The Virtues of Living in a Small Apartment

In Empires, the tenth and latest expansion to the game Dominion (one of my favorite games), there is a Landmark called Wall that changes the rules of the game to penalize every player by a point for every extra card in their deck beyond the 15th.


If you’ve played Dominion before, you probably recognize that this makes any cards that trash cards from your deck super valuable, like Chapel:


And people wonder why religious conservatives support Trump… 😛

Chapel is already widely considered the strongest card in the game for its cost, because trashing the relatively bad initial cards can dramatically increase the average value of your deck. But with Wall, it becomes even more important to cut down on the low-value cards, since they actually start hurting you.

There are other types of trashing cards that give you some sort of benefit depending on what you trash. A classic from the Seaside expansion is Salvager:


Salvager isn’t quite as powerful as Chapel when playing with Wall, but it does let you keep your deck lean as you keep improving cards. These so-called “trash-for-benefit” cards tend to make it even more reasonable to exchange your best non-victory cards in the late game, since this way, you get some added value out of them, and with Wall, an extra point from not having them in your deck anymore.

Events, another new innovation from the last two Dominion expansions, also allow you to improve your deck in some way without adding cards, which is more valuable when playing with Wall. If there aren’t any Events or trashers, though, playing Wall becomes especially interesting. Every player who doesn’t sit on their hands will be losing points to it, but it’s still not enough to offset those 6-point Provinces or 3-point Duchies, so perhaps your strategies might look similar on the surface.

With Wall, though, you are forced to consider tradeoffs in a different way: maybe it isn’t worth the 1-point loss to buy anything if you only have $3 or $4, even as early as the mid-game. Estates (which only give 1 point) are now completely useless, so you might as well ignore them. In other words, your standards for what is worth buying go up, as your calculation is no longer about whether a card would improve your deck, but whether it would improve your deck by enough.

Why do I bring up the strategy around this one particular card in Dominion? Well, I’ve realized that living in a relatively small apartment has very much the same feel, and we’ve found ourselves adapting all of these strategies from time to time. Yes, this is another post where I derive life lessons from a board game.

Compression is hard

When Grace and I first moved into our current apartment in Eastgate, we knew it would be bit of a downgrade. Our previous living quarters in Sidney-Pacific had 670 square feet for two people (we each had suitemates), but our current apartment only has 500 for the two of us. Moreover, we had each filled our bedrooms and kitchens with more stuff than our roommates — between us, we had two futons, two silverware sets, and so on — so we were actually compressing by more than the 25% the square footage would suggest.

We planned to move into Eastgate three weeks after our wedding in order to give ourselves a breather and allow us to plan a trip to IKEA (SidPac is furnished, but Eastgate isn’t). To figure out what we would have space to get, we took measurements of the apartment and plotted them all in Illustrator, then moved shapes around to see what arrangements would fit.

Grace thought this level of effort was funny, so she took a picture of me using Illustrator on her computer in SidPac. If you know me well, you can tell this was in my apartment because of the four SmartWater bottles in the picture.

Based on our planned layout, we wrote down how much space we would have for our dining room table, work desks, and wardrobe, and used those to eliminate options that were too big. We scheduled our IKEA delivery for the day after our move-in day, so we only would have to sleep on my futon one night, and invited friends and labmates to help us for both the move itself and the IKEA assembly party the next evening.

We ended up having to make two trips in the U-Haul, so we didn’t get to see the apartment until pretty much everything had been loaded into it. When we got there, our apartment was already completely full. “Where are we going to put the IKEA furniture when it comes tomorrow?” we asked ourselves.

As we unpacked, though, space opened up. We were able to put to unpack the kitchen and bathroom and use our built-in shelf space. Our plans got quite constrained: At one point in the afternoon, we realized that we had to assemble our desks by ourselves just to be able to unpack everything we planned to put in their drawers, in order to have enough space to assemble the dining room table where those boxes had been.

In the end, everything fit as we expected, and our apartment seats about 16 people! That is, until someone needs to get up and go to the bathroom…

Now that we’ve been living here 11 months, it’s really started to set in that we are completely out of space. The first few months, we could sometimes find new nooks and crannies in which to stuff our out-of-season clothes or appliance boxes. It really hit when my mom brought us a new suit last month that didn’t fit either my dad or my brother. I was actually a little annoyed — we simply don’t have space for it.

The Chapel Strategy: Relentless purges

Turning to Dominion for advice, the first strategy is to just go on purges and throw the low-value items out. Beyond taking our literal trash out frequently (small trash cans force us to), we also can’t afford faulty items much residence time in our apartment. Torn clothes that could potentially be mended, used papers, batteries (ahem, need to go recycle those now) shouldn’t last long.

I’m always reminded of what goes wrong without trashing when I go back home to Colorado. In fact, I’ve literally been confronted by it whenever my mom forces me to go through my boxes and boxes of all sorts of items saved from my childhood. My dad’s study is even worse, though — he’s accumulated piles and piles of old newspapers and magazines. I’m not sure if they’ve done a purge recently, but it was impressive how high his piles of items he would literally never look at again got.

The Salvager Strategy: Sell all the things!

Of course, I’m not just going to throw away that suit that my mom brought. Instead, we’ll try to sell it! This is another benefit of living in an apartment complex; it’s commonplace to e-mail out lists of items for sale. Naturally, we’ve found more success selling in the fall, when more people are moving in, than the spring, when more are leaving.

Speaking of which, if anyone in Boston wants anything on this list, let me know.

The Event Strategy: Buy experiences, not items.

This is one of the major pieces of advice that the simplicity movement has pushed. Stuff doesn’t really make you happy; experiences do, and I’d add that they come with less upkeep cost in the future. #BigHouseRegrets

Experiences don’t have to mean that you travel to Antarctica or hike Mount Kilimanjaro. To me, vacation means an opportunity to visit my friends, who are increasingly spread out across the country. I actually just got back from my eighth trip to Caltech since I graduated; I was there for both my 5-year reunion and my fifth Ditch Day as an alum.

And even after all of the students I overlapped with have graduated, it has continued to be a great experience every time I go back. Somehow, I always end up having an order of magnitude more deep conversations with friends new and old than I do in the same stretch of time in my typical life. It’s always really special to be able to check in with friends on a yearly basis and get a feeling for where they’re at — with only this one chance to talk, we tend to dive straight into the deep matters of our hearts.

The Picky Strategy: Just stop buying low-value items

Finally, if you don’t have the option to throw away or sell things, and you’ve already bought all of the experiences you have time for, what should you do? Well, in Dominion, that means you should raise your standards and just choose not to buy things that don’t help that much.

The same holds in real life. For example, when Grace and I got married, we explicitly decided to ask for cash rather than wedding favors. At the time, we used the excuse that we’ll be moving to Singapore in a couple years, so we wouldn’t get to use all of the nice things people could buy for us. But as we’ve realized since then, we actually already had pretty much everything we needed, apart from that IKEA furniture which we wanted to pick out for ourselves after the wedding was over.

Despite those efforts, we still got one wedding gift, though, a set of nice fluffy towels from Macy’s. But we already had towels that worked well for us, so we returned them after thinking long and hard about what we’d want to buy there instead. We ended up settling on some nice glass serving bowls… and that’s why you see mixing bowls and Tupperware on that list of items we’re selling up above. We only have so much cabinet space.

The Wall is everywhere

Our relatively small apartment gives us the benefit of having to confront this problem, but it isn’t like it goes away with more space. It just shifts the burden to others, our future selves or offspring.

Here’s the thing: Everything that is bought must one day be disposed of. As a nation, we seem to be living in denial of that basic reality. We just keep on accumulating stuff, living in bigger and bigger houses to store all of it, renting external storage because we don’t have room, until one day we die and our kids have to sort through it all. My parents have both had to take those trips to my grandparents’ homes, and it’s heartbreaking torture.

Take a look at a few most of these stats:

1. There are 300,000 items in the average American home (LA Times).

2. The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years (NPR).

4. 25% of people with two-car garages don’t have room to park cars inside them and 32% only have room for one vehicle. (U.S. Department of Energy).

6. British research found that the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily (The Telegraph).

9. The average American family spends $1,700 on clothes annually (Forbes).

16. Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education (Psychology Today).

17. Shopping malls outnumber high schools. And 93% of teenage girls rank shopping as their favorite pastime (Affluenza).

19. Over the course of our lifetime, we will spend a total of 3,680 hours or 153 days searching for misplaced items. The research found we lose up to nine items every day—or 198,743 in a lifetime. Phones, keys, sunglasses, and paperwork top the list (The Daily Mail).

20. Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on nonessential goods—in other words, items they do not need (The Wall Street Journal).

21. The $8 billion home organization industry has more than doubled in size since the early 2000’s—growing at a staggering rate of 10% each year (Uppercase).

I hope you’re as shocked as I am. 300,000 items! 93% of teenage girls! $1.2 trillion of waste per year! Or maybe you’re just dumbfounded as I was seeing some of our neighbors’ houses growing up: Why have a garage if you can’t fit cars in it? Or maybe you sympathize like I do with #19 — I would misplace things and waste time looking for them far more often living at home than I have since I moved away. #BigHouseRegrets again.

One reason I’m so excited about moving to Singapore is that this crisis of accumulation seems not to have hit there as badly. Granted, I don’t have comparable statistics to back up this hunch, but it has to matter that 80% of the country lives in government-built apartments, many (like Grace’s parents’) with not much more space than our current one. They do also have tons of malls all over, but they’re much more food-focused (an experience) than shopping-focused. While I’ve definitely warmed to cooking much more since we last visited, a trip to the mall to run an errand or two, shop at the grocery store, and grab dinner with friends would still make for a nice night out.

One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions

Now let me talk to the Christians specifically, although you’re certainly welcome to read along if you don’t share our theology.

Seriously, brothers and sisters, we of all people have a special imperative to fight that cultural mantra that says, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” I mentioned in my post on gluttony (also appearing in the inaugural issue of the MIT Et Spiritus) that you could extend many of the lessons of that post to other aspects of consumer consumption. The message of this post is an obvious example. And sure enough, Jesus is no less clear on this point:

And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:15-21 ESV)

I hopefully don’t need to remind you that coveting makes the Ten Commandments, and that’s even before Jesus strengthened some of them to cover attitudes as well as actions. Notice too that Jesus is criticizing the rich man in his story for storing extra food, the sort of stuff he actually had a reasonable chance of needing some day down the road. How much further from the kingdom of God is it to build bigger houses with two-car garages just to store all of our extra junk?

The alternative, Jesus says, is to be rich towards God. What does that mean?

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40 ESV)

(It’s not just in Matthew 25. When Jesus calls the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions, He specifically tells him to give the proceeds to the poor. And that’s just the beginning; the Old Testament is filled with numerous warnings and commands of the rich to provide for the poor.)

Think of what you could do for “the least of these” by spending $170 rather than $1700 per year on clothes. Can’t think of anything? Well, in just two years, you’d have nearly enough to save a life of a child in Africa from dying of malaria! Or as my friend Colin put it in his article in our latest issue of Et Spiritus, “If the average person saved has about fifty years to live, then it costs about five bucks to give somebody a month of life. Five dollars. I don’t have the skill to express how horrifying this number is. An entire month of life. Five dollars.”

That exact exchange rate also might not last forever, particularly if malaria eradication starts to become a serious prospect. But God is after our hearts. After all, if we refuse to reign in our spending enough to allow ourselves to donate in the first place, it doesn’t even matter what the precise exchange rate is. We’ve left ourselves out of the equation, and also, per Matthew 25, out of heaven. (Colin’s title pulls no punches: Will the Rich Enter Heaven?)

Choosing to live in a small apartment has helpfully and consistently reminded Grace and me that life is not about accumulating things, and Dominion has taught us some strategies for fighting it. Maybe for you, it’ll take a move to show you how much stuff you already have. Or maybe Colin’s observation that five dollars buys a month of life at current rates helps the opportunity costs of your consumption sink in. Or who knows, maybe the over-the-top VeggieTales depiction of the “Stuff Mart” jingle will do it for you:

No matter the line of most compelling or memorable reasoning to you, I hope that you take seriously the problem of runaway consumption in your own life.

3 responses to “The Virtues of Living in a Small Apartment

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