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5 Rules To Remember When Downsizing

This post first appeared on Parenting Grown Children: What Dr. Spock Forgot to Tell Us.

We are on a downsizing binge. A bag a day is my mantra. I am purging file drawers full of yellowing papers, closets crammed with outdated clothes, basement nooks stuffed with never-used heirlooms.

Rules to Remember When DownsizingWe may sell our house– the one we lived in while we raised our kids; the one our grown kids and their kids visit when they come to town. Whether or not we opt for a simpler life style, the accumulation of 40 years worth of stuff stuffed into our house has to be dwindled down. It wouldn’t be fair to leave so many years of papers, photos and assorted junk for our kids to deal with.

Would that a giant vacuum cleaner would appear and whoosh it all out of here. But of course it can’t. And shouldn’t. Papers– old tax forms, loan applications, home improvement bills–have to be reviewed before we decide if they should be saved or shredded. Non-paper goods also need to be reviewed. Should my mother-in-law’s collection of porcelain figurines be hauled to a consignment shop or do one of my children have a soft spot for them? Do either of my children want my mother’s 18 place settings (18!) of gold rimmed bone china with hand-painted serving plates.

As I work my way through the maze and mess, I cling to five rules to help me downsize with respect for the past and a real-world view of the future.

Rule One: The shredder, the scanner and the recycling bin are my friends.

A big part of rightsizing is dealing with files of paper. Old tax returns, insurance papers, client files, story files (I was a freelance writer for years) and everything else that’s been boxed or put on a shelf in a basement recess. It’s shocking how many personal identification numbers are on our papers. I shred what must be shredded, toss what doesn’t have to be disfigured and have two small bins handy for the few papers I absolutely positively must save. Many of those I’ll scan for a paperless save. I wanted to keep for my grandchildren a few of the magazine and newspaper articles I wrote at various points in my career. It was hard to let go of the hard copy, but in this day of smart phones, iPads and laptops, scanning them for possible future readers makes more sense.

Rule Two: The smart phone quickens decision-making

As I sort through “heirlooms,” wedding gifts and other bits and pieces of our lives, questions arise about what to toss, give away or save. Does my daughter want her letter sweater from her college diving team? I snap a photo, text it to her and ask for a thumbs up or down. Ditto my son and his deep-water fishing pants with the boots attached. I send my daughter and daughter-in-law photos of my mother’s china, complete with lavish serving plates (no takers). I snap shots of my mother-in-laws glassware. My daughter says yes to the oddly funky but graceful goblets. On I go, making decisions with a little help from my heirs.

Rule Three: Keep a rein on sentimentality.

Photos are the devil. We have boxes and boxes of them–ours and our parents’. Some are organized and in albums. Some loose but in subject groupings. I start with the stuff that’s not organized at all. It is a trip down memory lane. Doubles and negatives are dumped. So are blurry shots or photos of relatives or friends we don’t recognize. It’s endless and wrenching. We tell ourselves, one photo from each bike trip we took in Europe; one from each family vacation. There’s a limit to how much can you save and scan. Which leads to the next rule…

Rule Four: Leave a legacy

Photos, letters, verses read at wedding ceremonies. Some of this I’ll eventually scan into digital form, organized and saved for posterity or for that someday when I write my memoir! Or maybe I’ll pull together scrap books or videos that my children and grandchildren can study at their leisure. As I make my way through boxes of my mother’s papers, I am tempted to toss it all out. Then I come across her naturalization papers. From 1922! Her name wasn’t Rose, as I knew it. It was Roza. This is the raw stuff of history. Primary source. It may or may not be of interest to future generations but it feels important to save. I found myself applying two tests for what to keep and what to throw away: Would anyone but me be interested in having or seeing this item? If not, it goes out. Does the item have historic interest? As Alpha daughter reminds me, she’s an historian. I shouldn’t give away her raw materials.

Rule Five: Be generous to others.

We have more books than our bookshelves can handle. Libraries might want them. If not (our local libraries are no longer accepting used books), several charities will pick up boxes of books and send them to libraries who need them. Some will go to third world countries. That would be a perfect home for our complete works of Shakespeare and the children’s picture books our Grands have outgrown.

Those towels that are fraying around the edges: animal shelters can use them to comfort pets that come into their care.

Furniture that won’t fit in the new home. Places like A Wider World will pick up dressers, sofas, rugs, and even beds, and use them to help furnish a home for someone less financially fortunate.

Then there is the cache of toys we kept on hand for visiting grandchildren. What they loved to play with when they were two years old is no longer a joy to them at ten. There are places that take used toys in good condition. One of my prizes is a Pony Land house, but it’s loaded with sentimental value. One of my Grands played with it endlessly when she was visiting, laying out all the pieces and singing to herself while she played. It’s painful to let Pony Land go, but my Grand is now 12. Instead of just sending Pony Land to a charity, I give it to one of the workmen repairing our roof. He has a six year old. It’s a comfort to know Pony Land is going to a good home.

Penelope Lemov

As Penelope Lemov, I'm a senior correspondent and finance columnist for a national magazine. Everyone else knows me as Penny. In that richer and more personal life, I have two grown children, both of whom have started families of their own--in cities far from the familial manse and from each other. Among the smallest denizens of that world, I'm PenPen. And that suits me best.

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Friday 1st of January 2016

Great tips! I'm using my shredder all the time these days. It feels terrific.


Friday 1st of January 2016

thanks for the words of encouragement. An even deeper purge lies ahead if and when we sell the house. But at least I've started--and my kids are On Alert. It will soon be Now or Never for 18 sets of 6-piece gold-rimmed china that hasn't been touched since my mother willed it to me.

Walker Thornton

Friday 1st of January 2016

Great suggestions. And best of luck I went through this process last year!

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