Editor's Note: See the author's column about living abroad here.
Last December, my family of four downsized from a three-bedroom rental house in Seattle to eight suitcases and 20 boxes. My husband had accepted a job in Germany and we knew our belongings were not worth the price of shipping. Over the course of two months, we sold whatever possible on craigslist and literally donated 29 carloads of stuff (yes, I counted). We even sold our car.
In the planning stage, it was exhilarating. After tripping over toys and clothes for years, decluttering seemed freeing. And at first, it was. Recycling calculus notes from high school was not a challenge. Same goes for donating unopened wedding gifts. In fact, I would say the first 50 percent was easy. It is amazing how much you hold on to just in case. We got rid of baby clothes, appliance boxes and games we hadn't played in over a decade. We felt awesome and productive. But our house looked just as full and it was starting to get hard.
Also, it was December, the season of buying and receiving gifts. Friendly strangers kept asking my kids what they wanted for Christmas and my 5- and 7-year-olds would glance over at me with sadness before mumbling something unintelligible. Out of necessity, we hadn't put up any Christmas decorations, and our house was a labyrinth of boxes and semi-organized piles.
In the days before we left, each member of our family had a major meltdown. I remember hyperventilating on an uncomfortable air mattress (we had already gotten rid of our bed) as my husband tried to ask me what I wanted to do with our kids' old artwork.
But, now, after living a month in Germany with just what we stuffed in those eight suitcases (our boxes are still in storage), I find very little that I miss. In fact, the other day my husband asked me if we should even send for the boxes. After all, if we haven't needed them in the past 30 days, do we really need them? Life is simpler now. Cleaning is simpler and we are closer as a family than we have ever been (although that may have more to do with the fact we have no friends, than our lack of material goods).
Minimalist life has its advantages and while I am hoping that none of you need to go to such extreme measures, our experience has led me to believe that most of us could do with a little letting go. To quote Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings, “One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.”
I am certainly no expert, but I did manage to learn a few lessons in our two-month crash course in extreme decluttering.
1. Decision fatigue is a real thing
Each decision you make uses a little bit of willpower and effort and the more you make at once, the harder each decisions becomes. When you feel yourself getting exhausted take a break for a day or so.
Not convinced? Let me tell you a little story. I brought a book on cadavers to Germany. Not just in my checked bag but in my carry-on luggage. I hauled that thing through three airports and two train stations. Why, you ask? I have no idea. I hadn't opened it once in the three months prior to our move and I still haven't touched it. I was just exhausted and not thinking clearly.
2. Go through each section twice
I know this sounds time consuming but it relates to the decision fatigue. There were things I couldn't even contemplate donating, but then when I came across those items a week later, I could easily let them go. My brain just needed the time to process.
3. Digital pictures take almost no space
Use this to your advantage. I didn't want to get rid of my kids' artwork, but I had almost an entire filing cabinet full of it. So I carefully took pictures of each piece. Now I have a beautiful slide show of art running as my screen saver and extra space.
4. Different donation centers have different rules
We had one of those giant, old-school televisions and the first place we tried would not take it. After calling around we found a center that recycles them. Same goes for old electronics. Or baby gear. I felt a lot better donating things than taking them to the dump, so it was worth a few calls to find a place that would accept certain items.
Finally, I would like to offer some tips for getting your kids onboard. Kids are hoarders by nature and I am pretty sure nothing makes a kid want a toy more than telling her you are going to give it away. Here are some tips that worked for us.
1. December is probably not the best time
Seriously. My poor kids.
2. Give to a specific person
Other parents might not love you for this, but my kids had a much easier time giving old toys to younger siblings of their friends than donating them to secondhand stores.
3. Digital pictures
Remember the previous tip? Digital pictures take up no space and kids love taking them. To my son's chagrin, his stick collection did not make it to Germany but he lovingly took a picture of each stick (yes, it was very time-consuming) and now he has a slide show to document all of his “hard” work and he was easily able to leave the sticks in Seattle.
As a last resort, we offered our kids the chance to trade in old toys to earn toy points to buy one new toy. Obviously a 1:1 trade-in rate does no good at all, but our kids willingly donated 30 old toys for the chance to pick one new toy.