There are lots of great reasons for downsizing and decluttering. You could be retiring and moving to a smaller home or going on the road. You may be relocating to a new city for work and want to have less to move. Or maybe you’ve simply decided you have too much stuff. Whatever your reason for downsizing, the worst thing you can do is not give yourself enough time to complete the job. When we were getting ready to retire we gave ourselves two years to purge unnecessary stuff. That turned out to be one of the best choices in all our retirement planning. It gave us a lot of time to make all the necessary decisions and to get used to the idea of getting rid of certain things.
We went from a 1200 square foot house, plus a finished garage and finished attic to a Honda Element. A lot of people told us that was way too extreme for them, but it was a good decision for us to allow us to be more mobile.
In terms of physical goods we prioritized where we got rid of things based on value and size. Typically our rough order of preference was: give to family/friends > eBay > sell on craigslist > donate to goodwill > give away free > recycle (e.g. old electronics nobody wants) > garage sale > trash. We shipped a small amount of stuff to relatives to store (old sentimental items, photos we wanted to keep, etc.).
Below are some suggestions on how to decide what to keep and what to purge. Remember that it is an iterative process. You don’t have to do it all at once, and sometimes it is more palatable to get rid of a small amount, then wait a while before the next purge. For us, it got easier and easier as time went on. Some people like to focus on one room at a time until they are done with that room. Others like to make multiple passes over the entire house, leaving the more difficult decisions for later.
If you are having trouble deciding whether to keep something or get rid of it, try asking yourself these questions.
1. If I am keeping this to use “someday,” do I really need it?
2. Do I use this regularly or have I touched it in the last year?
3. How do I want to spend my time? Does this item contribute to that?
4. Is it cheaper to replace this than to move it?
If you are retiring, your hobbies will be an important part of how you spend your time. You can’t give up that bulky bag of golf clubs if you plan to spend all your time golfing. Think about what you plan to do with your time, and keep that in mind as you sort through everything.
If you are into knitting or sewing, that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to take all your supplies with you. If you’ve got yarn or fabric you haven’t touched for years, sell or give it to someone who will use it. Just keep the things you will use the most. There are tons of wonderful projects out there to be done, but you can’t do them all. Consider what you really want to spend your time on and keep only what is necessary.
For example, I bought a rolling bag for my art supplies and limited myself to only what would fit in that case. For everything that didn’t fit in the bag, I held a couple garage sales, sold a few of the best items on Craig’s List and eBay, and then invited some artists I know to come and take their pick from everything that was left over.
If you’re an avid reader and book lover, giving up your books can be a difficult choice. Sort through your books and keep only your most beloved volumes. Then invest in an e-reader or resolve to use your library card more. I’ve written previously about how I digitized my large book collection. At first, it was very difficult to give up my physical books, but I knew the most important thing to me was the words and not the delivery vehicle for those words. As much as I love a room full of books, I really love not having boxes and boxes of heavy books to move.
Think about what you use the most. If you have drawers full of gadgets you never use, say goodbye to them. Same thing goes for small appliances. We got rid of our toaster because it is easy and cheap to replace, but we kept my KitchenAid Mixer because hey, it’s a KitchenAid mixer! Do you need three sets of silverware? How about formal dinnerware? Again, remember the “I will use this someday” rule. If you find yourself saying that, chuck it! Also consider multiples of similar items. If you have five lasagna pans (as I did after my bridal shower), you really only need one.
Furniture pieces are the most difficult to move. So think long and hard about what’s worth moving and what is better to replace. Better yet, are there things you can get rid of that don’t need replacing? If you have a table or a shelf that is just a gathering place for clutter, then you probably won’t need in your new home.
If you have family heirloom pieces, they may have to go with you. If they’re going straight to your new home, hire a mover. But if you’re going on the road, look into public storage, ask a relative to temporarily keep them for you, or give them to someone in the family who will appreciate them. If your furniture isn’t heirloom, then weigh the cost of moving it against the cost of replacing it.
It was very important to us that everything fit in our car, so we sold or gave away every piece of furniture. The bulk of our furniture came from Ikea, so selling it was an easy decision. When we are ready to buy a condo, it will be nice to start over with furniture bought specifically for our new home.
If you haven’t worn it in the last year, get rid of it! If an article of clothing doesn’t fit with your planned lifestyle, why keep it? If you’re not going to be working, you don’t need a closet full of clothes one would typically wear to an office. Your wardrobe should match your plans. I kept one dress when we moved. Other than that, I have jeans, t-shirts, and workout and hiking clothes. What else would I need?
It can be extremely difficult to get rid of things that inspire good memories. But if your memories have been sitting in a box untouched for 20 to 30 years, then you’re probably not getting much reminiscing mileage out of them. And unless you’re famous, there’s not much reason to save these things for posterity. You probably don’t need your 20-year-old, dirty, matted teddy bear. Take a picture and toss the bear.
Some of my decluttering decisions were informed by the fact that we don’t have kids. Even if we did, they probably wouldn’t want the tons of papers and mementos I kept from elementary school, junior high, and high school. So I sent all of it through the scanner (including my yearbooks) and then threw everything out. Family photos were scanned and disposed of, except for any vintage photographs (which were scanned and boxed up). We kept some special wedding gifts, such as a beautiful sujeo set (Korean spoons and chopsticks).
In an earlier post, I wrote about reasons to go paperless. This is one area where you can get rid of both a ton of stuff (papers) and furniture (filing cabinets). Figure out which papers you must have hard copies of and scan the rest. Maybe there’s stuff in your files you don’t even need and can just shred/recycle. It’s really worth spending time on this part of the purging process. It helps you develop a system for dealing with paper, which in turn makes it easier to slow or stop the accumulation of more paper.
If you read my piece on going paperless, you’re aware that we have one little plastic portable file box with all our important papers. We digitized and encrypted almost every piece of paper we had and created a system of backups. We keep hard copies of tax documents, car registration papers, our marriage license, and a few other important items. I’m thrilled we didn’t have to move boxes and boxes of paper.
Inevitably, when you get down to the wire, you find that you still haven’t gotten rid of enough. On the morning of our departure, we had to get rid of our sleeping bags, and our dog’s giant bed (we kept her blanket and collapsible crate), among a few other things. They just wouldn’t fit in the car.
So now, for the most part, everything we own will fit in our car. We have a few small items we will leave at my Mom’s house until we buy a condo, but we probably got rid of 90% of our belongings. It feels really great to be traveling so light.
Have you been decluttering or downsizing? What is the hardest part of downsizing for you? Was any of it easier than you expected?
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