Life in a Studio Apartment with my Wife and Two Sons

Between July 2011 and August 2015 I lived in a ~400sqft studio apartment in San Francisco. I moved in a bachelor but by the time I moved out, I was one member of a four person family. Here are some things I learned along the way.

studio-apartment-family
Photo: Roseann Bath – http://www.roseannbathphoto.com/

Lesson 1) Rent control has strange side effects

San Francisco has a rent control policy that prohibits most landlords from raising rent more than ~1% per year. The goal is to help fight against families getting displaced.

studio-apartment-bachelor-setup
My last days as a bachelor. The house had more surfboards than furniture and we somehow had room for a piano.

When my wife and I got married and she moved in, we considered moving. Our budget had increased some, but our purchasing power had dropped. We could change neighborhoods, but we’d be sacrificing in apartment quality. We decided to stay.

A year and a half later, we welcomed our first son into the world. At that point rent in the city had risen by over 50%. We were dropping to one income so my wife could be a full time mom, and we chose not to shoulder a rent increase simultaneously.

Babies are not very big. He wouldn’t take up much space.

So I built us a custom bed in the closet and we put the baby bassinet in the main room. We became very good at whispering.

studio-apartment-kitchen
The kitchen was the area of the house that changed most dramatically when my wife moved it. It was quite spartan when I was a bachelor as most nights I worked late and ordered in. She did a really nice job making use of the small space.

Seven months after Hunter was born, we found out we would be having another baby. Part of our plan, but maybe a bit sooner than expected. Sometimes those things take a while, and sometimes they don’t.

As the pregnancy progressed, our oldest son started walking and, like his dad, was very active. Staying seemed impossible.

We searched. We explored all options. The trouble is rent had gone up a ton so we weren’t going to be able to afford to stay in our neighborhood. (Please note my definition of the word afford might be slightly different than yours.)

Let me give you some perspective.

san-francisco-rent-trends

When I moved in, a studio in San Francisco cost ~$1,200-1,500. ~$3sqft/month. By the summer of 2015 a 2BR in our neighborhood of San Francisco would fetch ~$4-5k. $5.50/sqft/month. That is a big increase in itself. But when you do some algebra to figure out the cost per sqft gained it gets even bigger. For those extra 400sqft we’d be paying $3,200 or $8/sqft/month.

Essentially we’d have to pay four times as much rent for twice as much apartment. A tough bite to swallow.

Thanks to rent control we had low rent on our studio. But thanks to rent control we were financially disincentivized from moving anywhere else. It was a very strange feeling.

We explored other options: doubling my commute or moving to a neighborhood with higher crime rates.

studio-apartment-dining-area

In the end we decided to make it work for a bit longer. We had hoped a raise at work, a transfer to a new location or possibly changing companies would make things easier. We needed about 6 months to explore options, come to a decision and implement a change.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

studio-apartment-closet-nursery
Our closet nursery. The crib fit wall to wall when I removed one side (the one you can’t see).

Lesson 2) Deviations from the local norm are costly

My wife and I were 27 when our first son was born. Significantly younger than the median San Francisco birthing age of 33. We also made a decision to have my wife stay at home with the children.

Neither of those things are strange for a family in the United States during the last century. But both of those are strange for a San Franciscan in 2015.

I didn’t realize all of the effects that decision would have on our lives in San Francisco. There is probably enough there to fill a blog post, but when it comes to apartments, it meant that it was even harder for us to find a place to live.

Our competition for 2BR apartments in San Francisco was fierce to begin with. Sure, it is expensive, but for us it wasn’t a matter of not being able to afford places. We would apply to places and not get selected.

One of the key criteria landlords look at is total income, and since we had one income, we had a steep disadvantage over working roommates and DINKs.

studio-apartment-bathroom

We would show up to open houses for 2BR apartments with our application filled out, only to find 20 other people doing the same. Landlords had their choice and the place would inevitably go to a pair of young professionals with combined salaries somewhere in the low gazillions. Or maybe a family, but one a decade older, a decade further in their career and with a decade of extra raises and promotions under their belt.

Living outside the norm had put us at a disadvantage.

Lesson 3) There are two types of space in a house

Density is a thing not many people think about when it comes to their homes, but I came to realize that it was the most important measure of space.

Any time you have an optimization problem, you need to identify your limiting factors. In a house, it is density.

There are two very distinct types of space in a house: high density storage space and low density living space. In order to optimize a living space, every cubic foot should be pushed towards one of those boundaries.

Many people struggle with space because much more of their home volume occupies the awkward middle ground. Their living spaces are cluttered and their storage spaces are not packed. They try to solve their space constraints by getting a larger home, which is exactly like trying to solve a waistline problem by buying larger pants.

The space you can see in a house during your normal day is your living space. If it becomes more than 5-10% occupied by volume, it feels cluttered. Look around at the room you’re in and think about all of the air space – probably about 90%+ of the room. (If your house is cluttered, envision a picture of a room in a design magazine or on Pinterest)

This was a very important thing for me to realize in a small space. If we didn’t put things away or if we acquired anything extra, the space felt cramped and our desire to move to a bigger space increased. It was a constant battle to keep this space as unoccupied as possible – always trying to reduce to get that number lower.

studio-apartment-wall
Our youngest slept surrounded by dad’s favorite things and mom’s sense of style. We tried to keep things very organized, everything had its place.

At the opposite end of the density spectrum is storage space. The ideal storage density is 100%. Achieving that is impossible as the more dense the space gets, the harder accessing the items becomes. Consider that a cleared walkway to access items in fact reduces your density. That is why, to optimize, certain libraries have movable shelves where only one is accessible at a time – it maximizes storage space by reducing redundant access space.

studio-apartment-shoe-storage
Bottom shelf – Suzanne, middle shelf – Greg, top shelf – our newly walking son.

Some storage space, like a closet, is obvious, but one trick I had was to make new storage space wherever possible. Our coffee table (seen two photos up), which sometimes doubled as a changing table, was made from an old trunk I put legs on. It perfectly fit all of our extra guest linens while serving its other roles – reducing the amount of non-used space. (Yes, we had overnight company – even post babies.) You can barely see a few tubs under the couch in a picture below. I ordered different legs for the couch so that the tubs would fit, giving us a few extra cubic feet of highly organized and easily accessible storage space.

studio-apartment-closet
I left this picture out at first but decided to add it. The rest of the house looks so nice because nearly 50% of our possessions were in this 3’x4’x8′ closet. I built extra shelves, double deep hanger racks and packed it to >60% density. We had no external storage, everything we own is pictured or in this closet.

When you think about those two types of space, you realize that your housing needs are dictated by the sum of your lower limit of living and storage space. You can dramatically reduce your housing size needs by forcing things towards those limits and then reducing either one.

Lesson 4) A room unoccupied is wasted air

Thinking just about living space, most houses have way too much. Remember, living space is usually only 10% occupied by what is in the room – the rest is air.

Since one person can only be in one room at a time – and often people aren’t home at all or are gathered in one room – at any given point, most rooms in American houses are empty. That is a giant waste of space and money.

It can be solved through a number of means including:

  • increasing the multi-purposefulness of spaces
  • increasing the adaptability of space
  • decreasing the number of things you need your living space to serve as
  • decreasing the amount of simultaneous and different rooms you need to be in

Our living room doubled as our bedroom when we moved our son’s nursery into the closet. I designed it with the intent of keeping the perception of 10% density when you were sitting on the couch while avoiding reducing our floor space by the area of the bed.

I attempted a few tricks in order to have it pass the wife-threshold. (That magic bar that every home improvement project must clear in order to have any chance at survival.)

studio-apartment-loft

The bookshelves behind the head double as the space underneath our headboard shelf. It gives you something to look at when you walk in the room other than a bed and kept the pillows from falling off.

I also minimized the number of support beams on the front and sides – you can see there is nothing coming off the leg closest to you. That reduced the feeling of clutter and decreased that chances of head-bonking.

I also built stairs that doubled as a bookshelf and since they had no backing, they let in a lot of light. The fact that they were stairs was critical as I built this when my wife was six months pregnant. She was able to get up there until the day before our second son was born.

The second method I mentioned above was adaptability. It is one I didn’t have a chance to experiment with, but I love these examples.

The idea is that your house changes shape to adapt to the current need. For example a wall moves back and forth between a bedroom & living room so they are both larger when used without increasing the total space used.

I would have loved to have the loft bed on an adjustable riser system. The height it was at was sub-optimal for both living & sleeping. But that would have made the build much more complex and wasn’t in the cards for this period of life.

studio-apartment-stair-shelves
Here you can see the bookshelf that doubled as stairs.

The final two ways to reduce living space involve reducing. The hardest step for most people but easiest to get gains from.

The simpler your goals for a house, the easier it is to have a small house that provides them. Our living room didn’t need to serve as a TV room since we didn’t have a TV. That meant our furniture arrangement didn’t have to take into account seating positioning, cable inputs or speaker placement.

Finally there is the factor of number of rooms occupied. This is the one that ultimately got us. As our family increased to four people, it became impossible for every person to be in a unique room. That posed significant challenges during nap time, bed time and when having company over. We could have made it a bit longer, but this is the item that would have gotten us.

Lesson 5) Home is more than a place to keep “stuff”

The second limit of a living space is the need for storage of stuff. (See: George Carlin) Consider that by volume, your stuff occupies probably 50-200 x as much space as you do in your house. You would be able to get by fine with a smaller house if you either:

  • increased the density of your storage space
  • decreased the amount you needed to store

I already discussed the former point, but I’ll take a moment to reflect on the latter.

Our family had the constraint of an apartment that didn’t change size, even as we grew. Our adjustment into a small living space was gradual enough that we became accidental minimalists.

studio-apartment-room-window
We loved the light we had coming in. The west facing windows and wide street resulted in lots of afternoon light.

For three years, we donated at least one grocery bag per month to thrift stores, slowly paring down what we owned. As the space became tighter, the bar an object had to be above in order to earn a place in our house kept getting higher.

I started to really think about what I owned and why I owned it. I became a more conscientious owner of things. The possessions I own now are such a reduced and fine tuned representation of my current needs that it is hard for me to find want for anything else.

As things got harder, I also found ways to hack the system. I now use craigslist as something between a rental shop & storage facility. Buying things for a season of life and selling them when I won’t need them for a while. I have often even turned a small profit doing so.

I also found ways to hack myself. A lot of the things I owned were in my house with the purpose of ‘I might need this someday’. I had to work hard to convince myself that I didn’t. In the end the compromise came down to this – ‘if you get rid of this and need it again, you have permission to buy it from Amazon with same day delivery’ – so far that hasn’t happened.

Consider that you are paying rent for your stuff. That closet space, or worse yet, storage unit, is costing you money every month. Eventually you will spend more in storage than the contents ever cost you.

Lesson 6) Shared assets reward those that use them

The shared economy is a buzzword you will hear, but the idea is nothing new. Uber is to cars what city parks have long been to backyards.

While living in the studio, our family made heavy use of San Francisco parks. What I lacked in a yard I made up for on early mornings with our oldest son at any of the five parks in walking distance to us. Before I left for work, we would head to the basketball court where he would play with cars or chase a tennis ball around and I would work on my jump shot.

studio-apartment-park
Early morning with the basketball court to ourselves.

Speaking of shared assets, we live in an age where owning books, CDs or DVDs is wasted space and money. Most media sits unused for the majority of its life. It was once the case that access to information was rare, which is why owning a library had a benefit. But now we have the Internet – round the clock access to more information and entertainment than you could ever consume. There is no need to own. Public libraries are free and there are plenty of ways to rent things when you need them.

Lesson 7) Less house means less housekeeping

Living in a studio apartment was hard. It took work, planning, organization and commitment. But there was a silver lining. Having less house has benefits in reduced housework.

One of the most obvious is that there is less to clean. There are fewer shelves to dust and less floor to vacuum.

There also isn’t a need to furnish and decorate as much which reduces stress, cost & time spent planning.

There is also a decreased chance of clutter. Because everything happened in one room, if we didn’t clean up after ourselves, we couldn’t ignore the mess. We would put away the toys every night before my son went to bed so that we could sit in the living room afterwards and not stare at toys. As a strange side effect, our son loves cleaning up.

studio-apartment-bay-window

We didn’t lose things often. Living in a small space forced organization. Everything had a place and we all knew where that was. Even if you did misplace something in the house, there weren’t many places for it to hide. You would find it much faster than in a large space.

More house always comes with more house work. More yard with more yard work. In a world with finite time & money, reducing one thing allows you to increase another. Less time cleaning a house can mean more time living with the people in it.

Lesson 8) When living on tight margins, the highs are the same, but the lows are much lower

Thinking on all of our time in that apartment, I can recall many of my favorite times. None of them have much to do with the apartment – they all have to do with the people in it. Whether that was our family, my former roommate, visiting friends or extended family.

The highs we experienced were no different than any other family’s.

In contrast though, the lows were much lower.

Now, I don’t mean the personal lows one family might encounter: illness, strife, financial woes, etc. Those would likely be as low no matter where you are. I am specifically referring to the lows that are more directly tied to the living space.

In a small space, the typical day is ok, but there are such thin margins of free space and separation. There are times when all of this implodes. One thing going wrong can tip the next wrong domino and cause a chain reaction.

studio-apartment-closer-nursery-2
Another view of the nursery. Here you can see the clothing storage & changing table.

For example consider the weekend in which I built the loft bed. In order to assemble it in the room, I needed to move everything out of the way, start attaching pieces and stand things up against the wall while I started on another. There were screws and planks and sawdust everywhere. It took more than one day which meant there was a night where we neither had a finished loft bed nor room for a regular bed. Unfortunately I overestimated how much I could get done and had to leave for a business trip. Sunday night I took the red eye, leaving my pregnant wife at home with a toddler in a construction zone with no bed to sleep on. Not our happiest goodbye. (I had cleaned up most of the screws and some of the sawdust)

studio-apartment-room-back

A final, and more humorous situation I would often find myself in was early morning meetings with nowhere to go. The 12 person start up I moved to San Francisco for has grown into an international software company. That meant I’d sometimes be needed for early morning meetings at 5 or 6am. My typical day, as is common with San Francisco tech companies, usually started closer to 9 or 10am. Rather than wake up at 4 to get ready & head into the office before a 5am call, my strategy had been to take the call in my PJs and then get ready and commute afterwards.

That worked great when I was single, had a roommate and even when my wife moved in. But once the babies came onto the scene it was tough. You never want to wake a sleeping baby. I tried the bathroom, but the babies would wake up. The eventual solution was to take the call from my car in the garage. I am proud to say I’ve helped close million+ dollar software deals in my PJs sitting in a car parked in my garage. But there were definitely some days I would sit there thinking ‘what the heck am I doing right now?’.

We had some really tough days but in the end I live a life of many blessings. Reflecting on these days, however, has given me much more understanding for those living life with less margin. Whether rich or poor, a normal day is a normal day. When you’re wealthy and your car breaks down, you can get a rental. But when you’re poor, paid hourly and your transportation fails – that sort of thing can just compound into a really bad situation. Sick days can mean extra expenses and lost earnings at the same time. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about poverty and even lower-to-middle class working lives. If we better understood margin and variance, it would really help us become more sympathetic and caring people.

Lesson 9) Toughen up – it will be worth it

In cycling culture there is a thing called ‘Rule V’ that states, HTFU (Harden The F-word of your choice Up). It means that even though the hill is steep, it is cold and raining and you are tired, you toughen up and ride hard. If you want to be fast, that is what it takes. The hard work you put in that day makes you stronger for next time.

That rule very much defines my approach to life.

Living in a studio apartment with one or two babies was a constant challenge to HTFU. As I stated above, living in a small space was tough, there were days I wanted to give up. The space was too small, the noise was too much, there was nowhere to go to be alone. But fighting through those days is how I would get stronger for the next day.

Why is that important?

We humans have a strong ability to adapt. Sometimes that actually works against us. If we live with a certain amount of luxury, we will become accustomed to it. The trouble with getting used to an easy or expensive way of living is that none of us know what is next.

studio-apartment-above-loft

In the start up world we talk about something called runway. It basically means how much time you could keep operating if they money stopped coming in. For many companies, that time is very short. For many families, it is even shorter. That is an extremely vulnerable place to be.

The reason I think it is so important to always keep expenses down is that it has the dual effect of decreasing your burn rate and increasing your savings. The two of those combine to allow you more freedom. When you have a lot of financial runway, it allows you to make decisions based on reasons other than money.

There is some sum of money, that under the right conditions you could live the rest of your life on. At that point you would never need to work again, but certainly could. That is true freedom.

Not everyone has a chance at freedom. Some people have to work long and hard just to scrape by. But many people repeatedly sign away their freedom by choice.

And don’t forget about the importance of compound interest. I will remind you that $2k per month saved on rent for one year is $24k. Invested for 50 years averaging 6% interest comes to roughly $450k. Freedom. HTFU.

Lesson 10) It doesn’t require a studio

A few months ago we moved out of San Francisco and that apartment. In the end there were a lot of reasons, only some of which were the limited space.

We ended up moving to a less expensive city (Seattle) and getting a 2BR for much less than we had been considering in San Francisco. It feels huge. We don’t even know what to do with most of the space. Everything feels a bit careless in placement without the tight constraints that forced us to think very carefully.

But, I am forever ruined. I will never again be able to think of a house in the same way. I will never be able to think of stuff in the same way. My definitions have all been altered.

And then there is you. You don’t have to live in a studio to benefit from these lessons (though perhaps that is how you found this post). Whatever space you occupy, perhaps there are thoughts above that shift your perception. It is those seeds of thought that can take root and grow into actions.

As my wife and I look at places we might want to live we do so with new eyes. As we think about the future and situations we might want to steer our lives towards, our goals are now different. The sacrifices we might have to make to allow them seem less challenging. The trade offs more manageable.

I am not sure what the future holds, but I have some ideas that I am very excited about. I will forever be grateful for that studio apparent, our kind landlords and how that period of time helped shape the path we will walk.

Author’s Note:

Wow! Thank you all for the kind words & healthy debate. It is so interesting to watch people of very different beliefs and backgrounds have such broad conversation from 4,000 words.

We are a family that decided to make a somewhat unconventional tradeoff for a period. We chose to sacrifice space in order to save time (commuting) and money, while continuing to live in a place we wanted to be. We benefited during that time from others who had shared their learnings from similar situations. This was my way of paying it forward.

111 thoughts on “Life in a Studio Apartment with my Wife and Two Sons”

  1. I remember our visit with you all in 2013 before all of this work. You have both done an amazing job at the “space” issue and are doing an even more amazing job in the world of parenting.

  2. You’re so right, Greg! My husband and I lived with 4 kids in a studio coop in the NYC area for 11 years. It changed me. I will never complain of not having enough space, the problem is I have too much stuff!

    I know your musings will help a lot of people. God bless!

  3. Fantastic explanation of the principles behind minimalism and the benefits once you achieve it. We are a family of four living in a loft and I’ve started a business helping families in SF de-clutter and organize, and am still trying to get there myself. I know how thing can get “out of control ” and that reversing it takes time and mental hurdles. Thanks for writing this.

  4. I had to give this article another read through — it’s that well written. Will also share with others as you have addressed many important issues to consider when considering how we live in the spaces we choose.

    What a beautiful piece of family history for your children.

  5. When I was two in 1980 my parents moved our 4-person family into a 550 sq ft one-bedroom apt in Manhattan. The six years we spent in that apartment were some of the best years of my life, although I’m pretty sure my parents have more mixed feelings about it. This post brought up a lot of great memories. Thanks!

  6. Great article. I agree that getting to be a conscious owner of objects is important, as most of the stuff the average person owns are carelessly owned and not needed. Took me moving countries to realize most of the stuff I owned, I didn’t event touch for years.

    I have to comment, the “Saving 2k a month on rent” bit. Whoa. My whole rent (for a house about 4x the size of the apartment in the story) doesn’t even *reach* 2k. SF housing prices are insane…

  7. WOW! I really enjoyed your story and it touched me in a familiar way. When we first married 23 years ago, we sat on bar stools and ate dinner on the “Iron-A-Way” ironing board that lowered from the wall into the kitchen. It was a great time and we lived a very frugal life. Those days are coming around again as our own kids are now heading to college and we want to help them as much as we can.

    In a strange twist of fate, we now live in a modest 3 bedroom ranch once owned by the founders of “Iron-A-Way”

    Thanks so much for sharing

  8. Such an enjoyable Read. Thanks for sharing. “imagine you are paying rent for your closet/storage ” has motivated very much me!
    Thanks

  9. Unfortunately many of us don’t have the woodworking and engineering skills to redefine our small and storage spaces in the way you did.

    1. With that attitude, Cody, it will most certainly be impossible for you to HTFU, much less set and achieve such awesome goals. As a regular over at the MMM Forum, this is what’s known as a facepunch, but I also really like HTFU now. At MMM, we like our four letter words…

      Anyone else lacking in skills might peruse IKEA (or better still, peruse IKEA, make your selections and then shop for them on CL or FC or even FB).

      I hopped over to say “Welcome, Greg!” and I just couldn’t help myself.

      1. Agree with these replies.
        Wikihow and Instructibles along with YouTube give everyone free tuition at all hours on all diy projects.
        No excuse these days for not trying.
        Those with absolutely no interest in trying should get quotes from tradesmen. In the higher cost than basic readymades is the skill and labour required to get a custom fit. It often ends up costing less than moving or buying high end goods anyway.
        Great article. Reminded me of what I enjoyed about my own life in a studio flat.

  10. I have a friend, in the circus believe it or not, who is there for a few weeks and just tweeted, “How can people afford to live here?”

  11. Thank you so very much for sharing your journey. It’s simply inspiring. I had been on this minimalism journey for about 4 years and recently had been on a KonMari journey. What you said really resonates with me especially when I am struggling to pare down my stuff to what really matters. Bookmarked this to come back and read again.

  12. Thanks for this great read. I often thought, “Damn, he sure sounds like a mathematician. It’s like he’s reading my mind…” Nevertheless, it’s great to hear someone else made it work in a studio with children.

  13. Your story reminds me of that of the Love family detailed in Ken Burn’s “The West”. They struggled and survived due to sheer grit on an isolated sheep ranch in Wyoming…but in my estimation, they should have realized their toughness would only deliver survival, not prosperity.

    You should be proud of your ability to survive in SF, but you should also realize when it is time to stop toughing it out.

  14. Hello Greg,

    Wonderful article. Lots of wisdom. Wanted to point out a small mathematical / finance error which if you correct should tremendously enhance the point you are making.

    You said “I will remind you that $2k per month saved on rent for one year is $24k. Invested for 50 years averaging 6% interest comes to roughly $450k.”

    Saving $2k/month should come to $7.57 MILLION @6% interest not $450k!!

    You have assumed that you save $24k/year and it compounds only once a year (24*(1.06)^50 = ~$450). If you deposit $2k/month and it compounds monthly you should get $7.57 MILLION not $450k! Even if you assume semi annual compounding it should be about ~$7.29 MILLION . See the future value formula here http://www.graduatetutor.com/corporate-finance-tutoring/time-value-of-money-formulas/ or use the ‘=FV(….) formula in excel.

    We tutor finance to MBAs, CPAs and CFAs and had to point this out.

    Sen

    PS: If the formulas are not clear, I am happy to walk you through it during a 5 minute call.

  15. Thank you for writing this! My husband (who found this article) and I live, work, and travel full-time in a renovated 144 sq ft RV, and this articulated really well several of the realizations we’ve had along the way. I’m going to have to start borrowing your phrasing of “high-density storage vs. low-density living space” when people ask how we make it work 🙂 (our organization strategies are at gogo.gen.co/organization if you’re interested). Thanks again!

  16. As a recently married couple, it’s refreshing to see how your family chose and embraced your constraints, and through doing so, you not only found a way to survive, but to thrive!

    Your writing has inspired us as we are also considering an unconventional path for two young engineers under 30.

    Yasmine + Levi

  17. After some major life events, I found myself living in a single room above a barn. Just me and a cat. It had a tiny bath but no kitchen. There was space for a single bed, a dorm fridge, a microwave and a few crates of my records (which made great tables, etc). I was out of a job at the time and couldn’t beat the $100 a month rent and who wouldn’t want sheep as neighbors. I learned to live without much of the stuff I had before and actually enjoyed it. I’ve moved on to bigger places but to this day I still resist obtaining more stuff. Except records. You can never have enough vinyl.

    1. Thanks for sharing. I’m a big fan of cutting back on needless stuff but I think if you use and truly enjoy something, it is ok to have it. It sounds like records are that for you. It was surfboards for me (as you can see in the second picture)

  18. Thank you for sharing your story…. I live in Toronto and funny enough I read your story after my neighbor forwarded it to me ( we quite often discuss who will move first to a bigger house cause our homes are so small….under 1000sq). My husband and our daughter moved back to Toronto just less then 2 years ago due to the long commute every day for work. We moved from a 2000sq home to a 920sq. I remember when the movers placed our last box in our dining room I couldn’t see any of the windows….I remember thinking how in hell am I going to fit all this here? Slowly we gave our things away to friends family and shelters. I cant believe the stuff we still own. I loved the idea you gave about “get rid of it and you need it again buy it on craig’s list” I never thought I was paying rent to store my belongings….but its true! Our friends quite often ask us how do we manage to live in such small space…I love it and like you I learn to adapt and love the fact that we use all our space every day. With your story I now will de clutter even more and appreciate every inch of our “tiny” house.
    Daniela

  19. Your love was surfing and surfboards, so space was made to accommodate-what other hobbies/crafts had to have space? Does your wife have hobbies/crafts too?

    1. Yep, most of her hobbies don’t take up as much space though. Surfboards are just kind of big by nature. You can see signs of her handiwork/crafts throughout the place.

      1. So the partner with the money and the job has the big surfboards, and the stay at home parent’s hobbies just don’t take up as much space because…. they don’t. I mean, people who like to do textiles don’t like to have looms, or anything (just assuming it’s textiles. it’s textiles, isn’t it).

        your

        poor

        wife.

  20. Really loved reading this article, and your conclusions about this. We’re a family of 5 in a 1,600 sq. ft. house w/ no garage, which most people think is too small. We chose to stay here rather than upgrade to a larger house so we could save for our kids to go to college, and for retirement. The oldest kid has just moved out (after 2 years of paid-for college), and our middle has just started college. She plans to live at home for the whole time. All around us people are bemoaning the high cost of their larger houses, their kids’ tuition, etc. Our choices were different, but not really hard to make when we looked at the big picture. The day-to-day of living in a smaller space is the challenge. But the flexibility it gives to other areas of life is great.

  21. Love it!

    How has the transition been to the new apartment? Did/Do you feel frivolous spending money on more housing than you actually need?

    Is your wife on the same page (e.g. working towards the same goal) with you or is it a matter of compromise?

    1. I think a 2BR is nice but if I could design my own I might make the common area larger and the rooms smaller. Maybe I’ll have to take my woodworking skills to the next level and build a house myself next.

      We are very much on the same page which is great because we help each other in our respective blind spots. (surfboards are mine if you can’t tell)

  22. This was a fun article to read. When my husband and I were first married, we moved into a 1000 sqft, 2 bedroom apartment in San Francisco. 4 years and 2 kids later, we just couldn’t make it work for us anymore. I wish I had known more about being minimalist at that time, I think we could have stayed there longer. You mention that you had a garage though…we didn’t. Having to walk several blocks from my car with groceries and a newborn and a toddler, sometimes uphill…that was what really did it in for me!

  23. Thanks! Great article! This looks like my old studio on Geary and Jones before I moved to NYC! I miss having less stuff!! Still trying to downsize!

  24. I loved how you and your wife kept the positivity throughout the whole ‘studio period’. My partner and I just found ourselves living in a 3br townhouse by ourselves after both our mothers spent 6 months with us. So we are now, looking for new ways of using up this space in the best possible way (Airbnb for example) meanwhile we get ready for a trip next year in which we will have to sell everything we have in order to travel without keeping expenses here in Aus. I think this trip will be a little like the studio was for you. It will be hard to live with only a backpacker in our backs, but I’m sure it will be worth it. Great read, thanks! 🙂

    1. Thankyou so much for this article. It gave me inspiration to give away so many thongs..that I had stored hoping I would use it some day.

  25. Your wife must be amazing! At least you got out to go to work, I’m impressed that she could make that small space work with two little kids. Clearly you’re both great problem-solvers. Thanks for some great ideas.

    1. She IS amazing!

      She saw this comment and confirmed you are correct – she was there more than I was and so it was more intense for her. She said that taking walks outside & to parks made it easier.

  26. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article! I’m very impressed with how you and your wife made such a small space work for you. Your story is very inspiring! I’ve been going through my possessions in my spacious 1,000 sq ft apartment and making decisions as to what stays and what goes. Your story has given me the courage to continue pairing down! Less is definitely more!

    1. Keep going, you will thank yourself. I found that I could fill a bag pretty easy and then it would get tough. I’d really have to think about something. If I didn’t have a strong reason to keep it, I’d put it in the bag. That is when I knew I was getting to the good stuff – that my bar was being raised. It is like a muscle, the more you use it the better you get.

  27. I lived once with my family (husband and three children) in a 100m2 apartment and it went well. Its all about being organised, tidy and creative.
    We enjoyed it being able to save lots of money every month to spent it on nice holidays with the kids.

  28. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. I am about 2 years into my becoming minimalist. Now I am into the Magic of Tidying Up and it’s facebook groups. I really like your idea of keeping more open space in the living areas and storage tight. Your whole article is good and well written. It took me to your space. 🙂 I am ready to rework some things in my home after reading that.

  29. Welcome to Seattle! What an awesome insight, thank you! We currently live in a 2 bedroom, with 2 kiddos and feel similarly. We are building a cohousing home in Capitol Hill in Seattle and will hope to maximize our ‘small space’. Check out our project, if you want! http://capitolhillurbancohousing.org/

    Cheers, Kris

  30. Wonderfully written. Points I have learned and love and points I had yet to consider. We are considering a move to a small mountain area where we would most likely rent a one bedroom loft for ourselves and our two daughters. I started out hesitant but I’m growing more and more excited at the opprotunity to downsize even further!

  31. This was such a great read. My husband and I were from the Bay Area and know the costs all too well. When my husband was eligible to retire at 50 he asked if I’d be interested in quitting my job of 20 years (that offered no retirement save for my own 401k contributions) and buy a 32 foot RV (about 275 sq ft). We’ve been on the road for 3 years now and love it. Downsizing was hard in the sense that we have to carry 4 seasons of clothing with us at all times…along with stuff for our hobbies (guitar, writing, books, photography) and our 3 pets (a dog and 2 cats). We certainly had to get creative with storage.

    I’ll be bookmarking your post as a reminder. We’ll be looking for a small home in the next year or so as we’re kind of attached to this small living. However, I wouldn’t mind moving up to something around 600-700 sq ft. Haha.

  32. My husband and I live in a 600sq. ft. apartment in San Diego with our two kids. Our situation is very similar, and I relate to this 100%! Thank you for writing this and sharing your experience.

    1. I would love to know about the bassinet as well.
      About to have child number four in a 3BR home in the UK where room sizes are minuscule.
      Your piece was inspiring.

  33. I hope you’ll take up writing as a vocation. What a pleasant, easy, informative (and grammatically correct) read! My husband and I are retirement age, although we’re not clear what “retirement” is. We spend summers on a ranch in NC where we live in 250 SF. My Sprinter cargo van is my garage with all the tools I use to do the maintenance on our friend’s seasonal ranch. Then we head back to the Dallas area for the off season to our 1200 SF absurdly cluttered and disorganized 2 BR condo. We remind ourselves we downsized from our 4 BR home 2 years ago but still are trying to reach the simple comfort we have in our 250 SF abode. We never spend time “at home” in NC. We are always out and about, chatting with people, dining with friends, sitting at the campfire. In Dallas we feel like hermits. Living small has definite advantages. Living uncluttered at any size is so much healthier physically and psychologically. Do write again, though, when your children are teens…… Therein is the test of being too small/close.

  34. Love your story.
    Remind me when we moved from Puerto Rico to Fl.
    Now we live (renting) in a 4 bedrooms home.
    (too much work and waste of money)
    I feel that is too big. We are couple with 1 bio son and 1 foster kid.

    It’s time to move to a smaller place. =)

    Thanks!

  35. My family (me, my wife and 4 young children) lived in a 90 sq ft caravan for 3 and a half years, parked in the middle of a meadow in very rural France. We progressed to a one room barn with split upper room for the children’s beds (which is still part of the open plan). And that’s how it has remained for the last five years. Yesterday was a big day for us, we got running water into the barn for the first time.

    So I understand all about this scenario. These years have been among the best years of our lives. They make you positive, resourceful and united.

  36. In Vermont in the 1960’s my then husband and I built a 16’x20′ house in the woods. We figured out at one time that if we lived with 17 other people, all the btu’s produced would make it unnecessary to pay for wood (our fuel at the time).
    The rental situation in Boston, where I live now, is now roughly equivalent to San Francisco’s. I cannot imagine how people manage financially, even in their 30’s and 40’s with presumably decent salaries. Seattle’s a great city, but sorry that had to be your solution.

  37. Great read! Didn’t read every word since I’m living with A LOT less than what a studio apartment would allow. less is MORE! Be happy you learned it BEFORE you had the opportunity to have more space. FaceBook.com/LivingWithLess

  38. Great article!

    Life forced my son & I into smaller living space and we discovered some of the same things.
    It took some retraining in “is it something we/I NEED?”, because “want” slips in really easily. But we are more comfortable in it as time goes on.

    We have a couple of goals that keep HTFU going:
    -Get him through college without a ton of debt
    -Get me used to living small so perhaps retirement can happen and be fun and manageable.

    Eye on the prize, and living as well as possible meantime. Thanks!

  39. One of my happiest times was moving into a studio apartment in the San Fernando Valley with minimal furniture and my beloved cocker. Any time off from work, we would walk, go to the beach, parks, the mountains, and take many trips. I felt unburdened and footloose-fancy free. It lightened my heart and gave me a mental rest after taking care of a terminal family member. I have since moved to several large and larger houses and then I got smart. I bought a trailer in a nice park, (paid cash) and downsized. I am finely enjoying life again. Craigslist is a great way to sell stuff.

  40. We are a family of six who lived in a 2 bedroom condo for 7 years. Learned a lot of the same lessons (and recently went down to 1 vehicle and made it work for 9 months). We just bought our first house a few months ago, and it’s been wonderful, but I think my appreciation is because of what we chose to do when everyone around us thought we were crazy. We up in Bellingham, now Lynden. Welcome to Seattle 🙂 Thanks for sharing

  41. Thank you so much for sharing your story. We are in a similar situation, but living in Chicago, and hearing your positive experience is incredibly motivating.

    We have decided to stay put in a one bedroom apartment post baby so we could live off a single income so one of us could stay home with our son. We love our apartment’s location and also don’t want to sacrifice safety or time to move into a bigger space further west. But we’ve been starting to feel the cultural pressure to upgrade to a more complicated lifestyle. But we’re making do with an eight month old, two dogs, a cat, and enough space left over for a painting studio. Reading your article was just the confirmation I needed that we’re doing what’s best for our family. I think I may just need to write up and share our story too!

    Thank you again for being an inspiration!

  42. Just want to say congratulations and great article. You are both wise to start your family under the “average” of 32. If I may send a little advice? As your career progresses and your salary increases you will be tempted to splurge or tell yourself you “deserve” to consume more luxuries. It may be hard, but I hope you will remember these first years of your marriage and the essential joys you have experienced in keeping life simple. Blessings to you and your family.

  43. Enjoyed reading your story about living in a studio apartment. I am a pack rat, have stuff I can’t get to, don’t remember why I bought it. Save magazines with the thought to read them…someday! About organizing, etc. but never do it. Oh well, as you said, have to attempt to do it and just do it! Your wife is amazing! Two small kids, no TV, you must have a radio? Ingenius how you fit a nursery into a closet and have room to walk into. I have a 12′ by 17′ room for my computer and stuff, and look at that stuff and wonder, Cilla, why not get rid of it. So, after reading your article, it gives me incentive to JUST do it. Thank you!

  44. thank you. I am asking my husband to read this. He is a hoarder/packrat and drives me crazy with it. He came from Haiti and I do believe the poverty there affected him deeply, even tho his family was never poor. He has great difficulty with letting go of anything because he might need it someday.

  45. Really wonderful read. I am shocked that your landlord allowed you to have 4 people in a studio. Even with rent control in SF, they can legally limit the number of people allowed in an apartment of a certain size (if they know about it). Really sad what is happening to SF due to the tech boom and ridiculous rents. As a 3rd generation San Franciscian (who owns) I can truly say the soul of the City is dying. So sad.

    1. We worried about that but when we told our landlords we were expecting, they were so happy that they got us a baby gift. We were blessed to have them in our lives.

  46. “We humans have a strong ability to adapt. Sometimes that actually works against us. If we live with a certain amount of luxury, we will become accustomed to it. The trouble with getting used to an easy or expensive way of living is that none of us know what is next.” Yes. Thinking of the worst possible situation coming next, is how I think. Mainly because of the highs and lows in my life. But as negative as it seems, and as tough as it is, I’m glad that I think in these terms. I want to be able to live in lean times, and be OK. Because it really is OK. We don’t need all of the stuff that we’ve been lead to believe we need.

  47. i have lived in many places with lots of space
    now i am a senior and have lived in 300 sq ft for six years
    i long for just another 100 sq ft
    I spend too much time trying to stay organized and find i spend half my day arranging and cleaning
    When I lived in larger spaces it was much easier

  48. And I thought being a single income family living in a 2 bedroom upstairs apartment in Orange County, CA was HTFU!! What a great article and peak into what life might be like if we ever follow the tech jobs to SF.

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  50. Wow, Greg! This article popped my eyes open to the creativity and ingenuity required of you and your wife to make your apartment livable for so long. Though she mentioned to me, over the years, various efforts to fit better into your San Fran space, the statistical background, specific examples, and pictures you gave helped me suddenly SEE what she meant. Thank you for writing out these thoughts and efforts.

    1. Such a well written article. Our family is doing something similar in Texas to what you have shared. I agree that living counter-culture can be challenging sometimes. Most of our family doesn’t understand our minimalism or choice to live in a 2BR apartment with a family of four, but we love it! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  51. Thank you for writing this post. I love San Francisco – I especially love life near the beach. I’m a single mother pregnant with twins (by choice) currently living in a studio apartment. At night, I can hear the waves and I love it. My friends think I should move to the suburbs. I just found a lovely tiny one bedroom cottage that feels perfect. Again, it’s right near the ocean. This post helped me decide that I don’t need to live in a 2 bedroom apartment in the burbs. Now I know I can make it out here on my own and stay in the city I love, on a budget I can afford. Your words inspired me to have faith in my desire to stay near the ocean. Thank you for helping me make the decision!

  52. Our families thought we were crazy when my husband and I moved into a tiny 350 square foot loft apartment with a slanted roof in Logan, the second-most densely populated city in Utah outside of Salt Lake and Utah counties. Most of the 1,500 square foot houses in the area had been converted into 3, 4, and even 5 apartments with 3-story apartment blocks built in their backyard. The city didn’t know it wasn’t a small town anymore. We proceeded to move into a nicer apartment, with less than 250 square feet of living space, later on. We packed it all in in that room smaller than the average dorm. All I missed was having an oven, and we became the most organized we’ve ever been.

  53. excellent!
    I have been travelling the world partly as a tourleader and used to live in hotelrooms or beach huts!
    In the North of holland I live since 7 years in a studio alone.
    Feeling at times awkward and even ashamed sometimes as it’s not cultural normal for a 48 years old to live still in such a small place. Now the tiny houses trend got our way as well I start feeling trendy!!
    And thanks to your great story and all the reply’s I feel satisfaction. This is a way; good for us good for planet earth.
    Freedom to share and get up and go discovering more.

  54. Nice Story Greg. It gives me hope of not renting a very expensive flats in NYC area. BTW, I am about to be transferred to NYC for 2 years and I have to bring my wife and our 4 children in NY for vacation at least 1 month in a year. I have read some blogs and sites at it is illegal in US to have many adults in a Studio or 1 room apartment (I am from Asia so I do not know some of your laws, sorry for that).

    Just a question, is it OK if I have a studio type flat and let my wife and kids join me for one month in a (every)year? Thank you.

  55. Awesome post, congrats….

    I living now in the same situation (studio) and after read your post my mind is more clear about next step…

    Best regards.

    Paulo Bites

  56. I believe that when you decide to have children, it is only fair to them (in this case fair to your neighbors too) that you have to decide how to care for those children. Part of care is to provide enough space to live in a way we expect outside the 3rd world. I am happy to read that you found a bigger apartment because a family in a studio is just too much. If I were the owner, I would try to evict.

  57. The bottom line is that you could have gotten a two bedroom in Oakland but you wanted your hipster location regardless of living standards for your building or even your family. So why are you posting this? Justification? Support?

    1. We considered many parts of the East Bay but not being able to bike was an issue for me. Maybe some day they’ll open up a bike path on both parts of the Bay Bridge.

  58. Ps- as we all know, Oakland also is now expensive with an influx of hipsters but my point remains that living in a hipster city is the most important thing to some ( usually white 20 somethings) and they would place their kids in a cardboard box rather than live in an uncool working class ( often meaning darker) cheaper “bridge and tunnel” area. I was born in Brooklyn NY and my grandmother’s apt was $28 a month for 4 rooms. I would never live there now even if I could afford today’s Brooklyn prices. I am happy to get good value for my money elsewhere . Now the residents of Brooklyn are prone to be from Omaha and dye their hair purple while sitting in overpriced cafes talking about how “amazing” they are.. Perhaps those are the types who think a family of four in a studio are “way cool”

  59. My husband and I live in a rent stabilized studio in NYC. It’s pretty big for a studio, but oddly shaped- the kitchen are being the widest and the “bedroom”, being a narrow end, which knocks out a lot of lofted options.

    We are trying for a kid and house hunting, but everything is nuts…even the outer boroughs, Long Island and parts of NJ close to city! I temp and he works in sales, but we both are heavily involved in theater and arts, so we want to stay in city. We often get last min gigs.

    Tried for an affordable apt., but just got rejected because we make a few thousand over the limit – took a new temp assignemnt in May which pushed us over. We’ll keep applying for things, but my income fluctuates depending on assignments I receive, so it’s hard to gauge when applying. We have savings, but while we could have 4 bedroom house in Indiana (where my sister lives), NYC is off for buying.

    I should mention, I love my neighborhood and my apt. I have a wraparound terrace and it feels like an extra room. Wish I could convert part of it to a bedroom, but can’t do that in a rental. We are playing with the idea of staying in the studio, even after having a the baby until we finally find the right deal.

    This is inspiring.

  60. Greg
    I loved your article. Sorry you had some negative
    comments. My husband and I have been living in our 22 ft. travel trailer in an R.V. park for the past 3 months and we are loving the more simple life. As for the negative comments I wish more parents would teach their children that you don’t have to live in a big house and have lots of material things. Mom being home is so important. Good for you and your wife for realizing what matters.
    God Bless you and your family

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