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How to Lose 1,000 Square Feet — and Keep It Off

This writer found joy downsizing to a small apartment and offers five tips

Five years ago, when I sold my 1,700-square-foot condo in St. Louis County, Mo., in preparation for a move to a small apartment in San Francisco, Calif., I knew I had to get rid of at least two-thirds of my stuff. That required touching every single thing I owned.

I sold, donated or gave away everything from a crystal chandelier to a recliner I'd bought six months earlier to a package of powdered onion soup from the pantry. The man who painted my condo prior to the sale bought the pub table and chairs from my kitchen, so I gave him the concrete elephant statue from my deck. I pared down my Christmas decorations from five boxes to one. I found good homes at a university, a prison and a senior center for 46 boxes of books. And once and for all, I got rid of my collections of paper bags, plastic bags and cardboard boxes.

(MORE: The Power of Positive Purging Your Stuff)

What did I bring to California?

My grandmother’s golden oak rocking chair, her dresser and her cedar chest. My mother’s living room lamps and her black sequin beanie. My father’s jewelry box and his Navy duffel bag, to hold jumper cables in my car. My son’s grade school art projects. And my Mickey Mouse Club membership certificate. Okay, I admit I am a sentimental sort.

If you are making plans to run away from the life you’ve always lived, if you are downsizing or if you are just weary of living with the same old stuff, here are five tips from someone living small and loving it:

1. Don’t leave your past behind

A fresh start does not require erasing who you are and always have been, so do hold on to “touchstones,” those items that hold special meaning for you beyond garden-variety sentiment. On the other hand, don’t mistake any item for the person who gave it to you. Remember, you can give up a knickknack (or 26) and still honor the friend who first presented it to you. Reducing clutter is trending just now; welcome aboard.

(MORE: Declutter Challenge: What Works Best for You?)

2. Keep only the clothes you wear

What a concept! Donate everything in the closet that is too big or that should have fit by now but still doesn’t. Get rid of clothing that is too orange or too long or too 2014. Hanging on to garments purchased by one of your alter egos? If you have dropped the persona, deep-six the fringe or tie-dye or ruffles. Also, nobody needs 12 pairs of black pants or 23 sweatshirts or six pairs of Mary Jane shoes. Tap into this same philosophy when you approach your jewelry box.

3. Assess how much furniture you really need

“Just take your purse,” advised a friend. “You can always buy all new furniture.” Maybe. But I decided to pay to move the couch where I love to slouch, the bed with the storage headboard and my favorite purple chair. Once I settled in, I found whatever else I needed on Craigslist — a tall bookshelf, an area rug and a two-drawer file cabinet. What about dishes? I brought some. But I brutally eliminated much of my vast collection of party platters and pottery bowls, especially those that were filled only during the holidays.

(MORE: When the Kids Leave Home, What's Next?)

4. Splurge on new linens

Towels dry out from frequent washings and sheets grow thin, yet so many of us are reluctant to replace them. What better opportunity to start fresh? Buy new matching sets at a high-end department store or haunt the closeout shelves at discount stores, where you can be more creative in your color choices. We all are old enough to know that nobody really cares what color our guest towels are, right? Donate old towels to local animal shelters or veterinarians’ offices — they will be thrilled.

5. Embrace that less is more

Think of the grateful people who actually need what you are disposing and will now have access to it! Or consider this: After you sift and sort and pitch and purge, your grown children will have less to throw out when you’re gone. The truth is that many of them really don't want what we think they'll look forward to having. And meanwhile, you'll be surrounded with only what brings you joy and what you truly need.

What did I bring to California that I don’t need?

Sea shells. Yes, I carried a small collection of shells from my landlocked home in the Midwest to the edge of the continent. My 725-square-foot apartment easily accommodates the shells because once a month, I take a bag of things I don’t need or use — or love — to Goodwill.

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime journalist and book author, most recently of 100 Things to Do in San Francisco Before You Die, which expresses her great joy in her adopted city.

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