MOAA’s Spring 2024 Retirement Guide: Decluttering Your Home

MOAA’s Spring 2024 Retirement Guide: Decluttering Your Home
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(This article by Kimberly Lankford originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Military Officer as part of the magazine's Spring 2024 Retirement Guide. Military Officer is available to all MOAA Premium and Life members; learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA or upgrading your membership here.)


If you’re planning to move after retirement, you might be downsizing to a smaller house when you no longer have young kids at home. Automatically moving everything from your old house might make your new home seem stuffed and cluttered. And decluttering is one of the most effective things you can do to prepare your home for sale.


“We sold our house in Virginia when the interest rates were at their highest,” said Barbara Hemphill, a professional organizer for more than 40 years and author of Love It or Lose It: Live Clutter-Free Forever*. “We put our house on the market, and it sold in two days. The real estate agent said the reason it sold so quickly was it looked so organized. People think if they move into that environment, they will be like this, too.”


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The following steps can help you declutter your home and prepare to downsize, whether you plan to move in the next few months or next few years.


Prepare Psychologically to Downsize and Declutter

It can be overwhelming to start decluttering. “Clutter is postponed decisions,” said Hemphill, who is also founder of the Productive Environment Institute and wife of a retired Army colonel. “The psychological part is the biggest part. Decluttering is 80% mindset and 20% getting it done.”


It can be especially difficult to get started if you’ve been in your home for a long time.


“With retirees, and anybody in the 50-plus age group, it’s a big issue because our society is now facing a huge clutter crisis,” said Hemphill. “My generation saved things for children and grandchildren who want nothing to do with it. That brings up an emotional issue of what does that say about my life?”


[SPRING 2024 RETIREMENT GUIDE: How to Sell Your Home]


Hemphill frequently meets widows who live alone in large houses and want to move but are overwhelmed by the thought of having to give up so many of the items they had collected through the years. “The one thing that was preventing them was all of the beautiful ‘valuable’ things in the house that they didn’t know what to do with,” she said. “Crystal, china, and furniture. It isn’t clutter, but it isn’t something you can downsize with. And the problem now is finding a place to get rid of that — our children and grandchildren don’t want it. The question is: Is your stuff more important than you are?”


Acknowledging that the process will be emotional can help you get started. “Downsizing for retirement or for any reason means going through the emotion of letting go,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important to have a vision for what you’re moving to. Then you can grieve the past, but you have something you’re moving forward to.”


Taking the time to go through everything also helps you control what happens to it. “People hold onto stuff like a death grab,” said Renée Brunelle Matthews, co-founder of Pathfinders Downsizing Solutions in Tampa Bay, Fla., and the surviving spouse of an Army major and a member of MOAA’s Surviving Spouse Advisory Council. “Either you go through these things now when you’re in control of who gets what, or something happens to you, and it’s in junk removal. The kids don’t know the story.”


Matthews remembers working with a client who loved a charcoal drawing of her cat that had passed away. Her kids didn’t know how important it was to her, and they threw it down the trash chute when cleaning out the house after she died. “If it’s your most treasured possession, try to think about who you could give it to who will honor and treasure it, and every time they use it or wear it, they have that story,” she said.


That’s what she did with her mom’s pearls. “My older niece was getting married, and we had it split into two sets of pearls for each niece,” she said. “Free yourself from the weight of having to hold onto everything, and shift your perspective to ‘I can give this to somebody who can really cherish this.’”


Her mother-in-law also did this by asking her son and daughter to go through the house and tell her about items they always wanted so she could give them away while she was still alive, share the stories, and get pleasure out of watching them enjoy it. “The key is to ask them,” said Matthews. “It’s risky, because they may say they don’t want anything, and you have to decide whether you’re willing to take that graciously.”


Whether you’re passing the items along to your family or selling them at an estate sale, knowing the story behind the item — and what made it important to you — can make the item more valuable to the next owner. This can be particularly helpful if you’re passing along items you accumulated during your travels in the military.


If your family doesn’t want the things, finding a person or group who can benefit can make it easier to pass them along. “Thinking that somebody could be blessed if I give it to them makes the downsizing easier to handle,” said Matthews.


How to Start Decluttering

If you’re planning on selling your house in the next several months or years, start clearing out the clutter now — decluttering can make a big difference in your home sale, and it can take a while to go through everything. The steps to take depend on your decluttering personality.


“There are generally two types of people,” said Matthews. “There are people who are very emotional about their stuff, and they are going to take a while to go through it. Go through the stuff that’s least emotional, start there, and then go to the more emotional. The other side is task-oriented people. That’s who I am. You go in a room, you set an amount of time, and you work that amount of time. Say, ‘I’m going in there for 20 minutes and will be done for the day.’”


More From MOAA

MOAA's Spring 2024 Retirement Guide appears exclusively in Military Officer magazine. Along with more home-selling advice, the guide includes:

  • Guidance on whether to rent or sell.
  • More decluttering tips.
  • Tax rules for home-sale profits.
  • Tips for vacationing in retirement, as well as our twice-yearly retirement listings.

Military Officer Magazine

You can start with manageable projects such as a closet or a cabinet. When she wasn’t busy during the holidays, Matthews set aside time to do some decluttering projects. “We went through our dry goods cabinet and checked the dates,” she said. “Last Christmas, I went through all my pants. I tried them all on, and if they didn’t fit, I got rid of them. Put a pair of shoes on — if they don’t fit, donate them.” She also makes it easy to declutter anytime. “I keep a laundry basket in my closet, and if something doesn’t fit, I’ll put a safety pin on the pants or shirt and I’ll wash it, and then I remember to donate it. You only wear about 20% of what’s in your closet.”


If you have an emotional attachment, it can help to work with someone else — a professional or a friend — who can help you get started. “I’m like a personal trainer — you can go to the gym and do eight reps with dumbbells, but if you go to a personal trainer, they make you do 12,” said Matthews. “It’s an accountability factor. And we have a Rolodex of other professional people we work with. If we recommend a mover, they’ve been vetted and we’ve been working with them for years.”


You can find a professional organizer in your area through the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals. “Find someone you can trust,” said Hemphill. If you’re moving in retirement or helping your aging parents, you can get specialized help from a member of the National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers, said Matthews.


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What to Do With All Your Stuff

Hemphill incorporates decluttering into her everyday life. “You need to have a system for getting rid of the clutter,” she said. “For donations, I tell people — in every floor of your house, have a box with the lid off, so that when you put on a blouse and it doesn’t fit or you don’t like it, instead of putting it back in the closet again, you put it directly in that box. And when it’s full, you know what agency you’re taking it to, and put it in your car and take it.”


Choosing a charity that can use your items to make a difference for other people can help you feel more comfortable passing them along.


“It’s really helpful to think about what you’re getting rid of as a blessing to other people,” said Hemphill. “There are people who can’t afford to buy clothes. Finding charities you can donate to is really helpful.”


For example, you probably won’t be going to as many military balls after retiring. “A lot of times, you can donate your ball gowns to underprivileged homecomings and prom nonprofits,” said Matthews. “Keep a few, but you don’t need a whole wardrobe of them. Hopefully, it’s a gift that is blessing it forward.”


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She donates towels and blankets to the local humane society, and she found groups that take electronics, pull the hardware out of computers and replace it, and give them to students. She also looks for ways to give to charities that help veterans. “We do a lot with the homeless veterans homes — we donate toiletries and cleaning items that have been open and kitchen stuff,” said Matthews. “See if there are some military nonprofits you can support.”


You can find out more about charities in your area through your local community foundation, and you can check out charities through the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator. Contact them, and ask what kinds of items they’re looking for.


But think about the quality of what you’re giving when deciding what to donate and what to throw away. “If you wouldn’t spend money at a garage sale to buy it, please don’t give somebody who is down on their luck a T-shirt that is stained,” said Matthews.


Prepare to Downsize Before Your Move

You can take a more targeted approach to downsizing after you have an idea of where you’re going to move. Moving to a smaller house with large furniture can make you feel cramped. What are you going to do with the extra stuff? Deciding well in advance can give you more flexibility to sell it or give it away to make the biggest impact. It can also help your house look decluttered for potential buyers, and you can avoid paying to move items you don’t end up keeping.


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Hemphill approaches downsizing in the opposite way than you might expect. “When people are downsizing, one of the things I tell them is you don’t start to downsize by getting rid of what you don’t want,” she said. “Instead, you go through the house and say, ‘What are the things I have to have in my new house?’” It’s more positive to start with what you really want in your new home. “What things are really meaningful? Instead of trying to get rid of the clutter, be intentional and think about what you want to keep,” she said.


You can get even more specific when you know the floor plan. “We’ll measure how many inches of closets they’re going to, and we bring the wardrobe boxes that match that space,” said Matthews. “When you fill those boxes, that’s it. We use architectural software for floor plans. If you’re moving from a house with two walk-in closets to a two-bedroom apartment with one closet with sliding doors, you really have to look at all the extra stuff in the pantry, the jackets, you can’t keep all of those,” she said.


Her biggest tip: “Please don’t put stuff in a storage unit — at the maximum, keep it there for six months,” she said. “I’ve had people that have had it for years. There’s probably nothing in it that is worth it.”


Last-Minute Decluttering Before the Open House

Decluttering before the open house when your house is on the market is a special kind of preparation. Even after purging items you don’t need, temporarily moving out additional stuff can make the house look more attractive to potential buyers.


Decluttering is one of the last-minute steps that can make the biggest difference in your home-sale results, said Patty Zuzek, a real estate broker in Minneapolis and 2023 regional vice president for the National Association of Realtors.


“Clearing out clutter and personal items can help potential buyers envision themselves living in the space,” she said. “Remove excessive decorations, family photos, and some personal items. Keep the décor neutral and appealing to a broad audience. Try not to make it sterile looking.”


Expect potential buyers to open all doors and look into your closets and cabinets. “Make the pantry and linen closet pretty,” said Matthews. “You need to declutter your kitchen counter and bathroom counter. You can put stuff in your garage in a box. As long as it’s not super crazy in there, nobody’s going to think anything of it if the garage is neat and tidy and the kitchen is neat and tidy.”


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Organizing your boxes can help that space look better and help you find things when you move. “Do an inventory, and write down what is in the box and label the box,” Matthews said. “You may be looking for something, and it’s overwhelming if you don’t even know what box to go in.” She recommends ordering QR code labels on “You can take a picture of everything in the box and put a label on it and keep track of everything.”


If you do have to move out some items you want to keep during an open house, rent a storage unit for a limited time — six months or less — and don’t extend the timing, she said.


It can also help to provide prospective buyers with organized records about home improvements and appliances, including warranties and instruction manuals. “When I sold my last house, I had all the owners’ manuals in a binder,” said Matthews. “When somebody came to look at the house, it was on the kitchen counter, and this is everything you need to know about the house.” She also included contact information for the HVAC specialist, pest control company, and other services she used. 


* MOAA is an Amazon Associate and earns money from qualifying purchases, with the revenue supporting The MOAA Foundation.


Kimberly Lankford is a finance expert based in Virginia and the spouse of a retired Army colonel.


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