8 Tips to Downsize — Even if Your Move Is Years Away

For many of us, belongings that once brought us pleasure now seem like a burden, extra weight we would rather not have. But sorting through a lifetime of accumulations and deciding to part with them is hard.

Think of downsizing from your home of decades as losing 100 pounds. You didn’t gain the weight overnight, and you can’t lose it overnight, either. Your belongings are like those pounds. It took years to accumulate them, and sorting through them will take time. Just as each pound, taken individually, doesn’t appear to make a difference, there may not seem to be a lot of improvement from each sorting session. But losing 100 pounds is accomplished by losing one pound one hundred times, and with planning, patience and perseverance, you can get ready to move and maximize your home’s marketability, one box at a time.

Here are some proven tips and techniques that you can begin implementing today, even if your move is years away. Remember that the key to losing 100 pounds is not losing the 100th pound; it’s losing the first one.

The key to downsizing is not finishing the process; it’s starting it.

  1. Stop warehousing your kids’ stuff. Do they visit their things but not take them home? If so, put them in a box and place it by the door so your kids can take the carton with them the next time they visit. (If they don’t want their college textbooks and tennis trophies, you don’t need to keep them either).
  2. Decide on what “go” means. It may sound silly, but “this goes” can mean you are getting rid of it or taking it with you. To avoid confusion, decide what “go” means and use it consistently. Better yet, use removable color-coded dots to separate what you are keeping and what you are getting rid of. You can find these dots in the school-supply section of your local grocery or drugstore.
  3. Be clear. If you plan on temporarily storing things in trash bags, use clear bags for items being stored and opaque bags for regular trash. We once stored all our winter gloves and hats in a white kitchen trash bag, only to discover we had accidentally thrown them out!
  4. Throw a downsizing party. Cover your dining room table with items you no longer need and invite friends over for coffee, with the caveat that they must take one thing away with them. It’s fun, and since each person selects what she wants, everyone leaves thinking that they found a “treasure.”
  5. Develop a kitchen tracker. A kitchen tracker is simply a form that helps you track how often you use certain items in your kitchen. List the items that you don’t use frequently—like the ice bucket, Cuisinart, electric mixer, blender, bundt pan, 30-cup coffee urn, heating tray, turkey roaster, dutch oven…the list could go on, right? Keep the list on your refrigerator. Whenever you use an item on the list, make a checkmark next to it. At the end of six months, look at the items without checkmarks. You may be surprised to find that you don’t use some of those items after all.
  6. Keep sorting sessions short. By that I mean two hours at most, and start with the simplest room first. Starting with the most complicated area means you may get discouraged, throw up your hands and quit. Starting with a simple room helps build the confidence to say, “I can do this.”
  7. Once you start working, don’t leave the room. It’s human nature to get distracted—especially from something we don’t want to do in the first place.
  8. And finally: DON’T PACK! Remember, you are months or even years away from moving. If you can pack something away knowing that you won’t need it until you move, you probably don’t need it now.


How to Downsize with a Plan!

Downsizing for a move can be complicated. Seeing a houseful of treasures, essentials, and a lifetime of memories can be difficult to think of disturbing.

“To let go of what we have around us is to confront a very different living situation,” says senior-relocation industry leader Nan Hayes of Hinsdale, Illinois, founder of MoveSeniors.com. “People tend to cling to their possessions to avoid dealing with other issues, like stress or fear.”

For adults over 60, only a spouse’s death and divorce rank as more stressful than moving, according to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, aka the Stress Scale.

Here, 20 expert-tested ideas to avoid the “junk wars” and make downsizing less stressful — for all of you.

1. Avoid tackling the whole house in one go.

Though it’s more efficient for you to plow full steam ahead, you will be too stressed emotionally, if not also physically. When organizing your move, it’s better to think in terms of months, not days (where possible).

Tackle one room or area at a time. About two hours at a stretch is ideal for most adults, says Margit Novack, president of MovingSolutions in Philadelphia.

2. Frame decisions as yes-no questions.

Open-ended choices put a reluctant mover on the spot, raising stress. Avoid asking, “Which pots and pans should I keep?” Winnow them down by saying to yourself “I’ve got my best frying pan, a large pot, and a small sauce pot. That sounds good!”

Items that exist in abundance work especially well to presort: clothing, kitchenware, tools, and anything else you have many of will help reduce your packing space immediately.

3. Use your new space as a guide.

Measure exactly how much closet or cabinet space your new place has, and fill an equivalent amount of space as you sort. Mark off the comparable space so you have a visual guide.

Beware of excessive multiples. Remember, you are downsizing into a space for simpler living. Having to cram too much into the space will cause needless stress.

4. Banish the “maybe” pile.

Relocation experts call it the OHIO rule: Only handle it once. The less decisive you are about what to do with an item, the more attached you risk becoming to it, Hayes says. Moving things in and out of “maybe” piles also takes time.

Tempting as it is to set aside tough sorts for later, unless there’s room to “hold” them at a relative’s house, it’s not generally worth paying storage-rental fees (unless yours is a very large estate and time is tight). That’s because once they’re boxed, your likely not to look at the items ever again. (Out of sight, out of mind.)

Exception: Save time by boxing piles of paperwork, which doesn’t take much room. Papers are time-consuming to go through and present an unpleasant task for many disorganized people, casting a pall on your packing.

5. Encourage yourself to focus on most-used items (and let the rest go).

Be patient and follow your mind’s lead — what seems like a great comfort and joy is worth moving. “Don’t go by the newest and best; go by what you use,” Novack says.

When facing especially hard choices, remind yourself of the story behind a dubious object — where it came from, when it was last used, whether a young family member might put it to good use. This takes time, but the payoff is that once your mind is clearer, you may have a clearer perspective and feel more able to let go.

6. Pack representative bits of favored items (not the whole kit and kaboodle).

Photos, memorabilia, and collections typically take up far more space than the average downsize home can accommodate. Many services digitize images and papers for you for reasonable prices – once digitized every family member can get a copy, too. Pick key prints to display on the walls; large tabletop displays may take up too much precious space in your new home.

7. Cull a collection by asking, “Which is my favorite piece?”

Assure that one or two “best” items can have a highlighted location in your new home. “People sometimes feel OK about giving up the rest if they have a sense of control over the process,” Novack says.

8. Take photos of the rest of a collection and present them in a special book.

No, it’s not exactly the same as having them with you, but it’s a space-saving way to enjoy your collection.

9. If it’s meant to be a gift or legacy, encourage giving it now.

Don’t wait for the next holiday, birthday, or other milestone to bestow; remind yourself that there’s no space for storage. Ask yourself, “Why not enjoy the feeling of giving right now?”.

10. Think twice before selling items on your own.

Craigslist, eBay, and other self-selling options are time-consuming when you’re trying to process a houseful of goods. Be realistic: “The value of an item isn’t what you paid for it or how well made or special it is — it’s what someone is willing to pay for it,” warns Novack.

11. If there are several items of high value, consider an appraisal.

Go through the entire house; the appraiser will only come out once and is more interested in relatively large lots. Auction houses, whose goal is to sell items at the best price, are better options than antique dealers, whose goal is to get items for the lowest price, Novack says. Consignment shops will also sell items, but they tend to cherry-pick (they take fewer items) and often charge to pick items up.

12. Understand how charities work.

The main donation outlets include Goodwill, the Salvation Army, AmVets, and Purple Heart. Depending on your area, popular alternatives may include other charities or a local hospital or PTA thrift shop. Senior living communities and moving companies often furnish lists of area charities that accept donations, says Nan Hayes of MoveSeniors.com.

These charities work by selling castoffs; they don’t want (and often won’t take) dregs that are better left to the trash. Some take only furniture; some won’t take clothing. Larger charities tend to accept a wider variety of items. Get a receipt for a tax deduction.

Clarify whether they offer free pickup (a huge time-saver). Some charities will remove items from the ground floor only.

13. Target recipients for specialty items.

It’s time-consuming to find willing recipients for everything, but it may be worth the effort to see your special items in a good home. Examples: Schools may welcome musical instruments, old costumes, or tools. Auto repair shops and community maintenance departments may take tools and yard tools.

14. Try the “free books” tactic.

In some communities, setting items on the curb with a sign that says “Free! Help yourself!” will make items miraculously disappear. This works great for books, Novack says, and sometimes other items. (Libraries don’t normally take books; some charities or schools may, but finding a willing recipient and transporting the books — or any other items donated piecemeal takes time.)

In some areas, freecyling is an option. You post an item available for pickup to a membership list, and anyone who wants it can come pick it up from you (or from your curb). More than 5,000 groups make up the Freecycle Network. Like selling items on Craigslist, however, the communications involved can be time-consuming and tedious if your goal is fast disposal of a large number of objects.

15. If it’s chipped, broken, or stained, toss it.

Charities don’t want nonworking Christmas lights, snagged clothes, lidless plastic Tupperware, or any items that they can’t sell. Period.

16. Weigh your loyalty to recycling against your available time.

Avoiding waste is noble, but finding a home for every object can be incredibly time-consuming. “If you recycle the other 364 days of the year, tossing a few things in the interests of time is fine. You have to be pragmatic,” Novack says.

17. Don’t be shy about tossing replaceable items.

Not worth moving, donating, or even conferring about: old spices, junk mail, old magazines (yes, even all those yellow-spined National Geographic issues), outdated medications, unused toiletries, plastic food containers, candles, stuffed toys (most charities won’t accept them), and the contents of the junk drawer (just hang onto change and spare keys). Get rid of it.

18. For a price, you don’t have to haul it away yourself.

The local garbage company may have limits on how many large black trash bags it will take, and not all local dumps take unsorted trash, either.

Waste Management’s Bagster is a smaller-scale alternative to a Dumpster, and it doesn’t harm your driveway. Buy one of its large bags at a home-improvement retailer (about $30, depending on pickup location), fill with up to 3,300 pounds of trash, and call to schedule a pickup.

Services like 1-800-Got-Junk and 1-800-Junk-USA (which recently merged with the industry’s other biggie, College Hunks Hauling Junk) remove appliances and furniture as well as smaller items.

Smaller local junk dealers may haul things away for free if they see, on appraisal, items that they’ll be able to sell.

19. Consider bringing in the pros.

A fast-growing specialty, the pros are skilled at both the emotional and practical dimensions of downsizing. (The ten-year-old National Association of Professional Move Managers has more than 600 move-management company members.) These experts can defuse a parent-child emotional clash while handling everything from sorting and packing through hiring movers and unpacking in the new place. They usually charge an hourly fee that varies by locale.

20. Investigate one-stop solutions if time is tight.

Deciding whether to sell, donate, give away, or throw away is stressful and takes a lot of time. Another way to outsource the tasks is to hold an estate sale. Caring Transitions is a chain of relocation franchises that handle estate sales.