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Deal With Your Stuff

How to prevent your belongings from one day becoming a burden to others.

By Grace Birnstengel | February 22, 2021 | Fast-Forward
Credit: Next Avenue | John Gilman

I recently played a small role in cleaning out my grandmother’s home after she died.

By “home,” I mean the culmination of 130 years — three generations of my family living on the same corner lot in a St. Paul, Minn. suburb.

So, yes, it was quite an undertaking for us to assess, sort, haul and make decisions about every trinket, framed photo and furnishing.

Anyone who’s been responsible for this type of thing knows the feeling very well: “I never want to saddle my loved ones with this.”

Another possible motivation? Downsizing can actually feel personally gratifying, freeing and liberating.

This guide isn’t meant to tell you to throw away everything to save people trouble. There’s a reason we accumulate. Stuff has great personal value. Stuff gives us meaning. We need stuff.

The goal is to periodically pare down your belongings to what you most care about and what you most need.

Downsize Before You Need To

The prevailing guidance around downsizing is to start early — to do it while you still can.

By not waiting, you’re helping both yourself and whoever might be left with your belongings. You get the benefit of making the choices about stuff, and your friends or family are relieved of making as many decisions for you.

On top of that, the process of downsizing will likely take longer than you expect. Along the way, you might uncover something you forgot about — or thought you lost — and want to spend time reminiscing. This is an important part of the journey, and you might not have time if you’re up against a tight timeline like moving. Thus, starting early!

Setting Your Goals

Before diving in, decide on some goals for this undertaking. Are you aiming to downsize your entire home, or to focus on a specific room or floor? This guide is tailored to work on a whole residence, but any downsizing you have capacity for is truly better than none at all.

Once you’ve nailed down your goal, think: What might be a realistic timeline to accomplish this project? Don’t expect to get it done in one weekend, but perhaps over several weeks to a month or more, depending on your other commitments like work or caregiving.

How will you meet your downsizing deadline? If you can, set aside time each day (or most days) to go through stuff — that could be 15 minutes, a half an hour or even an hour each day — until you’re finished. Remain flexible, as some days you might have more stamina and patience than others, and some days you simply might not have the time.

Where to Start?

Take inventory of every stuff-filled space in your home, including closets, the basement, attic and garage. Make a list you can check off as you go.

What you have in storage counts, too. Just because things are in boxes, doesn’t mean they get a pass. Go through boxes in storage just as you’re assessing everything else in your home.

The best downsizing strategy is to focus on one room or space at a time.

Start with what’s easy. So, not your largest or most-packed room. That’s a recipe for getting quickly overwhelmed and giving up. Instead, kick off the process with a smaller room that doesn’t have a ton of storage — perhaps a bathroom or even a closet.

The Decision-Making System

Once you’ve chosen your first target, choose distinct corners or spaces around you for five categories. If you’re in a high-traffic area, try to keep your piles out of the way. If you’re in a spare room or a space you don’t inhabit so much, this matters less. And grab some sticky notes and a pen or maker. You’re going to need them.

Now, dive in. Evaluate each item in this space through one of five options: keep, donate, throw out, sell or gift. This is your decision-making system. You can adjust it to your own needs. Trying to sell your things is completely optional. Some people find it interesting and enjoyable, but for others, it’s a hassle.

Sorting into these five categories will take time, and as stated earlier, it might be exhausting, emotional or both. Give yourself space and time to feel those things so you don’t get burned out.

Here’s a rundown of what to consider for each category, and what to do once you’ve put the contents of a space into these five groups:

For Keeping

The volume of stuff in this group completely depends on who you are and your tendencies toward stuff.

If you’re someone (or live with someone) who errs toward keeping everything, here are some tips to help:

  • Be realistic with what you need for your current lifestyle. If you had children but they’re all moved out now, do you really need their childhood bedsheets?
  • Donate or sell anything you haven’t used in the last year. This is the expert-recommended time period for something you don’t need. If you haven’t longed for it in 12 months, chances are you won’t in the next 12 months.
  • Don’t keep anything that’s broken or damaged. Generally speaking, don’t donate anything broken or damaged, either.

Sentimental items and memorabilia often top the list of things to keep. But don’t be compelled to keep everything in this category.

Here are some tips for downsizing keepsakes:

  • Ask yourself these questions: Why do I feel the need to keep this? Do I see these items enough that they bring me joy? (If not, don’t keep or display them somewhere.)
  • Group it by category: photos (even better: group the photos by year, event, etc.), collections, documents, notes…
  • Consider choosing one item (or a handful) per collection you have. That could be your favorite shells from a box loaded with them or the rarest baseball cards in your stockpile.

Gather all the sentimental items you’re keeping and try to contain them to one spot or closet in your house. This will make it simple to both locate and access the contents, enjoy them and periodically evaluate again.

For everything else you’re keeping, you’ll likely put those items back where they were — or perhaps there’s a better spot that makes more sense.

For Donating

The rule of thumb for what to donate is to only do this with things you don’t want or have use for, but could still reasonably have utility or value to someone else. Anything you donate should be clean and in good condition, as if you were to give it away to a friend or relative.

Immediately bag or box everything for donation, and make a plan to deliver it or get it picked up ASAP. You could make several trips throughout this process, or keep all things marked “to donate” in a spot in your home until you’re finished with each room. Just don’t forget to make that final step! Having piles of stuff to donate isn’t the same as getting rid of stuff.

There are national chains of stores that take donations like Goodwill or The Salvation Army, but when you can, give to local donation centers in your area. In Minnesota, we have Arc’s Value Village.

Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores can be found around the country and accept donations of furniture and other home goods and many offer pickup, usually at no cost. Call before you make a drop-off. ReStores and others like it have certain items they do and don’t take, as well as protocols for making donations.

For Tossing

There might be a gray area of stuff that isn’t reasonable to donate, but could be of use to someone. For example: Could someone find a dirty, broken plastic plant pot useful for something? Sure, but you shouldn’t donate it.

This is for the trash — or, if you’re feeling motivated — make a sign that says “FREE” and place it outside your home: at the end of the driveway or alley. Experiment with putting a small pile of things there and enjoy seeing what’s getting scooped up. You can post photos to a neighborhood group or the free section of Craigslist to attract “customers.”

Remember, you’re still responsible for these things. Be a good neighbor and pick up anything untaken after a day or so.

Of course, some things just don’t have a second life. That’s your trash category. At the end of every downsizing session, no matter how small, take out that trash! Piles of garbage around your home is a surefire way to feel burdened and distressed.

For Selling

Again, this category is optional.

Your friends and family might not want your stuff, but if you downsize before it’s an emergency, other people might! This is another perk of downsizing early. If you have goods to part with — and no one in your life wants to inherit them — you can try selling. If you’re unsure whether stuff has value, here’s our advice on that front.

To try your hand at selling, make a list of small businesses in your area like antique shops and vintage stores. Businesses like these will often come by your home to buy or take things off your hands. They might first ask for photos or descriptions of what you have.

Increasingly, vintage sellers are moving away from the storefront model and collecting items in their home to sell via the internet. To reach these potential buyers, post an advertisement to Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, saying the kinds of things you have and making yourself available. Include an email or phone number to reach you, or simply ask anyone interested to send you a private message, if you’re using Facebook.

If you’re downsizing to move and want to essentially clear house, here’s how to have a successful estate sale.

Give yourself a timeframe for selling so these items don’t loom over you forever. One could be: If I haven’t sold it within three months, it’s getting donated. Mark that three-month date on your calendar and stick to it.

For Gifting

Next Avenue’s most-read story to date is called “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff” for a reason. It resonates.

So, yes, keep in mind that just because you cherish something, doesn’t mean your loved ones will. Try your best to let go of any expectations of that.

If there are certain heirlooms or other items you plan to pass down, consider doing that sooner rather than later. This will save you space and you get to gift something, which always feels good. As you’re sorting the “for gifting” piles, make subcategories for different people, and schedule a time to give them away or send them in the mail (after getting their approval).

While you’re giving away intentionally, take this opportunity to find out if there are other items you’re ready to part with that might be of interest to those in your life.

Make a list of the people who might be interested in what you don’t want, and let them know you’re in the process of downsizing. You can invite them to look through what you’re getting rid of.

If you have children, grandchildren or other younger people in your life, use this time to tell stories about your things and answer questions. This can be an opportunity to bond and learn more about one another. And that’s downsizing at its very best.

Master Checklist

Major support for this program was provided by:

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Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation logo

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