Living with less

Photo © Jeff Irving

Sometimes good organization isn’t enough: something’s got to give — or got to go. It isn’t just the economy that has many people re-thinking their relationship to their possessions: many people want to travel or downsize, or found that dealing with someone else’s estate made them rethink their priorities. However, breaking up with our stuff isn’t easy to do — otherwise we’d already have done it, right?

In recent years, we’ve seen two ends of the spectrum: extreme hoarders (who can’t seem to let anything go) versus minimalists (who aim to live well with less — like David Bruno’s 100 Thing Challenge). Most of us fall somewhere in between, but there can come a time when we want to stop accumulating more items and start focussing on what really matters. After all, an uncluttered home has many advantages: there’s less stuff to store, protect, repair and clean — and more room and more freedom to travel or move to a new home. Clearing clutter also reduces stress, and reducing consumption is also good for the budget and the environment.

You don’t have to lead a Spartan lifestyle to enjoy a simpler life. Here are some practical ways to make it happen:

Start with a goal in mind. If you’ve read about SMART goals — specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely — you already know that small steps make a big difference. For instance “I want to de-clutter my home” may seem overwhelming but “I want to clear out this closet” or “I want a tidy room for my hobby” can keep you focussed and on track. Experts recommend starting with a single room or even a part of a room like your wardrobe.

Money can be a powerful motivator too. Would you rather have unused items, or extra cash for a trip or retirement savings? There are many ways to turn your stuff into something more meaningful. Tap into online classified ads, hold a yard sales or try your local consignment shop. (We got more ideas in 10 ways to sell your stuff.)

Set some ground rules. De-cluttering can become a long and painful process if you agonize over every decision. Experts recommend setting some rules before you start to make decisions quicker and easier. For instance, when tackling your wardrobe agree to get rid of anything you haven’t worn in a certain period of time (like the past year) and anything that no longer fits.

It’s also helpful to keep some key questions in mind, such as: When was the last time I used this? Do I love it? Is it useful? Can I live without it? Whether you’re de-cluttering or planning to downsize, also consider: does this fit with my goals?

Need a little inspiration? Perhaps artist William Morris said it best:  “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Take stock. Everyone should complete a home inventory for insurance purposes, but making a record of your possessions can help you see what you have. Open up those closets and storage bins and take stock of what you have to deal with. Yes, take notes — a list can help you spot duplicates and excess. For instance, you might be shocked by how many items of clothing you own. Could you get by with fewer pairs of pants or shoes?

Prioritize. Keep a garbage bag handy — plus a bin for items you plan to donate or repair. If you’re not sure what to do with an item, experts recommend a storage container for “maybe” items — but label it with an expiration date. When the appointed time arrives, revisit the bin or simply give the items away without question.

Let go. Maybe we’ll pick up that abandoned hobby again, or someday fit into those “too big” or “too small” clothes? It can be hard to admit our lifestyle, interests, hobbies and even our bodies have changed, not to mention styles and trends. Sometimes we have to be honest about changes and own up to spending mistakes — and not compound the problem by keeping the evidence.

Sometimes it’s necessary to let go of the fear that you might need something someday. If you haven’t used it in years, chances are you won’t have an urgent need for it now. (Any emergency supplies should be kept up to date too.)

Tap into your generous spirit. Put a positive spin on the process by letting your “mistakes” become someone else’s success. Those crafting materials you no longer want? Someone could turn them into a beautiful creation. Those extra dishes you don’t use? Someone who doesn’t have any dishes may use them everyday. Experts warn to avoid dwelling on past mistakes and instead think of how the items can achieve new life when you let them go.

Not sure how to keep hard-to-get-rid-of items in circulation? Read Find a new home for your clutter for more tips and resources.

Practice “one in, one out”. Ever heard of a “zero accumulation household”? We all know how stuff can accumulate over the years, but we don’t have endless storage space or time to deal with it. Keep clutter from building up by getting rid of an item when you buy an item — like donating a pair of shoes when you buy a new pair.  Zero accumulation can also help curb spending because it gives you an another angle to consider when making a new purchase.

Keep the memories, not the stuff. We often keep things for emotional reasons even though we don’t use them — like a formal dress from so-and-so’s wedding or a decoration we received as a gift. Experts note that it’s important to remember that it’s the memory that makes us happy, not necessarily the items. In many cases, a good picture can help keep the memory fresh instead of the clutter. With digital cameras and digital storage solutions, it’s even easier to document favourite items before giving them away. (Just make sure to keep a back-up in a safe place.)

Avoid being someone else’s storage solution. Keeping furniture for your children’s or grandchildren’s first home — or waiting until they get a bigger one? Holding on to heirlooms simply because “they’ve always been in the family”? It’s time to have a conversation with them about their stuff. Find out if your recipients still want the items and when they plan to take them. Encourage them to be honest and try not to take it personally if they decline. Everyone has different styles and tastes, and your children and grandchildren may have already gone out and purchased things they need rather than waiting for people to give them away.

Go on a “shopping diet”. In the past couple of years, “wardrobe diets” (not buying any new clothes for 30 or 60 days) and “shopping diets” (buying nothing but essentials like food) have become popular as people tighten their budgets and pay off debt. A sabbatical from buying can help tame clutter before it starts — and give you a chance to put your time, energy and money to other uses besides shopping. It can also help you be more creative with what you have. (There’s even a book on the topic — The Shopping Diet by Phillip Bloch.)

One final word of advice? Sometimes you have to be a little ruthless. The process of de-cluttering and learning to live with less isn’t an easy one, but think of how good it will feel to not be burdened by things you don’t need and don’t use. How much or how little stuff you keep is up to you — everyone has to find their own balance.

For tips on de-cluttering, see Pitch, pile or file? and Lose the clutter.

Looking for a good book on the subject? Try:
Clutter’s Last Stand by Don Aslen
Enough Already! and It’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh

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