Last updated on November 30th, 2023
Don’t Wait: Start Now!
By Carolyn Ray, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, JourneyWoman
The ethos of living simply has now become my way of life as I prepare for travel in the future.
When my daughter went to university three years ago, I decided to make a lifestyle change. She and I had just returned from a transformative trip to Kenya, and I felt an overwhelming desire to live with less. I put my three-bedroom suburban house on the market.
When it sold, I had less than four weeks to move out. Reality struck. I had lived in this particular house for almost 15 years. I had never cleared anything out. I remember looking at it all and wondering ‘how I am going to do this?’ It felt insurmountable. I was actually quite mortified with the things I had accumulated in 25 years. I decided it was time to get rid of it all.
I did it, but my biggest regret is that I didn’t start downsizing earlier
Downsizing starts with having a vision for the future. My vision was to travel. To be free. I didn’t want to be constrained by my material possessions.
Recently, I moved into a 600 square foot condo – my smallest space yet. I’m getting ready for a future where I can lock it and leave it! (Or rent it, even better!)
Women who have done it!
I’m not the only one who has successfully downsized. I was thrilled to hear from other women who downsized years ago: here are two stories that will inspire you, from Christine and Kate!
Christine’s story: Backpacking across Mexico
When she was in her early 50s, Christine dreamed of backpacking around the world. She told her friends in Toronto to ‘come and get it’ and put her remaining belongings in three or four boxes. Stopping briefly in Nova Scotia to see her sister, she took her backpack and headed for San Miguel, Mexico, a small town about four hours northwest of Mexico City. That was almost three years ago.
Photo provided by Christine P.
“My plan was always to go out the door with my backpack,” she said. “I wanted to live simply. I didn’t want to own anything I had to dust, like china or figurines.” Mexico was familiar to her; she had backpacked extensively there for about 10 years.
Her biggest challenge when she arrived in Mexico was finding affordable accommodation and a job that would allow her to save up until her pension kicked in. Through a friend, she joined different community groups and eventually found a job doing homecare that offered her free accommodation. Over time, she found a job with a recruitment and executive coaching firm, where she works today.
And she’s backpacking all over Mexico, just having recently visited the Sierra Chincua Butterfly Reserve to see the migration of monarch butterflies. She also visited the “Christmas Town”, Tlalpujahan, where they make Christmas ornaments.
Kate’s Story: Sailing the Open Seas
After her divorce at age 50, Kate decided to reshape her life. She sold her house in Seattle and downsized the possessions that she had spent her life accumulating.
“I felt lighter,” she said. “But it was bittersweet: I recognized that this was not my life anymore and I had to let go of it.”
One of the biggest challenges for Kate was reducing family heirlooms. Eventually, she came to terms with it. “It’s just stuff,” she says. Kate picked out five treasured teacups for family and sold the rest. “Every month, my daughter and I have a virtual teatime. It’s a special moment where we acknowledge the past and revisit special memories.”
The rest of her heirlooms she put in storage, but after a few years, she downsized that too. “I paid for storage for years to hold things I never used. I got rid of the storage four years ago and haven’t looked back.”
Kate’s advice is to keep the things that bring you comfort. Keep practical things, like a small table or chairs, that you can incorporate into a smaller space. “Don’t think about what you’ve given up, rather, challenge yourself to look ahead,” she advises.
Most winters, Kate goes to Mexico to housesit. Due to the pandemic, she recently purchased a small 610 sq ft apartment as her home base until it’s safe to travel again. “But I’m ready to go, she says. “Lock and leave, come and go – that’s the plan.”
There are so many lessons to be learned from downsizing.
First, I don’t buy anything I don’t need. When I do buy something I need, such as a new coat, I give another coat away. If my closet looks too full, it’s a signal to clean things out. Another benefit is time. Today, I have more time to spend with family and friends. I don’t spend my time in stores or online shopping, looking for that perfect something to fit with my other belongings.
Christine says she has learned to live with very little; her wardrobe is a reflection of this philosophy. “I have black t-shirts and five sweaters that I freshen up with scarves, two pairs of jeans and a pair of yoga pants. When I need something, I go to a flea market. This allows me to put money back into the local community.”
Christine wishes she had downsized in her 20s, not her 50s. “If I had to do it over again, I’d take the chance and go earlier. I didn’t have a house, kids, husband.” If you’re planning to spend time in another country and need to support yourself, her advice is to: “Figure out something to earn income. Learn a transferrable skill, and go!”
Christine does have some things she kept: “My treasured items include my grandmother’s St. Christopher medal, a ribbon blessed by a Buddhist monk, the book Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris, some photos, passport, some different currencies, a treasured ring and a half-marathon medal.”
Kate started her new life by looking for housesitting opportunities in places that appealed to her. Her first housesitting was in Hawaii, followed by Mexico. She also pursued two of her passions: sailing and travel. She joined a group called the Seattle Singles Yacht Club and begin travelling with a group of people to places around the world for weeks at a time. In the past few years she has travelled to Italy, Belgium, Spain, Croatia, the British Virgin Islands and Thailand with her sailing club.
As for me, this experience has taught me that I can live with much less than I ever thought. I loved my house, with all its things that made me feel happy at home. It was right for my life at the time, and I’m grateful I was able to live there. But now, I know that home is wherever my family is. It’s not where my things are.
After living in a rental apartment for two years, I bought a 599 sq foot condo in November 2020. It’s close to the airport, transit and a beautiful park where I can be close to nature. When travel beckons again, I am ready.
Downsizing my house was no small endeavour
I had a house full of inherited antique furniture, two pianos, a rec room with couches, bookshelves, stuffed animals, books, baby toys, and art supplies. My garage was crammed with lawn equipment, sports and camping equipment, waterskis and paddles from my long-gone cottage, four-season holiday decorations, plus patio furniture, a BBQ and an astounding array of garden knick-knacks.
My basement looked like something from a horror movie. I was storing 15 bins of memorabilia from my parents, my brother’s high school yearbooks, my daughter’s baby clothes, finger paintings, my own childhood toys, maternity clothes, a crated pool table from my wedding in 1992, an array of musical instruments, broken dressers and clothing piled to the ceiling. Just reliving this is exhausting!
How to Reduce Your Possessions
We’re trained to acquire material possessions. It takes a while to unravel that. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that we have realized we don’t need as much as we thought. The consumerism of the past has been replaced by gratitude for what we do have, and a desire to help those in need.
Karen Shinn runs Downsizing Diva in Toronto, and has helped seniors downsize their possessions for the past 20 years. She says the hardest thing for people to get rid of is paper. Books, bills, ephemera, calendars, cards, and the scraps of paper we collect. To help get started, Karen has created a ‘Downsizing Wheel” where you spin and get started on one category, such as shoes, kitchen, purses, makeup, gift wrap, light bulbs, craft supplies, jackets and coats. Try it out here!
Determining the value of your possessions
Karen says that the other challenge in downsizing is that we assign too much value to what we own.
“You have to get rid of the notion that you deserve money for your things,” she says. For items that do have value, she suggests checking on eBay to determine value. Invite family and friends to take what they want, and listen for clues about what they might enjoy.
“Perhaps you have a friend who has commented that they enjoy a painting or a piece of furniture. Why not invite them to have it?”
For niche items or collectibles, seek out associations or businesses that specialize in that area. For example, I have an extensive collection of beautiful sheet music that my grandparents played in the early 1900s. I’ve never known what to do with it. Karen suggested I contact the Royal Conservatory of Music to make a donation, which had never occurred to me.
In my case, once I had made the decision to get rid of everything, the first question I asked myself was: Could I do it alone or did I need a company/person to help me? I decided no. After all, it was all mine. I was responsible for all of this.
My 10 Tips for Downsizing
These tips are obviously pre-pandemic but I think most still hold true. When I downsized in 2018, I needed a multi-pronged approach to rid myself of my possessions, executed with military precision against a tight timeline.
1. Invite friends and family to take what they want
What do they need? What could be useful, today or in the future? I gave a good friend with three children my almost-new Weber BBQ, rec room furniture, bookshelves and my entire American Girl collection, curated from years of trips to New York (OMG!), to his two daughters. I offered my half-sister an antique music cabinet owned by our grandmother. I sent my brother family antiques and paintings. I also posted photos on my Facebook news feed of things that I thought might be useful to friends with families and said ‘come and get it!’
2. For large homes, consider hiring an online auctioneer
I hired MaxSold to inventory and auction off everything. In two days, they put together 150 lots (a lot can be one item or a collection of items like decorations). They charge a fee to do the initial consultation and then take a percentage of sales. Watching all your much-loved items sell for a fraction of what you paid for them really forces you to abandon materiality. It’s a humbling and emotional experience.
While I could let go of the antiques, my practicality won over and I bought back some items that I couldn’t let go for $2, like a Drexel dresser I could use in my temporary apartment.
Don’t expect to make lots of money with this; it’s more about getting rid of things quickly (not everything will sell, nor will all buyers show up). Don’t wait until the last minute to do an auction, and have a plan b in case you still have things left over.
3. Be careful with Kijiji
This is my last choice to sell anything. Kijiji is all about research: what items sell at a good price, and to whom? You have to be very careful. I had inquiries from people who are just playing around. Many times people said they would pay my price and then delayed for some abstract reason. Some wanted my items shipped and then they would pay costs later. After experimenting for weeks, I posted items with a firm price, and a firm deadline to pay. I sold a massage table and Alyx’s bedroom set, both for close to what I had paid for them. That made me happy.
4. Have a Garage sale for the fun, not the money
Garage sales are not money makers. To maximize traffic flow, I held a garage sale on the same day that the MaxSold purchasers came to pick up their items. MaxSold didn’t like it much.
At this, I sold books, clothing, carpets, and knick-knacks. I stuck prices on everything and put my objective daughter in charge; she was a master negotiator. Minimal success for the effort but lots of fun conversations.
5. Donate Books, Clothes and Prom Dresses
I gave away about 200 books to various charities to resell. I cleaned out 90 per cent of all of our clothes: shoes, coats, sheets, blankets, pillows, and anything not worn and gave it to local women’s shelters. Another great option is to recycle your clothing at Value Village (which also takes household items).
I donated an embarrassingly high number of formal dresses, purses and shoes (dating back to the 90s!!) to New Circles, a charity that gives teens formal wear for prom. (I will admit to missing my circa 1992 gold lame gown and matching shoes, second to the right in this photo. Sigh.)
6. Get a Tax Receipt from the Furniture Bank
This charitable organization got my grandparents’ bedroom set, couches, a dresser and tables. They pick everything up with a smile and send a tax receipt. How nice! Better than putting it into landfill.
7. Recycle Electronics
I had somethings, including old appliances, speakers, and stereo units that didn’t work anymore. Those I took to my local recycling station.
8. Use 1-800 Got Junk For the Rest
Anything that didn’t make the cut or was broken or damaged, or just junk. I did this on the last day before I left. It’s expensive as they price based on how much room is filled in the truck (half, quarter, full, etc). But there was a bonus: they cleaned the garage floor for me, as I no longer had a broom. It felt lovely to see an empty, clean garage.
9. Pick the Right Timing for Consignment Items
I had some designer clothes, beaded purses and shoes that I thought would be optimal for consignment. However, after six months, most hadn’t sold due to seasonality so I went back and got them. I kept some vintage dresses that belonged to my mother. Who knows, maybe these things will find a purpose!
10. Rent the Smallest Possible Storage Unit
I felt compelled to keep my pianos. My grandmother’s baby grand piano is in proper piano storage, the other, an upright made by my great-grandfather, is in my 10 x 10 storage unit. I also have some antique furniture for later selling, family crystal and china, some books, and other meaningful items. And my parent’s bins, scrapbooks, photos and seasonal items, which will be departing shortly as my father passed away this past summer.
Expect to pay between $250 – $500 a month for storage and insurance; an incentive to rid yourself of these items as soon as possible!
My journey is far from over; as I wait for travel to resume, I am in the process of resizing my life in a 599 square foot apartment. I was able to bring some things out of storage and use them, but I’m making a concerted effort to purchase practical items that serve a dual purpose of maximizing storage and conserving space.
In my next article, I’ll share some tips on living in a small space, and share how I’ve been doing it. I also received many tips from readers that I’ll be including. Look for that in the February issue of JourneyWoman Magazine.
Have a downsizing story or tips to share? Let me know at [email protected].
February 4: Downsizing Travel Webinar - Register Here
January 17: Create Your Travel Vision for the Future - Register Here
Join us for a glimpse of nomadic life at the JourneyWoman Book Club with Rita Golden Gelman’s “Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World”