The Best Small Space Trick Isn't What You Do—It’s What You Don’t

The strategy that will help any home feel more spacious—no matter where or how you live.

September 20, 2021
Photo by Weston Wells

No Space Too Small is a brand new column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small—from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.

In last month’s installment of No Space Too Small I wrote about small-space hacks that had failed me, including entryway hooks and rolling storage carts. Now I want to tell you about the space-saving hack that works like a charm no matter what your space looks like, where you live, or how you use your home: Stop acquiring so much stuff.

Decluttering gets all the attention when it comes to maximizing a small space (I’ve written about it a lot myself), but managing the inflow is just as important as what’s heading out the door, especially for households with multiple people. My friend Whitney Leigh Morris wrote about this in a recent Instagram post, saying, “At the end of the day, it’s not actually about nifty organizers and design tricks. It’s about discovering what you need—and don’t need—in order to live comfortably and happily, day by day.” (I couldn’t have said it better myself.)

But how do you find clarity about what to allow into your home? Here’s how I’ve learned to manage the urge to bring new things into my small space:

Head off the paper at the door

Mail and other papers can clutter up a small space—fast. I find the best way to deal with the paper problem is to address it daily. I sort my mail immediately, recycling the junk and putting the essentials on my desk as to-dos. For my kid’s school paperwork, I enter dates in my calendar, recycle any fliers or worksheets, and save the best of the artwork in a dedicated drawer. For a more proactive approach to junk mail, I highly recommend spending $2 to opt out of junk mail for a decade through

Refuse the swag

In our COVID lives we’re less likely to encounter the branded water bottles, tote bags, and other event-related merch, but “freebies” are still all around us. For example, my son attended four different day camps this past summer and along with them came four new t-shirts, two sack-style backpacks, and two plastic water bottles (a lot of stuff flowing into our small space!). You need to say no to these freebies from the get-go, so they don’t become clutter you need to deal with!

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Top Comment:
“These ideas are also quite helpful for people with large homes and lots of storage space. (Though the combined square footage of my closets exceeds that of many NYC one bedroom apartments, I can see real benefits to implementing all of these suggestions.) ;o)”
— AntoniaJames

I started being conscious of the need to say “no thank you” to swag when I read The Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, which includes “Refuse” as one of Johnson’s 5 R’s of a zero waste lifestyle (the other four are Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot, if you’re curious). Johnson is mostly concerned with reducing her waste, but she also hints at the benefits to your home life, writing: “Hotel toiletries, party favors, food samples, swag bags from conferences/awards/events/festivals (including sustainable events). I can hear you: ‘Oh, but they are free!’ Are they? Freebies are primarily constructed of plastics and made cheaply, which means they break quickly... Their accumulation in the home also leads to clutter, storage, and disposal costs.”

Refusing freebies requires strong willpower, but after a couple of practice runs, you’ll quickly embrace the improvements you see in your life.
Bea Johnson, The Zero Waste Home

Wait 24-hours to buy anything

I’ve long lived by the 24-Hour Rule. I wait a full day before I buy any hot want, and I have found that a day can reveal that a “need” is not as pressing as it felt in the first moment. In fact, I’ve upped my own wait period on most purchases to a full week, if not longer. I find the longer you wait, the more resourceful you become: Instead of buying an outfit for an event, you might find a new way to style garments you already own or instead of buying the cool reusable iced coffee mug, you might just rinse out an applesauce jar and bring it to the coffee shop.

Or consider a spending freeze

If you know your nonessential spending is a source of that too-full-feeling at home, consider a financial fast (aka a spending freeze). Personal finance experts often recommend a no-spend week or month with a goal to reign in spending, but there are fringe benefits for your home: An extended spending pause can help you appreciate what it’s like to have less coming into your home; it will also help you value what you already have and use it in creative and resourceful ways.

Make a wish list

So what do I do about the things I admire or long for? I start a wish list. This can be a simple list in a notebook or a digital pinboard of images (sometimes just pinning something is enough to scratch the itch!). With my list, I can return to the object of my desire later and reassess how I am feeling about it. If I’m still not sure, I’ll wait until I am sure I either do really want something or can let the urge pass. I’ve been texting with two of my fellow home editor friends for a full year about the Open Spaces entryway shoe rack and still haven’t bought it!

Distance yourself from temptation

This has been a big help for me: Removing triggers for consumption will help you from impulse buying that can lead to a crowded house. I actively unsubscribed from all the retailers’ email and catalog lists, culled brands from my social media feed, and even unfollowed accounts that make me feel envious. When I’m not bombarded with pretty things to buy for my home, I am a lot less likely to buy them!

Use up what you’ve got

Consider this a challenge! We often purchase things that are similar to ones we already own in the quest for something that will work a little better or produce a slightly different result (for example, this is how your shower gets overwhelmed with bottles of soaps and shampoos). So instead of running out to buy the new Vitamin-C packed moisturizer I saw in a magazine, I’m committed to using up the bottle that is already in my medicine cabinet; when it’s done whatever I buy will feel like a real treat and it won’t make my small bathroom feel more cluttered.

Become a borrower

I saved my best advice for last: Instead of buying new things, borrow them! For example, when I hosted a birthday party for my mom a few years back, it would have been very easy to order a folding table from Amazon. Instead, I texted my neighbors and quickly learned that my pal Sophie had one in her basement storage space I could borrow for the night. On the rare occasion we have more than one overnight visitor, I borrow an air mattress from a friend. When you think you “need” something, especially if it is to fill a temporary need, try borrowing it. A great resource for borrowing beyond your own network of friends and family are Buy Nothing Groups (which my fellow Home52 columnist Christine Platt wrote about earlier this year). You might even meet new friends in the process of borrowing!

What about you? How do you manage to keep the clutter at bay? How do you act as a gatekeeper to your home?

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Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton or subscribe to her newsletter Living Small.


GigiR November 3, 2021
For children’s art, you can dedicate a drawer as mentioned. You can also get a photo album a put the works into it. Edit them later. Just remember to put the creation date on each one. You can also record them digitally once you’ve had enough enjoyment of the actual thing and recycle. My kids tossed them once they’d moved on to latest and greatest work of art.
AntoniaJames September 24, 2021
Great article! Thank you.

These ideas are also quite helpful for people with large homes and lots of storage space. (Though the combined square footage of my closets exceeds that of many NYC one bedroom apartments, I can see real benefits to implementing all of these suggestions.) ;o)
savorlife September 23, 2021
another good rule is that if you buy something, you have to throw away something.
Mara R. September 23, 2021
Please please please tell me where I can get the white couch with the slim arms in the main picture. Thanks
Laura F. September 23, 2021
Mara, it's the 86-inch "Jasper" sofa from Room & Board with one of the standard R&B slipcovers. I've had it ten years and it has held up great: Just recently got a new slipcover to take it through the next ten years. Here's the link:
Mara R. September 24, 2021
I've been searching for an upgraded replacement for my beloved, 11-year-old, Ikea Karlstad sofa which has served well and needs to retire soon. Many thanks Laura!
AntoniaJames September 24, 2021
Room and Board for the win. What a great store. One of my favorites. ;o)
M September 20, 2021
It might be a good idea to remove the "From Our Shop" links in a piece about buying less, or at the very least, remove those links when they appear right before text about avoiding places that bombard you with things to buy.
Laura F. September 23, 2021
Noted (and totally understand your sentiment). I am not sure if they can remove the modules in the CMS, but I'll ask my editor!