How to Get Rid of All Your Crap

By Nora Dunn on 29 September 2007 (Updated 24 June 2009) 33 comments
Photo: Plutor

In my journey from being a North American Entrepreneur to a Professional Hobo, I had to shed a lot of crap. The crap took the form of everything from the emotional to the physical, but for the purposes of this article I will focus on the process (which proved to be quite effective) of shedding the physical junk that clutters our lives.

This process is great not only for people wanting to make drastic changes in their lives like I did, but also for the average bear who needs to downsize the amount of stuff they have.

Divide Into Piles

The first step is to go through everything you own, and categorize. My categories of choice were:

Take With Me (or keep)

Store

Sell

Give Away

Take With Me (or Keep): For myself because of my planned travels, this pile had to be relatively small, as it had to fit into a couple of backpacks. I read once that when faced with decisions like this, women tend to over-pack clothes, and men tend towards "gear". For me this rang true; I used to have a coordinated outfit for every possible occasion, and my boyfriend was a real gear-hog.

The reality of the small size of a backpack forced us to seriously look at everything we owned. If the article of clothing or piece of gear didn't satisfy at least two purposes, it had to go. Everything had be uber-practical.

For backpacker wanna-bes out there, there is a golden rule of packing for a trip: First, lay everything you want to take out on your bed. Then, take half the stuff away. Pack what is left. Then unpack, and take away half again. That's all you really need!

Even for those not backpacking, I think most would agree that we can easily live with a quarter of the things we have in our homes. It might take some adjustments initially, but our real quality of life wouldn't suffer.

So be brutal in your elimination piles! Your keep pile doesn't need to be big.

Store: Storage could take the form of a nearby locker, storage unit, or even friend's closet. For myself, because I refused to pay the outrageous cost of a monthly storage unit, and didn't have family with space to store my belongings, I had to make some tough decisions.

Since part of the point of my journey is to let go of the materialistic values we are conditioned to have, I figured the time was ripe to just let go.

So the items I kept were those I deemed "irreplaceable". This included family heirlooms, artifacts collected from world travel, selected artwork, and pictures/scrapbooks. Believe it or not I managed to fit all this into less than 5 boxes, and truthfully I don't miss any of it. It currently sits in my friend's spare bedroom closet.

Sell: This was where the process got fun. Because of the sheer amount of stuff I had to sell, I took a three-tiered approach to selling my belongings:

Firstly, I took pictures of all the major items I owned (like furniture) that I was selling. Starting two months before I left town, I sent an email to my contact list (about 300 people strong), itemizing the major things I had for sale, and inviting queries by email for more info. I fielded the responses attaching pictures at that time, and serious buyers came over to my place to choose what they wanted.

One month before my departure, I listed everything remaining (which was still quite a lot) for sale. Personally I used Kijiji and Craig's List, but according to Linsey , Amazon and Ebay are also great ways to sell and buy gently used items.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Lastly, for whatever didn't sell using the above methods, I held a giant contents sale over an entire weekend. It was tiring to say the least, but it was also an effective way to eliminate most of what I had, and a few friends even came by to wish me a bon voyage and help me to bide my time as the day passed. Once I resolved myself to the situation, I had fun.

Give Away: There were many items that I knew family members or friends wanted or needed, so I set them aside as gifts. And of course, I also donated certain items to charitable auctions and other organizations that were close to my heart.

Anything left over from the garage sale that would be valuable to a charity also got donated.

There was a very interesting transition that took place over the few months that I underwent this process. At first, I was convinced that everything I owned was quite valuable, and had set asking prices accordingly. For (very) gently used furniture, I generally tried to recoup 75% of my cost to buy. Other items were priced accordingly. But I also found that people weren't banging down my door to buy all my wonderful possessions like I thought they would. Our belongings are most highly valued by only ourselves, as I soon learned.

As the weeks and months passed, the prices came down and down and down again. By the time the contents sale came around, I just wanted the stuff gone, and was practically giving everything away. In some cases I actually did just give the stuff away. I didn't feel ripped off at all; instead I was happy that my stuff was going to a new happy home. I had already said goodbye to these belongings and simply didn't want them to occupy a landfill.

And for your entertainment, here is a quote from my personal blog written the day after the contents sale, when I was exhausted, but elated:


"The more I purge my belongings and move towards a simple and non-materialistic lifestyle, the less I want to accumulate “stuff” ever again. I thought I had purged most of my “stuff” prior to moving into the place we are in now, but alas 2 years of living in one place brought into our repertoire many items that we “simply can’t live without”!

I hope that in the future I can hold more perspective on this point and continue to learn the difference between wants and needs. I can only imagine there are many things we’ll encounter in our travels that we see as “needs” that many native-dwellers would disagree with. For example….shoes. Shoes are pretty non-negotiable for me. I like them, I need them. If I don’t have them, my tender tootsies are miserable. I can’t walk more than a few feet a minute without them. Yet for others, shoes are more of a luxury.

….Shoes, a luxury. Ha! And here I am wondering whether or not to bring my pretty pink high heels, or just to “make due” with my black slingbacks. Yikes!"

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Guest's picture
Rebecca

Years ago I moved from SF to NYC in a 79 Camaro. I had a 2000 square foot loft in SF, so I had a LOT to get rid of. It was AMAZING. I picked the things that were most important, loved or small and expensive and took that with me. Everything else was either sold or donated to charity. It felt GREAT to get rid of that much stuff....

Of course, a few years later and I had filled up a 2000 square foot house; it's pretty easy to rebuild the collection. But I think everyone should have to do something like that every few years. Once you do, you start to see how easy it can be.

Guest's picture
Guest

I loved your article and very much expresses how I feel, even though I have not yet gone completely through the journey of giving to live simply. In our next big move, this is what I'm going to suggest. Plus kids with family (which what our family will be by the time we move) can always use the space for making those forts out of cardboard boxes. Toys.. who needs toys?! :)

Guest's picture
Nomi

When I moved to Europe, I had to reduce all of my possessions to two suitcases and leave the rest of the stuff in storage with family. At first it was really tough, but as time goes by I don't even remember what it is I have there. There are only a couple things I really miss that have sentimental value. Besides that, it's amazing how you can really reduce what you need and all of the things you think you need, but really don't.

I've moved again in Spain and am going to move again back to the U.S. in a few months and am so relieved about how easy it was and will be again. When you need to move around, having a lot of stuff just becomes a burden.

I agree about the shoes though. Those are just necessary no matter what. :)

Guest's picture
Nomi

When I moved to Europe, I had to reduce all of my possessions to two suitcases and leave the rest of the stuff in storage with family. At first it was really tough, but as time goes by I don't even remember what it is I have there. There are only a couple things I really miss that have sentimental value. Besides that, it's amazing how you can really reduce what you need and all of the things you think you need, but really don't.

I've moved again in Spain and am going to move again back to the U.S. in a few months and am so relieved about how easy it was and will be again. When you need to move around, having a lot of stuff just becomes a burden.

I agree about the shoes though. Those are just necessary no matter what. :)

Guest's picture

I gave up my apartment, threw everything into storage/gave it away/sold it/chucked it, and now my husband and I live out of suitcases. Literally. We call ourselves modern nomads.

We don't have a home, no furniture, and we live in hotels paid for by my projects, and have NO fixed expenses except for car insurance + debt repayments.

It's so freeing to know that you don't have to worry about buying furniture or stuff for the apartment, or paying utilities...

By the end of 2008, I should be on track to clear my entire education amount, and truly begin life being debt free... until I get a mortgage of course !

Great post!

Myscha Theriault's picture

And we both did it several times while single, pre dating / marriage. I agree with the person who made the statement . . . the more you do it the easier it gets. So true. A great deal of things are still being store by the military, but there were truckloads upon truckloads that were given away or chucked. We are living with very little now and in very few square feet while we search for an architect / contractor. The backpack thing was definitely challenging for us too. One small bag each. While we both enjoyed not having to carry much whenever we jumped on a bus or chicken truck, there are times when I desperately wished we could at least have as much with us as the suitcase nomad girl above.

Really feels great when you get down to nothing, doesn't it?

Guest's picture
mandar

I prefer to reduce all furniture and move quickly, because i prefer fashionable design

Nora Dunn's picture

Thanks for the comments everybody!

I'm glad that this article resonated with people as much as the process did personally for me.  Those who knew the "old Nora" are surprised at how relaxed I am now that life is so much simpler! 

Fabulously Broke: I love your blog, and your lifestyle too! Modern Nomads....has a nice ring to it.  

I do occasionally miss the lifestyle I once had, but I also wouldn't trade my experiences as a Professional Hobo in for anything. It can actually be quite enlightening. In fact, it freed myself and my boyfriend up to take advantage of an opportunity to move to Hawaii in a month!  (cue in sounds of ukelele and ocean waves)

Guest's picture

Nothing comes into your house without a "like item" leaving it...keep the clutter down without having to excessively use your noggin' if you use this method.

Guest's picture
Leslie

We have had mixed luck with Craigslist to sell things, but we always have good luck with Freecycle - a yahoo list where you post stuff you want to give away (6 candles, a footstool, a half bottle of shampoo, etc.) and people email then stop to get it. We even freecycled 1950's old paneling (that still had the nails in it). I was amazed at what people would take.

And we use it as well. We needed 3 sheets of sheetrock and found them on Freecycle.

Guest's picture
kris

i feel myself moving towards a more internationally nodamic lifestyle (which wil require me to do a severe purge) and i will admit that it is scaring me sh*tless. i noticed my breathing becoming accelerated, and my heartrate, irregular, just from reading the stories on this page. why? what to do? i have a storage space waiting for me to deal with it, taunting me. i've just been blaming it on the fact that i'm an earth sign, and therefore astrologically predispositioned for attachment to material items. but that's making light of something that is beginning to look like a disease.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

This is normal, Kris! Don't worry! I had my fair share of panic attacks, moments of serious questioning, and sanity checks.

All I can say is that after the plunge, it gets way easier. As you sell things, people will ask about your story, and you can start to enjoy sharing your passion and why you are purging with people - it will remind you of why you're doing it.

And now, a full year into my travels, I have turned over a new leaf. It's amazing!  

Guest's picture
OneFootHomeOneAway

I just found this article and I really liked it.

It may help in your effort to shed belongings to think of both the "front" end and the "back" end; they are different. The front end consists of everything that comes through the front door into your house. The back end consists of everything you're hauling out the back door to the trash (or recycling, or sale or whatever).

If you have a tendency to hoard possessions, it doesn't matter which you work on first - the front or the back - just make a start. Most people have too much stuff because they don't purge enough or on a regular enough basis, for whatever reason (usually an emotional issue of some sort - attachment, fear of not having something when you need it etc).

Manage the front end. Only buy things you need, and examine why you're buying it. Manage the back end. Only keep things you use or that have sentimental value. It doesn't matter how you get rid of your excess, just do it. The energy in your house will change.

Most importantly, take it easy on yourself. As the old saw goes, we're all in this alone together.

Guest's picture

I love this article! It sounds like you did a great job. I find this a coincidence because two days ago one of my articles ran in the paper, and it essentially describes the same thing that you're talking about here! I guess that purging through stuff is something a lot of people are doing (or need to do, anyway)

Here's the link to my article: http://alternativelivings.blogspot.com/2009/02/blogging-for-sunday-paper...

Guest's picture
Lynn

I moved to Florida in '07 and have just now come back North to deal with a big clean out which has weighed me down for years. I simply Googled and found all your wonderful inspiration. As the previous commenter stated my heart races, and I get nausaus just to think of parting with my lifetime of accumulation
I know it is the right thing to do. I have wanted to declutter for 20-30 years. Just what is the hold it has on us? I have been thinking of going to a shrink to find out (LOL) but your blogs are even better. Thank you! We shall overcome.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Lynn - Please let us know how it all went once the de-cluttering experience is behind you. I'd love a "testimonial" of a complete de-cluttering experience....you are sure to go on a roller coaster ride, but it is one with a happy ending.

Guest's picture

Just found this post via Unclutterer, and this really spoke to me:

There were many items that I knew family members or friends wanted or needed, so I set them aside as gifts.

I moved a few months ago and had bags of kitchen tools to give away. I laid them out and let people know they could take whatever they wanted when I had "I'm moving, one last meal in this apartment!" dinner parties, and I was pleasantly surprised that everything was taken.

Last weekend, I went to a dinner party at my friend's apartment, and she was using one of the things I'd given away, a cheese fork and knife set (I think that's what they were, at least)! She uses them to test meats and gratins for doneness, and it made me really happy that someone else was getting use out of them, especially since I'd never figured out what to use them for. :D

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@19thandfolsom: You raise a fabulous point about giving things away, and seeing the pleasure your friends and family get from things that are new to them and well-loved for you.

I have things that have been given to me in this manner, and every time I use them I think of those people.

And conversely, to know that some of your former belongings are being enjoyed by somebody you know and love is even better.

Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture
DebraC

In terms of your possessions and how much you pack on a backpacking trip, it gets to the point where you will pack the same amount, whether you are traveling for a week or 2 months.

It boils down to necessity. When you have a home with ample storage, you find lots of things to buy and fill up your house with. When you can't afford to cart around a lot of stuff, you have to find a way of owning and carrying around less possessions.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@DebraC - Absolutely! I recently took a 2 week excursion from my temporary base and was surprised by how much stuff I actually brought in comparison to my last 6 week trip. Once you are packed for 2 weeks, you're packed for 2 months - or beyond. (As long as you're somewhat strategic in your packing)!

Guest's picture
Ramanuj

very interesting read. Your post has led me to think of experimenting with simplification in another area in which I am interested.

Was there any personal motivation to the decision of shifting from the materialistic way of life, in which we are driven by the instinct of accumulating more and more possessions? I am not asking for a retrospective evaluation, but what triggered the decision.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Ramanuj - My decision to pare down (and travel full-time) was spurred on by a life-long dream and a niggling voice that wouldn't go away telling me to get out there and do it - now, not in 30 years during a conventional retirement. The triggering event was a series of illnesses (not terribly serious, mind you, but enough to set me back) that made me stop and consider what I was doing with my life and decide if I was happy to keep doing it for the next 30 years before living out my dreams of travel. (The answer was no!)

Guest's picture

Great article! I managed to sell all my crap in 2004 before leaving New Zealand and have felt free ever since. It took me 3 months to sell my stuff and what I couldn't sell I gave away. The only thing I stored was a record player in my friend's garage but that's probably gone now, haha.

Because of this I've managed to live and work in various countries around the world. Occasionally I will accumulate stuff, but now I tell myself before buying anything that I have to be willing to give it away when I move again. This generally stops me from buying too much crap. Also I try to get stuff like furniture from Craigslist for cheap/free. Much easier to give away when you've already got it for free!

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Azarethroy - Good stuff! I know exactly how you feel about accumulating new stuff...unless I'm prepared to give it away or know I can sell it easily (or fit it into my bag), then I don't buy new things either. I too, am a big fan of second-hand shopping for that reason as well...pre-loved is best!

Guest's picture
Guest

I am in the process of decluttering 50+ years of stuff so I can teach overseas. Due to the economy I am finding I am not getting a lot of responses to my ads. So when decluttering - you will have to realize many things are "sunk costs". Also a digital camera can be used to take pictures of many things to sell but also to keep the memory of the item.

Guest's picture
dawn

I noticed that Europeans sometimes leave all their belongings when selling a home; the home is simply "furnished." What a concept in the US! I didn't quite know what I thought of that, but how freeing it would be to buy a house and not have to MOVE! Or to pick up and go without having to deal with the PURGE that you have just described. Granted, personal items will still have to be dealt with, but the large, difficult things will just stay as they are, fitting perfectly into the space they were purchased for.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Dawn - What a concept! And like you say, you'll always move into a place where the furniture is perfectly suited to it. What a great way to have a change of scenery too.

Guest's picture
Saraansh

I am in the process of planning a 6-month sabbatical from work and am about 4 months out and found this article very useful along with its comments. I am hoping to get started on some of this purging pretty much starting this weekend so as to make a clean break and its great to see everyone here sharing their experiences.

Guest's picture
Cristina

Hi Nora, I'm a new follower of your site and a fellow Torontonian. I too am learning the art of being a minimalist. I learned something about myself that I've never known..I hate "stuff"! Our lives are full of "stuff" but getting rid of it all feels so free. Life is so beautifully simplified. Someone once told me, when a person passes away it is their experiences, their life, their stories, and persona that is most remembered at the funeral not the expensive car he owned or the big house. No one ever talks about that stuff. Goes to show experiences are always better value :)

Guest's picture
Guest

This is like the Potlatch rituals that the Northwest Indian tribes practice.

At potlatch gatherings, a family or hereditary leader hosts guests in their family's house and holds a feast for their guests. The main purpose of the potlatch is the re-distribution and reciprocity of wealth.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch

If you look at totem poles there are lines (typically) on them and that indicates how many time a person has rid themselves of all thier wealth and reaccumulated it again and again... the more potlatch marks you have the more respect.

I have been to "giveaways" ceremonies in the Dakota's with returning veterens.. they have "gifts" (blankets, kitchware etc..) that they just give to guests.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have to read a bit of these articles to realize that your meaning of "backpacker" is not some guy heading out for a few days into the wilderness, but more of what I call a "trekker". LOL!

I am always fighting between hoarding and lightening up. What is bad is that some things have no value and you still like them. Do you throw away things you like?

Same with cars. Although I'm a single dude, I like both a car and a pickup truck.

Can someone give me the formula for staying light? :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Kudos to the author for not adding to landfills! Any updates to your minimalist project, 6 yrs since the original post?