Is ‘trading up’ your space worth it?

Are you in constant pursuit of a bigger, better home? Do you think that more space will solve your problems or alleviate the stress of storing all your stuff? Are your eyes set on the biggest house you can afford?

If you answered affirmatively to any of the above questions, you may want to take a few minutes to read Daniel McGinn’s article originally published in Newsweek in 2008, “Extreme Downsizing: How moving from a 6,000-square-foot custom home to a 370-square-foot recreational vehicle helped quell one family’s ‘House Lust.’

The family featured in the article was getting ready to buy a home on land and give up their RV after two years on the road. They learned a number of valuable lessons over the two years, but this one stuck out to me:

“Debbie makes it clear that their next home, while smaller, will still be nicely appointed. It’s not as if she’s forsaken the American dream altogether; she has just realized that the endless cycle of ‘trading up’ to nicer homes isn’t very fulfilling. ‘It was this constant “This will be the answer.” Then you’d come up empty at the end,’ she says. ‘It was this searching thing, and I think I’m done with the search.'”

This article has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Creating extra storage and counter space in a small kitchen

You’ve been a good unclutterer and gone through your cabinets and discarded the items you never use. You’ve put away the rarely used appliances that sat on your countertop. For those with a good size kitchen, you’re done. Your kitchen is uncluttered. But what about the rest of us?

If you’re like me and you rent an apartment or own a condo with a tiny kitchen, your counter space still doesn’t offer enough room to cook a complete meal. I have size and poor design to deal with in my kitchen. I can clear my counters completely and still have a difficult time finding space to cut vegetables. To work around this dilemma, I have found a solution: A kitchen cart.

I used to think kitchen carts were silly. That is, until I had a real use for one. Now, I can’t exist without it.

My cart won’t fit inside the kitchen, so I have to store it against the wall across from the kitchen entrance. When it’s time to cook, I just wheel the cart over to the kitchen and, suddenly, I have all the counter space I need. It also blocks off the entrance, keeping my husband and the dog out of my cooking space.

Here is what to look for in a kitchen cart:

  • Sturdy – You need to be able to chop things on it, so go for something that won’t rock or cause you to slice your fingers.
  • Wheels – You should be able to move it where you need to use it.
  • Wire Racks – This feature is great for holding mixing bowls and other items used for cooking.
  • Hooks – If you’re also short on drawer space, the hooks are nice for utensils.

What’s a kitchen for?

Today’s kitchens are used for more than just preparing food. They are often playrooms, offices, mail centers, and TV rooms. When you mix up so many purposes for the same space (or even the same countertop), you’re not going to get good results. Something as simple as making a ham and cheese sandwich is impossible when your countertops are covered with bills and other papers. Instead of succumbing to this fate, set up different spaces for different tasks.

Ideally, your kitchen should only be for cooking, but realistically that’s not going to be the case–especially since kitchens tend to be the center of family activity. Designate some countertop space that’s off-limits to anything but cooking or eating, and make it a point to keep it clear when it’s not being used. That way, when you’re ready to use it again, it’s ready for you.

If you must bring mail and bill-paying paraphernalia into the kitchen, set up a space for just that activity and don’t let it spread out of that area. (A desktop organizer or mini-shelf is a perfect solution.) Even if you can’t dedicate surfaces to specific activities like bill-paying, storage in the kitchen can help. For example, when you finish eating at the kitchen table, you take away the dishes to wash and store in the cupboard. Why not do the same with everything else? If you pay bills, do homework, or play games at the kitchen table, make sure to clean up when you’re done. Keeping a drawer or cupboard for each activity will make it as easy and second-nature to put away your stuff.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

How to organize holiday gift bags

Holiday gift bags are more popular now then when I was young, and unlike wrapping paper, they’re reusable. This year we received quite a few of them and I’ve been thinking about good ways to store them. Here are a few ways to store holiday gift bags to keep them in good condition for reuse.

Magazine holders are my favorite method of organizing gift bags. You can get about two dozen bags into a single magazine holder, and the write-on label makes it easy to categorize and retrieve the one you want.

You can also use a large, handled gift bag and put the smaller gift bags inside. Once folded, sort them by size or occasion. The larger bag becomes a sort of mobile filing cabinet that you can pull out at the next gift-giving occasion. It’s easy to store, simply hang it on a hook in a closet.

An expandable accordion-style file folder is another great method, provided that your bags are relatively small. Don’t expect larger bags to fit without protruding from the top of the folder.

A hanging organizer might be useful. However if hung on a door, it may prevent it from opening all the way or bang against the door whenever it’s opened or closed. It would be great if hung on a rod in a closet though.

If the bags are not suitable for re-use, you can cut them into gift tags, use them for arts-and-crafts projects, donate them to an elementary school teacher, after-school club, or toss them into the recycling bin. In any case, have fun organizing — or saying goodbye — your holiday gift bags.

Craft storage without the visual clutter

When I was organizing full-time, I regularly worked with craftspeople. Scrapbooking, textile arts, or traditional visual arts are three fields that use many bits and bobs. And all too often, the creative mind veers towards chaos, meaning an artist’s studio or scrapbookers craft room becomes a pile of pieces of projects and remainders of previous projects that can deter the artist or crafter from moving forward.

Quite often, North American houses have basements or a space over the garage for a studio or craft room, sometimes up to hundreds of square feet to spread out in and organize materials in a meaningful and logical way. But what if you don’t have all that extra space? Or what if you’re like me and you don’t want everything visible creating visual clutter?

Folding furniture might be a solution for you. As long as you have floor space to unfold and use the piece of furniture, and as long as you take the time to tidy up and fold the cabinet or desk back away again, it could be a great way to have your artist studio or craft room in the middle of your regular living space and not have to worry about visual or physical clutter.

Recently I came across what is probably a crafter’s dream storage solution: The Original Scrapbox WorkBox 3.0. When folded up, it uses less than 3 sq ft of floor space, but when opened up, it offers 9 linear feet of shelves, cubbyholes and hanging storage along with a decent sized work space.

When I first saw the video, my heart leapt in my throat and I actually said out loud “I want that!” After posting something to that effect on my Facebook wall, however, one artist friend said it looked wonderful, but with so many storage options, he knew it would devolve into chaos in five minutes. And he’s right. I’m an organized person because I’m a minimalist, and too many options create clutter for me.

If you are a detail-loving person The Original Scrapbox furniture might be a good option for you, but for the rest of us, there are less overwhelming options that can still have the same result: organized craft space with no visual clutter.

Here are just a few of them. If you have a personal favorite that isn’t on the list, tell us about it in the comments.

Multi-purpose furniture

When you live in a small home, having multi-purpose furniture is essential. Most people are familiar with sofa beds as multi-functional pieces however, many are uncomfortable as beds and not very stylish as sofas.

Vancouver company, Expand Furniture aims to change the way we look at multi-purpose items by providing high quality, stylish furniture that saves space and puts the fun back in functional.

My favourite unit is the Compatto, a three-in-one; queen-sized wall bed, revolving bookcase, and table (probably because it makes me think that this would be something that Batgirl used in the 1960s TV show Batman). This is a real space-saving versatile package. The attached dining table would comfortably fit 4-6 people and a 6-inch deep, queen-sized mattress would allow guests to have a good night’s sleep. Watch the video to see how easily this piece converts from one layout to another.

I also like the Trojan console dining table with four hidden chairs. This item would be great if you lived alone and only needed a larger dining table some of the time. It would also be useful in a small office. You could wheel it out only on those occasions when you needed a large work surface or had meetings with several people. The rest of the time, it would be out of the way leaving more room in the office. The video shows how quickly this console becomes a table.


If you have a small space but occasionally have overnight guests, for example your grandchildren, the Murphy Bunk Bed system would be ideal. It includes two mattresses and the rail ladder. It is well-built and sturdy enough for adults to sleep in yet easy enough for young people to set-up and fold away. Also, the top bunk tilts downwards so you don’t have to climb over the mattress to make the bed. When collapsed, the bunks only stick out about ten inches from the wall. The video demonstrates all the features of this Murphy bed system.

The minimalist vegetable garden: growing things when you have no space

I grew up vegetable gardening. We had a 25 acre property that had been in my family for decades and my mother always planted a huge garden, full of enough squash, beans, potatoes, carrots, and Swiss chard to get us through the entire winter.

As a university student and an apartment dweller, I didn’t vegetable garden at all. When I got my house in Toronto, I tried it given that I had a large backyard and prefer garden to grass, but all I ended up doing was feeding the neighbourhood raccoons.

I’ve been in Spain a decade now and other than helping out a friend in his garden plot a few towns over, I haven’t done any vegetable gardening at all. My husband loves cacti and our balconies are half full of the easy-to-care-for plants, but he’s not into anything at all edible.

Maybe it’s age, or maybe it’s looking out the bedroom window and seeing a large garden plot down below, but I’m getting the itch to do some gardening of my own. However, decorative plants are so not my thing. If I’m going to garden, I want it to be useful and productive. I want to be able to eat what I grow.

Our balconies, though, are not that conducive to vegetables. We’re on the ninth floor and face an ocean-side mountain, meaning that no matter what the weather’s like, there’s a strong breeze whipping by all day long. Plus the protected balcony is too small and already occupied by the beloved cacti, so growing any edible plants there is not really an option.

What’s a wannabe apartment gardener to do then?

I thought I’d give vertical gardening a try. While we don’t have a lot of wall space, we do have quite a lot of ceiling and railing space to hang planters. Amazon has several varieties, such as Topsy-Turvy Tomato Planters that hang from the ceiling, or any number of hanging or self-supporting vertical planters.

I’m never going to get a full vegetable garden in, not even if I opt for square-foot gardening, but I think I might just be able to scratch that itchy green thumb of mine with a few dangling tomato plants, some wall-hugging herbs and maybe a zucchini plant or two elegantly hanging off the inside of the balcony railing.

Any suggestions? Do you have postage-stamp balcony gardens? How do you satisfy your urge to cultivate?

When it comes to an organized home, does size matter?

I’m a longtime fan of TV home design shows, especially the Love or List franchises. I even watch them here in Spain dubbed into Spanish and several years out of date. As much as I love seeing the transformations, my main reason for watching the shows has nothing to do with the home makeovers at all.

I watch the shows because I love seeing the reactions of Spanish friends and family as the homeowners complain about their lack of space.

Having lived in both cultures, I understand both points of view. I grew up in a 14-room (four bedroom) house on a third of an acre lot. My parents retired to a 5000 square foot home with a separate guest house. My own house in downtown Toronto was over a 1000 square feet with 50×50 ft gardens in front and in back of the house. And half the time, I thought my house was too small for just me!

When I moved to Spain and came upon a completely different mindset.

My first apartment (which I shared with my now-husband) was 270 square feet and we lived there quite happily for over five years (after living there for two years and not killing each other, we decided that marriage was a definite possibility).

The flat we live in now is about 600 square feet and, to be quite honest, is more than large enough for the two of us (and whatever guests might be visiting). In fact, I’m now so accustomed to the size of living spaces here that I have no desire for a large place. When buying a second place for weekends and vacations, we looked at a narrow three-story house in the center of a village, but decided that it was too big, and I’m pretty certain it was under 1000 square feet.

In 2013, the website Shrink the Footprint published an article about average home size around the world and it seems to show that countries with lots of space tend to have larger homes (Canada, USA, Australia).

My Spanish friends and family ask me all the time why North Americans need so much space. “Doesn’t it just generate more clutter?” they ask.

Judging by the majority of houses featured in the typical home makeover programs, the answer seems to be yes, more space equals more clutter.

But, I’m not sure how true that really is. I’ve mentioned before the TV show Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, and the majority of the people on the show who live in cluttered spaces have small homes in comparison with a typical North American house.

When asked that question, therefore, I explain that it’s all a matter of mindset and attitude. Yes, more space could encourage more clutter, but only if you let it. Just as a small space might cause someone to cram what he owns into every nook and cranny.

In other words, in my opinion, when it comes to being organized, size does not matter in the least. But that could just be me.

What about you? Is there a link between house size and disorganization?

Getting rid of the kitchen: social media dining

Unless you’ve been sitting on top of a mountain meditating the last five years, you’ll know the term food-porn: the exhibitionistic display on social media sites of everything we eat. I’m guilty of this, especially when it comes to the food we make at home. We love to cook and we love to share what we cook, and not just in our Instagram accounts. We also love to have people over for dinner and often when some service we use regularly does a great job, we take a cake or perhaps homemade donuts to them as a token of our gratitude.

In my search for examples of a non-ownership world, I’ve discovered a network of sites taking social media dining to the next level, like an Airbnb for meals. You join an online community, find home-based chefs in your area and look at what they are offering. You order your meal and arrange its pickup or delivery. You get a home-cooked meal without having to pay the price of a personal chef.

At first glance, this service doesn’t seem much different from the rest of the take-out options we have, but if you think about it, a home-based chef doesn’t have the high overhead a restaurant has. Nor does the home-based chef have to market; she just needs to be a member of an online community. Plus, in the majority of cases, a home-cooked meal is going to be a lot healthier than one you can get as take-out.

There is of course, one major problem with the service: in most places, it’s illegal to sell food that has been prepared in a home kitchen.

According to the digital news outlet, however, some U.S. states are looking to change that. California, for example, is looking at introducing a new category to its food and safety regulations, allowing home kitchens to prepare and sell food.

So, what does this mean for a non-ownership world? Back in the early 2000s, a friend of mine moved from Toronto to New York, where she said that her kitchen was so small and the local supermarkets so expensive that she found it more practical and economical to have a binder of local take-out options and only prepare breakfast at home. I’m pretty sure that if a social media dining community existed back then, she would have tossed out the take-out menus and would have enjoyed home-cooked meals on a daily basis.

Think about it… if you only had to prepare breakfast, you wouldn’t need a large kitchen. A kitchenette would be sufficient really, saving on space and energy costs. You wouldn’t need a large fridge, or even an oven. A combination microwave and grill would cover your needs. A coffee maker and a small stove top would round out all the appliances you’d need. One or two cupboards for dishes and glass. Someone dedicated to the social media dining lifestyle could pretty much do away with a kitchen altogether.

In many large cities, like New York, space comes at a premium. Put the kitchen in a walk-in closet and you have more space for living, perhaps an actual dining room, instead of having to perch on the edge of the sofa, hoping not to spill anything on the fabric.

Finally, many of those who are going to inherit a non-ownership world – the teens and twenty-somethings – have no idea how to cook and next to no interest in learning to do so. For them, social media dining has all the benefits of living at home without having to wash the pots and pans afterwards.

If you want to give social media dining a try, check out one of these communities – they might have someone in your area ready to cook for you: Josephine, MealSurfers and Umi Kitchen.

Timer is a handy app for iPhone and your productivity

The iPhone app Timer from Contrast is a handy little utility that’s free on initial purchase. It lets you create several color-coded timers that can be launched, paused, and customized with a tap. It’s faster than using Apple’s Clock app and has earned a permanent home on my iPhone.

(Android users! Check out Smart Timer, which has many similar features. Same concept, different platform.)


Timer presents a 3 x 4 grid of buttons. Each represents a given duration. An active timer “lights up” as the numbers count down for easy reference. It’s clear and legible and the color coding keeps things organized. Timers with a preset duration display their value while those without show a clock icon.


I use timers a lot. Specifically, when I’m cooking, steeping tea, taking a nap, and focusing on work. Until recently, I used Apple’s Clock app for this and that app is okay but not nearly as robust as Timer.

First and foremost, Timer allows you to run several timers at once. This is a huge benefit in the kitchen. Let’s say the potatoes au gratin need 45 minutes to cook, the broccoli 10 minutes, and the turkey 3 hours. Each can have their own timer and they can all run at the same time with this app. Yes, you probably have a timer on your microwave, but it’s only helpful if you don’t need to heat something up in the microwave while the timer is running. And the one on your stove likely only allows you to time one thing at a time, making you play a guessing game with two or three other items that might be cooking. Having multiple timers all in one place is extremely convenient.

Second, to keep yourself organized, you can assign a color to each of those items and even a unique alarm. That way, you can tell what’s done just by listening. To edit a timer, tap and hold on its icon to produce the editor, where you’ll find several options:

  1. Preset – Assign a default duration to this timer
  2. Time – Duration
  3. Alert – Choose the alert sound
  4. Color – Assign a color to that timer button

It’s useful to create timers for frequently-used durations. For instance, I steep my tea for 3 minutes and take 20 minute naps. Now each is a single tap away. When a timer is complete, your alert sounds, a message appears on the screen, and the corresponding button flashes. Also, the timer continues to count, but this time, forward. That way you can see how much time has elapsed since your timer expired.

Why not use Siri?

That’s a good question. Telling Siri, “Set a timer for three minutes,” is faster than launching Timer and tapping the appropriate button (depending on how fast you speak, that is). But Timer has several advantages over Siri. First, it can run several timers simultaneously, as I mentioned. It’s also easier to view a timer’s progress with Timer. Siri will show you a timer’s progress if you ask, “Let me see my timer,” though you still have to look at the screen. It won’t read the time remaining to you. Also, Siri can’t set a timer that’s less than a minute long. “I can’t set a timer with seconds. Sorry about that.”

What to do with an unused piano

An Unclutterer reader wrote to us asking a surprisingly common question:

I’m currently getting ready to move out of state. I’m retired, and am downsizing everything in my life. I have a piano that my father gave me when I was in high school. He passed away over 20 years ago. I’m moving to a small beach cottage on the Oregon coast. I am struggling with the decision of not taking the piano. I don’t really play it anymore, and feel that it isn’t going to fit in our small home. Somehow, I’m not sure if this is the right decision. What are your thoughts?

This is a question I can relate to, as I’ve been on both the giving and the receiving end of a piano. In addition to being a large instrument, pianos can also hold great sentimental value for their owners. Therefore, what to do with a piano can be a difficult decision.

The piano

First and foremost, pianos are big. Even a small upright piano can be as large as a couch. Inviting one into your home is a commitment, as they’re big, heavy, and difficult to move. Typically, once a piano has been placed in its spot, that’s where it’s going to stay until you move.

Don’t get me wrong, a piano is not a burden. It’s a lovely instrument. And, like many other objects, a piano can harbor tremendous sentimental value. When I was in high school and a dedicated music student, my parents acquired a piano from family friends who wanted to offload it. For the price of moving it across town, the piano was ours. I adored it and spent countless hours on the bench, playing away.

When I moved out to attend college, my parents were left with a massive piece of unused furniture. I was the only one in the family who played, and while I studied far away in Boston, the old piano back in Pennsylvania was being used to display family photos. After much deliberation, they decided the piano had to go.

The sentiment

The weight of emotion can be even stronger than trying to budge a piano that exceeds 400 pounds. In 2010, the BBC published an article, “What is nostalgia good for?”, which acknowledged the appeal of keeping sentimental items:

Nostalgia is a way for us to tap into the past experiences that we have that are quite meaningful — to remind us that our lives are worthwhile, that we are people of value, that we have good relationships, that we are happy and that life has some sense of purpose or meaning.

The article also noted the potential risks of keeping everything from the past:

While highlighting the benefits of nostalgia, a 2006 report in Psychology Today magazine has warned that ‘overdoing reminiscence’ risks an absence of joy derived from the present, and a reliance on past memories to provide happiness.

If you have no need for the piano, but it holds a great deal of sentimental value for you, perhaps there’s a book of sheet music in the piano’s bench you can display in a quality frame. Maybe the rack that holds up the music can be removed and repurposed elsewhere in the house. For your specific situation, I’d suggest finding a way to display some part of that experience in a meaningful way that will let you say goodbye to the piano itself.

As far as getting rid of the actual piano, start by asking friends if they might be interested in having it. Talk with music teachers — at schools, music stores, and those who give private lessons — to see if there might be students who are looking to acquire an instrument. List it on Craigslist or your local Freecycle if you can’t find the piano’s next owner in one of the previously mentioned ways. And, finally, see if the next resident of your home might be interested in having it. It’s very difficult to sell pianos, so prepare to think of it as a donation instead of something with monetary value.

Good luck and congratulations on your new home.