The Great Purge
I am writing this article with more than a year of hind site. The reason I think that is important, is because after you do a great purge/downsizing/reevaluating stuff and actually start living I think you are ready to write about it. If I had written this when we were still getting rid of stuff I was too in the moment and frankly overwhelmed to actually be objective about it. We made the decision about a year ago to move from a large-ish house (2100 s.f. plus 2 car garage) in the suburbs (having moved from living in the city in Chicago, a house about the same size with a full basement and garage) into a 1,700 sf house we were designing for ourselves; our family of four with various pets (this is kind of important because if your pets are as important to you as ours are to our family, you actually have to design them into the plan). This house does not have a garage or basement or even any real attic. We did however give ourselves a small storage shed (8x10) in the backyard for our bikes, tools, and we each got 1 tub of stuff to keep. That being said we embarked on what we called “The Great Purge.”
I am writing this to help you get through your own purge, and I will say that if you do it correctly, you need to be changing your living space otherwise you are just going to fill it all back up again. We started our project thinking it would take one good weekend and we’d be done. Well after a lifetime of hobbies, random furniture that we swapped out as the kids grew but hung onto, toys, clothes, dishes we didn’t need, appliances that were mostly broken, random bowls and containers with missing lids, too many cupcake pans, home office stuff, random cables, outdated phones and hard drives, baby clothes (my kids are 15 and 12) the list goes on and on, so hopefully you see where I’m going with this. If your life of stuff is even comparable to mine, this is a long process. All told, this took us about 9 months.
The first weekend was the hardest for sure. We started with our bins of stuff from the attic that we had moved from house to house since college (15 years ago). We found, much to our surprise piles of duplicate photos that we had printed with the roll and never discarded, high school notebooks, text books, photos that made it into photo albums and some that remained in their original paper sleeve from Walgreens. We had no idea what to do with it all. We closed our eyes, apologized to the planet and threw them away. Sadly, we figured either we do it now, or our kids will have to do it when we die, and ultimately we just didn’t have room in our new space. At that moment we adopted a new mantra, If it wasn’t something we could display and access on a daily basis, it had to go. We reserved a bin for each of us and kept things that held special meaning to us, the kinds of things that when our kids sort through them someday, it will remind them of us and our lives.
I know you are thinking, wow, what a harsh way to think about life, but in reality we had not looked at those things for decades and frankly never would. We threw away things that could not be donated or recycled. We made the trip to the Austin Adaptive reuse about 4 or 5 times and just kept creating piles of stuff that needed to head to a place for responsible discarding. In the process I also discovered that you can recycle old shoes and clothes that are just in need of a new life at drop off locations around the city. In Austin, you can find them almost everywhere, but I chose one that was in the parking lot of another errand place so I wouldn’t forget. Over time the process got easier for me and my husband although, sadly it did not ever become less of a chore until it was actually done. The purge consumed many, many, many weekends leading up to the move. The kids on the other hand had a really hard time with the sentimental nature of their things. I have to admit, I wanted to approach the issue gently because I feared that if I was too stern or harsh about it, they would end up becoming hoarders because their mean mom made them throw out their favorite stuffed animals and trinkets their best friends gave them as children.
Matt and I desperately wanted our kids to see the value of this exercise and embrace the new lifestyle alongside us. Since we gave ourselves a long time to purge, we introduced the idea of what stuff means. I wrote on our chalkboard in the house the basic rules for getting rid of things: Do you LOVE it? Keep it! Does it have special meaning? Keep it! Do you use it everyday? Keep it! Do you use it every week? …Have you not used it in a year? Is it broken? Is it random and NOT special? THEN IT HAS TO GO. We talked to them about random things we bring into the house that just end up in the trash. We did this exercise over and over again. Eventually the kids not only “got it” they embraced it, our 15 year old really thinks about her space and her stuff in a new way. Even when we bought backpacks for the new school year, I let them order bags that they really loved, they were much more expensive, but even a year later, they still love them and don’t want new backpacks.
Many of you also know that I am a maker. Makers come with stuff, mostly for making, but I also have to admit that I am also a bit of a collector of randomness that I think to myself, “I can’t throw this out, I’ll need it someday, or my kids might want to use it to make something.” Let’s just say that my collection of those “I might need it” became more than anyone could ever need or use. It was enough for an elementary school art class. I also had a very hard time admitting my own love of craft stores, which are actually the worst for “fast” craft crap. You know what I mean, the time you decided to make candles for everyone for Christmas and bought all of the supplies, just to make one failed candle and then have a box of supplies that you would never use again. I was so glad to discover Austin Creative Reuse, and if you don’t know what that is, GO! They are, as my son said, the goodwill of craft supplies. It is an amazing place where you can buy used craft supplies, which is GREAT for kids, and where you can also donate any supplies you don’t want or never used again. I also am a member of a screen printing coop, Austin Screen Printing Coop, which means I don’t have to personally own all of the stuff that it takes to screen print at home. I can do all of my making in the amazingness of a shared space.
All in all, since I’m being completely honest, down to the last minute of our move we were still piling up donations. In a last minute effort to get rid of the rest of the stuff that we couldn’t sell or give away, we had the junk haulers take the rest. It wasn’t until we actually had to face that our new house had little or no storage that we undertook this immense life shift. Just to keep ourselves honest and on track (because let’s face it, after you do this, you NEVER want to do it again) at our new house we also opted for the smallest garbage bin the city had to offer, so this would force us to really think about how much we could discard any given week. I am very proud to say that we are down to 1-2 small 8 gal. garbage bags of what I can now see is mostly packaging that can’t be recycled per week. We also have citywide composting which takes everything out of the landfill that was once alive. The citywide composting took so much out of our garbage than we realized. Living this way is the best, it frees you from the need to store things you just don’t use. It also makes you think twice about bringing something into the house that you can’t store and that you really don’t want. I do find myself occasionally buying something that doesn’t work, and rather than just putting it somewhere to get rid of later, I return it to the store. I am still learning, but so far so good. We do still have things on a goodwill rotation, but it is considerably less and has given us the freedom to collect things that have actual meaning and that we want in our lives!