By Bev Bachel
A stack of handwritten letters and dozens of unsent postcards. Six water bottles. My high school yearbooks. Three plastic bins full of receipts. A still-in-the box bike helmet.
This is just some of the clutter I can see from where I sit at my computer. All of it used to be neatly stored in my basement … until I decided it was time to finally face the boxes and cabinets of stuff I’ve accumulated during the 30+ years I’ve lived in my house.
Unfortunately, my clutter-clearing attention span lasts about a nanosecond. So, for motivation, I reached out to three individuals who have succeeded at paring down their stuff and an expert “clutter clearer.” Though they each call it something different—decluttering, weeding out, purging, Marie Kondo-ing—they’ve all come to appreciate the benefits of owning less.
Within the next few years, Carol Rogers expects to retire, sell her 2,000-square-foot home in Arlington, Virginia, and move to a sailboat. While she will eventually need to say no to just about everything she owns, she is currently focused on letting go of whatever seems right at the moment.
A few months ago, for example, she gave away an extra set of dishes and some pots and pans; over the past few weeks, she’s filled four boxes with books to donate. While she knows purging is a must, letting go of her possessions isn’t always easy.
“Where I get especially nostalgic is my art, which includes framed photos I’ve taken and treasured paintings by my friends,” says Rogers. “But what am I going to do with them? I can probably take one to the boat and maybe hang on to a few for the small cabin my partner and I might one day own. The rest has got to go.”
In preparing for retirement, John Capecci and Rob Kirby recently sold their three-bedroom Victorian home and moved into a 950-square-foot apartment just a few blocks away. In the process, they sold or gave away hundreds of items, including many they considered prized possessions—at least at the time.
One thing that made it easier to let go was viewing themselves as curators of their belongings. “We got to choose our very best stuff,” says Capecci. “It was an easy decision, for example, to lose the Ikea bookshelf and hold onto the Danish teak hutch. Now, even though we have less, our apartment feels like an upgrade.”
And while parting with prized possessions was difficult at the time, neither man has missed anything. “We can barely remember what we got rid of,” says Capecci.
Whether you’re a packrat or a minimalist, retirement and the years leading up to it are the perfect time to inventory your possessions, determine what to keep and begin letting go of the rest.
Here are seven practical and emotional benefits of doing so, according to Lori Koppelman, a “clutter clearer” and host of Clutter Chronicles, a podcast that features interviews with Mary (last name withheld upon request) who calls herself a “recovering hoarder” and admits to having an “unusual relationship with stuff”:
1. More free time. The less cluttered your living space, the quicker and cheaper it is to clean and the more easily you can find things.
2. Money saved. With fewer belongings, you know exactly what you have so you don’t end up buying duplicates. Plus you spend less money maintaining and repairing your possessions. And when you have less, you need less … including less storage space which, at a monthly average cost of $91, adds up to more than $1,000 annually.
3. Amped up self-esteem. Clutter can gut your self-worth and keep you from going for your goals by anchoring you to the past. Clutter can also negatively impact your relationships with family and friends as you may shy away from inviting them over.
4. Time to enjoy the present. When you don’t have to spend time cataloging old photos or sorting through the mountains of paperwork that’s accumulated since you graduated from high school, you’re able to enjoy life in real-time.
5. Open up opportunities. When you’re not weighed down emotionally and physically by your stuff, you have extra energy to take seize new opportunities.
6. Find your purpose. Rather than dealing with your stuff, you can spend your time on activities that give your life meaning—and make a difference in the lives of others.
7. Bequeath your legacy. Once you’ve eliminated your clutter, you can more easily assess what you own, what’s of financial and sentimental value and to whom you’d like to pass it on.
If you’re struggling with clutter, Koppelman recommends the three-box method. Grab three boxes, pick a drawer, a closet or a room to tackle and set a timer for 15, 30 or 60 minutes. Go through your belongings and put them in one of these three boxes:
• Trash what is broken, unusable or has lost its significance
• Donate or sell what has value
• Giveaway or return to family and friends
Emotions can be clutter, too
While you’re at it, don’t forget to deal with your emotional clutter as well. “Unfinished business, strained relationships, hurt feelings, lingering regrets and unresolved guilt can all get in the way of enjoying life after retirement,” says Koppelman. “In fact, forgiving yourself and others can be the ultimate act of letting go—and perhaps the exact thing that truly sets you free.
Bev Bachel is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It. A lifelong goal-setter, she’s tapped into the power of goal-setting to learn Spanish, walk 10,000 steps a day and raise money for causes she cares about. One of her clutter-related goals? Give away the kitchen appliances she no longer uses.