Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

9 Ways to Edit Your Life in the Suburbs

It has been rightly pointed out that we at LifeEdited have a heavy urban bias. We sing the praises of compact apartments nestled in vibrant streets where we all frolick, ahem, walk or bike to world class restaurants, charming cafes and green markets; where cars are only used for the rare road trips to bucolic countrysides; where the reusable shopping-bag denizens create a fraction of the carbon footprint of the national norm.

But sometimes we miss the point. Many, many people live in the suburbs–roughly 2/3 of Americans. Many of them happily. They like their lawns, cars and streets that aren’t punctuated by the sound of sirens every five minutes. They don’t mind doing yard work, thank you very much. They accept and occasionally enjoy their commutes to work. And yet, many of these folks (of which you might consider yourself one) want to simplify their lives. They want to have more time, money and peace of mind. They want to reduce the amount of stuff they have and their carbon footprints. They just don’t want to move to the city.

A while back we wrote a popular post entitled “The New American Dream Home,” which profiled the Kawabatas, a family of four living in a not-so-small suburban home. The post was popular, we believe, because it presented a middle ground between extreme minimalist urbanism and unchecked suburban profligacy.

For the record, if you’re going to move, even within the burbs, we suggest finding a house that errs on the smaller side of the national norm and is close to the stuff you do–work, shopping, etc. But given that most of us aren’t going to move any time soon, or not based of some bloggers suggestion, we thought we’d offer a list of things you can do–some simple, some more involved–to create an edited home whilst living in the burbs.

  1. Get rid of stuff. As the old saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum, and given that suburban homes tend to be on the larger side, resisting the urge to fill your rooms with stuff can be difficult. But living with too much stuff is also difficult. There’s more stuff to buy, maintain, dust, organize, clean and toss. And while ultra-austere environments might not be everyone’s cup of tea, most of us appreciate a clear space more than we suspect. We suggest getting rid of stuff you don’t need, use or want, whether it’s housewares, furniture, clothes or paperwork. Edit ruthlessly. Just because you have the space doesn’t mean you have to fill it.
  2. Organize. With a bigger house, the tendency for out-of-sight-out-of-mind increases. Work on going through all of your home’s spaces, getting rid of stuff wherever possible, then organizing. Sort through storage areas, digitize paperwork and photos, make sure everything has a proper place. On the other side is the mental liberation that comes when we know what we have and where it’s at.
  3. Consider going natural. One of the larger time-sinks of having a single-family home is routine lawn care and landscaping. There are many types of beautiful grasses, shrubs and other plant life that need no or minimal upkeep. Look into what those things are for your particular climate and consider them as an alternative to the standard suburban mowed lawn and trimmed hedge aesthetic.
  4. Think before you drive. It’s sort of an inescapable truth that most suburbs truly depend on the car. Distances between destinations are generally too long for a walk and even a bike in many cases. That said, more and more municipalities are adding bike lanes and paths as well as public transport. While these forms of transit might lack the lightning speed of hopping in your car, there are many ancillary benefits like getting exercise, saving money and cutting your carbon footprint. Consider upgrading your commuter bike and riding that ten mile trip to work. Use the time waiting and riding the bus to catch up on reading.
  5. Telecommute whenever possible. The average American spends 50 minutes a day on his or her commute. And many people report that their commutes are the low-points of their days. If you have a flexible work situation, regain that time and sanity and consider making a request to work from home, even if only for one day a week.
  6. Close off a room. I know, this might sound weird, but the fact is many of us have spaces in our homes we simply don’t use enough to justify their upkeep–cleaning, heating and cooling. Consider making the room off limits–shutting the vents, covering the windows, etc–until you have a use for it.
  7. Get a lodger. This falls a bit outside the suburban norm, but fitting more people into a space cuts down on sprawl, can spread expenses and, assuming you have reasonably good interpersonal skills, might even make your home a more interesting place to live. Don’t want a stranger–consider having a family member moving in. Don’t want a family member–consider a stranger.
  8. Look into an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). This one is a bit of a radical proposition, but depending on zoning where you live, you might be able to add an additional home to your existing home’s lot. Throw a tiny house in your back yard and rent out your main house–or vice versa.
  9. Use and love your space. Probably the biggest shame of the big American house is that it doesn’t get used enough. There is no “right size” for a home. If a space is frequently used and enjoyed, then it’s probably the right size. Host parties, BBQ’s, movie nights and other community activities. Size is an asset when it’s used.

Do you live an edited life if the suburbs? What would you add to this list? Let us know in our comments section.

Arial view of housing subdivision image via Shutterstock

  • Timothina

    I live in the suburbs and one of my “edited” decisions is trying to grow some of my own food. It cuts down on driving, and tastes delicious.

  • Scott

    I agree with the comment on growing food. I prefer edible landscaping over purely ornamental landscaping. If you do not want to “farm” your property yourself, there are people out there that will lease part of your yard for a veggie garden and pay you money or food.

    (more of a city level idea instead of the personal level suggestions in the article) I would also encourage suburbs to look into Low Speed Vehicles or other mechanized short distance travel modes (electric assist bikes, etc.) and set up the infrastructure so that these are safe and as direct as possible between “popular” destinations.

    Back on the personal level, look into solar panels. We had enough south facing roof surface to do a low cost 20 year lease that makes our house net zero with a yearly electric bill ~ $100 (still have to pay a monthly connection fee to be on the grid).

    Similarly, install low flow water devices. We did this inside and outside our house which dramatically reduced our gallons of water per person use. Our large yard allowed us to compose which has reduced our garbage pickup to about 1 bag per week.

    For #3 in the original list. Is there a good yard surface that is low maintenance and low water use that is kid friendly to allow the kids to play on. All of the “natural” options that I have found are not appropriate for kid playing.

    • WithheldName

      A yard covered with fallen leaves, all year round, like you’d find in any woods, is perfect for kids.

  • Erin O’Connor

    I would add a couple of things here that are related to, but not precisely addressed already, in either the original list or the comments.
    1) If you are looking for a house, see if you can get one that is close to public transportation for commuting, entertainment, etc. (granted, this is easier for me living in the greater Boston area than for people in many regions of the country).
    2) Look for an older home–you might have to put in some work, but it’s more sustainable, and also the houses were typically built better before 1970 or so than they are now.
    3) THINK CREATIVELY about your space. This relates to the “use your space” suggestion–just because others think of a room as a dining room, for example, doesn’t mean you have to use it that way–especially if you only need a dining room twice a year. However, you might use that space a lot if you set it up for arts and crafts, or as a yoga/exercise space, etc.

    We are not currently interested in getting a (much) smaller house, though we might in the future…but it’s made a huge difference for us that we chose a house (about 2000 sf for four people, with the adults working from home a lot) in a walkable area with public transportation available, and that we went through massive de-cluttering and re-imagining space so that we can all live more happily right here, right now. I do like the idea of small, but having grown up in 900 sf house with 10 people and one bathroom also left me grateful for a little *breathing room* too!

  • WithheldName

    It’s a tall order to try to edit life in a large suburban home where life outside the home is mostly spent in an automobile. But a few things can be done.

    1. We’ve eliminated almost all of our lawn, let fallen leaves cover most of the ground, all year long, and have planted as many native trees and bushes as can fit on our typical-sized quarter-acre lot. Most of the rainwater that hits our roof goes into the soil because of the layer of leaves. (If we could rig up a greywater system, that would be even nicer.) Part of our backyard is a compost pile. Some of our trees provide edible fruits and berries. We filled in our swimming pool with dirt to plant more trees and bushes. If we could remove our driveway, we would. We may eventually remove part of our patio for more trees. We removed a wooden deck. It would nice to remove the garage if we could.

    2. I work from home, otherwise I couldn’t stand a long car commute like my spouse has. When the kids were smaller, they walked to and from school every day. We’ve tried to bicycle for errands but it’s just too far and the southern climate is just too hot in much of the summer. We’ve looked into neighborhood electric vehicles and unfortunately found they weren’t realistic. We stopped buying new cars – which often seem like a necessity in many suburban areas – and focused on smaller, used, fuel-efficient vehicles. When we eventually replace them, we will definitely get electric cars. We drive less than we used to.

    3. We tried to insulate our home to make it more energy efficient but found very little savings, unfortunately. Big-ticket upgrades like new windows are things we have avoided. We plan to someday cover our roof in solar panels.

    4. We have eliminated our credit card debt, paid down our mortgage, given away things to charity, and generally tried to de-clutter and live less materialistic lives, with varying degrees of success. We got rid of the cable TV and land line phone. But even with all these things, our annual expenses are still the same. We spend a lot more on organic food and eco-friendly household products. Even without TV advertisements, we still seem to have just as many materialistic urges for some reason.

    For all the work we’ve done, it still feels like we’re living a very similar suburban, wasteful, upper-middle-class lifestyle. We still spend almost as much on transportation, food, and energy expenses. We still create plenty of recyclables and waste from consumer products. We still spend most of our existence inside air-conditioned environments. We still spend most of our time looking at digital screens. We still spend almost everything we earn. We still drive a lot of miles.

    They say the greenest house is the one already built. And the greenest product is the one already sitting on the shelf in your closet. There is no reasonable exit strategy for us from suburbia. We cannot realistically sell our house and move to a walkable neighborhood. The urban areas are way too expensive for us – and too far from my spouse’s job out here in the suburbs, We still have a kid in school. We have dogs that like their yard. We don’t really have any option but to try to work with what we got. But sadly, it seems like we can’t do much with it.

  • Joy_F

    We have a cute little house from the 1940’s (its been upgraded on the inside – but there are many little details that show its age). It’s 1300 square feet, and doesn’t have an enclosed garage, but we picked it because work is bikeable and the grocery store and a couple other little stores and parks are in walking distance. The yard is small and mostly taken up by trees – since it doesn’t get much sunlight, we just let the grass do what it will and don’t enhance it at all.

    We intentionally chose a smaller house so that we wouldn’t be tempted to “fill one up” – there is a hotel in walking distance where we put people when they come as our three bedrooms are full. Gradually, we are paring down what we have, but its slow going most of the time. It’s close to several parks, so we use the playgrounds at the parks rather than installing one in the backyard.