What to Do About Your Parents’ Stuff

Many people in their 40s, 50s and 60s must add to their busy lives the job of going through their parents’ belongings. Whether their folks are moving to a nursing home or assisted living, or they have passed away, it’s their adult children who have to deal with what can sometimes be an enormous amount of furniture, household items, clothes and clutter. It can be overwhelming.

If you find yourself in this situation, and you believe the old adage that “Misery loves company,” check out this article and the follow-up piece to it and learn what others are doing to tackle this huge and emotional task. You might also want to read my book, How to Clean Out Your Parent’s House (Without Filling Up Your Own).

Downsizing for Flexibility

As I said in my last post, for years I’ve kept a record of how much money we spend each month and each year. It includes categories, which is very helpful because you can see which categories are becoming too large and eating up too much of your money.

In our case, it was obvious which category was becoming too large, and its growth was beyond our control: housing.

The irony here is that we had paid off our house several years earlier. But the property taxes had been going up from 5-10% annually, and were approaching $600 a month. My husband’s business was declining, so the bulk of our income was shrinking. Once he had to close the business, how would we pay nearly $7000 a year in taxes? (Since he’d worked in that industry for over 30 years, he wasn’t trained to do a different high-paying job; $10 an hour at Home Depot was not going to be enough to cover our expenses.)

We didn’t want to risk losing our paid-off house because we couldn’t pay the property tax, so the issue of downsizing finally became very real for him as well as me. We had to find a cheaper place to live; once we did so, we could figure out the income side of the equation.

Downsizing wasn’t an easy decision, even though it was an obvious one. It meant moving away from nearby family and friends because we had to go some distance to find housing that we could afford in an area that we knew and liked. But doing so gave us a lot of flexibility in terms of figuring out what to do next.

If you’re in this position, or suspect that you are, you’ll need to crunch numbers even though you already know you need cheaper housing. Find out just how much money you spend each month vs. how much you earn; then you can determine the number that qualifies as an affordable housing cost for you.

It’s possible that you can find more affordable housing nearby. If housing costs aren’t exceptionally high where you are, you may be able to go from a big house to a smaller one, or from a house to a townhouse or condo.

Another option is renting. That’s what we did, and I must say we enjoyed the break from homeownership. Renting is also a great way to buy time while figuring out your next step.

Whether you buy a more affordable home or rent one, trying to put yourself in the black (or stay there) is always a good thing. Earning less than you spend is the only way to find financial peace; it’s worth whatever changes you have to make to your lifestyle.

Making those changes is where flexibility comes in. Releasing yourself from high costs gives you the flexibility to move anywhere, work anywhere, live anywhere. As you consider the possibilities, you realize that downsizing isn’t just about finding a cheaper place to live. It’s about changing the path that you’ve been on for years to do something different. I share stories in my book about people who have been able to pursue their dreams once they realized they had to downsize their lives.

So many people find themselves trapped in order to maintain their lifestyle. By downsizing, you’re no longer tied to one way of living. Even if your housing costs aren’t climbing like ours were, or if they are but you can afford them, downsizing might let you switch to a career you like better that pays less, or move to an area where loved ones await.

The flexibility that lets you consider such possibilities is a wonderful by-product of downsizing.

Next: Freedom

Downsizing for Financial Peace

Freedom…Flexibility…Financial Peace

Though I put those reasons for downsizing in the title of my book, they didn’t occur in my life in that order.

The freedom part had been an ongoing issue. With a big family in a big house, and despite organizing and donating things to charity over the years, there was still a ton of clutter in our house, and I never seemed to find time to deal with it. But it weighed on my mind daily, and I sometimes dreamed of waking up to find most of it gone.

The flexibility part did not come into play until much later, and it was actually the financial peace part that caused the entire downsizing episode.

I knew we would have to downsize a few years before we actually did so. I told my family about it, but they either didn’t believe me or didn’t want to believe me. But I knew.

How did I know? And how can you know if you’ll need to downsize in the near future?

It’s all about the bottom line. You have to know how much you spend, how much you earn, which number is larger, and which way the trend is going. It’s really that simple. But it takes effort to figure out the first part, how much you spend. Not a lot of effort, but regular effort.

For many years, I’ve kept track of what we spend in a notebook. (Younger people not so set in their ways might want an app for this, or even just an Excel file.) I round off amounts to the dollar, and categorize as I go along. I use one sheet of paper for each month, and I write down our expenditures under the following categories:

  • Utilities
  • Property Tax
  • House Insurance
  • House/Yard Costs
  • Health Insurance
  • Dr./Dental/Medical
  • Church/Charity
  • Food
  • Entertainment/Out to Eat
  • Car Insurance
  • Car Gas
  • Car Expenses/Repairs
  • Disability Insurance
  • Life Insurance
  • Books/Newspapers
  • Gifts/Cards
  • Cell Phone
  • Miscellaneous

At the end of each month, I add up the numbers to get a grand total of what we spent that month. And at the end of each year, I add up the monthly numbers to see not only what we spent in each category that year, but how much we spent for the entire year.

You can imagine how much my husband enjoys hearing how much we spent, given that he prefers not to think about how much anything costs him.

But I’ve always felt that it must be done, and by doing so year after year, I had a good idea of where we were at financially, and where we were headed. By the year 2004, I could see that despite our debt-free status, we had begun spending more money than we earned (the difference was coming out of savings). To make matters worse, our annual income was declining, because my husband’s industry was moving to China.

For me, it was like being on a hill overlooking a one-lane road, watching a car coming from the north and a car coming from the south heading at top speed toward each other; you just knew what would happen very soon.

As I said, my insistence that we were going to have to downsize did not make me popular. But it gave us time to talk and strategize about what we might have to do. As time went on and the numbers showed more clearly that we were spending more than we were earning, even my husband came to see that something would have to be done. To live in denial would only make things worse.

Besides, we had experienced many years of earning more than we spent and saving the difference. That’s where we found financial peace. And we wanted to get back to that place.

Next: Flexibility.

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.