Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Clearing Out the Old

If you are like me, your life has become Clutter Central. Tonight, you and I are going to look the problem squarely in the eye: too much stuff. Now say after me:

      The clutter must go.
           Tomorrow, I will work on inventing a new, organized me.
                 I will take the first small step toward freeing my mind and body from a cluttered life.

There, didn't that feel good? You and I deserve to be free of all our useless stuff: papers, brochures, receipts, outdated clothes (oooh, that smarts!) and boxes of treasures.

So, how did we get here in the first place? And now that we are here, facing this, what can we do about it, and where do we start?

More will be revealed ...

If this feels painful to you, fear not: I am a career clutter-er, but also a black-belt organizer. Sound like a dichotomy? It is not. I know how to get rid of clutter, and I do it all the time. It's the major cleaning-out in life that takes some thought. Thankfully, I learned a method when I sold my family home ten years ago.

I remember the trauma of that move: it was a family home, full of a lifetime of trash and treasures. A real estate agent taught me how to salvage that worth saving and unload the rest.

First, the furniture. We walked around the house, tagging what I wanted "forever" with Post-it notes - the rest either "belonged" in the house, or needed recycling. In order to do this, I had to imagine what a piece would look like in a brand-new place. If it fit, and it had function, it was marked. I cleared out the rest - it either got sold or recycled at a thrift shop.

NOTE: you might have the time and inclination to try to sell your old furniture online - I did not, since I was up against a deadline and needed my energy for the actual move. Moving under pressure is actually freeing, and I have no regrets (well, hardly none) about items that were jettisoned in the name of progress: mine.

Next, we tackled the mass of everyday items people tend to accumulate - kitchen things, bathroom things, bedroom things, spare room things, etc etc. Everything was pared down, room by room. Since I was down-sizing, I paid particular attention to linens, pots-and-pans, dishes, books, knick-knacks, clothes, and electronics

Here is how we did it. First, we cleared out a room, which we used for sorting. Mine was a downstairs rec room. You may not have the luxury of a "spare room" - there is still a work-around, unless you are totally overrun with "stuff", in which event you may be looking at plastic bags and a shovel. I recommend a covered porch or carport.

If a sorting area is impossible, this method may not work for you. I was lucky to have one, and here is how I sorted my belongings, room by room, into four corners of that room:

1) Necessities - keep
2) Treasures - may keep or store
3) Store - pay to store
4) Toss

Without value judgement (this is the hard part), I sorted. I did this after I was rested and well-fed, and I did not linger on any one item: it was categorized and sorted.

The prep-work was thinking about what distinctions existed between a necessity, treasure, storage item, or discard. My real estate agent helped me with definitions; they do this all the time, when they deal with abandoned homes or staging a house for sale. This was my learning curve; I share this knowledge with you:

1) Necessities

I had to be realistic about my "necessities." We are talking, life-and-limb: food, essential clothing, toiletries, my piano (okay, everyone has something like that - yours could be a ukelele or a manual typewriter - make sure you have plenty of spare ribbons, because I think your Corona is out-of-date.)

Just kidding. Actually, I had the most trouble with this category, which is why I stayed "stuck" for so long.

A real life example: one of my "necessities" was a set of serving bowls from my wedding, only I had not used them in nine years. They were redundant, and heavy. Since I couldn't bear to part with them, they went into the "Store" corner.

2) Treasures

Next, the "treasures." These are items of intrinsic or sentimental value. In my case, I looked them over carefully, and thought about what value they added to my life. If they were just random items taking up space, such as an old pom pom from high school, they probably had outlived their usefulness: like the old saying - "it's time to go."

(Caution: never try to place a value on a treasure that belongs to someone else; a wise real estate agent knows this, and will tell you why!)

3) Store

The third corner, "store", is where I calculated square footage for storage space. Each item that went in here - rakes, lawnmower, garbage can, mixing bowls - took up space. As I learned to do, ask yourself, "If I had to pay to store this stuff, would I be willing to?" Now, ask yourself (as I did), "What would I be willing to give up, to keep this stuff in storage?" That will be the decider, and you can take it to the bank! If the answer to those questions is NO, then it is time to put it into the "toss" corner.

There are ways to whittle down storage items, such as re-gifting and second-hand donations. If they are intended for family some day, and the "family" is grown people, why not now?

My real estate agent cautioned me about keeping items I planned to sell, either on consignment or online - it is tempting to hang onto something, because of some perceived value. Most of these items will become storage fodder, and they will just sit in a room or locker somewhere. Time to let go: tis nobler and expedient to donate.

NOTE 1: If you still have items in the storage pile, box them away and vow to revisit them every six-to-ten months. It may be time for triage, if they have remained stored for more than a year, and there is no plan for their consumption or disposal. Some exceptions: true collections - rare books, for instance, or craft supplies. Rule of thumb: only keep what you will use within a three years time.

NOTE 2: There should be a separate category for "records storage", but there is not. I chose to store my records where I could access them, NOT in a storage unit. Here is what I learned about records.

Receipts: keep the ones for major items, such as appliances still in use, vehicles, investments and collectibles indefinitely - mainly for warranties and insurance. Create a file for healthcare (including dental, vision and pharmacy) receipts and information, and rotate it every three-to-five years. The rest: three years is plenty, and all the IRS requires.

Keep your old income tax returns, important papers such as military records, and employment achievements / awards. Also keep your family photos.

4) Toss

Fourth corner: TOSS. This was my bug-a-boo, and my agent helped me move past the fear of being wasteful or rash. This is actually the "feel good" category, and I pass this on: do what this name implies. "Toss" can be a garbage can, donation bin, or any type of recycling place. Some community garbage "transfer stations" have recycling centers for items that are too good to scrap, but no longer needed: find one of these, and you are on your way to freedom!

A special word about food: get rid of anything over two years old. We're talking dried, canned, and frozen items. Old spices need to go, along with baking supplies and mixes - fresh is best. Same with vitamins and over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Some fire districts have collection boxes for old medications, including the above mentioned items: ask you local fire department where the nearest safe disposal site is.


Epilogue: I did my sorting, and moved my keepsakes into a small, rented cottage. Most of the furniture I had accumulated was sold or donated. Triage was done on storage items - my real estate agent handled this part for me, as part of her commission; she rented three indoor storage "cages" and paid to have the stuff moved there. My house sold, and eventually I bought a smaller one.

The major sort has been done, a fait accompli.

Are you feeling lighter already, like I am?

There now, here is our plan. Sleep well tonight - I know I am going to, starting in just a few moments. First, a cup of herbal tea, with my feet up.

Tomorrow, the sort begins. Then, I will put away the necessities; find a nook or cabinet for my treasures; and, revisit my storage boxes this Spring.

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