Downsizing: An Emotional Transition that Brings New Opportunities
Updated August 16, 2022
During a meeting a few years ago, I posed a delicate question to a client in his 80s. The client, an artist, lived alone in a home full of treasures, but the house was getting difficult to maintain. “Would you consider downsizing?” I gently asked Jim Howard.
Downsizing is a Complicated Decision
Jim was one of the nation’s leading artists during the golden age of fashion illustration from the 1960s to the 1980s. He worked for most of the major department stores in the U.S. sketching fashions by designers such as Chanel and Dior. His drawings, published in newspapers, helped sell millions in merchandise. In 2002, he moved to Denver and began a quiet semi-retirement. His home, stuffed with art and memories, was also his studio. When I suggested downsizing, Jim’s first thought was a panicky “no, not yet.” Jim’s reaction is understandable. Downsizing is a major life event for millions of Americans. The U.S. Census estimates that two-thirds of retirees will move at least once, if not more, in their retirement. Still, downsizing is a transition fraught with anxiety and full of misconceptions. Many fear the loss of friendships forged over decades in a community. Some have anxiety about the prospect of making new friends or finding their way around a new neighborhood. Others dread getting rid of a lifetime of accumulated treasures including furniture, family heirlooms or a well-tended garden. Some postpone downsizing simply because that task seems too daunting.
Even beyond those practical considerations, downsizing is an official and very public acknowledgement of the reality of aging. Many people are afraid that it means their lives – not just their homes – will get smaller. They are afraid of disappearing.
Downsizing your home can give you the ability to live a much larger life. Moving to a smaller home may lower not only the cost of living but also the stress of maintaining a large home. There’s an amazing freedom that comes when you no longer have to worry about mowing the lawn or finding someone to do it for you. Downsizing frees up time and money to do the things you love. Additionally, fears of isolation after the big move may be exaggerated. Downsizers who make an active effort to expand a robust social life and take up new hobbies are usually rewarded with a new network of friends.
When to Downsize
Knowing when to downsize is critical. Some wait until their health falters or a partner dies to sell the big home, but that may be too late. The best time to downsize is before you have to do it. For one, the process usually takes longer than expected. Doing it alone can be overwhelming. Finding a new home and selling the old one are stressful and financially significant decisions. Moving requires logistics, planning and, at times, tense negotiations with a partner. (The comfy old La-Z-Boy: bring it to the new place or haul it to the dump?) Give yourself plenty of time. You want to be thoughtful about your choices.
Deciding What to do With Your Things
One of the biggest issues is figuring out what to do with all the stuff that won’t fit into the new place. Some stuff is just the flotsam and jetsam that piles up in the attic over the years. That’s easy to discard. What’s more difficult are items with sentimental value such as old photos, children’s artwork or family heirlooms. Sorting through those items and deciding what to keep can be exhausting and emotionally wrenching. Even unfinished projects can trigger strong feelings. We recommend spending only a few hours a day at the task, so it doesn’t get overwhelming.
And what about the items you can’t keep but don’t want to discard? That’s where it gets complicated. Giving away stuff is a challenge. The painful reality is your children may not want all – or any – of it. Even charities are getting pickier. Antiques, fine furniture and collectibles that were once touted as good investments have plummeted in value in the last decade or so. Used furniture is almost worthless now. Goodwill may not want your mahogany dining set.
Even valuable assets can be troublesome. Today’s retirees, and those on the cusp of retirement, are members of an affluent generation with lots of expensive toys: motorcycles, boats, second homes, etc. Gifting big-ticket items may stir up problems. How do you divide a boat among three children? Your children may not have the money, the time or the interest to maintain costly toys. Beware that gifts can cause rifts. You need to be careful.
Downsizing sooner rather than later can help avert disputes among family members over assets. I encourage clients to be forthright and open about how they want valuable possessions distributed among heirs. Letting your family know your wishes early in the process goes a long way toward preventing disputes that can tear a family apart. I also suggest having assets appraised using a reputable firm before making any decisions.
Seek Downsizing Resources
Fortunately, there’s plenty of help available for downsizers. Your local library or Habitat For Humanity should have how-to guides. Many communities offer workshops on downsizing. There’s also a flourishing industry of professional consultants to help. Should you hold an estate sale? (It depends on the quality, style and condition of the furniture.) How much is that old art-deco bedroom set worth? (Not much in Cincinnati, but a lot in Miami. Ship it to a consignment shop in South Beach.) What to do with paper memorabilia like old diplomas and awards? (Digitize them and store them online.)
Your financial advisor can be a valuable resource. We navigate these situations with many of our clients and can help provide a network of experts and best practices throughout the process. Instead of approaching downsizing as a dreaded task, reframe it. Think of it as an opportunity for a fresh start. Be open to change.
That was particularly helpful for Jim Howard, the artist. Like a cascade of dominos, the downsizing suggestion led to the sale of the house which required sifting through possessions. Jim’s drawings were a concern. Did they have any value? Over the course of two years, downsizing sparked one unlikely event after another: Jim Howard was re-discovered at the age of 88 when his work was featured in a major exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.
At the opening gala in 2018, Jim was stunned by the outpouring of appreciation by museum patrons. “My drawings brought back memories. People remembered their mothers and grandmothers, the dresses they wore, the stores where they shopped,” Jim told me. Astonished, Jim celebrated another magical life transformation all because of nudge to downsize.