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Downsizing: Mistakes and How to be Successful and Stress-Free

What to do, and what not to do, when you’re ready to scale back

By Acts Retirement-Life Communities

October 10, 2022

Credit: Getty

If you consult a dictionary, you’ll see that to downsize is to make something smaller. No problem if you’re cutting a cookie recipe in half or getting rid of some old books. But if you’ve got an entire house stocked full of a lifetime’s worth of possessions, there’s a lot more at stake. There are memories involved, important milestones marked by treasured items you keep on your shelves and special tokens of a life well lived. 

With all that bearing down on you, how do you choose what to let go and what to keep? 

Even though the light at the end of the tunnel is a manageable home that’s easier and cheaper to take care of, lots of people feel only fear and dread when it comes to downsizing for retirement. One reason is the horror stories they’ve heard about the mistakes others have made. 

To keep you on track with your plans to downsize and simplify your life, here are the top three mistakes that people make, followed by a few tips on how to succeed at this without overloading your stress levels in the process.

Mistake #1: Not Letting Family Members Help 

As you begin the process of downsizing, you might feel it’s a job best done in private. After all, it’s your stuff and who better to make decisions about where it all ends up. 

But chances are, your kids, grandkids, cousins, nieces, nephews or even siblings might be able to help you. There’s furniture that can be handed down, family mementos they might like to keep or other items they might find useful or meaningful to have. Just invite them over and ask! 

Pro tip: Put a deadline on the removal of items. Otherwise, your family members may take too long to decide what they want, where they want it or how to take it away.  

Click here to read tips that will help you and your loved ones move through the process of downsizing.

Mistake #2: Waiting Too Long to Start 

Let’s be clear: downsizing your home, where you may have lived for decades and where you’ve built your memories and lived some of life’s biggest moments, is a deeply emotional task. In fact, it’s far more than a mere task, it’s a process. Like any other process, downsizing takes time. 

Another of the most common mistakes people make is waiting until they’re forced to downsize. Maybe somebody falls ill or perhaps one spouse dies. During heavily stressful circumstances like that, downsizing can feel like an unbearable burden. 

Done hastily and under duress, while you’re trying to deal with the emotional fallout of a family crisis, downsizing does indeed become tortuous. Sadly, this is exactly what happens to most people. They wait until a critical event takes place and only then do they start thinking about downsizing. 

How can you avoid downsizing as a result of circumstance instead of choice? Start planning! Read this article with tips on financial planning for seniors. With enough time, downsizing can feel pleasant, even cathartic. You may even find you enjoy it. 

Mistake #3: Starting Without a Plan 

Downsizing is a deeply personal process. No two people go about it in quite the same way, so you’ll have to figure out what will work best for you. But while everyone may go about it a different way, it’s important to have some sort of plan, no matter what your approach might be. 

Maybe you tackle one room at a time. Or maybe you start by making a list, such as: 

  • Things you’ll need to keep with you in your new home 
  • Things you want to keep 
  • Things that other people could use 
  • Things you could sell 
  • Things that should be thrown away 

Some people find that large bins or boxes can help. Mark each one according to the list above and fill them up. Some items, like your souvenir wine glass collection from your travels around the world, might move from one box to another as you change your mind about them or debate their usefulness with others such as your spouse. 

Click here to read tips on how to stay sane when downsizing your home for retirement.

Tips for Staying on Track 

The biggest obstacle to keeping things moving is a mental one: stress can creep in and paralyze your efforts and before you know it, your downsizing project has come to a complete halt. Here are a few words of wisdom, gleaned from retirees who have already gone through this before you and come out the other side with success and with minimal stress. 

1. Focus on the great results you’re going to get. 

Letting go of that extra set of dishes or the pasta maker doesn’t mean you are diminishing the quality of your life. In fact, most people who’ve managed to downsize report feeling great because they no longer have so many things to take care of or clean. 

Instead of focusing on what you’re “losing,” focus on what you’re gaining. People who downsize can look forward to: 

  • No longer having to worry so much about mowing the lawn or keeping the driveway clear of snow 
  • No longer having to spend hours and hours to clean a huge house that’s too big for them 
  • No longer having to spend so much money on upkeep for a big house they don’t need 

2. Separate your memories from your things.  

Letting go of your possessions isn’t easy, especially if you have a strong emotional attachment to them. That tablecloth that was handed down to you, or old high school yearbooks, etc. can have powerful emotional triggers if you let them. But remember, your mother gave you the tablecloth to enjoy, not to burden you for a lifetime. And when was the last time you looked at those yearbooks? You can still have the good memories without the objects, and if you’re in doubt about that, take pictures! 

3. Think of downsizing as a home renovation. 

When you move to a smaller space, you have to pick and choose what to bring with you. That means you get to choose your favorite furniture, your best set of dishes, the newest sheets and towels, and the most important heirlooms and treasures. It’s like a home renovation when you combine your favorite items in new ways in your new home, they’ll look fresh and new. 

Downsizing doesn’t have to be stressful or intimidating if you follow the simple guidelines and avoid the mistakes outlined above. The process can be enjoyable and hope you’ll agree as you start your own journey to a smaller, more manageable space. Start early, get the family involved and keep your downsizing goal in mind — a lifestyle where you have the time, the money and the energy to do the things you really love. 

For more information, read Downsizing for Retirement: What to Do Before and After You Retire created by Acts Retirement-Life Communities.

By Acts Retirement-Life Communities

Acts Retirement-Life Communities is the largest not-for-profit owner, operator and developer of continuing care retirement communities in the United States. Headquartered in suburban Philadelphia, Acts has a family of 23 retirement communities that serve approximately 8,500 residents and employ 6,200 in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. For more information about Acts visit