Downsizing. Decluttering. Simplifying. It’s the latest thing. There’s a shelf full of books available on the topic. I find this ironic because books are one of the things that contribute mightily to all the clutter. Simplifying isn’t simple, though, and it’s hard to get started without significant motivation. Our motivation was a move to a different state and a much smaller house. It had to be done. And it was hard. And it was worth it.
I’m here on the other side of this major downsize to send words of encouragement if you’re beginning to feel bogged down by your stuff. There’s a feeling of lightness when you get closer to living with just the things you need and the things you love. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t do anything severe. My family is nowhere near minimalist living, but our move from Alaska to Seattle forced us to eliminate a huge volume of things, and I miss very little of it.
Would we have downsized so dramatically if we weren’t moving into a much smaller space? Probably not. One thing I learned is it’s easier to keep things than to figure out how to get rid of them. Also, not all members of the family embraced the downsizing at the start, and there were natural disagreements as to what had to be eliminated. The first lesson is, don’t discard it if it’s going to cause tears. And now that most of the work is done, I feel entitled to pass along these tips that might help you “lighten up,” even just a little.
Make a Plan. If you decide to make the move to a smaller place, as we did, use it to your advantage. Get to know your new space, and discuss as a family what you can fit, and what you can’t. In order to know what furniture would fit, and where, I cut full-sized paper templates of the footprint each piece would occupy. Then it was easy to move the templates around on the floor and talk about what would fit. We knew before we moved what would be coming with us.
Sort. Everything. It takes time and motivation to go through your stuff, so focus on just one area at a time. Work with a goal in mind. For example, decide how many bins of holiday ornaments you can reasonably store, or allocate craft supplies to just one cabinet. My husband decided he wanted his woodworking tools to fit in the one-car garage, with room for the car at night. He did this with a combination of elimination and trading out bulky tools for more compact ones. This had the added benefit of making him very happy since he had an excuse to buy up-to-date tools.
How to Decide. The first thing you need to decide is what you’re going to eliminate. After that’s done, you can figure out what you’re going to do with it. As you go through your stuff, ask yourself these questions: Do I use it? Do I love it? Is it in the way? Do I resent having to dust it? And maybe the most difficult, but illuminating question: What would I feel if it disappeared? Take a moment and imagine yourself without that thing. Is it the end of the world? An inconvenience? Would you even notice?
Why Keep It? Let’s take a moment and think about why we keep all the stuff that surrounds us. I truly believe the simplest answer is it’s easier to stash something away than figure out how to get rid of it. But each item has its own anchor attached. You may see it as a necessity – something that provides an immediate function. That’s a good reason for it to stay. Or maybe you keep it around “just-in-case.” We had a lot of those! Sentimentality is another strong feeling tying us to our stuff, but I believe it’s important to separate true love of an object (in my mind, a totally legitimate reason for keeping it) from feelings of obligation. Sometimes a gift can become a burden if we feel it would be disrespectful to get rid of it. Who hasn’t been haunted by the idea of a relative visiting and noticing you didn’t keep that thoughtful vase? If view your space as your most important possession, then everything you have should enhance that space.
Lighten Up! It takes work to get rid of stuff. The easiest way is to donate everything to a charity. They’ll come by with a truck, pick it up, and you’re done. But this may be difficult to do for things that have great value, sentimental or otherwise. My family found that a combination of outlets was the best strategy. Some items we donated to favorite organizations for their charity auctions. We also contributed to a fundraising garage sale. Then we organized our own garage sale. It was a lot of work, but the weather cooperated, it turned out to be a lot of fun. Books and records can go to stores that will buy and sell them. Finally, we posted online using Craig’s List, Facebook Marketplace, and Nextdoor. The key to online sales is to take good photos, be patient, and be willing to lower your price until you get a bite.
Consider Their Feelings. I’m talking about stuffed animals here. No, I don’t think stuffed animals have feelings. But their owners do. Even I have a few favorites I’ll never part with. A kid can accumulate a considerable menagerie of stuffed friends, and they take up space. But you can’t just bundle them in a plastic bag and drop them at the nearest donation station. As tempting at it is to sneak into your kid’s room while they’re at school and “disappear” their stuff, it will go much better if you involve them in the process. Once my daughter had decided which stuffed animals she could part with, we gave them a special place in the garage sale with a prominent sign that read, “Stuffed Animals. Adults pay $1. Kids pay 50¢.” It turns out she got a kick out of watching little kids pick a favorite stuffie and pay for it themselves.
To Store, or Not to Store. Having a storage space may seem like cheating. We decided to rent a space in Seattle and use it for overflow and for items we didn’t need every day. For us, having storage means being able to live comfortably in our small townhouse without boxes stacked everywhere. Ultimately, we hope to move our things to a smaller storage space. The key is to know what’s in there and to get rid of things you don’t use. The thing to avoid is the “black hole” storage space. In Alaska, our crawl space became just that. Things went in, but never came out – until we had to move, that is.
De-Bulk. Here’s another way to downsize that doesn’t simply eliminate things. You can find ways to de-bulk by replacing some of the things you need with more compact – or even virtual – versions. I sent several pounds of documents to the shredder after scanning them for storage on a thumb drive. Similarly, we recycled product manuals after downloading PDF versions. I love books, and we kept about half of our library, but some books were easy to eliminate. The dictionary and thesaurus are now available online in easier to use formats. We only kept cookbooks we use frequently. And it was easy to get rid of novels we never intend to read a second time. You can also de-bulk by acquiring more compact versions of things you need. For example, we replaced some kitchen appliances with smaller ones.
Now that I’m offering my services as a personal historian, working with seniors to document their stories for the next generation, I think about the things we leave behind. Writing down our stories can be a way of formalizing memories, just as a will articulates the disposition of finances. As for physical possessions, once the most valuable and sentimental items have been divvied up among family members, someone will be left with a house full of stuff to sort through. Downsizing, it turns out, is not just great for us, it’s a gift to the next generation.