How to Downsize 101

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I’m so excited to share a follow-up post by my mother-in-law. Jane is qualified to teach “How to Downsize 101” because she and her her husband George recently walked through their own strategic downsize (read the beginning of their story here).  You’re going to appreciate this mix of personal story and practical advice…

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I stood in the walk-in attic of the 4800 square foot Dream House among opened boxes and held to the light a little ceramic baby shoe. In 1960, someone had sent my mother flowers in that little shoe when I was born; she, in turn, had filled it with flowers in 1981 for me when my oldest son was born. But my son has never married, and it seems likely he will not have children.

I wavered. Although that shoe had been stored for well over three decades, it was precious to me. I could donate it, but it wasn’t especially beautiful, and without its backstory, who would even want it? I could keep it, but it would be one more little thing crowding the 1500 square feet George and I needed in the Transition House for essentials.

I could throw it away now, or someone I loved would have to throw it away later. I knew this lesson firsthand, because as people of a certain (ahem) age, George and I have both dealt in recent years with throwing away things our own mothers held dear.

I took a deep breath and put the little shoe into the garbage bag.

Lesson 1: Make peace with letting go of sentimental things

So, here was my first downsizing lesson: How to make peace with letting go of things that mattered. I know that precious shoe existed. I have the memory. I don’t need to keep it in a box where I will never see it again, but it will take up space.

I know that precious shoe existed. I have the memory. I don’t need to keep it in a box where I will never see it again, but it will take up space.

In the frantic five weeks we had to pack and winnow out old treasures, there were many such moments. I became good friends with all of the staff at the local rescue mission, where I took load after load of donations. Okay, it was nineteen loads, but who’s counting? We became intimately acquainted with the hours at the local dump, where we also took many loads of garbage and recycling (and we really didn’t count those).

Churning through all of the memories in those boxes in the attic was both sweet and heartbreaking. Over and over again, I had to make decisions to let go of things no one would want: old school assignments, artwork from third grade, old baby shoes. They had indeed served their season, but now it was time to let go.
Because the Dream House had been on the market for two years, the fact that it might actually sell had become like The Impossible Dream. George and I had perfected the home showing routine: the day or two of cleaning, yardwork, and staging, after which we would vacate with the dogs to the Transition House, only to return and reclaim the Dream House. We went through this process over thirty times. We had street cred with friends who put their homes on the market: “You think you are having a hard time? We’ve been doing this for TWO YEARS! Let me tell you about the people who…”
So when the house did sell, we stalled a couple of weeks about hiring a mover because we weren’t sure it would really happen. These buyers seemed awfully picky. Maybe they were going to back out. I had research papers to grade. Second downsizing lesson: Do. Not. Procrastinate.

Lesson 2: Do not procrastinate

Every move is hard. I know that. But it was much easier twelve years ago when we were moving to a larger home, because we could just put boxes out of sight and deal with them later. When we were downsizing from 4800 to 1500 square feet, we had to make decisions about thousands of objects. We gave away fifteen major pieces of furniture, including the beautiful 1914 upright mahogany piano that my grandfather had purchased second hand during the Great Depression. (We found it a loving home.)

We knew our plan was to live in the Transition Home for a few years before retiring out of state. We suspect our next home will be a little larger than 1500 square feet, so we had some furniture and possessions that we needed to put into a storage unit.

Lesson 3: Accurately estimate how much stuff will fit in a smaller space

Third downsizing lesson: it is really hard to estimate how much will fit (or not fit) into a house one third the size of the one in which you have been living. We made mistakes. The mover wanted us to pack everything up into a pod they would store at their warehouse; we would not be able to get in and out of it. We wisely said no, we would need access. And have we ever needed access. We have had to haul pieces of furniture over to the storage unit and bring others back. Things keep moving from room to room, from drawer to drawer. Some pieces of furniture are now in their fifth location in the Transition House.

Lesson 4: Additional purchases might be necessary

Fourth downsizing lesson: even when you are in the mode of getting rid of things and living with less, you will still need to purchase more stuff to make the smaller place work. The modest closets in our 1943 home were not configured for maximum storage. George installed new shelving, and we bought and labeled clear plastic storage bins to help us juggle all the little necessities. We bought organizers for the bathroom and kitchen drawers.

Downsize 101

Lesson 5: You’ll love living with less

Seven weeks into our “new” place, we continue to have downsizing lessons, but the most important lesson may be this one: we love 1500 square feet. This house is already home.

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author and her husbandJane Sasser was born and raised in Fairview, North Carolina. Her poetry has appeared in The Atlanta Review, The North American Review, The Sun, The Lullwater Review, Appalachian Heritage, The National Forum, Sow’s Ear, and numerous other anthologies and publications. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Recollecting the Snow and Itinerant. An English teacher at Oak Ridge High School, she currently resides in Oak Ridge, TN, with her husband George and rescue greyhounds.

Find her featured poetry on these sites:

Whale Road Review 

The JAMA Network 

The Ghazal Page 

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10 Comments
  • Ella
    June 8, 2017

    yes! I loved this. My problem area includes all the sentimental items… That little shoe you mentioned – I’d have not known what to do with it! Your story gives me hope that I can keep only a small box of sentimental items as I prepare for a move across the country.

    • Evelyn
      June 8, 2017

      Hi Ella, yes you can do it! I loved Jane’s line about how it served its purpose. Now we can move on. 🙂

  • Betsy
    June 8, 2017

    Great article! Congrats on your downsizing. I got the buzz in my head to start downsizing when our children started moving out. In one year our parents passed away and we had to empty out 2 homes that were lived in for almost 40 years plus we sold our 6 bedroom 3 story house and moved into a large condo. During all of this I felt like I was drowning in stuff as did my husband. We decided we needed to downsize even more. We found a 960 square foot house and used graph paper to measure what we could take and then subtracted even more. We donated, sold and tossed tons of items between our condo and our parents places. To say we have so much less pressure of stuff doesn’t begin to describe the relief we feel. Our son stopped in the other day and said what a pleasure it was to come to a place where there was room to breath. Our finances are so much more healthy too.

    • Evelyn
      June 8, 2017

      What a wonderful success story!! Thanks for sharing. 🙂 Downsizing brings so much joy and peace. I’m glad you feel it too.

  • littleblackdomicile blogger
    June 8, 2017

    Your mother in law is an inspirational realist! Love her mindset and approach. We help clients make major changes in their homes often. One client said she hated the term downsize and said she was moving up to the life she now wanted! We love that!-Laurel Bledsoe

    • Evelyn
      June 8, 2017

      Oh I love that too! And thanks… yes, Jane is inspirational everything. 🙂

  • Mariah
    June 11, 2017

    It makes me panic to think of ridding my family of all the sentimental garbage/treasures. Are there questions you would ask yourself in determining what stays and goes? And the piano, oh the piano I just can not rid myself of. HOW did you make that decision and live with it?

    • Evelyn
      June 13, 2017

      Hi Mariah, I understand the feeling!!! This is a post from one of my friends that answers your questions perfectly. http://www.theminimalistplate.com/let-go-of-sentimental-things/. Hope it helps & good luck! 🙂 … if you KNOW you’re going to regret getting rid of something that is important to you, then keep it! Or see if you can pass it off to someone who genuinely needs it who is close to you.

    • Jane Sasser
      June 14, 2017

      Mariah, letting go of the piano was really hard. I had to face the truth, that I hadn’t played it in years, and no one else in my family played it at all. It was frankly too heavy for the old floors at the Transition House. I had a couple of years to make peace with the idea of finding it a good home, where it would be loved. And I did. But we didn’t get rid of all our treasures. I have my mother’s dining room table, her china, and other pieces. It’s a matter of deciding what you love the most and what makes the most sense for your lifestyle.

  • Cheryl @ Uncluttered Simplicity
    June 16, 2017

    Love this! Our family of 5 has downsized from 2,500 sq. ft. to 1,100 sq. ft. and within the next year are planning to sell (almost) everything and move 4 of us (the oldest is leaving for college) into a 26-30 foot 5th wheel.
    I’m a little scared but excited at the same time. I love reading stories about people choosing to downsize!

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