How to Conquer the Challenge of Downsizing

If you’re like most of us, at some point you will face the prospect of downsizing.

Perhaps you want to move to a smaller house. Perhaps you want to move overseas or wander the country in an RV. Perhaps you just don’t want to leave a lifetime of stuff behind for your survivors to deal with.

In my case, I reached a point several years ago when I looked at all the stuff that fills our closets, our attic, and our garage, and I wondered, “Where did this crap all come from?”

It seems that we spend the first half of our adult lives accumulating things (bigger homes, nicer cars, better furniture, more clothes, grown-up “toys”), and then we spend the rest of our life getting rid of it.

Although I’ve toyed with the idea of going through all my stored items and eliminating much of it, up to this point my good intentions haven’t led to much action. Throughout 2015, I’ve sold some CDs on Amazon, but that’s about it.

For some people, discarding obsolete possessions seems to come easily. Usually, it takes a tangible event like an upcoming move to a smaller home to provide the sense of urgency required to downsize possessions.

Jeff and I have decided that we’re going to remain in our current house for at least five to ten more years, but we’re ready to start downsizing our possessions now. We’re serious this time. But we will only be successful if we really want to do it and stick to our goals.

I Can’t Help It – I Was Born This Way

I’ve always been a pack rat. It’s the way I was raised, regardless of whether or not my parents were aware that they were instilling this behavior pattern in me.

My parents grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by the World War II years of the early 40s. They grew up with scarcity. They entered adulthood during a time when they needed to economize and save. Every cent was precious.

Long before microwave ovens, frozen dinners (called "TV dinners") came packaged in foil divided trays.

Long before microwave ovens, frozen dinners (called “TV dinners”) came packaged in foil divided trays.

My parents kept everything! My mother had stacks of foil TV dinner trays. (Long before microwave ovens existed, this was what frozen dinners were called.) We didn’t eat TV dinners very often, but when we did, she would wash out every tray and keep it. She rarely used them for pre-making meals or repackaging leftovers, she just kept them because – well, “you never know when you might need them.” My father was an avid reader, and he kept every book he ever read. I’m sure my parents retained 90% of the clothes they had ever worn in their adult lives.

I’m not quite that bad, but the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. I will confess to owning clothes that are at least 25 years old.

When my mother passed away (having survived my father by three years), my sister and I flew to my parents’ hometown and we had one week to dispose of everything my parents had accumulated over a lifetime. Based upon that experience, I decided then and there that I do not want to leave a large amount of possessions for someone else to deal with.

Why Downsize Now?

Based on my health and my family’s longevity history, I could easily live thirty more years. So that, by itself, won’t provide motivation for me to clear out my junk in a timely manner.

What’s really motivating me now is just a desire to live more simply. I want to have fewer things to clean. I want to have less paperwork and boxes to sort through when I need to find something. I want to see my closets and my garage shelves looking neat and orderly, not crammed full of as much stuff as they can hold.

When the time eventually comes to move, I don’t want to have to go through this whole downsizing exercise hurriedly. There are too many other details that come with moving. Last time I moved, I ended up just moving all the junk, too.

I’ve heard it said that you don’t own your possessions, they own you – and I now believe this to be true.

My desk is usually piled high with stacks of paper, mail to be dealt with, and various cables, chargers, and adapters. All of them are calling out to me, saying, “You need to deal with me.” All of the clutter on my desk and around my house is a nagging to-do list. This often impedes my productivity and creativity for writing.

This is how my desk typically looks. I'm not proud. But I want to change!

This is how my desk typically looks. I’m not sharing this because I’m proud of it. There’s wood under there somewhere. I want to change!

It all boils down to this:  I want my life to be simpler.

I want my home to be neater.

I want my renaissance years to be more carefree.

All of this junk does not add happiness or value to my life, so I want it gone.

The Magic of Tidying

I have recently seen several different web sites mention a book called, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo. So I bought a copy, and Jeff and I have read it.

Ms. Kondo is a Japanese lady who has been obsessed with organizing and neatness since she was a young girl. She has experienced what works and what doesn’t work. She now runs a consulting business to help people tidy their homes, and she claims to have a three-month wait list.

I recommend that you purchase and read the book if you are interested, but the highlights of her methodology are:

  • You need to start with a marathon of discarding everything that doesn’t bring you joy. Wait until you have discarded everything you are going to get rid of before you start deciding where you will store things.
  • Tidy by category, not by location. For example, collect all of your clothing from all over the house, throw it in one big pile, and go through it all at once. Then move on to the next category. Don’t clean room by room.
  • Tidying is not buying more storage containers to keep all your stuff stored out of sight, albeit in a more organized manner. It’s getting rid of a large percentage of what you own.

If you follow her process and guidelines in the order she prescribes, she claims that the change in your life will be so dramatic that you will never relapse back to untidy living.

My only complaint about the book is that it is often repetitive and redundant. She could have easily communicated her message in one-third of the pages. The irony is not lost of me that her book could have greatly benefited from de-cluttering.

All of this sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure how it’s going to work in practice. Ms. Kondo says I should hold each item in my hand, keep it if it sparks joy, and discard it if it does not.

I’m not a very touchy-feely kind of person; I’m more logical. Most of the inanimate objects in our house won’t evoke an emotional response in me one way or the other. Seven years of tax returns won’t spark joy, but I know I need to keep them.

I also suspect that many American homes such as ours, with attics, basements, garages, pantries, outdoor storage sheds and walk-in closets may require a longer tidying marathon than most Japanese homes. It may be impractical to do all of this in one marathon session.

Still, we are going to give it a try. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Whatever Works

You have, no doubt, heard other tidying philosophies, and perhaps some of them have worked for you.

For example, a common axiom is to discard everything you haven’t used in the past year.

A criterion I plan to apply to all those things that I hang onto because I might need them someday is to decide whether an item could be easily and cheaply purchased in the unlikely event that I ever actually need it again.

Another approach to deciding what I should keep is to ask myself what things I would replace if my house burned to the ground. Conversely, what would I probably never miss or even recall that I owned?

I wish I had started thinking this way earlier in my life, so I wouldn’t have accumulated so much in the first place. I could have saved a lot more money for retirement if I didn’t squander it on this junk.

True lasting happiness is rarely found in the things you own. You may experience momentary satisfaction in acquiring something new and shiny, but that happiness fades quickly and the item remains. Perhaps there is some self-empowering satisfaction in knowing that you have the resources and the power to go out and acquire something when you have the urge.

On the other hand, it can be liberating to go through a large purge. Many people report that they are happier after they no longer have so much junk on their hands.

Attitude Adjustment Required

As I mentioned earlier, in order to be successful at tidying – not just executing the big purge, but also changing the way I live with regard to acquiring and retaining possessions – I need to make some attitude changes. Maybe you do too.

Here are a few:

Just because you paid good money for something, you don’t have to keep it forever. Starting from the time you bring a product home and start using it, the money you paid is a “sunk cost.” It’s gone. If the item has ceased to be useful, just be glad that you had it for the period of time in which it served its purpose. Then release it from any further duty and send it on to its “retirement” (which may not be quite as fabulous as yours – but hey, it’s just an object).

There are no prizes awarded for owning the biggest collection of anything – not even my massive collection of jazz records and CDs.

After you’re gone, most of your possessions will mean little or nothing to anyone else. Most of your stuff will end up sold for a fraction its original price at an estate sale, donated, recycled, or thrown in the trash. If it still means something to you, keep it. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance. - John Petit-Senn

How About You?

Will there be downsizing in your future? How do you feel about that?

If you have gone through a downsizing or de-cluttering campaign, what approach worked for you?

Please share in the comments!

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes for us, and what we learn in the process.

© 2016 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.

Photo credits:
Messy office: Elana Centor. Some rights reserved.
TV dinner: adrigu. Some rights reserved.
Messy desk: Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.

10 Responses

  1. I’d been meaning to purge my closet for a LONG time and there were 2 things that occurred that finally made it possible: 1) I got my hair cut short, (after struggling with keeping it long for decades) and 2) I determined that my most comfy and flattering pants are a pair of LLBeans I got from the thrift shop. They don’t pill, have enough “rise” for my considerable derriere and are heavy enough fabric to cover with comfort. When I found they had a 20% off sale for Black Friday, I ordered a couple more pairs, and then almost immediately I FINALLY had the inspiration and energy to assess my clothes! I think getting my haircut AND knowing that my ass was covered (literally!) contributed to this ability to actually tackle the project, instead of just talking about it, as I had for months.

    I think once I rediscovered thrift stores a few years back and could get pants for $2 or $3, I got a little too gung-ho and began hoarding. Over the past decade I must’ve purchased 30 pairs of black pants, an equal number of jeans and many, many more knit shirts that don’t actually fit or don’t flatter or just FEEL BAD when I put them on, so I piled ‘em up and took them in to the Goodwill. The “sparked joy” criterion has a lot to recommend it, IMO. There IS “energy” in everything, even if it’s just what we project onto it.

    The one thing that Kondo’s book doesn’t address is the DREAM-factor of owning stuff; whether it’s clothes we might fit “someday” or fabric we might sew into “something”… letting go of the dream-stuff is difficult because we’re talking about dumping POSSIBILITIES, which is sticky business! Gil Hedley recently posted something on FaceBook about how “clutter… is psychologically and biologically active… affecting our movement in space, triggering unconscious shifts and contractions”. I think we have to have faith in the future in order to let go of the dream-stuff, or else FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out) will keep us entangled and burdened by possessions that don’t actually serve us.

  2. DeeDee says:

    I know this article is archival, but I liked it very much. I only kept the bedroom furniture so I had to sale things to put towards the new furniture. You would be surprised at how much you can make at a garage sale. We kept two chairs and our wooden TV trays for tables until we could buy. This way we were not moving heavy furniture just mattresses. Clothing is hard to figure when you move to a different climate. Also size the kitchenware down! Smaller homes have smaller counter spaces, and cupboards.

    • Dave Hughes says:

      Hi DeeDee,

      Congratulations on being able to part with so much of your stuff. That would be very hard for me. We may do another in-town move in our lifetime, but I’m not expecting to move cross-country. If I did, I would try my hardest to sell almost everything rather than moving it.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. William DeyErmand says:

    I am having such a hard time letting go of things from 20 years plus. My wife on the other hand went room to room gathering things someone else may want, and donated it to Salvation Army. Some really nicer things went to a local consignment shop, which was profitable. The clothing is the big thing with her and that is the easiest with me. My “mancave ” would take a whole moving truck alone compared to her kitchen, clothing, and household furniture. I find this article helpful because reading made me realize holding on to so many things, is like being anchored down! Would like to know how a person determines how much furniture to keep?

    • Dave Hughes says:

      In Marie Kondo’s book, she suggests starting with clothes, because most people have the least emotional attachment to clothes, and it’s pretty easy to identify what you haven’t worn for years or is out of style. But some people (who are more fashion conscious than I am) take their clothes seriously; it sounds like your wife may fit in this category. If an item sparks joy, then keep it!

      Furniture is another matter. We just tackled our book collection (we did that next after clothes). We have two bookcases in the family room that make the room look crowded. We were motivated to get rid of all those books we read once and will probably never read again and those which looked interesting at the time but remain unread after many years, so that we can remove those bookcases and make the room look nicer.

      Aside from that, we have about the right amount of furniture for the number of rooms we have. If we removed more, some rooms might look weird because they are too empty.

      On the other hand, when the time comes for us to move to a smaller house, then we will get rid of more furniture. It helps if you can buy your next house before you sell your current house, but if you can’t, at least you might have some idea of how many rooms you want in your next house.

      I think whether you like your furniture (it “sparks joy”) or you’re indifferent about it plays into the equation, too.

      • William says:

        We will be renting until we find a house. We don’t want to rent storage but will according to the rental place. I like the idea of room count. I have 10 now and made a goal of 7 rooms. (Get rid of three rooms of furniture.) Clothing was done by seasons then cut in half. Sentimental things really got us. Seasonal decor and dishes were practically eliminated by passing them down to the children. Paperwork, Photos, Books, Movies, music, tools are still to be gone through but we are doing it. Slow but sure.

  4. Laura says:

    Thanks for another great article! We have 4 years to go and have changed our mindset in preparation to start downsizing. One thing to note is that you have to be in agreement with your partner on items that are co-owned. There are some things that we must keep until we both agree they are ready to be discarded. Also, there are things that each of us thinks should be discarded that are the others’ so we have realized that we have to let go and let the other person let go when they are ready, even if we are tired of looking at their stuff! I like the tips from the book. We find that the main reason we hold onto things is because of emotional memories of them vs. their cost or use. One way we have let go of those is to take a picture to keep the memory then let go. Thanks for all the great articles!

    • Dave Hughes says:

      You’re absolutely right about mutually-owned, household possessions. I would be really angry if my spouse got rid of some of “our” stuff without my agreement – more out of principle than the actual loss of the objects.

      I figure that anything we get rid of represents success. If we end up getting rid of 40% of our stuff, that’s great – even if we could have tossed an additional 20% that only one of us wants to keep.

  5. Deb Hernan says:

    Thank you for that post. Just what I needed to get me back on track. I began slowly downsizing (purging) over a year ago and I am 10 years away from retirement. (It’s never too early.) At first I was on a roll, room by room, eliminating useless clutter, but it has gotten harder as the months have gone by. I’ve started to second guess myself. But the reality is, once it is gone, you really don’t miss it. All the stuff I got rid of, I cannot recall what half of it was. I agree with your statements; 1. Just because we paid a lot of money for something we don’t have to keep it forever and 2. You don’t own your possessions, they own you. The less “stuff” you have, the more free time you have to enjoy your life. Let it go! Free yourself!

    • Dave Hughes says:

      I commend you for starting the process as early as you did! I sure wish I had started purging 10 years ago, especially before my last move.

      So many people say it’s liberating, and I can’t wait to experience that.

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