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The Upside of Downsizing

Making money on your move

By Anna Keegan

When my husband, Steve, and I decided to downsize, we calculated our bucket ages at 33 – that meant we have a whole lot more living to do. Though I may not share my husband’s penchant for skiing the Arctic, we do want to spend our retirement years with the freedom to satisfy our wanderlust.

We have always been middle class wage earners – I am a recently retired public-school teacher and he is an engineer – who have managed to live basically debt free. We were determined to approach this move – to a rented apartment on the outskirts of Boston – in the most fiscally responsible way possible. I was convinced I could make our move a cost-efficient venture; with my built-in thrifty nature, thanks to having observed my mother-in-law’s depression-era obsessive frugality for the past 30 years. That also meant not adding the unnecessary expense of paying extra storage fees onto our monthly apartment rent.

The Challenge:

Emptying a 2800 square foot house with an attic and cellar full of old furniture, books, records, record numbers of Legos, furs, bowling balls, china, linens, old paint, 40-plus extension cords, chests, weird art, toys, and rodent removal equipment on 1.2 acres with a two-car garage full of lawn, garden, and sports equipment but no cars.

Moving into a 1300 square foot, 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment with no additional storage. The storage costs for a 10 x 10 unit in our area (greater Boston) are approximately $200/month which would buy us a couple of nice round trip tickets to many exotic places each year! We had yet to meet anyone who had paid to store extra possessions and had opened the unit years later to actually use said possessions, so we were determined to forgo the storage option.

As Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother would say: Challenge accepted!

The Inventory:

I started at the top – the attic – because I had the most energy at the beginning. I was on my New Year’s diet and climbing up the narrow pull-down steps to our attic became part of my daily regimen. As I weeded through our possessions, my learning curve increased exponentially. Some new knowledge ran counter to prevailing wisdom I had previously read or heard through the downsizing grapevine. Which is what led to the following: Anna’s tips for downsizing your possessions.

  • No one really wanted our old books. Generally, purveyors of ancient books want only first editions in mint condition and these better not be in the attic. Increasing numbers of bookstores are popping up to accept more current books, though many take them only in trade, merely compounding my problem. Our extensive collection found its way into a book collection bin. The remaining books that I insisted had value didn’t sell at our tag sale. I was warned and didn’t listen. 

  • Same went for my kids’ Legos. We gave them to The Boys and Girls Club near our new apartment heeding the sage wisdom to give away your belongings to kids who need them and to feel good about it. Our unborn grandchildren will get plenty. 
  • Craigslist isn’t creepy. It definitely has its place. We sold a very diverse collection of record albums including, Alan Sherman, the Stones, and the Sugarhill Gang, to a collector who gave me a wonderful tutorial on how he would price them at the Brimfield Antique Marketplace. Average – $1.50/album.
  • I learned that custom-made mink coats and other fur dating from the 1950s and ‘60s lose value significantly over time due to aging and are not resalable at furriers though I may eventually find a buyer on consignment.
  • Some people actually do want old brown furniture. Our apartment-dwelling children definitely said no – seemingly unable to see beyond their closet-sized bedrooms and lured by Ikea. Who can blame them? But, using online Facebook Marketplace in our local area, we sold our four poster bed. And, we sold other brown furniture, including benches, end tables, dining chairs, children’s furniture and mirrors at our home Tag Sale.

The Packing:

Gone are the days when I relied on my college buddies to throw my mattress on the roof of a Chevy Nova and drive it across Manhattan to my next apartment. However, since I wasn’t working full time, I planned on packing the boxes, and a college friend did spend a morning over coffee wrapping china and glassware with me. Despite our current living space constraints, my desire to continue to entertain in grand fashion is not going anywhere and my husband and I do think we will find a forever home, if and when our wanderlust fades. To that end, I have kept several generations worth of linens, china, silver, and glassware. You never know when you are going to entertain big.

General Inexpensive Packing Tricks:

  • No bubble wrap: I used linens (napkins, tablecloths, towels) and then resorted to newspaper and finally purchased packing paper for wrapping crystal and china. No breakage. Including the bank. Our mover recommended this cost saving tip.

  • No bubble wrap part 2: We packed paintings, framed pictures and other odd shaped items between quilts and bedspreads in storage crates (of which I seemed to have an overabundance).

  • We saved time and money moving TVs in our cars.

  • The storage crates which we used for moving – saved on buying boxes – were ultimately donated to a local women’s thrift shop. No room at the apartment.

  •  I scrimped on tape. Next time, I’ll spend extra on the good stuff. Tape that splits, is thin and does not come with its own cutter, was simply annoying.

The Cleanout:

  • Files: Can’t live with them; can’t live without them. We ended up with two short file cabinets that fit easily into our closets. We still have to hold onto seven years of tax returns for my husband’s parents – both deceased – and ourselves. Note to self: Years go by fast – especially as we have more of them. Despite having heard the IRS has no budget for auditors, a month ago, my deceased in-laws were audited! Thankfully, I found the files quickly. But I did dump old mortgages, insurance documents, bills, bank statements that had outlived their usefulness. Our shredder has made the move with us and was a worthy companion in getting ready!  

  • Memorabilia: Over the years, our attic and cellar had become a safe haven for my husband’s parents’ photo albums, books, war records, school report cards and college memories that we stored when they downsized thirteen years ago. Admittedly, I had been known to not-so-gently prod my husband to get rid of all that junk.

    Then, exactly two weeks before our house went on the market, my husband’s father passed away after a long and happy life; the loss left us all bereft. Our sons came home and for a long weekend, instead of filling the dumpster, we searched, sorted, read, cried and made an enormous mess going through all that history. I lost four days of forward progress. A fifth was lost when one son left his laptop at home which forced us to chase his New York City bound train as far as New Haven where fortuitously my in-laws’ graves were to be. My husband and I spent the rest of that day searching the cemetery, having lunch and reminiscing.

    I learned not to be too quick to dump the irreplaceable. The experience of our children getting to know their grandparents as vibrant, youthful and beautiful was an essential family moment and one that will – hopefully – be replicated at one of their homes someday.

  • Kids’ Stuff: While our new apartment has a second bedroom, our sons do not have a dedicated space for their belongings. So we allowed them – both just post college and living in barbarically small apartments – to have one under-bed (34”x18”x7” with wheels) storage crate for their memories. The sentimental eldest immediately filled two of them with ancient stuffed animals – he couldn’t make the tough call – Sports Illustrateds, trophies, pictures, college paraphernalia and favorite childhood games. The other insisted he was all set and didn’t need even one. Through prodding, we compromised on one for each. Ultimately, I couldn’t make the tough call either to dispose of some of their and my childhood treasures. Our apartment hall closet currently houses adopted Whiffle Ball bats, skateboards, a doll house and a full piggy bank that may not make it through Christmas.

The Tag Sale: Virtual and Traditional  

  • Online selling, both on Craigslist and at local Facebook Marketplaces, produced safe, efficient, cash-only transactions incredibly quickly. We sold our lawn mower, chainsaw, weed wacker, leaf blower, generator, 2 Ikea loveseats, freezer, Thule roof rack and other miscellaneous cellar-dwelling equipment in hours. Our ping pong table was in a bidding war and sold for double the list price. The bidding was all done via TEXT:  Yes, it was okay to list our cell phone number though, it did have occasional drawbacks. During the bidding war, my repeated response was “I am still accepting offers”. I stood fast. People got a little testy. Over a ping pong table. Kids just wanna have fun.

  • Online selling brought out some weirdos. Though, I did list my cell phone, I only gave my address to a buyer once the deal was made. And yes, I did receive offers for a matching couch and loveseat from somewhere in the Southwest asking if it was okay for them to send me a check. My response: “Should I put the couches in an envelope too?”  Actually, I said nothing. Just deleted the text. They were scammers.

  • Online selling appealed to contractors, painters and landscapers who needed ladders, hoses, tree pruners and yard equipment. They didn’t have time to go to our weekend tag sale so they stopped by weekdays after work with cash, threw the merchandise in their truck and waved goodbye. Good buy!

  • No one wanted what we considered our best upholstered furniture. Dumpster fodder. However many people wanted our Ikea upholstered armchairs because they could replace the slipcovers. We sold these for nearly full price online. My mother-in-law cheered from her grave.

  • Truisms of the home Tag Sale:
    • Early birds were inevitable; most were dealers; they knew each other and pretended they didn’t.
    • When advertising our tag sale on Facebook Marketplace, we needed to be knowledgeable about special collections. When I pulled out my husband’s tortured collection of Corgi cars and trucks from the ‘50s, these dealers were ready. Watching them argue like school boys while jostling for a place in line, my lack of knowledge became more obvious with each passing moment as I had underpriced these classic children’s toys. I recovered slightly, put on my best school-teacher face, gained a little ground and a little more cash but foolishly lost an opportunity to make some serious money. Oh well. Teachable moment for me: Do my homework and get organized. I wasn’t.
    • Dealers steal tiny skeleton keys out of old desks. Really. They tried to grab more than that. I was glad I wasn’t alone; my husband or a friend were always around.
    • Weather is unpredictable but our realtor strongly cautioned against having the sale in our house. So, we cleared and cleaned out our garage and artfully re-arranged our ‘junk” with an eye for the best traffic flow – using every bit of tabletop, wall and floorspace. Our customers wandered in and out comfortably- while it rained!

  • We only accepted cash. Almost always. The angina brought on when my trusting husband accepted a check for our four-poster bed momentarily lowered my bucket age a few years.

  • I learned not to sell any chipped, cracked, broken or mismatched kitchenware or china.

  • My local metal collector arrived at a moment’s notice for old rusted metal materials. And computer ware. And appliances. He saved us serious money in recycling and/or dumpster fees. Apparently, he was making serious money as well!

  • We became experts in selling in lots and letting our eager buyers fill the old wheelbarrow and name their price. We negotiated constantly. People were ultimately reasonable but we were firm on pricing quality goods.

  • We learned not every serious buyer arrives early.

The Dumpster:

  • I scheduled the dumpster arrival carefully – aware of costly time overages and recognizing potential avoidable expenses. Costs vary greatly. The products are practically identical.

  • Tetrising the Dumpster: As a high school teacher, I hired my three favorite seniors for $15/hr. Worth every penny. They arrived eager and smart. One stated upon arrival, “This is why we are taking calculus, Mrs. Keegan, so we can tetris your dumpster!”
    • They worked 1-2 hour stints between class and sports. I used the down time to get ready for them.
    • They were used to taking direction and criticism.
    • They took weird stuff home that wouldn’t sell like a dusty broken ship model that had been hiding in the far reaches of the attic and a telescope we used once.
    • They loved breaking up our old upholstered furniture, and all those extra bureaus that just wouldn’t sell, with a sledge hammer.

  • The remnants: I will never again buy a house that isn’t properly cleaned out but apparently my husband and I did just that 20 years ago as we ended up with 30+ cans of very old paint and varnish. Dr. Google to the rescue. After comparing the costs of disposing at a hazardous waste site versus buying a sand mixture at a big box store to dump into the cans to solidify them and dispose in the dumpster, we used the hazardous waste site. I did the calculus.

The Bottom Line:

In a total surprise, we actually made money on our move, clearing approximately $1000 after expenses on the dumpster, student labor, professional movers, and my purchased packing materials. I didn’t charge for my labor – figuring it was part of my New Year’s work-out regimen. I credit our success mostly on our ability to sell so much inventory quickly using social media. Had we settled for the traditional tag sale, we would have lost valuable time and the ability to negotiate for higher prices.

Six months later, we are still settling into our apartment. The fourteen foot ceilings and our large closets have helped the transition. My students taught me their tetrising skills well and our belongings are carefully stored from floor to ceiling: tents, skis, fine china, silver, holiday decorations, linens and luggage and there is no room under the beds for any extra dust- or dusting!  

Best of all, we achieved our goal of fitting into our apartment with no extra storage costs and our dreams of distant travel are becoming reality. First stop: Paris! 


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About the Writer

Anna Keegan (bucket age 33) and her husband recently relocated outside of Boston Mass. Her previous vocations included advertising/sales and 20 years teaching high school history and economics. She is currently reinventing herself as a free-lance writer, historical researcher, caterer, balcony farmer also enjoying world travels which, happily, will no longer coincide with school vacation periods.


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