In the last 15 years, I’ve moved 13 times.
I’ve upsized, downsized, and same-sized, but every single move has reinforced the notion that clutter and “things” diminish your life rather than enrich it. There’s something to that famous line in “Fight Club”: “The things you own end up owning you.”
When you live in a smaller home, it forces you to decide what really matters to you. The inverse also proves true: The larger the home you live in, the more things you feel you need to fill it up. It creates an endless mindset of consumerism, of buy-buy-buy. It’s why I find the tiny house movement captivating: that forced minimalism requires you to strip away all the unnecessary trappings of modern life to focus more on people, experiences, and activities rather than stuff.
It doesn’t hurt that smaller houses are cheaper too. And that’s just one of many reasons to downsize. But regardless of the reason you’re downsizing, you’ve got to declutter to reach that goal.
And the key is purging your life of things you don’t need without getting rid of those you do. Rush it, and you’ll make mistakes. That’s why it’s important to follow these important steps.
Essential Tips for Downsizing and Decluttering
1. Declutter 90 Days Before the Move
In the month leading up to your move, it’s too late to do a proper job of decluttering and removing everything not coming with you. Start three months in advance, and aim to finish before the last month in your old home.
It helps to start planning your furniture and other large items first. If you know you’re moving from a three-bedroom home to a two-bedroom home, don’t move three beds, three dressers, and three bedside tables to your new place. It costs money to haul big furniture, and if there’s nowhere to put it, you’ll just have to pay for a storage unit.
Things get a little trickier when you’re downsizing space but not bedrooms — for example, moving from a 1,800 square-foot, three-bedroom home to a 1,200 square-foot three-bedroom home. You may need all your bedroom furniture, but you may not be able to fit all your living room or dining room furniture. Look carefully at the floor plan of your new space or do a walk-through with a tape measure to really get a feel for where you can place your tables, chairs, and sofas. You may realize you can keep your dining room table, but you need to sell your breakfast table. Or you may find that you can keep your sofa and a chair, but it’s time to give away your loveseat. There are plenty of places where you can donate your used furniture.
2. Consider What to Keep & What to Pass On
Smaller possessions allow more room for error. The last thing you want to do is throw away things you’ll need to repurchase.
For example, if you’re moving locally, just throw all your cleaning supplies in a bucket so you don’t have to buy them all over again.
As you sift through your belongings, create four piles: keep, sell, donate, and trash. You need time to organize a garage sale or online classified ads to sell your belongings — one more reason to start several months before you move. Expect to make several donation runs and possibly several runs to the dump.
Follow the one-year rule: If you haven’t used something in the last year, donate or sell it. It’s tempting to hang onto things you once loved but no longer use or think you might use someday. But the truth is if you haven’t used a particular item in the last year, you’re unlikely to use it in the next year. Or ever. Besides, you can make extra cash for your move by selling unused stuff. If selling items online, websites like Decluttr can be a great place to start.
Finally, don’t get lazy and assume everything in storage should come with you just because they’re already in boxes. Open and sort through every single box. You may find occasional gems you want to keep. But if it’s in storage and you haven’t used it in the last year — well, you know.
3. Digitize Everything You Can
In the last home I owned, I had a giant filing cabinet in my bedroom with old tax documents, real estate files, and other paperwork I thought I couldn’t live without. Then I moved abroad and couldn’t take it with me, so I finally did what I should have done all along: scan the most important documents and recycle the rest.
Old video cassettes, CDs, DVDs, photos, and crucial paper documents can be digitized and saved to the cloud or a local hard drive to free up space. You can fit your most important documents, such as birth certificates and social security cards, in a single folder. We also transferred all our DVDs and CDs to digital files. We were able to get rid of a dozen boxes of paper, discs, and videos simply by going paperless.
The piece of paper the photo is printed on isn’t what’s valuable. It’s the photo itself, which doesn’t need to take up space collecting dust in an old album. Store it digitally to free up space without losing your fondest memories.
4. Avoid Renting a Storage Unit If Humanly Possible
No one rents a storage unit thinking to themselves, “I plan to keep paying this rent for the next 10 years.” Yet that often happens.
Storage units enable the bad habit of keeping things you don’t use or need — and paying for the privilege. Remember the one-year rule: If you don’t use it over an entire year, you don’t really use it. That rule lets you keep seasonal clothes and decorations but doesn’t let you keep the fluff, the lint of life that slowly accumulates over time.
There shouldn’t be a fifth pile for storage. If you don’t move it into your new home, you should sell it, donate it, or trash it. For sentimental possessions you no longer use but can’t bear the thought of ditching, consider giving them to a friend or family member. For example, that onesie your 11-year-old used to wear as an infant can go to your niece or nephew to keep it in the family and continue providing use. You can also take (digital) pictures to remember them by.
But it doesn’t need to come with you when you move.
5. Prioritize Multifunctional Furniture
If you’re like most people, you have guests stay with you occasionally. I hate to break it to you, but that’s not enough to justify paying for an extra bedroom.
Use multifunctional furniture to cover those rare needs like putting up guests. A futon or fold-out couch provides an extra bed when you need it — and a far more functional living area when you don’t.
In that three-story house where I once lived, the third story was actually supposed to be a bedroom. I used it as a second living room with a TV, couches, and a wet bar. When friends visited, it became the guest bedroom.
The smaller the space, the more functions each thing you own should serve. I’ve seen dining tables that fold to become a wall-side bench with storage or that flatten entirely. There are wall mirrors that fold down with legs to become a table. Some coffee tables include storage or even fit folding armchairs and side tables underneath them. Vurni has some clever ideas.
Even when space isn’t at a premium, I like to use multifunctional furniture. Buying one furniture piece instead of two can help you save money.
One of the best multifunctional pieces is a storage bed, which has large dresser drawers underneath the bed itself. They observe a simple principle: Never waste vertical space.
6. Maximize Vertical Space
When my wife moved in with me, we had nearly 50 pairs of shoes between the two of us (most of them hers). I had been keeping my shoes on the closet floor, where they fit.
They fit no longer. We fought over it for a week or two, then one day she showed up with a shoe rack her friend no longer needed. wW stacked our shoes vertically and never fought about it again.
We started looking for other ways to maximize space. She sold her wide dresser on Craigslist and bought a taller, narrower bureau for the same amount (also used, also on Craigslist). We used her other wide dresser as a substitute TV stand, where it doubled as more storage space. We swapped out a coffee table for a storage ottoman with a reversible tray top.
When you run out of horizontal space, create vertical space. And if you have to buy furniture, consider buying it used while selling your old furniture to potentially cover the cost.
7. Avoid Hidden Costs
When you downsize, don’t lose sight of the goal of saving money.
It’s all too easy to go on a spending spree of new space-saving furniture. Aim to buy used whenever possible.
If you move from a detached house into a condominium, beware of condo fees and assessments. A $250,000 condo may not be cheaper than a $300,000 house at the end of the year if the association hits you with hefty fees.
Also watch out for smaller houses that need significant repairs. That quaint little fixer-upper could be a money pit if it needs new wiring, new plumbing, new fixtures, new appliances, or new anything mechanical or structural.
Finally, don’t forget exterior maintenance and upkeep. A small house on a large plot could still need plenty of landscaping and grounds maintenance.
It’s incredible how quickly things can accumulate and make a small home feel even smaller.
Be vigilant against letting stuff into your house. Consider instituting a one-in, one-out rule for similar-size goods to keep the clutter from spreading like a disease.
As Marie Kondo would tell you, the less stuff you have in your life, the less stress you feel. And ultimately, I’ve found that the less I live with, the less I want to spend and let any new things into my life.
All of that forms a virtuous cycle of consuming less, saving more, and living happier.
How much smaller are you thinking about downsizing? What do you plan to get rid of to make it work, and what challenges are you facing?