Your Most Precious Treasures

We’re getting close to Christmas, when almost everyone’s clutter load increases due to gifts given to them, and gifts they gave to themselves while they were out shopping for others. On Black Friday, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the people I know who go out that day for bargain prices on gifts come home with many things for themselves. I had to wonder how much of that stuff they really even needed.

Some people will use or wear their gifts (to themselves or from others) for a while, but many will just add them to their already overwhelmingly large group of belongings. It seems as though the people who tend to collect things are the ones who keep the most gifts, even if they don’t use them.

For those who do this, decluttering is too overwhelming to contemplate. Whenever they’ve tried, they’ve given up fairly soon in the process. Seeing how much stuff they have tucked away in closets, the attic, the basement, the garage and maybe even in storage units is just too much to think about. As for the poor souls who have so much clutter that it has spilled out all over their homes, forcing them to create paths through the piles of stuff, well, overwhelming may not be a strong enough word.

I know someone like this. When they had a cat, they would often lose it….in the house. That’s just plain scary! I would love to help this person declutter, but they would never accept my help. So I’m putting a tip out here for those of you whose homes have almost reached hoarder status, as well as for that person, should they ever stumble onto my blog.

If you really want to declutter your home, but you don’t know where to start, you need to make a list. But you can’t do it at home. You must do it away from home: at a coffee shop, in your car while parked at a scenic spot, or on the train as you commute to work. Pick a spot where you can write uninterrupted, and bring a pen and paper, your tablet, your phone, whatever you like to take notes with.

Once you’re alone, situated, and ready to write or type, make a list of your most treasured possessions:

  • Think of the things you would hope to have time to remove from your house in case of fire.
  • Think of things you use all the time, things that you would be lost without.
  • Think of things you treasure because someone you love gave them to you.

Spend 15 minutes at most working on this list, and then stop.

Almost certainly, you will come up with more things after you stop writing or typing. Don’t add them to the list. Keep the list as it was when you stopped.

When you get home, look around your house. Do you see all of the treasured possessions that you put on your list, or are some tucked away where you can’t see them? What about the things that popped into your head after you stopped making the list? Can you see them? Or are they also buried somewhere in your house?

Perhaps you’re seeing things in your house that you completely forgot when you made the list and even afterwards. No, you can’t add them to the list, but I’ll bet you wish you could. You see, your love of so many things is how you got into this mess in the first place. When you see your things, you can always think of reasons to keep them. Either you love them, or they were useful to you in the past, or you think you’ll need them in the future, or perhaps you’re saving them for someone you care about who might need them someday.

You’re attached to too many things, and that’s why you live with clutter. If it didn’t bother you, you wouldn’t have a desire to declutter your home. But it does bother you. You just don’t know how to make yourself let all these things go.

There are strategies for decluttering when you’re attached to so much stuff. I’ve explained many of them in my book, The Sentimental Person’s Guide to Decluttering.* I lived this reality when we downsized our lives and had to move from a huge house to a little one. There was no room for most of our belongings so we had to let…them…go.

As painful as it was, it was also incredibly freeing to give up so much stuff. At times, I still have to squelch the impulse to keep everything, but I remind myself how good it feels to live without clutter. Then I fill my car’s trunk with things we don’t need anymore and head over to the drive-up at Goodwill before I can change my mind. I usually forget what I donated fairly quickly.

Next time, I’ll tell you what to do with that list you made.

*Print version coming soon!

Decluttering, Denial and Retirement

(The third of three posts on Decluttering and Denial.)

We were pushing 50 when we were forced into downsizing our lives. Our kids were going out on their own, and while we still had a few years before the younger ones left home, it was clear that we no longer needed our 5-bedroom house. Empty nests don’t need to be that big.

So we discovered the freedom of living small, and we love it. But the act of giving up so many belongings, and moving to a much smaller house (so long, two-story foyer and giant master suite) made perfect sense for a couple heading toward retirement age. That said, accepting that we were that couple was kind of hard. I much preferred to think of the whole exercise as a prudent financial move than something that was appropriate for people our age.

The fact is that most people our age don’t have unlimited funds. Buying ever bigger houses and nicer furniture, and redecorating every few years, is fine for millionaires, but for us normal people, well, we don’t have that kind of money. For those of us who lost livelihoods in the lousy economy of the 2000s, it’s imperative that we live carefully, even frugally, because we don’t have a big, fat retirement account or pension awaiting us. We put everything into our businesses and our families, and now that those are gone, we need to look out for ourselves.

But those who are in denial about the fact that they’re nearing retirement age, and live like they’re still young and amassing houses and possessions, are putting themselves in danger.  It used to be common sense that you paid off your mortgage before retirement so that no matter what happened, you’d always have a roof over your head. Now people are retiring with mortgages, multiple car loans and several credit card accounts nearing their limits. Retiring on a fixed income with that kind of debt load is a recipe for disaster.

Denying what I see in the mirror, that I am getting closer to retirement age, would be an exercise in futility. Time marches on. Those of us who can admit that and make the tough decisions that will minimize future pain (including decluttering and downsizing as well as paying off debt) are doing ourselves a big favor. Those who remain in denial had better have ample retirement funds.

Decluttering, Denial and Aging

(The second of three posts on Decluttering and Denial.)

As you get older, you don’t need so many belongings to survive, or even just to keep yourself entertained (whether you’re entertained by hobbies, redecorating or recreation.) We learned that when we were forced to downsize our lives several years ago. However, I can’t help but notice that many friends and relatives near our age (or older) continue to live in large houses packed full of stuff. I remember how stifling our clutter burden was before we were finally forced to go through it. I can’t imagine how these people my age live with the burden of all their stuff, most of it packed away where they can’t see it, while the mental weight of knowing it will all have to be dealt with someday weighs on their minds.

The most interesting situations are those of people quite a bit older than me. We know some people who actually bought bigger houses in their old age. Now they struggle to take care of those homes, but won’t give them up. Forced to hire cleaning people, they no longer live with dirt, but the burden of all their possessions continues to haunt them. They’ll complain about it, but they won’t do anything about it. If you offer to help them go through it all, they’ll say no (at least, that’s been my experience.)

I suspect they are in denial about the fact that they are in the final years of their lives. Going through possessions, giving meaningful items to loved ones, giving up items that once meant something but now collect dust….such activities are a little too much for them to think about, because they’ll be forced to confront their own mortality.

Most of us don’t like thinking about dying. But to stick your head in the sand and ignore the burden you’ll leave behind, whether you can handle the idea of dying or not, is unfair to the people you’ll leave behind. They’ll have to go through all of your belongings. In many families, this activity brings out the worst in people, because greed seems to rear its ugly head when there’s an estate to be divided.

The people who accept that they won’t live forever, and who downsize willingly while in their 50s, 60s or later, should be praised by their loved ones for not leaving them a mess to go through someday. When you whittle down your belongings to just what you need, downsize your living space to just what you need, and live simply, you make your life easier, and the lives of your future heirs inestimably easier. That is to be applauded in this world of overstuffed attics, basements, garages and storage units!

Decluttering, Denial, and Grief

(The first of three posts on Decluttering and Denial.)

I was in 7th grade when my gym teacher’s young daughter died of leukemia. Everyone in my community felt so sorry for him and his family. After a few years, a rumor got around that he had not allowed his daughter’s bedroom to be changed in any way since her death. To us kids, that was spooky.

Now, as an adult, I get it. Most grieving people need a certain amount of time (which varies greatly depending on the person) before they can give up their late loved one’s belongings. Most people can do it within a few months (sometimes they’re forced to by circumstances), but then there are people like Edna and Henry, who I wrote about in Downsizing Your Life for Freedom, Flexibility and Financial Peace. They lost their mothers in the same year and brought many of their belongings into their own home. Those belongings still fill every nook and cranny of their home, thirty years later.

Denial is actually a stage of grief. It takes a while to accept that someone is gone. One way our minds cope with the fact is to deny it. Denial is a temporary stage. But keeping all of our loved one’s belongings helps prolong the denial and assuage the grief, for a while.

After the initial shock of the loss is past, some people are able to move on by going through their loved one’s belongings, keeping the most precious items, and sending the rest to places where they’ll be appreciated (a concept I emphasize in both How to Clean Out Your Parent’s House (Without Filling Up Your Own) and The Sentimental Person’s Guide to Decluttering.) This is only possible when you reach the point where you truly understand that keeping all of a late loved one’s belongings cannot erase the pain of losing them.

Sharing those items with others helps a grieving person heal. Making someone’s clothes into quilts, pillows or stuffed animals is one way of sharing a tangible memory of a late loved one with others, and helps both the giver and the recipient to heal from the grief.

Sometimes keeping a late loved one’s belongings lets you avoid making a decision about your future. Someone might have a dream of retiring to a condo near a beach someday, but they say they can’t, because what would they do with all of the heirloom furniture left to them by their parents years ago? When you allow inanimate objects to dictate where you can live, consider if you aren’t using them as an excuse to keep you from making a decision that you’re afraid to make.