Becoming a minimalist: how to declutter your house when you have a lifetime of stuff

Minimalism is becoming a movement. Not the 90s minimalism of bare white rooms and stark John Pawson architecture. But minimalism as a life choice: not accumulating material possessions but instead having more time, experiences, growth and freedom.

At the forefront are The Minimalists, two Americans who quit their corporate jobs, luxury houses and consumer-driven lifestyle and took a 21-day journey into minimalism. They now have four million followers, have been all over the media, and give talks around the US including this TEDx talk.

They say: “Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things – which actually aren’t things at all.”

This means making decisions about what is most important to you, and letting the rest go, in order to have more freedom to live the life you want.

That’s easy enough when you’re young and starting out, but less so after 50. Left with family detritus when children move out, and inheritance from elderly relatives, how do you decide what to get rid of, and what to keep, so your possessions don’t hold you in the past?

1 Know your reason for decluttering

Start by asking yourself why you want to live more minimally, suggests Caroline Rogers of Room To Think, and how you want to feel when it is completed.

As a professional declutterer she has helped people following separation, children leaving home, bereavement and other life changes. She says: “Use that desired feeling – it could be calm, or relief – as a gentle reminder of why you’re doing this.”

Ruth Badley, a PR consultant and journalist, had a large four-bedroom house in Yorkshire with an attic, garage and extension full of accumulated family stuff. Last year, when she and her husband decided to relocate to Dubai, she spent four months emptying the house.

“It’s a huge job and could be overwhelming, so break it down into manageable parts,” she says. “We had three categories: storage, give to friends or charity, and throw away.

“I started with a small cupboard. Seeing progress gives you encouragement to keep on.”

Life. Minimalist Living. The Minimalists blogging
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists, write about living a meaningful life with less stuff
2 Give yourself time for the project

Sometimes that small start is enough to get people to plunge into the whole project, says Caroline, and sometimes they prefer to go back to it once a week or once a month.

She recommends the use of self-storage units when a parent has died, as stuff can then be brought out into your own home to be sorted at a rate that suits your grieving process.

“We gave ourselves time to come to terms with what we uncovered,” Ruth recalls. “It was emotional to find things we hadn’t seen for years, like our grown-up sons’ toys and letters from people who have died.”

3 Get over the guilt

Guilt is a massive factor when dealing with parents’ possessions, says Caroline. “The parents of baby boomers lived through the Second World War and held on to things because they knew they might not be able to replace them. We don’t do that now, and you are allowed to let it go.”

She bans the word ‘should’, and often asks her clients if they’d want their children to agonise in this way about their own things when they are gone.

“It was a double lesson for me when my mother died a few months after we’d moved to Dubai,” says Ruth. “I realised that if I didn’t sort out my own possessions, I’d be leaving it for someone else to do.”

Life. Minimalist living. Memories

4 What to do with unwanted items

Caroline’s tactic is to ask yourself if you like an item, and if you want it in your life. “Sometimes people just need to tell the story connected with the object,” she says. “That might be enough to allow them to let it go.”

People can get very focused on something’s apparent value, perhaps because they know it cost a lot of money, but you need to balance time and money. You could sell it all on eBay, which is very time consuming, or just take it all to a charity shop.

Ruth found that her children were much more ruthless in disposing of stuff, and enjoyed the project of selling books online and converting unwanted stuff into cold, hard cash.

On the other hand, your children may say ‘Oh, you can’t give that away’, but then when you offer it to them, they don’t take it. So put a date on taking items, advises Caroline, and if they haven’t collected it by then, get rid of it.

5 Know what to keep

“I may be a professional declutterer, but I don’t tell people to throw things away all the time!” says Caroline. “I suggest putting things on display and using them.”

If you’re not sure, put the item away in a cupboard with a ‘use-by’ sticker on it. If you haven’t used it by the date you chose you’re probably not going to, so now you can dispose of it.

She advocates making a memory box (“Anything from a shoebox to a large trunk, depending on the space available”) where you can keep an edited selection of mementoes, for your own benefit and that of children and grandchildren.

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