This is Module 10 of our Retirement 101 Online Preparation Course. (See end for list of other Modules in the course).
June 4, 2013, updated March 2021 — Almost everybody talks about downsizing, but not that many folks ever get around to it. But those that do go through the wrenching process of downsizing tend to be very glad they did it. This article, one of the top reader-suggested poll topics from last week’s survey, will explore the downsizing process along with 12 tips for doing it painlessly. We’ll also visit some of the pluses and minuses of downsizing later on in the article.
1. Start now. As our friend Sandy told us, “Start earlier than…. early”. He had been given that advice, and now wished he had followed it (see separate article featuring his adventures in downsizing). It takes a long time to divest yourself of a lifetime of stuff. And as was the case with Sandy, sometimes the timetable gets moved up, leaving you scrambling madly. Your editor’s psychologist wife made this suggestion: “Downsizing might be more difficult than you thought. So give yourself some extra time to work it through!”
2. Understand the target. In other words, what is the size of your new home, and what can it accommodate? Will your great-grandfather’s tall case clock fit under your new ceilings? Do you have more rooms of furniture now than will fit in your new home? Knowing the dimensions and capacities of your new home will give you a good idea of what you should be de-acquisitioning.
3. Determine a timetable – and stick to it. Like most projects, a step by step approach with milestones along the way (clear out the attic by ?, get rid of the books by ?) is the best way to get a job done.
4. List what you have that you absolutely can’t part with. Then go through that and cut it down again. You will be surprised how many of your essentials are anything but. On the other hand, having a must-have list will give you comfort and direction.
5. Determine how you are going to distribute your stuff to your loved ones. We’ve written about this before (see our checklist under Further Reading below). There are various approaches, like using a point system when you have many people interested in the same items. On the other hand, an awful lot of the clutter in most baby boomer homes is caused by the toys, clothes, and furniture you have saved for your kids. Unfortunately, they might not either be ready for it, or they don’t want what you have so carefully squirreled away in every corner of your attic.
6. Decide what will fit style-wise in your new place. One of the worst mistakes we’ve seen is when someone moves the furniture that was perfect in their new New England saltbox into a contemporary Florida apartment. There are plenty of other examples. For many people, starting over again with all new stuff that matches your new environment is a big kick.
7. Face reality about values. Most of your stuff, particularly furniture, isn’t worth very much on the used market – 10 cents on the dollar, maybe. It’s usually far better to liquidate it early than hang on for top dollar. (See Further References at end)
8. Make a decision on how to get rid of the stuff you are not taking. You might use a combination of methods – tag sale, consignment shop, donate to the Salvation Army. Craigslist can be good, but there are any number of scammers looking to take advantage of you – be careful, and use the email alias service they provide. In many towns there is an estate sale company who will quote you a price or % for getting rid of everything in your home, minus what you want to take with you. What doesn’t sell, they throw out or donate for you. Get references, of course, but this service could be well worth it. Some new services that might help are Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp (app), and Close5 (app).
9. Tread lightly with family history. This is very hard, but you do need to think about what to do, particularly if you have documents or artifacts with historical significance. For example, if you are the last person in the family holding memorabilia from a famous relative, and you know your kids have no interest, you have a quandary. Family albums are another tricky area. The more time you spend thinking about it, the more comfortable you will be with your decision.
10. Figure out how are you going to get your stuff to the new location. You can rent a truck, or hire movers. Maybe you can do such a good job at downsizing you can just ship the remainder by UPS. How much you have left to move (and what) will help you decide the right method. Often movers will give you a good quote if are flexible about delivery. Get references, quotes in writing, and know what services you are buying – there are plenty of shady movers out there.
11. Let it go! If you haven’t looked at it or used it in 2 years – out it goes!
12. Don’t leave downsizing to your surviving spouse or children. It’s just not fair. One couple we know jokingly say they have a pact – she has to go first, because he’s the pack rat. Give your kids a break – they have lives to live, and they won’t know what your intentions were about your precious stuff.
Downsizing has so many advantages it is hard to find a good reason not to do it. Here are some of the big ones:
– Save money. Moving to a smaller, more energy efficient home will save you gobs of money in utilities, taxes, maintenance. Often it can make the difference between a struggling retirement and a comfortable one
– You will save your spouse and/or heirs a mountain of work. In an extreme example, we have a friend whose parents wouldn’t move out of their home that was packed with generations of kids’ toys, papers, furniture, and knick-knacks. Long after the parents died, our guilt-ridden friends still spend their vacations trying to sort out the mess, actually moving much of the stuff into their homes (just when they should be the ones downsizing!) Do it now, it is just not fair to saddle someone else with your burden.
– You’ll feel better. Stuff is just stuff. Most people feel liberated once they pare down. Lots of guilt is piled up in your attic, closets, and basement – let it go!
– The biggest disadvantage of downsizing is the work – it takes a lot of labor and angst to go through the process.
– You might lose something in the process, or wish you had kept something you didn’t. That’s normal, but on the whole you will be glad you have done what you have done!
Here are the links to all of the other Modules in our Retirement 101 Preparation Course:
- Module 1 -Introduction to Retirement Planning 101
- Module 2: How to Retire on a (Lot Less Than) $1 Million
- Module 3: What Type of Retirement Community Is Right for You
- Module 4: A Retirement Preparation Quiz
- Module 4, part 2: Quiz Answers Explained
- Module 5: Overcoming Loneliness in Retirement
- Module 6: How to Visit and Evaluate a 55+ or Active Adult Community
- Module 7: Pros and Cons of an Expatriate Retirement
- Module 8: What You Think You Might Know About Social Security Might Hurt You
- Module 9: Medicare 101
- Module 10: 12 Steps to Downsizing Success
Mission Impossible: Cleaning Out an Old Victorian
A Tale of 3 Downsizings
12 Steps to Downsizing Success
Downsizing Checklist and Tips
Topretirements Members Getting Ready for Big Moves
eDivvyup – a Web-based tool for dividing property
How to Run an Estate Sale
About Home Downsizing (eHow)
Downsizing Tips (Yahoo)
Downsizing Baby Boomers Looking to Sell Their Stuff (Smart Money)
Why Aunt Betty’s Silver Won’t Pay the Bills
Comments: Please share your tips and experiences for downsizing in the Comments section below. We all want to know how it worked for you!