How and What to Downsize

You’re supposed to live as freely as possible in retirement. That’s harder to do when your old job and even your old family life keep burdening you financially. When it comes to downsizing a home, belongings, and financial burdens, where do you start, and how? We consulted with experts and found some of the best items to get rid of, especially if you want to shrink financial responsibilities and make bigger plans for retirement.


Downsizing from a $250,000 house to one that costs $150,000 could increase yearly income by $3,000 and reduce annual expenses by $3,250, saving $6,250 a year, Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research found. That includes $3,250 a year just from reducing property tax burden and the costs of insurance, maintenance, and utilities.


Average credit card debt in the U.S. sits at $5,700, but jumps to $9,333 among folks who don’t pay off balances in full every month. Apply some of the cash saved on a downsized house toward paying it off, fix your credit score, and pay less interest on just about everything going forward.


In 1990, the average U.S. consumer bought 40 garments a year. By the end of the 1990s, that number was closer to 70. With the average American ditching 70 pounds of textiles per year in landfills, it’s clear closets have room to shrink, especially with consumers spending less on clothing overall.


Are you paying between $76 and $200 monthly for items you haven’t seen in years? You aren’t going to have more room for it if you downsize. It’s time to think about selling, condensing it into a new home, or ditching it entirely.


Exercise equipment take up a lot of space while going unused by many of the people who own it. Programs such as SilverSneakers, which gives Medicare enrollees free access to more than 15,000 fitness facilities nationwide, might be a better option.


There’s one question you should ask yourself while going through your kitchen cabinets, says AARP’s Jeff Yeager: “When was the last time I plugged that in?” While he suggests ditching items unused in the past six months, there are things that come in handy around the holidays or during large gatherings. In that case, make the test a year for appliances and mismatched utensils and containers.


AAA puts the average cost of owning and operating a car at $8,849 a year including fuel, maintenance, repairs, insurance, license, registration and taxes, depreciation, and finance charges. Cities with robust public transportation often offer discounts to seniors, but just getting rid of one car can save big.


Your adult offspring have homes and lives of their own. Consider what self-storage would cost them for the art projects, high school clothes, and other items in your attic or basement — then have them over, have a talk, and let them sort through it all themselves.


Downsizers shouldn’t expect several bedrooms’ worth of furniture to shrink with them. AARP suggests eliminating a couple of pieces from a room and seeing how much more spacious it feels. Old furniture can be sold or donated to Goodwill, Habitat ReStore, or other organizations.


Does it have sentimental value? Are you going to read it again? If not, sell it or donate it to a local library, where you have access to books, ebooks, music, and movies anyway.


Organize important files into four categories, Consumer Reports advises: papers you need to keep for a calendar year or less; papers to destroy when you no longer own items they cover; tax records to save for seven years; and papers to keep indefinitely. If you’re still left with boxes from a previous work life or other items of value, consider scanning and digitizing the contents instead.


Are you going to be hosting family parties in your downsized life? Are you going to have space for all the outdoor décor? Are holiday table settings ever going to see the light of day again? If not, The Washington Post suggests donating them immediately, as holiday items sell briskly year-round.


Even the heirs of wealthy collectors don’t always want to inherit wine, stamps, antiques, or art. If you have a vast collection of anything that’s just taking up space, just keep the few pieces that best represent the set and put the rest back into the market for other collectors.


If you have Hummel figurines, Hess Trucks, Thomas Kinkade paintings, Precious Moments figures, Beanie Babies, and other members of the “worth something someday” club collected as investments rather than for joy, cut and run immediately.


“You only need one suitcase, one bag, and possibly a purse (or two),” says tiny-home person Lindsay Schauer. Even if you’re planning to travel in retirement, there’s a chance all of the duffel bags and other luggage amassed over the years just isn’t useful anymore. Give the utilitarian ones to Goodwill; try to sell the nicer ones online or at vintage stores such as Buffalo Exchange.


Are you a coach? Are you in a league? Are you on the slopes each winter or in the woods every summer? No? Then tents, skis, and equipment from baseball, softball, soccer, and tennis don’t have to follow you to your next destination. As Schauer points out, you can rent it all for very little.


We aren’t telling you to get rid of a cherished violin or piano. But items you have no plans to use in retirement — like that guitar you never got around to learning how to play — don’t need to take up space in a new home.


“You don’t have to get rid of something that has value to you, but don’t collect just to collect, and don’t decorate with clutter,” says Alison Renner at Lifehack. If you bought items at Pier 1, Target, Pottery Barn, or elsewhere just to take up space, they don’t need to perform the same job in a smaller home.


It can be hard to kick the Costco habit. But if you can do without it, forget the bulk items that eat into storage space, and free up money for short-term needs.


Every family once had a set, and that’s the problem. Younger generations aren’t buying fine china and aren’t looking to inherit it. Unless the china has strong sentimental value or will still be used in a new place, it might be time to leave it behind.


The silver itself is valuable, but likely not as eating utensils. Younger generations are simply selling the family silver anyway, so why involve an intermediary? Unless you or your heirs want to spend hours cleaning it each year, maybe try to sell the vintage silverware and turn it into something useful.


Sure, you might want to keep a landline phone in case of emergency (so long as it remains an actual landline, and not internet-based), but that answering machine, dot-matrix printer, and computer monitor from the 1990s can likely go.


From socks with no pair to storage containers with no lids, mismatched items take up a whole lot of space. They can be the first to go when downsizing.


We know: Those issues of National Geographic still look classy on the shelf. But why are they there? Are you reading them? Weed out your favorites and donate or recycle the rest.


Do you have to get rid of all of these just to pay more money for downloads or streaming services? Absolutely not. But if you’re taking up a lot of space hanging onto a VCR just to play something found easily in another format, it’s time to let go. Downsizing is a good excuse to determine what you’re listening to and watching.


Families amass a lot of games throughout the years, but tend to lose playing pieces, cards, dice, and other parts along the way. If there aren’t family game nights anymore or a game’s been missing stuff since the Clinton administration, let it go.


At one point, nearly every family had one for home movies. Since most people can now film and watch on their phone, there’s very little demand for old projectors. There are services that will convert old 8-millimeter film to digital, but that projector might be better off upcycled into a lamp.


Sewing machines take up too much space if they’re not being used. And what of the furniture-sized sewing machines that Singer and others made by the hundreds of thousands? Very few are worth anything today. “I have never found one that was rare enough to be valuable,” says Elizabeth Stewart, author of “No Thanks Mom: The Top Ten Objects Your Kids Do NOT Want (and what to do with them).”


We don’t mean toss your towels and sheets (though downsizing is a great opportunity to shrink the linen closet). But don’t expect children to want hand-embroidered pillowcases, guest towels, napkins, and table linens. Instead, check out sites such as Prices4Antiques to see if you can sell to a seamstress or tailor who can work them into wedding, communion, and quinceañera dresses.


Your kids may want maybe a piece or two, but nobody really drinks out of crystal wine glasses with shot-glass sized bowls anymore. “The sets you have are too precious, and the wine they hold is too small a portion. Period,” Stewart says. Fortunately, sites such as will buy your set to sell to people filling in broken or damaged sets.