September 22nd, 2021


The Shoebox Philosopher

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published May 12, 2016

The Shoebox Philosopher

Most people moving to Manhattan don't expect to live in a mansion. But neither are they eager to live in an apartment the size of a 2001 Honda Accord.

That's exactly what Felice Cohen did, for four years. Though she recently moved into a 490-square-foot studio — "There's tons of space!" — she squeezed everything she learned about appreciating the small things into a new book, "90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (...or more)."

(Buy it for just $9.00! by clicking here.)

"I wanted to leave my full-time crazy busy job," says Cohen, now 45, explaining her microhousing decision. "And I wanted to finish writing my first book, 'What Papa Told Me.' It's about my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor." She also wanted enough time to travel, ride her bike and play tennis. (Who doesn't?) The catch was: She didn't want to leave the city to do it.

So she moved into a place that measured 12-by-7.5 feet and paid the pittance-by-New-York-standards rent of $700/month. That meant she didn't have to work full time to afford it.

"My father was a bankruptcy attorney," Cohen said in a phone interview. She grew up knowing not to spend what she didn't have. But she still grew up a normal American consumer, which meant that before she moved into the tiny apartment, she packed up 77 boxes and put them into storage.

So, what was her tiny place like? It's possible you've actually seen it. A video "tour" of Cohen's apartment has garnered over 11 million views on YouTube. On it, you see that she didn't have a kitchen, but she did have a fridge, a hot pot and a toaster oven. She had a loft bed, of course — in New York, when you need space, the only place to go is up. And she had a desk, a comfy reading chair, and a bathroom that looks completely normal (to a New Yorker). Come to think of it, my husband and I lived in about 400 square feet for a few years and it didn't seem nutty either.

Which is precisely Cohen's point: "We can ALL live without half of what we own. We have closets full of clothes we barely wear. We save something for 'just in case,' and just in case never comes. People will say, 'I want to save this in case I lose weight.' I say by the time that fits again, it's going to be out of style." The solution? Edit, edit, edit.

It should come as no surprise that Cohen's other job is a professional organizer. If you can't afford her $150/hour services, she's got a couple of great suggestions: Go through just one section at a time — your kitchen cabinets, sock collection, whatever. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes, so you don't feel overwhelmed. And remember, you don't have to toss the things you loved. Give them to a friend, or charity. Get some satisfaction from helping someone else. What comes around, goes around.

That's what happened to Cohen. After she helped her grandfather tell his life story, her grandfather helped her. "He said, 'Enough already! Buy a place! You lived in a shoebox to write about my life. Now make sure you buy some good furniture and enjoy your life." He gave her a down payment for the new studio.

By the time Cohen moved in, she had gotten rid of those 77 boxes in storage. It's likely most of us could get rid of whatever we're storing, too. "It's about living large on your own terms," summed up Cohen. "Not being stressed to pay bills for stuff you don't even use."

Maybe freedom's just another word for nothing left to store.

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