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What I learned from de-cluttering

My upcoming move to Alaska made me face facts: I have more than I need. But how to let go?

By Donna_Freedman Sep 25, 2012 12:48PM
Logo: Unorganized items in garage image100, SuperStockLast spring I donated a ton of things to a rummage sale: housewares, three-ring binders, books, knickknacks, CDs, puzzles, a yoga mat, greeting cards, cookbooks, art prints and clothing.

At one time those things had all been important to me. Truth be told, some of them still were. But I'd decided it was time to let go, especially since I'd decided to move to Alaska within the year.

"Good thing I gave away so much," I thought. "It'll make packing a lot easier."

Then I took a look at what remained. For a self-avowed frugalist, I sure own a lot of stuff.

None of it cost very much, thanks to frugal hacks like yard sales, thrift shops and The Freecycle Network. Monetary value wasn't the issue. The question was how much I really needed, i.e., what I felt was essential enough to move all those miles by truck.

Disposable possessions

I'd thought that getting rid of my books would be hardest part and, yes, that was tough. But it was going through 30-plus years' worth of personal papers that hurt worse than childbirth.

Did I really need old birthday cards, extra copies of every magazine article I'd ever written, programs from decades-old theatrical productions or my daughter's elementary-school progress reports? Probably not. Yet getting rid of them seemed like a loss of self. (Post continues below video.)
After a few false starts, I remembered something my daughter said as she and her husband prepared to from Seattle to Phoenix: "It’s humbling to realize just how many of your possessions are disposable." Abby was able to ditch things she'd owned for 20 years, and she has never looked back.

I admit that I do look back, sighing over the kitchenware and artwork that I gave to a group of college students just two weeks ago. Yet I also have to admit that the smaller my "discard/donate" pile gets, the better I feel. In part that's because I realize how expensive -- and ultimately unnecessary -- it would have been to move all my possessions.

More to the point, I've finally learned that I don't necessarily need physical proof of work I've done, report cards I've signed, authors I've read, places I've visited. Often the memories are enough. I don't have to own something in order to appreciate it.

Paradoxically, paring down has made me feel rich: Despite having given away so much, I still have everything I need and some of what I want.

Keep what matters
I'm not suggesting you become an overnight minimalist. Throw out too much too fast and you might mourn the loss later on.

Be sure of what you're doing, too. While going through a box of my daughter's schoolwork, I found family snapshots and some letters from my mother. Thank goodness I didn't just pitch the whole box into the recycle bin.

But take a hard look at some of the things that clutter closets, dressers, the garage and maybe even a storage unit. How much of your time, energy and money do you want to spend maintaining your own Museum of Me?

Sometimes our possessions own us. Ultimately, it's all just stuff.

Full disclosure: I still have the outfit my newborn wore home from the hospital, and I'll never part with those letters from my mother. So yes, do keep the things that truly matter. But you can get replacement dishes just about anywhere.

More from MSN Money:

Oct 11, 2012 3:11PM
A follow up to my original post - I brought three huge bags of clothing to a new charity I just found out about and may have made some new friends in the process!

I'd rather have friends in my life than clutter so I'm very happy with the outcome and don't miss the clothing one bit.

For me - it's the act of making the decision to get rid of something I once cared about or "spent good money on". that causes me pain, like you, I find worse than childbirth which as I recall hurt quite a bit.

Now I am on a mission to get rid of anything not used in the past year!The church is waiting for my cast offs as are the homeless and otherwise underprivileged women who will be taking them home.
Oct 3, 2012 2:29PM

Seems to me that some young healthy entrepreneurs might take a look at marketing de'clutter services.  They could get paid for their time and, in addition, make a buck selling the items which are removed.   Certainly some negotiation skills would be required.

Sep 28, 2012 2:13PM

Thank you, Donna, for a great column this week! I like your comment about feeling rich by giving away possessions.


Have a safe, comfortable, and stress-free move!

Sep 27, 2012 7:19PM
I totally get what you went through.  I too am in the process of de-cluttering and find myself attached to furniture I have had for over 30 years.  Purple glass was a phase along with so many collectables which at the time were precious and are now considered clutter.  It was all worth something to me and now I am donating it to the Goodwill hoping it is will be worth something to someone new and for a lot let money that I originally paid for it!  I will miss it all but the memories do not require packing in bubble wrap and packing in a truck to my new forever home.
Sep 25, 2012 11:22PM

You are so right about going through things before getting rid of them, Donna.  After my mom died, I boxed up a bunch of her old billing statements and various other papers.  While going through them one by one, I found 3 envelopes of cash totaling $185!  I'd come so close to just throwing it all in a dumpster. 

Sep 25, 2012 6:05PM
Maybe your post will motivate me to action. Last year I was able to give away a bunch of clothing that I wasn't wearing. It's almost 1 year later and I don't miss one single item of that purge.

Unfortunately, my closet is still full of things I hang on to for sentimental reasons. I think it's time to do another closet purge.  I really have no excuse - thanks to the Sears Free Apparel Tuesday I have a brand new Fall wardrobe that didn't cost me anything.

Sep 25, 2012 3:54PM

I'd suggest scanning the article copies and putting them up on a cloud server. That way you still have them, but not the boxes of magazines everywhere.


I read on a blog about a woman who scans all her daughters pictures when she brings home a new one so she has a memory of all of those moments, but only one of the fridge... Technology has made keeping memories a lot less bulky!

Sep 25, 2012 1:47PM
I have a crazy rule, almost 90% of my possessions must be on display. That helps keep clutter down in a 1 bedroom apartment.
Sep 25, 2012 1:43PM
Great post....these are the very things I struggle with when I try to purge.  One thing I learned from "Clean House" is to take pictures of those possessions you once treasured but no longer need.  It's much easier to keep a scrapbook of memories then to store all that "stuff"!   But it's so much easier said than done...
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.