Whether you’re moving to a smaller house and decluttering a lifetime of belongings, relocating to another country, or putting your stuff in storage, deciding what to do with your possessions can be stressful and overwhelming. Here are my best tips on how to declutter before moving based on a lot of personal experience.
Do I really need that sequin dress and those hot pink high heels I haven’t worn in years? What about those amazing books on my bookshelf I read over a decade ago? Wait, I can’t get rid of that handmade macaroni necklace my son gave me when he was five years old!
Why do we hang on to all of this stuff?
In a perfect world, we could keep it all, but the reality is that sometimes we can’t.
How to quickly downsize or declutter your house 30 days before moving
If you’ve ever complained about too much clutter, moving is the perfect milestone to comb through your belongings to purge and declutter.
Not only will it simplify your move, but living clutter-free can improve your mental state. In the words of Peter Walsh, a professional organizer, “you will emerge lighter and liberated.”
Our family of five has moved 7 times in 11 years.
We’ve moved around a lot over the years. With each move, we inevitably have to declutter and downsize. So I understand all too well how stressful it is to declutter before moving and then have to pack everything up into boxes.
Here’s my resume of my most recent moves.
- 2010: Cross-country move to Montreal: To cut our losses and escape the high cost of living in California after long-term unemployment, our family temporarily moved in with my aunt in Montreal while we looked for new jobs. We downsized our entire 4 Bdr home into one storage unit.
- 2011: An international move to France. All of our things were in storage, from our cross-country move so why not.
- Four more moves within France:
- 2011: Marseille (10 months)
- 2012: to La Garde France (4.5 yrs)
- 2016: to Montpellier France (2 yrs), bigger house in Montpellier (4 yrs).
- 2011: Final Move: In July of 2022, we moved into a home we purchased in Montpellier, where we currently live.
In between all of these moves, we made a special trip back to our storage unit in North America to downsize our belongings to get them ready to ship to France in a sea container.
What I’ve come to realize is that each move is different and that there is no one size fits all method for decluttering and downsizing but there are some best practices.
Here are my best tips on how to declutter before moving and mistakes to avoid based on my personal experience.
You have more stuff than you think.
Don’t fool yourself.
Even if you don’t think you have a lot of stuff and clutter, look again. Aren’t most of our closets and garages filled with things that we should get rid of but can’t or don’t?
For our big move across the country to Montreal, even after we decluttered, sold and gave away what we thought we didn’t need, we still couldn’t fit everything in the moving truck, which meant it wouldn’t fit in our storage unit.
At the last minute, we had to get rid of even more stuff that we hadn’t planned on parting with, which was difficult and heartbreaking, but we did it, and I’m glad we did. Now I’m more upset that we bought those things in the first place because we’re doing just fine without them.
Be Brutal: Keep things because you love them and use them
The best advice I can give you is to BE BRUTAL, RELENTLESS, and MERCILESS when you’re decluttering. It would help if you were especially RUTHLESS when decluttering your clothes. You don’t wear most of what you have in your closet anyway, do you?
Don’t let feelings of fear or regret dictate what you keep or don’t keep.
Keep things because you love them, or as Marie Kondo, author of the bestselling book, “The Lifechanging Magic Of Tidying Up,” says, everything you keep must spark joy. I’ve listened to her audiobook several times. Seriously life changing.
Why is it so hard to let go of our stuff?
When we opened our storage unit door for the first time after six years, I had this sinking feeling in my heart.
I remember asking myself:
- “Why did I keep that dresser”?
- Why did I hang on to that purse at the back of my closet?
- Do I need 20 pairs of high heels?
- What are the kids going to do with boxes of old childhood toys?
Our possessions embody who we think we are, our hopes, memories and even status. These “things” give us security, bring us comfort, love and tell a story.
Getting rid of some of these things can lead to feelings of regret, guilt or an admission to failings. There is also the fear that you may need it one day.
So we keep our stuff to justify our purchases and possessions.
- I might need it one day. (fear)
- I can’t get rid of that; it’s brand new. (admission of failing to use something I bought)
- I paid a lot of money for that. (guilt)
- Those toys have sentimental value. (guilt)
- And on and on and on.
Research on your own or get help from professionals who know how to declutter:
My second best advice is to get help. It can be a professional decluttering service.
Or learn how to declutter, downsize and organize yourself.
These self-help books have been life savers when it comes to learning how to declutter, downsize and organize your possessions and your home.
Where & How to start decluttering:
If you’re reading this article, you may have already read a few articles advising you on which room to start.
- Some say you should start in the room that bothers you the most.
- Others suggest starting with smaller rooms such as the bathroom for a quick win.
- Some say you should start with the bedroom or living room to have a clutter-free place to relax.
In my opinion, there is no correct answer because there’s no one size fits all solution to decluttering.
Every home I’ve lived in has been different, and clutter doesn’t accumulate the same in every home. One of my homes had horrible bathroom storage and stuff accumulated constantly. Another home had nooks and crannies everywhere for storage. We ended up forgetting we had things and bought duplicates without even realizing it.
Use your intuition.
If you’re dreading decluttering, maybe go for the quick win; a small room like the bathroom or a small category, like the kid’s toys.
I always start in the kitchen because I like to cook, and it’s the room that gets the most cluttered. It makes me feel the best when it’s decluttered and organized. I also like to start with the most difficult or the area that I know will be the most time-consuming. If we save these for last, we may run out of time.
Should you declutter by room or by category (type of items)?
In general, where you start isn’t as important as how you go about doing it.
Category: by type of item
In some cases, you should declutter by category:
Mary Kondo, the Japanese organizing expert, recommends decluttering and sorting through your things by category. I like this method. Decluttering by category means you can sort through your things in chunks and focus on that one task. It reminds me of the efficiency of an assembly line.
There is something satisfying about marking whole categories off your list as completed vs running around like a chicken with your head cut off, cherry-picking things here and there.
Here are some examples of decluttering categories:
- Clothes, shoes, jewelry, purses, hats & accessories: Use the 80/20 rule. Don’t keep anything that you haven’t worn in years, doesn’t fit, is old, torn or outdated. This would be an excellent time to create that capsule wardrobe.
- Books: I highly recommend getting rid of all your books. One of my biggest regrets is keeping boxes of books. They take up space to store and are heavy to ship. Keep a few favourites and get the rest on a
kindle. You might be interested in reading How To Reduce And Downsize Your Book Collection When You Need To Move.
- Toys: plushies, game boards,
- Sports equipment:
- Electronics and gadgets: Sell, recycle or donate your old electronics and gadgets-printers, laptops, TVs, monitors, cell phones, cameras, tablets, cables, etc.
- Holiday decorations: Pass on or give away most and keep the family’s favourites. (ornaments, decorations, lights, wreaths, artificial trees, etc.)
- Lawn and garden equipment: Is it better to sell or donate your lawn and garden stuff. They take up valuable space and are heavy. Get rid of things you never use. (rakes, shovels, hoses, lawnmowers, blowers).
- Craft and Sewing Supplies: This is the perfect time to get this stuff decluttered and organized
- Large appliances: Refrigerators, washers and dryers are big and bulky. Is it better to sell and replace it later?
- Small appliances: If you haven’t used something for months, you probably won’t miss it.
- Furniture: These are probably the biggest and heaviest things you’ll have to move. Is it better to sell it now and replace it when you arrive in your new home?
- Food: Start eating down the food you already have—canned goods, pasta, crackers and cookies, flour, etc. Or donate it.
- Decorations: Wall hangings, vases, knickknacks, etc.
Room by room
In some cases, the logical thing may be to go room by room and break it down into smaller categories.
For instance, bathroom items are all found in the same room, which you can break into smaller categories—toiletries, makeup, medicine, etc.
- Bathroom: Bathrooms tend to be a place where things accumulate over time. Look for expired medicine, toiletries, cosmetics, makeup and beauty tools etc.
- Kitchen: Like bathrooms, a kitchen is also a place where things accumulate. Look for expired food, pans and appliance that never get used etc.
- Garage: If you have a garage, you probably store things that you haven’t used in years.
- Home Office: Look for old documents, instruction manuals, office supplies etc.
Leave the sentimental items for last.
Sentimental items are the hardest things to part with. No one is asking you to get rid of your photo albums, but do you need to keep every birthday card or every stuffed animal your child has ever had?
One of the best things we ever did was take pictures of our children’s artwork. We put the ones we wanted to keep in frames instead of hidden away in a folder inside a cabinet or drawer.
Make a system: Gather and put things into organized piles.
As you go through your things, collect everything in that category and sort them into four piles. Again, it’s crucial to attack this one category at a time—especially your clothes and shoes.
For instance, if you’re going through your clothes, collect every single article of clothing you own, even the winter stuff packed under your bed. Pile everything on the floor or bed and start sorting them into one of these piles.
- KEEP PILE: The things you love and must keep
- DON’T KEEP: This pile can be put into sub piles.
- Give Away- to friends and family.
- Donate- Goodwill, red cross etc.
- TRASH or RECYCLE: Keep a trash bag on hand for things you want to toss. Be good to the environment, and recycle wherever possible.
- MABYE PILE: You can decide what to do later. Keep, donate, sell, trash, etc.
The goal is to end up with three final piles for each category.
- Keep pile
- Don’t keep pile
- Trash pile.
Now, look at all the piles to see if you would like to make any changes. Maybe the “KEEP PILE” is too big. Move more things to the giveaway pile.
Once you’re satisfied, you can begin packing everything up and mark it as completed on your checklist of things to do.
How to get rid of stuff before moving
You can donate, sell, or invite your friends and family over to pick through the things you don’t plan to keep.
You can also leave the items still in good condition on the curb with a “free sign” and see what happens.
We sold many of our things on Craigslist and eBay and had several garage sales. For big-ticket items or items that have a higher resale value, like brand names, you’ll get more money selling them online because it will reach a larger audience.
Here are some place to sell your things.
- Kiji-in Canada
- Facebook Marketplace
If you have things you need to take to the dump, consider hiring a service to come and pick everything up at once; otherwise, you can rent a truck and take it yourself.
Give yourself plenty of time.
Don’t procrastinate until the last minute because the last thing you want is to run out of time.
I suggest giving yourself at least 3 months in advance if you can. I know it’s not always possible. If you’re downsizing, this gives you enough time to gather the things you don’t want to keep to give away, donate, or sell without feeling rushed.
Moving Abroad: If you’re shipping your items internationally.
If you’re moving abroad and plan on shipping your belongings overseas, check your destination’s customs regulations for new residents—specifically,
Taxes, banned and restricted goods
Here are a few examples of someone moving to France.
- TAXES: If you’re moving to France, you may import personal effects (clothing, jewelry), household items (furniture, dishes, bedding, rugs), duty-free and tax-free if you meet specific requirements. One of them is that your items arrive within 12 months of your arrival in France.
- PROHIBITED: When moving to France, certain things are not permitted for importation(plants, drugs, cleaning solvents, paint, ivory, matches and more).
- RESTRICTED: France has a list of prohibited items you can bring into the country if you get special authorization or pay special duties and
taxes(guns, tobacco, alcohol and pets).
Is it worth it to ship internationally?
Couches and other bulky items are expensive to ship. Ask yourself, is it better to sell your couch and buy a new one in your new country rather than pay for the shipping?
Your appliances may not work in another country without adapters and converters.
Moving: If you’re putting your things in storage:
If you’re moving and plan on putting your belongings into a storage unit rather than shipping them, here are some things to consider.
Cost and location of the storage unit
One of the hardest parts about purging and decluttering a lifetime of possessions is trying to get it down to the size of a single storage unit.
Storage is expensive, so we said goodbye to many of our possessions, one of our cars, old toys, too many knick-knacks, a lot of furniture, our son’s optimist boat, clothes, books, and so much more
- It’s cheaper to rent storage units that are not in major cities.
- If you can, try to store your stuff near a friend or family member and leave an extra key with them, just in case.
- Will you rent a climate-controlled storage unit (more expensive)
Length of time your belongings will be left in storage
The length of time you leave your things in storage should determine what you keep. Will it be years or months?
Electronics: Electronics go obsolete quickly. Should you sell now to sell at the current market value or wait?
Lawn and garden equipment: They take up space in storage and could go obsolete.
Mattresses and linens: I’ve heard stories of mattresses growing mouldy and smelling weird in storage, especially if your storage unit isn’t climate-controlled.
Don’t bother keeping bulky things that are cheap to replace:
- Boxes of books take up valuable space and can be replaced.
Downsizing: Moving into a smaller home
Moving to a smaller house and decluttering a lifetime of belongings is no small feat.
Consider the space you’re moving into.
You may have to get rid of things you absolutely love like that huge bed frame or sofa simply because it won’t fit in your new home.
Does your new home have a patio or lawn? No? Well, get rid of your BBQ grill and lawn and garden equipment.
Consider how much storage you have.
I love watching those tiny home videos because they really good use of tiny spaces.
One of the commandments of living decluttered is ensuring everything you own has a place to live. If it doesn’t, it has the potential to become clutter.
Is the kitchen in your new home significantly smaller with fewer cabinets? Get rid of unnecessary appliances that you don’t use or won’t have the space to store.
Are the bedrooms significantly smaller with less closet space? Consider making a seasonal capsule wardrobe.
Simple Rules To Live Clutter-Free:
We’ve made a lot of decluttering and downsizing mistakes, but we learned some invaluable lessons.
For the first two years in France, we thought we would be returning to North America, so I found myself asking, “Will this fit in my suitcase?” If not, would I be willing to leave it behind or sell it once we decide to move?
This forced us to keep our belongings down to what we could fit into our suitcases. The last thing I wanted was to accumulate more stuff and sell or get rid of everything again before moving back. Which we never did.
Now that we’ve decided to stay in France, our mindset has shifted a bit and we allow ourselves to make little purchases here and there. I think I was traumatized by the whole decluttering experience, and as a result, I turned into the “clutter police.” Everything in our house has to have a purpose and a place where it belongs. If something in our home isn’t used or doesn’t serve a purpose, it doesn’t stand a chance of staying.
I won’t even let anyone keep more than a handful of books at any one time because of the ordeal we had to go through in decluttering our vast book collection.
You can read about how we decluttered our huge book collection here.
We are not quite minimalists but we try to live “relatively” clutter-free because having clutter may be a sign that you have things you don’t need.
I say relatively because we inevitably begin to accumulate little things here and there as time passes.
Simple decluttering tips you can use to help you stay clutter-free:
- Leave room to grow: Don’t overpack your bookshelves, bathroom cabinets and pantries. If you need something new, you’ll have nowhere to put it. That’s a recipe for clutter.
- Use the one in one out rule: If my closet is full, and I buy three new shirts, I will donate three items from my closet.
- Purge often: You’d be surprised at how quickly things accumulate and sneak into your home.
- Have a place for everything, and everything in its place: All that stuff cluttered on your desk, and coffee table is clutter that needs a permanent home.
- Use your junk drawer or junk
basketas an inbox: Go through it often to empty it regularly.
- Go paperless or paper-free:
kindlebooks, scan your documents and store them in the cloud. Opt for electronic bills vs paper bills mailed to you. Use apps to keep notes. I use Asana, but Evernote is great too.
- Buy for your needs: Buy things you need and will use, not for the one-off items that happen once in a blue moon.
- Use clear storage baskets and label them for similar small items: glue,
pencils, and pedicure supplies.
- Don’t buy too many little decorative pieces. Instead, buy bigger statement pieces that you are proud of. Not really a rule, but I would much rather have a large decorative item than a bunch of tiny little decorative pieces that clutter up my space.