Fearless downsizing

“Do I really need all this stuff?” you ask yourself as you step into your garage that can no longer fit a car; search for something in your overflowing, disorganized closet; or bump into a chair in your furniture-crammed room.

“Nope.” you reply and suddenly you feel a tiny tingle of fear because, hey, just the idea of downsizing seems scary-impossible. I know this fear because I’ve been there. Really. But I finally tamed the downsizing demon and I think you can too.

Our downsizing experience

Last year Mrs. FF and I sold our suburban home, negotiated apartment rent in downtown Philly, and moved. We downsized from 2,100 to 1,150 square feet. Our old house had many crammed, cavernous closets and an over-sized two-car garage stuffed with woodworking equipment, bikes, lawn mowers, gardening tools, ladders, and much more. The garage even had an attic full of boxes, folding tables, and other things.

So downsizing our stuff was not easy. We’d been in the house for over 15 years and accumulated more crap than could possible fit into our new apartment. I hummed the theme from Mission Impossible whenever I looked around at all the stuff we needed to part with.

We started chipping away by giving things to Purple Heart, Philly Aids Thrift Shop, and the local library. When it was worth the trouble, I slowly sold smaller items on eBay and Amazon Marketplace. I’d carefully pack each sold item in a box, print a label, and schlep it to the closest post office or UPS store.

I also took pictures, created fancy descriptions, and posted larger stuff on Craigslist. Here’s a long list of all the Craigslist items I sold:

  • Tower Bookcase
  • Corded Drill
  • Electric Train Set
  • Japanese Sharpening Stones
  • Leigh Dovetail Jig
  • Mandolin
  • Router Table with extras
  • Trek 7.3 FX Bike with extras
  • Router Table with extras
  • Soldering Gun
  • Router Table with extras
  • Dewalt 2HP Router with extras
  • Router Bits – Whiteside
  • Homemade Bench Press
  • Black leather chair and footstool
  • Child’s rocking chair
  • Dual Motion Sander
  • Chair – white solid
  • Chair – white wood
  • Hardwood – kiln dried
  • Woodworking Vise with extras
  • Brad Nailer – Porter Cable
  • Bosch Belt Sander
  • Natuzzi brown leather loveseat
  • Indoor/Outdoor Cafe Table
  • TV Stand
  • Casio CTK-710 Keyboard with stand
  • Power Rack
  • Adjustable Workout Bench
  • Plastic patio chairs
  • Patio chairs and table
  • Black table with glass top
  • Pfretzschner violin 4/4
  • Large Woodworking Clamp Set
  • Dewalt DW682 Biscuit / Plate Joiner plus bonus
  • Extension ladder
  • Natuzzi brown leather couch
  • Wine Rack
  • Adjustable Music Stand
  • Twin frame and mattress
  • Area Rug
  • Precor Rowing Machine
  • Dumbbell Rack
  • Olympic Weight Set with extras
  • Elliptical – Octane Q47e

You get the idea – it was a this-will-never-ever-end amount of work.

Mrs. FF was and is a pro at getting rid of stuff. She just lets it go with little emotional baggage and says bye-bye. Not so for me.

I’m a certifiable Book Junky and I had to get rid of almost all my books. I had to sell all my woodworking tools I’d used to build furniture for our house. We were able to keep most of the furniture I built except for the large Outdoor Mahogany Garden Bench. We have no outdoor space in our city apartment.

I had to sell my Red Warrior Bike that my Dad bought me when I was 12. OK, it was a piece-of-crap bike, but I’d used it my whole life! I even let my sons use it to commute around Philly when they lived downtown for school or work. I liked the idea that they were riding the same bike I rode as a kid. Selling it felt about as good as the first 12 hours after my last root canal. It hurt. 🙁

The bike I had since I was 12 that I sold as part of downsizing.

Downsizing Jiu-jitsu

Fortunately, I gradually grew comfortable with downsizing because of a bag of tricks I picked up along the way. Some tricks came from Mrs. FF while others I just found by accident.

These downsizing tricks are really just mental Jiu-jutsu to help re-frame how you think about parting with something. If you’re downsizing-challenged like me, these tricks might help you too.

  1. Start easy, build momentum. I started out by letting go of a few easy things – coins from an old coin collection and books that I felt nothing for. At first, It felt a little painful. But once a few things were gone something odd happened – I felt relief. Like the relief I feel when I’ve just put down a so-heavy-its-gonna-break bag of groceries. Or like the relief I feel when I’ve just finished my taxes and realize I owe nothing. I felt the freedom and lightness of having less stuff! It felt so fantastic that I looked forward to getting rid of more easy stuff. And so I did.
  2. Think of the savings or extra money. This is an easy trick to perform since you’re probably Freaky Frugal already. Whenever I sold something, I thought about how I could put the money to good use. Sometimes I saved it and other times I spent it on other things we needed. I also thought about long-term savings – think Rule of 25 – when it cost money to maintain or store whatever I was getting rid of.
  3. It’s just stuff! It helped me a lot to see stuff as just stuff. It’s not relationships or health or life adventures or dark chocolate. It’s just an object. A thing. Inanimate. I thought of the quote “Love people and use your stuff because the opposite never works.” that I heard on Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things. Great movie, by the way.
  4. You’re freeing a useful asset. This trick helped with useful items. I asked myself when was the last time I used this thing. If it was a long time ago, I thought about how somebody else could get good use out of it and it would make them happy. A useful thing is meant to be used not just stored. Free it!
  5. You’re just a temporary caretaker. I spent 7 years at Soji Zen Center and eventually became a Senior Zen Student. One thing I learned and accepted is that everything is impermanent. That includes you, me, our houses, our cars, our children, earth, everything. This helped me realize that I’m just a temporary caretaker of all the stuff around me. It’s not going to be with me forever because I’m not going to be here forever. My house, for example, may feel like it’s mine. But it’s just temporary because someday I’ll move or die and then somebody else will own the house. It’s not really mine. This trick helped me to let go of things that had more sentimental value.
  6. Does it spark joy? This question came from the wildly popular Tidying Up book that Mrs. FF read. Get it from your local library. The book has some wacky ideas (sushi roll your socks, anyone?) but it also had a good idea about holding things in your hand and seeing how you feel. If it doesn’t spark joy, thank it for its service and get rid of it. I rarely needed to even hold a thing in my hands to realize it didn’t spark joy. And if it didn’t spark joy, then it sparked my desire to get rid of it.
  7. Take a picture as a keepsake. If I wanted to keep some memory of a cherished thing I was parting with, I’d take a picture with my phone. I did this with my Red Warrior Bike. I don’t spend much time looking at the pictures but it’s comforting to know I can.
Really Stupid Comic #10

Just do it!

Things have gone so well since we downsized that I don’t even think of it as downsizing anymore. I think of it as rightsizing.

So do you have crammed closets, garages, attics, crawl spaces or – gasp – storage lockers? If so, you’re ripe for rightsizing your stuff! Just get started. It’ll be easier than you think. Honest.

Thanks for reading! Do you need or want to downsize? Or have you already downsized? Got any downsizing tricks of your own?

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20 comments

  1. In 2011 I had most of my belongings in a storage unit while in the process of moving. Several months after I rented it I checked on my things, forgetting how much was in it. I found damage to the roof of the unit and it was full of wet, moldy, utterly destroyed furniture, books, clothes, keepsakes, and other artifacts of my life. I had insurance and so I went through the process of cataloging all of the damage, and you know what I found after the initial feeling of despair? A lightness, and an odd sense of freedom from all of that stuff. Thanks for sharing, Mr. Freaky Frugal.

    1. Liz – Thank you for sharing as well!

      That’s definitely a rip-off-the-band-aid approach to downsizing. It must have been really difficult initially to discover all your stuff ruined. But I’m really glad that you had insurance and eventually felt better about it.

      I tell people that you have to experience that sense of freedom and lightness directly to believe it. Most people are skeptical.

      I wonder – do you find it easier now to have or keep less stuff?

      1. Yes, definitely! I actually live in a “studio” and, although I tend to live with a bit of clutter, I have no problem getting rid of things. I’m glad you brought up your experience with Zen- kind of off topic but I’ve been reading lately about climate change and a NASA climatologist wrote that he started meditating to deal with the knowledge of humans destroying the environment. I’m having a hard time sleeping at night! Could you recommend any good books on Zen Buddhism?

        1. I’d recommend The Three Pillars of Zen, a Zen classic. However, I have to warn you that it’s not light reading. If you want something a little less dense, then I’d recommend Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, another Zen classic.

  2. Wow, that’s a lot of downsizing! While I downsized my home a number of years ago, it’s taking me a lot longer to downsize all the stuff that was in that home. Right now our closets are a game of Tetris and getting one thing out often requires rearranging the entire collection. Slowly but surely my wife and I are getting rid of some of our clutter. We had a yard sale in the spring and we donate items when we can. Your tips are great…I especially like the one about being a temporary caretaker.

    1. Hi Gary! That’s impressive that you downsized that long ago. If you don’t mind me asking – how big is your current place versus the old place?

      And great work on gradually getting rid of your stuff. I found that once I got a little momentum, the whole downsizing thing just go much easier. I got much faster the deeper I cut through the clutter.

      I’m glad you like the temporary caretaker tip. That one becomes more and more obvious the older I get. I’m already 57 so many things are starting to feel more and more temporary. 🙂

  3. I’m working on downsizing my stuff. We realized now that we are in our home and not moving every year that stuff accumulates. Fortunately, we are basically renovating every room in the house, so as we move through the house to renovate we are purging, not just moving stuff to the basement.

    1. That’s an interesting approach! Any approach that helps you to get rid of clutter is a good approach IMHO. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing, Mrs. Kiwi.

  4. We are 2 adults, a baby, and a dog in 450 square feet (I have a post on my blog about it) and I am perpetually downsizing and evaluating whether stuff needs to be gotten rid of. My apartment does NOT look like a minimalist magazine type apartment, it still feels cluttered even though I have so much stuff I got rid of. Unfortunately I can’t get rid of my husband’s stuff haha. I haven’t read Marie Kondo’s book but am a big fan of her methodology. I am trying to get rid of 365 items and have about 60 items left to go!

    I would be sad to get rid of something I have had since I was 12 too! That bike looks nice, but now it is with a new owner 🙂 It’s good that you think of everything as impermanent through your zen teachings, I need to definitely remind myself of that and learn not to be attached to things so much!

    1. Very, very impressive! And you’re still getting rid of stuff! Those pesky husbands can be packrats. 🙂

      After you get rid of the last 60 items, do you feel like you’ll be rightsized? Or do you plan to get rid of more later?

      What’s the link to your blog post?

      Getting rid of the bike was tough, but you’re right – it now has a new owner. I sold it to a guy that was going to keep it at the Jersey Shore and use it as a beach bike. I hope it’s still rolling!

      I don’t see us getting much below 800 square feet for 2 adults. We each like having our own room which limits how small we can go. We currently have 2 bathrooms, but with a little wailing and gnashing of teeth we can downsize to 1 bathroom.

      What is a link to your post?

  5. Love the term right-sizing; taking a positive approach to it. Sometimes letting go of big useless things feels so liberating. I’ve told myself whatever I sell on Craigslist and Offer-up will not be replaced with something else. If I’m not able to sell it, over time I will donate more things each year and obtain a tax break in the process 🙂

    1. SMM – Thanks, I’m partial to the rightsizing term as well. 🙂

      Great point about donating stuff for the tax break. I forgot all about that because since we FIREd, our taxable income is so low that we use the Standard Deduction which leaves no option for writing off donations.

  6. Oh it’s right here: https://www.genymoney.ca/450-square-feet-and-a-baby/

    Thanks for visiting!

    Yes, it’s a bit tight but a temporary situation for us.

    Hmm, I don’t think I’ll be right sized even getting rid of the last 60 items because my place still won’t look ‘minimalist’. But that’s okay, once we move into a bigger space I’ll get lots of storage boxes to hide the clutter haha!

    But yes, I’m so impressed with your list of stuff you sold on Craigslist!!

    1. I enjoyed your post – thanks for that!

      Even if you move to a bigger space, your exercise in downsizing is an incredibly valuable life-skill that most people never learn.

  7. I have found moving to be the best motivator! I moved twice in the last 7 seven years and , when we moved for the second time, we still had unopened boxes from the first move. That is when I decided it was time to let go. We still would have had the space but why keep it all? Plus it is expensive real estate:) I kept some of the very sentimental items, the small ones, and took pictures of the others. I gave away a lot and it felt really good. Now I try not to accumulate anymore. The first 6 months of this year, I felt it was creeping up on me again so everyday I got rid of one item (anything at all, you will be amazed the stuff you keep) . By July it was strating to be a struggle so I am taking a break.

    1. Caroline – Moving was a big motivator for us as well since Mrs. FF and I planned on shrinking our square footage by more than half.

      I laughed when I read about your unopened boxes because we experienced the exact same thing! We pulled down boxes from our garage attic and discovered lots of unopened boxes from our last move more than 15 year ago. I had no problem letting those boxes go. 🙂

      And you’re right – it’s really easy to start accumulating more. We started a policy that if we bring something non-consumable into the apartment, then we have to get rid of another non-consumable. So a 1 for 1 trade. This has worked well so far. I also do a Spring Cleaning every April to find more stuff to get rid of.

      Sounds like you’re doing a great job with downsizing and thanks for sharing!

  8. Wow, I’m impressed, that’s quite the “Sold” list. I like selling through Craigslist because it seems like the items move more quickly. I could put an ad up right now and have a buyer in a few hours, so I love it for that. Speaking of, I keep trying to get my Keurig up there, and might just have to do it now! I have a blog post coming up about selling your goods online for extra money, which takes the same approach of downsizing, because like you, if you don’t have a use for it anymore, might as well sell it to someone who will.

    1. HP – Yep, selling on Craigslist is super easy, isn’t it? And you meet sometimes pleasant, sometimes weird (but always interesting) people in the process. 🙂

      I look forward to reading your post. Please stop back and leave a comment with a link when it’s ready.

  9. My wife and I have so much clutter in our place that we plan to eliminate a lot of them once we buy a home. So when we move in, the place will lack the clutter we currently have.
    My wife is pretty good at throwing away sentimental stuff too so I know the feeling of keeping something(baseball cards of me) and she has a different view of it. She thinks it worthless(well it almost is since it’s been devalued now) and should be thrown away. I wanted to keep it because it holds memories of me exchanging baseball cards with friends in grade school but I know where she is coming from and probably going to get rid of it once were out of our apartment.

    1. Kris – Getting rid of stuff when you move is an ideal downsizing strategy. I wish we had started sooner because it was a mad scramble at the end as moving day approached.

      You can always keep a few of your favorite baseball cards or take pictures of the whole collection. Taking pictures helped me with my old bike.

      Good luck!

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