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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 45.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Tips on moving to a more modest living space
Small comfort
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Credit:Paul Stroede

A year ago, my husband and I sold our three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom house with lots of yard and a basement so huge it might have offered former Vice President Cheney a dandy spare undisclosed location. We traded it for a co-op apartment: two bedrooms, one bath, lots of light and a storage space in the bowels of the building. In our own idealistic terms, we were living up to a pledge to live less expensively, in smaller spaces, with (a lot) less stuff. Less euphemistically, we had decided to downsize.

We were not amateurs; we'd moved before and spent many hours watching those television shows where families are forced to clean out and reorganize. On the other hand, we had over 30 years' worth of accumulated possessions - some of it our own; some of it furniture, clothing and household items we'd been storing for family and friends over the years. We knew that we had to be ruthless, that sentimentality was our greatest obstacle to liberation. What we didn't know was that sentimentality can reside in some pretty unexpected places.

Take what my husband likes to call his fastener collection: some 20 jars of screws, nails, nuts, bolts, tacks and etc., painstakingly organized by length, size and God knows what other characteristics. He felt sure he would need all those beloved scraps of metal in our downsized spaces. After a few "discussions," we agreed that a fraction could be saved in a small, plastic drawer system that now gathers dust on a shelf in our apartment hall closet, next to his more sensibly pruned (and often used) box of tools.

I expected some trouble with our voluminous (two whole cabinet shelves) collection of insignia mugs, acquired over years of vacations, vocations, avocations and gift-giving, but we got rid of all but a few, no discussion required, and haven't missed a single one.

We cleaned out our drawers and closets, using the well-known principle that anything unworn in the last year must go. Without shedding a tear, we filled eight industrial-sized trash bags of clothing, shoes, coats (I'm pretty sure my husband buys a new coat every time we go to Door County), hats, mittens and scarves. Even the Syttende Mai T-shirts went without a sigh. Likewise, emptying the linen closets of mountains of unneeded towels, sheet sets, pillows, blankets and comforters turned out to be painless and liberating.

The books were more difficult. We estimated we'd have to lose 15 to 18 feet of shelf space, or around 100 books. The first quarter went easily enough, but finally, in a many-staged process, I resorted to a stern British voice in my head - think Alan Rickman doing Prof. Snape - to ask, "Do you seriously think you will ever read/reread/consult that book again? No, seriously."

A year later, we have no regrets. We certainly don't miss the mowing, the weeding and shoveling. My balcony pots and a 3' x 4' plot behind the building offer all the botanical therapy I need. We're living quite happily without a microwave (extra counter space, and you can warm things nearly as quickly in the oven or in a steamer over a burner) and only one television (a renaissance of pre-bedtime reading and conversation without a bedroom TV). We gave up the second car without missing a beat, though it does take more thought and planning for things like appointments and staples shopping.

What has proved the biggest challenge is living with only one bathroom. Some of you may not be surprised, and certainly, if I'd thought long enough, I could have predicted some trouble here. Men, at least men of a certain age, seem to want a quantity of uninterrupted time in the bathroom. And by a quantity I mean more than any woman I've ever known. I was in denial about this until my brother-in-law refused to stay at our place during a visit last winter. My sister admitted he couldn't face sharing a bathroom.

So, okay, we've had to set out a few guidelines, make a few rules. It's not a deal-breaker. Some of our family and friends will choose not to stay with us.

Honestly? It has been pretty sweet having our new place all to ourselves.

The lowdown on cutting down
Downsizing rules of thumb

  • Take the time to measure your new spaces and the furniture you'd like to bring with you. Make a diagram if that will help you visualize.
  • Be realistic about the value of the furniture, rugs and housewares you'd like to sell. Classified ads work well for your furniture and items of value. If you have to get rid of them quickly, don't be greedy.
  • A garage sale might be worth the trouble if you have a lot of less-expensive items and you don't mind people consistently offering less than you're asking. Don't expect to make a lot on a garage sale and take the value of your own time and energy into consideration.
  • Any clothes, shoes, coats or accessories (handbags, belts, hats, mittens, gloves, scarves) you have not worn in the last year must go.
  • Any kitchen or household appliance you haven't used in the last year must go. That goes for additional sets of glassware and dishes.
  • At most, you need only four sets of sheets and pillow cases (two summer and two winter) for each bed in the household, plus a summer-weight blanket and a quilt or comforter. Get rid of towels that are worn down or unmatched. For heaven's sake.
  • Weed out the tool collection so that the tools you keep can fit in a handled toolbox on a closet shelf. Keep the power drill and, if you have one, a small power circular saw.
  • Thin your book collection. You should be able to quickly identify books you really don't care about. After that, do what you can. Friends may take some books off your hands, which is nice because you'll know where to go to borrow them if you really do need to read or consult them again.
  • Be ruthless about your tchotchkes. I don't care who gave it to you. If you don't like it, don't want it, don't have room for it, use this opportunity to get rid of it.

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