Great Advice on Parting with Possessions

Readers show they're the experts when it comes to downsizing and learning how to move on with life.

By + More

I recently wrote about how hard it is for many of us to downsize, get rid of possessions and prepare for new phases in our lives. Some changes are triggered by positive events but many are forced upon us by losses -- of spouses, of health, even of financial security. It can be a very tough and lonely period. Clearly, many of you agree, because you posted some absolutely marvelous personal stories and suggestions. You are the experts here, and your experiences are more instructive than my advice and even many observations from the "experts" I often quote. I'd like to share a few:

The ten-six-three rule. "I had a life change this year, and took that opportunity to start simplifying my life. At first it was little things, then it started getting easier and easier. Pretty soon, the lawn was just a giant gift shop to the world. The first obstacle to get over was holding on to things in your life you don't use, but perceive that it still has value and so you shouldn't let go of it. If you aren't using it, then its only value is as a dust collector. Start small, and force yourself to keep to your rules. My first rule was, 'If it hadn't been used in 10 years, it had to go.' That was hard at first, but I did it. Then we went to six years, then three, then a year. Eventually, we just emptied the attic. Things that I saved for heirlooms that I didn't use, I bequeathed while I can still enjoy [seeing people] receiving them. (Why hold on to it if you don't use it?). The house was empty after a few months, and I felt great and free. Now the house is too big. So much of it was just storage or "filler" furniture. Start small and see how it changes your entire outlook. It is a true domestic colonic for the soul." Road warriors in training. "My husband and I are in the throes of exactly this process now. We've been selling stuff on for three years, maybe two or three items a week. Early this year, we added craigslist sales, and after two garage sales figured out we'd have to move stuff at a faster pace, so we've started to take a van load of things to a flea market every week. It's surprising to me what items sell, but I've realized that there's a buyer for everything. We're downsizing in a big way - going from a 2,200-square-foot home with a full basement and four-car garage, to a 20-foot conversion van, pulling a 20-foot toy hauler. We have decided to keep a storage locker, but intend to keep only books, hobby supplies, sports equipment, and extra clothes. We'll circle back two or three times a year to trade out seasonal items/clothes, and replenish the books and hobby supplies, having used up some quantity of those items in our travels. So far, we're finding the experience of 'lightening the load' to be very freeing, and the more we get rid of, the more we want to get rid of. I'm taking photos and similar mementos and scanning them into the computer, and even those items will get dumped eventually."

Taking that first step. "I've only just begun this dastardly business of sorting through one's long-forgotten self. Today I took a baby step. I seized the moment as my uncooperative spouse escaped to run his errands. I took possession of a small portion of the garage and started to re-establish a kinship with shadowy bags and boxes from the past. In the midst of gathering items for a Purple Heart pickup this week, I was confronted with a canvas bag containing stuff from a former self of 35 years ago: thinner, single, working in a New York magazine internship program. It's moments like this - frozen in recalling all the possibilities and promise - that make downsizing such a daring and fearful chore. But there's about six large bags there in the mud room now, so I guess I muddled through okay for a first attempt. Will it be easier next week?"

Keeping 19 cousins happy. "Having been responsible for emptying a farmhouse which had been the family home since the 1890's, occupied by three generations of practical folks who saved everything that had potential usefulness, I know too well how things can accumulate. As there were no direct descendants of the last resident at the farm, it became a diplomatic challenge to divide treasured family heirlooms among all 19 cousins. After the important things were moved, it then was most helpful to have a trusted auctioneer help with decisions about the remainder: what was a "good collectible" to sell at auction, what was only going to bring in a little (and sometimes it was impossible to discern the difference myself), and what should fill the roll-away dumpster, twice. One might think the experience would have motivated me to filter my own belongings in the same way - but so far, it's not made it to my active to-do list. However, I think I'm far more likely to tackle it now than I would have been before this process began."

My stuff - my problem. "After going to a number of estate sales I soon realized the need to downsize. What is important to me is not to others. Why burden others with my stuff? I work on one area or a few items at a time. Then I come back much later after I have adjusted to the change. Then I work on another area or group of items. I try and not refill those areas, unless with plants. There are non-profit organizations that are in need. Also, there are electronic recycling days along with toxic drop-off days. Less weight on my shoulders. Good luck."

His history is now their history. "I am a paper pack rat, accumulating tons of articles and materials related to my former position as a senior military analyst, especially work involving peace and related military operations as well as future studies. I always felt that some of it had historical value, and in fact, on occasion, made use of some of it myself to write articles. Today I have less time or inclination to write and have a tendency to procrastinate in any event. But, I hate to part with what I feel might be historically valuable materials. I learned that our history office had interest in these materials and dumped a bunch of boxes there. Happily, some young Ph.D. candidates found some of it useful, which is spurring me to continue my donations on these topics and others of an historical nature. Not only is my wife happy with the loss of clutter, but I feel satisfied that someone may make good use of the materials."

Storage locker psychology. "My wife and I were having trouble with getting rid of stuff. We tried an experiment that may help others. I opened a storage locker and put all the stuff that was in question inside. We kept the locker for one year. The key rule was that we could go and get anything we wanted from the locker during that year. At the end of the year we had forgotten what the stuff was and we dumped the boxes without opening them. This system worked very well for us."

Things you need to keep. "My son was 44 when he died three years ago. At first I didn't want to get rid of clothes. I was going to remake some of his shirts for me. I put them in a box and opened it a few months ago. I finally gave them to Goodwill. I still have some little things that he saved that mean something only to me. I have started a special bin where I put them and will be able to look at them from time to time. He had an apartment in Manhattan, and a lodge in upstate New York. I hated having to divide things I wanted, things my daughter wanted, things I wanted her to have and what to sell or give to charity. It's not easy but I am beginning to feel better about some of the things I have given away. I had to integrate his furniture with mine and now my living room is full to the brim. Perhaps some day I will want to give some of them to my daughter but I just enjoy sitting in the chairs knowing that it was something he sat in and enjoyed. He had a lot of antiques which I sold, and kept a few for myself. I hated to break up all that he had worked for for so many years. I am glad he is not in pain but having his things keeps him with me and I know I will see him again in heaven. Thanks for listening."

And thanks for reading.