Minimalist-ish Family Series: Colleen Vales

So many challenges and so many big life changes for this family living in the expensive Bay area. A move to a tiny home and a new baby and long distance parenting and creating a multi-generational family unit by moving into your parent’s backyard. Really interesting and inspiring read here that I hope you enjoy as much as I did.
1.) Tell us about your family, who you are, where you live and things that you love:
I’m Colleen, a working mother of a 10-year-old daughter, with a baby due in November. We live in San Jose, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, where I work in communications for a local government agency. My partner lives two hours away with his 14-year-old son, so for a few years, we’re going to be long-distance parenting our baby. 
My daughter and I have a black lab and a cat of unknown origin, and we’re in the middle of downsizing from a 975-square-foot condo to a 270-square-foot tiny home. We want to live more simply and intentionally and not live to pay rent. We’re going to park the tiny home in my parents’ back yard, and I think that’ll be mutually beneficial. They help care for my daughter while I’m at work, and I help them around their house. The tiny home is due shortly after the baby, which has posed a challenge in terms of downsizing, but we’re trying to use baby registries to help guide the gifts that are already arriving for the baby.
Things we love to do, especially now that we’re not spending so much time shopping for needless items, include spending time with family and friends, writing, reading, knitting, riding our bikes around town, hiking in the hills close to our home, and gardening.
2.) When did you first hear about minimalism and what was your initial reaction?
I first heard about minimalism probably about four years ago when I learned of Bea Johnson’s blog, Zero Waste Home. At that point, I had been trying to reduce my use of plastic and to make more things from scratch and found her blog to be very helpful. Around the same time, I stumbled across Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog. Both encouraged buying less and focusing on experiences, and that resonated with me because I was smack in the middle of struggling to try to find time for my daughter, doing the things I love and working a full-time job. As I read their blogs, I was turned onto more: The Minimalists , Slow Your Home, LifeEdited and others. 
They all talked about not being tied down by your things, which also resonated with me because we have moved a couple of times over the last few years, and each time, my older brother has helped me and commented “Dude. You have too much stuff.” I knew he was right, and I remembered back to my college days when I could fit everything I needed to live in the back of my pickup truck. I also remembered a 7-month trip to Europe I had taken before my daughter was born, where I and my partner started out with a backpack and a suitcase each and whittled our belongings down to a backpack each and one shared small suitcase. I love the idea of being able to pick up and go and not be tied down by stuff. All those thoughts and new information from the blogs came together to help me see that it was time to get rid of some things. 
A year or two later, I discovered tiny houses, which appealed to my desire to live without the shackles of stuff as well as the ability to pick up and go. It didn’t take much — just one video — to convince my daughter that they were really cool and something we should pursue. And now here we are, waiting for our tiny home to get built so we can have a place we can truly call our own, a place where we can live simply, with a smaller environmental footprint, and have the option to just go if we desire. I’m pretty sure it will have some big challenges and take some getting used to, but we are really excited about it.
3.) What do you find most challenging in trying to live with less stuff?
One of the biggest challenges I’m having right now is trying to figure out what else to get rid of. Although we’ve been in 200-square-foot tiny homes before, it’s hard to know what amount of stuff will fit in our particular space. I have used the KonMari method twice with great success in getting rid of a lot of things — it has been especially helpful with sentimental items — but I know I have more to go. Furniture will be easy to send off, but beyond that, I don’t know what else should go.
My particular nemesis is the kitchen. While I have pared down considerably, I love to cook and bake, and I use all the tools I have kept. I think I will need to see our new space before I will truly know what to jettison next, and it’s that waiting that I find challenging. I want to get rid of things now.
Another challenge has been not bringing more into our home. While I have cut down on shopping, I still have not totally eliminated desire, and I’m not immune to temptation. So I try to remember that we won’t have room in the tiny house to put the things we buy now, and it’s been helpful in keeping me from buying something that I may have to get rid of in a few months. But with fundraisers at my daughter’s and my partner’s son’s school, plus a baby on the way, keeping down the amount of stuff we bring in has been a little difficult. The baby is due just before our tiny house is due, and we have found ourselves the recipients of more things that we may have trouble finding a place for in the new house. I’m trying to keep it to just what we’ll need, but with baby items, it can be so hard — they’re so cute! I’m a sucker for cute stuff.
4.) What do you find most rewarding in trying to live with less stuff?
There are a few things that I find rewarding about living with less stuff. The first and most important is the time I have that I don’t spend shopping, cleaning, organizing or caring for so many things. That has freed up more time for me to concentrate on writing and spending time with my daughter, and in turn, that — being able to do the things I love — has cut down on my stress.
I also find my home to be much more serene. Without knickknacks and papers and other stuff cluttering up each surface, my home feels more welcoming, easier to breathe in and more conducive to creativity. I’m not distracted by piles of papers or books or things I have to put away. I’ve slowed down, and my home reflects that, but because there isn’t that distraction or waste of time on shopping, I feel like I get so much more done.
Our home is also a lot greener and healthier. When we don’t bring so much stuff in, we generate less trash and our new buying habits require fewer resources for the production, transport and disposal of things. We’ve gotten the amount of trash we generate (from two people, a dog, a cat and guests) down to one 8-gallon trash can that we take out every two to three weeks, and I’m aiming to make that can smaller. By bringing less packaged stuff into our house, I’m also cooking from scratch more, which results in us eating a greater variety of healthier, tastier food.
Lastly, we’ve saved money. By really considering purchases before making them and not shopping as much, I’ve been able to eliminate all my debt, and have tried to train myself to save up for an item that I give myself permission to buy. It’s not easy, and I feel like I’m still learning, but it’s nice each month when my credit card statements arrive via e-mail, and my balance is zero. This frugality is allowing me to take six months of mostly unpaid leave after the baby is born. I’ll get 2/3 of my pay for the first 4 to 6 weeks, but after that, I’ll have to live on savings, so cutting out shopping has been instrumental in my calculations on how to make this work. So has moving into a tiny house, which will cut down on my monthly housing payment by about $1,200 each month, which still isnt even half my rent. (Silicon Valley is extremely expensive).

5.) Do you see any challenges (older, bigger kids, retirement, etc) to continuing on with this lifestyle in the future?
A continued challenge to this lifestyle will be when my partner and I can finally merge our households. He is definitely not a minimalist. While I’ve taken him into consideration in the design of our tiny house, he is also not a person who would ever consider such a living situation for himself and his son. Bringing together two opposite lifestyles could prove to be challenging, but I believe we’ll work to meet somewhere in the middle. We won’t continue living tiny, but we also won’t live huge. There’s a compromise in there, and I believe it involves a cute little house with a big ol’ yard.
While it’s probably a couple of years away still, my partner and I talk about it now. Once the tiny house is done, and my daughter and the baby and I are settled and have gotten used to it, I think we’ll show that simple, minimal living is a pretty good way to go.
Even if living tiny isn’t for everyone, I think everyone can benefit from slowing down and making space in their schedules and their homes for the things they love. Living with less is helping us to do just that, and while we may encounter obstacles here and there along the way, they’re not insurmountable because we’re spending our time and money building relationships instead of building a stash of things. 

 You can read more about


Twitter: @colleenvalles

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