Meet the Minimalist: Judy Michael

I met Judy last year through our mutual friend and fellow simple-living advocate, Alexandra Perwin. We hit it off immediately - she understood what I was going through as a new entrepreneur trying to figure things out. She gave me lots of great advice and was embarking on her own adventure, having just left an operations role to take a break and explore a different way of working.

Over the last year, we would meet up, share ideas, see what’s working and what wasn’t with our businesses, and just catch up in general. In the last few months, she experienced some major changes which prompted this interview.

Read on to learn more about Judy’s experience with right-sizing her space and subscribing to a minimalist approach.

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What sparked your interest in simplifying?

It started last summer when I found myself at home after leaving a job and I needed productive things to do. That’s how I work things out emotionally - I like to do physical work and feel like I accomplished something. Many years ago after I got divorced, I was living with a friend. I was angry about some dealings with my ex, so I came home and cleaned my friend's house!

This time around, it was emotional purging as I was ending a big chapter in my life.  I cleaned out closets, steam cleaned the carpets, and cleaned out the garage. I even stained the fence in 95 degree weather! I like the physical work and having a result at the end. A cleaner physical space feels like a cleaner emotional space.

I saw the documentary Minimalism and there was something about their story that prompted me to do an even deeper emotional dive, therefore clearing out even more stuff than I had in the past. I even got up and cleaned out my kitchen drawers during the movie because I was excited about the concept.

A couple months later, I realized I needed to sell my house. What started out as a little bit of cleaning led to letting go of the house and ending that chapter of my life.

 

That’s a big change - had you thought about selling before?

I had tried to sell my house in 2011 and thought about moving to Edmonds. It wasn’t quite far enough past the recession to sell it because the market up here in the northern Seattle suburbs was still a bit soft.  In 2014, I was looking to sell it to move to the Midwest to be closer to my dad who is in his 90’s and had some health issues.  I figured it was a message from the universe because all the homes were selling in the area except mine. The third time - this spring -  really was a charm.

I was ready to be out of the house. I had minimized so much and was just ready to leave. Once I made the decision to move, it was a pretty fast turnaround.  I met with a realtor, listed it, had an offer in 48 hours.  The whole process was over within about six weeks.

 

Was preparing to sell the house the true start to minimizing and clutter-clearing?

Initial clutter-clearing began after leaving my last job.  My decluttering started as a way for me to detox from what I would call Incremental Stress. I had lost a few people, had my own health issues, and experienced the general ups and downs we have in life. Things pile up. You reach a breaking point and have to decide “am I going to carry this stress with me to the future?”

The house had a lot of symbolism; it was the “big girl” house that I bought on my own which was a great achievement. Then I filled up the space by buying things. I had three bedrooms, a huge kitchen, a walk-in closet, a garage. I just started filling up those spaces. It was time to let go of that chapter and scale down.

 

How do these changes inform your decision-making today?

It was little things I hadn’t anticipated because I hadn’t been living in a simplistic space.

For instance, my current fridge is half the size so I buy half as much food. I don’t do mindless shopping because I don’t have the space for excess things. I don’t have more than ten steps to walk to be in reach of everything I own. It saves time, effort, and having to think about it.

A friend and I were just talking about gifts. I don’t need another tchotchke, give me a gift card, or cook a meal for me. Simplicity results in fewer choices and a clearer head which is not a bad thing.

I am a bit of a numbers wonk and I think in terms of metrics. I timed it and it took less than 40 minutes to clean my apartment.  My house took over three hours to clean. I saved an hour a week in drive time because I live closer to people and stores I frequent.  Financially, I’ve reduced my cost of living by more than 30%!

 

Do you think if these events hadn’t happened, you would have discovered minimalism at some point on your own?

In 2001, I went from a 1,500 square foot home to living in a one bedroom in a friend’s basement after getting divorced and moving from California to Washington. I had to make a conscious decision on what I valued and what I didn’t. I left furniture behind. I had my clothes, dog, grandma’s china, some gifts from my parents. I’ve had several life events where I’ve had to leave stuff and a life chapter behind.

This is like the third round for me. It’s about getting back to what I value. I think I made more of a conscious decision this time around of what to keep and leave behind.

I knew I could scale down. Back in the fall of 2015, I had to go take care of my dad and slept on his couch in a one bedroom apartment in a retirement center. I lived off of four shirts, three pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, and a borrowed jacket.  I didn’t feel deprived.  If I could live on less than 20 articles of clothing in ten weeks, I can definitely live on less longer-term.

 

 
 

Do you consider a minimalist?

I feel like a minimalist for me. I think it’s a self-defining term. I’m not the 29-year-old bro who can live with a backpack and no forks. I believe in consciously having the things that support you in your space.

If it’s taking too much of your time, money, or mental energy to support it, then it needs go.

 

What have been people’s reactions to these big changes?

The key reaction to selling my home has been the involuntary sucking in of their breath followed by “you’re selling your house?” with a panicked face.

They were either concerned for me or they may be concerned for themselves because we’re all in the same boat. I think some people were fearful of selling a house because if you own a house, you have a different level in society. “Homeowner” vs. “Renter” has a different connotation. At my age, there aren’t a whole lot of people who are on board with moving into an apartment because it can be perceived as a step down.

But it’s also a difficult decision to make here in Seattle,  It’s easy to sell a house, but buying a home can be a nightmare because of the expense and multiple bids that are required.  If you sell your house, you really have to be sure of where you are living next.  It’s a great investment, but a great expense at the same time.  It’s not an easy decision to make with many trade-offs.

 

Moving into less than half the space, were there any items that were still tricky to let go of?

I knew I was going to need a storage unit. A 10’ x 20’ was close to $200/month. Was the stuff going into that space worth $2,400/year?  No, it was not. I got a smaller unit, a 5’ x 10’ with the intent to sell some more things and eventually get rid of it all together.

I had all these kitchen appliances that I would use sporadically that could all be replaced by a really good knife or a blender! Scaling down the kitchen was tough because it was a creative space of rarely used items. They were too expensive to store so I got rid of them.

There is only one thing that I miss and it’s a workout shirt that I cannot find anywhere! I gave away close to 400 pieces of clothing and this is the one thing I wish I could find.

 

What is your advice to someone who wants to start minimizing?

Ponder the question as you look at things “what is of value to me?” Just ask yourself if you even like it anymore. If you are conflicted about it, that’s likely an indicator that you should let it go.

If you are still asking the questions but/if/when/can’t … you are likely not ready to let go of it.  If you’re going to have a sleepless night because you gave away your favorite books, then don’t bother.  But find your leverage point - is it emotional, financial, or logical?

For me, it was financial leverage point which was paying $2,400 to store stuff I wasn’t really using. There were also silly emotional reasons. Did I really need to keep all those pants I could no longer wear, but just hung there, mocking me, knowing I would never fit in them again? Did I really need to have two guest bedrooms just in case someone came to visit?  Not any more.  I will happily pay for someone to stay in a hotel - it’s much cheaper!

I generally have the rule that if I can’t lift it, I’m not taking it with me. There are only two things I would need help moving - the couch and bed frame. Financial costs and ease of use are the critical points for me. For others, it might be emotional.


 

What have been the other benefits of living simply?

I’m starting up my own business of writing, coaching, and training around retirement and cash flow, how to prepare now for the future. When I approached business in the past, I was looking for the latest tools, what’s the best coach, platform, what’s cutting edge. Now, the question is “how can I simply get this done with the best effort for the least cost.” I want to provide the best product with minimal effort and cost. I spent too much time and energy doing things in a complex way before. I discovered people would rather you be authentic in your approach versus having the most exciting tools.

I enjoy thinking more clearly and having fewer choices on a daily basis. I say “no” more frequently to perceived obligations.

 

Is there anything else you want people to know about you?

Yes!  I will be publishing two books this summer.  I first wrote a book about calculating how much you need for retirement, and presented facts and figures that would incent people to take action.  I also identified what I call the “10 Retiremyths” of what we are told about preparing for retirement, and what the reality is.

For instance, most financial advisors quote a rule that you need $1 million to retire at age 65.  Seriously?  If fewer than 10% of US households are millionaires, but everyone needs to be a millionaire to retire, then why is it a rule?  Is it even achievable?

I had all these nice facts and figures about retirement, and then I started to live many of the retirement issues that I was writing about. Caring for my dad when he was ill, saving for retirement, and even facing some age discrimination issues was an eye opener.

Now, I have a story to share on a personal and emotional level that goes beyond the facts and figures.  What’s it like to live your future in a retirement home?  What’s it like to downsize?  How do you look at your outdated beliefs and institute new ones?  I was able to face my challenges, simplify, and tell a story about it.  So now I have the “before” and “after” books to publish. I am using them both to put together programs to help people look at their future and what they spend, what they bring in, and the kind of mindset they need to balance it all.

My goal is to have people take responsibility for their future financial decisions through understanding their cash and living the life that they want to create.  “Managing your cash” is a bit overwhelming for people at times, but there’s such an emotional component of having the right mental framework to use your cash where you most value it.

I can still help people and it’s from a truly experiential place. All the retirement commercials aren’t really getting people to change, but when you connect with someone else’s experience of having scaled down, dealing with health issues, caring for aging parents, that’s what will help people to change.   Your story needs to help them live their story.  It’s much like what you do with your work, Rachel.  What you’ve experienced personally and with clients helps them get through their challenges more easily!

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I knew Judy had seriously right-sized her space and minimized her belongings over the last year, but I didn’t know how this has been a common theme throughout her life. There were so many great nuggets of wisdom in our conversation, namely:

“If it’s taking too much of your time, money, or mental energy to support it, then it needs go.”

If you want to learn more about Judy’s books and programs, you can visit her website here. (Note: she’s going through some website changes, which should be completed in June 2017!)

Meet the Minimalist: Jenny MacLeod

Last September, Kat invited me to a trunk show and book release party. I looked up the book, How to Become Self-Employed in Seattle, and decided to check out the event. I picked up a copy and read it cover to cover. It’s like it was written for me. I immediately researched the author and saw that she offered consultations and I reached out right away.

We’ve been working together the last few months on how to organize my business, mainly the marketing ideas. Jenny was able to pick up very quickly my need to simplify not just in my work, but how I approached my business as well.

Through our conversations, I noticed that minimalism is a key theme in her work supporting others. I knew a little bit about her background from her website, but wanted to dig deeper.

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What sparked your interest in simplifying as it relates to your work and how your live your everyday life?


My parents divorced when I was seven and my mom moved once or twice a year. When you move that often, you tend not to collect as much stuff. I came to treasure my few belongings. Happily, she always made each place very homey with art and colorful items.

Meanwhile, my dad lived in the wilderness on the Yukon River in Alaska.  I spent the summers with him and a few winters too. We were 40 miles away from the nearest village. We had a dog team, melted snow for water, fished in the summers, no utilities. Four of us lived in a one-room cabin. My only space was four feet of storage under my bed.  It was a lovely and interesting time!

We were content in a contained space with very little stuff. It also taught me about our impact on the land. When we were done with any item, we would try to repurpose it, or we would burn it.  If we couldn’t do either, we’d have to put it in the dump on our land. This really makes a person think about what they’re using because putting something into the dump felt like a failure…because we were creating a scar on the land. Very little went to the dump.

 

These are two very different worlds, yet both had a theme of minimalism. What was that like as a kid growing up?

At first, I felt left out in many ways.  I always wished for a big, beautiful house with a yard and full pantry….and my own room with more clothes, toys.  But sometime in high school or college, that changed.

Since I was always moving, I was always adapting.  I became a people-watcher.  And in high school, I got to spend a lot of time with other families in big, beautiful homes.  I noticed some things.  First, I saw that most people spent all their time in one tiny part of the house! Second, I was amazed at all of the stuff that people owned. It was common for people to have garages so full, they couldn’t fit their cars in them.  That seemed funny to me, and like a burden (imagine having to move all of that!).  Most importantly, all of these families varied in happiness, some were, some were not. I saw that the idea that people with lots of stuff, in big, “wealthy” homes who had it all would be happy … well, it wasn’t actually true.

After college, I came across the book Material World. In it, families from around the world put everything they own out on their front yard. Americans had so much stuff!  And in other places, people had just a few items.  It was like looking in a mirror about what our culture does. It really impacted me to this day. I only want to take what I need and no more.

When I was a young mom, so many items came into our house for the kids - gifts, toys, hand-me-downs, supplies.  I made a regular practice of taking things to Goodwill.  I had this idea that whenever things came into the house, things needed to go out! I didn’t want my life to look like one of the homes in Material World.

Eventually, this taught me to restrict what comes in in the first place—to be more choosy about what we purchase and use.  I built this muscle as a mom early on.  I’m so happy that I did, because later, these same habits have helped me with managing email, social media and time.

 

You don’t have a cell phone - let’s talk about this! Has this always been the case, or what prompted this? 

I didn’t want to pay for a home phone and a cell phone. If I had a cell phone, I thought that at some point I would lose it or lose the charger so I made a choice to keep the home line.  I was fine with my choice.

But then, after cell phones started becoming more common, people started to put pressure on me to get one!  Whenever it came up, I’d think about it ... but then, I’d always have more reasons to not have a phone.   

They would say, “I wish I could call you to change plans or location.” I didn’t like the idea of having a cell phone just for this reason.  I liked sticking to a plan!  Out-of-town family would say, “Then I could call you to visit.”  Well, if I’m in a store with two kids, I couldn’t be visiting with them anyway!

Some would question my logic or sense of responsibility with “What if your kid is sick at school?” I would tell them “well, they would lay in the nurse’s office until I got home and got the message that they’re sick. That’s how it used to be when we were growing up.”

The pressure made me more thoughtful about phones, and again, I’d watch behaviors.  I noticed people would allow their phones to distract from our conversations.  Or be late.  Or check in with work more often.

I really like being present and more and more it felt like a cell phone would distract me. I started to see not having a phone as a tool to be present and really in conversations with people.

Over the years, reactions from others have changed from:  why not? ... to concern/worry … to awe/disbelief, and now, many say to me, “I wish I could do that.”  I thought I would need to get one when I went back to work, but haven’t so far!  Now it’s like a social experiment - how long can I go without a cell phone!

Both my kids have smartphones and my husband used to have one but downgraded to a dumbphone as an experiment.

 

Are there any best practices or family guidelines about the kids’ use of their phones?

The only rule is that there are no phones when we’re eating. I want to create some more rules (like maybe a parking lot for phones for bedtime).  But for now, I think it’s a start that we are role modeling having limits with technology and making choices around this.

In the future, I want to have some discussions around the risks of using their phone too much, not being too reliant on it, not while driving, etc.  And, the idea that they need to take breaks.

 

We had a conversation during a meeting recently about how people are expected to keep up with all the different technologies, learn every skillset, and also run their homes with ease / raise brilliant children. This just seems impossible! I thought it was very relevant and a great reason why people need to outsource certain things in order to be good at just one or two things.


It’s so true!  It’s like we have to be Supermom boosted!  And not just moms - women, men, everybody.  There are a variety of crazy pressures on us.

First, the internet, magazines, and culture tell us we need to be great in so many areas.  We need to be in shape, do yoga, marathons, cook everything, have a garden, be sexy, be financially stable, have children who are sporty, speak another language, test super high, etc. Facebook adds to this, where it’s a constant stream of people at their best. It makes the bar high in so many areas.

Next, because all the resources are available to do everything, we’re supposed to do everything ourselves.  Clean and decorate, find new recipes, download a workout schedule….and research everything!  The best trip to France, the best insurance plan, the best place to buy a car.

On top of that, technology is always changing.  There is a constant pressure to upgrade, or things won’t work.  This means we’re always having to relearn our tools.  It’s so disruptive.  As we get older and wiser, the idea is that we can get more efficient in our work. With tools changing all the time, it takes away because we have to stop and relearn the technology.

I have felt these pressures increasing over the last 15 years, and have been fighting them in my own ways, thanks to some amazing books!  

Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz was huge for me, and helped me instantly. He started with “is too much choice a bad thing?” He was at the forefront of the discussion around decision fatigue. He also explained how trying to maximize every decision actually created a lot of stress and unhappiness.  He encourages readers to look for the good enough.  This took a lot of pressure off me!

Another great book I read, advised readers to be pointy, not well-rounded … as in develop your strengths and outsource the rest.  This was Now, Discover Your Strengths, based on Gallup Research. You can’t be super strong in one area when you are trying to do a million other things.

Many other books inspired me to want space in my life, physically and mentally, for being present, for happiness, for peacefulness.  

To do this means embracing some limits.  

 
 

 

You’re in the business of helping others, in a way, simplify their business ideas / goals. If you weren’t doing this kind of work, what would you do?

I would probably be teaching art to preschoolers—I used to do that and loved it, or I’d thought about being a remodel consultant for moms. In an alternate universe, I’d have gone to grad school and would be doing social science research.

My next dream job is to be a professional critiquer (I don’t know if this exists.)  Where I would look for everything that is or isn’t working in a space or user experience.  I love making things work so the customer feels welcome and taken care of.

As an older lady, I’d love to create large, concept sculpture.  

Oh!  Or I would be a bartender. I love a Negroni served up and with an orange twist.

 

Why do you believe it’s such a struggle for people to get clarity on their own / why work with a business coach? What do you see as the biggest roadblocks for them?

I think this is related to the other questions - the biggest struggle is that there’s a lot of parts of the business to work on and so many options and/or tools to do it.  Self-employed folks feel the pressure to do it all and to do it all themselves. Just because you have a business doesn’t mean you need a website and Facebook and QuickBooks and to offer coupons. Every idea they have heard, people think that they have to do.

The other thing is that research can be overwhelming. It can be hard to find an answer and then you think you have to keep researching. You could look at how to market a small business for three weeks straight!  People will look at websites of others in their field and think “they are already doing it” or “they are doing it better than me.” It makes it hard to start because of that pressure.

The fun part for me is to ask clients what they want most and help them get that.  We focus in on what they really want (with work and life), who they want to work for, and what their style is.  We use those things to say yes to some strategies and tools and no to others.

A really big thing is to pick tools that you like.  For example, if you are on Facebook and love using it, then yes, use it for your business!  But if you hate Facebook, then don’t!  If you like QuickBooks, then great.  If you hate it, then use something else—Excel, a notebook, or hire a bookkeeper.  

People come in with a lot of “shoulds” around business. I ask what they WANT and LIKE and do these as much as possible. I help them limit the tools and plans so they can get some movement on their plans.  I suppose this is a more minimalist approach.

 

Do you consider a minimalist?

Hmm, at first I didn’t, but now I think I do! When I first heard this word, I kind of imagined someone who had an apartment with a white carpet, two pieces of furniture, very spare and spartan.

Then I realized, I like minimalism. It means having a few things that you love and that work for you, and blocking out the rest. I actually think this is the most important skill that the next generation needs - to learn how to block out the stuff they don’t want or need. There is always a flood of opportunities and pressures and things you “should” do.

Limiting what comes into my life saves me so much time and energy later, and creates more room for the simple pleasures and what makes life feel special.

 

What’s your advice to someone who’s feeling the overwhelm and wants to start simplifying their life?

Write out everything that is bothering you or is on your mind. Just get it all out so you can see it. We’re not allowed to “complain” in this culture. This is your chance. First, observe how much you were carrying around!

Then, find a way to work on one thing at a time. Perhaps, write each one on an index card and pick one to do at a time … perhaps randomly. Or pick the easiest thing to do on the list, get it done, then cross it off.

And/or, I suggest picking up a great book for inspiration and guidance.  Perhaps, Getting Things Done, by David Allen, or the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, of course.  Or The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

And, I really recommend getting a book vs. looking at the internet.  The book is limited and contained.  ☺

 

What else do you want people to know about the life of Jenny Girl Friday?

My son has a wrench for a doorknob, we have a dirt yard, I drive an old VW van and have to get in through the passenger side door … all of that is to say our life may look a little quirky or unfinished from the outside …  But, I’m very happy and love my life.  My teenagers are really funny and easy to spend time with, and my husband is constantly doing interesting things!  I love my friends and Seattle community. I'm doing my dream work (my clients are the best!).

Somewhere, I read or figured out … to identify the #1 thing you really want in your life and find a way to have it or work toward it … and then, it’s easy to give up other things and have less when you have that number one priority in your life. For me, I wanted to savor my life each day, which means loving my work, a peaceful home/family life and having a few simple pleasures.  

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I felt so energized after this interview. She had so many great bits of wisdom to share and quite a few book recommendations that I want to add to my reading list.

If you want to learn more about Jenny’s work as a new-fashioned Girl Friday, you can find her on her website. If you need a kickstart to tackling all your business to do’s or have just bouncing some ideas around self-employment, grab a copy of her book here. You’ll find everything from handy checklists to words of encouragement for working your dream job.


 

Meet the Minimalist: Maria Falvey

Earlier this summer, I caught up with a new friend, Maria. We were chatting away at a party and she asked me all kinds of questions about my work as an organizer, what I enjoyed about it, how I perform the work, and promote my business. All really great questions that I love to answer because I sharing my knowledge and philosophy around bringing order and beauty into a space.

I remembered Maria telling me how she lived in a very small space, roughly 200 square feet, and I asked her how she ended up in such a tiny space. She told me all about the cross-country moves (yes, moves as in plural ... ugh) and how she continued to pare down her things between each move and what led her to her current home in Ballard.

I couldn't get her story out of my head and she graciously agreed to an interview.

 
 

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How did you end up in this apartment? Have you always lived in a small space?

It all started with four bookcases; sixteen inches deep by six feet tall that I shipped across the country. It was expensive - the cost is calculated by weight times distance. It's expensive! My first move was was North Carolina to Texas. I later moved to Seattle, back to Texas, then to Montana, and the Arctic. I've been back in Seattle the last year and a half.

I pared down when I left North Carolina. I had friends over and stickered all the items that I wasn't going to move with me. I used to own a ton of art, like these huge sculptures.

Do you regret giving away any of the art?

Not sad enough that I'd want it back. I would need cathedral ceilings! It's interesting moving to other parts of the country - a standard apartment in Texas was around 900 square feet with vaulted ceilings and a fireplace. Yes, a fireplace! Then you move north and everything is much smaller. 

Do you feel like you are missing anything by living in a smaller home?

It would be nice to have a slightly larger place so I could have a couch for extra seating and entertaining.

How do you deal with receiving gifts, especially things that you don't have a use for?

People still give me stuff but I let friends know around my birthday that I would really like experiences. Cook me dinner or take me out to eat! If something is bigger than a cup of coffee, I don't really know what the hell to do with it! I want to put things I find along the way on my shelves instead of displaying gifted objects. It's more meaningful for me to have these kind of keepsakes.

What are your recommendations on digital storage? 

Did you notice I don't store any paper? It was a big project in the beginning but i took all of my paper to work and scanned everything. Insurance policies, receipts from the doctor's office, even sentimental things like a birthday card. I had a two-drawer file cabinet and it took about two weeks to scan and name all the files. Everything is in Google drive.

Do you consider yourself a minimalist?

I do. I love minimalism. It doesn't mean you have to give up anything. It just means to stop and think about what you do have and if it works for you.

I had a friend who really wanted a riding tractor mower. Everything he needed to get it, maintain it, store it just made things more complicated. After a lot of frustration, he discovered a push mower. He lost weight from the physical activity and even found sharpening blades a zen and calming task. Ultimately, the thing he thought he wanted didn't really work for him.

Also, as a photographer, I only use my cell phone to take pictures so no "real" camera is another move in my minimal lifestyle (that would mean investing in a special bag for it and all the accessories which I don't have room for). My requirements for using my phone as my camera are it must accept an SD card, it needs to feel good in my hand, meaning that it's lightweight and slim.

I'm using the Moto X Pure by Motorola. I bought the phone direct from Motorola so it's unlocked and when I travel off the continent, I just switch out the SIM card. When you buy from the manufacturer, you get less bloatware added. 

What advice do you have for people who are exploring minimalism and simplifying?

You need to ask yourself a couple questions. What's your goal? Do you want more physical space? Look at what you have. There'a a difference between what you need and what you want. Needs come first, wants come second.

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I learned so much while talking with Maria. Whether you identify as a minimalist or you just want to make some more space in your home, she offers some pretty sound advice. She focuses on experiences like traveling instead of stuff. If you want to check out her photography, you can follow her on Instagram here.

This wouldn't be complete without a tour of her home - check out what she's done with her space! 

 
 

I love seeing all the open space in the storage areas in the bathroom. Nothing is packed in and she still has room!

 
 

She still has a decent amount of kitchen storage for dishes and dry goods. You can see a few containers in there to keep items neat and visible. Her entire closet is about the size of my seasonal capsule wardrobe and it surprised me how much room was in there.