Decorative trinkets are not a recommended ingredient in the recipe for minimalist living. But Danielle Spillman loves her little bowl of pine cones, surrounded by a decorative antler and a couple of candles next to her sink. The white lights dangling above this assortment of sweet, woodsy items make the inside of her 1967 Airstream sparkle with warmth. She only has one strand, but they bounce and dance across her aluminum walls like hundreds of pet fireflies.
Spillman is a 27-year-old single woman who lives in a vintage Airstream at the base of a mountain in Oregon. We met on the highway when I came to visit from Portland and she warned me, with a skeptical glance at my Hyundai’s balding tires, that her driveway was covered in a foot of powdery snow.
“You can get in, but it’s kind of like rally driving,” she said, miming a bouncing race car driver’s grip on a steering wheel.
“I can handle it,” I told her.
“Just drive fast!” she added as we each hopped in our cars.
Spillman and I have some things in common. We’re used to doing things on our own. We’re close in age and we both own our own homes. We’re also both single. And there’s an unspoken respect between single women like Danielle and I—we can handle it.
I made it down Spillman’s driveway in a bouncing, sliding skid.
Her Airstream is parked on a friend’s property, beneath a wooden shelter. There’s a little platform doorstep where we knocked the snow off our boots before entering.
She invited me to sit on the couch next to her bed—an intimate space to interview a stranger—and I felt immediately envious, but also at ease. The interior of Spillman’s camper is so delicately curated that it feels as though you know her, just by sitting there. Of course, there’s much more to Spillman than what I can surmise from the 100 square feet of her sleeping, eating, and living quarters. But this space is clearly a significant part of knowing who she is. Danielle has made this Airstream home.
Her relocation from Montana, where she owned a house with her ex, to the woods of Mt. Hood required extensive downsizing. But she didn’t have much trouble letting go of the stuff. Next to the breakup, getting rid of stuff felt insignificant.
“The main thing I felt was freedom,” says Spillman.
There’s a lot going on in this small space. Admittedly, I’m dissecting her home with a desire to collect evidence in support of my hypothesis: that two cultural movements, within the lives of people like myself and Spillman, are colliding in protest of the traditional “American Dream.”
We’re rejecting the idea that marriage plus 2.5 kids plus house with a picket fence equals happiness. We’re downsizing and simplifying, in both our personal lives and our physical spaces.
The first movement at play here is minimalism, an obsession that is spider-veining across mainstream consciousness. Tiny houses in particular—which tend to be between 100 and 400 square feet and built on a mobile platform like a trailer bed—have captured the public’s curiosity. There are at least seven reality shows dedicated to tiny houses—buying them, building them, living in them—and they’ve become the darlings of home and design publications. This one alone has published 456 articles on the topic.
The second movement is singledom. The single population is growing in the United States, and we’re seeing a long-overdue acknowledgement that building a life for one is a valid and worthy desire, rather than a state of incompleteness. Millennials are waiting much longer than their parents to marry—the median age of first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men. Some are rejecting the idea of marriage altogether. For single people who can afford it, purchasing homes (of both the tiny and the regular-sized variety) is an increasingly attractive option, but not one without its challenges.
Looking back, my decision to purchase a home in Portland, Oregon, was both inspired by and made in spite of my single status. After years of travel and bouncing from rented apartment to new city to rented apartment (and almost as many years being single), I was on the brink of turning 30 and felt an overwhelming desire to “settle down,” at least in terms of place. I’m okay with being single, but I craved some consistency in my life.
Portland is a country-width away from all of my family and most of my friends. But my life fit into the contours of this city just right; the coffee shops full of fellow freelancers, the abundance of art and culture, and the proximity to stunning outdoor adventures were nearly everything I desired in a home. Despite my parents’ pleas to come back East before grounding myself with a mortgage, I bought the fifth house I looked at—1,000 square feet, built in 1908—knowing absolutely nothing about houses or what I really wanted or needed in a home. It was one I could afford (if just barely), and that seemed like all I could ask for.
I’ve since discovered that houses are endlessly expensive. With the unpredictable “salary” of a writer, home expenses are stressful at best. At times they feel debilitating. There are so many things I want to change or need to fix—just thinking about it makes me itch. The yellowed vinyl floor in my bathroom is peeling off the concrete underneath. The basement is full of crap I don’t need or want to see, and I harbor a surging suspicion that someone or something is living among the towers of dampening boxes. My backyard is a mud pit with grass growing in unpredictable bursts like acne on a teenage back. It’s gross.
All of these things require money and effort to fix and maintain, and I never seem to have enough of either.
It would be nice to have a partner to help me with yard work and join me in organizing my creepy basement. My parents warned me that it would be difficult to own and maintain a house alone. I never imagined how right they were. But I also don’t wish to live my life in waiting for someone else. I wanted a home for me—not a someday family.
The traditional “American Dream” dictates that houses are purchased by couples. You get married. You buy a house. You fill it with kids and/or pets and a whole lot of stuff. The image of a young couple standing in front of a SOLD sign, backed by a green lawn and 2,598 square feet of living space (if they’re buying today’s average-sized, single-family home), is something we can easily conjure, thanks to endless examples in movies, TV shows, and the insert photos of new picture frames.
But in 2014, for the first time in history, single Americans outnumbered married ones, at 50.2 percent of the population.
This trend feels particularly encouraging for women.
Rebecca Traister, author of All the Single Ladies (2016), explains that the rise of the single woman is a historical event that “entails a complete rethinking of who women are and what family is and who holds dominion within it.”
All along, there have been women who chose, and were able, to go it alone. Kate Bolick, in another recent book, Spinster, writes of one enlightening exchange in 1896, between investigative reporter Nellie Bly and suffragist Susan B. Anthony. “Nellie Bly asked Susan B. Anthony if she’d ever been in love. Her answer: ‘Bless you, Nellie, I’ve been in love a thousand times! But I never loved any one so much that I thought it would last. In fact, I never felt I could give up my life of freedom to become a man’s housekeeper.’”
Thanks to decades of women fighting the system, today the cultural stigma of being single has eased. Women can vote, work, and raise children on our own. We can own property—though not all women have equal access to that option. For instance, interest rates on home loans are higher for women than for men, and higher for black women than white women.
(And of course, men can do all of these things, too—but that’s always been the case.)
Nicole De Jong admits that two is better than one when house shopping in Portland, Oregon. But that second person isn’t a husband or boyfriend for this 40-something architect. She and her best friend from college, who she’s lived with in various apartments for the past 13 years, are looking to buy a house together.
De Jong based her graduate school thesis on the idea of optimizing space for single people. She was frustrated by how her single-person salary limited her housing options in a city like Portland. And it didn’t seem like anyone was taking the rising number of single people into account when it came to home design.
“The traditional home is built around the idea of the nuclear family,” explains De Jong. “It’s based around marriage. It’s also based around consumerism. Once you buy a house, you need every kitchen gadget known to man, and the latest, greatest furniture.”
The traditional modern home, made pervasive by post-World War II consumerism, when all of those war-time factories pivoted from tanks to toasters, might be perfect for some people. But not for Nicole, who does not plan to marry or have children. She recognizes that this model wasn’t built because we needed it. It was built because our economy needed us to need it. It certainly wasn’t built for her.
De Jong considered the tiny house option. But she loves to cook and entertain guests. A tiny house wouldn’t allow her to share comfortable space with family when they visit from out of town.
Also, tiny houses aren’t a tiny commitment. Zoning rules in many places restrict owners from parking mobiles homes on lots as the only structure. Which can mean moving your tiny house from place to place, or living on someone else’s property. And while they can be cheaper in the long run, as most tiny-house owners aren’t accruing interest on a mortgage, you do need a chunk of money to build or buy in the first place. It’s possible to build for as little as $8,000 (you’ll need some construction experience), but the average tiny house costs around $20,000, and homes from the nation’s leading company in premade options, Tumbleweed, run between $57,000 and $70,000.
Together with her friend, De Jong will be able to afford more than she could on her own—and they’re going small instead of tiny. The two are looking for a duplex, which will give them each their own living space and privacy. But should something happen—a lost job, an illness—they could both share one side and rent out the other to save money.
Michelle Boyle is a single mom whose two children are young adults. She stumbled upon the tiny house movement in 2012, through Pinterest. In the process of renovating a 1964 camper (which she named Betsy), she fell down the rabbit hole of online inspiration for optimizing and decorating small spaces—ultimately leading her to the tiny house.
Since then, she’s built and moved into her own tiny house, and just recently began construction on a second, which she’ll use as a rental property. Her expertise and obsession have snowballed exponentially since she first began construction in 2014, and she’s made a name for herself in the tiny house community, hosting the Tiny House Podcast and writing her blog, “My Tiny Empty Nest.”
The construction of a tiny house takes time, but redesigning one’s outlook on life and preconceived notions of what makes a home takes longer.
“The idea of ‘home’ has always eluded me,” Boyle admits. She grew up in foster care and is estranged from her adoptive parents. She’s been married twice, and lost two houses in the divorces. But when she discovered the tiny house movement, she also discovered an opportunity to start from scratch and develop her own unique image of comfort and security. After years of focusing on what home should mean for her kids, she finally has the opportunity to discover what it means for her.
“I’m in the process of redesigning who I am, and what my priorities are,” says Boyle.
Despite the unavoidable challenges of tiny living, she is basking in her freedom and fostering a very independent lifestyle in her 192-square-foot house—but she does have a boyfriend. They’ve been together for eight years, and he’s always lived about 160 miles away, which Michelle says is perfect.
“When we find time to be together, we actually spend that time together,” she tells me. “We don’t pay the bills, or clean the house. We focus on each other.”
Boyle recently told her partner, “The closest I’ll ever come to cohabitating with you is parking my house in your driveway.”
It isn’t the “American Dream,” but it’s a dream to her.
Another blogger, Jenna Spesard of “Tiny House, Giant Journey,” has parked her home all over the country. She and her (now ex-) boyfriend built their tiny house to tow on the back of their truck while they explored over 25,000 miles of North America. Spesard is now parked on Mt. Hood (she and Danielle are friends), where she lives alone and works as host to a village of rentable tiny houses.
“Humans are surprisingly adaptable,” she tells me. “No matter where I’m at, I find my routine, I adapt to the space, and I focus on how to live my best life.”
Spesard has spent time all over the world, but she feels most like herself when she’s home (regardless of where it’s parked).
“You know how people say dog owners look their dogs?” she asks me. “The same is true of tiny house owners and their houses.”
Donovan Jenkins has gone an even tinier route. The 34-year-old nursing student and outdoor enthusiast is happiest when he’s hiking and rock climbing.
A Ford Cargo Van, bought off Craigslist for $2,700, has given Jenkins the freedom to have his home on the trailhead, or inconspicuously parked on the streets of Portland during the week. He spent an additional $2,500 on a complete overhaul of the van’s interior, ripping out carpet, installing a stove, wood-panelled walls, and a full bed.
He concedes that van life can be suffocating at times—a reality scarcely acknowledged in the over 1 million #vanlife Instagram photos that largely feature views of beaches out the back doors and #PNW mountainscape backdrops.
When a winter storm hit Portland, schools were closed and the roads were nearly impassable. Many people stayed home for longer stretches than usual. For Jenkins, that meant staying inside of his van.
“You don’t realize how important it is to move until you stop doing it,” he explains. “Even that short trip to the fridge—you’re walking. I don’t have that.”
But Jenkins is rarely in his van. And when he is, it provides the minimalist sleeping and living quarters he needs—and the freedom to hit the road whenever he chooses. Plus, it discourages him from spending money on stuff. He’d rather save to travel and climb mountains.
Another perk to living in small spaces, Jenkins points out, is that it forces you to get out of them.
“I see my friends more now than I ever did [while living in apartments].” The need to stretch out forces Jenkins to reach out and make plans. “I’ll take any excuse to be with other people.”
Each of these independent minimalists is building a life that is unique to their needs, and together they’re demonstrating that none of us really need as much as we’ve been led to believe.
Their lives are vastly different, but several patterns emerge across the board. They’ve discovered that smaller living spaces encourage intentional engagement with friends, family, and their communities. (As does being single.) Their lifestyles encourage them to be mindful and conscious in all decisions of consumption, from the clothes they buy to the food they eat. And while limiting in physical space, these lifestyles are making room for options outside of the living structure, like travel and the pursuit of passions.
Bella DePaulo, a psychologist who presented at the American Psychological Association’s 124th Annual Convention last year, offers an uplifting take on singledom, or coupledom, or whatever kind of “American Dream” you wish to live.
“There is no one blueprint for the good life,” noted the scientist, who has analyzed 814 studies on people who have never married, concluding that any assumption about single people being less happy is largely based on faulty research. “What matters is not what everyone else is doing or what other people think we should be doing, but whether we can find the places, the spaces and the people that fit who we really are and allow us to live our best lives.”
When Nicole De Jong first started studying the lives and lifestyles of single people for her thesis, she had this idea that she would, “research and discover that the American idea of ‘home’ and the ‘American dream’ were wrong, or bad.” What she discovered instead is that it’s all individual.
By embracing a greater variety of images of what makes a fulfilling life, we’re slowly reshaping the American Dream in a way that is more attainable, sustainable, and reflective of our individual needs, rather than a blanket assumption of what a happy life should look like.
For now, I’m the owner of a small house—rather than a tiny one, or a van. At times it’s overwhelming, but I’m learning how to own a home as I go. I can handle it. And like anyone else, I can sample aspects of tiny living, van life, or minimalism, within the framework of my own, custom lifestyle as a single person. I can declutter my space, make more mindful decisions, and focus on what’s most important to me. I should probably start with cleaning up my basement.
Editor: Sara Polsky