Scaling Down

Living Large in a Smaller Space

Illustrated by George Booth
Ebook
On sale Feb 10, 2005 | 240 Pages | 978-1-60961-627-4
How to make more of less--the book that shows you how to simplify your life, control clutter, and pare down your possessions for a move into smaller living quarters.

There are plenty of anti-clutter experts around ready to exhort us to sort, store, and trash our belongings, but this book addresses the specific needs of people moving from a larger to a smaller space, or merging two (or more) people's possessions into a single abode.

If you and your mate are about to swap your large, single-family house for a condo, or move your parents out of the family home of 40 years into an assisted-living center, where do you start? How do you decide what to take, what to leave behind, and what to do with your discards? What can you do to keep the move from seeming tinged with loss?

Scaling Down not only offers terrific nuts-and-bolts strategies for paring down one's belongings to only the best and most meaningful items, but it also addresses the emotional aspects of streamlining--the complicated relationship we have with our "stuff." Countering the pervasive American prejudice that having less is a step down, the authors advance their concept of "living large wherever you are!"
1

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

When Mother Teresa died, the media reported that she left behind only a bed, a chair, and a blue sweater. Your reaction is (a) How wonderful to be so focused, to have only what you need and nothing more! (b) That's all well and good, but I could never live that way, or (c) How did she ever manage without a PalmPilot?

Though many of us fantasize about traveling around the world, carefree, with everything we own in one suitcase, our real lives and our relationship to our "stuff" is far more complicated. A bag lady can fit everything she owns into a shopping cart and travel light, but most of us are secretly afraid of ending up that way. We calm our fears by acquiring a cushion of possessions to reassure ourselves and other people that that won't happen.

We also live in a country where it seems un-American not to have more things than we can keep track of, a society in which the largest homes, automobiles, or cheeseburgers are believed to be the best. Our instinct to accumulate has deep roots. Our parents or grandparents, in the shadow of the Depression, learned to keep an iron grip on anything that might still have some "good" in it. Little got thrown away. Then in the postwar 1940s and 1950s, Americans were encouraged to "Buy, buy, buy!" and to acquire every luxury they could afford. An anonymous government film from the late 1940s extols "the pleasure of buying, the spending of money! And the enjoyment of all the things that paychecks can buy are making happy all the thousands of families!"

Awkward grammar aside, from patriotic spending, we segued into a society in which items began being manufactured so cheaply that when you couldn't find the one you owned, you just bought another. The Reagan years popularized visible consumption by the wealthiest Americans. The Joneses that our parents were encouraged to keep up with were left in the dust; the introduction of upscale advertisements, Horchow catalogs, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous showed what abundant living actually meant. Now, instead of just the Joneses, we started comparing ourselves with millionaires.

THE CROWDED PRESENT

Even if you feel that does not describe you, you are probably bobbing around in a sea of too much stuff. A sociologist friend has the theory that people spend the first 40 years of their life enthusiastically accumulating and the next 40 years trying to get rid of the excess. That makes sense. As young adults, we start out with little but old term papers and cute stuffed animals. We quickly acquire cast-off furniture and household accessories donated by family members and friends, gratefully accepting anything free. Weddings generate gifts, often in multiples, sometimes items we didn't even realize existed. An electric bagel cutter--who knew?

Once we have a place to live, we head for our stores of choice, Ikea or Pottery Barn or Target, and purchase everything else we have been told we have to have. Credit cards make it easy to buy everything at once. And so we keep on accumulating until, one day, we realize that we have been buried alive, that too much of our time is spent managing stuff or just trying to find it. It may not be until a major life change such as moving forces us to take action.

Once in a while, a wake-up call comes sooner. Judi's came when she was in her early thirties and spent a week at the beach in a vacation house. The kitchen contained only the essentials that were needed to make easy meals; the living room and bedroom could be straightened up in a matter of minutes, leaving the family free to relax and explore for the rest of the day. For the first time in her life, she knew exactly where everything was. The experience was an epiphany. She came home determined to have that "vacation house feeling" for the rest of her life.

GETTING THE VACATION HOUSE FEELING

Unlike Marj, who was organizing her aunt's cupboards at 9 years old--and whose numerous moves as an adult kept her from excessive accumulation--Judi was a disaster. She was an artist and writer whose materials were everywhere, a collector of memorabilia and injured furniture that she planned to turn into "antiques." Her husband, Tom, stockpiled music and photography magazines as well as the gadgets that went with them. Her son had the full gamut of toys and school papers. Worst of all, her mother was a professional shopper; at holidays, her family was inundated with clothing and antiques.

And those were just the personal complications, added to the pressure of abundance as the way to show that you were a respectable American. Judi's parents had come of age during the Depression and passed along its characteristic sense of responsibility for everything that crossed your path, down to the fat red rubber bands that held the stalks of broccoli together and were "too good" to throw away. The rubber bands joined the little packets of soy sauce, free coupon books, and mystery screws as protected species.

Judi did manage to get that vacation house feeling, but it took her years to unlearn a lifestyle she had accepted without question. Scaling down meant looking at everything she owned--an enormous task--and deciding whether it should go or stay. She had to face her fears and learn to say no. It is an ongoing process. When she recently bought a laptop computer so that she could write while away from home, the saleswoman informed her that not only was she eligible for a free memory upgrade (which she needed) but that an ink-jet printer was part of the package. By the time she mailed in the rebates, the woman continued brightly, the printer would cost her nothing.

Judi considered it, then said no. She already had a more expensive ink jet printer and didn't want the complications of rebate coupons and storing the printer until a beneficiary was found.

"But it was free!" a friend protested. "Why not just take it?"

Why not? Because it was not actually "free." It came loaded with complications--needing storage room, needing a permanent home, needing several kinds of paperwork completed. And the longer something stays in a place "temporarily," the less likely it is to ever leave.

This is the background against which you will be working as you try to scale down and keep or buy only what is meaningful to you. It will mean continuing to say no to what you don't need, while making decisions about what is already there. It will mean understanding what your blind spots are before you start.

IDENTIFYING "STICKY" CLUTTER

Blind spots are called that for a reason; often people think that it is just a matter of getting started and straightforwardly paring down their belongings. That works, but only until you hit an area that feels uncomfortable and causes you to abandon the whole simplifying project. If you feel that you don't have any quirks about "stuff," check to see if you still own any of the following:

.Appliances, computer equipment, stereo systems, or televisions that have been replaced by ones that work better or have more features. But you're holding onto the original just in case the new replacement breaks down.

.Gifts or artwork from family or friends that you feel you have to display or at least keep because you are afraid the giver will be upset if you don't. How about all those inherited items, such as multiple sets of china you never use? You don't use them because you don't like them or prefer the dishes you bought yourself.

.Inoffensive duplicates such as collapsible umbrellas. Why not have six or seven? What if one breaks, or you want to lend one to visitors during an unexpected deluge? What kind of weird person would have only one collapsible umbrella?

.Teaching materials, engineering manuals, or any kind of vocational papers for a job you no longer have and to which you never plan to return. How about college textbooks, notes, and research papers or other items from your school years you will probably never look at again?

.Items that were free--a donation, raffle prize, or curbside find--that make you feel ahead of the game. Discarding them feels as though you are giving up your advantage.

.Shoes that hurt your feet but still look new.

.A collection that isn't yet complete because you've lost interest in it.

.Juicers, foreign-language tapes, exercise equipment, craft materials, or anything else you purchased and never really used--but which you hope to use in the future, so the acquisition won't prove to have been a mistake.

.Stacks of magazines still waiting for you to read "the good stuff" or being kept for reference. In the back of your mind, do you have the universal fear that if you throw away unread newspapers, magazines, and catalogs, you'll miss the one magic answer that you need to improve your life?

.Cartons of stuff you can't get rid of because they aren't yours. They belong to your adult children who say they want them but "don't have room" to take them now, or belong to parents or other relatives who are in assisted living and will never need them again.

And these aren't even the serious things that you will need to make decisions about. There's no question that "stuff" is sticky, and our defenses are high. A woman in one of our workshops quoted her father as saying, "If you don't have to feed it or bathe it or send it to college, what's the harm in keeping it?" The harm, if you have lived in your house for 40 years or even in your apartment for 5, is that things that don't demand any special care can still create clutter, take up valuable space, and fail to add anything to your sense of well-being. Even if they have not been a problem before, now that you are moving to a different space or streamlining your life, they are among the things that will need to go.

HOW STUFFED ARE YOU?

When we give our workshops, we usually start with a short quiz so that people can determine whether or not they are in the right seminar. It also helps to set the mood.

1.Do you feel as if you have too much "stuff" in your life?

2.Is your car trunk too full to find the spare tire? Is your garage too full to fit the car inside?

3.Are you holding on to magazines and newspapers to read "the good stuff"? Is the pile growing?

4.Do you feel responsible for items you never asked to own--the fat red rubber bands from around broccoli stalks, angel pins, address labels, calendars, and other "gifts" from charities, heavy plastic wonton soup containers and little packets of soy sauce, used bows and wrapping paper from gifts you've been given?

5.Do you have direction booklets and warranties for appliances you no longer own?

6.Are you keeping books you "couldn't get into" with the idea that someday maybe you'll be able to finish them?

7.Do you believe that broken appliances stored in a basement or garage can heal themselves?

8.Have you ever bought a duplicate item because you could not find the one you knew you had?

9.Do people give you theme collectibles (e.g., ceramic frogs, cats, Precious Moment figurines) that you're no longer interested in, but feel you must display because they were gifts?

10.Do you have cartons of books, college papers, wedding gifts, or family heirlooms that you haven't looked at for 5 years or more?

11.Have the same papers been sitting on your desk for more than 3 weeks?

12.Do you have clothes that you can't wear because they are permanently stained, need to be hemmed or mended, or have suddenly somehow become miniscule?

13.Is your basement or garage a repository of scraps of wood, tile, linoleum, wallpaper, and nearly empty paint cans from old projects that you think you might need someday for touch-ups?

14.Are there more than 100 catalogs in your home right now?

15.Do you keep all the cartons your appliances and computer equipment came in "in case you have to ship them back"?

16.Are you afraid if you dispose of those mystery screws, odd metal parts, and other bits you can't identify that something terrible will happen?

If you've answered four or more of these questions with "Yes," you're reading the right book.

IS BIGGER BETTER?

There is a pervasive prejudice in our culture that more is preferable. That building up is inherently better than scaling down. Think about all the restaurant menus that tell you that you are getting a 16-ounce steak, and they have two sizes of prime rib; what real man would order the Queen cut? It is the same mentality that assumes that moving to a smaller place is a step downward, that having fewer luxuries makes you appear less successful as a person. Perhaps it is enough to recognize that this attitude exists but that it has started acquiring some resistance. The more inner-directed and grounded you are in yourself, the less such opinions will matter to you. When you think about it objectively, the notion that some people are judging your worth by the things you own, rather than by your personality and achievements, seems absurd.

The other thing to recognize is that scaling down does not mean renouncing your own style. It is actually a heightening of focus on the things you love and that reflect your essence. It means stripping away the clutter of whatever no longer fits or does not contribute to making your life easier-- and by "easier," we don't mean having every laborsaving gadget. We are talking about the ability to look in a drawer and find a potato peeler or hammer or an airplane ticket immediately. Living the life you want may mean looking for amenities in a new place that you don't have now or remodeling your current home to reflect who you truly are.

To scale down in a way that makes your life richer, you will need a mission statement.

THE MISSION STATEMENT

Whenever we go to someone's home to save them from drowning in debris, the first thing we do is sit down, usually over coffee, and talk about what they want to accomplish. Each situation is different, and each client has different priorities. We may be called on to rearrange furniture, evaluate wardrobes, or bring order to shopping bags full of papers. By the time we are called to the scene, people have either gone as far as they are able to on their own or recognize that they don't have the time or motivation to do it themselves. Sometimes--half in dread and half in hope--they expect us to sweep in like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Fab Five and just make everything disappear.

George Booth is a New Yorker cartoonist whose work has become an iconic feature of the the magazine.  He is the illustrator of several picture books, including the classic Dr. Seuss book Wacky Wednesday. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

View titles by George Booth

About

How to make more of less--the book that shows you how to simplify your life, control clutter, and pare down your possessions for a move into smaller living quarters.

There are plenty of anti-clutter experts around ready to exhort us to sort, store, and trash our belongings, but this book addresses the specific needs of people moving from a larger to a smaller space, or merging two (or more) people's possessions into a single abode.

If you and your mate are about to swap your large, single-family house for a condo, or move your parents out of the family home of 40 years into an assisted-living center, where do you start? How do you decide what to take, what to leave behind, and what to do with your discards? What can you do to keep the move from seeming tinged with loss?

Scaling Down not only offers terrific nuts-and-bolts strategies for paring down one's belongings to only the best and most meaningful items, but it also addresses the emotional aspects of streamlining--the complicated relationship we have with our "stuff." Countering the pervasive American prejudice that having less is a step down, the authors advance their concept of "living large wherever you are!"

Excerpt

1

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

When Mother Teresa died, the media reported that she left behind only a bed, a chair, and a blue sweater. Your reaction is (a) How wonderful to be so focused, to have only what you need and nothing more! (b) That's all well and good, but I could never live that way, or (c) How did she ever manage without a PalmPilot?

Though many of us fantasize about traveling around the world, carefree, with everything we own in one suitcase, our real lives and our relationship to our "stuff" is far more complicated. A bag lady can fit everything she owns into a shopping cart and travel light, but most of us are secretly afraid of ending up that way. We calm our fears by acquiring a cushion of possessions to reassure ourselves and other people that that won't happen.

We also live in a country where it seems un-American not to have more things than we can keep track of, a society in which the largest homes, automobiles, or cheeseburgers are believed to be the best. Our instinct to accumulate has deep roots. Our parents or grandparents, in the shadow of the Depression, learned to keep an iron grip on anything that might still have some "good" in it. Little got thrown away. Then in the postwar 1940s and 1950s, Americans were encouraged to "Buy, buy, buy!" and to acquire every luxury they could afford. An anonymous government film from the late 1940s extols "the pleasure of buying, the spending of money! And the enjoyment of all the things that paychecks can buy are making happy all the thousands of families!"

Awkward grammar aside, from patriotic spending, we segued into a society in which items began being manufactured so cheaply that when you couldn't find the one you owned, you just bought another. The Reagan years popularized visible consumption by the wealthiest Americans. The Joneses that our parents were encouraged to keep up with were left in the dust; the introduction of upscale advertisements, Horchow catalogs, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous showed what abundant living actually meant. Now, instead of just the Joneses, we started comparing ourselves with millionaires.

THE CROWDED PRESENT

Even if you feel that does not describe you, you are probably bobbing around in a sea of too much stuff. A sociologist friend has the theory that people spend the first 40 years of their life enthusiastically accumulating and the next 40 years trying to get rid of the excess. That makes sense. As young adults, we start out with little but old term papers and cute stuffed animals. We quickly acquire cast-off furniture and household accessories donated by family members and friends, gratefully accepting anything free. Weddings generate gifts, often in multiples, sometimes items we didn't even realize existed. An electric bagel cutter--who knew?

Once we have a place to live, we head for our stores of choice, Ikea or Pottery Barn or Target, and purchase everything else we have been told we have to have. Credit cards make it easy to buy everything at once. And so we keep on accumulating until, one day, we realize that we have been buried alive, that too much of our time is spent managing stuff or just trying to find it. It may not be until a major life change such as moving forces us to take action.

Once in a while, a wake-up call comes sooner. Judi's came when she was in her early thirties and spent a week at the beach in a vacation house. The kitchen contained only the essentials that were needed to make easy meals; the living room and bedroom could be straightened up in a matter of minutes, leaving the family free to relax and explore for the rest of the day. For the first time in her life, she knew exactly where everything was. The experience was an epiphany. She came home determined to have that "vacation house feeling" for the rest of her life.

GETTING THE VACATION HOUSE FEELING

Unlike Marj, who was organizing her aunt's cupboards at 9 years old--and whose numerous moves as an adult kept her from excessive accumulation--Judi was a disaster. She was an artist and writer whose materials were everywhere, a collector of memorabilia and injured furniture that she planned to turn into "antiques." Her husband, Tom, stockpiled music and photography magazines as well as the gadgets that went with them. Her son had the full gamut of toys and school papers. Worst of all, her mother was a professional shopper; at holidays, her family was inundated with clothing and antiques.

And those were just the personal complications, added to the pressure of abundance as the way to show that you were a respectable American. Judi's parents had come of age during the Depression and passed along its characteristic sense of responsibility for everything that crossed your path, down to the fat red rubber bands that held the stalks of broccoli together and were "too good" to throw away. The rubber bands joined the little packets of soy sauce, free coupon books, and mystery screws as protected species.

Judi did manage to get that vacation house feeling, but it took her years to unlearn a lifestyle she had accepted without question. Scaling down meant looking at everything she owned--an enormous task--and deciding whether it should go or stay. She had to face her fears and learn to say no. It is an ongoing process. When she recently bought a laptop computer so that she could write while away from home, the saleswoman informed her that not only was she eligible for a free memory upgrade (which she needed) but that an ink-jet printer was part of the package. By the time she mailed in the rebates, the woman continued brightly, the printer would cost her nothing.

Judi considered it, then said no. She already had a more expensive ink jet printer and didn't want the complications of rebate coupons and storing the printer until a beneficiary was found.

"But it was free!" a friend protested. "Why not just take it?"

Why not? Because it was not actually "free." It came loaded with complications--needing storage room, needing a permanent home, needing several kinds of paperwork completed. And the longer something stays in a place "temporarily," the less likely it is to ever leave.

This is the background against which you will be working as you try to scale down and keep or buy only what is meaningful to you. It will mean continuing to say no to what you don't need, while making decisions about what is already there. It will mean understanding what your blind spots are before you start.

IDENTIFYING "STICKY" CLUTTER

Blind spots are called that for a reason; often people think that it is just a matter of getting started and straightforwardly paring down their belongings. That works, but only until you hit an area that feels uncomfortable and causes you to abandon the whole simplifying project. If you feel that you don't have any quirks about "stuff," check to see if you still own any of the following:

.Appliances, computer equipment, stereo systems, or televisions that have been replaced by ones that work better or have more features. But you're holding onto the original just in case the new replacement breaks down.

.Gifts or artwork from family or friends that you feel you have to display or at least keep because you are afraid the giver will be upset if you don't. How about all those inherited items, such as multiple sets of china you never use? You don't use them because you don't like them or prefer the dishes you bought yourself.

.Inoffensive duplicates such as collapsible umbrellas. Why not have six or seven? What if one breaks, or you want to lend one to visitors during an unexpected deluge? What kind of weird person would have only one collapsible umbrella?

.Teaching materials, engineering manuals, or any kind of vocational papers for a job you no longer have and to which you never plan to return. How about college textbooks, notes, and research papers or other items from your school years you will probably never look at again?

.Items that were free--a donation, raffle prize, or curbside find--that make you feel ahead of the game. Discarding them feels as though you are giving up your advantage.

.Shoes that hurt your feet but still look new.

.A collection that isn't yet complete because you've lost interest in it.

.Juicers, foreign-language tapes, exercise equipment, craft materials, or anything else you purchased and never really used--but which you hope to use in the future, so the acquisition won't prove to have been a mistake.

.Stacks of magazines still waiting for you to read "the good stuff" or being kept for reference. In the back of your mind, do you have the universal fear that if you throw away unread newspapers, magazines, and catalogs, you'll miss the one magic answer that you need to improve your life?

.Cartons of stuff you can't get rid of because they aren't yours. They belong to your adult children who say they want them but "don't have room" to take them now, or belong to parents or other relatives who are in assisted living and will never need them again.

And these aren't even the serious things that you will need to make decisions about. There's no question that "stuff" is sticky, and our defenses are high. A woman in one of our workshops quoted her father as saying, "If you don't have to feed it or bathe it or send it to college, what's the harm in keeping it?" The harm, if you have lived in your house for 40 years or even in your apartment for 5, is that things that don't demand any special care can still create clutter, take up valuable space, and fail to add anything to your sense of well-being. Even if they have not been a problem before, now that you are moving to a different space or streamlining your life, they are among the things that will need to go.

HOW STUFFED ARE YOU?

When we give our workshops, we usually start with a short quiz so that people can determine whether or not they are in the right seminar. It also helps to set the mood.

1.Do you feel as if you have too much "stuff" in your life?

2.Is your car trunk too full to find the spare tire? Is your garage too full to fit the car inside?

3.Are you holding on to magazines and newspapers to read "the good stuff"? Is the pile growing?

4.Do you feel responsible for items you never asked to own--the fat red rubber bands from around broccoli stalks, angel pins, address labels, calendars, and other "gifts" from charities, heavy plastic wonton soup containers and little packets of soy sauce, used bows and wrapping paper from gifts you've been given?

5.Do you have direction booklets and warranties for appliances you no longer own?

6.Are you keeping books you "couldn't get into" with the idea that someday maybe you'll be able to finish them?

7.Do you believe that broken appliances stored in a basement or garage can heal themselves?

8.Have you ever bought a duplicate item because you could not find the one you knew you had?

9.Do people give you theme collectibles (e.g., ceramic frogs, cats, Precious Moment figurines) that you're no longer interested in, but feel you must display because they were gifts?

10.Do you have cartons of books, college papers, wedding gifts, or family heirlooms that you haven't looked at for 5 years or more?

11.Have the same papers been sitting on your desk for more than 3 weeks?

12.Do you have clothes that you can't wear because they are permanently stained, need to be hemmed or mended, or have suddenly somehow become miniscule?

13.Is your basement or garage a repository of scraps of wood, tile, linoleum, wallpaper, and nearly empty paint cans from old projects that you think you might need someday for touch-ups?

14.Are there more than 100 catalogs in your home right now?

15.Do you keep all the cartons your appliances and computer equipment came in "in case you have to ship them back"?

16.Are you afraid if you dispose of those mystery screws, odd metal parts, and other bits you can't identify that something terrible will happen?

If you've answered four or more of these questions with "Yes," you're reading the right book.

IS BIGGER BETTER?

There is a pervasive prejudice in our culture that more is preferable. That building up is inherently better than scaling down. Think about all the restaurant menus that tell you that you are getting a 16-ounce steak, and they have two sizes of prime rib; what real man would order the Queen cut? It is the same mentality that assumes that moving to a smaller place is a step downward, that having fewer luxuries makes you appear less successful as a person. Perhaps it is enough to recognize that this attitude exists but that it has started acquiring some resistance. The more inner-directed and grounded you are in yourself, the less such opinions will matter to you. When you think about it objectively, the notion that some people are judging your worth by the things you own, rather than by your personality and achievements, seems absurd.

The other thing to recognize is that scaling down does not mean renouncing your own style. It is actually a heightening of focus on the things you love and that reflect your essence. It means stripping away the clutter of whatever no longer fits or does not contribute to making your life easier-- and by "easier," we don't mean having every laborsaving gadget. We are talking about the ability to look in a drawer and find a potato peeler or hammer or an airplane ticket immediately. Living the life you want may mean looking for amenities in a new place that you don't have now or remodeling your current home to reflect who you truly are.

To scale down in a way that makes your life richer, you will need a mission statement.

THE MISSION STATEMENT

Whenever we go to someone's home to save them from drowning in debris, the first thing we do is sit down, usually over coffee, and talk about what they want to accomplish. Each situation is different, and each client has different priorities. We may be called on to rearrange furniture, evaluate wardrobes, or bring order to shopping bags full of papers. By the time we are called to the scene, people have either gone as far as they are able to on their own or recognize that they don't have the time or motivation to do it themselves. Sometimes--half in dread and half in hope--they expect us to sweep in like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Fab Five and just make everything disappear.

Author

George Booth is a New Yorker cartoonist whose work has become an iconic feature of the the magazine.  He is the illustrator of several picture books, including the classic Dr. Seuss book Wacky Wednesday. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

View titles by George Booth