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     Pro-Active Downsizing

There's nothing like the experience of EMPTYING a family home that's been lived in for many years to make you yearn for a simpler life. You know when you catch yourself in moments of frustration, envying the poorest people on the planet, who have basically no possessions at all, that something is seriously wrong. And what's wrong in America is that, generally speaking, we have way too much STUFF!

How did it get this way? It's pretty amazing when you think about it. Many of our ancestors came here a few generations ago with nothing but the clothing on their backs, and perhaps a trunk filled with a few essential, or especially precious, items. How did we get from being a nation of people who had left everything behind for a fresh start in the New World, to the place where we are absolutely DROWNING in our stuff? We are so consumed with consuming that a thicket of new industries -- professional organizers, "temporary" storage units, and house liquidators -- have sprung up to help us deal with the results of our inability to stop OVERCONSUMING.

Can we do anything about it? Of course, there are any number of things we can do, and there are many books, articles, and websites with useful information about how to go about the task of organizing and getting rid of all that stuff. But here's a revolutionary thought: how about GETTING less stuff in the first place? Pro-active downsizing, we like to call it. Here are a few suggestions:

Rather than buying gifts for everyone in your extended family, why not start a grab bag of names and buy for the one person whose name you have picked. Or ask for and give the gift of TIME: you ask for two hours with your accountant-brother-in-law for help with your taxes, you give a gift certificate to your college-age niece for cookies delivered to her dorm room. With friends, suggest that in lieu of exchanging gifts you get together to buy personal care items for the people in a senior citizens' home or choose a letter to Santa from your local Post Office branch and fulfill the wishes of a less fortunate child. The time spent with friends helping others will form a more lasting bond than any MATERIAL gift will.

Put the brakes on excessive party gifts at the beginning of the school year by suggesting to the parents in your child's class that for birthday parties the parents all CONTRIBUTE a few dollars and buy the child one larger gift from everyone.

Well, this is one thing that you can't really stop buying, but you can weed out the closet now and then. Give away still-good office attire to one of the organizations that outfits people going on a job interview for the first time; DONATE the rest of the things you don't wear to charity. Then, to keep your closet manageable, resolve to get rid of something old each time you buy something NEW.

How many gadgets do we need, really? How many times will you use a pasta-maker? a vegetable juicer? an ice cream maker? Do you really have room on your counter for an electric can opener? RE-GIFTING gets a bum rap in our society but if you're open about it, the gift will be appreciated. "I received this as a gift but I know that you would enjoy it much more than I would" explains why you are passing along a pasta-maker to a budding chef or an ice cream maker to a family that loves ice cream.

Let's face it, rich or poor, most American children have too many toys! Parents are tripping over them, kids are buried in them, or they're collecting dust in closets and under beds. Ask your children to sort through their stuff and donate toys they've outgrown to a local day-care center. For future gift-giving occasions, think of things OTHER than toys: books, magazine subscriptions, membership in a local museum, a trip and, of course, the greatest gift of all, special one-on-one time with Mom or Dad.

Having resolved to downsize doesn't mean that you can't collect anything, and most people like to collect something -- whether it's flatware and china, electronics, books or musical instruments. Most of us have room enough to indulge in some collecting behavior: the problem occurs when the rate of acquisition far EXCEEDS the rate of de-acquisition, or when the collecting is not limited to one or two special areas. So go ahead and collect whatever is most important for you, enjoy it, and let it enrich your life. But don't make the mistake of thinking you can have it all -- that way lies madness, and maddening clutter.

Adopting a lifestyle that includes proactive downsizing is most difficult for those of us who have old messages playing in our heads that have their source in a time of extreme DEPRIVATION -- namely, World War II and the Depression. Back then, people didn't have "extra," and really did have to think about how to reuse everything they had, right down to those rubber bands wrapped around the newspaper and the twist ties from bread bags. But these messages are no longer RELEVANT.

Today the best thing we can do is to not overconsume in the first place; constantly THIN the piles that begin to mount despite our best intentions; and SHARE whenever possible with others less fortunate. Then sit back, enjoy the extra space, and count your blessings!


Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are co-authors of "Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home". You may visit their website at www.movingonthebook.com.

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