Finding joy in a tiny house

Macy Miller ditched the American dream and found happiness in 196 square feet.

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Key takeaways

  • Macy Miller was a commercial architect with a conventionally successful lifestyle, until she lost her job and house to the Great Recession (and a divorce).
  • Although she initially built her tiny house as a way to get by, Miller found a more minimalist lifestyle to be a better fit.
  • Today, she's still living in that same tiny house, along with her partner and their 2 kids.
  • Miller believes people should feel empowered to carve out the living situation that's right for them, even if it's nontraditional.   

Macy Miller had it all. She was working in Boise, Idaho, as a commercial architect, the job she had wanted since she was in fourth grade. She had earned a master's degree, gotten married, bought a house and a car. But none of it made her feel fulfilled.

"I was sold this American dream," Miller says. "I achieved it, and I didn't even really like it that much when I was in it."

Then, almost overnight, everything changed. Miller realized the guy she'd married wasn't Mr. Right. The Great Recession hit. Their house was foreclosed on. And Miller was laid off. As the pieces of her life fell down around her, she realized she had the opportunity to build something entirely different—to define her own dream.

Rather than thinking big, Miller decided to start small: tiny, in fact. She turned her attention to constructing a 196-square-foot tiny house.

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Back to basics

As an architect, Miller was focused on sustainability and environmentally friendly buildings. But she also knew that the biggest thing she could do to lessen her impact on the environment was to reduce her footprint.

At the time, tiny houses hadn't yet made it big. Miller found one story of a man who lived in a tiny house, and she studied the setups of people who live on sailboats. She knew she had to boil her life down to just the essentials.

"I really looked at, what do I need to exist as a person?"

The answer was refreshingly simple: a kitchen, a bathroom, and a bed. With those elements in mind, Miller started to design her home.

Sustainable from the start

From her architecture experience, Miller knew that the construction industry typically generated a lot of waste. She decided to build her house using reclaimed materials, which lessened the environmental impact and kept her costs low—in fact, the entire project cost Miller just under $12,000. (She notes that tiny houses aren't typically this cheap—but doing the work herself and taking advantage of free materials made a difference for her.)

Soon, Miller had an unconventional home built on a 29-foot trailer. That was enough space for her essentials, including a 10-foot galley kitchen that she finds more efficient than the kitchen of any apartment she's lived in.

When Miller was almost done building, she met James, a fellow architect who became her partner. Luckily, the tiny house had room for him too.

"I never intended to live in this tiny house with 2 people, but I kind of designed it with extra storage space just in case, because you never know," she says.

Tiny house, growing family

Miller didn't plan to raise children in a tiny house, but soon she and James realized that they wanted to expand their family. Their daughter fit right into the tiny house's original footprint. But when Miller was pregnant with their son 2 years later, she enclosed the trailer's 5-foot deck, converting it into a kids' room that now houses bunk beds.

Living in the tiny house and experimenting with off-grid living has enabled Miller and her family to define their own priorities. Miller fulfilled her dream to stay home with her kids during the first 5 years of their lives, and the family even temporarily downsized further—into an 84-square-foot vintage camper, which they lived in for 13 months as they visited national parks across the country.

Downsizing the bills

Miller has few recurring bills: property taxes, health and property insurance, and a cell phone plan. She has no mortgage because she was able to buy her land with cash, thanks to the savings she'd built up by living tiny.* She says that keeping their costs so low means the family can easily get by on $1,000 a month.

"A big motto of mine is there are 2 ways to be rich," Miller says. "You can accrue more stuff, or you can want less stuff. We're very much on the 'want less stuff' path. A lot of our day is finding contentment in what we have."

Big buzz over tiny living

People interested in tiny-home living often reach out to Miller. She points them toward resources, and also gives them a challenge: Identify what about this lifestyle is appealing. It might be having fewer bills, less property upkeep, or more flexibility.

"You can't fit a 2,500-square-foot house into a 200-square-foot house," Miller says. "So you've got to get really clear about what's important to you."

Thinking about what appeals to you can help you craft a home situation and lifestyle that reflect your priorities. These days, Miller says, there are a plethora of nontraditional housing options, from house-sharing to intergenerational living.

"A house is a tool that enables a lifestyle," says Miller. "As new and fascinating as tiny houses are, there are other realms and types of housing that are opening up that are just as beneficial."

Reimagining the American dream

Today, Miller is an advocate for people who want to live in tiny houses. But her overall message is bigger than that: It's about empowering people to realize they have options, and can define for themselves what the American dream means.

"Nothing is stagnant about the life you have to choose," says Miller. "So follow your happy, and that's going to be different for you than for other people."

"There's a lot of value to right now, and being able to live a life that you want right now."

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