WHEN PEOPLE DISCUSS financial matters or take the “A Year to Live” class that I lead, there’s a common refrain: They don’t want to be a burden to their loved ones. They’re concerned about having enough money to take care of themselves when they’re older.
But even if we have plenty of money, we can still end up being a burden. How so? Our kids and other loved ones don’t want the stuff we’ve gathered over the years. I was reminded of this recently when talking with some older friends about downsizing. For some, getting rid of beloved books, albums and paper records is like saying goodbye to long-held friendships. When we moved four years ago, we gave away more than 10 boxes of books. We still have too many.
I always ask people in my class what their five most precious possessions are, and what they plan to do with them when they’re gone. The good news: People typically hold memories much tighter than material things. The bad news: They usually have no idea who, if anyone, will want the material objects they love.
I’ve seen this up close. I was challenged and fortunate to take care of my dad when he went into home hospice care. The six weeks he thought he’d live turned into one year. I spent much of the year dealing with stuff that he and his late wife had accumulated. She was a collector, and had so many teddy bears and dolls that it was hard to get rid of them all.
When my dad died, I was grateful that the company that bought his mobile home promised to dispose of any items that remained. I have no idea where they donated the furniture and boxes of china I left behind, but I was relieved that I didn’t have to deal with them.
On the small altar in my office, there’s a handful of special keepsakes that have belonged to those I have loved. A ceramic Santa Claus my grandmother took out every year. The International House of Pancakes mug that we used to scatter most of my mom’s ashes, and which now contains eight ounces of her remains.
My favorite keepsake from my dad? A small coffee scoop I used to make his coffee each day when I took care of him during the last year of his life. When I use it each morning to make my coffee, I smile and remember that final year, and how lucky I was to share it with him so intimately.
I’m trying to dispose of as much of my stuff as I can, so my kids and other loved ones don’t have to do it when I’m gone. I hope my legacy can be a memory or a coffee scoop, not several trips to the dump.
My grandmother was an artist. Fortunately a painter, not a sculptor. Regardless, she left a lot of art. I culled some of it, but a lot of it is really good. When my mom retired, she took up painting. A lot of her stuff is really good. I went to art school and was very prolific. I continue to paint a little and do tons of photography. Most of the stuff in our overstuffed house is replaceable, or we could just leave it and move on. But not the art. Will anyone else want it? I don’t know. But I cannot dispose of it.
Circa 1990 I was looking for an apartment in NYC. A lot of the apts available were because the previous tenant died of AIDS. One in particular made me think of legacy. On the bed was a pile of art, a young man’s legacy.
My mother, a former snow bird, decided to mt her northern apartment during Covid. It was too much for her so my sister and I managed it. We sent ~20 boxes of personal stuff but the rest needed to be dealt with. My mother collected fine antiques/silver and has excellent taste. We discovered there was a very limited market for her treasures. An auction house that sold the sterling at a bit more than comodity price. Silver plate was pretty valueless along with her really lovely antique and mid-century modern furniture. We were able to make a big donation to the salvation army and ONLY have to pay for a 1/2 truck at 1800-Junk. I am sure if we made a career of selling her stuff she would have netted more but there is a cavern between retail and wholesale. It was a sad thing to see her realize the results of her lifetime of treasure hunting. Buy things because they bring you pleasure and then use them. I vow to use the china in our china closet…
We moved from the house where we raised our kids to a condo in 2019 at age 59. Divesting ourselves of clutter was a big goal during that move. We asked our daughters to go through their things and take what they wanted—we wouldn’t have room in the new place and we weren’t renting a storage unit. We now just have what fits into our 3-bedroom condo and our storage closet down the hall. We buy stuff that we will use and enjoy ourselves—dishes, furniture, art for the walls—with no thought of it becoming a family heirloom.
One of the interesting parts of that process was realizing how much had changed in the 20+ years since we’d last moved because of digitization. I’d go through books, CDs, DVDs, photos, and important family papers and think—can I get a digital version of this? Do I need to keep the CD or DVD or book if I can stream it whenever I want it? I kept a few books for nostalgia’s sake and bought the latest Kindle model for the rest. I pared down the photos to one box that I plan to digitize soon. I scanned lots of documents and literally broke our shredder by how much stuff I got rid of. We both really enjoyed the process and feel a lot freer. We also promised each other that we would not allow clutter creep in the new place—when we buy anything new, we get rid of something, and we go through closets and cabinets a couple of times a year to make sure we stay streamlined.
I’m a notorious minimalist married to a near-hoarder who is emotionally attached to objects. How do I get her to let go of stuff?? I pity our kids.
I guess opposites attract. Have a conversation with the kids if she/they let you.
My two children and I have agreed on who will get furniture that my grandfather built by hand decades ago. They never knew him or my father, his son. But I know they appreciate their history. They represent a man who came to this country at 18 in 1908, on his own, without assets and not speaking English. He worked as a longshoreman and then at a paper mill for 40 plus years. He married an American-born woman and lived an honest, frugal life dedicated to his sons and grandchildren.
If you don’t know the modern collector’s market very well, I would not advise throwing anything out until you have thoroughly researched each item, or bought in an expert. Things people think are worthless are selling for hundreds of dollars. Somebody who know what he is doing will go into your garage, empty the rusty nails out a can, and sell a vintage oil tin for $500. Who knew?
Items from as late as the 90s can have considerable value. The only things that are really worthless are items that were sold as collectibles, like collector plates and coins. However, items that were heavily played with by children are mostly destroyed, and can be good; a reseller who knows what he’s doing will pick out the Luke Skywalker’s 1977 light saber from a box of old toys and put it up for $50. Everybody has the figurines, but they’re missing the accessories, because the kids scattered them around the house.
In my own case, I have 4000 records in my record collection, and they have appreciated amazingly in the past 3 years. At least 10% of them are worth more than $100 each.
4000 records, wow! My experience is that kind of stuff that has high price tags is for the buyers, not the sellers. Or at least not sellers like me. The guy at the second hand record store says no thanks, and pawn shops for jewelry, Rolex watches, sterling silver just yawn and offer lunch money. That roadshow TV show is phony IMHO…not maybe the valuations but actually buying from the poor schmucks with precious goods is probably a big letdown.
I have watched so many Antiques Roadshows that I know you are right some of the time but I suspect most of what we treasure will not be worth as much as we think – especially for those who have to deal with it after we are gone.
How true. Our “treasures” are usually ours alone. We have a large collection of china, porcelain, Chrystal and silver. Our children have already said they aren’t interested.
I have a set of model planes and boats my father made out of wood during WWII which are special, but who will want them?
Then there is a little stuff as you say, they mean a lot, but only to one person. I have my fathers baseball glove from the 1920s and a bat I had when I was 12. I’ve given them to grandchildren who play baseball, but I don’t know if they appreciate the significance- to me anyway.
We have hundreds of Christmas ornaments collected around the world. It was fun buying them, but they mean little to anyone else. On the other hand, I treasure a Christmas ball from the 1890s that was my great grandmothers.
It’s really hard letting go, really hard.
On the plus side for our kids, moving to our condo cut down on storage space so there is no basement or attic to deal with just two storage cages in the common garage and three walk in closets.
I hope the fighting is kept to a minimum.
Every time the kids visit, we offer them the opportunity to take anything they want because we will be getting rid of “stuff” one room at a time, and NO we are not keeping it for them – take it leave it. It is our stuff, thus ours to toss or give to a neighbor if they want it, or to charity if they want it, or the dump. Downsize!
These items may be worth more than you think. I’d invite a good eBay reseller over for a pick. There is money in vintage baseball equipment, vintage Christmas, vintage models, etc. Let somebody make a pile and give you a number, and then the rest of the stuff can be safely discarded.
An estate sale outfit will give you a few bucks for all your treasures while the masses wander through your house looking for bargains. Guess that is better than the landfill.