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The Elements of Smaller Living

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!


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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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Chris O'Byrne July 22, 2010, 6:01 am

    Victoria rocks.

    I’m practicing tiny commenting. 🙂

    • Tammy July 22, 2010, 6:09 am

      @Chris – Victoria is a rock star! I got to hang out with her this week in Portland. 🙂

      And you make me laugh. “Tiny commenting.” Excellent. 🙂

      • Chris O'Byrne July 22, 2010, 6:15 am


        I wish I was going to be there!

        • Victoria Vargas July 25, 2010, 8:13 pm

          Chris, I wish you could have joined us too! We’ll have to figure out a meet up for a “tiny conversation.” lol Thanks for the support! (and I think you rock, too!) 🙂

  • Meg July 22, 2010, 7:22 am

    Great interview. Victoria’s story and recounting her setbacks, such as buying a house with a non-simple yard, is honest and I can really relate to it. Dealing with the world as it is (climate, economy, etc.) can be a real mixed bag, but a consistency of vision will still help make a difference.

  • Joe3 July 22, 2010, 9:47 am

    Loved this interview, I can relate to so much….small house living, I’m in 500 ft2 and think it’s a tad big, experienced hurricane Ivan 2004, helped in Gulfport/Biloxi after Katrina, visited the Ninth ward last week and was amazed at the progress, lived in NON BIKE FRIENDLY Phoenix….experienced the same $$$ frustration trying to purchase close to work…..
    Loved the “live small and prosper”………think I’ll adapt that phrase. Living small has allowed me to work two days a week and my neighbors always comment about my ” living below my means ” .
    I’ll subscribe to the blog, Life is the learning Experience !! GREAT INTERVIEW…….

    • Victoria Vargas July 25, 2010, 8:10 pm

      Joe, thanks for the great response. I’m so glad my post resonated with you. I laughed when I saw your comment about “living below my means.” I just wrote a post recently about intentional downward mobility. Sounds like we’re on the same page. Live small and prosper! 🙂

  • Trever Clark July 22, 2010, 10:33 am

    Hey Ladies – I just tripped over this site after seeing it referenced on Twitter. I love synchronicity sometimes – I’m actually reading Duane Elgin’s “Voluntary Simplicity” right now! I’m 30 years old, and for years I was on the careerist/materialist bandwagon. I made a lot of money, but it all went toward credit cards and other bills. Then about 2 years ago, I was laid off from my job, went through a divorce, and lost my house, all in the space of about 6 months. I look back on it now as being one of the best things that ever happened to me. I live in a small apartment now, with a great new lady, and we work for ourselves from home. I don’t make nearly what I did before, or have nearly the possessions that I did before – and I’m ok with that because I have more time to do the things that I actually want to do.
    Thanks for the post, and I’m looking forward to checking in here more in the future!

    • Tammy July 22, 2010, 4:59 pm

      Trever – thanks for dropping by and sharing your story. Very inspiring. 🙂 I loved Duane Elgin’s “Voluntary Simplicity;” I just re-read the book a few months ago.

      Best of luck to you and thanks for reading!

  • Joanne Keevers July 22, 2010, 2:31 pm

    Hi Tammy. 🙂 I’ve only just discovered your blog and subscribed a couple of days ago. The concept of simple/minimalistic living and becoming debt free has me intrigued.

    So many ideas are whirling through my brain, since reading your interview with Victoria (who sounds lovely, by the way!) and I am going to have to take the time to digest it all.

    Having a husband (who is quite materialistic!) plus three of my offspring still living at home (two being teenagers still at school) I have others in my family to consider also. You really have put my head in a spin…this is the type of life that just “sits right” with me, always has. How easy it is to get caught up in the “stream of life” and suddenly end up in a place you never intended to go to!

    Hmmm…when my head clears, I may just have to begin blogging about this myself…there’s nothing like transferring thoughts into the written word to gain some perspective. 🙂

    Thank you, Tammy and Victoria, for opening my mind. 🙂

    • Tammy July 22, 2010, 5:07 pm

      @Joanne – Thank you for stopping by and subscribing. I really appreciate it. You’ll have to keep me posted on how your downsizing journey goes. I wish you the best! And if you have any questions, feel free to send me a note or just leave a comment… 🙂

  • Vanessa July 25, 2010, 3:32 am

    This was a great interview, Tammy. 🙂 I relate to Victoria’s predicament of not being able to afford the smaller, better located apartment or house – it’s ridiculous in a way. But then I suppose ‘location location location’ has always been the main draw, and many people are prepared to pay for it no matter how small the place.

    I’ve had to make the trade-off of moving 30 to 40 minutes from where I used to live, sharing a small house with an acquaintance. It’s great for the carbon footprint of my housing and electricity, but not so great in that I had to buy a car so that I could still visit my family and various friends (public transport options aren’t great). I’m trying to go car-lite by walking or cycling to the shops and work, and scheduling all appointments and social engagements that are back in my old hood on the same day, but it’s difficult. At the moment I have weekly doctor’s appointments back there, for a start! Sigh.

    Still, it is very satisfying to have found a cheap, lovely place to live with a great housemate.

  • John Manix August 10, 2010, 10:15 am

    Found about you and your blog from a New York Times article about getting by on less. Being an adopter of cats that have shown up in my yard over the last few years you’re web site intrigued me. Since getting out of debt almost 20 years now, over time, I have become even more frugal and have been naturally drawn to the idea of simple living. Not as extreme as some adherents but I do have shared housing with two family members. No mortgage, no debt. My small four cylinder truck is paid for but there is all sorts of ongoing hidden costs attached to it. If it were totaled or stolen I most likely would not replace it. My final connection on this article was a picture of a touring bicycle that is posted. I was curious and so I enlarged the picture to see the brand. As I suspected since you seem to be in the northwest it is a Surly LHT. A beautiful utilitarian bicycle. A true work of art. After much analysis and research three years ago I succumbed to one ambition. I bought a Surly Crosscheck. It has since been stolen. Such is the way of temptation. By living frugally and within my means when the occasional indulgence bites I can contemplate new wants. A LHT or another Crosscheck geared for touring and commuting beckons. Zen long and prosper.

  • Marsha June 10, 2011, 2:00 pm

    Has Ms. Vargas discontinued her blog? If so, that’s too bad. I read it for a while and enjoyed it. 🙁

    • Tammy June 10, 2011, 2:02 pm

      I believe so. It is sad. I loved it!

      • Marsha June 10, 2011, 2:39 pm

        Thanks for the update, Tammy. Hopefully she’s doing well and still inspiring people to downsize. Have a great summer!

  • mary June 24, 2011, 1:36 pm

    I am all about downsizing, and i am trying to lighten “the load” but what do you do when your spouse doesn’t necassrarly aggree with you, and says that everyone one is in debt, i want to live smaller, and simpler , work less, and worry less , its hard when you have resistance

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