My ex-military dad's storage rules for small spaces help to keep my home neat without regular decluttering

These four storage rules for small spaces got me through college, and it’s all thanks to my father

Someone folding things into drawer organziers
(Image credit: Getty Images)

After living in a tiny flat for a year of college, I am very familiar with needing to make the most out of small storage spaces – but I am not the only one in my family that has had to work around tiny storage situations. 

My father is more than accustomed to small space storage, having been in the military for many years and frequently having to be up and on the move with my Mom from base to base. As a result, he perfected his ability to live with only the essentials and keep what he did have exceptionally organized. 

Here, I share my father’s four golden rules for storage in small spaces so that you too can keep your small storage space neat and tidy without having to regularly stress about decluttering. 

Storage rules for small spaces 

When organizing small spaces and making the most out of my storage, I learned that it pays to be strict with myself and what I do and do not keep in my space – but this goes beyond simply decluttering.  

1. ‘Less is More’

bathroom with shelf storage

(Image credit: Future PLC)

While the 'less is more' mantra may be overused, this fundamental rule is one of the most important rules that my dad taught me when it came to maintaining storage in a small footprint. 

While you may have heard of quick decluttering fads like the 30-day minimalism challenge, living in a more minimalistic way doesn't have to mean getting rid of everything you own. Rather it is about being attentive to what it is you keep. 

When moving from one place to another in the army, it was important for my parents to only have to move things they truly loved to save time and energy but that did not mean my parents were living abroad with no furniture or decor (in fact, much of it still furnishes their home to this day).

Instead, he taught me, it is about living purposefully. Still have the things you like and enjoy, but make sure that you prioritize storage space for the things you need and add in the things you want where you have the space – an approach that became particularly useful when furnishing a tiny flat in college and needing to prioritize keeping the essentials before finding space for all the extras like my rollerskates and countless throw blankets. 

This consequently means having a little bit less than if you were to have a whole storage garage, of course, but it is not about living with the bare minimum. 

2. Prioritize practicality above all else

An open bathroom drawer with organizers

(Image credit: Alamy)

As someone who is all about living luxuriously and having everything look as Pinterest-perfect as I can, this rule always hurts my soul a little. Nevertheless, when it comes to storage for small spaces it is vital that it is practical, otherwise, it's impossible to maintain an aesthetically pleasing look.

Even now in my small kitchen storage, for instance, I have had to let go of my dream of perfectly organizing a pantry to have uniformly lined up glass jars in favor of utilitarian cabinet organizers designed to make use of every inch of space I can find (maybe one day, right!). 

Some of my favorite kitchen organizers are my shelf risers, helping me fit a little more in my cabinets and make use of the vertical space, and my drawer dividers (these ones from Amazon) – perfect for creating some form of order in my otherwise manic kitchen utensil drawer.  

Shelf risers | $20.99 at The Container Store

Shelf risers | $20.99 at The Container Store
I love my three-tiered shelf risers, like this from The Container Store for making the most out of what little cabinet space I have in my small kitchen. My top tip is to position taller stuff at the back and smaller jars at the front so you can see everything in one glance and easily reach back for items when you need them. 

3. Respect what you own – create a home for everything

An over door organizer for purses

(Image credit: The Container Store)

One of the many rules my dad instilled in me in all aspects of life was respect, and that stretched to my belongings too. Although it may sound strange to ‘respect’ inanimate objects, it was more about understanding why that object is useful and finding it a home in space – a common home organizing idea that we now hear from professional organizers time and time again. 

Not caring for an object will not only cause it to break more easily but can also be a cause of clutter as we simply leave it laying around. Instead, my dad encouraged me to make sure everything had a place to return to easily. If it didn’t fit, what could I get rid of or move around to make it fit? This quick little rule made any storage space that little bit more functional no matter its size.

4. Build discipline

dressing room with wall of closet doors, patterned rug, footstool, two armchairs, side table, shirt hanging up, 2 doors open, retro ceiling lights

(Image credit: Mendelson Group/Tim Lenz)

Many of us will have been familiar with a reward system when we were children – ‘if you finish your chores, then you can go and play,’ my dad would remind me every time I decided to put off tidying my room on a Saturday morning. 

This small rule of creating discipline has followed me into my adulthood. Now it is more along the lines of giving myself a reward when I have finished putting things away – even if that reward is just a chocolate bar I had been planning to eat anyway. The trick is to put the good thing off just long enough to get the task at hand done. 

I like to use this throughout the week when it comes to keeping my small storage tidy. It may be that I give myself a larger treat, like treating myself to a nice day out if I successfully keep my storage system neat and functional for a few weeks without having to do a mass clean and reorganize. It is a great decluttering tip to stay focused and organized at home – no matter its size.  

My verdict

My Dad’s four simple storage rules for small spaces are the perfect steps to keeping even the smallest of cabinets neat, organized, and consistently functional – and, even though they are a little strict, they certainly make a lot more sense to me now living in a small rented house than they did when I was a child. 

My favorite tip is to take the 'less is more' approach. Not only does it help to keep clutter to a minimum, but helps me to respect what I do own a little more, and make do with what I already have in my storage spaces – whether it be my closet storage or small living room storage. More often than not, I already have exactly what I need at home already. 


How do I maximize storage in a small space?

When working with a small space, decluttering will only go so far in helping you sort your stuff. Maximizing your storage space by using smart, well-measured organizers can help you to double your existing storage space without having to buy more units or expand your storage into another room. You can also work vertically, making storage on the backs of doors and up walls with wall hangers or shelving units to help take your storage off of the floor and preserve your room's square footage. 

What are the rules of a professional organizer?

A good home organizer follows a few simple rules to keep their homes organized and tidy. The most important rule is to make tidying and organizing a habit so that the space is consistently clean and doesn't become overwhelming. Building decluttering and organizing into your everyday routine and following mantras such as ‘don’t put it down, put it away’ help to keep a home perfectly tidy and prevents doom piles from cluttering up tables and counters. This method, known as 'one-touch tidying' then prevents you from having to dedicate big chunks of your time to resetting your home just for it to get messy again.

Making sense of your storage ideas is one of the most important things you can do in a small space, and setting yourself some rules and boundaries – like my family's house rules to keep a tidy house – can go a long way in building helpful habits in your day-to-day life 

Chiana Dickson
Content Editor

Chiana has been at Homes & Gardens for two years, having started her journey in interior journalism as part of the graduate program. She spends most of her time producing content for the Solved section of the website, helping readers get the most out of their homes through clever decluttering, cleaning, and tidying tips – many of which she tests and reviews herself in her home in Lancaster to ensure they will consistently deliver for her readers and dabbles in the latest design trends. She also has a first-class degree in Literature from Lancaster University.