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How to Downsize in 5 Steps: Practical Advice from a Family Who Moved from 1500 to 350-Sq Ft

First off, let me start this by saying, this is not a post about how to use the “pile system.” You know, the one that tells you to make three piles: the keep, the donate, the throwaway.


I had grand plans for downsizing in an organized fashion by utilizing the pile system. But downsizing your things, and your family’s stuff, is not that easy. And if you’re short on time, the pile idea goes out the window. So, here’s my advice for dealing with the more complicated aspects of downsizing, and how you can work through it.



What Makes Downsizing So Difficult?

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to all the stuff we accumulate over the years. When we lived in a “regular” house, I did semi-annual purges in our home. It felt so good to get rid of the things we didn’t use. But with each passing year, our house became increasingly inundated with more stuff. Why?


Because if you have the space, you’ll probably fill it. We had a two-car garage we couldn’t fit a car into. Even during those rare times when my daughter tried to clean her room, it looked terrible. She’s crafty and creative, and her room reflected that in a way that suited her, but gave me anxiety. One hard and fast lesson I learned during our move was that, just because I was okay with getting rid of things, didn’t mean my family would be. People develop attachments to things, and that’s difficult to let go.


I didn't take pictures of our actual garage, because it was terribly embarrassing. But this one has a similar vibe.


The other complicated part of downsizing is the fear of getting rid of something you might need in the future. We’ll talk more about this in a moment.


Step #1: Start with the Easy Stuff

Pick a room or area of your house. Find the easiest place in your abode. Grab a trash bag or a large box. Everything you don’t need or want goes into the trash. It really is that easy. If you have to stop and think about an item, then you probably don’t need it. Maybe you’re hanging onto something your child made in the second grade, or a gift from a family member who might get upset if you don’t keep this item. Get rid of it.



During this phase, try to be realistic about the things you own. Does the local thrift store really want that barely stained coffee mug? Your shirt with the little hole in it that hasn’t spread yet? Your child’s toy with that has “most” of the parts? If it’s garbage, get rid of it. Now is not the time for landfill guilt. None of those items were going to last forever – they’re going to end up at the dump anyway, so send them now.


Pro Tip: When you’re downsizing, fill your trash to the max. When I loaded up our pickup truck to take trips to the landfill, every bag was full. Even if it meant doing a quick walk through the house and filling it with garbage from other rooms. This will also help you pare down items in other parts of the house more quickly. Other family members can help too. Have your kids, spouse, partner, or roommate grab a few items they don’t want and throw them in.


Step #2: Handling Reluctance with Compassion


You will probably need to part ways with some items that you don’t want to. These are the items that hold some sentimental value, like a gift from a now-deceased relative, an item that brings back precious memories from your past, or even an entire collection of goods you’ve accumulated over the last decade – or three.


The possessions that proved most important to us, we made space for in the RV. There were some items we’d hung on to more for the people who gifted them, and we let those go. If you have sentimental items that you can’t part with, but don’t have room for, see Step #3.


The greatest challenge I had in downsizing came from my daughter. She had names for every one of her 103 stuffed animals. Almost all of them were gifts, and she knew where each one came from. Every painted rock, picture from a friend, and junk toy she’d accumulated from a goody bag, had meaning and value to her.



I made extensive progress each day throughout the house. But in my daughter’s room, we worked slowly. She carefully reviewed and debated every item. It wasn’t until she moved her things into the RV that she could see the reality of the situation. The cabinets and drawers on her side of the bunkhouse allowed her to understand what she could realistically keep and what had to go.


Step #3: Donating and Selling

This section assumes you have items you don’t plan to keep, but are in great condition and others might want them. If you don’t have any such items, then skip to the next step. If you do, then here’s how to tackle Step #3.



Selling

We only sold a few of our possessions, and they all went to people we knew. However, if you don’t know anyone who wants to buy your items, and you have time to sell them, there are many places you can post these items: Facebook marketplace, Craigslist, OfferUp, and LetGo, to name a few.


You also have the option of hosting a yard sale, or joining a friend to split the fee for a table at a local community event or flea market.


Donating

If you don’t have the time to put your items up for sale, or just don’t want to deal with the hassle, you can donate quality items. There are two ways to do this. First, gather up all of your quality unwanted items, and drop them off at your local thrift store. The second option, is to put the things your unwanted goods in one area of your house, and invite friends, family, and neighbors to take whatever they want. My parents did this before their move into an RV and had an entire room emptied in thirty minutes. Everything from kitchen items to Christmas ornaments to paintings, were gone in less than an hour. It works.



To Store, or Not to Store

Whether you decide to keep a storage unit is a personal decision. If your plan is to downsize while living in an RV, vehicle, or boat for a few years, then you might not want the hassle of buying everything all over again when you move back into a home. Or maybe your plan is to spend a year backpacking through the country, and you’re sure that after that experience, you won’t want all your old stuff anymore.


No one can tell you how to live your life. If you need to hang on to some things, keep in mind that you’ll have associated storage fees, and factor that into your budget. If you’re downsizing because you feel over-burdened by your belongings, then keeping things in a storage unit may not be the best decision for you.


For the small mementos you don’t want to let go of, check with a relative and see if they’ll let you borrow space in their basement or attic. This way, you can hang on to these sentimental items without paying for storage fees.



Step #4: Get Creative with the Things You Want to Keep

My daughter wanted to keep a large photo album. I had a binder full of recipes that I go through each week when meal planning. Both these things take up unnecessary space. The solution? Go digital. Digital picture frames take up a lot less space than photo albums and can hold all your pictures. I stored my recipes on my computer (and Pinterest, a lot of them come from Pinterest).


Once we moved into the RV, I threw away a lot of paperwork I used to hang on to. Some of it was associated with our previous home, which we no longer owned. Other folders contained manuals for products that I could easily find online, ancient receipts, and similar items. A few months after we moved in, I threw away about six additional pounds of paperwork.



As for items like cookware and other personal items, try to be non-emotional and realistic about them. Do you need four different sized pots to cook with? Three different skillets? When was the last time you actually played that dusty guitar in the corner? Or picked up the resistance bands laying on top of it? In case you were wondering, these examples came straight from my family’s downsizing experience. And we have not missed the guitars, resistance bands, or extra pots and pans, since moving.


Step #5: Facing the What Ifs & Overcoming Fear

The greatest fear most of face when downsizing is wondering if we will miss those items. Or wondering if we’ll need them again in the future. These fears are not without merit. Especially for those with a super-strict budget. You don’t want to get rid of anything that you’ll have to buy again.



We’ve had several items that we could have used had we not given them away before our move. On the flip side of that coin, we still don’t have space for those items, so it wouldn’t have mattered. We have spent less than $200 replacing items we gave away. Most of this went to a tool that we got rid of after moving into the RV. We needed a smaller, more compact version. The rest was for a tool we rented to fix something in the RV.


My kids have not mentioned missing anything they’d had before we moved. They spend a lot more time outside now, anyway.



I hope you found How to Downsize in 5 Steps helpful. For us, moving into a smaller space, which you can read all about at How We Went from a House to Full-Time RV Living in 16 Days, made downsizing effective in a way we never managed in our 1500-square foot home. Regardless of your reasons for downsizing, it is both a daunting and rewarding experience. Good luck moving forward. I hope you feel the weight lifted off your shoulders like we did.


Have you had to drastically downsize before? Are you making plans to move into a smaller space? Do you already live tiny and have any advice for others? Please, share your comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

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