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How to Downsize With the Help of Friends

If I can do it, anyone can.

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illustration of multiple hands holding up an orange house, cleaning, downsizing, organizing
Ellis Brown
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All I could think about, in the first days of clearing out my house, was the scene in The Great Escape when the POWs mosey around the prison yard, releasing little anthill-sized piles of dirt — dirt they’ve dug to make escape tunnels — from hidden pouches in their pants legs. The German guards never notice.     

Digging my way out, bit by bit — that’s how downsizing felt to me. Except that the guys in The Great Escape finished their tunnels and got out, and I knew I would never dig my way out of mine.      

I'd sold my house — my family’s summer place for years, then, post-divorce, a year-round house for me — and would be moving into a one-bedroom apartment. Not only was the house filled with its own stuff, but I’d moved into it the contents of the big apartment where I’d raised my two daughters. I’d filled the basement, the closets, the tool shed with furniture, and at least thirty boxes of books, papers, household items.     

The new owners agreed to let me live there for a few months while I cleared out the place. I'd spend a morning going through a drawer in the kitchen, pondering which two out of three spatulas I could part with, then scan the room: so many more cupboards, so little time. All I could think was, Time for a nap.        

Finally, I got out of the house. And if I could do it, anyone can.

Hire a Helper   

When I realized that if I continued at my dallying pace I was doomed, I hired Emma, a kind, rosy-cheeked young woman, to work part-time. “You’re doing great,” she’d say as she walked through the door.    

I would have paid her just to say that to me. I didn’t believe I’d ever get out, but Emma did, and that gave me courage. Together we went through the dozen or so boxes of stuff I’d saved, obsessively, from my kids’ childhoods. Out went the birthday cards, the hundreds of pages of doodled princesses, the awful Bratz dolls.     

We packed up what was worth saving — their diaries, the stories and essays they’d written for school, their yearbooks and better artwork — and Emma mailed them to my kids. I told my daughters, do what you want with them. Digitize the contents, or toss them, or save them. To my surprise, I meant it. Their history wasn’t my job anymore.      

Week after week, Emma and I combed through boxes, closets, cupboards. “I think the tiki torches can go,” she would say tactfully, and “Do you think if the salmon poacher had a lid, you might have found it by now?”

Recruit Your Friends and Family        

Friends showed up and, mercifully, dug in. Sundy weeded through the books with me, reminding me that my new apartment had exactly two built-in bookcases, one of them a foot wide.         

Lulu, mother of two little kids, sifted through two storage bags of my daughters’ baby clothes. When she unzipped the bags, clothes practically jumped out of them — an explosion of smocked dresses and Oshkosh overalls and onesies. I’d held on to almost every item my kids had worn.    

But neither of my daughters was even considering motherhood and shipping them a bunch of their old baby clothes seemed wildly presumptuous. I saved a few items for myself as keepsakes, and let Lulu take whatever she wanted. Harriet, who ran a bed-and-breakfast for years, attacked the linen closet, and tossed out most of the sheets, towels, pillowcases — anything worn or frayed or faded, which was almost everything.            

Martha, a retired lawyer for an investment firm, took on the boxes of financial papers. By “financial papers” I mean whatever had gotten tossed into boxes over decades. Some years, I’d held on to cancelled checks and receipts. Other years, not so much.          

I’d saved these boxes out of some vague sense that one day I’d need them. And now I did. I needed proof of capital improvements to get any refunds from the horrifying amount I’d paid in capital gains taxes. I dreaded this needle-in-a-haystack chore, but Martha liked it. “Look!” she’d say, sticking her head out of a box and waving a tattered receipt, “Seventeen hundred dollars for a house-painting job in 1983!”     

When she was done, we had proof of more spent on in-home improvements than even my accountant had hoped we could find.    

Get a Dumpster         

In the months before I left, the new owners started renovations on a barn-like building on the property. Workmen ripped out walls and floors, and the debris got thrown into a huge, wonderful thing that now sat in my driveway: a dumpster. Between the workmen and me, we must have filled six of those dumpsters, and at least half of the stuff was mine. I was lucky to get dumpster service for free, but I would’ve happily paid for it.

It’s Better to Give ... 

I could fit select pieces of furniture into my apartment, but most of it had to go. Emma called shipping services for quotes on sending pieces to my kids and siblings, but their estimates — $1,500 to ship a spindly pine bench! — were ridiculous. I sold some pieces to furniture dealers, but others I offered to friends. I liked thinking of them in my friends’ houses. If I missed my furniture, I could always visit it.

But Selling Is Great, Too        

Not everything had to go to the thrift shop, Emma and I started setting aside things for a yard sale. I stopped thinking of these items as dear to me and thought of them as Stuff I Could Get Money For. The sale was a roaring success. We could barely jam the cash into our pockets fast enough. I had second thoughts about a few things, but that didn’t last. A pretty ceramic salad bowl seemed to call out “Take me back." But when a woman approached me with the bowl in her hands, I was happy to swap it for money. We made $920! Just from things I’d had lying around my house. I took Emma out to dinner, and we toasted our efforts. The house was empty, and I was on my way.

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