Five (More) Lessons Learned in Downsizing

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Don’t seal those boxes too soon! Leaving them open as long as possible allows “keepers” the time they need to change their minds, and get rid of more stuff as the job progresses.

When circumstances forced me into a sudden and unexpected move out of my home last spring, and into a major downsizing, I knew it was going to be quite the experience.

I also knew there were going to be new lessons learned to share with our audience, and I was right. My first two blog posts dealing with this “wild ride” took place in the first few weeks afterward. (You can read about them here and here.)

Now, almost a year later, I’m returning to some of the notes I took then. And here are a few of the things that stand out:

  1. Shred ahead!  “Shred documents every January. Better yet, go paperless!” is one of the notes I scrawled in those furiously frantic days when, on top of everything else I needed to do, I filled several large recycling barrels full of shredded financial documents, determined not to move them once again, this time into a storage locker, while I prepared for an international move. January is a good time to do this, since that’s when you will have the end-of-year statements (all that you really need to keep for tax purposes, etc.) readily at hand. But whenever you do it, it just know that the more you do it ahead of time, the less time you’ll have to spend sitting at a shredder when you make your next move. There’s some helpful guidance for proactively getting rid of paper in this post by my coauthor. Many communities now have free document shredding events, especially in the spring. And really, going paperless is a very good idea. (You can usually choose to get some of your financial documents the old-fashioned way, and let the rest just stay online. You know: the ones you’re never gonna read anyway…) It’s good for the earth, it’s good for you, it’s good preparation for your next move.
  2. Don’t seal the boxes too soon! There is a natural urge, especially for the people who are helping you pack for the move, to seal boxes. Sealed boxes signal progress–something EVERYONE wants in the middle of a move–AND they are much easier to move around and stack when they’re sealed. The problem is, sealed boxes make it hard to change your mind, and the ability to change your mind–at least for me, often!– during this process can be important. In my case, the ability to continue to sell/give away/donate tends to increase more and more as the process accelerates…and in terms of the ultimate goal of ending up with less stuff, this is pretty important. So if you’re a “keeper,” don’t let those efficient types helping you rush the process–tell them the boxes have to stay open as long as possible. In the end it will mean fewer boxes to move.
  3. Consider leaving collectibles to the collectors. I remember one anecdote we heard when we were first writing our book. You could call it an anecdote illustrating the Antiques Roadshow mentality. “We’re sittin’ on a fortune here!” I remember hearing repeated by a daughter who was dismayed at not being able to get her parents to get rid of anything because “this might be worth something someday.” When I found myself saying the same thing about some object or other to my son in the middle of packing for my last move, he said, politely, but firmly, “Mom. We’re not collectors. Leave that to the collectors.” And you know what, he was right! Collectors spend a lot of time learning about what “is worth something” and what is not. For the most part, it may make sense to “leave all that to them,” although there are some notable exceptions to this, as discussed in this post by my coauthor. But, especially for little things, and especially in the case of things that may eventually have value, but at the current time do not, at least consider it! In my last move, among the things I had been holding onto for many years that I actually got (a little) money for were, the matchbox collection I had acquired in my 20’s, and a very interesting, shiny gold, heavy metal object whose purpose was completely obscure to me (turns out to have been some kind of resister, perhaps for some kind of spacecraft? Maybe?) The person who bought these two items at one of my yard sales was happy  to have them, and I appreciated the fact that he was going to take care of them from now on. His enthusiasm justified (at least in my mind) having kept them all those years. And if he turns out to have been able to make a lot of money from selling them (which I very much doubt, I don’t think that’s why he bought them), well, anyway, he is welcome to it. He is the one who would have the knowledge and would have been willing to take the time to do so. did not. Even after more than 30 years!
  4. Consider the cost of moving and/or storage versus the cost of replacement. Some furniture is just not worth keeping: the cost of moving and/or storing it probably doesn’t make sense. So for some people, in some situations, it may make sense to take a good hard look at what you’re going to pay for moving and/or storing: and ask yourself if it wouldn’t make more sense to get rid of it now, one way or another (sell? donate? give away?) and just repurchase similar items on the other end. It’s kind of the idea of “rental” vs. ownership of furniture. And in some cases, it makes a lot of sense!
  5. Lighten up. I already knew this, because that is one of the most important–at least implicit–pieces of advice in our book. But I found new practical applications for this advice. For example: who makes the rule about yard sales having to start very early in the day? And is it absolutely necessary to follow this rule? These are two of the questions I asked myself in my last move. (“Who’s having the sale, anyway?” I said to myself.) I do understand that’s how it’s usually done, and perhaps if making the most money possible is important to you, then that’s the way it needs to be done. But if the main purpose is to clear out your house, minimize the number of things you have to move, and also make a little bit of money, then why do you have to be out of bed dragging things out of the house at the crack of dawn when you were probably up very late the night before, figuring out what to sell and how to much to ask? The answer is: you don’t! YOU’RE the one having the sale. YOU can decide when it starts and ends! Really, you can! You don’t have to kill yourself over this. Remember what almost everyone comes to realize is one of the most important “lessons learned” in the downsizing process, somewhere along the way: “It’s all just stuff.”

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

 

 

Donate, Reuse, Recycle: A Call for Help When Downsizing

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Which are the hard-to-recycle-or-reuse items in this photo?

There are many reasons why some people have trouble getting rid of things when downsizing the home, or moving. Two of the best reasons are wanting to maximize the benefit to others by donating things that can still be used, and to minimize damage to the earth by keeping things that should be recycled out of landfills.

We’ve written a fair amount about both topics on this blog, and in many of our posts have provided tips and suggestions about ways you can go about doing both of these things. But some items are just harder to deal with responsibly, especially if the downsizing (or moving) has to be done in a hurry.

The photo above provides a clear example of the kinds of things that are fairly easy to get rid of responsibly, and the kinds of things that aren’t. Clearly, if the beautiful pot is not going along in the move, it could be easily donated (or, depending on the value, perhaps sold). Thrift stores would probably be happy to have the hangers. But what about the not-so-gently-used shoes, and the CDs? (Only a couple of CDs are shown here, but most homes would a fairly big pile of them ready to dispose of…)

This post will provide some guidance in finding ecological ways to dispense with these items. But the main purpose is to draw attention to the types of items that are unlikely to be properly disposed of when people have to move or empty a home in a hurry. And a plea that the powers that be–from shoe retailers to government agencies–help us find ways to make these things easier to recycle.

  1. Shoes. A couple of years ago my coauthor wrote a very helpful post about how to recycle or donate shoes here. And while I think it’s great that there are organizations that are helping with this process, I can’t help but wish that more shoe stores would step up (no pun intended!) and make it even easier. Why couldn’t the big chains have a program similar to Best Buy’s electronics recycling program for example? So that people in a hurry to empty a home would be able to take big bags of shoes that are no longer usable directly to the nearest store and just drop them off? Payless? DSW? Your thoughts?
  2. CDs and tapes. Earth 911 has a very helpful page on various options for dealing with CDs and videotapes you no longer want, but the fact is, most people are not going to do the right thing when it comes to old CDs and tapes if it isn’t made easier for them to do. And most people are not going to want to pay to recycle anything. Call me a dreamer, but it seems to me that if we know that having these items go en masse into our landfills is harmful to the environment (and future generations) it would seem an appropriate matter for collective action. In other words, Help! Isn’t there some way our local governments–or the state or federal government, someone, anyone!–can help make it easier for us all to do the right thing?
  3. Prescription Drugs. I didn’t realize the importance of proper disposal of prescription drugs until a cousin who is a doctor grimaced when someone suggested at a family gathering to just throw them into the trash. “No, no, no!” she said. “It goes into our water supply. That is not a good idea.” But here again the problem is the difficulty of doing the right thing. (Just take a look at these FDA guidelines and you’ll see what I mean.) So here again, I think we need help, and probably in this case pharmacies are the most likely source of assistance. Why couldn’t people bring unused/unwanted drugs back to pharmacies to be properly disposed of? Certainly they would know how to do it, right? The only option for me to properly dispose of the expired prescriptions in our home when I looked into this last summer was to drive several miles to a government office in an area with very little available parking to turn them in. It has to be made easier if we want people to do it.

I think most people understand the importance of protecting our earth from contamination. But if it’s too difficult to do things the right way, they will be tempted or forced into doing them the wrong way.

Are there other categories of items that you’ve found difficult to reuse, donate, or recycle when downsizing, or information about programs that make recycling shoes/CDs/prescription drugs easier? If so, I hope you’ll add them to the comment box below, so we can help spread the word.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Downsizing Chronicles Part 1: A 27-Day Marathon

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Downsizing Day 1: The Decision Is Made, Starting to Pull Books Off the Shelves. Photo by Janet Hulstrand.

Several weeks ago, I made a bold, fateful, and possibly slightly insane decision.

I decided to move out of my home; sell, donate, throw out, and otherwise get rid of much of my stuff; and put whatever was left into storage.

All in 27 days.

The home I had been living in for the past eight years was the place where I had raised my sons through their teen years, and was also the home in which several treasured pieces of furniture, many boxes of letters, photographs and other memorabilia, as well as many other things that came both from my family and my husband’s, which we had inherited in the 30 years we were together, not to mention our own accumulated letters, photos, files, mementos and various other things. Also, of course, all of our clothes and books, musical instruments and sports equipment, games, puzzles and, and, and…The kitchen stuff. The bathroom stuff. (You get it, you know, or you can imagine.) It was also the location of my home office, and as such there were files, office supplies and equipment, and books of the trade to deal with. So this was neither an easy, nor a small task.

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Downsizing Day 8: Moving Sale Photo by Janet Hulstrand

Much of it was important. Much of it was not. Much of it was in that in-between gray area. All of it required decision-making. To keep or not to keep? To store or not to store? How to prepare for storage? To recycle, or haul to the dump? And so on.

Given all the time I have devoted to thinking, writing and talking about the process of downsizing a family home for more than a decade now, I knew from the beginning that dealing with such large task on such a short timetable was an essentially impossible task.

So why did I try to do it?

Let’s just say that a rental situation which had never been a very good one became bad enough that I decided I had had enough, and the time to cut my losses and make a change was now.

How did it go? Well, it was an incredible experience, probably most accurately described as “a wild ride.” There were many sweet and poignant moments, more than I would have imagined there could be, in mostly small ways, on an almost daily basis. I made new friends, got to know my neighbors better, benefited from the help of friends and “the kindness of strangers” in numerous ways. I was able to savor the experience of passing on a lot of things that were just cluttering up my home, and now also my life’s forward path, to people who would really appreciate having them, some of whom I knew, others I would never meet. And of course there were many moments of appreciation, smiles, chuckles, a few tears, as I discovered sweet notes written in childish scrawls, and old school projects–my children’s and even some of mine (yes! because my mom was “a keeper” par excellence!)

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Downsizing Day 12: Souvenirs From My Childhood. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

It was also worse than I had allowed myself to envision, especially during the dreadful last few days when my need to board a transatlantic flight and report for a teaching assignment abroad exerted a pressure and anxiety on me that was almost unbearable. If it had not been for the intervention of kind friends and friendly strangers, it might have been an unmitigated disaster rather than just a highly chaotic and upsetting scramble at the end.

Once I had made the decision to do it, I decided I would try to be as conscious of this process as I possibly could be every step of the way, so that I could share any new insights/perspectives/stories/observations I might be able to capture, for the benefit of our blog readers.

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Downsizing Day 17: A Wider Circle helps Washington-DC area families by supplying them with donated furniture and household goods. Here they are loading up a couch, a mattress, an ironing board, some tables and chairs from our house. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

And so even in the mad scramble to beat the clock I kept notes and took pictures, as best I could. And I began sharing some of those moments on Twitter and Facebook, live, during the process. Some of you may have followed along with that day-to-day reporting of the experience. You can find the trail here, and here.

In the weeks and months to come I will be looking back on this experience and sharing with you what I learned in this latest round of downsizing, some of the thoughts I had in going through a major downsizing project—this time my own—without being able to follow our number-one piece of advice when it comes to projects such as these: namely,

Take Your Time!!

Did the advice in our book help me anyway? You bet it did!

Did I get ideas for new things to write about on this blog? I certainly did!

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Downsizing Day 22: Keep the things that bring you the most joy, even if it’s impractical to do so. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

So, stay tuned for more fresh-from-the-downsizing-front posts to come, going forward.

In the meantime, have a Happy Fourth of July, and a great summer ahead.

And don’t forget to use up those sparklers sitting, forgotten, on a high shelf in the pantry, now! You won’t want to have to deal with them at the last minute in your next move 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Is an Appraisal the Way to Go?

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My parents’ Herter Brothers furniture.  We researched it online, in books, and in museums, and then had it appraised on “Antiques Roadshow” before we sold it to a dealer.

As we approach the holidays and anticipate spending time with our families, some of us may be traveling to houses that are full of stuff and some inevitable questions are sure to arise. A discussion of “What will we do with all this stuff?” may lead to “Who will get what?” which may lead to “How much is this worth?”

Is an appraisal right for you? An appraiser can give you the value of a single piece, or can go through the entire house, in what is called a “look-see,” to tell you which pieces may be valuable. The value of an item is determined by its condition, its rarity, and its provenance or history. The stories passed down in the family about the original source of items, however, are not always accurate, says Helaine Fendleman, coauthor of Price It Yourself! and past president of the Appraisers Association of America. So you will need more than family lore to establish provenance.

A good appraiser, according to Fendleman, is someone who is sensitive and caring and who understands the financial responsibility of giving an accurate appraisal. Appraisers will charge a flat fee or by the hour. (It is illegal to charge a percentage of the item being evaluated, since this would lead to artificially increasing its value.) It’s important to hire someone you feel comfortable with and someone you feel is honest.

Some appraisers may simply assign a dollar value for the objects, but most will also shepherd you through the process of selling them, by suggesting the best place to sell it—to an antiques store, dealer, or consignment shop—and then will help you work with the store or dealer, if that is what you want.

Sometimes an appraiser will suggest that the item has little or no monetary value and that it would be more appropriate to donate it to charity than to try to sell it. Don’t be discouraged. As Fendleman says, “Every object in the world has a value; you just may not like the value it has.” And of course, the process of appraising has nothing to do with emotional or sentimental value. In some cases, finding out that a particular item has no financial worth may be a relief.

To find a professional appraiser, ask your lawyer, banker, real estate agent, or friends for a referral. The appraiser should ask probing questions in the initial interview, and you should, too. Ask what qualifies him or her to appraise your items, what their area of expertise is, and what professional organizations they belong to.

Can you estimate what something is worth without a professional appraiser? Certainly you can do your own research in the library, on the Internet, or in museums, and browse through antique shops and attend auctions to get an idea of what your special items are worth. If you have the time, researching the history and value of a favorite family item can be fun.

Online appraisals are another option, but they are only as good as the photographs you send in, and the expertise of the appraiser. If you plan to sell the item, you may want to then hire an appraiser who can see the object in person.

You can check out these professional appraisal organizations for more help.

The Appraisal Foundation is the organization that has issued the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP).

Appraisers Association of America, Inc. (AAA) is the oldest professional association of appraisers and is the recognized authority for standards, legal issues, and regulations. It provides a database of members that can be searched by location and by specialty.

International Society of Appraisers (ISA) has a library of over 50 webinars, some of which are free.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Shedding

Today we share this lovely meditation written by a friend, author of the blog “The Sober Heart: More About Life, Love, Recovery,” who has recently been through the downsizing process. We think many of you will draw inspiration and/or comfort from her words.

What Lessons Have We Learned?

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Having emptied our own family homes of decades’ worth of accumulated stuff, we are well aware of how much work it entails and what an emotional roller coaster it can be.

After having had a chance to sit back and ponder the experience, we are very glad our parents saved all the family stuff they did, but we also know in our hearts that the most valuable thing in the house was the lives that have been lived there.

Working with multiple generations to empty a much-loved home does present issues, however. How one deals with those issues differs with each family and with each family member.

How do we assess the process? Was it a job well done? Were there issues that were resolved? Or was the process fraught with problems? What did we learn from downsizing?

Here’s a checklist of questions to ask ourselves.

  • Are our parents content with their new living arrangements? Do they feel surrounded by a few favorite things? Were they happy, or at least able to come to terms with, what they let go of?
  • Are we still on speaking terms with all of our siblings? If we are, then we can feel, rightly, that it was a job well done. If not, what can we do to mend fences?
  • What have we taught our children as we worked through the process of emptying our parents’ home? About the process of downsizing? About working with others? About the importance of possessions? And about the importance of family?
  • What are we doing about our own accumulated stuff to make things easier for our children when we are no longer around to help them?
  • What have we learned about the value of stuff? Has it made us grateful for what we have and, more importantly, for our families?

Things to ponder. What would you add to the list?

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

“Downsizing Lessons from Two Women Who Have ‘Been There, Done That'”

Many thanks to Janet Barclay for inviting us to share an excerpt from our book (Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home) on her organizing blog. Our guest blog posted on May 8, 2014. Here’s the intro:

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“Typically our guest bloggers here on Your Organizing Business fall into one of two categories: (1) professional organizers / productivity consultants who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues; or (2) experts in marketing or another aspect of business. Today’s guest brings the perspective of adults who have helped their parents through the process of downsizing.” Read more