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It's just stuff

Step 1 on getting-ready-to-move agenda: Sort, recycle, sell and toss

By Harriet Schechter

July 19, 2003

"I sold what I could and packed what I couldn't – I'm movin' on."
–from "I'm Movin' On" by Phillip White and D. Vincent Williams, performed by Rascal Flatts

Ah, the joy of moving. It's not just the fun of what seems like endless packing – it's also all the tough decisions you have to make about what's worth keeping and what's better to leave behind. Not to mention the sweet sorrow of having to say goodbye to people and places you can't take with you. And no matter how many times you may have moved, the process doesn't seem to get any easier.

Or does it?

Five times in five years

Over the past five years, to accommodate her husband's career, Bella Silverstein, a freelance writer-illustrator and mother of two young children, has packed up and moved her family five times, to four different climates, and across two continents.

Starting with the first move, says Silverstein, "I knew we'd have to cut way down on possessions."

Because her husband's graduate school scholarship required him to reside on campus, the family went from living in a three-bedroom house in San Diego to a furnished efficiency dormitory – two small bedrooms and one minuscule bathroom – in Los Angeles. (From there they moved to a tiny apartment in Israel for one year, then back to L.A., then to Reno, Nev.; now they're once again in a spacious home, this time in Jacksonville, Fla.)

In preparation for the first move – from house to efficiency apartment – Silverstein ruthlessly cleared out the excess. Much of her clothing went to a battered women's shelter; she donated 580 books to the Rancho Peñasquitos library. ("I accumulate books by magic," she says. "I don't know how it happens.") But she was reluctant to get rid of most of their furniture, knowing that, in a few years' time, they'd be moving into a house again and would need furniture then.

"I was wondering what to do; it would be too expensive to store it for four years," Silverstein recalls. "But we got lucky: A friend was buying her first home, and needed furniture; so we agreed she could use ours for several years while she slowly bought her own."

Problem solved.

Silverstein was wise in focusing her energies on three key categories of space-hogging possessions: books, clothing and furniture. These types of items make up the bulk – literally – of many households. By reducing the items in each category, it becomes easier to move – and move on.

Here are some suggestions for cutting through the clutter:


Don't try to read as you weed – you'll only become hopelessly sidetracked.

 Decide how many cartons can be realistically allocated for moving books, then systematically go through your collection, choosing to keep only books that (a) you actually refer back to or especially love and (b) would be especially difficult to re-acquire.

 Donate what's left to your local Friends of the Library.


 Mainly keep only the clothes that make you look good

and feel good. As Silverstein says, "Why keep something that's pretty but uncomfortable, or comfortable but dog-ugly?"

 This rule applies to shoes, too.


 Sell or donate any pieces that you can't visualize in your new home. An exception: furnishings that you're especially fond of, if you expect to eventually move someplace that will have enough room for them.

 Decide if it's worth renting a storage unit. If not, see if you can duplicate Silverstein's serendipitous solution for storing furniture – let your most trustworthy friends and acquaintances know that you're seeking a good, temporary home for your treasures. Often a mutually beneficial arrangement can occur, when the timing is right.

Combining households
Sometimes you have to be in a new place or situation before you can clearly see what you no longer need. This is especially true when you combine households in any variation: "Blended families" may find they have too many blenders, roommates can face a serious surplus of stereo components, and other couples sometimes realize they have an excess of ... well, everything. Such was the experience of Lynn Yuen and her fiance, Tim Monk, who recently combined households when Yuen moved from her Pacific Beach residence into Monk's house in Carlsbad.

Yuen, a media and event specialist, had done some streamlining when she left her corporate broadcast position to work from home as a consultant.

"I left behind all that corporate chaos – office politics and gossip, redundant procedures, even office attire," she says.

But when it came time for her to move, Yuen initially had trouble leaving behind various possessions, especially "sentimental stuff." It wasn't until she actually had squeezed most of it into Monk's previously spacious house that the two of them were able to see the truth: They now had "double of everything," she says. "We ended up putting most of my stuff in the garage." But over the past few weeks, they have been steadily weeding it out.

Not surprisingly, Yuen has found it much easier to see what Monk doesn't need than what she herself no longer needs. "I got rid of all his '80s clothes," she says with a laugh, hastening to add that he approved of the clearing-out. Monk agrees. "We're putting some serious thought into what we should keep and where things ought to go," he says.

Yuen and Monk say they have managed to get rid of "truckloads of stuff" in several key ways, including:

 Participating in a community garage sale (which netted them $300)

 Giving away many items to friends

 Donating numerous other things to AmVets

To help get rid of her excess memorabilia, Yuen also hit upon an idea that seems to be working well: "de-cluttering parties" with a close friend who is also trying to get rid of clutter. Each week she takes a heap of boxes over to her friend's house, and they spend three hours helping each other go through their respective items and eliminate as much as possible.

"We're able to make each other see how silly it is to keep certain things," Yuen explains, "like old letters and photos from former relationships."

Being with a friend who likes to laugh also makes the normally difficult process enjoyable. "It's actually fun this way," Yuen says enthusiastically. "Her baby is there in one of those portable round-chair entertainers, watching us do this. And after sorting, her husband makes us dinner, so it does feel like a party."

Saying goodbye
Divesting yourself of excess stuff is obviously important before, during and even after a move. But "stuff" isn't just about material possessions; it also includes emotional baggage.

Graham Richardson, a senior at San Diego State University, found this to be true when he decided to move out of the dorms at SDSU after his first year there. Dorm life, which he originally enjoyed, had lost its appeal and become stressful. "I found myself immersed in what I felt were ... superficial matters," Richardson explains, diplomatically.

Although he didn't accumulate much in the way of possessions, "moving out definitely wasn't easy," he says. "Saying goodbye to new friends and the dorm experience was difficult, especially because I didn't feel like they would understand my position and reasoning." But in the end, Richardson says he's glad he moved on when he did. He learned how to leave behind an outgrown situation when the timing was right.

As Bella Silverstein says, "The hardest thing about moving on is leaving friends behind. But," she adds, "as someone once said, 'Don't be sad that it's ending; be happy it happened.' "

Harriet Schechter has helped thousands of people let go of clutter since 1986, when she founded The Miracle Worker Organizing Service in San Diego. She now resides in Santa Barbara. The author of three books, including "Let Go of Clutter" (McGraw-Hill, 2001), she also is a columnist for SDHome Magazine. Her online advice column can be found at

© 2003 Harriet Schechter


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