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Downsizing 101: Getting More Out of Cutting Back

Every stage in life has its trends: the transient younger years where we move from job to job and home to home to find our place in the world; the middle years where we settle down with a family; and the retirement years where the kids have flown the nest and we begin to evaluate a lifetime of accumulated stuff.

Most seniors go through a phase where they take stock and decide life would be a little easier if they could downsize. Perhaps it’s in the name of de-cluttering for a cleaner home, or perhaps it’s moving into a smaller and maintenance-free community to spend their golden years enjoying quality time with friends and family rather than raking leaves and fixing toilets.

If you or a loved one is considering downsizing from the long-time family home, here are a few tips to manage the move, safely and with your sanity intact:

1. Recognize the stress is real.

Going through several decades worth of stuff can be joyful, because we stumble onto forgotten treasures and memories, but it can also be stressful—if for no other reason than because there’s So. Much. Stuff. Be sure to pause on occasion to keep reminding yourself that you will get through it all. Remember the Buddhist line, “A jug fills drop by drop.”

2. De-clutter before the move.

If you know a move is coming next year, consider taking some extra time for this year’s spring cleaning. Go through your drawers and closets and get rid of as much stuff as you can stomach. Try turning your clothes inside out (or marking them some other way) and re-stowing them. If in one year they are still inside out, it means you haven’t worn them. They can likely be donated. Doing a major de-clutter now will save you some major stress when you’re ready to move.

3. Decide what’s most important to keep.

There’s a good chance you or your spouse (or your mom or dad) is a real packrat, so you likely have possessions going back decades. A wedding portrait is obviously more important than that leisure suit from the Carter administration. For everything else, it may be helpful to assign stuff a number 1-5 on a spectrum, with 1’s obvious keeps and 5’s obvious trash. Get rid of the 4’s and 5’s, and start negotiating over the 3’s.

4. Invest in cloud storage.

One piece of good news is that many sentimental items fall into categories like family photos or children’s artwork. Cloud storage programs such as Evernote are relatively inexpensive and provide a way to store images digitally. If you have a smart phone, it’s easy to take a quick picture and load it into Evernote, giving you a stress-free way to clear out boxes of stuff—everything from photos to old tax returns.

5. Break it up.

Finally, don’t try to move everything in a day, or even a weekend. Sure, the big stuff may have to go in one swoop if you are hiring a moving company. Otherwise, try to break the job into smaller parts. Clear out the garage one weekend, the attic another. After a few weekends, the downsizing move will become downright manageable.