“I Hope My Kids Don’t Do This to Me!”

The estate sale I went to last week was a packed one; it was like a museum of my childhood, complete with thermal coffee mugs with woven-straw sides, and a large wood stereo system on tall legs just like you would have found in most of the houses in the neighborhoods of my childhood, back in the 1960s.

But what was most memorable about this sale was that on two separate occasions I heard women say, “I hope my kids don’t do this to me!” as they looked at the displays of two elderly folks’ personal possessions.

My goodness, do they think their kids will keep their houses (and contents) intact after they go to a nursing home, or after they die? Something will have to be done with their things, and it’s extremely likely that their kids will do this to them; what other choice will they have? Do they expect them to keep all of it? We’re talking about a houseful of stuff: tables covered in bric-a-brac, knick-knacks, plates, glasses, linens, tools, you name it.

I wanted to tell these women that there is only one way to be sure your kids don’t do this to you, and that’s to go through it yourself while you’re still alive and kicking. Make the tough decisions now so your kids will never have to put all of your things on display for strangers to pick through someday.

As the late philanthropist Percy Ross used to say, “He who gives while he lives knows where it goes.” Keep only your most favorite and necessary possessions, give the next best items to people you love, and sell or donate the rest. You’ll relieve your kids of a huge burden someday, and you’ll never have to spin in your grave because your home is the site of an estate sale.

(Learn how to give up anything you’re sentimental about in The Sentimental Person’s Guide to Decluttering.)

 

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).

Tiny House Living in Retirement

I recently discovered a new book about tiny houses that’s packed with photos and interesting information from people who live in tiny houses; some of them even built their own tiny houses.

Now, while I don’t think a tiny house is for me (we use our basement almost every day for our work and our hobbies), I can see how well the concept works for some people. In the new book Tiny House Living: Ideas for Building & Living Well in Less than 400 Square Feet, author Ryan Mitchell shares the stories of a variety of tiny house residents.

My favorite is that of Kathy, a retiree whose son began building her a tiny house without her knowledge (“He knew if he told her ahead of time it would be a much harder sell, so he waited until it was almost done to show her.”) Kathy now lives in the tiny house with her husband, and has found that the tiny house has made some big positive changes in her life:

She can do all that she needs to do in her home, without a mortgage and with very low bills. Her power bill tops out at $25 a month and water is about $12—not because she uses that much, but because that’s the minimum charge to keep the service on….Since she is retired, it is very important to keep her living expenses low and it means that she can do much more, like visit her grandchildren more, go out to eat with her friends more, focus on her hobbies and simply not have to worry about the bills as much…..For the first time she has had the money and the time to visit her grandson for his birthday….

So many Baby Boomers don’t have big pensions waiting for them and were unable to save up much for retirement; a tiny house might be one answer to living successfully in retirement on only Social Security and some modest savings. If that sounds like you or someone you know, you should check out this book!

In the story about Kathy, she says that her friends with large houses are beginning to wish they had smaller homes to care for and more free time like Kathy does. But she says something holds them back:

“It’s because they don’t know what to do with all their stuff that they spent their whole lives trying to pay for. They are so inclined to having stuff that it’s scary for them to think of paring down.”

To Kathy’s friends, I say “Downsize, people, downsize! Lose the clutter and gain your freedom!”

One more thing: in most tiny houses, the sleeping area is always up in a loft. Who wants to risk falling down that tiny loft ladder in the middle of the night when they need a bathroom? But Kathy’s tiny house has a futon in the living area that turns into a bed, so she doesn’t climb up into a loft to sleep. Smart!

What You Must Do If You Ever Hope to Retire

The recent ups and downs of the stock market should be considered a warning to those of us in our 40s and 50s who intend to retire before long. If your retirement money is invested in the stock market, even in index funds, you could suddenly lose some or all of it, and your retirement plans will be postponed or might even be destroyed.

After reading this cautionary tale, I got to thinking about how even the best-prepared folks can be wiped out if they haven’t taken enough precautions. The fellow in the article has been a hard worker all of his life. He had a great job with a solid (and famous) company, and thought he had prepared well enough for retirement. But now, at age 70, he’s living in a leaky RV and working exhausting, low-paying jobs, like spending ten hours a day as a temporary worker in an Amazon warehouse.

Clearly, this man is smart, not lazy, and he’s had some hard luck (including the illness and death of his first wife). But after finding a new love (someone who also lost all her investments in the 2008 financial crisis) and marrying her, their lives together became even harder.

What else could they have done to prevent having to spend their so-called golden years keeping their ancient RV running while they travel around the country looking for work?

The clues lie in the sixth paragraph:

By the time Barb and Chuck got married in 2009, they were upside down on their mortgage and grappling with credit card debt.

This led to bankruptcy and a forced downsizing of almost all their possessions. We undertook a preventive downsizing, and that was painful enough. So I can imagine how much tougher a forced downsizing must have been for this couple. After I read this article, I told my husband, “There but for the grace of God go us.”

The first clue, being upside down on their mortgage, is common enough nowadays. But it used to be common wisdom that you always pay off your mortgage before you retire. That way you have a roof over your head, no matter what else happens. Middle-aged people who are upside down on their mortgage either financed more house than they could afford, or used their house to fund a lifestyle they couldn’t afford via a home equity line. The takeaway here is, pay off that house before you retire!

The second clue, grappling with credit card debt, is a problem for people of all ages. We’ve had a lousy economy for years, so many people put basic expenses on their credit cards and pay only the minimum monthly payments. Add in those who used credit cards to live beyond their means in order to impress themselves and others, and this couple has plenty of company. But if you plan to retire, having credit card debt is a very bad idea. Those who have never learned to “pay cash or live without the item you want to buy” need to do so ASAP, and long before they actually retire.

Ultimately, retiring with any debt at all is a risky proposition. In retirement, you can willingly live with far less and still be comfortable and secure. The couple in our cautionary tale shows you what could happen otherwise.