There is just something satisfying about hearing the clunk of a piece of useless stuff that you have hung on to for far too long as it hits the inside of a dumpster. The picture above is my most recent dumpster, filled beyond the brim from the latest clear out of my house and barn in Vermont.
One of my quotes to live by is from William Morris, a leader in the textile arts movement who lived during the mid-1800s in England. Mr. Morris wrote:
“Do not keep anything in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
When I recently found my minimalist soul trapped in a home environment with way too much stuff, I felt overwhelmed and stressed out. So I called my local trash haulers and found one offering a summer sale on dumpsters; for a flat rate I could have my dumpster delivered to use for as long as I needed it.
As soon as my latest dumpster arrived, the clean-out process started to flow. Part of the result of 2 months of work is shown in the picture above, taken by my neighbor, Georgie. For the low cost of $325, and with a lot of help from my friends, I cleared my barn and my basement of more than a decade’s worth of accumulated junk. It was also a clearing for my mental well-being. When it was all done, I saw it as a solid investment of time and money: not only for me, but for my heirs.
I even found a good home for my law school desk. I designed that desk, had it made, and then slaved away at for 3 years of law school and a bar exam. I then converted it to use as my home office desk for a few years after that. Word of my clean-out spread in my community and an artist showed up to adopt my law school desk and the attached bookshelf! She said it would be perfect for her work in making stained glass windows. I was glad to help her carry it out the door of my basement.
I believe that a good Safe Aging plan and a solid estate plan both start with a dumpster (or 2) along with a thorough house/garage/barn/storage unit(s) assessment. I encourage others to live by Mr. Morris’ motto, that items in a home have to be useful (items used routinely) or beautiful (do you feel joy when you look at these items in your home).
Why do I offer this message to friends and clients? There are 3 reasons.
- It’s YOUR stuff that you brought into your home, or that you have tolerated having in your home, during your lifetime;
- Research shows we do better mentally when we clear out clutter and excess; and
- Your children, your surviving spouse, or the people you love who will clean-up after you die should not have to clear away things they don’t want, can’t identify, and will resent having to throw out or deal with after you are gone.
One of the roles I get to play as an elder law/estate attorney is to bear witness to the anger and pain loved ones experience when they have to deal with the “stuff” of a loved one who has become disabled or who has died. And believe me when I tell you, clearing the “stuff” always seems to land at a time of crisis. It happens either when a loved one is forced to move to a facility due to sudden disability and a house clear-out has to happen quickly in order to sell or rent out the home, or they are dying, or have just died, and emotions are rubbed raw.
How to Begin?
Start by making a pilgrimage to your basement, attic, barn, garage, storage unit, or open that scary closet door. I’m talking about the crowded basement you can hardly walk thru, the attic that has been a catchall for decades, and the barn or shed filled with projects you just haven’t gotten around to yet, and probably never will. It’s about the closets that are chock full of things you didn’t want to put out on display, but didn’t bother to find a new home for. And, yes, it’s about all the storage units you are paying rent to hold all the stuff that doesn’t fit in your home.
Once, when I was taking an inventory of the contents of a house in a decedent’s estate, I opened a bedroom closet door and an avalanche of boxes and memorabilia crashed on to me and onto the floor around me. I know now to stand to the side when opening closet doors during inventory. Every closet in this house was stuffed full of junk, boxes with half done projects, and items ordered online, many still in their original shipping boxes.
The “pain” of having too much stuff is nearly universal. I had a fun conversation the other day with a business owner/Mom/wife who told me that she recently had to move her “stuff” to her basement to make room in her home for her son and daughter-in-law who are living with her while they build their own home. As we talked, she told me she has a collection of books on breast-feeding, child development, and parenting that she is emotionally still attached to. Her children are grown with children of their own, and they don’t want hard cover/paperback books as they read electronic version books only. So I suggested that she check-in with the new library that opened not even a half block away from her business, to see if perhaps the library would enjoy having her beloved books as a donation. She hadn’t thought of donating her books to a library and the idea of helping future generations of new mothers resonated with her.
It was a fun conversation to have with someone who felt a little “stuck with her stuff.” As we continued to talk, she said she wished that she and her husband were moving so she’d have the motivation to deal with their excess. I suggested she pretend that she was moving and set goals each week to let go of stuff. I also came to be a bit jealous of her as she told me she has DAILY access to a dumpster!
It is stunning how much we own that we do not use, yet we continue to buy more stuff.
Joshua Becker, author of the blog www.becomingminimalist.com, in his post 21 Surprising Statistics That Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own, tells us that “Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on nonessential goods…(these are) items they do not need. This consumption of “stuff” has spawned an $8 billion home organization industry that is growing at the rate of 10% a year (Uppercase).” Mr. Becker’s post also cites a statistic that “1 out of every 10 Americans rents offsite storage.” (New York Times Magazine).
Here’s a reality check for those of us living in the United States:
AMERICANS COULD WIPE OUT WORLD WIDE HUNGER FOR 40 YEARS IF WE DONATED JUST ONE YEAR’S WORTH OF WHAT WE SPEND ON NONESSENTIAL GOODS – ITEMS WE DO NOT NEED.
Wiping out world hunger would cost $30 billion a year, per United Nations estimates. Yet we spend $1.2 trillion on nonessential goods in the U.S. EACH YEAR. Check out the site www.borgenproject.org to read about what it would cost to eradicate world hunger.
Let that sink in my friends. Americans could wipe out world hunger for 40 years by just restraining our need for “stuff” and donating one year’s worth of money that would otherwise be spent on nonessential items.
Clearing Out the Family Home
In my family, we had to clear a 2500 sq. ft. house with an attic, garage and basement chock full of stuff. My parents had lived in this home for 47 years. Our Dad had died, and our Mom had been moved to a 1 bedroom apartment in a “continuum of care” community. The house was going on the market and we needed to get it cleared. It took us nearly 1 year to clear that house, and when we got down to the stuff no one wanted, we became ruthless.
Lessons from my Mom’s Dumpster Weekend
- It takes a village to downsize an elder. When we were moving our mother out of the family home of nearly 5 decades into a 1 bedroom apartment at an independent living community, all five kids and one brave son-in-law gathered in Vermont for a full 4 day weekend of cleaning out the house. We had a commercial size (30’) dumpster in the driveway, and we were ruthless.
- You need to have some fun, so start a pool! We started a pool on how many tons (yes tons!) we thought our parents had accumulated in 47 years of living in the same home. My estimate was the highest (3 tons) and I won! The total weight came in at 2.9 tons.
- Give away what you can. We gave away everything we could, and we invited friends and neighbors to stop by for mementos. We had already picked what we wanted and packed it up. What was left over had to go somewhere. Several items we were uncertain about did go to a storage unit, but only for 6 months.
- Charities will ban you if you bring too much stuff all at once! After 2 days and 7 runs to one local charity with his truck bed full, my brother Michael was politely asked to NOT come back as we had overwhelmed them. We quickly called a church that also ministered to the homeless and they agreed to take whatever we wanted to deliver. I think they came to regret that gracious offer. To smooth things over, we sent both charities generous checks later with thank you notes.
- Contractor’s heavy-duty garbage bags are worth the expense. We tried using regular trash bags, but they broke or we punched holes in them. We switched to the stronger, reinforced bags and they were FAB!
To be clear, my parents were not hoarders and their house didn’t “feel” cluttered. The Bennington house felt like a house that had sheltered 7 people and raised 5 kids. But as good Vermonters, and children of the Great Depression, my parents believed that items can be reused, repurposed, and might come in handy someday, so they kept stuff. In the last 15 years they were in the house, we had cleared the basement several times, as well as the attic, and yet we still had 3 tons of stuff that went into the dumpsters.
Here’s my theory about “stuff”: You don’t know what you/your loved ones own until you open every closet, every drawer, and touch everything in the house, basement, attic, garage, barn and storage unit(s).
Even minimalists collect too much stuff over time. Recently, I sat down on the floor in front of the cabinet under my bathroom sink with a large trash bag at the ready. I filled the trash bag up within 20 minutes, with 3 years of stuff that I, the minimalist, had put there over time. It felt good to load that sack and take it out to the trash bin.
My best advice is this: Just go for it! Tackle those drawers, closets, cabinets under the sink, kitchen pantries, and unopened boxes in the attic. Take on one area at a time. And remember, contractor trash bags for heavy duty clean ups are worth the price.
Maybe you could also take a break from buying nonessential items while you clear out your unused/unusable stuff?
And if you are brave and ready to be ruthless, get a dumpster and go for it! Or start small with one cabinet and one closet at a time.
Maybe you could make a contract with yourself, and/or your aging parents, to keep clearing out the clutter as you all age. This practice of clearing out unused items is good for your mental health. As blog writer Joshua Becker notes “[o]ver the course of our lifetime, we will spend a total of 3,680 hours or 153 days searching for misplaced items. The research found that we lose up to nine items every day – or 198,743 in a lifetime. Phones, keys, sunglasses and paperwork top the list.” (The Daily Mail).
I don’t know about you, but tracking down lost items isn’t my favorite way to spend time. So think of clearing out unused/unwanted/unneeded stuff as a way to promote your overall well-being and reduce the stress of hunting for your (or your parent’s) lost car keys, misplaced sunglasses, lip balm, lip stick, hearing aids, prescription glasses, and missing phones!
To help you get started with your personal clear out, you should know that Google.com returns 6,230,000 results for the search phrase “how to get rid of stuff.” There are literally millions of resources available online (books, blogs, decluttering experts) to help you think about letting go of stuff you can’t use, don’t want, or need to let go of.
In the prescient words of the artist and architect William Morris:
“Do not keep anything in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
If this post moves you to get a dumpster or fill some trash bags, please send a comment with a picture and share your experience with our readers!