An Indispensable Decluttering Tool

Some people find decluttering to be easy, but I’m not one of them. For me, decluttering is a challenging process that requires me to be in a certain frame of mind. It also requires the use of my car.

Yes, my car. You see, once I make the decision to get rid of something I’m not using anymore, I need to put it where I can’t see it, and get it out of the house as soon as possible.

It doesn’t matter what the item is. Even though I’m not using it anymore (or maybe it’s a gift I never used at all), if I keep seeing it, I’ll start thinking that I might use it someday, or that one of my kids (all adults living on their own) might want it, and then I’ll want to keep the item. This is not a good thing.

So when I declutter (as I’m about to do shortly to my basement), I take whatever I’m not using anymore and I put it in a box. I keep doing this until the box is full, and then I put the box in the trunk of my car, which is usually parked in my garage. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

And at some point, I’ll either finish decluttering or I’ll fill the trunk, and then it will be time to drive over to the local Goodwill or another thrift store that lets me drive up and drop off donations straight from my car. Before I know it, my trunk is empty and I can be on my way.

Some people might think this sounds silly, but for me, removing the items once I make the decision to give them up is very important, because I know me, and I can’t be trusted not to change my mind. (But once the items are gone, I very seldom regret giving them up!)


Denial and a Parent’s Estate

George died after a good, long life, leaving behind two daughters and a houseful of belongings that he had always intended to sort through, but never did.

Alice, the elder daughter, lives over 900 miles away. Amy, the younger daughter, lives nearby with her husband and children. After the funeral, the sisters put their dad’s house on the market and vowed to get together again soon to go through the house and divide all of their dad’s possessions.

Alice’s children were grown and gone, and she had enough personal time accrued at work that she could easily take a couple of weeks off to drive back with a rental truck and collect her share of their dad’s things. But she couldn’t get Amy to commit to a time to tackle this challenge together. Amy’s family kept her very busy, and she was also having a hard time thinking about dividing the estate. She said she was really missing her dad, so Alice backed off for a few weeks.

The realtor reported that there were few people looking at the house, so it seemed like the sisters still had plenty of time to divide their dad’s belongings. Every few weeks, Alice would ask Amy if she was ready yet, and Amy would ask for more time.

When spring came, Alice began seeing open house signs in her neighborhood, and realized that people were looking at houses again. She began pushing Amy a little harder, but Amy never seemed to have any time to go through their dad’s house.

Then one day Amy called Alice in a panic.

“There’s an offer on the house! A good one. What are we gonna do?”

Alice sighed, and then collected her patience before responding.

“Amy, I was afraid this would happen. We should have gone through everything months ago. But we should still have a good 60 days before the house has to be empty.”

Amy began to cry.

“It’s a cash buyer. He wants the house in a month.”

Alice had enough experience with realtors to know that she and Amy would have to go through with the sale on whatever terms they could work out with the buyer. So they requested eight weeks until possession, but the buyer responded that his apartment lease was almost up so he had to have the house within a month.

The realtor urged them to accept the offer and the time frame, adding that houses of that size and vintage had not been selling very well, and that they were very lucky. So the sisters gave in: Alice arranged to take a few weeks off of work, and she arrived at the house with a rental truck barely a week later.

A look around the house made Alice’s mood plummet. How were they going to go through everything and have it all distributed in three weeks?

But that wasn’t the worst part. When Amy arrived, she burst into tears again, saying, “I’m not ready to do this! I can’t! Daddy just died, for God’s sake!”

Alice resisted the urge to go into big sister mode and start scolding. Instead, she put an arm around her younger sister.

“We’ve gotta do this, Ame. We have no choice.”

In the end, Amy took most of the furniture and almost none of the personal belongings, paperwork, books or antiques. Alice was left with the bulk of the work of going through everything that remained, because Amy was too upset to continue.

None of Amy or Alice’s children wanted any of the knick-knacks, antiques or dishes. After a week passed by, leaving the house looking worse than ever, Alice had Amy’s teenage kids come over to help her lug everything into the truck. Then she drove it back home, where she had no space for any of it. So she and her husband Ted rented a storage unit and filled it with the considerable remainder of her late father’s belongings.

And there it sits, because Alice doesn’t know what to do with it all. She put a few special items in her china cabinet, and keeps her dad’s favorite rocking chair, which Amy didn’t take, in her den. But lurking in the storage unit are boxes and boxes of china, glassware, antiques, framed art, and books that are a considerable weight on Alice’s mind. And they will soon become covered in mold and mildew, given the climate where Alice lives, unless she does something about it, soon.

What could these sisters have done to make the process easier? There’s no way to hurry the grieving process, so Amy’s reluctance to go through her father’s things had to be worked around. But there are other actions they could have taken:

  • Don’t put the house on the market immediately unless there’s a good reason (such as a reverse mortgage).
  • Set a time to begin going through the estate, and stick to it, instead of waiting to do so until you’re forced to, with a deadline looming.
  • Hire an estate agent to go through the items you know you don’t want to keep. They can either hold an estate sale in the house, or take your items to another sale they’re hosting; you’ll still get a percentage of the sales.
  • If you live some distance from your late parent’s home, try to make a trip back soon after the funeral (if not while you’re in town for the funeral) to go through personal paperwork and gauge the size of the estate that will need to be gone through, sooner rather than later.

No one wants to think about what will happen after their parents pass. But knowing what to do with their belongings will make things easier in the long run. Learn more tactics for handling your parents’ belongings in my book, How to Clean Out Your Parent’s House (Without Filling Up Your Own).


The Desire to Acquire

The desire to acquire starts when we’re young. We’re setting up our first apartment, or our first house. We want to put our stamp on it and make it feel like home, so we shop for just the right pieces and decorative items. It doesn’t matter how much or little money we have; whether we’re going wild at a pricey shop or at a thrift store, we regularly buy lots of goodies for our new digs to make it feel like home.

Over the years, we tweak and sometimes redo our environment, which means acquiring more things. Add to this our continual need for clothes, linens, kitchenware and entertainment options, and we’re amassing quite a lot of things.

Should we decide to have children, we’ll find that our desire to acquire increases exponentially, because there are just so many cute little toys, duds and pieces of furniture crying out for a place in our home. And of course, as our kids grow up, their needs change, and we bring into our home anything else they (or we) think they need.

By the time we reach middle age, most of us are afloat in stuff, thanks to that desire to acquire. I said “most of us” because some people are very good at keeping a minimum of stuff in their homes. But they are few and far between. Meanwhile, the rest of us have overflowing basements, attics, garages, and sometimes even rented storage units.

But there is good news. As we age, the desire to acquire begins to subside. It takes a lot more to impress us, and there’s not much out there that we really want anymore. We find that a small quantity of chosen beloved items can make us quite comfortable, especially after we’ve jettisoned the bulk of the belongings that we acquired over the years.

So if you’re awash in stuff, so much that it’s keeping you tied to a house that’s larger than you need, take heart. Once you decide to free yourself of the burden of stuff, you may find that the desire to acquire is just a little impulse you feel occasionally. In its place roars the desire for freedom from clutter, which is all the motivation you need to lift the burden of stuff from your shoulders.


Is Downsizing the American Dream a Bad Thing?

An article posted at laments the findings of interviews and surveys that show that an increasing number of Americans, particularly young Americans, are more concerned with hanging on to what they have than moving up in the world, and are also more interested in becoming debt-free.

Clearly this is a reflection of the stagnating economy that we’ve been dealing with for many years now. Young people in particular are overloaded with debt, especially student loan debt, which keeps them tethered to whatever job they might have and limits their ability to buy a car or house.

One thing missing from the article, however, is that many of these young people saw their parents overloaded with stuff, and the debt that comes from buying more stuff than you can afford. They grew up watching their parents buy houses with three-car garages when they only had two cars, just so there was more room to store their stuff. They watched them clean around all their stuff and lose spare rooms to all their stuff. And of course in extreme cases they saw them hoarding stuff.

The real theme I see in this article is that people want freedom. They want to be free of debt, and they don’t want to become loaded down with stuff they have to pay for, for years to come.

They also want affordable housing, but not necessarily impressive housing. Note the survey reference to owning a nice home. In recent years, “nice” meant “bigger and more impressive than your friends’ homes.” Given the survey and interview responses, perhaps “nice” can go back to meaning “affordable and comfortable.”

The sad tone of the article could use a little optimism. The fact is that downsizing your lifestyle can be freeing. Moving to a smaller place means you spend less time caring for your home and more time doing things you’d rather be doing. Moving to a more affordable place means improving your financial bottom line, and maybe even helping you become debt-free.

Yes, it can be painful to go through a downsizing of the American Dream. It sure hurt when my family was forced to go through it. But it only hurts for a little while because the freedom you gain is so worth it. Eleven years on from our involuntary downsizing, we are thriving, and enjoying debt-free life in a small, nice home.