3 Tips for Decluttering Your Life, From a Woman Who Downsized to a Tiny Apartment on the Beach
Learning to let go can free up money for other passions.
Long before Marie Kondo became a household name, Laura Matthews was asking herself which possessions she really loved. The self-employed book editor, 55, moved cross-country several times, each time using the de-cluttering tactics that the Japanese organizing guru later made famous: keeping only items that "spark joy," in Kondo's phrase.
Matthews' latest move, in 2009, was her biggest yet. She downsized from the three-bedroom colonial in Massachusetts where she raised two teenagers as a single mother to a tiny one-bedroom apartment near the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. That involved ridding herself of everything from couches to Christmas wrap. "I only took things I loved," Matthews says. (She credits the organizing expert FlyLady, for teaching her that philosophy.)
Matthews has since upsized her living space to a 1,200 square-foot, two-bedroom apartment that she shares with her partner, Jon MacCulloch, 61, an engineer-turned massage therapist, 13 blocks from the beach. The couple rents out their second-bedroom regularly through Airbnb, which covers at least half of their monthly rent and ensures that their own footprint remains small.
Here are her downsizing tips:
Your Kids Don't Want Your Stuff
When she was preparing for her move, Matthews tried to interest her then college-age daughter in one of her couches. Her daughter demurred. "I was shocked to find out my daughter has different taste," Matthews says.
Turns out, Matthews likes colorful furniture, while her daughter prefers beige. Instead of taking it personally and hoping for a change of heart, Matthews quickly moved on. She gave the couch away to a local fraternity whose members were more than happy to cart it away and give it a new home.
Over the course of about four months, Matthews gave away possessions through the sharing web site Freecycle.org or sold them for a modest price on Craigslist.org. She found, to her delight, that her possessions went to those in the stage of their lives to put them to the best use. This made it much easier to part with the sentimental items.
For example, she gave away a vintage chest of drawers that had been her father's when he was a child. The family who picked it up had two young boys and planned to restore the old piece for them. A newlywed couple took the dining set that Matthews had when she was first married. She gave away her grandfather's custom made desk—a heavy piece from the 1920s that she'd already carted across the country and back again—to a local theater company that wanted to use it as a prop. Knowing it was going to a good home, "I could let it go," Matthews says.
One could argue that Matthews had particularly good luck, but in order to find the best recipients for her items, she had to take a leap of faith and post them online. The local, thrifty sensibility helped. "New Englanders love a deal," Matthews says.
Trade Your Space for Freedom
Matthews hardly feels confined by her cozy quarters. On the contrary, it's liberating to live small, she says. She loves looking around her apartment and seeing only items that give her pleasure. She doesn't miss the yard work that she had in Massachusetts, or the feeling that she was working just to pay a big mortgage.
Matthews' enthusiasm for her new lifestyle has proven infectious: both her sister and sister-in-law downsized after watching Matthews go through the process and come out happily on the other side. "It's a lightening of the load in a huge way," Matthews says.
Since she and MacCulloch live below their means, they can afford to spend more on their passions: good food and travel. When they want to go to Europe, they just lock their door and go. "It's a lot of freedom," Matthews says.