14 Genius Tips for Living in a Small Space

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

Erin Boyle, of Reading My Tea Leaves and the new book Simple Matters, lives in a 500-square-foot Brooklyn Heights apartment with her husband and one-year-old daughter. Two years ago, she shared 15 tips for living in a tiny apartment. Since having a baby, she’s learned even more about navigating a small space (and staying sane along the way). Here are her tips…

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

1. Don’t be afraid to move furniture around. When we moved in, we initially shared the (one) bedroom with our 19-month-old daughter. In order to get more privacy (and read in bed again!), we recently moved our bed into the main room of our apartment, and our 19-month-old daughter now has the bedroom to herself. There’s nothing like welcoming a baby into a house to make you realize your space holds all kinds of opportunities for change.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

Erin Boyle House Tour

2. When you can’t be with the room you love, love the room you’re with. We joke that the main room of our apartment includes a kitchen, office, dining room, living room and bedroom. But we’ve found ways to make them feel distinct. We carved out an “entryway” by hanging a horizontal mirror with a bookshelf below. In our new “bedroom” set-up, we created a room-within-a-room by orienting the bed to face the dressers. That way, when we’re in bed, we’re looking at our bedroom furniture and not… the fridge.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

3. Get a magnetic thingy for your knives. The funny thing about getting married is that suddenly people want to give you knives. Really nice knives. Instead of taking up limited counter or drawer space, your knives can live on this strip and be right there when you need them.

Erin Boyle's House Tour

4. Indulge in a moment of solitude. While getting out of the apartment is a pretty good bet for clearing your mind, sometimes it’s staying inside that feels just as good. Let the people that you live with know when you need a few minutes to yourself. I’ll ask my husband to take a walk with the baby so I can pour a glass of rosé and relish in the time alone. It’s important to steal a few quiet moments and feel everything reset.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

5. Have friends over. You might be worrying about where everyone is going to eat. And the answer is on the floor. Or on a cushion. Or on the sofa. Place coats on the bed, or otherwise away from the “kitchen.” Guests love to hang coats on the backs of chairs and dear lord if that doesn’t make things crowded, fast. Cover your couch with a sheet (especially if one of your dinner guests is a year old and flinging penne across the room…). I know it sounds grandmotherly, but upholstery is a beast to clean, and this way you won’t have to worry.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

6. Try a new position. People wondered how our sex life fared while we were sharing a bedroom with a baby. As Faye got older, we sometimes found ourselves in the mood after we’d gotten into bed — but by that time we were afraid of waking her up. So we learned to embrace a slightly more “now or never” approach pre-bedtime. That being said, I don’t think it’s ever hurt anyone’s love life to get a little creative in the bedroom (or lack of one). Turn on the sound machine and go crazy.

7. Keep it down. Speaking of sound machines, whether you have a baby or not, using white noise — or quiet — to create a bit of private space can be helpful. We use our compact sound machine as a way to get sleep, as a way for one of us to hole up and work on a project while a certain toddler is playing the harmonica in the next room, and as a way to minimize the sounds from our Netflix habit when that same toddler is sleeping.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

8. Call a spade a… salad server. Get creative and repurpose things to fit your needs. Surfboards become artwork, dressers become TV consoles, stools become plant stands. A cast-iron skillet can be used on the stovetop or in the oven. A baby swaddle can serve as stroller sunshield, play mat and lightweight blanket. Sturdy glass tumblers can hold water, milk, wine and cocktails.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

9. Curate mini exhibits. Sometimes we have more things to love than we have room to display them. Opt for a seasonal display instead! Maybe you’re like me and are sentimental about a collection of glass bottles. Keep some tucked away, and leave a few out. Then swap them when you’re ready for a little change.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

10. Cover your ugliest books. I’ve been known to cover offending book covers with brown paper. I can see where you might think that’s a little excessive. Or obsessive. Or both. But maybe you have not also been stared down by Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Have you seen the book? Our edition is large and bright red and for two years its brashness beamed down on us from our one measly bookshelf. Until, of course, I covered it.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

11. Be the boss. When you find yourself overwhelmed, remember that you’re in control. For me, that’s keeping a straw market basket by the front door, in which I immediately stash junk mail, or recycling, or other things I don’t want to have hanging around. I bring it downstairs when I leave the house so that nothing lingers for long.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

12. Do a toy shuffle. Limited by space and my incapacity to cherish large plastic things that make noise, we’ve kept Faye’s toys constrained to what fits in these wooden wine and fruit crates. If you have more toys than feels manageable in a small space, storing some of them away and periodically swapping the toys you leave out is a game-changer. When we reintroduce a new toy (even one that she’s seen many times before), joy abounds and a sense of novelty is regained.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

13. Skip curtains. Window dressings aren’t always necessary. More than that, the wrong curtain can make a room feel cluttered or stuffy; grimy shades can feel downright gloomy. In our apartments, I’ve had the best luck hanging simple curtains made from cutting up old tablecloths or linen shower curtains, or lengths of plain white cotton. Or skipping them entirely.

14 Tips for Living in a Small Space

14. Enjoy it. There’s something about the proximity of everything in a small space that I find really comforting and, honestly, easy. The other day we had friends over for dinner and James and I got into pajamas as soon as they left. Our dressers are right next to the kitchen table, so we hadn’t even cleared the dishes yet. It occurred to us that in a larger house you’d likely stay downstairs, cleaning up dinner and getting the house back in order, and then get cozy. We were in pajamas before our friends made it down to street level. I’ve said this before, but I think the most important survival tip for living in a small space is to embrace it joyfully, every last square inch.

Erin Boyle House Tour

Thank you so much, Erin! Your home (and book) are beautiful.

P.S. Erin’s former (250-square-foot!) apartment and 13 brilliant tips for decorating a small space.

  1. Vlodge says...

    This made me feel so good. We live in a smaller house (a mansion compared to the apartment here) and I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed with the lack of space. We have tons of space to work with and it really is a matter of changing your perspective. Thank you!

  2. This is so creative and helpful! Such a great use of space.

  3. I love love love this post! First time here but I plan on coming back to read more. My husband and I are trying to start a family soon but first we’re downsizing big time. We realized our priorities don’t include a large house – but it will be tricky as well. Thanks for sharing your tips!

  4. Lolly says...

    Lovely home, lovely ideas. First question that came to mind: How do you keep the surfboard from tipping over? What is holding it in place?

  5. Wow this is amazing and inspiring!
    I live with my sister and mom in one room LOL so yea it can be very cramped most of the time.

    I love what you did with your small apartment though!

  6. Hey!

    This post could not have come at a better time. My boyfriend and I are currently expecting a little girl due in May and we live in an adorable one bedroom/railroad apartment in Brooklyn. Being in the 6th month of my pregnancy, the nesting phase has hit me hard and we’ve been working to rearrange and throw out anything that we no longer need. We’ve thrown out bags of stuff! We’ve also made our bedroom space an office and the living room a baby room. I really admire Erin’s aesthetic and her take on minimalism for her and her family. Her and her blog have been such an inspiration to me!

  7. RM says...

    Thank you for sharing your tips! I live a a half-bedroom apartment with my husband and 7-month-old and space is an issue. It’s also my office and studio, so living with less is less of an option… but i’m curious: where do you keep your important files, your winter clothes, or your old family photos? Those things that you don’t need all the time, but you do need to keep? When I see a space with so little, I wonder, do you keep a small storage or have a walk-in closet you can’t see in the photos? Would be really helpful to know.

  8. Irene says...

    Liked reading this a lot, but couldn’t ever do it.

    Please don’t equate people who choose to live in bigger spaces with people who accumulate unnecessary stuff / are “materialistic.” You can live a minimalist lifestyle in a place that is more spacious and therefore, in my mind, more comfortable.

    I also keep thinking that most people who embrace this lifestyle must be in big cities (NYC, San Fran) with high rents (so including CA outside of the big cities)… I don’t like NYC to start with, but I would hate having to live there AND having to live in a personal space this small. Everyone (strangers and close family) constantly on top of each other… eeek!

    • Trish O says...

      I am in Peoria, IL . NOT a big city, but for my family small space makes us happier. I think it really is just a matter of personal preference. Not a matter of right or wrong. I could buy almost any house in Peoria I would want, but we stay where we are.

      I once read an NPR report about space and people. They talked about how some people enjoy private space over public space. So think a playset in the backyard or a public park. Some would rather do the park most of the time. Sure, we all like to shake it up from time to time, but in general. Or meet friends out most of the time or have them over for a party. Anyway, I think it is just what works for your family.

    • Hi Irene! Definitely not equating larger spaces with materialism or accumulation! I think you can live as successfully with less in a larger space as you can in smaller ones! While living in a small space doesn’t bother me—and while living in New York City is a particular joy for me—I don’t either things are necessary for embracing a simpler way of life.

  9. dear joy & erin,

    i am adoring this very real look into a very real small space. i live in a small house and often compare it to living on a ship: everything needs to have a dual purpose; hooks and tension rods everywhere! on the flipside it’s as easy to tidy as it is to mess.

    great post. fresh style!


  10. Kim P says...

    My husband and I live in a one bedroom condo and his son is with us for half of the week. We have tried so many different configurations but have finally settled on our bed in the living room. Now that we have finally done it, I really do like it. A bigger place would be easier to deal with but at the same time, I appreciate the closeness with both of them and there is a built in reason not to have too much stuff. Your apartment is much more beautiful than ours. I am inspired to make ours better. Thank you so much for this! I am making room for your book :-)

  11. very refreshing attitude, i love it

  12. Nicky says...

    I find it extraordinary that people who are apparently successful and solvent would live like this. Where are their books? Their pots and pans, cookbooks, plates? Their child’s toys, crayons and, just, things? Why would you live in two rooms with nothing in them unless you were destitute? I honestly find this mind blowing

    • Missnicoleo says...

      You know what I love about people? We all want something different. Respect that.

    • Tara says...

      Success shouldn’t have to equate to having more things :)

    • helen h says...

      I think the whole point is that they do more with less. When I think of all the books, pots/pans, cookbooks (especially!) and plates that sit untouched in favor of the tried and true items we gravitate to on a daily basis, I can absolutely understand how this works for them. Great post, Joanna!

    • Shelley says...

      It now costs more money to live in Brooklyn than NYC. People are attracted to living there. I could go on a Spike Lee-like rant, but this is not the forum for such. I truly admire this woman’s use of simplicity. It gives the impression of calm, which, everything considered, is more important than possessions.

    • Never fear! Books, pots, pans, cookbooks, plates, toys and crayons are all there! They’re just tucked into closets, boxes, drawers, and cabinets!