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How to Declutter & Downsize Your Home Effectively – 9 Essential Tips

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In 11 years of marriage, my husband and I have moved 10 times. We’re not in the military, and there’s no good explanation for all the moves, except that they just made sense at the time. Most of our moves were from a smaller dwelling to a bigger one, which meant there wasn’t much downsizing that needed to take place between moves – we just loaded everything up and carted it along with us.

The last two moves have been different. The first move downsized our space from roughly 2,000 total square feet to 1,500 square feet (including respective storage space), and our most recent move took us from roughly 1,500 square feet to about 1,000 square feet (including storage space). In other words, in the last 18 months we’ve had to downsize our space by half.

Downsizing Your Home Wisely

The key to downsizing is to purge your life of the things you don’t need without getting rid of the things you do need. It sounds pretty simple, but I can tell you, it’s not. Somehow in our first downsizing we ended up with nine spoons, two forks and zero knives – I still have no idea where the rest of our silverware went, but I’m assuming it was in a box we took to Goodwill.

I also gave away my back-saving memory foam body pillow, and unfortunately, it was the wrong decision. Even if it freed up extra room in our car, my back has hated me ever since.

Granted, I’d like to think this isn’t the norm – most people won’t mistakenly get rid of their silverware. But if the old adage, “Three moves equals a fire” is true, you’re likely to get rid of a few items during a downsize (whether or not you’re actually moving), that you should probably hang on to.

Downsizing effectively comes down to time and thoughtful consideration. If you’re short on time, or if you’re not thinking about the end result, you’ll end up making mistakes.

Luckily, I’ve gotten smarter. Our most recent downsize has gone incredibly well, and my whole life feels better now that I have less stuff cluttering my space. Here are my tips for downsizing wisely, whether you’re moving or simply freeing up space in your current home.

Downsizing Home Wisely

1. Downsize the Big Stuff If You’re Moving

If you know you’re moving from a three-bedroom home to a two-bedroom home, there’s absolutely no reason for you to 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. It’s better to make these big decisions before you move so you don’t end up paying for the expense to haul or store the excess furniture.

For instance, during our most recent move, we knew space would be at a premium. We decided to ditch our large chest of drawers, which wouldn’t fit easily into our space, and opt instead for on-wall shelving to store our clothes.

2. Take the Small Stuff With You

If you’re moving, or if you’re just fed up with the clutter in your home, you may be tempted to give away or sell a lot of small items, such as clothing, knick-knacks, dishes, and decor. However, you may want to take this step slowly. It’s a good idea to go through your stuff to get rid of the general junk that tends to accumulate in a home, but don’t start getting rid of items you regularly use or enjoy just yet.

During our first downsize, we assumed we needed to get rid of just about everything. As a result, we ended up selling or giving away items we actually needed, including silverware, cookware, and cleaning supplies, and then ended up repurchasing them after our move. Part of the problem was that we didn’t really know how much space we would have in our new home for these items, so we just got rid of it all. Had we conscientiously separated the must-keeps and maybe-keeps into designated boxes before the move, we could have waited to give away or sell items until after our move based on the space we had in our new home. Ultimately, this would have saved us money, as we ended up repurchasing a fair amount of stuff.

Keep any item you currently use or use seasonally. Also, keep items with sentimental value or a practical purpose, even if you don’t use them regularly. For instance, if you’re done having kids, it’s a great time to get rid of baby clothes, old toys, or maternity wear. However, if you feel sentimental pangs about some of your children’s onesies or blankets, go ahead and hang onto the item, at least for now. Sell or give away any item that no longer has a practical purpose for you.

Take Small Stuff

3. Go Through Every Box

I am amazed at the number of boxes that have followed me multiple times across the country without me even looking inside them. Many of these boxes were filled with “keepsakes” my parents gave me at some point. Eventually, though, I went through all of them. What started as five large boxes and crates of my childhood art projects, photographs, cards, and scrapbooks was quickly pared down to two boxes mostly filled with photographs and a few knick-knacks. I was able to discard three full boxes worth of stuff that I never really knew existed and will never miss.

We also went through boxes of old tech gear, wires, and computers. After wiping hard drives clean and separating useful wires from outdated junk, we freed up three more boxes worth of space.

When space is at a premium, every box matters. So take some time to go through each area in your home, from your attic to your closets to your garage to your cabinets. There’s so much stuff that lands on shelves and gets tucked away in storage just because it “might be useful someday,” or because you simply don’t know what to do with it. If you haven’t used it in over a year, or if you see no immediate use for it in the coming six months, purge it from your life and give it away, sell it, or toss it in the trash. You may even want to have a garage sale, or sell items to a thrift store.

4. Plan Your Storage Before Downsizing Further

Once you’ve separated the items you no longer need or use, you may still be left with more stuff than you think you have room to store. This is the point where it’s tempting to start giving away items in an effort to free up space. However, before you start giving away things you actually use, need, or want, assess and plan your storage.

The best way to do this is to decide where and how to organize your things. For instance, we had to turn one wall of our combined bathroom/laundry room into a makeshift closet. This meant thinking about how and where we’d hang the clothes we needed to hang, how we’d store the clothes we needed to fold, and how and where to keep our socks, linens, and towels.

Once the storage was in place, I could fold and hang clothing and linens as planned, then determine whether we needed to pare down further. I did end up needing to give away a few more pairs of yoga pants and tank tops than I’d originally planned, but the end result was perfect – our new “closet” was filled with the best items we owned, and purged of rarely-used or beaten up, older items.

We proceeded to use this same formula to separate and organize our tech gear, tools, books, kitchenware, and fitness equipment. By planning our storage first, then fitting our must-haves into the storage second, we were able to make sure we could keep the most important items. Then, if we did need to pare down further, we could easily select the least important or least used items from what was remaining.

In your home, determine how you can make space go further by implementing more effective storage solutions. For instance, you can hang additional shelves and hooks, and you can seek out organization tools that expand your storage in closets and cabinets, such as wire racks, behind-door shoe storage, vertical clothing hangers, or under-bed storage boxes.

Plan Storage Before Downsizing

5. Follow the One-Year Rule

I know how tempting it is to hang onto items you once loved but no longer use, or items you 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. And if you’re unlikely to use something in the next year, then you’re unlikely to use it at all.

This means it’s time to give up your high school skinny jeans, your paint and yarn from old crafting projects, your workout equipment that became a clothes hanger somewhere along the way, and most of your kids’ old shoes, toys, and apparel. Of course there are exceptions to every rule – if a particular item serves a specific purpose, or is particularly nice or high-dollar, use caution before giving it away.

For instance, I live in Texas, where it’s hot nine months of the year. Also, I work from home, which means my wardrobe consists mostly of yoga pants and tank tops. I have little need for suits or nice coats, so I got rid of most of my old work clothes. However, I decided to hang onto one nice cold-weather coat and one suit, even though they haven’t been worn in over a year. On the rare occasion when a cold front comes through, or when I need to dress nicely for a professional event, I won’t have to go out and buy new clothes. The items I kept serve a specific purpose and will prevent me from spending unnecessary money on new items should I need them.

The point is to be a realist when separating the stuff you keep from the stuff you don’t. Be realistic and ask yourself what you use and what you need, both now and in the future.

6. Remember It’s All Just “Stuff”…Except When It’s Not

It’s easy to go overboard when you get into the decluttering groove. At the core, all the things filling your home are just things – they may spur memories of a person, place, or event, but they’re not actual memories. But before you become a minimalist who subsists on next to nothing, think about what you’d want to save from a fire. Maybe it’s photographs, a few of your favorite books, or an item that reminds you of a special day in the past. Don’t let yourself start thinking of everything as “just stuff” – not all items are expendable.

When paring down your life, get rid of as much as you can, but don’t get rid of those things that are especially important – the things that you’d like to share with your children or grandchildren someday.

Become Home Minimalist

7. Re-home Special Items

What you may discover is that you come across things from your past that are in a “no man’s land” in terms of best fit. They’re nice, they hold value and memories, and you don’t really want to give them away – but at the same time, you have no use for them and they are just taking up space.

In my case, a few dolls from my childhood, a high-end diaper bag, and a gold Strawberry Shortcake charm were a few of these special items. After thinking about it, I realized I had people in my life who could benefit from and enjoy each item, and I would enjoy knowing they were being used.

All three of my dolls went to my three nieces, and the gold charm went to my sister to give to her daughter someday, as well as the diaper bag, since my sister’s likely to have more kids. After seeing one niece play with her doll, and receiving pictures of my other nieces enjoying theirs, I knew I’d made the right decision – it felt so nice knowing these things would live on in our family.

How you re-home your items is a personal decision, but if the item holds meaning to you, try to keep it in the family or with friends who understand the meaning behind the item. For instance, my grandparents owned a grandfather clock that was a fixture in their home – it stood at the end of the entry hallway, and its hourly chimes remain embedded in my family’s collective memory. One of my cousins received the clock after my grandfather died, but when she was downsizing a few years ago, she no longer had room for it. I knew I couldn’t take it, so I reached out to my siblings to see if either of them could give the clock a home. My brother took it, and all of us love knowing that this beautiful piece of furniture remains in the family.

8. Digitize Whatever You Can

CDs, DVDs, cassettes, videos, pictures, and important documents can all be digitized and saved to the cloud or a computer hard drive to free up important space. While we kept hard copies of important personal documents, such as birth certificates and social security cards, we scanned and saved all of our other records – financial and personal. We also transferred all of our DVDs and CDs to digital files. We were able to get rid of four boxes of paper, discs, and videos with this simple step of going paperless.

Most documents can simply be scanned to a computer and saved as a PDF file, or uploaded to the cloud using services like DropBox or Google Drive. You can transfer DVDs and CDs to digital files by using free computer programs, such as Movavi, WinX DVD Ripper, or Freemake Video Converter. Just be aware that some DVDs and CDs are copyrighted, which may prevent you from making a copy, even though making personal copies of products you’ve purchased should fall under “fair use” laws.

Digitize Important Documents

9. Set Accumulation Limits

Once you’re settled into your smaller space, it’s important to keep your clutter under wraps. It’s amazing how quickly things can accumulate, which can make a small home feel even smaller.

Clothing and paper are the clutter culprits in our house. What I’ve decided is that if I receive or purchase any more clothing or shoes, an item I already own must be given away to accommodate the new item’s space. I’ve also instituted a rule regarding mail – it’s dealt with immediately. It’s read and recycled, or otherwise handled as soon as it comes so that it doesn’t start piling up on counters. You can also opt out and reduce the amount of junk mail that comes to your house.

Final Word

I used to approach my life with the tagline, “As long as everything has a place, I’m happy.” In other words, everything didn’t need to be in its place all the time, but I did need to know where everything was supposed to go.

With a smaller house and limited storage, my attitude has changed. It’s abundantly clear that out-of-place items quickly overtake our home and create a clutter that’s downright distracting – a major problem when you work from home. Paring down and carefully organizing everything can do wonders for keeping a house livable and clean. By keeping a focus on organization throughout the downsizing process, you’ll end up feeling much better about your lightened up, decluttered space.

Have you ever had to downsize? How did you decide what to keep and what to get rid of? Did you make any mistakes?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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