It’s the time of year when everybody’s thinking about getting organized or decluttering. Maybe you thought, at the beginning of the shutdown, that this would be your big shutdown project, but then time just drifted down a lazy river and it never happened.
I know. A lot of things never happened last year. But here we are in January, and I’m guessing that some of you are about to roll up your sleeves and tackle a messy desk or a room or a garage or whatever.
I have two things to say about that.
The first has to do with paper clutter. A few years ago, when I got ready to move to Portland, I finally decided to go completely paperless for all my household and home office stuff. I just didn’t want to move boxes of unnecessary paperwork to Portland. That forced me to get it done.
I figured out a system, worked out what equipment I would need, and decided on a way of approaching it that would not be too overwhelming and would actually happen.
So the first thing I want to say is: I created a class on how to go paperless. You can read more about it here. It’s for household paperwork and for very small businesses like mine–businesses that are too small to require Quickbooks but still need some sort of system beyond a shoebox full of receipts.
The second thing I want to say is aimed at those of you who are thinking, “I need to go through all this stuff before I die so my kids don’t have to”…or for anyone who KNOWS someone who is thinking that (like your parents, maybe?)
This bit of advice comes from my having been married to a rare book dealer all these years. He gets called out to look at a lot of estates. The advice is: Don’t declutter just to spare your children the chore. Do it if it will make your life better now. Do not worry about your heirs.
But that’s crazy, you say! How awful to leave that job for my kids! So here’s the thing: Your heirs do not have to, and hopefully will not, sort through every single thing in your house and decide what to keep, toss, donate, recycle, sell.
Instead, they can and should take whatever family heirlooms they personally want to keep, along with important papers, anything with private/financial information on it etc. This does take some effort. (And all of us should get our financial and private/family papers together!) But then the heirs can hand the keys to an estate liquidator and walk away. The estate liquidator will decide what to sell/donate/recycle/toss, and return to your heirs an empty house, along with (probably) a small check. Or maybe no check at all, but at least your heirs didn’t have to do it.
Easy. Done. Not a burden.
(Edited to add: A lot of commenters have said, “But what about hoarders?” I’m not talking about hoarding, which is a serious problem. I’m talking about you and me, feeling guilty because of the boxes in the attic or that closet full of stuff we never use or that overly full garage.)
I once met a woman at a party who told me that she and her husband had just spent TWO YEARS going through her mother’s massive house, garage, and storage units, painstakingly handling every item, holding garage sales, hauling loads to the dump, sorting recycling, and donating to thrift stores.
It took up every weekend of their lives for two years.
When I asked her (because I’m not very tactful, which is why I don’t get invited to a lot of parties) why on earth they hadn’t simply turned it over to an estate liquidator and walked away, she looked at me in astonishment and said they simply hadn’t thought of it.
SO…THINK OF IT!
Another mistake people make is in assuming that their possessions (or their dearly departed’s possessions) are worth a fortune and must be dusted off, polished up, and put up for sale to the highest bidder. Sometimes people go online and see that an identical teacup sells for $35 on eBay, and they start looking around and doing the math, and decide that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of real American dollars can be extracted from that estate.
Probably it can’t.
Most people’s collectables are not that collectable. Most of those prices on the Internet are aspirational: the dealer would like to get that price for the teacup, but hasn’t yet.
And the labor involved in photographing, describing, pricing, listing for sale, and then packing and shipping each item is considerable.
Most people’s stuff is not worth nearly as much as they think it is. Let go of the idea that all those possessions can be easily turned into money. It’s harder than it sounds.
If you’re truly convinced that the painting above your fireplace is worth a fortune, then have it appraised (which you will need to pay for), and get professional advice on how to store and care for it. (Hint: maybe not above the fireplace) Leave the appraisal along with your will so your heirs will understand how it needs to be handled.
Otherwise, trust the estate liquidator to get you a fair price for anything of value. People like my husband get called all the time by estate liquidators to look at potentially valuable books, for instance. There are few things more heartbreaking than to show up at an estate filled with worthless books, only to realize that the heirs have spent weeks sorting, organizing, and making computerized lists of every book on every shelf, along with a price they found on the internet. Do not do this! Go live your life! Do not spend your precious time on this earth making lists of a dead person’s possessions!
It’s also true that often the most valuable items are things people don’t recognize as valuable, so they get thrown away in an overly ambitious clean-out. (My husband once showed up at the estate of an elderly gay couple. He asked, “So where’s the porn?” The heirs looked shocked but finally confessed that they’d thrown it out. That vintage gay porn would’ve been the most valuable thing in the estate.) This is why estate liquidators would advise you not to touch anything, do not spend time sorting, do not spend time cataloging, and to leave it all up to them.
So if any of you hear yourselves (or your parents, or your elderly aunt) in the words “I’d better go through all this stuff before I die so my heirs won’t have to,” the answer is: No, you don’t. Do it if you’ll enjoy it, do it if you just want a good clear-out for your own well-being, but don’t do it for your heirs. Your heirs can call an estate liquidator. Make sure your important papers, finances, and family heirlooms are in order, but if you don’t want to deal with your old coats and extra coffee mugs and unopened jigsaw puzzles, you don’t have to.
This advice goes for people who are downsizing as well. Pack up the stuff you want to take with you to your shiny new little condo, and leave your half-empty house for an estate liquidator to deal with.
So. I hope this helps. And go take my class on going paperless.