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Four decluttering tips from successful downsizers

Tiny house

This isn't my in-laws' retirement house, but wouldn't it be cool if it were? Photo credit: Flickr/Nicolas Bullosa

I recently quipped on Twitter that I’m simplifying the decluttering process by answering the following question:

Would I take this to our retirement studio in SoHo?

We don’t have a retirement studio in SoHo. Retirement isn’t even on the horizon (our youngest is in 3rd grade). But we do have fantasies about a really empty nest. We dream about a highly mobile, low-overhead life in which we visit the kids wherever they are rather than wait for them to come home once or twice a year.

Such a life works better with less stuff. This fact was recently illustrated for me in a very real way, because my parents-in-law just moved to a retirement community.

My mother in-law has always kept an immaculate home. Nothing is ever out of place, and anything that outlives its usefulness is on the next bullet train to Goodwill. Early in my marriage I used to marvel at the “perfectly good stuff” she’d get rid of, and it was all I could do to shove it in my trunk and take it home. I come from a family of thrifty re-users; our closets were full of dry cleaner hangers (why buy them?), and no sturdy cardboard box ever darkened a recycling bin. All well and good, but the result was a lot of clutter. My mother in-law’s garage is neater than my office.

When my in-laws made the decision to move from their small, two-bedroom suburban home to a tidy-but-tiny rental in an active senior community, they had to reduce their possessions by about half. Already a ruthless declutterer, there was no low-hanging fruit. She’d gotten rid of the old papers and the outdated furniture long ago. Every item in her house was thoughtfully curated and serving a specific functional or aesthetic purpose.

That was her starting point, and still she and my father in-law still managed to pull it off…without a storage unit. It wasn’t easy — they had years’ worth of memories associated with their stuff, not to mention reduced physical stamina with which to move and pack it all — but they did it. They sold, donated, passed down, recycled, and dumped their way to their goal. They’re now moved into their new home, which looks as spic-and-span and beautiful as ever. You’d never know they hadn’t been living there for years. It’s quite remarkable.

Here’s what I learned by watching my in-laws go through the process:

Decluttering is easier when you’ve already de-junked. A no-brainer, but seeing it happen really brought this home. When decluttering begins with shredding a bunch of old documents and clearing out closets stuffed with outgrown clothes, the process drags on for much longer than it needs to. I now view mundane clutter-creep with new eyes, and am more motivated to deal with it.

Your memories and your stuff are separate. My in-laws passed us their massive set of Waterford crystal. This collection, which they received, piece-by-piece, from their wedding registry over forty years ago, contains everything from tiny cordial glasses to heavy goblets. They’ve hosted many a dinner party and family holiday with those glasses. And when the time came to let them go, there was a moment of wistfulness. But just a moment. Passing the crystal to us gave my in-laws comfort, but had we not had a place for it, they would have sold or donated it just as quickly.

Keep (and buy) only things you truly love. My in-laws don’t have room for much in their new home. So they kept only the best and most meaningful stuff. Every coffee mug, every picture on the wall — everything comes with a good story.

Both outflow and inflow can be managed in small bits. My in-laws had to downsize in a matter of months. But if your retirement (or cross-country move, or whatever) isn’t imminent, you can do the entire job in little bits of time.

Part of what makes decluttering so hard for me is the mistaken idea that I need to set aside a chunk of time to empty an entire room. The whole idea fills me with dread. It’s fine — better even — to declutter a single drawer or shelf one or more times per week. You’ll be able to distinguish between the stuff that can be used elsewhere in your house and the stuff that needs to go. (Part of the fun is finding stuff you thought you lost long ago.)

Also, it’s easier and less overwhelming to take two or three bags to Goodwill on your way to the grocery store rather than an entire car-full of stuff.

* * *

None of this is new information, but somehow seeing it through the downsizing lens made it relevant in a way my “how to declutter” reading hasn’t. Plus, it’s more fun to declutter my pantry when I swap the usual feelings of shame (how did I let this get this way?) for visions of my future as a hip, cultured New Yorker.

You never know.


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Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less

More on The Accidental Expert:
♦ What will you limit to make room for something awesome?
♦ Being organized during the holidays and beyond

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