Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Downsizing Without the Tears

After Joshua Becker and his family sold their 2,200-square-foot house in Vermont and bought a smaller place, they vowed to enjoy the results of a scaled-down lifestyle.

“We considered the benefits of owning fewer possessions: less to clean, less debt, less to organize, less stress, more money and energy for our greatest passions,” says Becker, a professional writer whose books include, “The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own.”

But what faces many downsizers -- the process of letting go of excess belongings -- proves arduous.

“There’s a big stigma to downsizing. As Americans, it’s ingrained in us to believe that owning more is better than owning less,” Becker says.

One way to minimize the agony of decluttering is to start with the parts of your home where culling will have greatest impact in the shortest time. For example, before selling their Vermont house, Becker and his wife started in their master bedroom, sifting through clothing to eliminate pieces they no longer wore. Then, they tackled excess toiletries in their master bathroom.

“When you’re going to a smaller house, you must decide which things have the most meaning for you,” says Beverly Coggins, author of “Three Steps to Downsizing to a Smaller Residence.”

A professional organizer since 1995, Coggins says she’s learned it’s best to break the work into chunks rather than to attempt marathon sessions.

To avoid excessive fatigue, she encourages downsizers to focus their work on the times of day they have peak energy. Also, she recommends they spend no more than four or five hours at a time on these chores.

Here are a few tips for those of any age who are moving to a smaller domain:

-- Liberate yourself of extra furniture early in your transition.

For most people, one major step toward downsizing involves dispensing with large pieces of furniture. Beyond precious antiques and family heirlooms, many find this process relatively easy because they don’t have sentimental attachments to most furniture.

Sid Davis, a real estate broker and author of “A Survival Guide to Selling a Home,” says one way to clear space and furniture quickly is to put it up for sale.

If you have valuable antiques to sell, you’ll probably want to find a reputable dealer. But more routine items of furniture, as well as household belongings, can be effectively sold through an informal sale.

“People are surprised at how much money they can make through a local yard sale,” says Davis, who recommends that downsizers work with neighbors to attract more interest to their event.

-- Save money by avoiding use of a storage unit.

Many downsizers succumb to the temptation to place their belongings in a storage unit before they move. But Coggins strongly advises against this course if you can avoid it.

“Storage units are expensive. And for most people, they’re just an excuse to postpone making decisions on stuff they need to eliminate,” she says.

When working with downsizers, Coggins encourages them to dispense with many items -- including clothing that no longer fits -- especially if they haven’t used it for a year or longer. The same applies to many household items.

She says many people feel especially anxious about letting go of gifts from relatives or close friends. But she says such guilt is needless.

“It doesn’t mean you love the person any less because you can’t keep everything they give you,” she says.

To be sure, you’ll not want to cast off items with unusual meaning to you, like family pictures and love letters. But unfortunately, you may not be able to take everything you love. In such cases, Coggins suggests you take photos of the treasured items -- like a grand piano passed down in the family. These can be framed and hung up in your new domain.

-- Make it easy to donate items to charity through pickup services.

Many downsizers find it easier to let go of extra belongings if they know they’ll go to good use. That’s why Coggins and other professional organizers often advocate contacting charitable organizations interested in collecting serviceable items.

Very often charity groups will pick up items from your home, a convenient way to free yourself of clutter. Also, with a pickup appointment, you’ll have a definite deadline for your work, which can serve as a motivating factor.

The Salvation Army, for example, offers pickup services in many areas. To learn more or schedule a pickup, visit salvationarmyusa.org or contact its toll-free number: 800-728-7825.

-- Stay focused on the positives in your future.

Many seniors downsize because they must cut expenses. But even those who must downsize involuntarily often find that the process has positives.

As Coggins notes, with fewer home upkeep demands, you’ll have more time to focus on the people most important to you.

“After downsizing, many people realize it’s relationships, not stuff, that brings them happiness,” she says.

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)