Life in a 33 sq m apartment with my husband

By Clara How, Oct 10, 2019

Karyn Wong lives with her husband in a one-bedroom condominium that measures 33 square metres (355 sq ft). While it may sound on the smaller end (approximately a third of the size of a four room BTO flat), the pair had previously lived in a utility room that was so compact, it fit only a single bed and a cupboard. For Karyn, who previously confessed to having a “mountain of clothes” and at least 20 pairs of shoes, it took years to adjust to living in a much smaller space than she was used to.

Now trying to live the minimalist life, she believes that living small isn’t just about how much physical space you have – it’s also about realising that you don’t need a lot to be happy. We paid a visit to Karyn’s home, and over lunch, laundry, and watching her choose an outfit for an event, got a glimpse of what tiny house living is about.

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I didn’t grow up in a small home — the house of my childhood was really big. It had three bedrooms, each large enough to fit a queen-sized bed. But when my parents divorced and I moved in with my father, I had to downsize to a smaller apartment. 

My new bedroom in my dad’s place had a single bed, and a raised platform by the window that would always be heaped with my clothes, because my cupboard was already full. I was 18, and running a blog shop where I would buy clothes from City Plaza for $10 and resell them online. I would just keep buying and buying clothes, and my room was perpetually in a mess. My brother joked that you couldn’t see daylight in my room, and my dad would keep nagging at me!

When I first started dating my husband, GY, he was living in a three-room flat with his sister and father. There were two bedrooms, and he shared a room with his father. It was 2013, and I was an air stewardess. After my flight, I would head to his place because he lived near the airport and it was convenient — my place was all the way on the other end of the island. But because we couldn’t share a room with his father (awkward!), GY moved into the small utility room in the flat.

He was flying home from a fishing trip, and by coincidence I was rostered on the same flight!

He was flying home from a fishing trip, and by coincidence I was rostered on the same flight!

The utility room was so small that it could fit only a single bed and a small cupboard where I put all my clothes. There was no air-conditioning, but thankfully there was a window for some ventilation. I started off by staying there with him occasionally, but a year later I ended up moving in permanently. His place was the better option, because mine wasn’t convenient at the time. 

GY is by nature a minimalist, and he likes to pack and organise. Everything needs to be compact, and every space fully utilised.

Aside from a few shirts that he hangs up, this drawer contains all of GY’s clothes.

Aside from a few shirts that he hangs up, this drawer contains all of GY’s clothes.

He managed to create extra space in the drawers for my belongings when I moved in, but of course, I had to give up a lot of my old clothes, makeup and possessions.

I went from having a wardrobe bursting with clothes to having only two small drawers. I used to have 20 pairs of shoes, and ended up with four, including slippers.

Because I was so used to buying clothes and having a lot of things, it was hard to break the habit. Initially, we would have fights because I would tell him that since I moved in with him, I have no space and cannot wear all the nice clothes I used to have. I had thrown out so much that when I saw people around me buying things, I felt like I didn’t own anything. My friends were all wearing pretty new things, whereas I had to just keep re-wearing the same items over and over again. 

It was a psychological barrier that I had to get past: I knew that it wasn’t GY’s fault, but I just had to voice it out and complain. He never stopped me from buying things — it was just the issue of having no space. 

Another thing that helped me was working for The Ritz Carlton hotel for two years, and we had to wear uniforms. Wearing the same thing every day meant I only needed my own clothes for the weekend, and I got used to the idea of not having variety. 

We ended up staying in the utility room for four years (sadly, we don’t have any pictures other than a few blurry videos). Looking back, it’s pretty amazing. But you do get used to living there; now, I’ve used to not having air-conditioning. There were also advantages: when you have less, you’re more mindful. Over time, I saw GY’s point of view of buying one quality item versus many cheap items. I used to own three Longchamp bags, but I realised, hey, I only need one. I used to buy all these magazines and hog them, but during our spring cleaning, I would end up throwing them all out. 

Every year, we would spring clean the utility room, and when I saw that I was throwing out the same things every time, it made me want to stop buying them. It was like an achievement unlocked, but the process took me two long years. 

I’m lucky that GY is very steady and doesn’t have a temper, and he really guided me with these new lifestyle changes. We made ground rules, like if we ever get frustrated and raise our voice, we have to apologise. Or one of us could leave the room and go into the living room. Living in the utility room with him also proved to me that even in such a small space, I can live with this man.

We started talking about marriage, and applied for a BTO. But it would only be ready in 2021 and we wanted to get married before that, so we had to consider our living options. It was good timing: my dad just bought this one-bedroom condominium that he intended as a retirement home for himself in the future because it was so small, and easy to clean. I did suspect that he also bought this place with us in mind, because he knew our circumstances. So we could either continue living in the utility room in GY’s home, or move in the condominium and pay my dad rent. We decided on the latter.

He popped the question with a ring pop!

He popped the question with a ring pop!

It was really important to me that we have our own space, because when I was living with GY’s family, I had to be very mindful about his dad and sister. I had to wear a bra at home, I needed to remember to bring my towel to the shower, and I had to frequently clear the plug hole. I was the only one in the house with long hair — if they saw long strands of hair, they were definitely mine! And aside from laundry, I wasn’t contributing too much to the housework. We wanted to come out and learn to live together in our own space before we moved into our BTO.

We moved in last year, after we got married. Even though this condominium is still considered small, it’s a lot bigger than what we were used to in the utility room.

We have a bedroom with a small closet and double bed, our bathroom, and a small living room with a counter for the sink and stove.

The house came with some furniture that we didn’t need, like chairs, a sofa and lamps. We took out what we didn’t need to create more space, and adopted furniture from relatives who didn’t need them. GY and I are both sociable people and we love having friends over — it was really difficult in the utility room, but now we love that we can have friends over whenever we want, though it’s a bit of a squeeze and some of them have to sit on the floor!

Having lunch with friends is a tight fit, but we manage. Our table fits two, and we can also eat at the kitchen counter.

Having lunch with friends is a tight fit, but we manage. Our table fits two, and we can also eat at the kitchen counter.

With more space, I do get tempted to buy more things, like clothes and shoes. I even have room for the little things, like a limited edition Monopoly set that was given to me by The Ritz Carlton. I wouldn’t have kept it when I was in the utility room, but now it’s here in the condo with me. We still do regular spring cleaning sessions, and when it gets difficult to declutter, I watch Marie Kondo’s show, and she reminds me to throw everything out! She’s pretty awesome, and actually GY has a similar “spark joy” logic — he just didn’t know how to put it across as beautifully as her. 

I had two full boxes of mementos that I just kept with me year after year, but I never actually looked at them. After 10 years, I figured it was time to get rid of them. It was the hardest to throw away gifts from my friends, and GY kept asking me, “Do you still need these? If not, throw.” He repeated it so many times that I started to get used to the idea of not holding on to them.

I no longer have these mementos physically, but the memories are still in my head. I still remember a card that my first love made for me. I remember how it looks, and the colours. I don’t have it anymore, but that’s okay.

But by and large, I’m now a believer in minimalism, and that it’s tied in with reducing wastage and living more naturally. When I was staying with GY’s family, I had little say in how his house was run; I couldn’t possibly advise his dad on which cleaning appliances to use. But now that this place is ours, we try to go package-free as much as we can. 

Starting on a zero-waste lifestyle almost came by accident. After our wedding, I was looking for ways to save money since we had spent so much on the ceremony and dinner. When I was Googling, I came across articles about zero waste, and DIY projects. Honestly, it was interesting to me because I really needed the money! Instagram was also another big influence: I started following people who were living “eco” lifestyles, and people like @/dontmesswithmama showed me that it was possible. I purchased her book about homemade skincare recipes with essential oils, and it got me started.

This used to be my skincare stash, which I ended up decluttering.

This used to be my skincare stash, which I ended up decluttering.

Today, GY and I share the same bottles of shampoo and conditioner, which I refill at zero-waste store Unpackt when we run low. GY used to stock up on facial foam, but we’ve started to make our own with essential oil, castile soap, coconut oil and water, and we find that it works well. Instead of buying multiple bottles of cleaning supplies, we use baking soda, vinegar and essential oil (to reduce the strong vinegar smell) for all our cleaning, and we also use soap nuts for laundry. We’re constantly experimenting. There was a time where I made my own toothpaste with baking soda, but my dentist advised me to stop because my teeth didn’t take well to it. Apparently it doesn’t work for everyone, so you have to see what works for you.  

From left: shampoo, conditioner, apple cider vinegar rinse (I use it before conditioner), delicate laundry detergent (for undergarments), facial foam.

From left: shampoo, conditioner, apple cider vinegar rinse (I use it before conditioner), delicate laundry detergent (for undergarments), facial foam.

Looking back, there has been so much of a change in me over the last few years. I used to stockpile so many things, like buying boxes of face masks from Japan, or six tubes of my favourite lip balm. I would purchase items in bulk just to get discounts or freebies (in the end, most things expired before I could even start using them). Watsons was my favourite place. Now, I can walk through and not feel tempted, because I don’t feel like I need so many things. 

You ask yourself, will I use this item months down the road? How many times will I use it? It made me think twice about introducing something into my life.

My clothes are in this closet and in the drawers, and to the right are GY’s dress shirts.

My clothes are in this closet and in the drawers, and to the right are GY’s dress shirts.

When it comes to clothes, clothes rental service such as Style Theory is my best friend! I’m also lucky that my friends have been very generous and always lend me their clothes. That’s another thing I discovered: we are so used to owning things that we have forgotten the joy of sharing.

Whenever I share things with friends, or they share theirs with me, it’s a lovely feeling. It makes me feel loved, and closer to them.

It’s not that I’m never untidy or don’t get tempted to buy things. I still make a mess, especially on my desk at work (I’m now in marketing). But taking the time to pack makes me feel happy and accomplished. I also splurge on social activities — GY and I love food and we’re into wine (we had to choose between a couch and a wine fridge because there wasn’t enough space for both, and we chose the fridge!). So I do end up spending on dinners with my friends. 

One great thing about living small is that it’s really easy to do housework. People ask me, “Why is it your Dyson battery has lasted so long??” But vaccuuming just takes one minute! Ironing clothes was a little challenging, but we’ve bought a steamer. There’s a small storage cupboard that we can keep these things in, and we have a very small balcony area that can fit one drying rack.

Our living area with our wine fridge, keyboard, and television (off camera). We move our laundry rack indoors when it rains.

Our living area with our wine fridge, keyboard, and television (off camera). We move our laundry rack indoors when it rains.

We do laundry every two days because our machine and laundry rack is small!

We do laundry every two days because our machine and laundry rack is small!

A funny side effect is that because I’m grown so used to being in a small space, I now get anxious when I’m in a large house. I once visited a friend who lived in a three storey bungalow with multiple rooms and balconies, and I felt the opposite of claustrophobia. It was the same feeling when I went with my friends to Montigo Resorts in Batam, and my friends were in different rooms of the villa. I’m so used to seeing people around me, that when I don’t see them I wonder, where are they? 

Our BTO will be ready in two years, and it will be a four room flat, much larger than where we’re living in now. I’m envisioning it to look like a Muji house, very spacious and uncluttered, with a lot of wood and some plants. We’re also really looking forward to having a proper kitchen! Right now because we don’t have any counter space, it’s very hard to cook. GY is a foodie, but now he can only prepare simple things like sushi.

When it comes to children, I do want to try and continue our current lifestyle. I haven’t thought about it much, but with reusable diapers and alternatives, it does seem possible. But I do think about our parents, because they might have an opinion on how their grandchild should be raised and not agree with us. I’m thinking that if I keep advocating a low waste lifestyle, the older folks will be convinced. 

But for now, I like living in this small space with GY. All the habits that we started when living in the utility room, we still keep.

Because there was a single bed then, we would cuddle up together without fail every night, even if it was hot. Now, even though we have a larger bed and don’t need to squeeze, we still cosy up together and say: “I love you.” We might end up on separate sides of the bed by the middle of the night, but we always fall asleep together.

Photos taken by Dayre and provided by Karyn Wong. 

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