I’ve been on a mission to simplify our lives for a couple of years now. It dawned on me that not only did we not need all this stuff that we had, we didn’t want it, either. There is a lot of accumulation that can happen in over 20 years of marriage with three kids. Life had gotten too complicated. There were too many details I was responsible for, and it didn’t feel like I was going to be able to maintain things to my own standards. I don’t think I have to be perfect, but I like to think I at least have a shot at getting a few things pretty close. As it stood before, I didn’t see that possibility. It was more like I had a shot at scraping through life by the seat of my pants. I don’t like that feeling. So, I’ve been sorting through the things that take up space in our lives in an effort to downsize the the load.

My goal is to prepare for moving into a smaller space. With the first of our three kids moved out, our house already feels big. With the second of our three kids traveling a lot, our house feels even bigger. Knowing that we will likely be empty nesters in the next few years makes me want to systematically prepare. I think the shock to our systems will be huge when there are no longer kids in our house, and it would delay my emotional ability to sort through boxes and boxes of stuff from our five lives. My thinking is that if I start now, moving to a smaller place won’t be daunting, it will be exciting. When I say smaller space, I mean really small.

tiny house
If you don’t already follow me on Pinterest, you can see what I’m dreaming of here. Tiny houses and the lifestyle that comes with them are very interesting to me. No debt, very low living expenses, and fewer possessions to care for are just some of the things that are drawing me to this movement. All of those things would allow us to spend more of our time and money on fun things, like travel. I don’t know if we will be able to shrink down to official tiny house size because we have some biggish possessions that we are very sentimentally attached to and use every day. But, even if we could shrink down to an almost tiny house that had enough room for the piano and jukebox, I think we’d be doing ourselves a favor.

Our downsizing might happen in stages. I’m not sure. There could be a move into a smaller house for the time we still have kids living with us. Something about the idea of gradually shrinking appeals to me, just to be sure we are cut out for it. We can always cry uncle if things get too small. For the time being, I have been shrinking the amount of stuff we have. Here’s the list so far:

1. Photographs
This is a long process and takes many passes. It’s okay to do this in segments. I’m still working on this one, but have made lots of progress. Even so, it might be years before I get through it all. This would be easier if you started your family life with digital pictures. There is the physical sorting of printed photos, and the sorting and tagging of the digital photos. The goal is to get all photos in a digital format so I can access whatever I want whenever I want. For me, I’m sorting printed photos by year (and guessing the date if I have to) and throwing out doubles and bad photos. That way if I haven’t finished digitizing, I can find the photos I want by looking at the photos in that year. If I find something I want to scan immediately (which is inevitable) I scan it into iPhoto, change the date to the actual photo date, tag the people in the photo, and write a description if it needs one. Taking the time to do this at the moment I scan it is a good idea because I won’t want to re-figure out all the details the next time I see the photo. I can already search my iPhoto library with the word “lobster” and come up with a whole bunch of my birthday pictures. I can search by person and come up with all the photos I’ve tagged of one person. It’s very cool and makes me want to do a good job of entering the photos into my library, because my ability to search is only as good as the details I entered with each photo. Once I’m done with a scan, I add the printed photo to the box of scanned photos, and those are sorted by date as well. I’m not sure if I’ll keep the hard copies of everything forever, but for now I still have them. My husband votes to get rid of them. Currently, I play photos through our apple tv, so it’s very similar to a music playlist. One of my favorite albums is one I created by compiling all the photos that have all three kids tagged. It’s a nice combination of new and old photos. Even though this is taking forever, I am already happy with how nice it is to be able to search for something particular and actually find it.

2. Linen Closet
I only meant to organize this to make the closet look neater, but when I got in there I discovered that we still had sheets and comforters for a twin bed. We don’t own a twin bed! I found old towels that we don’t use. All the matching sheets are now tied together and labeled as to what size bed they fit. Seasonal quilts are neatly folded. A couple of huge garbage bags of linens were donated and our closet now sings when I open the door. Maybe that’s just in my head, but it’s wonderful. Sometimes I walk by and open it just to hear the singing.

3. Table Linens
Our dining table has sharpie marks all over it from one of the early signs of creativity in our kids and one of the first parenting lessons in not leaving sharpies accessible to toddlers. We hope to refinish the table someday soon, but until then, we always use a tablecloth. Who knew you could have too many tablecloths? It’s just like the other areas where we had too many things. Some of the tablecloths were out of style, stained, or just ones I didn’t use because I didn’t like them. Donating them made the cupboard much more roomy. Sorting them into two piles, one for the regular size table and one for the extended size table, has made it easy to find what I need. I even bought a new tablecloth and didn’t feel a bit guilty since I was getting rid of a whole bunch of them. It’s always a good idea when you’re in this shrinking process to make sure that more things are leaving your house than coming in to your house.

table linens

4. Clothing
This one happens a lot. I started with the “if I haven’t worn it in a year” plan. That got rid of a lot of things, but I have to admit that I kept some things I hadn’t worn in the past year. I am always fighting with the “what if I need this sometime” thought. Doing this in passes over a couple of years has helped a lot. Each time I go through my closet again I see a few things that made the cut last time, but that I still haven’t worn, so it’s easier to get rid of them. I’m noticing that I wear the same things all the time because they are my favorites. Not having to see my overstuffed closet full of things I don’t wear is great! I’ve been through my closet so many times now that it looks organized and neat, like I could add things if I wanted to. Every couple of weeks I notice another item or two that I don’t want or need and add it to the donation pile in the garage. So far I haven’t regretted donating anything, and I think allowing myself time to get used to the idea and mindfully paying attention to what I wear and don’t wear has been a good way for me do do this. So far I haven’t been able to get rid of a pile of t-shirts from races I ran. Some of them are reminders of time with friends. One of them is from the only half marathon I ran, and it reminds me of a big goal that I achieved. The thing is, I don’t ever wear the t-shirt because I don’t like it. I only like the memory. My goal this week is to get rid of the shirts I don’t wear. If I still sleep in them they can stay, but otherwise I have photos of the friends and races we ran together that can serve as sweet reminders. Why do I need a 12 year old t-shirt with a mock turtleneck?

5. Furniture
This one was easy. Our oldest son was moving out so we gave him a lot of our furniture. What’s funny is you can’t even tell that our house is missing anything. We’ve even sold a few pieces on Craigslist and donated a few others. I think we tend to fill the space we have, just because we have it. We clearly didn’t need all that furniture, because we haven’t replaced any of the items we gave away or sold. Our house feels more comfortable with less stuff in it.

6. Craft Supplies
I’ve completed round one on this one. A lifetime of making things leads to a lot of fabric scraps and miscellaneous partial bags of supplies. Since I love vintage things so much, even the stuff I started collecting as a newlywed now counts as vintage. That’s a scary thought! Moving on. For my first pass, if I didn’t have a specific project in mind, hadn’t used the supply in the past couple of years, and didn’t have a sentimental attachment to it, it was donated. That was a lot of stuff. I still have more than I need, so the next time I go through I will look at having a stock of basic supplies. I’ll try to narrow the fabric down to a variety of colors and materials. I will tell myself that I don’t need seven different green floral cottons (unless I happen to have a green quilt planned!). I know that if I come up with a specific project after I have cleaned out the supplies, I can buy what I need for that project. Chances are I will find a way to make something out of what I already have, because I like the challenge of making something for as little cost as possible. Surprising myself again, I’ve realized that I’m happier having fewer things to go through when I’m looking for project ideas.

7. Spices
This was one of the easier areas to attack. I pulled all the spices out of the cupboard. Anything that had expired got the boot. Even though I could have used them anyway, they barely had any smell left, so I was guessing that they didn’t have any flavor, either. I also booted a few things that I used once an didn’t like. It’s crazy how easy it is to accumulate spices. Some of them were over ten years old, some of them were doubles because I bought new ones when I didn’t realize there was already one in the cupboard. The cupboard looks organized now and I know exactly what I have on hand. That’s a win for me.

8. Kids’ Childhood Mementos
Wow. I had a lot of boxes of papers and toys and clothes from when our kids were little. Each moment seemed so new, so unique, and so special, that I thought surely we would want to save a piece of it forever. The years added up. The kids added up. And the boxes added up. When I started looking through these, I found so many sweet reminders of the things our kids have done and learned over the years. What I realized, though, was that this doing and learning never stops. I am always noticing new things they do. I get as giddy now to see them get a dream job as I did when I saw them take their first steps. It’s still new, it’s still unique, and it’s still special. I will always be amazed by who they are and what they do. Knowing this, I’ve decided I need to take a different approach to memory storage. Changing these things into photographs is a simpler way to store them. I have scanned and photographed many things, thrown out lots of things, and probably kept more than I should. The volume of boxes has been drastically reduced. I saved handmade things, especially the baptism outfits made by my mom from the scraps of my wedding dress and buttons from my husband’s tuxedo. For the things I saved, I photographed them, too, so if we ever lose everything in a fire or tornado, we’ll still have the photos.

9. Music CDs
This was a process that we did slowly. We stopped buying CDs years ago and now we buy only buy digital music. For all the music we had already purchased on CD, we ripped it into our iTunes library, allowing us to get rid of the CDs. For this family of five with diverse musical tastes, getting rid of all those CDs has created a lot of room.

10. Movies
It’s the same story for DVDs as for the CDs. We ripped the ones we owned into our computer so we can play them on our apple tv. It works beautifully and getting rid of the DVDs has reduced the cluttered look of our television area.

11. Books
This has been an ongoing process. We love the idea of being digital and not being burdened with physical things to haul around with us. We have donated a lot of books already. Picture books went to friends with young kids. Chapter books went to a new teacher starting her classroom library. Books that we read once and probably will not read again were donated. That cleared out a lot of books. We kept books the kids found sentimental, books we think we’ll read again, and some old family books. Our goal right now is not to grow our physical library. We are trying to buy digital books instead, or buy books that we intend to pass along after we read them. Borrowing books is another great way to keep the collection down.

random acts of kindness donate books

12. Boxes of Paper Records
We had several years worth of taxes and old records that hadn’t been shredded. We found a place that let us bring in our boxes of papers for shredding. That saved us a ton of time versus individually shredding each piece of paper on our home shredder. It was just a matter of getting around to finding the business and taking in the boxes. The cost was minimal, I think less than $10 for all the boxes.

13. Christmas Decorations
I like a simple Christmas. When I went through our boxes of decorations and ornaments, I discovered that I only put out or use half of them, so I donated the rest. That’s four big plastic tubs of stuff donated, and four left. Even that seems like more than we need, but I’m happy with the progress.

14. Old Electronics
We had an old television that was set up with our Wii. After several years of constant use, it hadn’t been used in about two years. Our kids weren’t using the Wii anymore, so this dusty thing was taking up storage space in an armoire. We sold the Wii and paid to get rid of the television. It was a bummer to pay to get rid of something like that, but well worth it. We did try to give it away with the Wii, but the smart garage sale shopper said no way. We also had three, yes three, old computers. One of them had died and we needed to see if we could retrieve the information from the hard drive before we got rid of it. We made it a priority to get that done, then got rid of it. Another computer was a relic, one of the first apples, and we never did anything with it, so we gave it to a friend who loved it as much as we did when we first got it. Another one was just too old to get updates for the graphic design software my husband uses, so instead of continuing to let it sit in our basement, we sold it. Overall we ended up with some extra money and lots of extra space. We think those decisions were well played.

15. Kitchen Cupboards
For this category, I looked through everything in our kitchen and pulled out things we don’t use. Just because we have room for 25 coffee mugs doesn’t mean we use (or need) all of them. I kept the ones we use and donated the rest. I got rid of appliances and gadgets we never use, an embarrassingly big collection of plastic cups, and expired canned goods. I’m sure I could do more here, but that was a pretty good start.

16. VHS Home Movies
Before we got rid of our tv with the VHS player, we used it to digitize our home movies. You see, when we started having kids, digital movies weren’t a thing. We made the conversion by playing the old movies through the old television, connecting it to the computer, and using a purchased piece of software to convert them to digital records stored on our computer. It was a time consuming process because it took place in real time. I had to play the whole movie at regular speed to capture the recording. Once I had saved the movies and made a backup, we got rid of the tv, the video camera and the VHS tapes.

17. Hair Accessories
My daughter and I had quite a collection of headbands. We donated tons of them. We cleaned out all kinds of clips and bows from her childhood, the kinds of things a college girl won’t wear, and donated them. It’s really nice to look through only the handful of things we actually use.

18. Bathroom Cupboards
This was was easy, too. The amount of makeup and hair products that filled our bathroom cupboards was embarrassing. If we hadn’t used it up, there was probably a reason. We pitched everything we wouldn’t use now, and organized things we realized we could still use. There were several partial containers of shampoo and conditioner. We just used the mismatched containers until they were gone. It ended up saving us money, even though our hair may have had too many scents going on at once.

The last two things are probably the most important ones on my list. Without these, the others wouldn’t have happened. I believe in the concept of healing from the inside out. Taking care of my own health gave me perspective and made me feel like attacking all those other areas.

19. Me
Early on in my process, I realized that I hadn’t been taking care of myself the way I should. I decided to make a grand effort to eat more whole foods and less processed foods. I focused on making dinners at home and preparing the most nutrient dense meals I could. I read a lot and researched to find what I believe to be the healthiest meats, produce, eggs and milk products, then I tried as often as I could to buy those. Not only is there a little less of me now, it has helped me feel better all over. What I wasn’t anticipating was the mental benefit. I feel more focused, calmer, stronger and more capable than I was before I did this. Every little bit helps. The bonus is that my family appears to have benefitted, too.

20. Volunteer Commitments
This is a sensitive area for me. I started volunteering when I was 14, as a candy striper in our local hospital. By the time my first son was one year old, I was on the board of directors of his morning out for mom’s preschool. Between helping in classrooms, PTA, sports teams and lots of things in between, there was always some kind of volunteer activity in my life. For the past several years I have volunteered for a group that didn’t directly have anything to do with my kids, one that I chose because it makes my community better. I gave a lot and I learned a lot, taking on bigger and bigger roles until I was giving so much of myself that it felt like I was spread too thin, not able to be good at the most important things in my life. So, in a year when my family had some big challenges and I wanted to be the best wife/mom/daughter/sister possible, I cut back on the volunteering. The decision was very hard. I felt like I was letting people down and giving up something that was a part of who I am. It was a good decision. Reducing that stress made room for me to cope with bigger things in my life and put more focus on my family. It was a lesson in trusting my own gut feelings. It needed to be done, even though it wasn’t easy. And, I am still a volunteer – giving time, money and praise to this group that does a lot of good in the world. I learned that being a leader doesn’t always mean you have to have the biggest job in an organization, it can be leading by example, and giving what you can when you can.

One of the best things about going through all this stuff is that I feel so much lighter. Each time I get through another category, it feels like a weight has been lifted. I wasn’t expecting this, but it makes me want to go through more things. Every time I open a closet or cupboard I see only things I love, and there is something about having fewer choices that is completely freeing. Even though I’m still choosing the same things I was choosing before, now I don’t see all the stuff I had to overlook to get to the stuff I really wanted. I hadn’t even realized that there was a burden in seeing the extra stuff. I thought since I had space, it didn’t matter if I kept the stuff I wasn’t using. I was wrong.

The more I shrink our stuff, the happier I feel all the time. Less really is more. More happiness. More freedom. More time to enjoy what’s in front of me right now.

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6 Responses to Less is More: 20 Areas to Downsize

  1. Tiffany Bell says:

    Great post. We are in the midst of the preschool/school years in our home. We made the conscious decision after the five year mark in our “starter home” to choose to continue to live in this home. For that reason, we are constantly weeding through things and getting rid of. Each year, I go through the whole house cupboard by cupboard and box by box and weed through our items to keep only the best stuff. We still have more toys than the kids could ever play with but as the years go on this to will pass.

    • Betsy says:

      Thanks, Tiffany! You are so smart to stay in a smaller space as long as possible. I think if I could go back in time to when I was in your stage of life, I would tell myself to save as many things as possible in photo form. It would have been easier in the long run to take a quick photo, then throw out the art projects after an appropriate display time on the refrigerator. I would also tell myself to keep photos in date order, at the very minimum. Even if I didn’t have time to label them, keeping them in date order, in one location, makes it easier to figure out details at a later time. I think the last thing I would tell myself is to spend less time thinking about how to get more stuff; to look a little deeper and see that what I really want is happiness for myself, my family and the world. It sounds like you are way ahead of where I was at your age. Keep it up!

  2. Karen says:

    Great post Betsy. Can you come hold my hand through your process at my house, please? Seems insurmountable! Oh to have your tenacity… But please keep inspiring me. Maybe one day I’ll get there!

  3. […] – here’s an interesting blog about cleaning out that I received recently.  I felt a spur of companionship reading it.  […]

  4. Laurie says:

    Your Tip Me Tuesday link is incredible this week! In fact, my readers would love to bookmark it in their craft rooms. Did you know that if you upload this blog post into your Tip Junkie craft room using at least 2 images, 2 steps, and blog post URL then Tip Junkie readers can favorite it which instantly bookmarks it so they can find it later. {Whoohoo!} ~ Laurie {a.k.a. the Tip Junkie}

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