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Deciding to downsize may be the most rewarding, liberating decision a person can make. Financially speaking, it’s a real coup, saving you money with lower mortgage/rent and utility bills alone. But shedding all the stuff you’ve accumulated over a lifetime won’t come without its share of hard work and tough choices. Here are 19 things you should know before taking the plunge.
1. You’ll be shocked at how much stuff you actually have -- and how much you don’t even use. You never considered yourself a hoarder before, but then you unearthed 10 different measuring cups, six extra blankets and four half-used boxes of dental floss. Sifting through your closets and drawers can yield some shocking surprises, most sobering among them how much money you’ve spent on things that are basically collecting dust. On the plus side, seeing all that unnecessary (and unwanted) stuff is a lesson you won’t soon forget when you move into your smaller space.
2. The whole process will take much longer than you thought -- and it’s mentally, physically and emotionally draining. There’s no fast way to go through everything you own. You may start out in a high-energy sprint, but eventually, you’ll end up in a belly-dragging crawl. Don’t get discouraged. Remember, it took years to accumulate all this stuff, and you’ll need months to unload it.
You’ll also need a plan. Donna David of Donna David & Co., a professional organizing consultant in New York City, suggests writing a big-picture plan to help you visualize the end result and setting a deadline for the whole project. Then, create a to-do list and give each task a deadline. To keep from feeling overwhelmed, select manageable goals and start small. Work in one section of one room at a time to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Still, no matter how much you plan, downsizing will be tough. Physically, you’ll be lugging and dragging bags of castoffs. Emotionally, you’ll quickly realize that one of the most exhausting parts of the process is making a sentimental break with belongings. Before you anguish over tossing out a decades-old prom dress, remember you’re not throwing out the memory, just the stuff.
3. The more you declutter, the easier it becomes. Ease into streamlining as you would a too-cool pool, that is, at a comfortable pace. Start small with one drawer or shelf in the kitchen or bathroom. These rooms are havens for easy-to-toss clutter, and you won’t have any problem figuring out what stays and what goes. Step back and admire your handiwork after finishing each section. The sight of emptied-out drawers and cabinets will keep you going.
4. It’s not always easy to decide what to toss out. Take a tip from Lauri Ward of Redecorate.com and author of Downsize Your House with Style, and ask yourself a few questions: When was the last time I even looked at this? Does this represent a key moment in my life? Is there a more compact way to remember this, like a photograph? Can I repurpose this? That will put items into their proper context. Then divide your stuff into three groups: “keepers,” “give aways,” and “undecideds.” If you’re on the fence about some pieces, box them up and put them out of sight. If, after six months, you don’t miss them, give the box away. (This works especially well for kid’s toys and kitchen gadgets.) This is also a good way to live lean after you downsize. When a closet starts feeling cramped or overfilled drawers won’t close all the way, get out the box. Chances are, it’s time to pare down again.
5. Give your excess stuff away. Whether you donate or recycle, you’ll like how you feel when you give your overload to those in need. That alone could ease the pain of parting with things you love. (Bonus: Philanthropy doesn’t just feel good, it can benefit you come tax time. Just be sure to get a receipt for your donation.) Sites like Salvation Army, Goodwill, and Habitat for Humanity are good places to start. Or check out this state-by-state guide for where to donate and recycle clutter.
6. If all else fails, you can pay someone to help you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can always hire a pro to help. It helps to have an objective person guide you as you part with stuff. Depending on where you live and the square footage of your house, Ward says professional help can run from $200 to $400 per room. Need help finding an expert? David believes it’s best to go on word of mouth recommendations or check out the National Association of Professional Organizers.
7. It may be cheaper to replace some items when you move. Bargain bookshelves fall apart, and exercise equipment will cost you an arm and a leg to relocate. Unless something is top of the line (read: expensive), always compare the cost of moving vs. replacing. Invest in a scanner and watch paper clutter disappear. You know those boxes of documents and photos you think you can’t live without? Scan and save them to your computer, then say goodbye to office clutter and midnight paper digs. Everything you need will be at your fingertips whenever you need them. And stop paper clutter at the mailbox by opting for paperless billing.
8. Consider renting a storage unit. If you’re having a hard time deciding what to keep and what to toss, think about renting a storage unit for a few months and filling it with items you can’t bear to get rid of right now. Look at it like a trial separation from your stuff before divorcing yourself from it totally. This will also buy you a little more time to figure out what will fit into your newly downsized life. It will also put emotional distance between you and your things, something that will help you make decisions based on common sense and not feelings. On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who finds it easy to decide what goes and what stays, a storage unit may be a waste of money and a crutch that postpones inevitable decisions. In the end, do what works for you.
9. Take the sting out of getting rid of sentimental items by giving them to family members. You’ll be surprised at how satisfying it is to see others put your treasures to good use. From jewelry to furs, heirloom furniture to christening gowns, entrust that which you love to those that you love. Photograph the pieces first so you have a record of them; it can be really helpful down the line.
10. One caveat: There will be things you treasure that no one wants. You may have a special place in your heart for your mismatched set of china, but not everyone will feel the love. Try not to take their “no’s” personally. People have their own treasures or have already filled their homes with stuff, just as you did.
11. Your stuff isn’t worth nearly what you think when you go to sell it. Whether you sell your stuff to consignment shops or at a garage sale, brace yourself for low sticker shock. That antique dining set, buffet and china cabinet you think would bring in at least $800 may only fetch $200. Your childhood piano might bring in a measly $75. Toward the end, you will go into a fire sale mentality. Your stuff might go for next to nothing but it’s finally out of your life. And without a doubt, that’s worth every penny you didn’t make.
12. Allow room in your new home for your hobbies and passions. You don’t want to be in such a hurry to live lean that you give up the space you need to do what you love. If you’re a gourmet cook, don’t settle for a tiny kitchen. On the other hand, make sure you’re not paying for space you’ll seldom use. If you don’t ever entertain, rethink the place with the oversized living room.
13. There are unexpected benefits to living small. Clutter-free living is energizing, liberating, efficient and easier to maintain. With fewer weekend chores to do, you’ll feel like you’ve been given an eight-day week. Smaller living spaces also mean smaller rent or mortgage payments and lower utility bills.
14. You’ll find your family reaps the benefits of living with less. If your kids still live at home, you’ll be surprised at how much closer you’ll become in a smaller space. With one TV, you’ll decide together which programs you’ll watch. With one bathroom, you’ll learn to coordinate schedules. And you’ll get to know your kids’ friends better, since you’ll all be sharing the same living room when they come over.
15. Downsize your wardrobe and take the stress out of dressing. You know you’ve got too many clothes if you have to switch to skinny hangers just to squeeze them all in your closet. If something doesn’t fit, is out of style, looks tired and faded, or hasn’t been worn in a year, donate or sell it. Take a hard look at multiples of anything—white blouses, black slacks, jeans. Unless it’s your uniform, you don’t need so many. Once you’ve downsized, you’ll find that a pared-down closet makes getting dressed easier. You’ll know that what’s in your closet fits you, looks great and pairs well with other items. You’ll also get more wear out of your clothes, saving money in the long run.
16. You’ll be a lot more careful and thoughtful when shopping. Now that space is at a premium, you’ll think long and hard before bringing home anything new, but you’ll see that as a good thing. You’ll make wiser choices, and because you don’t need to buy as much, you'll be able to afford higher-quality pieces.
17. You’ll expect more from the things you buy. You’ll find that you only buy things you really love and you’ll look for items that can serve more than one purpose. A pair of beautifully upholstered chairs, for example, can be used in the living room, office and dining area. You’ll be surprised how this mindset saves you money and keeps clutter at bay.
18. The vast majority of downsizers live by the “one item in, one item out” rule. You’ll discover there’s no better way to continue living clutter-free. In the beginning, it will be a challenge. But as time goes on, you’ll find yourself as passionate about maintaining a lean lifestyle as you were about downsizing.
19. You’ll say goodbye to your stuff and never look back. Trust us, you won’t miss what you gave away. Instead, you’ll appreciate more what you have because it’s what you truly need or treasure. Clutter-free living is uncomplicated, calming, energizing and happy.