How to Downsize the Right Way

Q. My husband and I became empty-nesters when our son and daughter moved out and started families of their own. We will be selling our home and moving to a condominium in a senior living community in a couple of months. I admit I’m somewhat of a pack rat, and have a lot of stuff, some of which may have monetary value and some may have just sentimental value. Do you have any downsizing tips for someone like me who is emotionally attached to stuff? We are having trouble determining what to keep, what to get rid of, and what we should save to leave to our children? Do you have any suggestions? Thanks in advance for your help!

A. Through the years, most of us tend to accumulate lots of stuff. We have drawers full of stuff that we have never used (and never will), and boxes of “stuff” we don’t really need but keep “just in case.” Items that we’ve had for years may be difficult to part with due to familiarity and sentimental value, although many of them serve no functional purpose.

Although downsizing can be seen as an opportunity for both renewal and reinvention for some, for others it can be an emotionally laden and even traumatic experience. It may be difficult for some people to get rid of stuff that holds symbolic meaning relative to one’s personal history. This can be an enormously difficult change in life.

It’s not about the objects themselves, but rather the memories connected with them. The best suggestion for managing the emotional stress of downsizing is recognizing what is causing your stress and developing an action plan for handling the downsizing process with minimal added emotional trauma.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why am I downsizing in the first place? Identify exactly why you are downsizing, and revisit this goal often as you continue through the process. View this process as a positive time when you are creating a new chapter in your life and re-inventing your lifestyle and your surroundings. Remember that the goal of downsizing is to keep items that reflect who you are now, not who you were in the past. By downsizing, you minimize your emotional stress by having fewer responsibilities, a smaller workload, an increased cash flow, and greater flexibility with less to overwhelm.
  • Why am I attached to this item? Often items retain their significance because someone special gave them to you or they remind you of a special event in your life. Consider giving these items to others who would appreciate them because of this past significance. But take photos first so you can preserve your memories if you ever want to reminisce.
  • What is the worst that will happen if I get rid of this? Are you putting off the decision to downsize because you may need these items some day? Or your kids may need these items?  If you have memorabilia from your kids’ lives, set a firm deadline by which the stuff must be picked up. If it isn’t, trash it (but take photos first)! If it’s not worth space in their homes, it’s not worth space in yours.

Include Your Children in Decisions About Family Treasures

Let the children decide what family treasures they want to inherit. For example, one family gave each of their children color-coded sticky dots. They each put colored dots on the things they hoped to inherit. One daughter got the piano, some of her father’s artwork, some of her mother’s crystal, and lots of books. Her sister cherished the lovely china they were never allowed to use when they were little. And the older brother claimed their father’s shop tools. If more than one of them wanted the same item, they dealt with it kindly and with generosity (their parents wouldn’t have allowed any other way).

When it came time for the parents to downsize, they took the artwork, books, and tools they really needed their new apartment. The children were responsible for clearing out remaining items and taking them to their own homes by a certain date. The rest went in an estate sale or to charity.

If You Are Still Having Difficulty. . .

If you can’t decide what to keep and what to get rid of on your own or with the help of your children, you can consider the following:

  • Get Independent Minded People to Help: Enlist or hire independent-minded individuals who can help you. Many religious institutions and community organizations, such as Welcome Wagon, can provide helpful resources.
  • A Downsizing Get-Together: Spend a memorable evening with close friends reminiscing about various items and books and deciding on where to donate them. A downsizing party can allow for both meaningful emotional expression and celebration of a new stage in life.
  • Preserve Pict-Oral Memories of All Sentimental Items Using the Legacy Stories App: If your children choose not to inherit the piano or the artwork or the crystal, try not to take it personally. Instead, use the Legacy Stories App, a service we offer at no cost to all of our clients (past, present, and future), that allows you to create pict-oral memories (narrated photos) by simply snapping a photo with your smartphone, upload it for preservation, and then simply click “record” to share your memories about the photo — what the item is, where it was purchased or how it was received, what were you doing at the time you purchased or received the item, who was with you, what special memories does the item evoke? Then, when your children or grandchildren go to the website and view that photo, they will hear your vocal narration while looking at the photo of your treasured family heirloom. So even if your kids don’t want the item or don’t have room for the item, what a priceless memory you have now created for future generations!

Leaving a Legacy

Want to leave behind something more than your stuff? Ethical Wills are a way to honor the past, remember family and community, understand your own life better, and provide a lasting legacy for your family for generations to come. You can document and share (in writing or via an audio or video recording using the Legacy Stories App) your values, your spiritual beliefs, and your “life’s lessons.”

An Ethical Will may include: cultural and spiritual values; blessings and expressions of pride, love and dreams for children and/or grandchildren; “life-lessons;” requests for forgiveness; the rationale for philanthropic and personal financial decisions; stories about the meaningful personal items that heirs are to receive; and requests for how you would like to be remembered after death.

In connection with creating your Last Will and Testament, Revocable Living Trust, and other Estate Planning documents, we can help you leave your loved ones with your money and assets and something more — a sense of your values. Call us today to set up an appointment for a consultation:

Fairfax Estate Planning: 703-691-1888

Fredericksburg Estate Planning: 540-479-1435

Rockville Estate Planning: 301-519-8041

DC Estate Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.