This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

OCTOBER 2013: Moving? Unburden yourself of your excess stuff and let others put it to use.

Moving Day
Think twice before taking everything with you

After nearly 30 years in a spacious Manhattan loft, my husband and I recently downsized to a small apartment in Brooklyn. Well, not so small, but small to us.

There was so much we had to get rid of! Friends suggested putting stuff in storage. But the way I saw it, if we didn't need something in the apartment with us, we didn't need it at all. Besides, this was our great chance to simplify, and I didn't want to pass it up.

Brave words, I discovered. The act of dispossession, even if voluntary, is hard.

First, you need to fight off what seems to be an inborn tendency to husband resources. (I'm guessing it's one of those traits that provided an evolutionary advantage in pre-modern times.) Then, you have to go through your stuff, piece by piece, to identify the things you don't need. Most things present a quandary, so the process is not only time-consuming, but emotionally draining.

Some items fill a specific need that doesn't arise very often, such as extra dishes or seating for holidays. Should you live with the crowding 364 days a year for the sake of the one? Others are bad buys or gifts you don't care for but feel guilty about getting rid of. A great many are extras—the excess towels or third or fourth set of sheets that have never yet proven necessary, despite your faith that their time will come.

The things to which you are sentimentally attached may be hardest to part with. A child's first birthday clothes. Your grandmother's crystal. The college books you'll never read again but helped make you who you are today. Preserve your memories, Simon and Garfunkel told us. Those old things are memories made tangible as long as you keep them locked away.

With so many small but difficult decisions to make, it's no wonder the experience of scaling back can feel overwhelming. It certainly was for me. Yet I also found it liberating. For it forced me to consider, in ways both material and abstract, what I wanted the next stage of my life to look like. It's an opportunity I haven't had in many a year, and I welcomed it.

Of course, deciding what to give up is only half the work. Responsibly disposing of it is the other.

The ways to do that are:
  • Give to family and friends.
  • Give to caregivers, cleaning people, dog walkers and other individuals who, day after day, make your quality of life better.
  • Give to your religious community or school.
  • Give to local organizations that work on issues close to your heart.
  • Give to national groups that do good work.
  • Sell your stuff.
  • Offer it for free to whoever will take it.
  • Recycle it.

Here's what my husband and I did with our excess things when we moved.

Furniture: We began by offering things to family and close friends, based on what we thought they might need or like. Since we live in space-challenged New York, we didn't find many takers for the big things. The moving costs were another reason. So, we ended up donating all our good pieces to Housing Works, a local organization that serves and advocates for people living with HIV/AIDS. We will be able to take a tax deduction for that at the end of the year.

We gave a couple of pieces of children's furniture to the home aide who takes care of my mother. They were small enough to bring to her in our car.

The remaining odds and ends, which were in less than ideal condition, were put on the street. The neighbors snapped them up within the hour. Only one shabby piece was left for the sanitation truck the next day.

Also, we managed to save and reuse the marble top from an extra coffee table in our new home. The table once belonged to my grandmother so it had sentimental value—and the marble itself was beautiful. It became the counter in our new hall bathroom.

Appliances: The Salvation Army picked up our old washer and dryer, which were too big (and inefficient) for our new place. We can get a tax deduction for that as well.

Clothes, towels and linens: All the good excess clothing belonging to my husband and myself went to my mother's aide, who distributed it to members of her large, extended family. So did a few elegant tablecloths. My son sold his extra clothes to a vintage clothing shop. We took the remaining textiles—those in less than perfect shape—to Wearable Collections, a local organization that recycles old clothing and textiles regardless of condition.

Books: Downsizing our library posed the greatest challenge, as our large collection of books had to be halved. The winnowing took us weeks. We handled it by dividing the discards into four groups. One was serious literature and non-fiction in excellent condition (pristine in the case of paperbacks). Books in this category were sold to a famous New York bookstore (The Strand) for about $1,000.

Second were books of more general interest in excellent condition, which were selected for donation to schools and libraries in Guyana, the home country of my mother's aide. Third were books in good, but clearly used, condition, which were donated to the Housing Works Bookstore. Last were books that wouldn't last through another reading. They were recycled.

The sentimental stuff: Several belongings of family members from the past presented a problem. I didn't feel personally attached to them, but felt it important to keep them in the family if possible. So I asked my brother if he would take them, and he did.

Though the divestiture process was difficult, we found the results well worth it. Not only did we gain a simpler living style. We put our old things back in circulation where people could benefit from them again.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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Clothes Disposal Clothes Disposal
New life for old duds

On This Topic

YOU'LL BE CONVINCED! The reasons we hold onto things tend to be more emotional than rational. Watch this one-minute video with professional organizer Fay Wolf for helpful words on letting go. Find more videos with Fay on Apartment Therapy.

A USEFUL RULE for keeping the amount of stuff you have in check is: "one in, one out." This means that to bring something into the home, you must get rid of one at the same time. Usually the rule is applied to like things. For instance, to bring home a new (or even used) shirt, you must get rid of a shirt you already own.

It also helps to consider if you have a proper place to keep it.

Tool swapping SWAPPING OR BORROWING things you rarely use, rather than buying them, is another way to keep from over-accumulating. Rather than wing it, see if you can work out a sharing plan with like-minded neighbors in advance or go to NeighborGoods to check if there's a sharing group near you. If there isn't, you can start one on the website.

When it comes to big machines, you might prefer renting. Home Depot is one company that offers this service. You can even rent the truck to transport it in if necessary.

For extra seating and table settings for big home gatherings, make use of a party rental service. You can find one online by searching for "chair rental" or "glassware rental" or simply "party rental" plus the name of your town or area.


The New York Times
You Probably Have Too Much Stuff

Apartment Therapy
How to Pare Down Your Stuff

Getting Rid of Stuff Before Your Move

The Christian Science Monitor
Getting Rid of Stuff? 8 Websites You Need to Visit

Where to Get Rid of Anything Directory

Craig's List
Sell Your Stuff

Offer Your Stuff for Free

Earth 911
Recycling Guides

What to Do About E-Waste

More to Do

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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Brooklyn, where—along with her family—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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