Downsizing your life to upsize your happiness
Letting go. It should have been easier. I am, after all, an Army brat, veteran of a lifetime of packing up and moving on. I married a man who loved nothing more than to move into a house, renovate it, sell it and move on to the next one.
How, then, did I find myself at age 62 divorced, living alone in a huge house filled to bursting with stuff? Not only that, like many Americans, I had a rented storage unit, also jam-packed with belongings that over time had become a distant memory. I was actually paying to store things I neither wanted nor needed.
It was time for me to move, time for a change—a big change to a smaller space with fewer possessions. I was young enough to have control over the process, young enough that my children wouldn’t be responsible for making decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of.
That’s not to say that my two adult children were off the hook in this process. On the contrary, they were both instrumental in making what could have been a nightmare experience a family bonding time. Before the move we were able to talk, with a minimum of sentimentality and drama, about what was going to happen to all this stuff. It led to frank discussions about my wishes for care as I aged. These are conversations much easier to have when the subject matter is notional rather than imminent.
Baby Boomers like me are finding out the hard way that their lifetime of accumulated possessions are of little value or interest to their children. Neither of my children cared a fig about antique armoires or matched place settings of china. They did not eye the filigreed silver chafing dishes with envy, and they made no moves on the vintage Tiffany lamps.
The horns of my downsizing dilemma were deeply uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that I was eager to find a way out.
The lessons learned before, during and after my move were hard won. I share them here, hoping to lead the downsizing charge by example, with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of stress.
Some people are born organized and the process of downsizing will come naturally. If you were not genetically blessed with the organization gene, fear not. Don’t be afraid to enlist the aid of your most efficient friends to help with the planning and execution of your downsizing efforts. Throw yourself a “Clear Out My Attic” party and keep helpers engaged with great snacks, beverages and music.
You say you can’t find friends to help? Never fear. A quick Internet search will connect you to professional organizers who, for a reasonable fee, will help you sort through your possessions and make decisions on what to keep and what to get rid of.
Make a Plan—And Stick To It
Facing a major move to a smaller house or apartment can be overwhelming. With luck, you will have time to put a plan in place and get organized—not just in your head, but on paper (or electronically if you’re so inclined).
Use a calendar to schedule dates for cleaning and sorting. Give yourself a day for smaller areas like bedrooms and bathrooms, two or three (or more!) days for a living room, attic, basement or garage.
Have supplies on hand—heavy-duty trash bags, cleaning products, disposable gloves, boxes, packing tape and markers.
Keep, Sell, Donate, Trash
I found the key to effective downsizing is a bold and decisive mindset. When going through a room, have four definitive piles—Keep, Sell, Donate and Trash. There’s no “Maybe” in this effort. Make a decision and stick to it. You won’t be sorry.
Technology to the Rescue
I found boxes and boxes of my children’s artwork, school papers, report cards and letters from camp in my attic, not to mentions thousands of photographs thrown willy nilly into cartons. It felt almost sacrilegious to throw these things away.
After I went through and salvaged the most important and meaningful pieces, I enlisted my son to scan them into a virtual album organized by year.
The fact is, that when they were in boxes in the attic, I never looked at them. Now that I have them available on the cloud, they’re much easier to access and so much fun to look at.
I found that scanning important documents is an excellent way to preserve information and get rid of paper. I’ve even started scanning manuals that come with appliances. The good news here is that if you’ve lost yours, most are available online for download.
I also took pictures of every room in my house, from several angles. It was a beautiful house with lovely furnishings and accessories. I didn’t need to keep all those things, but having pictures of them makes me happy.
We are lucky to live in a time when there are all kinds of businesses that will help you find a home—or final resting place—for all your downsized items.
Selling: If you want to sell some of your higher-end furnishings and accessories, consider contacting an auction house for an in-home appraisal. Consignment shops will take anything from clothing to furniture and everything in between. Keep in mind that most consignment shops will take only items in excellent condition.
Donating: There are many resources for donating items—Goodwill, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army and the Habitat for Humanity Restore to name a few. Most will pick up large items with advanced notice.
Sometimes you only have to look as far as family or friends to find a new home for your more treasured items. It takes a little extra time to match belongings to the right person, but it’s often well worth the effort.
My town dump has a Swap Shop where many of my unwanted but still usable items have found new homes. I love knowing that rather than adding them to the landfill, they’ll go off to a happy new home.
When all else fails I check the weather and wait for a spate of sunny days. Then I set out a “Free for the Taking” table at the end of my driveway. Anything that isn’t scooped up after a few days gets hauled off to the dump.
Trashing: If you can’t face a seemingly infinite number of trips to the dump, you may have enough “trash” items to use services like Waste Management’s Bagster (thebagster.com) or 1-800-Got-Junk (1800gotjunk.com). They make the job of offloading large amounts of trash easy and efficient.
I hope that I will have years, nay decades, ahead of me, so this is probably not my last purge. But I have learned a lot of valuable lessons as I downsized my way to a lighter, happier life.
Was it coincidental that Margareta Magnusson’s book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter” came out as I was embracing that very concept? I don’t think so. The universe often sends us what we need when we need it.
Many years earlier, the universe sent me my most valuable tool for this process. My daughter, Tyler, is an interior designer whose aesthetic is clean, spare, sophisticated and uncluttered. She was instrumental in helping me let go of what I didn’t need and embrace the things I did.
Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. She lives near the ocean in an old farmhouse with two ill-behaved dogs and two hard-working barn cats. Follow her on Instagram: @candacekaru or at candacekaru.com.