Lighten Up While You Still Can— Lessons on Downsizing

This summer, I moved into the smallest apartment I’ve ever had. My 187-square-foot abode has one little sink that serves both my micro-kitchenette and the tiny bathroom, mere steps away.

A twin bed came with the apartment, and I sit on its edge to eat at a vintage typewriter table just big enough for a placemat.

A pair of windows bathe my corner unit in natural light and fresh air, my most prized amenities. I’m down to about two dozen books, my clothes take up less than three feet of space, and I have exactly two bowls and three plates (but I don’t really need that many). Although I hung onto my simple stick vacuum for now, I sometimes use a lint roller to do the job.

Oh, and I just turned 62. Some of my new neighbors are older like me, here because they’re in transition or this is the only place they can still afford in Seattle. Others, just getting started in their adult lives, see this as the means to an end—and a beginning. For me, it’s all these things: A few days after Christmas, I’ll pack a single carry-on suitcase and a tote bag, store what little I have left with friends and family, and wander the world for a few years. Meanwhile, I’m saving $600 a month in rent, most of it going into my travel fund.

This is the most portable life I’ve ever had, far more so than in my 20s, when I hauled a big stereo, crates of albums, and boxes of books from place to place. I’ll admit it was a little painful to give up some things in my final round of downsizing—the small hand-painted chest of drawers I bought half a lifetime ago is one example, a favorite but faded mid-century armchair another.

In the end, though, it’s all just stuff. Most of us own too much stuff—and it’s owning us, too, weighing us down physically, financially, even spiritually. Our homes are crammed with possessions, and about one in five Americans rents a storage unit, according to Yardi Matrix, a commercial real estate information clearinghouse.

Yet none of us will be here forever, and someday, someone is going to have to deal with our stuff if we don’t get around to it while we’re still around. If you’ve reached a time in your life where you’re ready to lighten up, here are a some ways to get started:

Have a goal or two. Do you yearn to travel? Do you seek to spare family from having to deal with a mound of material goods once you’re gone? Maybe you want to spend less time and money maintaining a big house.

Know that it’s OK to go slow. I’ve done my downsizing over multiple moves over many years. What’s important is to begin and keep at it. As Courtney Carver, author of Soulful Simplicity, writes, “One thing at a time. You didn’t clutter up your home overnight and you aren’t going to become clutter-free overnight.”

Start with the easy stuff. Obsolete electronics. Extra tools. Abandoned hobby supplies. You don’t need to toss these things in the trash (see the sidebar for ideas on where to take them.)

Living with less doesn’t mean nothing. What possessions hold the most meaning for you? These are your “keepers.” Curate a small collection of things that spark memories—and yes, joy. Hang onto things you will display, wear, use, and enjoy rather than stow in boxes.

Ask for help. I made plenty of Goodwill runs but I gratefully paid to have a last load of big and unwieldy items hauled away. If you envision a major downsizing project, it may pay to hire a professional organizer. Many senior communities offer expert assistance in this area, too.

Involve family and friends. When my husband died five years ago, I brought some of his many treasures to his memorial service and invited people to take something to remember him by. My sister in too-young widowhood, Katherine, asked her husband’s family to visit and help her sort through the decades of his active outdoor life. “With laughter and tears, we have remembered and have made new memories,” she reports.

If your adult children have stored things at your place, the upcoming holidays may be a good time for them to take what they still want. You may also want to offer a few things of yours for them to have now, while you’re still around and can tell the tales behind the objects, but don’t be offended if they say no.

Photos may be enough. Before my most recent move, I bid farewell to some cherished things great and small, from a beloved-but-chipped antique Christmas ornament to an awesome orange cell phone and blue iPod from the dawn of this century—but not before I took pictures to remember them by.

Move to a smaller place. It may be the surest opportunity and excuse you will get to whittle your possessions and live a simpler-yet-satisfying life. Tastes and needs vary, but you likely could be happy in a far smaller home than the one you have now.

Take time to understand what might work for you. Try some pint-size vacation rentals on for size. For me, about 500-square-feet with a balcony (and two sinks) feels like the sweet spot I’ll seek once my vagabond days are done, and one I’ll start filling … with just a bit of new stuff.

Julie Fanselow lives in Seattle—for now.

Sidebar:

Where to send your stuff

There are places to consider beyond standard choices like Goodwill and the Salvation Army.

Seattle ReCreative (https://www.seattlerecreative.org) accepts supplies for arts, crafts, and classroom use. Habitat for Humanity ReStores (https://www.habitat.org/restores) take hardware, furniture, appliances, and more, with some free pickup of large items.

Search online for upcoming shredding events and tech recycling opportunities near you; many banks and real estate offices offer them several times a year. Ask local homeless shelters what they need such as travel-size toiletries, paper goods, blankets, and warm clothes that are often in demand.

I’ve stashed books in Little Free Libraries and shared items via a local Buy Nothing group (check listings on Facebook.) I’ve even used the sidewalk “free” method a time or two—but only for things that I’m pretty sure will be picked up quickly, without becoming neighborhood blight. You could use major online tools like eBay and Amazon to sell your stuff to private buyers, but with package theft on the rise, I’ve found it’s not worth the hassle.

More articles by Julie Fanselow.

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