Downsizing, Done Right

By Diane White McNaughton

When my father’s bone cancer gripped his spine and caused a pride-robbing lower-body paralysis that morphed a simple set of stairs into Mount Everest, our regrets were as frequent as his falls.

Regrets about wasted time. Old grudges. Unfulfilled dreams. And that spacious four-bedroom house that should have been traded for assisted-living long ago. The “White House” was full of cherished memories of birthday parties and proms, weddings, and long-forgotten worries, but now my parents were drowning in space. And my dad was sinking fast.

For my 80-something parents, and so many newer empty-nesters, it’s an understatement to say: down-sizing is hard.

As recent downsizer, Pam Kotz of Susquehanna Twp. so aptly says, “Middle age is not for wimps.” Ditto for the advanced agers.  The longer you wait to down-size, the harder it gets.

According to the U.S. Census, the average single family home has 2,600 square feet. In 1950, that number stood at 1,000 feet. And most families were much larger back then. It seems our “stuff” has accumulated as quickly as our square footage.

When my 82-year-old mom started packing up our family home by herself, we realized how a small corner of clutter can be like a gathering snowball. Why hadn’t we embraced the minimalist lifestyle long ago?  

I vowed never to wait to downsize. My plan was to move before I was “paralyzed” by arthritis and emotion, and my children were forced to wade through the detritus of my life.  

Whether you decide to downsize because of age, health, finances, a need for lawn care and snow removal, or a dozen other reasons, local realtors, movers and organizational experts offer many ideas and organizations who can help pave the way for a more painless purge.

Kotz, a teacher and interior decorator, downsized from a home she and her husband Richard and their two children had lived in and loved for 22 years. Thanks to a quick house sale, they had less than two months to shrink their life’s possessions into a cozier ranch home.

She said her downsizing required a great deal of “emotional distancing,” along with “extensive purging” and a “certain ruthlessness.”

She joined realtors and organizational experts in offering these simple tips:

Convince yourself that the time is right. Don’t wait, and don’t look back. If you are thinking of downsizing, it’s probably time. And think ahead.  Where will you be in 10 years? Will you be babysitting grandkids? Running a home business? Be in ill health? Be living by yourself? Let it guide your domestic cleansing.

Keep it going. “Momentum is your friend,” Kotz says. Once you start the purge, don’t stop.

Use clear poly bags to help you see what you are packing, moving or donating.

Sort into not just piles, but generous spaces. Have a separate corner for things you want to donate, ditch, re-sell, re-gift, and keep. Station empty cardboard boxes and plastic bins at the ready for each designation.  You can donate with a happy heart to Salvation Army, Shining Light Thrift Shop, Goodwill, the Military Order of the Purple Heart (who comes to your curb for pickup), Habitat for Humanity Restore, Shalom House, and Silence of Mary House, to name just a few.  I donated glitter glue, binders, magic markers, and other craft items to Caitlin’s Smiles, and unused school supplies to an inner-city school. You can also post items in good condition to sell on Facebook’s Dauphin County Online Yard Sale page. Another alternative: try to re-sell good-condition, stylish clothes at Wears Like New, a consignment shop that especially sweeps up designer labels and styles that are less than five years old.  I handed down my formal timeless mahogany dining room set to my older daughter, who rejected many other keepsakes but embraced the set.  Save your tax-deductible receipts, and relish in your paying it forward.  

If you have some valuable pieces of furniture, consider an auction house such as Cordier Auctions and Appraisals. Take photographs and measurements of your items, Kotz advises. Handle valuable antiques and pricier items separately and obtain a fair value for possible consignment.  

Secure a storage unit to house Christmas decorations, outdoor furniture, and other items you want to keep but are not using every day. 

Start the purge with one room at a time.  I started with the basement—one box at a time, per week. I set an overstuffed box in a heavily traveled area of my home, one I walked by often. It lured me in and seemed far less daunting. Next step, the spare guest room and the top shelves in my kitchen.  Bite-size tasks made down-sizing far less overwhelming. And progress spurred me on.

Visualize your new space. Why keep furniture for four bedrooms if you will only have two?  Someone will probably embrace your hulking, heavy furniture.  You lighten your load and brighten someone else’s home.

Don’t let emotion guide your “keep” pile.  Berkshire Hathaway realtor Colleen Scollon lost a son when he was a young teen, which made downsizing a painful stroll down Memory Lane.  Donating or throwing away meant giving away more parts of him. What helped her: she transformed some of his clothing into keepsake ornaments. She also has a shoebox size of mementos for each of her children. If it doesn’t fit in the box, it doesn’t stay.  She subscribes to the Marie Kondo method: if it doesn’t spark joy, it goes. Same with painful legal documents in my basement, and black dresses that reminded me of heart-wrenching funerals.    

Rent a dumpster to execute the plan. And remember to put out one large item every week for free trash pick-up by Penn Waste. Scavengers will often snatch it up before the trash collectors rumble up to your curb.

Be brutal.  Ask yourself:  why do I need 20 scented candles? Six can openers? Fifty serving trays and spatulas? Especially if you are no longer hosting massive family dinners, give those pieces to someone who is.

Examine your collections. Ask yourself: does this still mean something to me? My daughter collected water globes and frogs; my son, baseball cards and beanie babies. If your hobby has passed, give it to a new enthusiast who will love them anew.  

Consider how years of storage robs items of beauty. I kept baby items for my grandchildren someday, but when my first grandchild was born, my daughter declined my cherished keepsakes. They smelled like a musty basement, had faded with time, and were often obsolete.  I had also kept old papers. After 20 years of yellowing, they were long-overdue for the recycling bin. I re-evaluated all of it and scanned a special few.  I was not going to move dog-eared papers to a brand-new, dust-free setting.  

Remind yourself:  for most of your stuff, you didn’t remember you had it, and you will never miss it.

Take old tech gear, wires, computers, VCRs, TVs, game systems, and more to the Dauphin County E-cycling Center off Cameron Street, or Best Buy. Consider re-selling books and old albums at Second and Charles and BAM, donate to the Dauphin County Library System, or drop-off at the book collection bin by the Camp Hill Mall. 

Consider a garage sale.  Part with it emotionally before you place that price tag sticker on it.

Contemplate a hired hauler, like 1-800-Got-Junk ( ), You Call We Haul, the Junk Tank, and Dirty Dog Hauling.  They usually quote you a price to haul on the spot and it’s out of sight and out of mind. 

Keep one of what means the most to you.  Instead of keeping all of my late dad’s Eagle sweatshirts, we kept two or three. It’s a philosophy applied by Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, and this pathway allows you to keep a piece of the past.

Remind yourself:  you can always buy a new one. This may bring you comfort, but probably you won’t.  Kotz told herself she would clean out more boxes once she moved, but, as human nature reigns, that hasn’t gone as planned.

Apply the one-year rule.  If you haven’t used something in a year, give it away. Or set your own time interval.  Five years worked for me.

As the coronavirus pandemic proves, what is truly important is your family, your freedom, and your health.  It’s not your designer pumps from college, your skinny jeans, or your Waterford crystal. Simplify. 

As Kotz recommends, “The lighter the load, the smoother the flight.”