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The Power of Positive Purging Your Stuff

When you declutter for retirement, think of it as rightsizing, not downsizing

By Elizabeth O'Brien and MarketWatch

(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.)

“You can’t take it with you.” More boomers are realizing this phrase applies not just to wealth, but also to possessions accumulated over the decades. And while a monetary gift is sure to please heirs, an overstuffed house presents a more complicated inheritance.

Downsizing is daunting under any circumstances. Yet when done voluntarily, and not under duress due to a financial or medical crisis, moving to a smaller home can offer a chance to lovingly process one’s past while moving toward an exciting new beginning — sometimes with a radically smaller collection of belongings.

Most boomers have expressed a desire to age in place, but some have decided that “place” doesn’t have to be the home where they raised their children. It could be an apartment in a nearby city where they don’t have to shovel snow, climb stairs or drive to get where they need to go. As more boomers become empty nesters and retire, experts expect this trend to accelerate.

To help them lighten their load, a growing cadre of organizing and moving professionals is reframing downsizing from drudgery to a cause for reflection and even celebration. Some are ditching the word “downsizing,” with its potentially negative connotations (think job loss), and embracing “rightsizing,” or getting the space that’s right for the next phase of life, said Katie Davis, business development director at Let’s Move, a move management company in Fulton, Md.

The rightsizing approach emphasizes what people take with them as much as what they leave behind. “You can only bring with you the things you truly treasure, and it isn’t everything,” said Deborah Goldstein, a professional organizer in Brooklyn, N.Y. who has developed a specialty as a senior move manager. (Full disclosure: Goldstein helped me declutter and organize her closets a few years ago.) And some midlifers find that the number of belongings they treasure is surprisingly small.

Ask: Does it ‘Spark Joy?’

One of the most prominent proponents of positive purging is Marie Kondo, the young Japanese author of the international bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” (the 8th-best-selling book on, as of this writing). Kondo helps clients hold what she calls a “tidying festival,” where they unburden themselves of all the objects that don’t give them pleasure. While Kondo’s approach isn’t specifically geared to moving, or to boomers, her method offers concrete tips for those looking to pare down a lifetime of possessions.

Japanese homes tend to be smaller than American homes, and are less likely to have attics and basements. That said, Kondo writes that her method is only intended for those who want to truly declutter, regardless of the size of their living space. In other words, she’s a tidying evangelist for those who have decided to make a change.

Before people begin that task, they should reflect on why they’re moving, and what kind of life they want in their new location, Kondo said in a Skype interview from Tokyo. Maybe a couple is moving to be closer to their grandchildren, or to give up their cars and enjoy urban living. “Moving together is a precious chance,” Kondo said. It offers the opportunity for spouses to work together toward their shared vision of their future.

Kondo offers a specific gauge by which people can decide what to bring with them to their next phase of life: “Does it spark joy?” is the question that should be asked of all items, from clothes to books to electronics and sentimental items. This is altogether a different yardstick than the more common, “Have you used the item in the past year?” which is likely to prompt rationalizations such as, “No, but I will need it again if I ever have a fondue party/lose weight/write that book I’ve been planning since college.”

Sparking joy is a high bar, and one that results in radical decluttering. This isn’t an approach where you tweak a little around the edges, plugging away at one closet at a time. Kondo advocates gathering all items of the same category, such as clothes, from all over your house, putting them together on the floor, and handling them one by one to decide what to keep. Most people are aghast when they see how much they’ve accumulated, and wind up keeping only a fraction of the total.

Sparking joy can be different from evoking happy memories, Kondo said. You can look at a sentimentally freighted item and feel happiness remembering the times when you used it. But that’s often a quiet sensation. When something sparks joy, you feel it viscerally, Kondo said. That’s why, to determine whether an object sparks joy, you have to touch it, not just look at it from a distance.

This can be a difficult process, especially when it comes to mementos, Kondo said. But it’s a necessary step. “To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too,” Kondo wrote in her book. “It’s like resetting your life and settling your accounts so that you can take the next step forward.

Even when you decide that an item no longer sparks joy, it’s often hard to part with it. Kondo advocates an anthropomorphic approach that involves thanking the objects for their service. If you say to your suit jacket, “Thank you for making me look sharp at work; I won’t need you any more now that I’m retired,” it can be easier for you to let it go. To be sure, this approach might come less naturally to a Westerner than to the Japanese, whose culture has a stronger tradition of anthropomorphism, but if you’re stuck it can’t hurt to give it a try.


For her part, Goldstein finds that clients can better part with items after they’ve told stories about them. She recently helped a couple in their early 70s downsize voluntarily within New York City, from the four-bedroom brownstone where they raised their children to a 2-bedroom apartment. She worked side-by-side with them and listened as they talked about all the items they unearthed. Moving out of a longtime home is “an archaeological dig,” Goldstein said, “and it brings up a lot of emotion.

Goldstein gives clients permission to part with family heirlooms that they don’t want to keep. Many people feel duty-bound to hang onto Great-Aunt Ethel’s silver service, even though it’s not their taste and they’ll never use it. Take a picture of it, Goldstein recommends, and then give it away. “It really is OK,” Goldstein said. “Our ancestors want us to be happy.

Set Boundaries with Adult Children

Part of excavating the family home involves dealing with adult children who’ve commandeered the space for their own storage. Kondo wrote that she used to give city-dwellers permission to send items home to their parents in the big country house, until she started working with country-dwellers and saw how the child-clutter piled up all over the place. Now she gives her clients a firm “no” when they ask to send stuff home to their parents.

Goldstein recommends that parents take a picture of all the items that their adult children have in the house, and ask their children if they want to come deal with their stuff, or if it can be donated or trashed. If the kids want to come get it, set a firm deadline and stick to it, Goldstein said.

Never, ever take your children’s stuff — or anything else that you don’t treasure — to your new place, experts agree. You may think it’ll be easier to figure out what fits when you’re actually there, but this isn’t the case. Not only does it make no sense to pay to move items that you’ll just get rid of, but also you won’t have the energy to make tough decisions after the move, when you are surrounded by boxes, experts say.

A detailed floor plan can help you determine what will fit ahead of time, said Barry Izsak, a senior move manager in Austin, Texas, and the past president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, who makes floor plans for his clients.

Undertaken seriously, decluttering often brings profound rewards, proponents say. Kondo has many clients who find the resolve to make serious life changes, such as losing weight or starting their own business, after their purge.

Getting rid of stuff frees up the space, both mentally and physically, to view your future. Said Goldstein, “You’re going to move past the clutter to get to your new purpose.

Elizabeth O'Brien is a retirement healthcare reporter for MarketWatch. Contact her at Elizabeth.O'[email protected]

Elizabeth O'Brien Elizabeth O'Brien is a retirement healthcare reporter for MarketWatch. Contact her at Elizabeth.O'[email protected] Read More
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