This Designer Downsized for Life and Has Never Been Happier

Rita Wilkins proves that living smaller is often better. Here's how she did it.


Published:

Rita Wilkins.//Joe del Tufo

Rita Wilkins lives in 687 square feet of sun-drenched space, a jewel box of an apartment from which she can see stately historic buildings, emerald jots of parks and the tiny church she walks to each morning for Mass.

“This is all I need—and all I want,” she says.

Wilkins downsized from a 5,000-square foot home in Avondale to this 687-square-foot apartment in Philadelphia.

Less than a year ago, Wilkins lived in a 5,000-square-foot house in Avondale. The interior designer had it built to her specifications, with plenty of room for guests, entertaining and storage for her business.

“I had a garage full of metal cabinets that were filled with dinner plates,” she says.

She stayed in the house for 10 years, a decade of life changes. She got married. She got divorced. She visited her son in New York City. She spent time with her other son, sharing a hut in Africa. 

In December 2015, she hosted a large holiday party at her home. Friends asked, “How are you going to live in this big house all by yourself?”

“I replied that I would be living in Philadelphia in a year,” she says. “I don’t know where it came from, but that is what I said.”

Days later, she made an intensely personal New Year’s resolution: to sell, donate or cast off almost all of her possessions and move into a small space where she would focus solely on what is most important in life.

“I was sitting on the floor, crying, and wondering, How am I going to manage this?”

Four years ago, Wilkins traveled to Senegal, where Kevin, her youngest son, was working with the Peace Corps.

“We lived in a tiny hut in his village that he built from the ground up,” she says.

When she arrived, the tribal chief presented her with the gift of a live chicken. That evening, the bird was served with grains and vegetables and eaten from a communal pot shared by 15 people.

“A woman who was like a second mother to my son took a wooden spoon she had carved that day and pushed the better pieces of chicken toward Kevin and me,” she says.

That act of generosity transformed her view of the world. The villagers lived in poverty, yet found joy in sharing with others. They lived simple, happy lives.

Back home, Wilkins’ challenge was having too many possessions. She began exploring what she wanted next.

“I knew it wasn’t a big house with a yard and lots of upkeep,” she says.

Wilkins grew up in a military family, one of five children. They moved often. She especially enjoyed her father’s tour of duty in Germany, where she admired the locals’ penchant for order and organization.

In her 60s, Wilkins is a baby boomer, a generation that is 76 million strong in the United States. Each day, 10,000 boomers retire. Wilkins is an expert in helping them to downsize. She also is CEO and founder of The Good Life, a concept in which retirees can travel to a planned community and experience local culture for several months at a time. The first model is in Charleston, S.C.

“A lot of baby boomers are choosing to move from the suburbs into cities where they enjoy the arts and culture,” she says. “If you want to live in Charleston for one, two or three months, you can try it out in a two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,200-square-foot home centered around a communal cooking and gathering space.”

Wilkins settled on Philly. She had spent a lot of time working with Landmark Worldwide there, a personal and professional growth, training and development firm. She chose an apartment in Washington Square, a few blocks from St. Mary’s Catholic Church and an easy drive to clients in Wilmington. Most days, she works remotely from home.

To pare back, she relied on the ABC list, a formula she suggests to clients who want to downsize rather than downgrade.

On the A list are items people definitely will keep, quality pieces that are a good fit for the next destination.

B represents the negotiable items, such as clothes that aren’t essential but look good and fit well.

The C list is for possessions that can be sold, given away or tossed in the trash.

“A and C are not that difficult,” she says. “It’s the B list that gets people in trouble.” 

Wilkins also relied on friends and other loved ones to help her purge.

“I could not have done this without people in my life to help me,” she says. “We would work for four hours, and then we would have fun, eat and drink wine.”

One friend, a former Marine, served as a drill sergeant, marching through a wardrobe that filled 11 closets.

“She would say, ‘That looks like hell on you. Get rid of it.’”

Wilkins also reached out to Star Lotta, founder of Suiting Warriors, to pass along clothes to women military veterans. 

“It was embarrassing how much clothing I had, formal dresses and business suits,” she says. “Now I mostly wear black.”

She took a multipronged strategy to disbursing furniture. She had a yard sale. She consigned a few pieces. Mostly, she gave things away, passing on china and silver to her sisters. Her sons were invited to pick the keepsakes that were most meaningful to them. Other items went to her longtime housekeeper and landscaper.

Wilkins’ younger sister, Mary St. Armand, traveled from Rhode Island to help. The sisters wept when they discovered their father’s alarm clock upon opening a box that had been closed for 10 years.

“The clock reminded us that he would get up very early and go to work so he could support our family,” St. Armand says.

They snapped a photograph of the clock—then donated it to Goodwill.

“It’s a great way to remember things in the digital age, much more so than digging it out of a box,” St. Armand says.

Long before she resolved to live with less, Wilkins spent Thanksgiving with her son who lived in a tiny apartment in New York City.

“There were 16 people for dinner,” she says. “We borrowed a table from the lobby and mixed and matched chairs, and it was amazing.”

After she helped Wilkins to downsize, St. Armand and her husband also moved to a smaller space.

“We purged one-third of our belongings and still have more work to do,” she says. “Rita is an inspiration.”

As an interior designer, Wilkins sees a groundswell of individuals who want to spend less time maintaining possessions and more time enjoying experiences. One of them is Lise Monty, who moved from a three-bedroom home in Bancroft Village in Wilmington to a one-bedroom apartment in Cokesbury Village in Hockessin.

Monty retired after a distinguished career in communications and journalism. For several years, she lived in Japan, where she was inspired by spare, uncluttered spaces.

“Lise was at that same place I came to and was so excited about this new journey that she was going to be on,” Wilkins says. “It’s not about stuff. It’s about people and experiences. When you simplify life, it’s much richer.” 

Monty’s apartment is sleek and contemporary, with classic teak furniture and a panoramic view of a pond. The bedroom also serves as a den, with a sofa that seamlessly converts to a bed at night.

“I don’t need—or want—a lot of material things,” she says. “Being in a space that is light and airy feels peaceful and happy.”

Before Wilkins left her big house for the last time, she walked through and said goodbye to every room.

“For so many years, I had to have the house, I had to have the professional space, I had to have the clothes,” she says. “I’ve found there is joy in giving things away.”

In her new home, she has surrounded herself with items from her A list, including family photos, a mini library and artwork. Among the furnishings are two favorite pieces: a sofa in a quiet leopard print—“small and comfortable, two people, having a great conversation”—and a painted cabinet she discovered at an art fair that “always made me smile.” In the big house, it stood in the foyer. Now it’s a nightstand.

A console table does double duty as a wine rack. A gate-leg table expands to accommodate dinner for two. She finds she cooks more often in her compact galley kitchen than she did in the large, luxurious gourmet kitchen in her old house.

From left: A console table does double duty as a wine rack; Wilkins kept only her favorite items, and each one
serves a specific purpose in her new apartment.

In her small space, there is no jumble to sort through because each item has a purpose.

“I know where everything is,” she says. “If you ask me for a sewing needle, I know immediately where to find it.”

The last small space Wilkins lived in was her college dorm room. She also is renting for the first time in her working life.

“That gives me a great deal of personal freedom,” she says. “If I need help hanging a mirror, it’s there. If I want to travel, I lock the door and go.”

There are still a few things she has yet to find a new home for, tucked away in a small storage unit in Claymont.

“I’m committed to getting rid of it sometime down the road,” she says. “For now, I think of it as my walk-in closet.”

With fewer possessions to take care of, Wilkins finds she has more time beyond her workday to savor life and volunteer to help others. She recently joined a walking group and a community organization. She will try her hand at improvisational theater. This spring, she will plant an herb garden on her balcony.

“I am living the life that I love,” she says. “I feel very blessed.” 

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February 2018

A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

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The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
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Cost: 10

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Greater Philadelphia Expo Center
100 Station Ave
Oaks, PA  19456
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Sponsor: MarketPlace Events
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Delaware Theatre Company
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Cost: $10

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17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
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Cost: $10-$15

Where:
Wilmington Drama League
10 West Lea Blvd.
Wilmington, DE  19802
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Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
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A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

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Cost: $15 adults; $10 UD faculty/staff/alumni & seniors; $5 students

Where:
Gore Recital Hall
110 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE  19716
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Sponsor: University of Delaware Department of Music
Telephone: 130-283-12578
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Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

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A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Cost: Call for cost.

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-629-6611 x2288
Contact Name: Nanticoke's Diabetes Education Department
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Cost: Varies

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"What the water said…Flowers, Places, & Faces," an exhibition of watercolor paintings by Hugh Phibbs, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from February 2-23, 2018. A free...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
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View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
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Faith Victory Christian Center
301 Commonwealth Avenue
Claymont, DE  19703
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Telephone: 302.354.6726
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Website »

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Cost: $20 members; $30 non-members

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Delaware Center for Horticulture
1810 N. Dupont Street
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Sponsor: Delaware Center for Horticulture
Telephone: (302) 658-6262
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Cost: Free

Where:
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark
420 Willa Road
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Sponsor: UUFN
Telephone: 302.368.2984
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"What the water said…Flowers, Places, & Faces," an exhibition of watercolor paintings by Hugh Phibbs, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from February 2-23, 2018. A free...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

This community-curated exhibition brings together three painters—Alan Soffer, Brian Dickerson, and Moe Brooker—who are attuned to harmonies and contrasts in abstract forms. Each artist...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
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STAR Health Sciences Complex
540 S. College Ave
Newark, DE  19713
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Explore connections between people and plants in these four inspiring presentations. Special thanks to Whole Foods Market for sponsoring this  year’s refreshments. Individual lecture pricing:...

Cost: $20 members; $30 non-members

Where:
Delaware Center for Horticulture
1810 N. Dupont Street
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Sponsor: Delaware Center for Horticulture
Telephone: (302) 658-6262
Contact Name: Mackenzie Knight-Fochs
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Tickets are $15 adults; $10 UD faculty/staff/alumni & seniors; $5 students. Tickets are available at the door. Cash or check only.

Cost: $15 adults; $10 UD faculty/staff/alumni & seniors; $5 students

Where:
Gore Recital Hall
110 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Sponsor: University of Delaware Department of Music
Telephone: 130-283-12578
Contact Name: Megan Everhart
Website »

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Show More...
Show Less...

"What the water said…Flowers, Places, & Faces," an exhibition of watercolor paintings by Hugh Phibbs, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from February 2-23, 2018. A free...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

The area’s largest sale of gently used books has been scheduled by the Wilmington branch of the American Association of University Women. The 49th annual Dollars for Scholars Used Book Sale, to...

Cost: free

Where:
Concord Mall
4737 Concord Pike
North Wilmington, DE  19803
View map »


Sponsor: American Association of University Women
Telephone: 302-428-0939

More information

This community-curated exhibition brings together three painters—Alan Soffer, Brian Dickerson, and Moe Brooker—who are attuned to harmonies and contrasts in abstract forms. Each artist...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

Glory of Stories introduces young visitors to art and the Museum through a story reading followed by an interactive tour of relevant works of art and a studio art project. This program encourages...

Cost: Free to Members, $5 per child and one adult free for Non-Members

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

Meeting every Friday, Bayhealth Kent General Hospital, 640 s. State Street, Dover, 7:30 pm., Private Dining Room #3 in the basement. For those who have, or think they may have a gambling problem....

Cost: 0.00

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General Hospital
640 S. State Street
Private Dining Room #3
Dover, DE  19901
View map »


Telephone: 800-855-2CALLGA
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

The area’s largest sale of gently used books has been scheduled by the Wilmington branch of the American Association of University Women. The 49th annual Dollars for Scholars Used Book Sale, to...

Cost: free

Where:
Concord Mall
4737 Concord Pike
North Wilmington, DE  19803
View map »


Sponsor: American Association of University Women
Telephone: 302-428-0939

More information

This community-curated exhibition brings together three painters—Alan Soffer, Brian Dickerson, and Moe Brooker—who are attuned to harmonies and contrasts in abstract forms. Each artist...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

Ronald Barron was principal trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1975 until 2008. He joined the orchestra in 1970 after being a member of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and also...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gore Recital Hall
110 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Sponsor: University of Delaware Department of Music
Telephone: 130-283-12578
Contact Name: Megan Everhart
Website »

More information

Celebrate the 12th Annual Chinese New Year at the Delaware Art Museum! This celebration includes traditional Chinese art activities, artist demonstrations, a lion and folk dance, a Chinese yo-yo...

Cost: Free; donations accepted

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

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Cost: Free with admission; Adults: $14, Children 6-14: $5, Children 5 and under: Free

Where:
Hagley Museum and Library
200 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-658-2400
Website »

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Cost: *VIP $125.00; *Silver Mirror Ball $50.00

Where:
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Sponsor: Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition
Telephone: 302-778-1102
Contact Name: Eliza Mohler
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Cost: 0 - $20

Where:
Newark United Methodist Church
69 E. Main St.
Newark, DE  19711
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