through it all, see the patterns, and synthesize it down to a few simple themes or issues that explain the whole – or identify what critical bits are missing. This serves me well in my personal life as well. I can identify the heart of a problem and the needed solution almost intuitively. I’m also a speed-reader, which is a huge gift given how much I read and how much information I digest on a daily basis.

Tammy: What have you gotten out of writing your Smaller Living blog that you didn’t expect?

Victoria: I’ve received three unanticipated gifts from writing Smaller Living: some amazing new friendships (like with you, Tammy!), exposure to an inspiring amount of new information about simple/minimal lifestyles, and a realization that my blog is helping me re-write my story. I realized that with the purchase of my house, with its large yard (and established non-native, water-sucking landscaping my neighbors adore), that I’d actually taken several steps backward on my smaller living journey.

It’s much easier to live small when you’re in a small apartment or tiny trailer with no yard and are living within biking/walking distance from work; at least in terms of keeping your home base simplified and your carbon footprint (and water usage) down. The house I bought is 1,200 square feet, but smaller homes located close to work were ironically out of reach for me financially. So I’m having to “de-engineer” my property to something that is more minimal and simple, which takes more time and more money than I’d anticipated.

I was humbled when I re-launched Smaller Living and took stock of my situation – it’s been like starting all over again in terms of reaching my smaller living goals. My blog has taught me a lot about not settling for less than what we need to support our values and chosen lifestyle.

Tammy: Thank you Victoria!

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