Surviving a Financial Reversal

I called a friend today to wish her a happy birthday and found her in a funk. She said it wasn’t so much her age that was bothering her (today she reached the big round number that’s exactly halfway between zero and 100), but that she never dreamed that she would be where she is at this point in her life.

You see, like so many of us, she lost her job several years ago. She had weathered unemployment before; it was common in her industry, and she’d always found another job quickly. But that last job she lost turned out to be her last full-time job in her industry; despite applying for work everywhere and networking whenever possible, she hasn’t found a full-time job that pays anywhere near what she used to make. As a result, she’s been through foreclosure and bankruptcy, and has lived in a series of rental houses and townhouses while trying to make enough money from side jobs to stay afloat and keep her two growing children in food and clothing (she’s a single mom).

One of her comments to me was that she never dreamed she would no longer own a house at 50. I understood completely. I turned 50 the year after my husband had to close down his business and we were forced to sell our family home to stay afloat financially. We didn’t know where to go; we just had to find some place cheaper than our hometown. So we moved to a lovely vacation town four hours away, rented a house near the beach, and began to research what we would do next. That’s how I spent my 50th birthday, far from most of our family and friends, living in a rented house with no idea of where we would go next.

One of the things I shared with my friend is that we’re not alone. Many, many people are casualties of the economic disaster of the past ten years. And while some may have asked for trouble by buying houses they couldn’t really afford or spending all their home equity on vacations and clothes, others, like my husband and me, were debt-free but lost our income through no fault of our own.

Just recently I met a woman whose healthcare-related family business was wiped out as a result of the Affordable Care Act. She and her husband had to sell the gorgeous historic country home they had so painstakingly renovated years earlier and move to a tiny ranch in the closest town. Like my friend and me, she knows what it’s like to lose your home and belongings because of financial reversal.

That said, it does no good to wallow in our misery, even when we meet others in a similar situation (misery does love company, you know). After an initial grieving period, it’s important to move on. No, you didn’t expect this to happen, or to be where you are at this point in time. But stuff happens. And of course, it could be worse. If you and your family are healthy, you’re fortunate indeed.

To recover from a big financial reversal that changes your life, you have to look for the silver lining. I was inspired to write my downsizing eBook after realizing all the good that came out of being forced to sell or donate more than half of our belongings in order to fit into the little ranch house we finally ended up in after being forced to sell our family home.

For years I had been mentally overwhelmed by a basement, garage and house filled with the clutter created by a large family and two home businesses, but never found enough time to deal with all that stuff. Our three moves in four years forced us to do so. As a result we now live with far fewer belongings, yet we’re surrounded by our most valued and useful items without being burdened by clutter.

Better yet, we no longer have the specter of financial ruin hanging over our head. Our income may be much smaller than it was ten years ago, but so are our expenses. What a relief to have reached a point where life seems more manageable!

And as we face our senior years (something my friend is surely doing today), we realize that living with less stuff and less expenses is something that will make life easier as we age. As a bonus, we can already spend more time doing things we like to do because we spend so much less time on the care of a big house and yard. If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that time is becoming more precious the older I get.

So my advice for my friend, corny as is sounds, is to make lemonade when life gives you lemons. Instead of lamenting what you once had, or where you thought you would be by now, accept reality and move on. Make the changes you need to make and enjoy the benefits that come with them. Why waste energy thinking about what might have (should have) been when you can be using your energy to enjoy life now? There are good things about your current situation, but you’re going to have to make the effort to find them…..and celebrate them.

Why Procrastinators Should Live in Small Houses

I’m a procrastinator.

I’ve been one all my life. It’s a habit I’ve been unable to break, no matter how hard I try.

On a related note, I’m also guilty of excessive optimism. I see things I want to read or make, and I buy them and set them aside for “someday.” My optimism is seen in my belief that I will ever get to the book or project. Usually, I can’t find time for it, or by the time I do, it’s not as appealing as it was when I bought it however many years before.

When we downsized, I had to wave the white flag and admit defeat by giving up many unread books and unfinished (often unstarted) projects. It was hard to admit that I’d blown it, and in a few cases, it was painful to let go of something I still wanted to read or make. But I’ve forgotten most of what I had to give up at that time, so it’s not that big of a deal.

That said, I’m still an optimistic procrastinator, and I still see things I want to read or make. But I don’t buy most of them, simply because I don’t have the room to store them until I get to them.

You see, when we lived in a big house, there were oodles of parking places for these items I thought I was going to need someday. They sat in those spaces collecting dust until I was finally forced to get rid of them when we had to give up the big house and downsize.

Now we live in a very small house, and there’s not a lot of room to store anything. I still buy things that I plan on reading or making, but not very often because there are few places to put them when I get home. As a matter of fact, I’m getting ready to go through everything again to see what else I can give up. Then I’m going to read or make what’s left (and very soon, because this small house won’t let me hang onto everything like I used to). Now I read something and then give it away, or make something and give it as a gift. Should I decide to keep something I’ve read or made, I’ll have to get rid of something else to make room for it.

That’s why I think small houses are the perfect homes for procrastinators. They force us to use things or lose them.

Collectibles Usually = Clutter

Recently, I was shopping in a thrift store when I happened to see a stack of Norman Rockwell collector plates. I remember seeing them advertised in magazines back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they weren’t cheap. In fact, I think people could pay for them in monthly installments. But now they’re only $3 each at the thrift store.

Then there are Hummel figurines. My elderly relatives think their Hummels are worth hundreds of dollars each, because they paid a lot for them back in the day and they assume that prices have only gone up since then. I don’t have the heart to tell them that most Hummel figurines sell for $15-30 on eBay nowadays.

And of course anyone over 20 remembers what happened with Beanie Babies. They became popular and people bought and sold them for outrageous prices. Now you see them for a buck each at garage sales.

The fact is that once-collectible items often become clutter that’s hard to get rid of, either because you paid so much for them or because you’re aware that they were once valuable and you feel guilty getting rid of them. Neither of these are good reasons for keeping this stuff, especially if it’s getting in your way.

Consider that any items that were once highly sought after are probably not worth as much now because there are so many of them in existence: their popularity doomed them to eventually become commonplace, just because of the sheer quantity of them that were created.

Nevertheless, it’s still hard to get rid of such things.

The key, I think, is to make a strict rule to only keep items that you truly love. They may have once been collectible, or they may be something no one else wants. But if you dearly love them, they can stay. And if you don’t love them, they need to go. You must be picky, picky, picky, if you want to live in a clean, uncluttered and lovely environment. It’s the only way.

What to Do with Your Late Loved One’s Clothes

There’s a chapter in my new book, The Sentimental Person’s Guide to Decluttering, about what to do with the belongings of someone you loved and lost. It’s a highly emotional subject, especially when your loss is still fresh.

I used to work as a grief support volunteer, and I learned so much from the people I worked with. One woman was a new widow and a mother of seven. She cut up her husband’s shirts into patches, which she turned into quilts for each of her children. I included her story in my book because it’s so inspiring. This woman found comfort while creating comfort for her children.

It’s funny how boxes of a late loved one’s clothes can become an insurmountable fortress for some people, but for others they can turn into vehicles for dealing with grief. If you have boxes of clothes from a late loved one that you haven’t been able to deal with, consider turning them into memory quilts. Hire someone to do it for you if you don’t sew; otherwise, be inspired by this great example and this tutorial. The best mementos are those that are used and seen daily, not packed away under the stairs.