Decluttering is healthy no matter your age.

The Upside to Downsizing and Organizing Your “Stuff”

I’ve relocated several times, but until my last move, they were corporate transfers; i.e. I didn’t have to pay for them. I had a blasé approach to the moving process, knowing I didn’t have to do the sorting, wrapping, packing, or unpacking, and the ace in the hole was that there was always another basement to store my extra stuff. But, when I moved to the Southeast, it was on MY dime … and there was no basement. All at once, this packing thing took on a whole different dimension, and I discovered that, although not easy, there are many upsides to downsizing/decluttering. Let’s take a look at the WHYS, then the HOWS, then the WHERES. (One important caveat: I’m not talking about downsizing the square footage of your house; I’m talking about downsizing your STUFF. About 46 percent of Boomers who plan to move expect to increase the size of their new home or to keep the same approximate square footage, according to the Demand Institute.)

The Why: Benefits of decluttering

Decluttering is healthy. Period. You save time, are more productive, and are more clear and efficient when your life and home are decluttered. How many minutes/hours have I spent over the past years looking for hand-written thoughts about an article I planned to write, notes for an interview that would be handy, or a phone number I scribbled on a piece of paper instead of entering it directly into my phone? Too many. My office tends to grow little mounds of paper that miraculously reproduce on my desk and on a chair and an ottoman in the corner of my office. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that physical clutter vies for your attention and affects your ability to focus, resulting in lower performance. I have (empty) drawers with file folders and a closet with shelves. I have no excuse.

Happy couple decluttering by putting away.

Relive memories/find cool stuff. Cleaning out the “junk drawers” in my kitchen (I have two of them), I found dozens of “telescope” pictures we had taken over the years while vacationing in Ocean City, MD. How much fun to look at my three children (now in their 30s) as little kids and re-live those memories immortalized on a bit of film at the end of a two-inch telescope-shaped keychain. My kids and grandkids love looking at these unearthed treasures. You never know what you’ll find until you start going through your stuff. It can be a rewarding trip down memory lane.

Boost your mood/feel more competent. When I’m heading out for an appointment and cannot locate my keys or phone (I know it’s a big no-no not putting them in the same place all the time), it is stressful. Getting rid of the clutter and having everything in its place reduces anxiety and makes you feel in control.

Sleep better. A survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that people who make their beds every day (almost every day) and have a tidy bedroom sleep better and more soundly than those who do not. And, the ritual of turning down a made bed helps prime our brains for sleep. I am on track with this one.

Save money/feel virtuous. With the new tax laws, most of us will be taking the standard deduction, and therefore, getting no deduction for donating our stuff, but you can still use the internet, consignment shops, or yard sales to make some money. And, giving away your things to organizations or people who can use them makes you feel good about yourself. Plus, if you’re paying for a move, less stuff equals money saved.

Your clutter will ultimately become someone else’s problem to deal with if you’re not proactive. Not a nice thing to do to your family/friends.

I’ll be the first to admit that decluttering isn’t a fun chore, although I do feel freer, lighter, and more energized after making progress. And, remember: YOUR KIDS DON’T WANT YOUR STUFF! Well, perhaps if there’s a Rolex watch or Mikimoto pearl earrings or a 1964 Ford Mustang convertible, but probably not the treadmill or your Noritake Blue Hill china from 43 years ago (take it from one who knows). But, just in case, consult them prior to the big declutter (I did want to keep a few of my parents’ things).

The How: Starting the Process

Like many things in life, there is no one right way to approach your decluttering adventure. Some experts suggest you start in the attic or top floor and work your way down. Others say do it by category (e.g. books, papers, DVDs, flat surfaces throughout the house, clothing, children’s memorabilia, pictures, etc.). Or, approach the task by time: Spend five minutes each hour putting things in their proper place, or get three big plastic bags, and work until they’re filled—one with trash, one with recyclables, and one with donations. Then, repeat on a regular schedule.

The "decluttering is healthy" smile.

I started in my basement—I knew that was the place that had the most things I could easily throw away, give away, or recycle. Did I really need my Organic Chemistry book from graduate school? Or my broken basketball trophy from eigth grade? The outdated 52-inch big screen TV shoved into a corner? Nope. Those were easy decisions, and gave me a feeling of accomplishment. I gathered my three adult kids’ stuff I had saved from when they were little, put them into boxes, and handed them over to them, with the caveat that we’d hold onto one box each for them if they wanted us to do so. I spent 20 minutes every day decluttering. Long enough to make progress, but a short enough stint that I didn’t burn out.

It took a while, but it got done. And, I kept reminding myself that I was saving money by not paying the movers for things I’d never use anyway.

The Where: Who will take it

There are lots of options. I was lucky. One of our sons had a friend who wasn’t going to college but had a job, bought a house, and needed to furnish it. He came and hauled away our still-usable furniture and other items that wouldn’t be a good “fit” in our new house/warm climate. Friends with college kids who needed to furnish an off-campus apartment were a gold-mine. We put usable stuff at the bottom of our driveway on trash day; people would drive by and pick things up, like a Little Tikes basketball set (our kids were in their 20s when we moved). And, our trash company picked up big items on certain days with prior notification.

As their website states, “1-800-GOT-JUNK? will take anything non-hazardous that two strong, able-bodied crew members can lift.” My brother used them for a big basement declutter. They offer free estimates, and pricing is based on volume. 1-800-GOT-JUNK? claims they recycle and donate your stuff whenever possible. They do not operate in every zip code.


Shell Point Senior Living


Free pick-ups are possible. Contact Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Amvets, St. Vincent de Paul (they picked up a lot of my donations), Vietnam Veterans of America, your local Humane Society, etc. Of course, you can always deliver your donations to them. And don’t forget local places that help others but don’t pick-up. We have a place in our county called Emmanuel’s Closet that is run by volunteers and gives donated clothing to those in need. Donation Town ( is a handy reference for charities in your area that will pick up donations.

Sell your stuff. Consider eBay, Amazon, Bonanza, or Next Door (a neighborhood network). And, there are always consignment shops or yard sales. Just be cautious about people you don’t know coming to your home.

Have you seen those “Donation Boxes” by the side of the road? They are frequently for-profit textile recycling collection bins; the donated clothing is sold to recyclers that turn them into products like insulation or padding for carpets. A small percentage of their profits may be donated to a charity. If it’s a convenient way to dispose of clothing (I am guilty), I assuage my guilt with the idea I’m keeping my clothes out of a landfill; it’s estimated the average American throws away about 80 pounds of used clothing a year.

Let’s “cut the clutter.” And, keep Frozen’s Queen Elsa’s song in our head as we approach this difficult but rewarding task: “Let it Go.”

Jan Cullinane is an award-winning retirement author, speaker, and consultant. Her current book is The Single Woman’s Guide to Retirement (AARP/Wiley).


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