Monday, February 1, 2016

Denial and a Parent’s Estate



George died after a good, long life, leaving behind two daughters and a houseful of belongings that he had always intended to sort through, but never did.

Alice, the elder daughter, lives over 900 miles away. Amy, the younger daughter, lives nearby with her husband and children. After the funeral, the sisters put their dad’s house on the market and vowed to get together again soon to go through the house and divide all of their dad’s possessions.

Alice’s children were grown and gone, and she had enough personal time accrued at work that she could easily take a couple of weeks off to drive back with a rental truck and collect her share of their dad’s things. But she couldn’t get Amy to commit to a time to tackle this challenge together. Amy’s family kept her very busy, and she was also having a hard time thinking about dividing the estate. She said she was really missing her dad, so Alice backed off for a few weeks.

The realtor reported that there were few people looking at the house, so it seemed like the sisters still had plenty of time to divide their dad’s belongings. Every few weeks, Alice would ask Amy if she was ready yet, and Amy would ask for more time.

When spring came, Alice began seeing open house signs in her neighborhood, and realized that people were beginning to look at houses again. She began pushing Amy a little harder, but Amy never seemed to have any time to go through their dad’s house.

Then one day Amy called Alice in a panic.

“There’s an offer on the house! A good one. What are we gonna do?”

Alice sighed, and then collected her patience before responding.

“Amy, I was afraid this would happen. We should have gone through everything months ago. But we should still have a good 60 days before the house has to be empty.”

Amy began to cry.

“It’s a cash buyer. He wants the house in a month.”

Alice had enough experience with realtors to know that she and Amy would have to go through with the sale on whatever terms they could work out with the buyer. So they requested eight weeks until possession, but the buyer responded that his apartment lease was almost up so he had to have the house within a month.

The realtor urged them to accept the offer and the time frame, adding that houses of that size and vintage had not been selling very well, and that they were very lucky. So the sisters gave in: Alice arranged to take a few weeks off of work, and she arrived at the house with a rental truck barely a week later.

A look around the house made Alice’s mood plummet. How were they going to go through everything and have it all distributed in three weeks?

But that wasn’t the worst part. When Amy arrived, she burst into tears again, saying, “I’m not ready to do this! I can’t! Daddy just died, for God’s sake!”

Alice resisted the urge to go into big sister mode and start scolding. Instead, she put an arm around her younger sister.

“We’ve gotta do this, Ame. We have no choice.”

In the end, Amy took most of the furniture and almost none of the personal belongings, paperwork, books or antiques. Alice was left with the bulk of the work of going through everything that remained, because Amy was too upset to continue.

None of Amy or Alice’s children wanted any of the knick-knacks, antiques or dishes. After a week passed by, leaving the house looking worse than ever, Alice had Amy’s teenage kids come over to help her lug everything into the truck. Then she drove it back home, where she had no space for any of it. So she and her husband Ted rented a storage unit and filled it with the considerable remainder of her late father’s belongings.

And there it sits, because Alice doesn’t know what to do with it all. She put a few special items in her china cabinet, and keeps her dad’s favorite rocking chair, which Amy didn’t take, in her den. But there lurks in the storage unit boxes and boxes of china, glassware, antiques, framed art, and books that are a considerable weight on Alice’s mind. And they will become covered in mold and mildew, given the climate where Alice lives, unless she does something about it, soon.

What could these sisters have done to make the process easier? There’s no way to hurry the grieving process, so Amy’s reluctance to go through her father’s things had to be worked around. But there are other actions they could have taken:


  • Don’t put the house on the market immediately unless there’s a good reason (such as a reverse mortgage).
  • Set a time to begin going through the estate, and stick to it, instead of waiting to do so until you’re forced to, with a deadline looming.
  • Hire an estate agent to go through the items you know you don’t want to keep. They can either hold an estate sale in the house, or take your items to another sale they’re hosting; you’ll still get a percentage of the sales. 
  • If you live some distance from your late parent’s home, try to make a trip back soon after the funeral (if not while you’re in town for the funeral) to go through personal paperwork and gauge the size of the estate that will need to be gone through, sooner rather than later.


No one wants to think about what will happen after their parents pass. But knowing what to do with their belongings will make things easier in the long run. Learn more tactics for handling your parents’ belongings in my book, How to Clean Up Your Parent's House (Without Cluttering Up Your Own).

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Now is the Time




Christmas is now behind us, and in its wake we’re left with more goodies than we really need, in most cases. So this is a wonderful time to go through the gifts we received, deciding which are keepers and which need to be moved along, so we can remain clutter-free, or at least somewhat clutter-free.

Of course, some gifts are absolute keepers: the scarf your daughter knitted for you, a book you’ve been wanting to read, a bottle of your favorite wine. But what of those gifts of a more generic variety? Items like:


  • A shower kit with a cheap plastic “loofa” and bubble-gum scented shower gel,
  • A box of cheese and sausage snacks from someone who isn’t close enough to you to know you’re vegetarian, or
  • A sweater (with no gift receipt or tags) in a color combo that hasn’t been popular since the 1980s.


These gifts are easy to pass along to someone who you know will want them, or to simply donate to a thrift store or charity that takes items to resell. Make the time to do that now, rather than move them around for the next few months before you finally become fed up and do something with them.

Then there are the wonderful gifts which replace something you already owned. For instance, someone once gave me a lovely pair of woolen slippers. They were sturdy, practical and quite expensive, I later learned. So why did it take me months to start wearing them and to throw out my old, ratty slippers? Emotional attachment is the best explanation, I suppose. But I tripped over the box containing the new pair for ages before I finally made myself do the trade and pitch the old pair.

Duplicate gifts are a bit easier to deal with. If you received something you already own, and it’s not consumable, share it with someone else you know who might need it, or pass it along. Why try to make space for it when you already have one?

As you go through your gifts and decide which are keepers and which need to go, let the momentum that builds up carry you along so that you take anything else you happen to see that’s no longer useful to you and move it along, too. You’ll be surprised how that momentum works, and it will get your year off to a great start.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Desire to Acquire






The desire to acquire starts when we’re young. We’re setting up our first apartment, or our first house. We want to put our stamp on it and make it feel like home, so we shop for just the right pieces and decorative items. It doesn’t matter how much or little money we have; whether we’re going wild at a pricey shop or at a thrift store, we regularly buy lots of goodies for our new digs to make it feel like home.

Over the years, we tweak and sometimes redo our environment, which means acquiring more things. Add to this our continual need for clothes, linens, kitchenware and entertainment options, and we’re amassing quite a lot of things.

Should we decide to have children, we’ll find that our desire to acquire increases exponentially, because there are just so many cute little toys, duds and pieces of furniture crying out for a place in our home. And of course, as our kids grow up, their needs change, and we bring into our home anything else they (or we) think they need.

By the time we reach middle age, most of us are afloat in stuff, thanks to that desire to acquire. I said “most of us” because some people are very good at keeping a minimum of stuff in their homes. But they are few and far between. Meanwhile, the rest of us have overflowing basements, attics, garages, and sometimes even rented storage units.

But there is good news. As we age, the desire to acquire begins to subside. It takes a lot more to impress us, and there’s not much out there that we really want anymore. We find that a small quantity of chosen beloved items can make us quite comfortable, especially after we’ve jettisoned the bulk of the belongings that we acquired over the years.

So if you’re awash in stuff, so much that it’s keeping you tied to a house you no longer need, take heart. Once you decide to free yourself of the burden of stuff, you may find that the desire to acquire is just a little impulse you feel occasionally. In its place roars the desire for freedom from clutter, which is all the motivation you need to lift the burden of stuff from your shoulders.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Is Downsizing the American Dream a Bad Thing?



A recent article posted at TheAtlantic.com laments the findings of interviews and surveys that show that an increasing number of Americans, particularly young Americans, are more concerned with hanging on to what they have than moving up in the world, and are also more interested in becoming debt-free.

Clearly this is a reflection of the stagnating economy that we’ve been dealing with for many years now. Young people in particular are overloaded with debt, especially student loan debt, which keeps them tethered to whatever job they might have and limits their ability to buy a car or house.

One thing missing from the article, however, is that many of these young people saw their parents overloaded with stuff, and the debt that comes from buying more stuff than you can afford. They grew up watching their parents buy houses with three-car garages when they only had two cars, just so there was more room to store their stuff. They watched them clean around all their stuff and lose spare rooms to all their stuff. And of course in extreme cases they saw them hoarding stuff.

The real theme I see in this article is that people want freedom. They want to be free of debt, and they don’t want to become loaded down with stuff they have to pay for, for years to come.

They also want affordable housing, but not necessarily impressive housing. Note the survey reference to owning a nice home. In recent years, “nice” meant “bigger and more impressive than your friends’ homes.” Given the survey and interview responses, perhaps “nice” can go back to meaning “affordable and comfortable.”

The sad tone of the article could use a little optimism. The fact is that downsizing your lifestyle can be freeing. Moving to a smaller place means you spend less time caring for your home and more time doing things you’d rather be doing. Moving to a more affordable place means improving your financial bottom line, and maybe even helping you become debt-free.

Yes, it can be painful to go through a downsizing of the American Dream. It sure hurt when my family was forced to go through it. But it only hurts for a little while because the freedom you gain feels so good. Eight years on from our involuntary downsizing, we are thriving, enjoying debt-free life in a small, nice home.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Giving Up Your Furniture When You Downsize





What do you do with your furniture when you downsize your life?

Most likely you’re moving to smaller quarters and you just can’t fit all of your furniture into it. So you’ll have to make some decisions.

We moved from a 5-bedroom two-story house to a 3-bedroom ranch when we downsized. As a result, we gave up a lot of furniture, something you may also have to do.

The downside of this is that you won’t get much for your furniture, even if it’s very high quality, solid wood, leather, etc. Most of today’s young people would rather spend $600 on an iPhone than on a solid oak end table, so the demand for high-quality furniture is not what it once was. But it’s not dead, either, so you should be able to sell your unneeded furniture, though you probably won’t get what you think it’s worth.

We were in the middle of moving, so we wanted to get rid of things quickly. We put a sofa sleeper on Craig’s List for a few hundred dollars, and it sold fast. We put a loveseat that had seen better days on the curb and a neighbor snatched it up within a few hours. We also had a sale at our storage unit where we sold our kitchen table and chairs, a few dressers and some other pieces of furniture. 

We didn’t make a fortune on our old furniture, but we got it out of our way quickly, which was our primary goal.

The upside to today’s listless furniture market is that you can find some really nice pieces for reasonable prices that will be better suited to your new (smaller) home. After we downsized, we did buy a few new pieces, because we needed smaller-scale furniture.

Our best purchase was a leather loveseat, built like a tank and in pretty good shape, bought from someone who was also downsizing and didn’t want to take it on their cross-country move. It cost us a whopping $200 and fits perfectly in our modestly sized living room, where a sofa would be too large.

The person we bought it from moved to the other side of the country after selling all her furniture, then outfitted her new smaller home with quality wood and leather pieces as well as appliances that she found on Craig’s List. She said it was well worth the money she paid to rent a small truck to carry the larger pieces to her new home.

Of course there’s always IKEA, Big Lots and Target if you prefer cheap, trendy furniture. But if you like quality pieces, a little legwork can get you well-made furniture at a very reasonable cost in just the right scale for your new home.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

"I Was Gonna"



Were there ever three other words that got more people into clutter trouble?

I was gonna learn to paint so I collected all these paintbrushes, paints, books about painting, and canvases I bought on sale that are sitting, covered with dust, in my basement.”

I was gonna start a jewelry making business, so I started collecting tools, stones, books about making jewelry, magazines about making jewelry, and display cases I was going to use at craft sales, all of which are now parked high up in the top of my garage rafters.”

I was gonna start an in-home daycare, so I bought up toys on sale, including big climbing toys that fill a corner of my backyard to this day, but I never did get that business off the ground.”

Sound familiar?

Here's one of my own (many) “I Was Gonna” stories. Years ago, I read a book review in a magazine like Glamour or Mademoiselle (remember that magazine?) for a book about making your own wedding gown. So I special-ordered it.

As it turned out, not long after I got engaged I found my dream gown on a mannequin in a bridal store and it was only $50, so I snapped it up and thus didn’t need the book after all. But I kept it just in case.

A few years later my sister got engaged and I thought I’d make her a wedding gown, but I became so busy with my new baby that I quickly realized that I didn’t have time to take on such a project. But I kept the book so I could make my baby girl’s wedding gown someday.

And I kept that book for 30 years. Finally, during our big purge several years ago, I admitted defeat and donated it to the local Goodwill.

Since then, two daughters have gotten married. One eloped and the other wanted a specific gown that she saw in a bridal shop. So I never would have used the book anyways!

How many things do you have that are “I Was Gonna” items? Things you were gonna do but never did. Have you gotten to the point that you can admit that you’re never gonna do them? That you had good intentions but life got in the way?

It’s OK to admit that, by the way. It happens to everyone. The important thing is what needs to happen after you admit that you’re never gonna use that stuff: 

You let it go.

That’s right, just move it along. Donate it, give it to someone who wants it, or pitch it (especially in the case of very old, dried-up tubes of artists’ paint.)

Let yourself be who you are today, not who you were back in the day or who you intended to become. The space you reclaim will be your reward.


Friday, June 19, 2015

“I Hope My Kids Don’t Do This to Me!”





The estate sale I went to last week was a packed one; it was like a museum of my childhood, complete with ash trays with bean-bag bases, thermal coffee mugs with woven-straw sides, and a large wood stereo system on legs just like you would have found in most of the houses in the neighborhoods of my childhood, back in the 1960s.

But what was most memorable about this sale was that on two separate occasions I heard women say, “I hope my kids don’t do this to me!” as they looked at the displays of two elderly folks’ personal possessions.

My goodness, do they think their kids will keep their houses (and contents) intact after they go to a nursing home, or after they die? Something will have to be done with their things, and it’s extremely likely that their kids will do this to them; what other choice will they have? Do they expect them to keep all of it? We’re talking about a houseful of stuff: tables covered in bric-a-brac, knick-knacks, plates, glasses, linens, tools, you name it.

I wanted to tell these women that there is only one way to be sure your kids don’t do this to you, and that’s to go through it yourself while you’re still alive and kicking. Make the tough decisions now so your kids will never have to put all of your things on display for strangers to pick through someday.

As the late Percy Ross used to say, “He who gives while he lives knows where it goes.” Keep only your most favorite and necessary possessions, give the next best items to people you love, and sell or donate the rest. You’ll relieve your kids of a huge burden someday, and you’ll never have to spin in your grave because your home is the site of an estate sale.