Its been almost a year since my father-in-law passed away.  Now that the worst is over, I feel I can talk about it.  Back in late 2010, we had to move him into an assisted living facility.  Unfortunately, he passed  away several months later.  That meant we had to dispose of his house and property.  Unfortunately, he lives 11 hours a way but that wasn’t the worst part.  He was a real pack rat.

Almost up until the moment we moved him, he was buying stuff.  His weakness was garage sales and most of what he bought was junk.  He had rooms and sheds full of stuff he had picked up and he was really in no shape to use it or take care of it.  Now, most of what was actually valuable is useless.  After cleaning out a two bedroom house and three sheds there was only a handful of stuff that didn’t belong in the landfill.

I know a lot of people love to collect stuff.  Sometimes its truly valuable, but more often than not.  Its only valuable to the owner.  Then suddenly age creeps up and they don’t use or maintain the stuff they have collected.  At some point it needs to be disposed of in some way.  The legacy that these people leave their kids is nothing more than weeks or months of sorting through the their junk.

Why do people need all this stuff?  Even if you use it in your 40’s and 50’s, that use slows and stops as they  get older.  All those antiques, cars, tools and projects end up just taking up space, or worse yet, they deteriorate without use and maintenance.  All the money and time spent acquiring that stuff is wasted.

After cleaning up my father-in-law’s place, we don’t ever want our kids to have to do that for us.  We always tell them they need to clean up after themselves and we plan to do the same.  We are already evaluating our stuff.  That Jeep project that has taken over my garage is up for sale.  The boat we hadn’t used in two years was sold.  The proceeds, went towards a newer Jeep that runs well and is in good shape.

As I look around, I see things I haven’t used in years.  Even being retired, I don’t have the time to use all the junk I own.  There are other things I’d rather do.  Jen, my wife, feels the same way.  We have no problem with owning stuff that we use or that has real value, but just acquiring stuff for the sake of acquiring stuff?  No thanks!

We want to be free of our possessions, not enslaved by them.  Spending hours and days cleaning, maintaining and repairing stuff that bring us no happiness or has no value isn’t our idea of retirement.  Letting it all fall into disrepair or leaving it to collect dust is even worse.  But the idea that my kids will have to sort through our lives, disposing of stuff they can’t decide if we cherished or not, cleaning up our mess, makes me sick.

Downsize your life and do it now.  If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your kids.  They will know that the stuff you have is actually cherished and has value, even if it’s only to you.  Don’t leave them with piles of rubbish that you really didn’t care about to sort through.  Is that how you want them spending the days and weeks after your death?  Cleaning up your mess?

There is a rule of thumb that goes if you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it.  It doesn’t apply to everything, but it does work well with a lot of items.  If you really start looking at things that way, you begin to understand the shear amount of stuff you own.  We’ve been working at downsizing for a while now at it seems we’ve barely made a dent.

If you used to use something and you no longer do, why not get rid of it?  Might you pick it up again someday?  Is it worth having around?  Somethings have a specific purpose and you don’t need them often, but when you need them you really need them.  Other stuff is just taking up space.  Be honest, will you ever use it?  If so, could you just borrow one or buy a new one if you need it in the future?

As for the complex stuff, you know, things with motors, engines, electronics, etc., does that stuff cause more headaches than it cures?  My father-in-law left us his lawn tractor.  Now we have a big lawn, but do I really need a riding mower?  It took up half of one bay in my garage and it was just another thing that needed tune-ups, fuel, oil changes, etc.  I have teenagers to mow my lawn, thank you!

Then there’s all the knick-knacks, collectibles, antiques, etc.  It’s nice to decorate your home with a few things that mean something to you, but some people go overboard.  Endless shelves full of stuff you bought from ads on TV or found at garage sales has little point.  After a while, they kind of fade into the back ground, hardly noticed.  And then one day your kids are going through them and tossing them in the trash.

And what about all the stuff we keep around because a dead relative used to keep it around.  Sure some of it has meaning or value, but most is just junk.  Every time a loved one dies, their stuff comes to live with you.  Guilt prevents us from getting rid of it, but my philosophy is that the previous owner would rather see it sold or given away to someone that will actually use or value the item than have it collect dust in your attic.

I could go on listing all the ways stuff comes into our lives and ends up hanging around until we die, but the point is that it does.  If we let it take over our lives, our heirs will end up having to deal with it.  In order to prevent that we have to treat stuff like…well, like stuff.  The vast majority is just there, taking up space, requiring energy and time to maintain, clean, repair, etc.  Even most of the useful stuff outlives its usefulness in one way or another.

We have to get past our attachment to stuff.  If it has value, but not to you any longer, if it ever really did, sell it or give it away.  If its has no value or use, toss it (don’t worry, the earth will get over it in a couple of million years).  If it belonged to a loved one, let someone who will value it have it.  I could make a good living selling stuff I’ve determined I don’t need.  Really!  I’ve made thousands of dollars selling stuff over the last few months that I have used to buy stuff I do want and will use.  When I get sick of that stuff, its out of here too!

Remember, its easier to not accumulate the stuff in the first place, but if you’re beyond that point you can turn it around.  You’ll enjoy the freedom from your stuff and your kids will appreciate it after you are gone.  Not saying you can’t keep stuff around, but keep the right stuff around and for the right reasons.  You’ll save money, maybe make money, spend less time cleaning and maintaining stuff, and live a simpler, and probably a happier, life in the process.

If you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for those you leave behind.  Leaving your kids (or whoever) with a giant mess isn’t the legacy you want to live.  You might like the shelves full of collectibles or the garage full of spare parts, but they won’t.  Go ahead and own it and enjoy it.  But when the enjoyment is gone, get rid of it.  It’s the least you could do, for yourself and your kids.