The Stages of Eliminating Stuff

One of the pieces I didn't want to part with

 

 

Stuff.

We buy it, we find room for it in our homes, we clean it, pack it, move it, store it and sell it.

For most of us, stuff becomes an obsession until we no longer own it, but it owns us.

When we moved to Our Little House from a 1,100 square foot house packed with stuff, we realized just how little room we needed once we got down to it.

We were accidental in the Small House Movement, finding out through living it how freeing living without our stuff could be.

The problem became what to get rid of, as I not only had our stuff we had accumulated through 21 years of marriage, but we had my mother’s stuff, some of it sentimentally priceless.

Here’s the process by which we eliminated (and continue to eliminate) stuff from our lives:

 

  1. Sales and donations: When we decided to move, we knew we would be downsizing somewhat. We also needed to rid our house of clutter in order to stage it to place it on the real estate market. I went through everything, including the back of closets and kitchen cabinets left virtually untouched since we moved into our house 17 years prior. If I didn’t need it in that length of time, I didn’t need it. We sold what we could and donated the rest. We went through the same process with my mother’s things. What I didn’t want was either sold at a sale at her senior living apartment or was given away. What I couldn’t yet part with was boxed.
  2. Storage: We had two storage units, one for our stuff and one for Mom’s. This is a good route if there are things you don’t think you can yet part with, or that may be valuable and you haven’t decided how to sell. While this option does cost money, it’s best as it gives you time to separate yourself from the sentimentality.
  3. Donations, round 2: I was more ruthless on the second round of donations, giving over 50 more boxes of stuff to the Salvation Army. We had room on our property to move the stuff from our storage units to buildings we had here, saving us money and giving me more time to weed through all of the stuff and let go. A fun fact is that after I made a huge donation to the Salvation Army, I began seeing some of my mother’s things in a retro shop in our small town. The owner had purchased the goods from the charity and was re-selling it once again to people who like retro decorating. It made me feel good that I got a tax deduction for the donation, the charity received its asking price, the business owner kept the circle of business going by reselling the items, and people were purchasing goods that were already made and on the market, which helps the planet!
  4. Letting go of the rest: I think the final stage of downsizing is letting go of the rest. I had long known which items I could not ever part with of my mothers, including an antique dresser, her china, her bean pot, an antique dry sink and a lamp she used for reading by her bedside. I knew I had to make these items function in our small space. I could not keep anything for just “looks,” so I found a way to make them work in Our Little House or in The Belle Writer’s Studio.  The dry sink (in the photo) is a coffee stand in the studio.
  5. Documenting: I’m taking pictures of the rest. While Mom’s huge dining room set was one of her most prized possessions, it was not a very expensive set to begin with, and years of use, moving and storage had taken a toll. Even if I had room for it, the set would need some repair for use again. I’m taking pictures of it and filming it, along with prized art and other antiques I cannot use. The photos and film will allow me to still have the stuff, forever in my memory, without the trouble it takes to maintain or the space needed for storage.

Have you downsized? How did you, or how do you plan on freeing yourself of stuff?

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64 Responses

  1. Kerri,
    We will be finished with the construction of our little 540 sq. ft. cottage in about a month or two. We are moving from a large Victorian. Most of our antiques have been collected over our 38 years of marrage, but some of them are family heirlooms. As has been said, it’s just “stuff”. Nobody can take your memories. I am really tired of maintaining, heating, cooling and caring for space that is used once a year, if that. My wife is tired of taking every day she has off, just do dust rooms that havn’t been touched since the last time she dusted it. We are getting excited to move and sell…this….house! 🙂
    Check out our blog at: http://www.littlehouseonthehill.weebly.com

    Tim and Leslie

  2. Martin Goff says:

    I have antiques from Great Aunts/Grandpartents/parents who worked hard to buy them–they came Ireland with nothing and from what you are working to go to as a life style.I would find it is disrespectful to dump these things-they are more than sentiment–they are family history. With that said-there are so many other things I realize I can and will part with, but not the family history!!

    • Kerri says:

      We all must decide for ourselves what is important to us and what we need to keep, for sure, Martin, and I can see not parting with heirlooms that you may be able to pass down to your children one day. We have to consider this though, although my parents worked hard to buy the antiques my mother had when she died, we do not have room for it, nor do I want to have a great big house to maintain those items (we’re talking a huge pie safe, a very large dining room set that seats 12 people, a matching china hutch, a large spinning wheel…very large items) and I know my parents would also not want those items to be a burden to me. They are, really, just things. My nephews do not want them and we do not have children here in the states to pass them on to. When we are gone, it would be up to our executors to then sell and deal with. But I definitely agree that if you have heirlooms that should remain in your family and family that wants them, you should do everything you can to preserve your family’s legacy.

  3. We have not downsized but I am so wanting to GET RID OF MORE STUFF. I’m reading this at just the right time: my neighbor’s having a yard sale Sat and we’re thinking of piggybacking and hauling some boxes of stuff to her house. I don’t care about getting money for it. It’s just so FREEING to get it out of the house…

    • Kerri says:

      Oh, definitely, you should do it, Jennifer. No matter how small or large your home, it’s always good to eliminate the unnecessary.

  4. Connie says:

    Just read your post….we downsized from a 6 br/3bath Victorian home to a camper! sold everything at a public auction. Almost our entire home was furnished with family heirlooms….heavy oak pieces….and a baby grand piano that was my mother’s 5th birthday present from her parents. Though I didn’t really have a problem letting them go….when the auction was over, for a fleeting moment, I thought “WHAT DID I JUST DO!!”. (none of my relatives wanted any of the furniture.) You have a good suggestion of taking pictures of every piece….I wish I had done that. Of course I do have pics of family gatherings where you can see some of the furniture, but I don’t have individual pictures of each…..oh well….live and learn. This is a great idea for anyone who is downsizing and I would highly recommend cataloging and taking the pictures.
    Onward we go.

    • Kerri says:

      Honestly, Connie, I probably wouldn’t have thought of this had someone here had not suggested the photos. That’s what is so great about our community, the sharing of ideas. Congrats on your downsizing and I hope to see more of you here. 🙂

  5. Merr says:

    I can get very sentimental about items, but find that it is more my memory than my attachment that is in play. I’ve found that taking photos can be very liberating and helpful in my letting-fo process. I was heartened to see that you wrote about photo snapping as well.

  6. Cindyt says:

    WoW Kerri I think you hit a nerve here for a lot of your readers. So many of us are needing to downsize either by choice or because it has been forced by economic reasons. I am entering into my second round of major purging since moving to my little cabin on the Lake. Not only do I have my stuff to go through, I too have my mother’s stuff that when I ‘acquired aka was dumped at my place’ when she had to go into a nursing home. I just haven’t wanted to deal with and is in two little storage buildings on my property plus taking up valuable space in my closets. I have decided to finally tackle it one box a week at a time. So much stuff! and it is such a freeing feeling as yet another box hits the ‘road jack’. Looking forward to having less! 🙂 and more breathing room!

    My tomatoes out on the fishing deck are doing fabulous BTW and my egg plants are getting babies on them! My squash succumbed to something. But my cucumbers and peppers are healthy and producing! Yeah Fresh Veggies are just around the corner. I did so far harvest some Basil,lettuce, cucumbers and about 8 nice bannana peppers! I am excited to have fresh food from my back yard and the two decks from containers! Whoo Hooo! Love Farmer Cindyt

    • Kerri says:

      Good hearing from you, Cindy! Yes, most people have too much stuff and a lot of them are looking for ways to purge that stuff. It’s a never ending battle, I think. They say a good way to hit your goal is to make those small goals. Start with 1 box in a corner and work your way out, etc. So glad to hear all of your veggies are doing good. I like the idea of those plants on your deck. I’ll have an update on mine tomorrow.

  7. I just went through my kiddos rooms today and bagged up too-small clothes to donate. I don’t tend to get too attached to stuff but it’s amazing how quickly it can accumulate on its own if you don’t pay attention carefully. I’m finding we’re getting more and more electronic stuff. How do you keep your electronic stuff to a minimum?

    • Kerri says:

      My mom always went through my closet just before we went school clothes shopping in July or August. As for techie gadgets, I quit buying desktop computers and now only buy the most compact laptops. I also don’t have kids to worry about here, but one e-reader and an iPod is good for me. My husband isn’t a techy so no worries there. Maybe some of our other readers will have ideas.

  8. sarah henry says:

    When you live in small spaces, as you and I both do, that old adage about if something comes in something else has to go out is a smart one to live by. I’m constantly pruning so we have room to move.

  9. Alisa Bowman says:

    I’m not too attached to most things, but one of my biggest problems is not wanting to put stuff in landfills. So if I can’t donate it or find someone to take it, I tend to hold onto it. For instance I have old trophies. Does anyone take things like that?

  10. Sheryl says:

    This came at the appropriate time – just when we’re readying our house to sell it and downsize. I appreciate all your tips. It’s so hard, though, to part with things!!

  11. Wonderful post. I really like the idea of photographing the things you really don’t need and hate to part with.

    I’m also very mindful of “adding” anything more to the too much stuff I have!

  12. Nicki says:

    My husband linked your blog post to me as he figured I’d enjoy reading it. Which I did. I wrote on my blog recently about this as well. It’s true, our stuff becomes an obsession and owns us. I wish more people could experience how freeing it is to finally be back in control of our stuff.

    • Kerri says:

      Thanks, Nicki, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! It not only becomes freeing for us, allowing us to live better, but in the end, as described in the comments below, it also helps our children and those we leave to deal with our stuff after we’re gone.

  13. Liz T. says:

    I had a crash course in sentimentality about 18 months ago when my new husband died, followed by his (single) older sister a few months later. They had very little other family and I was shocked to realize that everything they had (they were in their 50s-60s) immediately became worthless. I had only been with my husband a couple of years and knew nothing about his v]clothes, books, and the boxes and boxes of stuff in the basement. Where did it come from? Is there someone who might want it for sentimental reasons? No clue. Luckily I didn’t have to clean out his sister’s house, but once her nephew and other brother gathered a few things, they had to hire someone to come and take it all away. A few things were auctioned, but most were donated or went to the landfill. Really opened my eyes. I’ve been able to let go of a lot of stuff since then (reforming packrat here) but I still have a long way to go.

    • Kerri says:

      Those incidents really do open our eyes, Liz. When my mother became ill, I can remember crying and telling her, “Don’t make me go through all of this stuff after you’re gone.” She finally let go of some of her stuff, but not a lot of it. The process with her stuff was really more stages than I describe above. We moved her to a senior living apartment and took stuff she didn’t want to part with or she would give to me. I had a sale at her 3 bedroom duplex, we boxed and stored the rest. We had another sale at her senior living apartment and boxed and stored more. We moved most of it down here and have had two rounds so far of donations. I’m working on the last round now, sorting items with value from more donations. It’s been an exhausting, 6-year process.

  14. I so enjoy your thrifty ideas for living the New American Dream–Less is More…My Beloved John and I got really tired of paying all of our money to take care of stuff and a place to house it…so, we bought a 29′ 5th wheel with one slide out, and love it…We live in a sweet RV park in Coburg, Oregon with the back of our “home” to the woods….it is paradise, and if we don’t like it….well,we can just move down the road..By the way, we got our 5th Wheel off Craig’s List used…it is a great little home….and the bonus is..we will never be homeless…

  15. Pam says:

    I ask myself the question “will either of the boys want this when I’m gone?” If no, I get rid of it. Makes it pretty easy, but I have a long way to go! I have a full basement apartment that my Mom lived in until she passed, and I decided to rent it since it would be wasted space. Forced me to get rid of alot, so 1 floor down, 2 to go! My problem is I don’t know the best way to determine the value of things, so indecision takes over and I do nothing! eBay, Craigslist, garage sale, or Salvation Army – aaaack!

    • Kerri says:

      It can be confusing, especially when dealing with antiques. The Internet and eBay have told me what some things I have are worth. Good luck, it’s a long process!

  16. Sheryl M says:

    Great blog! We have now entered the serious part of downsizing – I just got a job working where are retirement property is – and we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, if we can get rid of the stuff.
    So far we’ve not rented storage space, and I’m hoping we can get rid of things without doing that. I’ve taken pictures of furniture we want to get rid of and texted them to friends asking if they want anything. Giving our stuff to friends is a better solution (to me) than giving to Goodwill – at least I’ll see it again someday (maybe). 🙂

    • Kerri says:

      That is great and if you can help a friend all the better! Glad you found us over here at Living Large!

      • Marcia Weber says:

        I remember all too well the process of elimination, when three years ago I sold my large farmhouse and moved into my wooden railroad caboose (337 sq. ft). I, too, started with a storage unit, then when my children started up their first house, I was able to give them a large chunk of the antiques, piano, etc. I also gave away to several friends, and when I visit them, I also visit my belongings. The hardest part for me was what to do with the things my children didn’t want. It was difficult to understand why they didn’t want some things that were so precious to me, but I have come to terms with the fact that in the big picture, it’s the people who matter, not the things.

  17. Jane Boursaw says:

    I always love that philosophy from “Your Money or Your Life,” I think the book is. Stuff is just stuff. And don’t love anything that can’t love you back. I do tend to get owned by my stuff, and it’s time to make a change.

  18. Sian says:

    When downsizing some of the hardest things to part with were books. Here’s how I went about that process. I use the library a great deal, so if I knew I could rent the book from the library, it was donated. This helped me so much! Hope it can help some of you as well.

    • Kerri says:

      Thanks for your post. We have a lot of readers here, so I’m sure your suggestion will help. We’ve talked a lot about ereaders as well.

  19. I love the idea of taking photos of things that are part of your memories but no longer physically fit into your life anymore. Fabulous tip.

    • Kerri says:

      Thanks, Melanie. Someone here in our community actually suggested that one a couple of years back. It’s brilliant!

  20. Maureen says:

    We just moved from 20 yrs in a huge 4000 sq ft house, on almost an acre, to 1250 sq ft… sold much of the big furniture… still have tools, garden stuff, glassware, and soft blankets and stuff…. donated and sold and gave away…. it was hard, but now I think/ why did I have all of that stuff?? I have so much more time now without it…It is difficult but worth it. I did not want to rent a storage and waste more money so I was ruthless in letting go… now at the rental, we want to buy something even smaller…. Thanks for your site.

    • Kerri says:

      Thanks for your comments, Maureen. If people can be ruthless the first time around, it does ultimately save you time and money. But many people have a hard time with getting rid of everything all at once. I give you kudos for being able to do it! Good luck on downsizing even more.

  21. Kerry Dexter says:

    not so much downsizing here (I live in a space about the same size as yours, Kerri) as considering a move after being based in one place for a long time. slightly different in focus, but still considerations of what to keep, what and how to let go, and what’s really necessary to look for in a new place.

    • Kerri says:

      Although we purge on a regular basis, if we were to move again, I know I would find more stuff to eliminate. It is very important thing to do when we move, no matter the size of place we currently have.

  22. Heather L. says:

    What a good post to discover just when I was considering spring cleaning. I like your strategy of going through the “stuff” more than once. I would really like to tackle the garage this year as there’s so much in it that has no useful purpose.

  23. Becky King says:

    we are moving into a 360 sq foot 5th wheel for our retirement journey… after 40 years of marriage and 32 of them in this house.. we are down to four liveable spaces until the final move (with very little furniture)…bathroom, bedroom, livngroom and kitchen all the other rooms are painted and close up…it taken me nearly a year and many g-sales and donation trips.. (never donate to GOODWILL) I love it.. we now know living in a RV for 5 years will be easy peasy for us.. we love that we are only surround by the things we love most and how easy our world has become because we decluttered our lives… we are so HAPPY and CONTENT… and will be more so once we rid ourselves of more stuff.. I enjoyed your story!!

    • Kerri says:

      Thank you, Becky! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I like reading about your downsizing journey as well. Ah, how much stuff can be accumulated over decades. I remember when my mom and dad moved from our tiny bungalow to a larger house after they had been married nearly 35 years. Oh, my. I applaud your efforts.

  24. Sue says:

    The photo books you can make on shutterfly, snapfish, & other sites are great. I am in the process of making some from the kids artwork and schoolwork that I saved through the years. The advice about asking the kids if they want something is good as I have found most of the times they don’t. Their tastes are different and they don’t always have room either.
    It does help to know that someone is enjoying the things we might only store forever so that eases the pain of donating things with memories!
    And I strongly agree that the things you do keep and have all have meaning or purpose. I love to decorate but there is just no place in a tiny house for excessive decor with no meaning. Rule #1 – if you don’t love love love it, don’t let it make it to the first round of downsizing! Take a photo, make a book called Memories or My Favorite Things or Things I Loved and Lost and then send the item out into the world to find a new home!
    Enjoyed your article, as always, Kerri. It helps to have support when a person downsizes. Sort of like a Downsizers Anonymous!

    • Kerri says:

      Great suggestion on the photo books, thanks, Sue! I like the title, “Things I loved and Rehomed” better than using the term “lost.” When I was in a weight loss program once, they told us not to use the term, “lost weight,” because it makes you think you need to find it and get it back. 🙂 I like Downsizers Annonymous, maybe we need a 12-step program!?

  25. Susan Flynn says:

    We just converted our 2-car garage to an office/guest space, so we lost a lot of storage. We rented a Pod for the driveway to store temporarily what had been in the garage until I could go through it and weed it out (my husband was in the military and we had a lot of stuff from our tours overseas etc; some of it had been stored unopened in the garage since we came home from Korea in 2000! Yes, I’m not proud of that.) I also had boxes from when my mom and dad died. It has been hard to let go, but I donate whatever my daughters don’t want, and I feel good that someone will be able to use what I can’t keep anymore. I like it when my daughters take some of my prize items, since I can “go visit” them at their housees.

    • Kerri says:

      I agree, Susan, going to visit your stuff at someone else’s house is better, especially when you don’t have to dust it anymore! 🙂 It’s always hard to let go of some stuff, especially that of our parents.

  26. Steph Auteri says:

    Some things — like my closets — I’m good at purging. In fact, twice a year, I do yet another purge of my closet and send my bags off to the VVA.

    Other things — the things with sentimental value — are tougher to part with.

    Though I am learning more about what I don’t need.

    Two years ago, we put out condo on the marker, and we’ve been trying to sell it ever since. In order to stage our condo, we’ve put A LOT of our stuff in storage. It’s interesting to see what I’ve missed during the past two years (my books, my bread bin, and my food processor) and what I haven’t (pretty much everything else!).

    • Kerri says:

      Storing stuff for staging a house gets you in that purging frame of mind, for sure! It is funny what we truly miss and things we thought we would, we don’t.

  27. Alexandra says:

    I downsized when I moved here from France. I had already left a lot of “stuff” behind when I got a divorce from my French husband, and 20 years earlier, when I left the USA for France. I actually took an armchair from my childhood bedroom to France, then transported it to my new husband’s home in Sweden for safekeeping. Over the years, I have come to feel less attached to it. Moving seems to be the life change that makes us encounter this type of situation. I recommend keeping important personal papers, letters, etc., in a special place. My mom threw out letters from my first boyfriend and mementos he had given me once I no longer lived in her house. They meant something to me. Family photos and personal papers are what cannot be replaced and used to be what people are advised to grab in case of fire. Now that we all have so much saved on computers, I think the computer is what I would save as well if a fire were to break out.

    • Kerri says:

      Thanks, Alexandra, for your comments. YOu bring up several important points. The first being is “out of sight, out of mind,” it’s funny how we think we are attached to something until we no longer can see it everyday and then that attachment grows less. I think that’s why it’s important for people to first store things and they can experience that for themselves. Important papers, yes! I still ahve diaries from my childhood packed somewhere in the storage building here. My mother also kept all of the letters she exchanged with my father while he was in WWII. I hope to do something, though I do not know what, with them. Possibly put them in abook form for my nephews and great nieces and nephews to have and pass down. Things like that can never be replaced, for sure. I agree with the computer, one reason i went to a lap top. In case of a wild fire, it would be much easier to grab and get on the boat than that huge desktop!

  28. Kerri says:

    I know that problem very well, Carol. My mother was a collector of antiques. While none of them are worth a whole lot, they all have a special place in my memories. I chose the things I just could not ever part with and had to let go of the rest. They’re better off with someone who wants them, has room for them and can display and appreciate them as my mother did.

  29. These are good tips. I’m at the point where if I don’t want something I should save it for my daughter who is 20 and will be, at some point, getting her own place. Fortunately my parents have some storage space I can use.

    • Kerri says:

      That’s good you don’t have to rent the storage space, Brette. One thing I would recommend is asking your daughter if she might want something when she moves out. That way, you are not storing it for nothing if she wouldn’t want it.

  30. Carol says:

    Thank you for this article. I’m in the process of downsizing and your tips are great. I’m going through the first purging process, things I really don’t need and should sell or donate. One room at a time so I don’t get overwhelmed. I’m also keeping an eye on things that I will still use in this house, but when we move to our little house, I won’t. It’s a tough process but I’m actually finding I can be brutal about what needs to go. And it’s kinda fun. I have 37 months (who’s counting) until I retire and we move so there may be lots of steps.

    • Kerri says:

      Counting down the months, very fun, Carol! 🙂 At least you’re getting a running start at it. When my mother passed away and we decided to move, it was all very sudden, so I only had 2 months from the time we began the process until we moved as the house sold within a week of being put on the market. I wish I would have started as early as you, that gives you much more time to process what to keep and what to give away.

      • Carol says:

        My biggest problem is that in my little house, there are many sentimental things. My parents built it in 1954. Many of the things there remind me of my mother and may be hard to part with. But I have lots of pictures and there is nothing of great value. So I’m following your advice, pictures help memories, and I don’t need to keep everything!