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September 23, 2015 practical


Or: How to Get Rid of Your Stuff But Not Your Sanity

I didn’t think we had that much stuff. We’d been living in our one-bedroom apartment for a year, and before that had both lived in college dorms/with our parents during the summers (meaning every summer we had to fit all our stuff in a minivan to store back home for the summer).

Yet somehow, two months before our lease expired, I was staring at piles of kitchen appliances that had never been used, plastic bins full of seasonal items, and an entire walk-in closet of clothes that all needed to be whittled down to fit in our 24-foot RV.

In this post, I’ll be sharing some of the tips and tricks that helped us downsize everything we owned to the point where we can now take it with us everywhere we go.

The Numbers

Square footage: 715 to 192

Number of sales: 45

Sales profits: $2,432 at time of writing

Warm-up: Steps and Sorting Tips

Essentially, your goal is to decide for every single thing you own whether it’s worth bringing it with you or storing it, or if you should sell/donate instead. Here’s our tried-and-true method of steps in graphical form:

How to be minimalistHow to be minimalist

and a more verbose version for us:

Go with the flowGo with the flow

Here are some tips for sorting to follow in bullet form, with more explanation to follow:

  • record your progress
  • break it down
  • get support
  • make it fun!

Record Your Progress

When you’re in the middle of down-sizing or spring cleaning or whatever you want to call it, it may get worse before it gets better. At least, it did for me. This was when everything was out of cabinets and closets in piles all across the apartment, waiting for the next step (selling/storing). I didn’t have any more stuff than I did before - in fact, we had less since we had sold off the big furniture pieces first - but having it all out at once was a little discouraging.

HANG IN THERE. Yes, it may look like an episode of Hoarders, but remember that at the end of this you will have more money, or at least less stuff. And then next time you want to buy five printers on Black Friday, remember the feeling you’re having right now.

My solution for this? Record your progress. Take pictures, video, weigh it on a scale, log it in a spreadsheet - do whatever will help you remember where you started (this would have been a great spot for me to include our before and after pictures, but I didn’t take any D: do as I say, not as I do?) Then make a point of looking back at the before pictures, and remember that your end goal is to minimize objects but maximize happiness.

Break It Down

cue beatboxing from Christian

cue eyeroll from me

Just like writing a thesis paper, studying for the MCAT, flossing before a dentist appointment, and pretty much every other important task in life, waiting until the last minute to sell (almost) everything you own is not a great idea.

Also just like writing a thesis paper, studying for the MCAT, flossing before a dentist appointment, and pretty much every other important task in life, selling (almost) everything you own can be a daunting, seemingly insurmountable task. To make it less intimidating, break it down. Instead of writing sell (almost) everything I own” on your to-do list, try, take pictures of kitchen appliances,” pull clothes off of hangers,” or even, list couch on Craigslist.” Now you’ve got bite-size chunks of work - and if you’re like me, smaller tasks means more things you get to check off of your list.

(Side bar: Getting Things Done” by David Allen is a great resource for breaking down seemingly insurmountable projects into clear, simple next actions.)

(Side bar 2: I use Todoist as my to-do organizer, since it works across devices/platforms and lets me create my own groupings (and it’s free!). I’ve settled on location-based groups, such as @computer for things to do when I’m at my computer, and @location for items like Home Depot return lights get brackets.“)

As you’re making the sell/store/bring decision (the sell/keep/trash version was also common when cleaning out my closet as a youngster), you can and should also break it down. Go room by room, or cabinet by cabinet. Set small, realistic goals, like, I’m going to sort through the pots and pans drawer before I watch an episode of Friends” - more on this later (see: Make It Fun).

Also try setting a timer and working until it goes off. We used an adapted version of the Pomodoro technique, deciding before we started working how long we wanted to sort. Definitely set a timer, by the way, instead of just looking at the clock. It takes the pressure off of you to keep track, and kept me from looking at my watch every two seconds to see if it was time yet.

Get Support

Not like a support group, although I’m sure they exist and by all means join one if it’ll help (and then please let me know about it!). Get support meaning get someone to help you. Invite/blackmail/trick someone over to help you sort, or just to sit and chat with you as you’re sorting as a distraction. Maybe find a friend who also wants to downsize and take turns going through each other’s stuff together - you’ll both get your stuff sorted, and it can be a way to spend time with a friend and keep each other on track.

Can’t get anyone to fall for your free pizza if you help sort!” trap? All is not lost. Remember those progress pics you’ve been taking? Share them to get some extra motivation! Text them to a friend, upload them to Facebook, share them in the comments here, even put a crazy filter on them and Snapchat them or whatever the kids are doing these days. Studies show that social media can help people lose weight more effectively - why not use it to help you get rid of your stuff? Possible bonus: someone may see something they want to buy.

Make It Fun

I’ve been teasing at this already, but this one is pretty self-explanatory. This sorting process should not require that much intensive brain activity, so I felt justified in multi-tasking a little. Play your favorite podcast (Christian’s choice), sing-along playlist (my choice), audiobook, radio station, etc. Call up a friend and have them on speaker phone as you work. However, I would not recommend watching TV while you sort, unless you have very good self-control, since I found first-hand that it’s frightfully easy to focus more on the show and less on the sorting and then suddenly it’s three hours later and Netflix is guilt-tripping you - I mean, asking if you’re still watching.

Instead of concurrently disctracting yourself, you could reward yourself afterwards. This can be a slippery slope, especially if (like me) you want to use food as a reward. One of my healthier rewards was buying our new central vaccuum system with our sale proceeds - it’s nice to be able to point to something tangible and think yes, I did give up all of my old stuff, but this vacuum is so much more useful than that other stuff was”. Christian ordered himself an Apple Watch to the same end. A much more frugal option would be permission to watch an episode of a guilty-pleasure show.

Also along the lines of rewarding ourselves, I pre-shopped (and saved in an Amazon wishlist) the items that I would get to replace the ones we were selling. I looked for multi-functional, space-efficient items, like a set of nesting mixing bowls with lids that could be microwaved, replacing our stainless steel set. You can also replace quantity with quality. Instead of having five different light jackets, I bought a hopefully-super-cool all-in-one travel jacket (the Baubax through Kickstarter, so fingers crossed).


Okay, so now you’ve decided what to keep, store, and sell. Keeping is easy. Storing is fairly easy (you just have to decide where to keep it - storage unit? Friend’s/family’s house? Hole in the backyard?). Selling, though - selling was not easy for me. It could have been easier if I could have time-traveled forward and read this post. But wait, if I hadn’t gone through the difficulties I did, how would I have been able to write this post…? Ah, time-travel paradox!

Anyway. You’ve got stuff. Somewhere out in the world is someone who is looking for stuff. Your goal is to make it easy for that person to find your stuff and then, ideally, give you money for it.

Tips for Selling

  • focus on the high-ticket items and hard-to-sell items first. Examples:
    • large furniture (this should also be a primary focus since it will be harder to transport elsewhere if it doesn’t sell right away)
    • appliances/electronics
  • include details
    • pictures. These should be:
      • non-cluttered (example: take everything off the bookshelf you’re trying to sell)
      • focused (move other stuff out of the way)
      • good quality (natural light, accurate color representation)
    • price
      • compared to new - include a link to the original product (on Amazon or original store site).
      • Christian informed me that this is called price-anchoring. Basically instead of saying, We’re selling this kitchen set for $100,” try, The chairs were $50, the table was $50, the light was $80, plus we’re throwing in the seat cushions and tablecloth… but we’re only asking $100.”
      • But don’t take this too far - nitpicking about the cost of each individual picture frame is not worth it.
    • condition
      • full disclosure! If there are scrapes, water spots, missing screws, etc., be honest and upfront. That way you know anyone who contacts you is really interested, and you won’t have to try to hide the imperfections when they come to pick it up and hope they won’t notice.
  • get their interest! add some humor, or paint a picture with your words. I sold some glasses we never used by saying they would be great for a special toast or taking Sunday brunch mimosas to the next level.
  • price competitively
    • we found that we got the most interest when we started at least half of new
    • on most sites you can go back and drop the price later, but found we got less interest that way
  • keep the right mindset
    • What’s the alternative to selling it? If nobody wants to pay what you think your antique rocking chair is worth, are you really going to load it in your car, lug it to a storage unit, shuffle stuff around so it fits, and pay extra for the bigger storage unit? Christian’s parents kept a sofa like this that they paid $600 for new, and they estimate the extra cost of moving the sofa three different times and storing it for five years actually cost them over $800, after which they finally just donated it.
    • When you sell your stuff, even if you sell it for pennies on the dollar, people will come to you and give you money to help you get rid of your stuff - sounds like a win-win to me.

Where to Sell

We tried several ways. Here’s a list of each method and my thoughts on it, from least favorite to favorite:

  • Craigslist
    • hard to communicate with potential buyers with less follow-through from them
    • possibility of sketchiness, leading to:
    • added difficulty - you probably don’t want to meet at your house, which means you need to transport it
  • Garage sale
    • have to wake up early for best results
    • people will expect really low prices and haggling
    • can get rid of lots of smaller stuff by throwing it in with other purchases (harder if people aren’t there in person or if you’re listing every little potholder online)
    • dependent on weather and location
  • Facebook feed
    • annoy all your friends
    • post large batches of stuff at once and let people duke it out in the comments
    • threaded comments and in-line pictures can simplify communication
  • Facebook groups
    • have stricter rules for membership/communication deadlines/etc. If you’re willing to follow them, these groups were a lifesaver for me.
    • reach a wider group of potential buyers (but not too wide)
    • try searching for garage sale + your town’s name″ in the Facebook search bar to find a group near you

Our optimal method, as referenced in the flow chart at the top of this post, was to list the big ticket items on a Facebook group. Then when buyers came to pick up, we showed them everything else we had available, moving some of the smaller items. We actually held a garage sale too early on in the process, before we had finished sorting everything, and I was still too emotionally attached to haggle (in hindsight, trying to sell my entire book collection in one day to complete strangers was a pretty rough call). If we were doing this again, I would wait until the very end for the garage sale, and be prepared to literally give stuff away - since that’s what I would be doing anyway after the sale.

Overall, we did pretty well - we moved out of our apartment on time (after extending the lease for a couple of days to make up for my jury duty), made some cash to offset renovation costs, and didn’t completely alienate our Facebook friends with repeated sale spamming. I hope this helps you in your downsizing adventures!

Have any suggestions of your own? Please feel free to share them in the comments below!

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