Downsizing Your Life: How to Do It and Why You Might Want To
After what may have seemed like an extremely long winter for some, spring is finally arriving. With the blooming flowers, warmer temperatures, and adjusted clocks, many are also gearing up for a tradition known as spring cleaning. While the habit of reorganizing yourself and decluttering your closets is great, what if you took things a step further? What I mean is, have you ever considered downsizing as a way to simplify your life?
First off, this post is going to be a bit different than my normal fare. While at its core this is still a personal finance concept, I’ve found the implications extend far further than that. In fact, I’ve come to believe that downsizing your life can actually help you emphasize the things that matter most to you.
Before you get scared, I’m not talking about going full minimalist and leaving everything behind — I just want to discuss a few changes you can make that can not only help your finances but also allow you to explore your passions and reach your goals. Moreover, my wife and I actually have some personal experience that relates to many of these topics. So without further ado, here’s how you can downsize and simplify your life as well as some of the reasons why you might want to.
Setting Your Simplifying Goals
Realizing your priorities is the first step in setting a downsizing and simplifying plan. Just as no two people are the same, there’s certainly no “one size fits all” plan when it comes to building yourself a better life. That said, to get you thinking, here are a few popular reasons people may elect to downsize their lives.
This being a personal finance site, you could probably anticipate that “saving money” would be among the top goals here. However, in this case, it’s not so much about saving money for the sole sake of growing your wealth but more about saving money so that you can achieve the things you want to achieve. Let me explain: by reducing your financial obligations, you’ll have more freedom to spend your income in whatever way you see fit (while still setting some aside for the future and for emergencies of course).
Now the question is, what do you want to do with your life and your money?
One of the things I learned about myself as I was navigating my 20s was that I really enjoyed traveling. After years of assuming that I didn’t enjoy flying, I ended up booking a flight to Tokyo in my mid-20s that would prove pretty pivotal in my life. Not only did I survive the 11-hour flight but also managed to find my way around a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language (and by myself, mind you) with relative ease. Four years later, I would return to Tokyo on my honeymoon and have since had the chance to visit Shanghai, Hong Kong, Paris, and other locales with my lovely wife.
Once we realized how much we enjoyed exploring new places together, my wife and I resolved to travel as much as we could and see more of the amazing cities around the world. As part of this, we’ve arranged our finances in such a way that allows us to take big trips without going into debt or wiping out our savings. This could not have been possible had we not made our goal clear and made changes to our financial situation in order to allow it. I’ll share more of our story and how we were able to pull this off in the coming sections.
If you’ve ever watched ABC’s Shark Tank you’ve probably heard one of the show’s millionaire or billionaire panelists talk about the hustle required in order to succeed when launching your own business. But, on top of that hard work, they also often discuss the sacrifices it takes to make it. I remember one episode in particular where Mark Cuban grilled an entrepreneur who said he’d be willing to slum it and “live off of six figures” for a while until he made it. Naturally Mark laughed at that notion, insisting he should be willing to live off mac and cheese for the sake of his business.
No matter what type of business you want to start, you’ll need to invest your time, energy, and yes, your money into them. Therefore, by downsizing your life and limiting your expenses, you’ll have more funds to pour into your business. Moreover, since failure is fact of life, keeping your obligations to a minimum is essential. Doing your downsizing now instead of when the pressure is on could end up making it possible for you to bounce back and rebuild your business in the future.
Spending Time with Family
For some people, the ability to downsize means they can work less and spend more time with the people they care about. This is a completely noble goal and once again speaks to the power of downsizing. Additionally, if you and your kin enjoy traveling, you might even consider an arrangement that allows you to see the world as a family like these parents and many others have done.
Eliminating Your Excesses
Regardless of what your goals are, you’ll like want to start purging some of your unneeded items. In addition to this being helpful if and when it’s time to relocate (more on that in the next section), getting rid of old items can be oddly comforting. Of course this is a process and you have a few options for how to approach downsizing, but here are a few ideas for starting points.
What to Lose
Books, CDs, DVDs, etc.
I’ll be the first to admit that I still have a box of old compact discs sitting in my outside storage space — but it’s a lot better than it was! Though I couldn’t tell you the last time I used one of these CDs for anything except ripping them to my computer, those special editions and, in some cases, signed booklets remain. Alas, hopefully you are stronger than I am and can part with your aging collection once and for all. The same goes for DVDs now that many have moved to digital downloads and streaming services.
For the more literate among us, you may have also amassed a number of books over the years. While having a library of everything you read might make you feel good, are you really going to reread any of those books? Beyond being a pain in the butt to move, there’s also good reason to let your book collection go as part of the process since they can easily be donated to libraries, schools, retirement homes, etc. — in other words, they can be given to people who actually will read them.
This is admittedly another area where I could stand to improve. In fact, my wife frequently makes fun of me for the number of t-shirts in my dresser. However I have found one solution to this problem: turning my old tees into quilts, allowing me to revisit all those rock concert memories while also staying warm in the winter.
Sporting Goods and Exercise Equipment
Being active is great but having your home cluttered with unused treadmills, skis, rackets, and whatever else you may have acquired over time certainly isn’t. Worse yet, these items are often oddly shaped, large, or bulky, making them extremely annoying to store. If you regularly participate in sports and honestly utilize this equipment on a somewhat regular basis, keep it. Otherwise heave-ho, my friend.
Mementos, Clippings, Etc.
Okay, this one could be a bit controversial but it’s important nonetheless. These days many of us have a number of sentimental items we hold on to, seemingly just to give us a walk down memory lane whenever we move or go to organize our homes. Some of these items may be worth keeping while others likely aren’t — especially if they can be digitized for safe keeping instead.
Do you still have that limited edition G.I. Joe in a box that you’ve held onto since you were only yea high? If you can’t fetch a pretty penny on eBay for it now, chances are you never will.
Until just a few months ago, I was holding onto a Mac laptop I bought in 2004 and which had the screen detached from the keyboard. I had already migrated the contents of said machine to another computer in 2010, yet it lived in a box along with about three different chargers for it. Thankfully it is now gone and I’m better for it. The moral of the story is, if you have old electronics you’re planning on fixing or are just holding onto for some other reason, just toss ‘em.
Anything Else You Haven’t Used in a Year
Finally, one of my big rules as I’ve worked to get rid of my (for lack of a better term) crap is to bid adieu to anything I haven’t needed (or, in most cases, even thought about) in a year. I came upon this rule after realizing I only saw a number of items whenever I went to dig through things to throw away. Obviously I realized how silly this was and my one year rule has been successful so far. However there are a few exceptions to the rule including important documents or emergency preparedness items but you can use your best, honest judgment to determine what warrants an override.
What to Do (and What Not to Do) With Your Stuff
Do: Sell It
There is a chance that some of the items you no longer need might still have some value to someone else. As a result it’s completely acceptable to explore ways to rid yourself of clutter while pocketing a little extra money. This can be accomplished on platforms like eBay, Craigslist, OfferUp, or Facebook Marketplace but there’s also the option to host a good old-fashioned garage sale/yard sale as well.
Don’t: Waste Time Trying to Sell Junk
Notice that I said some of your items will still have value — not all. Sure you probably have a record store in town that still buys used CDs but 1) unless your collection is truly killer, they might not be in the market for anything you’re looking to pawn and 2) the amount they’ll be giving you might not be worth the time it took you to pack everything up and haul it over to them. Similarly yard sales can take a lot of work to organize and, with most items selling for under a dollar, it’s okay if you elect not to go through the trouble and find another way to ease your junk burden.
Somewhere between stuff you can sell and stuff you should throw away is the option of donating. Popular outlets for donations include Goodwill, Salvation Army, and other local charities. Of course, even if you’re donating, be realistic about what items people will need or use and don’t give them anything that’s broken, in bad shape, or otherwise useless.
Don’t: Get a Storage Unit
In some cases you may feel that, while you want to declutter your home, you also aren’t quite ready to part with certain items “just in case.” This thinking could lead to you renting a storage unit to keep your additional stuff. Not only is a storage unit an extra monthly fee you don’t need but the chances of you actually making use of those “standby” items are slim to none. Avoid this mistake at all costs!
Do: Throw Things Away
I’ll be the first to admit that throwing items you’ve paid good money for in the trash can be an upsetting experience. Look, no one wants to feel like they’ve wasted money but, the truth is, you already did — there’s no going back now. Holding onto items you don’t need in an attempt to save what little value they still have is a major fallacy and something you’ll need to get over if you truly want to downsize. It may be hard at first but I promise it will be worth it.
Rationalizing (Potential) Relocation
Before paring your belongings down you might not have thought it possible to fit into a smaller space. With that first task done, you may be discovering that’s not actually the case. Whether you choose to move to a different home in the same area, relocate to a more affordable area, or live life as a “digital nomad,” there are several benefits to moving as part of your downsizing mission.
In recent years one of the big trends (pun intended) has been tiny homes. These microsized abodes are often less than 500 square feet but include a number of features via unique uses of space and clever engineering. Given their popularity, this is what many people likely picture when they consider downsizing but there’s no reason to be so extreme.
Downsizing can simply mean selling your unnecessarily-large four bedroom house and buying a two bedroom instead. It could mean ditching your pricey apartment with all the bells and whistles to move to a complex with fewer amenities. Really the way you downsize is up to you (which can include a tiny home if you really, really want).
In Search of Better Cost of Living
Until 2015 my wife and I were living in Glendale, California. For the few years prior to that, I had been an extra in television and movies and had enjoyed this unique occupation. I also harbored dreams of becoming a sitcom writer, but that’s a story for another day. Meanwhile my wife was working at a bakery, which wasn’t panning out quite the way she had hoped. Just before Christmas of 2014, we decided a change was in order — a change that would lead us out of Los Angeles and over to Springfield, Missouri.
By this time I had begun freelancing, meaning I could do my job from anywhere. Similarly, while she didn’t have any specific jobs lined up in the Midwest, my wife’s skills were easily transferable to other lines of work. This led us to realize that we were paying a hefty premium just for the opportunity to live in L.A. That may have made sense when my line of work and aspirations were tied to the entertainment capital but now it just felt like a big waste of money that got in the way of our other goals like traveling.
Moving to Springfield was a watershed moment for us and really opened my eyes to a number of things. First, contrary to popular belief, there are fun things to do beyond the coasts of our country. Secondly, rent doesn’t have to eat up your entire paycheck — who knew?
Needless to say, our decision to relocate as part of our downsizing initiative has paid off. Now we’re able to sock away money for our future and pursue our passions.
Reducing Your Commute
Another benefit that came with moving to Springfield actually happened by accident. As luck would have it, my wife ended up getting a job at a place that was literally next door to our apartment. Whereas back in L.A. she would have to drive one to two hours each way for work, she could now walk over in five minutes. This lack of commute had a hugely positive effect on her happiness and stress levels. So, as you’re looking for a small place in town or a new home in a new city, I’d highly recommend doing what you can to reduce your commute.
Like I mentioned, as a freelancer, I’m able to work from pretty much anywhere with power and WiFi — and I’m not alone. These days there’s a growing number of both independent contractors and full-time employees that are able to work remotely. At the same time some adventurous folks have taken full advantage of this opportunity and become what they call “digital nomads.”
I was first introduced to the concept of digital nomadism by a podcast called Workationing. In 2017 these two ladies in their “mid to late 27s” elected to give up their homes and spend the year on the road, living in different cities and countries around the globe for one to two months at a time. This idea fascinated me and I’ve come to learn that the digital nomad community has been booming for some time.
While I personally wouldn’t want to go full digital nomad — including purging nearly everything I own and living out of a carry-on — my wife and I have been considering extended trips to places we love. Now that both of us can work from anywhere (she recently left her other job to join me in the world of freelancing), we could conceivably spend weeks if not months abroad, working during the day and touring at night.
If full-on digital nomadism or my scaled down “extended stay” notion sound good to you, having a limited home base is crucial. For the Workationing gals, this meant moving their stuff into storage units (yes, I know I said not to get one of those but this is different), although I believe they’ve since gotten rid of those. In our case, the cheap rent we enjoy in Springfield would enable us to keep our apartment so we have something to come home to but still be able to afford our temporary two home situation. This is just one of the many opportunities that may available to those who choose to downsize.
Readying for Reevaluation
Finally it’s important to note that downsizing might not be for everyone. For example, if you have a partner or family, you may find that not all of you are on the same page about some of the changes you’re making. Because of this you’ll want to leave the door open to reevaluating your plans and admitting when you’ve taken things too far.
Missing Friends and Family
As much as I preach the gospel of finding your happy hometown with affordable living, I understand that there are plenty of reasons other than money that affect why people live where they do. One big factor for many is that want to be near friends and family.
When I was preparing to write this article, I was reminded of a couple of scenes from the film Up in the Air. In an early scene, our protagonist (played by George Clooney) is giving a speech that’s more or less about downsizing, mentioning stuffing all of your belongings in a backpack, setting it on fire, and deciding what’s worth saving. While that analogy may be something to get on board with, a later scene exposes the character’s philosophy of detachment as he talks about the weight relationships add to our lives. He’s not wrong — but having relationships play such a big role isn’t always a bad thing.
Family and friends are an important part of life. As a result, they should be factored into your priorities as well. If you forgot or didn’t realize how much being literally close to the ones you love would affect your happiness, it’s not too late to make changes.
Going Too Small
On that same note, you may come to the realization that you’ve overdone things in your attempt to downsize. Perhaps life in a tiny home is fine for a few months but you find yourself going a bit stir crazy after that. Ditto living in a small town after being used to big city amenities.
There’s a difference between pushing yourself to try new things outside of your comfort zone and living uncomfortably. Remember: the goal of downsizing is to simplify your life and enjoy what you love. In other words, don’t sacrifice too much for the sake of adventure.
Adjusting Your Goals
Lastly, outside of the two examples I’ve already mentioned, there may be other factors that cause your priorities and/or goals to change. Maybe you’ve decided to start a family and need more space or aren’t ready to take kids on the road just yet. Or perhaps you’re taking interest in different activities and finding new passions you want to pursue. Whatever the case may be, don’t be afraid to make further adjustments. After all, if you were able to take the leap and downsize in the first place, how hard could it be to scale back up or go another direction?
As someone who’s taken an interest in the concept of downsizing and simplifying life over the past few years, I really do believe the benefits vastly outweigh the sacrifices. Although my wife and I may not make a ton of money, our downsized living allows us to meet all of our financial obligations, prepare for our futures, live debt free, and still enjoy passions of ours such as traveling. If that sounds good to you, maybe this spring is the perfect time to do some deep cleaning — and deep thinking — as you work towards a simpler, better, life.