Put Your Life on a Diet: Living the Simple Life

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When they're not enjoying a meal at the fold-away dining table, Gregory and Makur use it as office space.
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Gregory and Makur both volunteer for the Small House Society, the Small Car Society and their local United Nations Association.
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Gregory Paul Johnson, with fiancee Makur Jain, lives in a tiny house.
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When he's not using it, Gregory can tuck away his gas-powered Coleman camping stove, allowing his cooking space to double as the dining area.

I live in a home of 140 square feet. It doesn’t have a furnace, air conditioner, refrigerator, dishwasher, clothes washer/dryer, vacuum cleaner, blender, disposal or other common home appliances. For most of my commuting, I walk or rely on a bicycle. My small home is completely off the electrical and water grids. Most people would say this is an impossible way to live, but the truth is, my transition to a simpler life has made me happier and healthier than I have ever been.

In 2001, I read about Jay Shafer, who at the time was living in a 10-by-14-foot home he built on a trailer. Shafer constructed the home using residential-grade materials and insulation for economical year-round habitation–something most RVs and camper trailers lack. This fusion of camper and house intrigued me.

In 2003, I needed a change. It didn’t make sense to rent a small apartment, never putting money toward owning a home. I imagined myself 30 years down the road, having spent thousands of dollars on rent with nothing to show for it. Once I stopped and thought about where my money was going, I began looking at my options for purchasing a small house or condo.

I discovered that, while efficiency apartments exist, efficiency condos are not as readily available. Local housing codes have made it illegal to build a small “efficiency house,” deeming such a dwelling uninhabitable even though the same-size dwelling as an apartment is legal. Basically, I wanted the option to own a simple room like the one I was renting.

I felt strongly that it was important to be part of the small-house community and reduce my environmental footprint. I worked closely with Jay Shafer on the custom design of my house plans, and within three months I had built my home.

More time, more money

Living in my compact home for the last several years, I’ve learned that, as my living space became smaller, my freedom expanded both in terms of finances and free time. This increase in time and money has affected every area of my life.

I lost about 100 pounds, after having been overweight for almost a decade. The weight loss was the result of working less, sleeping more, having more time to exercise and replacing my car with a bike. I also now have extra money to join a gym and make healthier eating choices.

Having more time and money allows me to give more of myself to family and friends. I’ve been able to expand my volunteer time and financial donations to causes I believe in. My career has advanced because I’ve been able to focus on professional development and pursue opportunities for growth. Rather than worry about short-term financial needs, I’ve been able to pursue those things that promise long-term benefits.

What excites me most is how micro decisions can have a macro impact. For me, a smaller home has resulted in a significantly reduced cost of living; my home’s costs of construction, utility bills and maintenance are much lower than those of an average home. Living in a smaller space also limits my purchases, saving me money. And these factors help reduce my environmental footprint, which benefits everyone.

Living in a 140-square-foot home, I find I still use about 2,000 square feet of space, just as I did in the past. The difference is that the other 1,860 square feet of living space–my office at work, the gym, the laundromat, restaurants–is not mine to maintain anymore. So not only am I contributing to my community, but my overhead and responsibilities have been significantly reduced. In our complex and busy world, many people are searching for a simpler life, like prospectors panning for an elusive gold nugget. It was, in fact, the act of getting rid of my possessions that allowed me to obtain the treasure of simplicity.

Excerpted with permission from Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned from Living in 140 Square Feet by Gregory Paul Johnson (Gibbs Smith, 2008).

Gregory Paul Johnson is the founder and director of Resources for Life, an outreach and public interest organization based in Iowa City, Iowa. He works for the University of Iowa as well as for clients served by his consulting firm, the Technology Services Resource Group.

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