“The most responsible thing we can do, if we care about the health of the planet, is to live in as small a home as possible.”
I recently heard this from an authority in the environmental movement. I’m not sure it’s true – that it is “the most” — after all, we hear all sorts of statements about the single most influential thing we can do to live more lightly upon the Earth: stop eating cows, stop eating animals, stop driving a car, stop living large, stop using plastic, curb our dependence on fossil fuels. But, no one can argue that any or all of these will not have a significant impact if adopted by the masses. Whether it is number 1 or number 4 on the list doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. We know intellectually, and in our hearts, that these are important things we need to do, whether all at once or move toward over time.
Today, I am honoured and very excited to share with you the story of a family of four living in Berlin, Germany in a home measuring only 450 square feet. The family first moved into this tiny space by force of circumstance, but rather than dream of living bigger, they decided to see how they could enjoy and even thrive in a small space. In short time, they learned that living small was not only doable but enjoyable, it brought them closer together as a family and made financial decisions much easier.
Please read on to learn all about this family, shared through my interview with Marlies, and how living small is living large for them.
Let’s start with a little bit about you. Who are you? What’s your background?
I’m a 28 year old mom and journalist. I grew up in The Netherlands, in a town not too far away from Amsterdam. Together with my younger sister and two brothers I had a happy and safe childhood. We loved creating our own world and every free moment we went to the nearby playground/park with our own cart full of snacks, costumes and blankets. This is such a lovely memory of my childhood. Our parents trusted us enough to just cross the road and play for hours together with our siblings and friends. After high school I went to college to study office management and worked for a few years as a personal assistant. In the mean time I married my high school sweetheart Jesse, who was a modern dance student at that time. Only nine months after we got married, he was offered a contract with a theatre in Germany. We were still in our early twenties and up for some adventure so we jumped at this opportunity. In six weeks we prepared our move to Onsabrück, a small town in rural north Germany. Jesse started his dancing career and I decided to start my own freelance writing business. After two years we moved to Heidelberg as the dance company Jesse was dancing with in the theatre in Osnabruck was moving there. For 3 years, we lived just outside Heidelberg in a small village where we could afford to rent a two-bed apartment with a small garden.
What part of the world do you live in?
Last summer we moved to Berlin. After 5 years of full-time dancing (including crazy work hours) we wanted something else for our family. We once visited Berlin for three days and we thought that would be a nice city for us to live. It’s very family friendly with lots of playgrounds, parks and child cafes. We live in the middle of the city and have easy access to all the wonderful things Berlin has to offer. At the same time we are not too far away from our families in Holland, which is about a 6-hour drive by car.
How many children do you have and what are they like?
I have two kids: Jaïr (almost 4) and Evy (1,5). Jaïr is a very active and social boy with lots of blond curls. He is very creative and loves making things – whether with legos or paint – and at the moment he is fascinated with Africa. He goes to a small Waldorf-style Kindergarten and I love hearing him speak German. It’s unbelievable how easily kids are able to learn other languages.
Evy goes to the same Kindergarten as her brother. She is a very independent little girl and has taken on the same love for legos as her brother. We bought her a small doll for her first birthday, but she isn’t interested in it at all. She loves to do whatever Jaïr does.
I believe there are many ways to be a minimalist and many forms of minimalism. What does minimalism mean to you? And, in what ways are you a minimalist?
Minimalism for me is about living a simple life. We have a very small, simple apartment and therefore we also minimize clothing, toys and general stuff. We have no place for a large garbage bin in our kitchen, so we committed to a lifestyle with a minimal amount of waste. In an average week we empty our small trash bin twice. Minimalism has also a lot to do with freedom. We do not have a mortgage, the clothing of all four of us fits in one suitcase. We love the things we own, but we could quite easily give them up if needed. We focus on us as a family, connecting with friends and family and experiences instead of buying new stuff. Ultimate freedom and happiness.
What is your story, how did you start on a path toward a minimalist lifestyle?
Our journey towards minimalism started 1.5 years ago when I stumbled on the tiny house movement. One of the first blogs I read was Assortment Blog. I loved how this mom of three teen boys designed her own little cottage and made it work for her family. In the same period I read the book Stuffocation. At that time we lived in an 800 square foot apartment and although I never considered myself as someone particularly attached to material goods, it shocked me how much stuff we had accumulated over the last years. Luckily my husband was on board as well, so we started to slowly get rid of stuff we never used. A few months later we decided to move to Berlin. We had a hard time finding an apartment of the same size we had in Heidelberg for an affordable price. A friend of ours moved out of her apartment and asked if we would like to take over as renters. Small detail: it was a one bedroom apartment with only 450 square feet without a storage basement, garden or even a balcony. We first declined, but after a few weeks decided to accept her offer. After the initial doubts, we got really excited. Now it was time to put all we read into practice. Could we live in a tiny apartment with a minimum of stuff? We started selling and giving away most of our furniture, clothes, toys, books, tableware, etc. In a small bus we drove to Berlin and we moved into our new, tiny home. The first weeks were hard. Jesse designed and made a foldout bed which we installed in our living room, but we had lots of troubles with it functioning well. The kids were not used to sleep in the same room, so they were constantly waking each other up. We missed our small garden. So yes, it took us a while to get used to our small place. To be honest, I sometimes dream of a house with three bedrooms, a kitchen where we can eat and a garden. But, still I’m really happy with our move to this tiny place.
Are there any websites or books that inspire your minimalism?
Some other websites I read:
What has been the greatest benefit of minimalism?
The greatest benefit of living small and practicing minimalism is the connection between us as a family. Our focus is on being together and strengthening our bond. In a very practical way for instance, we chose not to buy a new chair but rather, to get plane tickets to visit our family in Holland. Our budget is limited and we agreed on spending money on experiences rather than stuff. Living small also means going outside much more. We take the kids on long walks and since we don’t have a garden or balcony we go on picnics far more often. On a personal level, minimalism gave me more peace of mind. It helped me to get a clearer picture of what I want in life and what I certainly don’t want or need.
Is your parenting influenced by minimalism?
An interesting read about this topic is Simplicity Parenting. Kim John Payne explains in this book how important it is to strip the life of our kids of all things unnecessary and allow them to be kids without too much distractions from our adult world. We do not own a TV and we are mindful about the toys we bring into our home. The kids both love to read and do arts and crafts, which I try to stimulate with offering lovely books and nice art materials. In these two areas I do not really feel the need to minimize, as I want to encourage them to read and be crafty. I love to see that their play is always full of fantasy and stories, despite the fact that they do not own many toys.
Minimalism also made us more critical about the things society considers good for our kids. Do they really need an enormous amount of toys? Is having your birthday about getting gifts? Lately we also have started to think about education and we are exploring the option to keep the kids out of school and let them follow their own interests by unschooling them.
In what ways/areas do you struggle with keeping things minimal? What is your weakness?
Books for sure. The kids love to read and we have a lot of books for them. This is one of the few things we didn’t minimize over the last year. I think it’s important and fun for them to have access to a lot of books and I’m happy they are both fond of them. For me and Jesse it’s a bit different. We did give away lots of books, but still kept some that are dear to us. When we read a book, we generally give it away unless we really, really love it. Still our own bookshelves are growing since we arrived here.
Have there been any struggles with the other people you live with about living in a minimal way?
I’m very happy Jesse and I are both in the same boat. We never have any struggles together about this topic. The funny thing is, Jaïr is always mentioning to everyone he has thousand cars and lots and lots of other toys. I always have to smile when he says it, because he doesn’t own very many toys. Isn’t it wonderful he thinks he does?
What advice can you offer to people interested in living a minimalist lifestyle?
Start small. Just get rid of some stuff you are not going to miss for sure. Most likely it will give you a great feeling and you want to get rid of some more stuff. It took us almost two years to get to the point where we are now. There is no need to do everything at once.
Do you have any goals for this year or the next few that you want to share?
We would love to travel the world with our kids and be able to work remotely. This makes us even more aware of the things we do or do not buy. For example, I’m a bit done with the pillows on our sofa, but if we are going to travel in two years, we’d better save this money instead of buying new ones we would have to give up anyway.
Thank you Marlies! Readers you can find Marlies on Instagram @marlieshanse.
Check out these other great interviews in this series:
- Interview with a Minimalist: Kellie (artist, children’s book lover and mother of 4 boys living in a small space)
- Interview with a Minimalist: The Devine Family (off the grid family with 4 children living in a tree house down under, completely garbage free)
- Interview with a Minimalist: Amanda (mother of 2 girls with a third on the way, minimalism in the home to unleash her children’s creativity)
- Interview with a Minimalist: Carina (artist living in the small space capital of Canada with her 2 children and partner, maximizing life through the great outdoors)
- Interview with a Minimalist: Alison M (mother of one, soon to be two, she is the small space queen of Canada)
- Interview with a Minimalist: Brian of Less Means More (travelling around the US with his partner and unschooling their boy)
- Interview with a Minimalist: Kylah (organic farmer and vegan chef raising 2 girls off the grid with her partner)
- Interview with a Minimalist: Katrien (mountain living, mother of twin boys)
- Interview with a Minimalist: Anna (homeschooling mother of three)
- Interview with a Minimalist: Celia (simple living and zero waste blogger)
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