The Beginner’s Guide to Downsize Your Life (From a Minimalist)

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Millions of people today have a strong desire to downsize and simplify their life and get rid of possessions. But often they express to me that they feel lost and just don’t know where to get started. Today I have drastically simplified my life (I currently own just 44 possessions), but it has taken me nearly a decade of work to get to this point. I can still relate strongly to the challenge of breaking free from holding onto material possessions. And I know that for most of us, its the first few steps that are the most challenging. So, what lies ahead is my guide on how to downsize your life and it is written for those that are just beginning their journey or who have already begun, but are feeling stuck. You could say it is written for people who live “normal lives” in large houses to small apartment, but can easily be applied to minimalists, tiny house dwellers and van-lifers wanting to take it a step further.

First off, if this is going to work for you, it will really help to have reasons for why you are doing this. Achieving the dream of simplicity and of clutter-free living will be hard work for most people. Motivation is key. Perhaps most of you reading this, already have that motivation. If not, I encourage you to come up with the reasons why this is meaningful to you, to keep you focused and motivated to accomplish the goal ahead. Don’t do it because it’s a fad or because some of the cool people you know are doing it. Do it because it will help you to live the life you yearn for!

Here are some of the many benefits of downsizing:

Saving money. The less that you find that you need, the less that you will need to buy. The less you need to buy, perhaps the less hours you need to put in at your job. The less hours at your job, the more hours that you can spend following your passion and purpose. I get feedback from many people who express that their job is not their truest passion and purpose in life, but primarily a means of earning money. If your job is is your deep purpose and passion and you can make money doing it at the same time, congratulations! At the very least though, if you are spending and wasting money on unnecessary things, surely we can all benefit from reducing the ways that our money is leaking out of our accounts and find much better ways to use it.

Making better usage of your space. For many of, our homes are filled so full that and we aren’t really able to optimally use our spaces. We have to constantly shift things around to get to what we are looking for. Our table is full of stuff so we can’t sit at it or comfortably do a project that requires space. By clearing a 1,000 square foot space, it is still indeed 1,000 square foot space but it might feel like a 2,000 square foot space. Space can largely be a matter of perspective. The more stuff one has, often the harder it can be to really efficiently and comfortably use the space. Downsizing and reorganizing can help to optimize the space that you have.

Clearing your mind. A cluttered home often leads to a cluttered mind. Having a clutter free home can bring great peace of mind. A cluttered mind could mean frequently misplacing and losing things, general spaciness or fogginess and a harder time performing tasks. Think of the saying “you are your surroundings.” If your surroundings are a mess, it can create a messy mind.

Spending less time cleaning. When you have stuff on every surface – every counter top, ever table, stuff on the ground – it turns cleaning into a much more difficult and drawn out process. Surfaces and floors that are free of stuff are easier to wipe off and to sweep or vacuum. The less stuff you have the easier it may be to clean your home and at the same time keep your mind clear.

Making room for the activities you enjoy. Perhaps your house is so full of stuff that you can’t really find the space for some of the activities that you really want to do. Getting rid of stuff is not about “giving up” or even sacrificing. It’s actually the opposite. It’s about removing the extraneous from your life, the unnecessary, the less important, to make room for the essence of what will bring you true happiness. By downsizing, you can design your space to have room to do what you really want to do – whether it be yoga in your open living room, knitting at your table, woodworking in your garage, or so on. This space also applies to time. By removing the unnecessary time wasters, you can have more time available to do what you really want in life.

Enjoying the items you have more. Many of us are not able to truly enjoy the items that are most meaningful to us because they are hidden behind the junk or lost in the clutter. By getting rid of the extraneous it allows us to focus on the items we love and to use time to use the items.

Reducing your environmental impact. The truth about most of our stuff is not so pretty. To produce our stuff we often cause a massive amount of environmental (and along with it human and animal suffering) via extraction of resources, transportation, burning of fossil fuels, pollution and so on. The reality is that today most stuff is designed cheaply, with the costs put on the environment, people who are not valued, and species who loose their homes and are killed. The less material stuff that we need the more that we can work towards living, sustainable, just and equal lives. This is one of the central tenants behind voluntary simplicity. To learn more about the impact of making our stuff watch The Story of Stuff video series.

Breaking free from societal standards. For many of us who have awoken, we have realized that much of the stuff we have in our lives was not consciously or intentionally placed there by us. Much of what we have is to help us fit in with society and to be accepted by others within the overarching societal norms that have shaped our lives. But millions of people are realizing that what mainstream society deems as “normal” is actually not normal at all and doesn’t serve their best interest or the best interest of their community, greater humanity and the beautiful earth we live on. Living a life with less stuff is a way to break free from destructive and put simply, insane, societal “normalcies.” Once you break free from these restrictive standards you may find it much easier to be who you want to be and do what you want to do. In my opinion, the unexpected positive implications of living simply are the most beautiful part of the whole journey.

Breaking free from corporate control. Today, much of what is in our homes, the trunks of our cars, our storage units and also on our bodies, is there because a corporation with a large advertising budget sold us on an idea, a feeling, or an item in general. They are really good at what they do. They use subversive and manipulative tactics to become billionaires often at your expense. We have been tricked by billion dollar budgets. To say that you don’t need their stuff is to say that you are enough, in a world that is constantly trying to tell you that you need more stuff in order to be happy, healthy and a contributing member of society. It is to say that you are complete just the way that you are.

Those are just some of the benefits of downsizing your life. I feel like I went a little deeper than I planned there and drifted off into the depths of voluntary simplicity. You get to chose how far you want to go. Your journey could be a part time task that can provide great benefits, or you could decide do bound and leap head first into the rabbit hole and find yourself in unfamiliar territory, a whole new way of thinking and existing on this earth. Either way, you have to start where you are. You can only be you, you can only be where you are, and you can only be in the moment you are in. So embrace that and start your journey with one small step. Then keep on walking.

Now, on to my suggestions on how to downsize your life…

Marie Kondo has this catch phrase about “sparking joy.” She suggests looking at an item and asking if it sparks joy. If the answer is yes, then keep it. If the answer is no, then you can get rid of it. I like this method, but I position it in a different manner. Perhaps a more practical, logical way, as that is the way my mind often functions. What I suggest doing is looking at a possession and asking yourself a few questions.

Does this bring value to my life? Does this help to improve my quality of life? Or on the contrary is it taking away time from my life, providing a distraction from my goals and cluttering my space?

If the answer is that it does bring value to your life and improve your quality of life, then I would lean towards keeping it. If on the contrary it is not serving your best interest and it is cluttering your space, then I would lean towards getting rid of the item.

An equally important question to ask, is do you actually use the item? Look at the item and ask if you’ve used it in last six months to a year? If not, then you can probably get rid of it.

I also suggest asking if the item is costing you money. It can cost you money via insurance, maintenance, needing to be updated or upgraded each year and so on… If you don’t really need it and it is consistently costing you money to own, then that can be a very good reason to get rid of it.

With those items that you don’t use often I would also ask if you could share the item or rent it instead of owning it. Perhaps it is a tool, that you only use once per year. Perhaps it is a sporting good item that is rarely used. Perhaps you only mow your lawn once per month, yet you have this large item taking up a lot of space. Many items make sense to share or to rent. And renting can actually turn out to be cheaper, because it may allow you to downsize your space and save money. If you rarely use your car for example, you may be paying more in insurance, registration and maintenance, then by renting a car on the occasions that you need it.

I recommend starting with the easiest items that take the least thought. Absolutely do not start with your most sentimental and loved items. That would be a good way to set yourself up for quitting on day one of downsizing. To make the biggest impact, I would start with going through the items that are most likely to be found to be unnecessary and easy to part with. This help you break through that beginning stage of uncertainty, that mental block that prevents people from starting. It will get you into a flow and help you feel successful and motivated, allowing you to keep it up. Later you will get into the sentimental items, but you’ll arrive there in a place of confidence having already managed to let go of other things.

You can do a massive purge every six to twelve months, and then you’ll be able to readdress all of those items that you kept, and many of them you will now find that again you have not used them in this time. Your answer will be easier this time. If you have the time and energy I recommend putting in some serious work days to do massive purges. It allows you to really get into a flow and get seriously motivated and inspired and make a big difference in a short period of time. You can also split this process into smaller chunks of time and work. By repeating this process it can become second nature with time. The hardest part may be the very beginning. You might have to really push through the first items to break through.

That is the means of how I recommend assessing the items to decide whether to get rid of them. Now I’d like to move onto how to actually get rid of items. These two sections are not completely separate though, as you will likely find motivation and rationalization in this section that can help you with assessing the items.

Ways to get rid of possessions:

Sell. You can turn this into an opportunity to make some money to use for your more meaningful living. Locally you can sell items using websites like craigslist, Nextdoor, OfferUp, LetGo, nearme, and many others. Online you can use sites like eBay, Etsy. Facebook Marketplace and others. There are different shops that buy second hand items, including clothing stores, vintage shops, antique shops and used sporting goods stores, just to name a few.

You can have a yard sale or garage sale. This could also be a nice way to meet people in your community. After having a garage sale, rather than putting the things back in your house that you didn’t sell, you can donate them. This way an unsuccessful sale does not mean an unsuccessful downsizing session.

I’d like to make a note, that selling items will likely take more time than if you chose to simple donate the stuff. So ask yourself which is more important- making the money, or simply downsizing your life more rapidly. If you are not in need of money, then it may be in your better interest to more quickly get rid of things. What I would recommend is selling the items that can bring in the most money and not focusing on the items that bring in very little money. You might have 20 items that would bring in $5,000 and another 100 items that would only bring in another $600. A small amount of work might bring in 80% of the money, while a lot more work might be needed for that last 20%. That can be a helpful way of making the choice of time, vs. money.

When you do sell items, you can also look at it as not actually getting rid of the potential of that item. If you buy and sell items used, you can often sell the item for the same price as it would be to replace it with a used one. In this way, it can be easier to get rid of things, because you are simply converting it into money, which would allow you to buy it at a later date if you decide you do want to that possession after all.

Donate. Donating items is one of the simplest methods to get rid of a lot of stuff very quickly. Fill up your car and bring it to the thrift stores and second hand stores in your community. Many of these stores sell the items and use the money to help others. It should be noted though that many thrift stores do throw away a lot of stuff. So you could make sure that what you are bringing is stuff that they can use, rather than giving them what will become garbage. Also, some thrift stores send massive amount of stuff to other nations that can have very negative repercussions. The dumping of huge quantities of cheaply made clothing in some nations has destroyed local companies and put many people out of business. So do be conscious of this as well. Do some research on the stores in your area and find out what their practices are.

You can also have a free sale. Advertise it just like a garage sale or yard sale, but everything is free. This could save you a lot of time and trips, and allow you to just put everything out for people to take.

You can put things out on the curb, but if you do, just make sure you don’t put it out where it will be taken by the garbage trucks. Also, make sure to put it out so that it doesn’t get destroyed by the weather. In many areas, you could put things in your yard with a free sign.

Buy Nothing Group. There are thousands of “Buy Nothing” groups where you can post things and people will pick them up. This will ensure that your item finds a good home.

Clothing swaps. See if there are any clothing swaps in your area and if there isn’t, organize one! You can bring your clothes and you don’t have to take any new ones home. Many clothing swaps will donate the clothes that are left to a secondhand shop. Clothing swaps are a beautiful way to refresh your wardrobe without spending any money, consuming resources or adding to the volume of your wardrobe. Simply take only as many items as you give.

Collections. If you have collections, you can see if there is a location that shares that similar passion to you to put that collection to use. Perhaps you have thousands of books that could go to a used book store or library. You can actually feel good donating your books to a library knowing that they will get used by others AND you can always go and check it out yourself if you want to read it again. There are some book stores that buy second hand books and there are even some companies that will come to your home and purchase, or take as donation, large quantities of books. This applies to many collections. If they don’t want to buy it, you could simply donate it to them, knowing that the items will get used and distributed in a meaningful way. Some collections could be donated to a museum.

Throw a “Give-Away” party for friends. Have a party at your house where your friends can come and take your stuff. This way you’ll make sure your stuff finds a good home, because they’ll take it just if they want it. Also, you may able to see your items at their homes, and this could bring you great joy, knowing that your friends are getting use of items that meant something to you. If you don’t want to dump junk on your friends, just be clear that you only want them to take items that would be useful and meaningful to them.

Sentimental items. Some of the suggestions above can prove to be helpful in dealing with sentimental items. If there are sentimental items that are not serving your highest purpose or are decreasing your quality of life, then I encourage you to part with them if it feels deep down like it is the right thing to do. I have a wonderful suggestion to help make this process a lot easier. Turn it into an even more sentimental item, by find someone who will be able to get better use out of it then you.

Let’s take for example a guitar. Perhaps you have multiple guitars and you don’t use some of them, but are holding onto them for the sentiment of all the times you played it. Find a person who has no guitar, perhaps a child who’s parents can not afford one, who is so deeply yearning to learn to play guitar and gift it to them. You can rest knowing that this deeply meaningful item is bringing deep meaning to someone else. You could even take it a step further and give lessons to this child and teach them how to use that very guitar. Talk about a wonderful way to pass on your sentimental items!

Find people who can get more use, value and joy out of an item than you do. If you can know that your items are going to be deeply meaningful to someone, it could help you to let go of things.

(Remember, that I recommend dealing with sentimental items last and the most frivolous items first to get you into a rhythm and flow)

Recycle and compost. You are going to come across items that are not desired elsewhere. Recycling and composting can be methods for dealign with this. Large amounts of newspaper for example can be composted to use as a carbon source for building up your garden.

Throw it away. Those who know me, know that I am a big advocate for creating as little garbage as possible. But I’m also not one for living in delusion. Think about this for a moment. Many people fill their drawers with disposable plastic items like take out containers and utensils. They think that by using them over and over they will make the situation better. But here’s the truth…. If you have standard reusable dishes and utensils, then eating with these disposable items even 100 or 1,0000 times does not make the situation any better. That’s what your reusable items are there for and using the disposables over and over, rather than your already in existence reusable items, in reality, does not decrease your environmental impact at all. The same goes onto holding onto bags and bags full of bags or many other items. And further if it can’t be recycled or composted, whether it is in your drawers or in the landfill, it doesn’t make a difference. When you die, it’ll end up in the landfill. Or perhaps if your house is hit by a hurricane or tornado it could blow away littering the land or water. Once this junk is created, it is litter, whether in your cabinet or in the landfill. The key is to avoid this stuff in the first place (see my guide here), but once you have it, don’t live in delusion, throw it away if it isn’t really being used and is cluttering your life.

Beyond the disposable items, this applies for other garbage in your house. Again, whether its garbage in your garage or garbage in the landfill, it’s just garbage. Think about the situation critically and dispose of the items if will improve your quality of life to do so and can’t improve quality of life elsewhere and be reasonably distributed to there.

A few important thoughts to help you with this process:

This does not happen in one day! This is likely to be a process. It took me about five years of downsizing, even though I only had a three-bedroom apartment and no storage unit. Over time I became more and more comfortable and what I didn’t think was possible in the past, became possible and sometimes even easy. As you physically adjust, you will mentally adjust.

Downsizing can be hard work. But it can also be very fun and extremely rewarding. What is meaningful will generally be hard. Changing habits and patterns is difficult. But worth it if you can be working towards living the life you truly want.

The world is full of stuff, so if you decide to get rid of something, you can always get another one. You don’t have to think of things as permanent. The reality is that most of the things you get rid of can be replaced. If you get rid of something and later realize that it is actually an item that is useful to you, you can simply get another one. We live in an abundant time, where we don’t have to hoard items, because there’s thousands of them just around the corner.

Once you have downsized, your task if far from over. You have to keep your life clutter free! It’s very easy to end up accumulating more stuff. You will need to remain vigilant in order to keep your life the way you’ve gotten it. And also, while downsizing you’ll want to make sure that you are not filling your home as you empty it.

Here are some of my tips on how to keep your life clutter free:

When thinking about purchasing an item, ask yourself, do I really need this or do I just want this? If you don’t really need it, then set it down and move on, or turn off that computer where you were online shopping! Overcome the impulse buys and be intentional with what you purchase. Purchase what increases your quality of life and helps you to live the life you truly want, avoid things that don’t.

Buy quality items. When you buy cheap items that break, you often end up holding on to that junk. Invest in high quality items that can last a lifetime and even be handed down to the next generation.

Buy multipurpose items. When you do buy something, try to find this that have many uses. If one item can complete many tasks, it will allow you to have less things, while still accomplishing what you need to in life.

Start sharing. We don’t need to own everything in order to be able to use it. We can check out books from the library. We can share with our neighbors, friends and family. We can borrow items when we need them and return them after. There are many sharing programs such as car-shares and bike-shares. We can rent equipment on the occasions we need it.

Get rid of your car or use it less frequently. Getting rid of your car has some positive implications you might not expect. When you don’t have a trunk to fill, it becomes much more challenging to buy a lot of stuff. See Selling My Car… Bought My Freedom. Of course, simply driving your car a lot less can be helpful in this mission.

Learn to gently say no to gifts. It is ok to say no to gifts. If you can’t say no to gifts, then you may have a hard time keeping your home the way you want it. If you can gently explain your situation, many people will understand. Share your feelings. Come up with a plan of what to say when people want to offer you gifts so that you are prepared. You can tell people close to you that you’d like to start giving experience as gifts rather than physical stuff.

Learn to say no to freebies. That gift bag at the convention… The trinkets at the party… The handouts on the street… Just don’t take it. For some of us, that can mean overcoming the urge to pick up stuff on the side of the road that we don’t actually need.

Find purpose in experiences and relationships. Often our yearning for stuff, comes from a yearning for something else. We can meet our desires and our dreams without stuff. Find purpose in the relationships that you have with people, with other species and with the Earth. Enjoy life through experiences. Hold onto memories rather than mementos.

Remember my friends, none of this is about suffering and it doesn’t have to be about “giving up.” This is about making space, both physically and mentally. This space, will not not create a feeling of emptiness. Rather, it is about filling that space intentionally. Filling the space and time it with what you love – people, experiences, hobbies, passions, meaningful items. It is about gaining a deeper appreciation for life and everything in your life. It is about feeling complete and content with who you are and feeling deeply purposefully in life.

I encourage you to start today. The path to a clutter-free house and a more meaningful existence starts with getting rid of one meaningless item.

 

In this video I share my journey from a collector to minimalist and my tips on how you can free yourself of possessions to live a happier, healthier and simpler life!

For more reading and inspiration see:
How to cause less destruction when buying stuff for more of my thoughts on possessions, consumption and stuff.
My 111 possessions – My list of possessions from when I owned just 111 items 2015-2016. This includes some of my story of downsizing.
My 44 Possessions– In 2020 I simplified my life to just 44 items.
My Orlando Tiny House 2018-2019.
My San Diego Tiny House in 2015.
All My Stuff… Fits on My Bike in 2015. Includes a story of downsizing my life.
My Simple Sustainable Apartment in San Diego 2011-2014

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