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The Art of Traveling Lightly

Five years ago, I was a one of “those travelers.” You know who I’m talking about, the person at the airport who is juggling large bags stuffed to the max and has to shove their giant carry-on suitcase into the overhead compartment.

I always packed a lot of stuff for any trip I took, whether the journey was long or short. I usually had a big duffel bag stuffed with clothes, a lap top case, a cosmetic pouch and a purse; that’s a lot of stuff to travel with and it’s a pain to deal so many bags, whether you’re flying or driving. Plus, I would always worry about my stuff getting lost, broken or stolen.

As I thought about my past packing habits, I had to giggle because it was so silly. Especially, since I didn’t use most of the stuff that I crammed into my suitcases. The majority of my clothes, books, and gadgets sat untouched for most of my journey. Or I’d waste an inordinate amount of time fretting over what outfit I wanted to wear to dinner.

Now my packing habits are completely different. Before I leave for any type of trip, I ask myself two questions:

– What will I be doing?
– What type of climate will I be in?

Answering those two basic questions determines what comes with me. Let me give you a quick example. Last weekend, Logan and I went on a small road trip. We drove down to Little Shasta to visit family and relax. I knew we’d be lounging around the house, helping out with chores, and eating a lot of amazing food. Also, the weather wasn’t going to be too hot or cold, but just right.

Even though I’ve downsized my stuff, I’m still apt to pack my whole closet. To solve this problem, I put half the clothes I was planning on bringing along back in the closet. Most of my outfits center around my black dress. It goes with everything and it’s easy to mix and match with sweaters, shirts and leggings.

Here’s the final list of stuff that made it into my travel bag:

– Camera
– Computer
– iTouch
– Cords for my gadgets
– Phone
– One book
– One black dress
– Gray and black leggings
– Pajama’s
– Two Tank Tops
– Two sweaters
– One coat
– Walking shoes and flip flops
– A knitting project
– My journal
– A Hat
– My tiny cosmetic bag

As I was writing out this list, I was a little disturbed by the number of gadgets that made the trip with me. I used all of them over the weekend, but I’m starting to wonder if it’s time to downsize my gadget collection.

Parting words . . .

Traveling lightly is an art because you have to carefully chose the things you are going to bring along. The more multi-purpose items you pack, the less stuff you have to carry. With less stuff to worry about you can focus on the people and places you’re visiting, instead of worrying about losing stuff or trying to decide what outfit to wear.

The same goes for all the stuff we use in our everyday life. A lot of folks don’t understand why we want to downsize our home or live with so little, but they always seem to understand why we’d want to travel with less. It’s easier to travel with less because there isn’t so much stuff to fret over. In the end, it comes back to answering a few key questions:

– How much do I need?
– How much is enough?

Answering these questions isn’t easy. But once you figure out what works for you, traveling lightly becomes a metaphor for life.

Syndicated on BlogHer.com


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jeffrey Tang May 9, 2011, 8:47 am

    Amen to this. I went to China last December with my girlfriend and her family. For our flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong, the airline charged an exorbitant fee for any luggage weighing over 30 pounds or so (can’t remember the exact number).

    Now, it was pretty crappy of the airline to charge so much, but boy was I glad to have packed lightly. Everyone else ended up paying a total fee somewhere around $200.

  • Steve M May 9, 2011, 9:28 am

    So with you on this one Tammy – it was one of those epiphany moments when I realised that I didn’t have to take ‘everything’ with me on a trip ‘just in case’. These days it all fits in one carry-on rucksack – bliss. The other revelation that I found really helpful was that a lot of the ‘stuff’ I was taking could be bought inexpensively the other end – like toiletries..


  • Sarah May 9, 2011, 9:29 am

    I carry a beach bag, one of those cute monogrammed totes (minus the monogramming). Inside are all the ziplocks with my personal care items and clothes. I never use books on trips for some reason I’m not much of a reader, they just add weight. If my lap top is going, I don’t need my journal, and if my lap top isn’t going I take my journal. I try to wear layers so that my shoes and coat are not in the bag, but on my back. Even my purse fits inside.

    I’ve not paid for luggage in over two years, and even when the overhead bins are full, it can fit under the seat (worst case scenario) in front of me.

    I feel naked without a ton of stuff, but oddly enough I don’t miss anything.

  • DJ May 9, 2011, 10:42 am

    What’s an iTouch?

    • Mike May 9, 2011, 12:01 pm

      @DJ – I think the official name of the device is “iPod Touch” – basically an iPhone without the phone capability.

      • DJ May 11, 2011, 3:53 am

        Thank you!

  • mary May 9, 2011, 11:09 am

    Thanks Tammy for this post. I always have the intention of traveling light but when it comes down to packing, I have such a difficult time deciding what to bring. Or more like what not to bring. I’m going to be going on a trip soon and will definitely refer back to this article to inspire me to pack just enough. 🙂

  • Roy | cruisesurfingz May 9, 2011, 11:12 am

    Great post. I love traveling light too!

  • Richard May 9, 2011, 12:07 pm

    We’re always travelling aren’t we? Either through life or for the weekend. In theory more stuff seems better or safer, but in practice, less is always better.

    Those 4 gadgets don’t sound excessive to me though – all have very valid and separate uses. I guess you could get an iPhone, and if you’re happy with the reduced image quality you’d replace the camera, iPod Touch and phone, but then you have to pay for the iPhone and the plan… And just for the weekend, the Touch could be a poor substitute for the computer, at least for basic web browsing and checking mail.

    • Tammy May 9, 2011, 4:47 pm

      @Richard – We’re actually going to ditch our cell phones soon. I rarely use mine because Skype is so amazing! Then I’ll be down to my camera, iTouch and computer. Not too bad!

      Thanks for your suggestions and reading!

      • Freth May 15, 2011, 3:19 pm

        except Microsoft just bought out Skype … and it may totally disappear or be so changed that you may no longer use it.

  • [email protected] May 9, 2011, 12:11 pm

    love this. religiously pack for air travel ONLY using carry ons, although for whatever reason find myself packing more for car trips (of shorter lengths). maybe if i start charging myself $25 dollars for extra baggage;)

  • Sarah May 9, 2011, 1:20 pm

    Tammy, I’ve been checking your blog out for the past few weeks and absolutely love it! My husband and I are working towards living a simpler life and it has been so inspiring to read your posts!
    I usually don’t say much but I had to pipe up this time, I love your backpack & would love to know what brand your backpack is and where you got it? My husband and I are going to be traveling a lot this summer & I’ve always overpacked. It seems like my packing motive is always to fill whatever bag I have…and right now its a big duffle bag that is just within the carry on limits :).

    • Tammy May 9, 2011, 4:56 pm

      @Sarah – It’s actually one of my bike bags. They are handmade by Swift Industries in Seattle. I love their stuff. Check it out. 🙂 http://www.builtbyswift.com/

  • Sherri May 9, 2011, 1:40 pm

    I admire your ability to travel light! I always try and usually fail. Though I’ve been able to scale back enough so I don’t check any luggage. Baby steps, right? I know you’re looking at reducing your gadgets, but have you considered switching to an e-reader so that you can always have your library with you? It was a must for us, since our library of 200+ books just were not going to make the move to Cost Rica (it was cost a fortune), so we’ve started rebuilding a digital library. I am a gadget person and I love having an e-reader, because so often what I want to read depends on my mood.

    • Tammy May 9, 2011, 4:53 pm

      @Sherri – Yeah, it’s all about baby steps. I have an e-reader on my iPod Touch and love it. However, I still love reading print books too. 🙂

      Congratulations on the big move to Costa Rica! Very cool.

  • Vanessa May 9, 2011, 2:21 pm

    I’ve been reading for a while, but this is the first thing that prompted an immediate reaction from me… I am 100% in agreement that traveling lightly (and living lightly!) is a necessity for living a more stress-free life. I’ve been working on this for a number of years, as I too was one of those girls who just over-packed to the nines. I just went to Mexico with my boyfriend, and was so proud of myself – a single bookbag worth of stuff went with me for a week in Playa del Carmen (and the next time, it will be even LESS, since I pretty much lived in my bathing suit and pajamas all week). So proud, and yet upon returning to the States, got the most scathing look and a super attitude from the woman who stopped me in customs. She sneeringly asked, “You went to Mexico for a WEEK and only packed one bag?” When I told her yes, she continued to be so disbelieving that she made me get out of line and have my things looked through (for the 2nd time, and my things were checked twice more before I was allowed onto my next flight).

    I guess not everyone believes a girl can pack light. 🙁

    • Tammy May 9, 2011, 5:02 pm

      @Vanessa – WOW! That’s one crazy story. Thanks for sharing. Don’t let mean customs peeps get you down. Keep packing light. 🙂

  • Steve Jones May 9, 2011, 2:29 pm

    A few years back I was studying abroad in Eastern Europe, flying from Hungary to Croatia, and the weight limit for your baggage was 30 pounds. That was for all your baggage, not just a ‘per item’ weight limit. If you wanted to check 2 bags, then they better weight less than 30lbs combined! Thankfully I knew in advance and packed accordingly, everything I brought was used and I never felt limited. It’s amazing how little you really need to have with you…

  • Leo May 9, 2011, 3:15 pm

    My family and I are traveling to Guam this summer and I’m trying to convince my wife to pack a swimsuit and a toothbrush and nothing else. Not successful so far, but that’s pretty much what I’m planning on taking, along with my laptop. 🙂

    • Tammy May 9, 2011, 5:02 pm

      @Leo – Nice strategy! I hope your wife comes around. 🙂 Have a great trip!

  • Brenda May 9, 2011, 3:18 pm

    What a beautiful view!

  • Helen May 9, 2011, 4:00 pm

    I travelled to Greece for 2 weeks as a chaperone for a dozen or so teenagers and a group of adults. The itinerary had us moving every day between hotels on planes, buses, and ships. I only brought a Timbuk2 medium sized messenger bag with my stuff. Everyone else lugged 1 or 2 suitcases plus handbags over cobblestones and up stairs and in and out of buses etc. In the beginning of the trip they all laughed and made fun of my little bag. In the end they all vowed to pack less next time they… Ha. It is SOOO liberating to travel lightly!! Not to mention not shopping for tons of tacky souvenirs. My travel mates filled suitcases (some even BOUGHT another suitcase during the trip in order to be able to buy more stuff!!) with souvenirs for some strange reason. Whenever I travel I only buy (or find) one tiny little thing as a memento to hang in my xmas tree. Every year I have a great time decorating my tree pulling out odd keychains, necklaces, beer coasters on a string, a wine cork, and more while remembering the good times I spent in different places. Storebought shiny xmas ornaments seem so artificial and meaningless anymore compared to my little box of treasures.

    • Kate May 10, 2011, 8:41 am

      Hi Helen, What a wonderful idea for x-mas ornaments!!! I love it! I usually just buy a fridge magnet during my travels or perhaps a t-shirt if I can find one inexpensively, but you just gave me a great idea for a project to transform my magnets into ornaments, since I moved to my apartment from my house, I have yet to put them up on the fridge and was thinking of what to do with them… Thanks for sharing.


  • patti May 9, 2011, 6:34 pm

    count me in amongst the converted-to-travelling-light!
    i can go anywhere for six weeks with a small timbuk2 backpack and a small cabin bag (which i prefer to check in).
    having the right clothes in the right fabrics makes things a lot easier too.
    things that layer, mix and match, unroll from a crushed ball looking fabulous, and drip dry overnight.
    creating my travel wardrobe has taken thought and time, but it is so worth it, when i can throw exactly what i need into a bag, and know that i’ll look put-together at the other end.

    i broke my leg rather dramatically in paris last month and my husband was easily able to manage hauling me, plus our minimal luggage, home.
    we bought an ipad2, just before setting off on our trip and it was the best thing ever…particularly while i languished in a french hospital for ten days.
    i will never carry a laptop again, even though i run my small company while we travel.
    it can all be done via ipad and an app called teamviewer.

  • sgl May 9, 2011, 6:47 pm

    back in 1991, i traveled thru europe for 3 months and only had a single carry-on bag that fits under the airline seat. i followed the advice of seattle-based travel writer Rick Steves (europe thru the back door guide books; also tv travel series on PBS):
    Packing Light and Right
    there were many many times i was very happy to have so little to carry. and i don’t recall any times that i really missed anything.

    on the other hand, i used to travel for business. usually i could fit everything into a travel-pro roll-aboard carryon, plus a case for my laptop computer and a few files. however, sometimes that was difficult, especially in cases where i had to visit a cold snowy place in the same trip as a warm place (eg, visiting Iowa and Florida in the same week), and the bulky cold weather gear was always a big problem.


  • Sandra Pawula May 9, 2011, 8:33 pm


    From reading this it’s clear to me that have basic essentials (black dress, leggings) be begin with is the key. I’m impressed that you are able to manage so efficiently. It’s very encouraging. Thanks.

  • et May 9, 2011, 9:06 pm

    Have seen this site?


    “There’s no question: overpacking tops the list of biggest travel mistakes.

    Thus this Web site, which offers exhaustive (some might say exhausting!) detail on the art and science of travelling light, going pretty much anywhere, for an indefinite length of time, with no more than a single carry-on-sized bag.

    Travelling light is a skill comprised of a very large number of very small considerations. Individually, many of them might seem relatively unimportant; collectively, they make it possible to journey for extended periods of time carrying no more than will fit in a surprisingly small bag.”

    • Tammy May 10, 2011, 5:17 am

      @ET – Yes I have. It’s a great resource. Thanks for sharing!

  • Lori May 10, 2011, 4:24 am

    It’s true traveling lightly is an art and you have to work at it. Each time you travel you realize more and more what is needed and what is not. I too laugh at the way I used to pack for vacations, everything came with me but not much was used. In 2009 my husband and I took a motorcycle trip cross country. Due to the limited carry on space, it really opened my eyes to what is really necessary for a long trip. Also with several different climate changes it made it even more interesting to pack for. (We traveled from Pennsylvania to Arizona in July) Since that was our first time taking a trip like this I packed some things that weren’t exactly needed, but now I know for next time 🙂 Also, I love the video of Little Shasta, what a wonderful place, how lucky you both are!

  • Liz @ Creative Liberty May 10, 2011, 7:17 am

    Thank you for posting the pic of what was going into your bag. That REALLY helps me visualize how it all fit. I am typically not a light traveler (even on day trips) but your 2 questions tool may really help when I go on a day trip this weekend. Thanks for bringing this up. I wonder if there is a “smart/light packing for trips website/blog” somewhere?? That would appeal to Rowdy Kitten’s readership?

    –Liz 😉

  • Jane May 10, 2011, 8:56 am

    have you seen this? Hilarious!


    Keep up the good posts. Love them.

  • Kim May 10, 2011, 4:04 pm

    This is a pretty great idea, I know that during spring break this past year I took a huge suitcase full of clothes that went untouched! I hadn’t heard of the concept of taking half as much as what I thought i’d need until after that trip -.-‘ haha but this is great! for a short trip, however what recommendations have you for a fresh-out-of-high-school-about-to-go-to-college-in-the-fall person? Now that is something I really need help with! haha I know i’ll have to ship my necessities, or buy them over there. I’m going out of state for college, so any advice you have would be great!

  • Terry Doyle May 10, 2011, 6:15 pm

    Great post! A subject we’ve been interested in for a long time and a natural follow-on to your shining example of living simply. Not to brag but we recently went to Guatemala for 4 weeks – birding, hiking, holy week and language lessons.

    Two carryons and maybe 25 lbs. each. Not hard even though the clothes we wore needed to be washed or ignored another day. Cameras, books, cell phone, kindle, chargers, couple shirts each, couple pair of pants, 4 changes of undergarments, binoculars, reading material, medical stuff. All into two bags and not that much of a chore.

    No waiting at the plane switch in DFW and might have missed our connection if we had to stand around and wait for checked bags to follow us. No problems, did not wish for more STUFF while traveling. Always a blessing to be able to hop onto a bus or boat with just what you’ve got in one hand or on your back.

    Traveling light is the only way to go. No one gets back from vacation wishing they’d taken more STUFF. 😉

  • Karen T. May 10, 2011, 6:47 pm

    I too noticed the number of gadgets you chose to bring. You may have used all of them over the weekend, but maybe that’s because you had them with you and not because you really “needed” them. If you’re with friends and family, do you need to be able to listen to music (effectively separating yourself from everyone) or whatever else you do with your itouch? (I don’t have one, so I don’t know what it does.) If you have your computer, do you also need your itouch? Does your phone have a camera, and if so, do you need another camera? I’m 50, so I lived a long time before these gadgets were widely available, and even in the “ancient era” (as my kids call it), we were able to have a fun and full life with only a landline phone and no computer access (it’s supposed to be a relaxing weekend, after all!).

    Other than the gadgets, your packing list seemed very minimalist and very versatile!

  • Victoria May 11, 2011, 5:07 am

    Hello Tammy –

    Just found your blog via a reference from Carol Tice’s blog. What a great post, a topic I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about myself. After following Rolf Pott’s No Baggage Challenge last fall, where he traveled around the world for 6 weeks with no carry-on luggage, I’ve radically reduced the amount of “stuff” I travel with as well.

    We’re also trying to downsize our home and the rest of the “stuff” that goes with it. There’s a chance I’ll be spending this summer either in a wall tent or 1-room cabin, so I’ll have a first-hand chance at answering those two questions – how much is enough and how much do I (really) need??

    Beautiful video also!

    Cheers –

  • rob May 11, 2011, 5:53 am

    I was amused to be reading this on my phone in the airport two days ago. I am away on business for 4 days and brought toiletries, undies, shoes, 1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of shorts, a couple of shirts, and …. my MBP, iPad, Droid and the assortment of cords that come with them. If I were not on business the laptop wouldn’t have come. I was fascinated by the difference between my infinitesimal bag & small backpack compared to the HUGE roll-ons that people bring. The best part was that it was a small jet and virtually all those people had to fight their way upstream in the aisle to gate-check their huge bags. I wish the airlines would actually enforce their size limits for carry-on. Virtually none of the bags people bring with them would pass muster.

  • Michelle Bross May 11, 2011, 8:51 am

    Yes, “Travel Light” is a metaphor for a fear-less life.

  • Meg May 11, 2011, 12:55 pm

    I am going to save this post to my travel folder. I am going on a world trip next year and I have been thinking about what I need to pack since I am going to be in so many different climates at different parts of the year. This is very helpful and useful. I want to pack light. I have a 75L pack but I don’t want it full. That would be a load on the shoulders. Thank you for sharing this insightful post!

  • Christina May 11, 2011, 1:53 pm

    Rolf Potts’ RTW videos are great. Traveling with just a Scottevest is my next “traveling light” goal.

    I’ve been traveling for the last 10 years with just a carry-on. My favorite bag so far is the MLC Wheelie bag from Patagonia and every time I put it in the overhead bin I am shocked at how it disappears into the bin! All the other passengers seem to struggle with their carry-on luggage. You can see what I pack into the bag for a typical trip here: http://youtu.be/x1VUjdrG_oc

  • Mica May 11, 2011, 1:56 pm

    Great topic! Traveling has always been the one area I am consistently good at keeping minimalistic. I always try to keep all my things to a small 1.5′ by 3′ by 6″ suitcase (when I need a frame because I’m taking food with me too) or a backpacking bag. I once went on a business trip across the country for two weeks and only had one carry on. (For plane trips, I will usually have a small “activity” bag I can remove from my primary bag that stores my journal, knitting, iPod, and snacks so I can store the backpack away.)

    Another tip, a lot of toiletries can be purchased at the destination. On my two week business trip, after landing I picked up a couple of travel-sized toiletries and used up most of their contents before boarding.

    My secret weapon is a travel bottle of Febreeze, just in case of delays!

  • Socal May 11, 2011, 9:00 pm

    Next time try ditching the laptop and challenge yourself to use only your ipod touch. You’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish with that tiny device! It might even inspire you to design an app! I for sure thought that desk tops would become extinct with laptops…now I’m thinking the same is possible…for laptops to become extinct with ipod touch and other ‘smart’ devices… I don’t enjoy reading books as much on the ipod though…newspaper is fine, web pages fine…not books… dunno why…

  • Jane Rochelle May 12, 2011, 6:16 am

    5 years ago we almost missed a connecting flight when we were returning from Paris … we were stuck in baggage claim, waiting for our luggage. We decided then and there that we’d be carry-on travelers from then on. We each carry one backpack, even to Europe, even in the winter. My backpack has wheels, so even on the bumpy streets of Rome or Madrid, on an off of buses and trains, I’m able to take care of my own bag. It works beautifully, and we never stress about where our bags are.

  • Joshua Gordon May 14, 2011, 1:49 pm

    I find it remarkable how quickly luggage can balloon if you’re not intentional about keeping things lite.

    Sarah (my wildly hot wife) and I travel fairly often, and we always take our two girls with us (a 2 yr old and 3 mo. old). Sar’s the queen of efficient packing.

    Wildly hot wives are the bomb!

    – Josh

  • Heather May 15, 2011, 11:29 am

    My husband and I went to Spain in 2009 using only two small carry-on sized suitcases (I always pack one empty, foldable tote bag that’s considered “personal sized” for souveniers). The airline employee at the counter who checked us in was amazed that we were traveling overseas for 9 days using only two carry-on bags. The weather in Spain was unseasonably warm, so we wound up wearing HALF the clothes we brought with us. I’d rinse my thin cotton shirts at night and jeans can hang-dry in about 36 hours. We’ve always been light travelers, but the experience proved we could have made it with even LESS than what we brought.

  • Thea | Write Change Grow May 16, 2011, 11:37 pm

    Hi Tammy
    Packing light is definitely a good skill to have. Backpacking for 8 months definitely helped me trim down on luggage. You learn to watch what you take with you when you have to walk around with it on your back all day.
    My friends laugh at me now when I go away for the weekend and turn up with one tiny bag. My girlfriend’s shoe bag is normally bigger than my main one.
    The one exception to this was when I went shopping in NYC. I took a huge suitcase (which I have never used since) and filled it up with shopping while I was there. Turned out it was so heavy in the end, I couldn’t do anything with it (getting up and down stairs was a nightmare). I also had to pay excess baggage fees on my flight home.
    From then on it was back to packing light.

  • Amy May 21, 2011, 1:28 pm

    I have been following your blog for a few months now and love it! This particular entry was timely as I read it 2 days prior to leaving on a family trip to the Gulf coast of Florida with my husband and 2 kids. As I was helping my kids pack, I felt inspired to explain the value of packing fewer items and sharing a suitcase. I pointed out that packing more things leads to lost items, heavier suitcases, and wasting time waiting at baggage claim. They got the message! We managed with just 2 carry-on suitcases and 2 medium bags. We had a great time and I didn’t spend my time and energy keeping track of everyone’s stuff. Thanks!

  • Angela May 24, 2011, 6:40 am

    Packing light is the best! My best tip is to never take more than 3 sets of underwear – one to wear, one in the wash and one spare.

    Also a cotton sarong doubles up as a towel, is less bulky and dries in a flash…I find it better than those funny little microfibre towels which to me are like drying yourself with a flannel.

    I also don’t have a camera – everyone has them nowadays, and it’s easy to get copies of the pictures that I want. Generally, I quite like being ‘out of touch’ when I am on holiday, so I wouldn’t take a laptop. The phone stays switched off!

    Also if I don’t wear something on a trip (as long as it’s not due to a sudden change in the trip or the weather for example) I usually force myself to leave it behind. That certainly focuses the mind when you pack 🙂

    I’m also going to investigate an e-reader of some sort… having got the packing down to very little, on my last trip books were nearly 50% of the weight!

  • rob May 24, 2011, 11:24 am


    I took an iPad to NZ as my travel computer/book/music/maps and it was awesome. Highly recommended. And it weighs next to nothing.

    • Tammy May 24, 2011, 11:52 am

      Great tip Rob! My friend Chris has an iPad and loves it. 🙂

  • rob May 24, 2011, 11:57 am

    A lot of travel books (Lonely planet guides, for sure) can be had as .pdf files now – I traveled all over NZ using lonely planet NZ, along with google maps whenever I could get WiFi. Had no paper books with me at all, and no maps.

  • Annie May 25, 2011, 11:48 am

    Not only is taking very little stuff key, I’ve found that the way you pack it can reduce the amount of space required. I found this method ( http://www.onebag.com/popups/bundle.html ) at Jessica Dang’s blog minimalstudent.com . I haven’t yet had the chance to try it, and am still perfecting the whole downsizing thing (it’s tricky when you live at home and your mother INSISTS on buying you ever more clothes :/ ) but Jessica packed a suitcase for a WHOLE YEAR by using this method!! Mind you, she does only have 63 things..

    Oh, and amazing blog Tammy! I already want a tiny house but I’m only 16! in a few years maybe.. 😉

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