Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Joy (and Danger) of Estate Sales





Once we got rid of more than half of our belongings when we downsized, I figured going to estate sales would now be out of the question for me. Otherwise, how would I handle the temptation of more stuff?

I’ve been going to estate sales for years. I used to live down the road from a very wealthy town where people lived in beautiful old houses on acreage. Those were truly estates! By going to the estate sales, I could go inside these lovely old houses, appreciate their architecture and decorating, and sometimes pick up a few goodies as well.

Now that I’m committed to not bringing home more stuff unless I get rid of an equal amount simultaneously (so that I never overstuff a home with clutter again), I’ve been surprised to discover that going to an estate sale can actually encourage me to stick to my guns.

How can this be? Well, now when I go into a house where an estate sale is taking place (as I did the other day), and I see table after table covered with old glassware and plates, countless knick-knacks, faded costume jewelry and worn linens, I think with gratitude that I’m glad this mess isn’t mine, and that I didn’t have to deal with it. It’s a good reminder of the quantity of stuff we went through when we downsized, and how glad I am to have that behind me.

Of course, my stuff was newer than most of what I see in estate sales. But it’s the sheer quantity of stuff spread all over someone’s home that is a good visual reminder of how much stuff a house can hold if you don’t stay on top of things.

So going to estate sales actually helps me keep on top of my own clutter. But there are other benefits as well. Since I no longer live near that wealthy area, the houses I go into now aren’t palatial or architecturally significant. But their contents often include things I remember from my childhood, so it’s almost like going into a museum of my youth.

For instance, at the sale I went to the other day, I saw an ashtray with a gold-colored metal top and a red-plaid bean-bag bottom, just like one I remember from my grandpa’s house. Seeing it took me back to Sunday afternoons visiting my grandparents, where the women chatted in the kitchen while Grandpa and my uncles sat around the tiny black-and-white television set, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes as they cheered on the Sox. All those important people in my life have been gone for years, but what a nice memory of them that ashtray brought back to me.

That’s why, as long as I can keep to my pledge not to bring home anything unless I get rid of something else, I will keep going to estate sales.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Channeling My Inner 12-Year-Old



Thanks to a years-long economic downturn, many of us have lost our livelihoods and must pare down our belongings and find a more affordable way of life.

It’s called downsizing your life, and it’s not easy. For me, one of the most challenging aspects was figuring out who I was and what I was going to need in my new downsized life.

It had been so long since I was free to do what I wanted, yet I couldn’t do anything expensive. I wouldn’t be able to afford to take up skiing in Aspen. I couldn’t become one of those people who go on three cruises a year. And I certainly wasn’t going to be able to open up a cute little gift shop in a tourist town; who’s got the money for that kind of overhead?

That said, those of us who tend to be frugal have always known that you don’t need much money to have fun. That belief is what finally helped me discover which few items of my oversized lifetime accumulation of stuff should be kept, and which needed to go.

In the end, what I figured out was that I still love to do the things I loved to do when I was 12. And since I, like most 12-year-olds back then, had very little money, the things I enjoyed cost little or nothing.

Why 12? For me, by age 12 I already knew my own mind but had not yet been distracted by boys (age 14+), the pressure to get good grades (ages 14-21), career success (age 21 +) and motherhood (age 25 +).

At 12, I read voraciously, often to escape the boredom of the classroom. I read books from the public library, so there was no money involved.

At 12, I learned to sew. Whenever I visited the small Southern town where my grandma lived, I stopped by the local fabric shop and picked up a bag of remnants for 25 cents. This kept my little sisters in doll clothes and me in sewing projects. Cheap fun!

At 12, I loved music. My little black transistor radio brought me great joy, as did my record player and a growing collection of record albums.

At 12, I loved to ride my bike all over town. It provided an escape from my family and the most freedom I would know until I learned to drive a few years later.

At 12, I had a garden. I grew bachelor buttons and potatoes and green beans. I still remember the taste of fresh buttered potatoes straight from the garden….mmmm!

Once I rediscovered these joys at the age of 50+, it became much easier to decide what to keep. I kept my very favorite books, my long-forgotten sewing supplies and our gardening tools. And I bought a nice high-quality Trek bicycle.

Everything else had to go, including the rest of the books. (We had accumulated hundreds over the years). Now I live with only my most favorite items, and they’re being used all the time.

Thanks to technology, many of my favorite things take up little space and cost little if anything. Books that aren’t in our public library can be stored on my Kindle. Going to YouTube lets me hear entire albums. Pandora offers a great variety of music whenever I want it.

So now I can enjoy my favorite activities with low clutter and at little or no cost; I call that the joy of downsizing!

If you’re overwhelmed by years of accumulated stuff and need to downsize your life, take some time to go back to your youth. What did you like when you were 12? How did you spend your time outside of the classroom? What did you enjoy doing before you were distracted by adult responsibilities? I’ll bet you’ll find some clues there.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What Should You Keep? Well, Who Are You Now?



Like so many of our contemporaries, we were forced to downsize because of a big financial reversal: my husband’s industry shifted overseas, and he was left without a livelihood, not to mention his vocation of over 30 years.

At the same time, I was facing an empty nest. Even though I’ve been a writer for years, my primary occupation was full-time mom of a large family. By the time we downsized, some of our kids had already moved out on their own, and the others were approaching that age.

So both my husband and I were faced with the thought, “Who am I now?” Aside from the philosophical side of that question was the very real issue of which of our things should we get rid of and which of our things should we keep because we might need/want them in the future. When you no longer know who you are, everything looks like something you might need down the road.

This partially explains why we didn’t get rid of hardly anything before we moved (the first of three moves in four years), and why we kept two storage units full of stuff before we finally settled in the little house we now call home.

I don’t recommend doing what we did. It was a big pain, as you can imagine. But we just didn’t know where we would end up or what we would be doing.

It took quite a bit of time before either of us began getting an idea of what we wanted to keep and what we could give up. Speaking only for myself, I found that as time passed and I stopped seeing myself primarily as Mom, I began to see myself as Claire again. Part of that process involved tapping into my desires regarding what I wanted to do.

I’m not talking about careers here. I can’t write 16 hours a day anyways. I’m talking about how I wanted to spend my time. It had been so many years since I had the luxury of choosing how to spend my time that I was almost paralyzed by the freedom for a while. And even when I did do something I wanted to do, I felt guilty about spending time on myself like that.

But I’m getting over it :) Since then, I’ve identified some areas of interest, things that I really enjoy doing, and as a result I was able to keep items I would need and pass along items that I no longer needed.

This may sound obvious, but when you’re faced with literally hundreds of cubic feet of stuff accumulated over a busy three or four decades, you either have to pitch it all at once or come up with a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sentimental (and frugal) people like me can’t just toss it all in dumpsters, no matter how much we wish we could. We need some guidelines in order to begin the sorting routine.

Once I figured out what I wanted to do, I had my guidelines. Next time, I’ll share how that process happened for me.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Tiny House Living




I recently discovered a new book about tiny houses that’s packed with photos and interesting information from people who live in tiny houses; some of them even built their own tiny houses.

Now, while I don’t think a tiny house is for me (we use our basement almost every day for our work and our hobbies), I can see how well the concept works for some people. In the new book Tiny House Living: Ideas for Building & Living Well in Less than400 Square Feet, author Ryan Mitchell shares the stories of a variety of tiny house residents.

My favorite is that of Kathy, a retiree whose son began building her a tiny house without her knowledge (“He knew if he told her ahead of time it would be a much harder sell, so he waited until it was almost done to show her.”) Kathy now lives in the tiny house with her husband, and has found that the tiny house has made some big positive changes in her life:


She can do all that she needs to do in her home, without a mortgage and with very low bills. Her power bill tops out at $25 a month and water is about $12—not because she uses that much, but because that’s the minimum charge to keep the service on….Since she is retired, it is very important to keep her living expenses low and it means that she can do much more, like visit her grandchildren more, go out to eat with her friends more, focus on her hobbies and simply not have to worry about the bills as much…..For the first time she has had the money and the time to visit her grandson for his birthday….


So many Baby Boomers don’t have big pensions waiting for them and were unable to save up much for retirement; a tiny house might be one answer to living successfully in retirement on only Social Security and some modest savings. If that sounds like you or someone you know, you should check out this book!

In the story about Kathy, she says that her friends with large houses are beginning to wish they had smaller homes to care for and more free time like Kathy does. But she says something holds them back:


It’s because they don’t know what to do with all their stuff that they spent their whole lives trying to pay for. They are so inclined to having stuff that it’s scary for them to think of paring down.


To Kathy’s friends, I say “Downsize, people, downsize! Lose the clutter and gain your freedom!”

One more thing: in most tiny houses, the sleeping area is always up in a loft. Who wants to risk falling down that tiny loft ladder in the middle of the night when they need a bathroom? But Kathy’s tiny house has a futon in the living area that turns into a bed, so she doesn’t climb up into a loft to sleep. Smart!


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Falling Off the Decluttering Wagon



I was so good when we first moved into our little house. I never let anything pile up on the counters. No more library books stacked on the floor next to the sofa. No more boxes labelled “Miscellaneous” parked in dark corners.

But over time, my old habits began to return. I had been putting Christmas presents that needed to be wrapped on the bed in the spare room; before long, other odds and ends that had no specific parking spot ended up there, and the bed became the parking spot for too many things. It was so easy to just set something there instead of making the effort to find a place for it.

Meanwhile, the closets began to get more crowded. I hadn’t taken the time to pitch something after buying its replacement. Repeat that a few times and pretty soon the lovely feeling of spaciousness in my little closets disappeared.

Then there was the garage. Last year we replaced almost all of our home’s windows with lovely new energy-efficient windows. But the old windows would make a terrific greenhouse in the back yard, so as they were removed from the house, we stacked them in the garage, where we forgot about them until winter came and we wanted to get the cars in the garage.

Combine these incidents with a few others too similar to mention here, and our little house began to feel snug. That’s when I realized I had fallen off the decluttering wagon. The feeling of panic that resulted was similar to the one you get when you can’t zip your pants after the holidays. Yikes!

I did not like that feeling, so it didn’t take me long to become motivated to declutter again. I spent some time going through our clothes, made a stack of items that we no longer needed, and put them in bags in the trunk of my car. I cleared off the bed in the spare room, finding places for everything (and getting rid of a few old things to make space for those new things). The old things were also sent to the car. Then I immediately took them to the local thrift shop and donated them.

Meanwhile, my husband and I discussed the windows and the likelihood that he would have time to make a greenhouse this year (answer: very unlikely) and decided to put them up for free on Craig’s List. They were gone by evening, and both cars made it into the garage. No more scraping off ice and snow before we could go anywhere!

I’m relieved to be back to our uncluttered state, but it kind of alarms me that I fell off the wagon after we worked so hard and got rid of so much stuff when we downsized. It just goes to show that vigilance is key; stay on top of your stuff if you don’t want to fall off the wagon.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Surviving a Financial Reversal



I called a friend today to wish her a happy birthday and found her in a funk. She said it wasn’t so much her age that was bothering her (today she reached the big round number that’s exactly halfway between zero and 100), but that she never dreamed that she would be where she is at this point in her life.

You see, like so many of us, she lost her job several years ago. She had weathered unemployment before; it was common in her industry, and she’d always found another job quickly. But that last job she lost turned out to be her last full-time job in her industry; despite applying for work everywhere and networking whenever possible, she hasn’t found a full-time job that pays anywhere near what she used to make. As a result, she’s been through foreclosure and bankruptcy, and has lived in a series of rental houses and townhouses while trying to make enough money from side jobs to stay afloat and keep her two growing children in food and clothing (she’s a single mom).

One of her comments to me was that she never dreamed she would no longer own a house at 50. I understood completely. I turned 50 the year after my husband had to close down his business and we were forced to sell our family home to stay afloat financially. We didn’t know where to go; we just had to find some place cheaper than our hometown. So we moved to a lovely vacation town four hours away, rented a house near the beach, and began to research what we would do next. That’s how I spent my 50th birthday, far from most of our family and friends, living in a rented house with no idea of where we would go next.

One of the things I shared with my friend is that we’re not alone. Many, many people are casualties of the economic disaster of the past eight years. And while some may have asked for trouble by buying houses they couldn’t really afford or spending all their home equity on vacations and clothes, others, like my husband and I, were debt-free but lost our income through no fault of our own.

Just recently I met a woman whose healthcare-related family business was wiped out as a result of the Affordable Care Act. She and her husband had to sell the gorgeous historic country home they had so painstakingly renovated years earlier and move to a tiny ranch in the closest town. Like my friend and I, she knows what it’s like to lose your home and belongings because of financial reversal.

That said, it does no good to wallow in our misery, even when we meet others in a similar situation (misery does love company, you know). After an initial grieving period, it’s important to move on. No, you didn’t expect this to happen, or to be where you are at this point in time. But stuff happens. And of course, it could be worse. If you and your family are healthy, you’re fortunate indeed.

To recover from a big financial reversal that changes your life, you have to look for the silver lining. I was inspired to write my downsizing eBook after realizing all the good that came out of being forced to sell or donate more than half of our belongings in order to fit into the little ranch house we finally ended up in after being forced to sell our family home.

For years I had been mentally overwhelmed by a basement, garage and house filled with the clutter created by a large family and two home businesses, but never found enough time to deal with all that stuff. Our three moves in four years forced us to do so. As a result we now live with far fewer belongings, yet we’re surrounded by our most valued and useful items without being burdened by clutter.

Better yet, we no longer have the specter of financial ruin hanging over our head. Our income may be much smaller than it was ten years ago, but so are our expenses. What a relief to have reached a point where life seems more manageable!

And as we face our senior years (something my friend is surely doing today), we realize that living with less stuff and less expenses is something that will make life easier as we age. As a bonus, we can already spend more time doing things we like to do because we spend so much less time on the care of a big house and yard. If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that time is becoming more precious the older I get.

So my advice for my friend, corny as is sounds, is to make lemonade when life gives you lemons. Instead of lamenting what you once had, or where you thought you would be by now, accept reality and move on. Make the changes you need to make and enjoy the benefits that come with them. Why waste energy thinking about what might have (should have) been when you can be using your energy to enjoy life now? There are good things about your current situation, but you’re going to have to make the effort to find them…..and celebrate them.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Why Procrastinators Should Live in Small Houses



I’m a procrastinator.

I’ve been one all my life. It’s a habit I’ve been unable to break, no matter how hard I try.

On a related note, I’m also guilty of excessive optimism. I see things I want to read or make, and I buy them and set them aside for “someday.” My optimism is seen in my belief that I will ever get to the book or project. Usually, I can’t find time for it, or by the time I do, it’s not as appealing as it was when I bought it however many years before.

When we downsized, I had to wave the white flag and admit defeat by giving up many unread books and unfinished (often unstarted projects). It was hard to admit that I’d blown it, and in a few cases, it was painful to let go of something I still wanted to read or make. But I’ve forgotten most of what I had to give up at that time, so it’s not that big of a deal.

That said, I’m still an optimistic procrastinator, and I still see things I want to read or make. But I don’t buy most of them, simply because I don’t have the room to store them until I get to them.

You see, when we lived in a big house, there were oodles of parking places for these items I thought I was going to need someday. They sat in those spaces collecting dust until I was finally forced to get rid of them when we had to give up the big house and downsize.

Now we live in a very small house, and there’s not a lot of room to store anything. I still buy things that I plan on reading or making, but not very often because there are few places to put them when I get home. As a matter of fact, I’m getting ready to go through everything again to see what else I can give up. Then I’m going to read or make what’s left (and very soon, because this small house won’t let me hang onto everything like I used to). Now I read something and then give it away, or make something and give it as a gift. Should I decide to keep something I’ve read or made, I’ll have to get rid of something else to make room for it.

That’s why I think small houses are the perfect homes for procrastinators. They force us to use things or lose them.