Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Even Low-Income People Can Benefit from Decluttering

Well, it was a lovely summer, but fall is in the air, and while one might think that’s what has motivated me to get back to posting to my blog, the reality is that reading “The Class Politics of Decluttering” got my blood going and incited in me the urge for rebuttal.

In short, the author labels decluttering as a trendy habit that has become popular thanks to “the well-off middle class,” who are spoiled and want to make themselves feel better by reducing their overabundance of possessions. Being low-income herself, she feels that poor people flock to sales because it allows them to get the things they need at affordable prices, and suggests that asking them to declutter their excess would be cruel. As she puts it:

Those aren’t the people who would benefit from a minimalist life. They can’t afford to do with less.

Oy, where to begin? Most people in every social class tend to keep more belongings than they need. Even low-income Americans find themselves tripping over bags of clothes their children have outgrown, toys no one plays with anymore, and more cheap plastic tumblers than they can use in a lifetime. Indeed, the author herself describes what happened when she had to move to a smaller apartment:

I had to sort through and get rid of carloads of clothes, my childhood toys, school papers, books, movies and artwork. I couldn’t afford to store all of these items, which had value to me only as a record of my history — including mementos from my parents.
My stuff wasn’t just stuff, but a reminder that I had a foundation of support of people who had loved me growing up: a painting I’d done as a child that my mom had carefully framed and hung in our house, a set of antique Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my ferret once chewed an eye out of when I was 15, artwork my mom had collected over the decade we lived in Alaska. Things I grew up with that brought me back to a time of living a carefree life.

Goodness! Here’s a grown woman with children of her own still dragging around “carloads” of her childhood belongings? Like so many of us who have had to downsize our living quarters, she could have kept a few of the most precious items and photographed the rest in order to keep her memories intact. Seriously, how many adults keep all their childhood school papers and artwork?

If anything, you would think someone who lives in small quarters, whether by choice or by financial necessity, would see the wisdom in streamlining their possessions so that they can live unencumbered by what they no longer need, leaving extra room in an already small place for the items they need and/or cherish most.

Another thing that got me going: the author implies that the more “stuff” you have, the wealthier you are. Nothing can be further than the truth in 21st century America. Even the poor have more C³ (Cheap Chinese Crap) than they know what to do with. I’ve seen so much evidence of this. In my town (median income $35,000), in both the “poor” areas and the nicer areas, people leave oodles of belongings out on the curb after they move or after they have a garage sale. It always amazes me how much of that stuff is left there for days until the trash truck comes to carry it off. When I was a kid, lots of people “garbage-picked,” but now I rarely see that, most likely because everyone has plenty of stuff of their own.

I won’t go into what I think the author’s real issues are, though they should be obvious to anyone who can read. But it bugs me that she labels decluttering as an elitist pastime. For me and for many others, decluttering is a process that brings many good things into everyone’s lives, including (as I say in the title of my first book) “freedom, flexibility and financial peace.” And people of all income levels can benefit from those!

Friday, June 10, 2016

Finding the Motivation to Declutter

Decluttering cannot be a one-time event. If you’re not careful, your stuff will quietly multiply when you’re not paying attention, and before long you’ll be back where you started. So you must be diligent about not acquiring new items without throwing out a few things in exchange so you can keep your decluttering equilibrium.

Of course, you also have to be careful that you remain motivated to live the decluttered life. Personally, I find that there’s a tipping point, when the closets are getting a little too crowded, or the cupboards are, and then I start thinking about setting aside time to weed out my possessions again.

Recently I experienced a motivation to declutter that I wasn’t expecting. I bought several bags of potting soil so I could plant pots of annuals for my patio. I backed out the car so I could get to every spare pot, and brought in other pots that were left in the yard over the winter. I wanted to see every pot I had so I could pick the best ones for the task.

Wow, had I amassed a lot of pots over the past few years! Once I found them all and got them into one place, I saw that I had far more than I needed. So I chose the best to use this summer, saved a few empty hanging pots in case mine break (I’ve found them to be fragile), and I threw the rest into the recycler.

Did that ever feel good! And the sight of the garden corner of the garage all clean and organized instead of being covered in piles of plastic pots (some still filled with dead plants and old dirt) so inspired me that I am now motivated to start going through the house and finding things I no longer need or use so the house can go back to being as uncluttered as it was when we moved in.

You just never know where you’ll find the motivation to declutter again!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Why Most People Want Tiny Houses

I’ve been under the weather lately, and having read a ton of books and played too many games on my tablet, I became bored and decided to watch something. I found “Tiny House Builders” on Netflix and watched all two episodes offered.

The concept is a good one, but the show is made like so many of those builder shows on television, with lots of overacting, a self-imposed deadline that gets hyped every few minutes (“The owners will be here in four hours!”), and owner reactions that border on hysteria. Give me the 1970s version of Bob Vila’s “This Old House” any day.

What bothered me most about “Tiny House Builders” is that both tiny houses were built for people with more money than brains. An East coast couple with two young daughters living in a house on 12 acres decides a tiny house on the back of their property will enable them to spend more time together. (Why can’t they spend time together in the house they already have?) A teacher rescues some horses and buys a weekend property to keep them on, but the house is condemned so she needs a spot to eat, sleep and do yoga.

Bully for them, but I think the reason the tiny home concept is popular is that there are so many people who cannot even imagine themselves committing to a mortgage on an overpriced house with ridiculously high property taxes in an economy where their jobs can disappear at any time. Add in the prospect of being replaced by someone from another country who will work for half of your wage, or by a robot in a few years, and it seems downright foolish to lock yourself into 30 years of servitude to a structure. The tiny house concept is a welcome change from the traditional home mortgage trajectory.

And of course that’s nothing new, but it’s been a long time since the economy was so lousy that people had to find tiny shelters to live in so they’d have a roof over their heads.
Check out these 1930s tiny houses in Connecticut that I found while researching the host of the “Tiny House Builders” show. They’re not portable (nor was the first tiny house on the show), but they’re tiny and close together and at one time meant the difference between homelessness and a roof over one’s head. Given that they’re still in use, I’m guessing they are still appreciated for their affordability.

This is why I’m interested in tiny houses. I know what it is to give up your big house and downsize to a smaller one out of financial necessity and in order to maintain your financial freedom. While I don’t live in a tiny house (we have a 1,000 square foot ranch), I can see where a tiny house could be the answer for people who want to live simply and affordably.

Give me a show about those people, instead of people with plenty of money who are buying tiny houses for a lark, and I’ll be a fan for sure. For instance, even though her house isn’t technically a tiny house at 300 square feet, this gal should be on a television show because she has the right idea:

Monday, March 7, 2016

An Indispensable Decluttering Tool

Some people find decluttering to be easy, but I’m not one of them. For me, decluttering is a challenging process that requires me to be in a certain frame of mind. It also requires the use of my car.

Yes, my car. You see, once I make the decision to get rid of something I’m not using anymore, I need to put it where I can’t see it, and get it out of the house as soon as possible.

It doesn’t matter what the item is. Even though I’m not using it anymore (or maybe it’s a gift I never used at all), if I keep seeing it, I’ll start thinking that I might use it someday, or that one of my kids (all adults living on their own) might want it, and then I’ll want to hang on to the item. This is not a good thing.

So when I declutter (as I’m about to do shortly to my basement), I take whatever I’m not using anymore and I put it in a box. I keep doing this until the box is full, and then I put the box in the trunk of my car, which is usually parked in my garage. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

And at some point, I’ll either finish decluttering or I’ll fill the trunk, and then it will be time to drive over to the local Goodwill or another thrift store that lets me drive up and drop off donations straight from my car. Before I know it, my trunk is empty and I can be on my way.

Some people might think this sounds silly, but for me, removing the items once I make the decision to give them up is very important, because I know me, and I can’t be trusted not to change my mind. (But once the items are gone, I very seldom regret giving them up!)

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.