By Marni Jameson
“Where do I start?” came the first question from a woman sitting in a group who’d gathered at a bookstore in Salt Lake City, where I was talking about downsizing.
“In the place that bothers you most,” I say. I don’t tell her that starting the process of sorting through a lifetime of accumulations to let go and lighten up feels, at first, like stepping into quicksand.
“What about my tools?” asks a gentleman in his 70s. “I have $60,000 worth of tools no one appreciates anymore. I’m not going to just give them away.”
“Do you use them?”
“Some of them,” he says.
His wife shakes her head.
“Not most,” he amends.
“That they were expensive is not a reason to hold onto anything you don’t need, use or love. Plus, what you paid once isn’t a reflection of market worth now.” (Think of all those families that bought encyclopedia sets.)
“My mom is a packrat,” a 20-something woman confesses. “Every time I sit down with her to go through her things, we end up in an argument.”
“I hate to sound like Dr. Phil, here, but you can’t help her if she doesn’t want to change. Be glad you’re not married to her.”
And so go the conversations in cities across America, as I travel to talk about a subject everyone is dealing with, has dealt with, or will deal with: Sorting through and thinning out a lifetime of stuff, be it ours or our parent’s. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned: We’re a mess.
Wherever I go, (this weekend it’s the National Book Festival in Washington DC), my brief remarks are quickly followed by group therapy sessions. Adult children and their parents are both groaning: What are we going to do with all this stuff!?
“My kids tell me I have too much stuff, and that I need to deal with it,” a 70-something woman said. Later, she tells me privately, “I don’t even like to have people over, because the house looks so bad.”
“You’re telling me, your need to hold onto the past is robbing you of life right now,” I tell her. “Live and let go!” I say sounding like a Paul McCartney & Wings song.
Anyone who has too much stuff (my hand is raised, is yours?) knows that paring down isn’t as simple as loading up your car and driving by Goodwill on your way to the landfill, (which is still an excellent idea, by the way, and could save us both a lot of trouble).
No, letting go of stuff is a giant mind game, with Team Stuff favored to beat Good Human Intentions by 10-to-one odds. But you can reverse those odds, and win by adopting the right mindset.
Last week, I shared my first five ready-for-television soundbites, which I’m sharing in my talks. Here are the second five:
- Choose to keep, rather than to let go. When going through a cupboard or closet, rather than pick over the contents pulling out what to get rid of, do the reverse. Take everything out, then thoughtfully choose what to keep and let go of the rest. Pretend you’re shopping, and pick only what you would buy again.
- Get real about value. Sit down with a glass of something stiff. Most belongings you think are valuable (your tools, sir) aren’t worth nearly as much as you think. For a reality check, go on Craigslist, and look at what similar items sold for (not their asking price). While we’re at it, let me remind you again: The kids don’t want it. Do not clog up their lives with your guilt trips.
- Let space be your guide. Your space is fixed. The amount of stuff you have isn’t. Your stuff not your space, should conform. When putting your home in order, designate a defined, appropriate amount of space for like items – say, one shelf for Tupperware — then stay in the boundaries. I have a shelf in my closet for purses. It is full. I will not let my purses creep onto DC’s shirt shelf. If I fall for a new purse and buy it, the deal is this: I must part with an old purse. If I believe I need more purses than this shelf holds, I have a problem.
- Cherish the few and small. Sentimental value explains why we cling to 90 percent of those items we don’t need, use or love. I get that, and I agree: a cherished reminder of someone dear is a precious keepsake. But here’s the key: When picking those few keepsakes, think small, precious, portable. (Precious, by definition, means rare.) Keep too many mementos, and they lose their specialness. When clearing out my parents’ home, I was tempted to keep so much. But I thought about how all the belongings I treasured would congest my own already fully furnished house. So I compromised. I selected a handful of small items to remember my parents by. Today, I have my dad’s wooden cigar box, which sits on my desk and holds pens. On my vanity, I have mom’s pearls, her Lalique crystal birds, a bottle of her perfume, and her coin purse.
- Make it a Lifestyle. The best way to lighten your inevitable load is to start living lighter now. Purge then maintain the new order. Don’t make downsizing a one-time event; make it a way of living. Lighten up, let go, and live better now.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016). You may reach her at www.marnijamson.com