Downsizing after a divorce

Today we welcome Erin Ellia, a writer in transit, as a guest post author. She will be blogging her move discussed in this post at

I’m preparing for a move — a big one. I’m leaving my husband and our three-bedroom Boston-area house to sublet a furnished room in a Times Square apartment by myself. The soon-to-be-ex and I are trying to do this as amicably as possible, but I have to admit I laughed when he asked if I’d thought about what I might want to take with me. Honestly, the first thought that popped into my head was, “Well, I suppose they sell toothbrushes in New York…”

See, the soon-to-be ex is an inveterate clutterer, and I am emphatically not. It’s been a constant battle through the years. But no matter how Spartan an attitude I’ve always taken toward my stuff, I know it’s not realistic to move to New York without so much as a toothbrush. Is it? No. I’m 40 years old and every thing I’ve ever owned is in this house — there’s got to be something in it I want to keep.

Besides, I’m only renting the furnished room until I get my bearings in a new city. I really will need just a suitcase and toothbrush in the beginning, but soon enough I imagine I’ll be wanting things like furniture. I plan to winnow my half of our bulging houseful down to a minimal, manageable amount, to store in my father’s basement for the time being, until I find the quaint little rent-stabilized divorce-pad of my dreams.

It so happens I’ve done this for two households so far this year. In February, I helped an elderly friend move to assisted living, and last month I cleaned out my mother’s house (she passed away last fall). The way I see it: if I could manage the emotions of both of those fraught situations and still maintain focus on the task at hand, then I should have no problem making rational decisions about jeans that don’t fit anymore, or the broken bunny-rabbit mug I’ve been holding onto since the seventh grade. It’s all about perspective — I’m starting my life over; I’m happy to wriggle away from stuff like snakeskin.

Here’s my strategy:

  1. Approach my pile as if it belongs to someone else, as if I’ve never seen that broken mug.
  2. Keep only things I can realistically use in a small apartment — a lamp, a chair, maybe a trash can. If there are duplicates, I’ll take just my best or favorite one.
  3. Pack a single box each of decorative doodads, kitchen gear, and silly sentimental objects.
  4. The rest of the items I plan to sell. Books and CDs are (mostly) easy to replace, or a good excuse to finally get an iPod and a Kindle. And, I need to remember there’s not much chance my divorce-pad will actually be rent-stabilized.

I might just keep the broken bunny-rabbit mug, though, as it has been with me for 28 years — exactly twice as long as my (ex-)husband.

27 Comments for “Downsizing after a divorce”

  1. posted by Karen on

    When my sister moved out of the house after her divorce, her friends rented a dumpster and together they filled it in one day. I was a little bit shocked at the time, but now I see the wisdom in it. She took what she needed, the rest was gone, and she didn’t waste her energy on stuff.

  2. posted by Aisha on

    It probably shouldn’t, but this post makes me sad. Also, I’d never be able to ditch all my books and CDs, but that’s a secondary note.

  3. posted by Sian on

    I’m moving this week for the first time in four years (out of the first place of my own so you can imagine how much more I’ve accumulated since I moved in with my childhood bedroom stuff..) and I was totally unprepared by how much work sorting and packing would be. I’ve been reading Unclutterer for about a year in preparation for this so I’d already got rid of LOTS of stuff-but the idea of moving all this stuff somewhere else really changes your ideas on what you do and don’t need!

  4. posted by shris on

    It is a sad situation, but it sounds like a good plan.

    I might also choose to include a (small) box of happy memories from the marriage. Or maybe not. Never been divorced, so I don’t know. I would, though, be slightly wary of the desire to pretend/behave as if the last N years didn’t happen at all. Just because you’d like to make a clean break now doesn’t mean you wouldn’t miss some souvenir of a happy trip. Important, though, that it only be happy memories.

    Anyway, good luck with that.

    I have things from when I was a child too. My old snoopy stuffed dog, a beanbag cat I’ve had since I was 2, some books that belonged to my uncles when they were children (and were later mine and are now used by my kids), a few selected pieces of baby clothing and blankets, some pieces of artwork.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to *completely* divest of the ‘stuff’ one accumulates, as long as it is treasured and used. But you also don’t need to schlep everything into a tiny apartment/single room, either. Nice that your dad has a basement he will let you store stuff in.

    Good luck with the new life.

  5. posted by Louise on

    Mental health professionals usually advise to not make huge changes during an emotional crisis. For instance, don’t sell your house immediately after the death of a spouse.

    I think throwing out most of your belongings in the middle of a divorce may fall into this category, and should be approached with extreme caution. It is easy to tie the household items emotionally to the failed marriage and want to divest yourself of both at the same time.

  6. posted by Betharu on

    I helped a friend do this after she and her husband sold their marital residence in the midst of their divorce. A couple of things I would recommmend –

    [1] Have your friends help! They will be a great support and speed the process along – my friend had mimosas, music and pizza so it seemed like a day with her girlfriends.

    [2] Focus on the task at hand – this is where your friends can help. You’re there to clean up and move out. Its not going to help things if you trash his stuff or leave out torn up pictures of the two of you in plain sight. My friend did this and I discreetly put them in the trash.

    [3] Finally, be respectful. Obviously, feelings are pretty raw during these times but stealing all the pot lids or leaving no toilet paper is just wrong. I made a point to clean up the kitchen when we left – doing the dishes, taking out the trash, and wiping down the counters. Stuff that we were leaving behind for her husband was stacked in a corner with a note. The rooms were swept up and everything was in its place. Again, this is where your friends can help!

    [4] Take things with you to make your new place feel like home! Even if it is the chipped coffee mug or a postcard from a favorite destination. I wouldn’t discard all my CD’s or books – whittle down to 10-20 favorites of each!

    Divorce is tough – I had 4 friends file last year! My new saying is that – in your 20’s, your friends get married – your 30’s, they have kids – your 40’s, they file for divorce.

    Good Luck!

  7. posted by Angela on

    You have a great attitude, and I am certain you will do fine. Starting fresh feels fabulous, but be prepared, though, for things to hit you down the line. I have been separated for almost two years, and just yesterday (!) I thought, “I miss my green kitchen chairs!”

    Have fun in your divorce pad!

  8. posted by gypsy packer on

    I jumped ship on a husband, with only some money in my pocket. Went to the Salvation Army, bought a glass, plate, utensils, coffee mug, and a sweater, and acquired the rest at a dollar store.

    Check out your current possessions carefully. Not many will be irreplaceable. Your books, DVD’s, CD’s can go to an online swap service, where you will replenish or recover what you want, once you move. Sell the replaceable items for what you can get, remembering that mass-market items will be ten cents to a dollar at some garage sale or secondhand store in the near future.

  9. posted by Julia on

    You know, this really isn’t about clutter. It’s about you, and about how much of your old life you want to carry forward into your new life, within the financial limitations of what you can (or need) to replace.

    For some people here it’s a bare minimum; others allow a bit more – but really, no one can tell the OP what she should take forward with her.

    But I’m not sure it should be a Big Deal. You know the things you love, and you know they are only things.

    Don’t try to reach someone else’s ideal of what’s right, certainly not at this time in your life. If you take too much – you can get rid of it later; if you take too little, all you really lose is a belonging (I’m assuming that Gran’s set of $20,000 pearls isn’t part of the question here.)

    Trust yourself. You will have to do a lot of that in future; might as well begin now.

  10. posted by Michelle @HomeStagingPro on

    As a professional home stager, I help many of my clients declutter and pre-pack before their home goes on the market. I’ve lived in my current home with my current husband for almost 9 years, and even though I declutter professionally, we’ve got way too much stuff.

    I actually envy my clients who are moving and are forced to get rid of a lot of unnecessary stuff and will have a clean slate to work with in their new home. I think its very cathartic.

    Keep what you love and that which gives you comfort. Ditch the rest – sell it or donate it to someone who can really use and appreciate it. As you said, almost everything is replaceable.

    I wish you great good luck in your move and in your new life.

  11. posted by crunchycon on

    When my turn came, five years into the marriage, I took only the stuff that I brought into the marriage. I left XDH half the plates, half the cutlery, that kind of thing. Any furniture that we had acquired together stayed with him.

    Be wary of paring down too, too much – as others have stated, starting from scratch may appear to be very appealing at this point, but you don’t want to mourn the odd treasure down the road. And if you take that “treasure” with you today, you can always send it into the universe at a later time if it doesn’t have a place in your new life.

    I wish you the best.

  12. posted by Andy on

    I have another trick that very helpful with getting rid of things that don’t really have any value and/or taking up a bunch of space…


    I gave up lots and lots of items by just taking a handful of pictures of each item before giving them away or disposing of them. Every once in a while I’ll go through these photos and have my memory jogged by the sight of them. It’s very close to the feeling of still having the item, but it’s now taking up zero space. A lot of these items just have sentimental value that keeps a memory alive in your mind. Photos can do the same thing.

  13. posted by Vanessa H. on

    I’m glad you’re keeping the bunny mug. Things like that are very important. And you could keep your toothbrush in it if you didn’t want to use it as a mug.

  14. posted by MaryPoppins on

    I would take out the treasures I want and have the ex do the same and then together hold a free garage sale. Everything is free and you run it just like a garage sale, complete with free coffee and cookies.

    With what is left, order a dumpster and dump it in.

    Share a pizza and bottle of wine with your soon to be ex on the empty floor and acknowlege that there were good times and that you married for good reasons.

    The world is full of things to fit your everyday needs and it’s so freeing to be in a new house or apt. with only things that give you joy.

  15. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    @ Louise–My thoughts, indeed.

    My friend’s 90-ish parents were burned out of their house–irreplaceable art escaped and not much else. They were surprised to discover how happy they were to have liquidated everything into an insurance check, and now can start afresh.

    Two distinctions: 1. The irreplaceable stuff happened to be saved, and 2. the “liquidation” was not by their hands, so they bore no guilt. You certainly may be happy to shed a lot of the replaceable stuff, but be careful with the other stuff.

  16. posted by Sarah on

    Please make sure you don’t make the same mistake I did. I didn’t take much with me from my marital home, but then I spent 2 1/2 years going into debt, buying all sorts of junk to replace the junk I had shared with my exhusband. I think I was trying to give myself a sense of security, or maybe shopping eased my sadness. I also used the items to establish my new identity (I have since realized that possessions clearly have nothing to do with identity).
    Best of luck to you.

  17. posted by Mer on

    I just did this. Only I moved into my parent’s home for the time being and put some stuff into storage.

    You will be so surprised what you can part with. I only kept the things that really meant the most to me, which coincidentally came from my family. I kept a suite of dining room furniture, my grandmother’s china, my collection of depression glass, a cedar chest my dad bought for me. Plus my books, cds, paper records and clothes. Boxes of mementos. In total, I had 30 small packing boxes and a room and a half of furniture. The rest I left behind.

    The only thing I regret leaving is some of my kitchen stuff. I took my nice stand mixer, coffee maker, crockpot and a roaster given to me by my grandmother. I left behind some of my favorite kitchen tools, but they can be easily replaced.

    My mom and sister were a big help with this. Every time I had trouble with something, they helped me decide if I really wanted it. And I don’t have a single regret leaving him behind with a houseful of stuff to dispose of.

    Good luck to you, Erin. I wish you luck in your new life.

  18. posted by Clutter Junkie on

    I’m rubbish at decluttering, but I had a girlfriend help me do my place.

    She brought $20 in coins to start me off, and put everything I owned to one side of the room. If I wanted to keep anything, I had to buy it for a dollar (Just one dollar!) at a time. You soon realise that you wouldn’t pay a dollar for that CD in a junk shop – so why are you keeping it? All the money I paid went to charity, the amount of stuff I didn’t want also went to a charity store. It’s amazing how unappealing that old sweater looks when you have to pay for it.

  19. posted by VJB on

    Clutter Junkie – I love your girlfriend’s idea! That’s the best thing I’ve heard in ages. 🙂

  20. posted by Monika on

    I recently split up with my husband of nearly 40 years taking only items of sentimental value with me … my china, crystal, silverware, etc … mostly gifts from my own family. My kids helped me pack up my belongings, which I’ve put into storage for the time being, as I’ve moved in with my elderly mother. My plan is to go through all the boxes and purge anew, giving away anything that is not important to me … I really have to purge my collection of books and plan to donate them to a hospital or library in my community. I also did not want to take furniture with me and only took pieces that my father had built, mostly for sentimental reasons. I may also donate that furniture to an organization that helps women fleeing abusive marriages start a fresh life. I’ve discovered that lots of ‘stuff’ is not really necessary in my life now; what really matters to me now, is the sense of contentment and peace I’ve acquired since leaving a terrible relationship.

  21. posted by Bill on

    This post is not really helpful in that the author’s snide and snarky bile over her divorce distract the reader from her otherwise interesting uncluttering. This is a saddening article.

  22. posted by EH on

    Congrats on a new life!

    This post reminds me of my parents’ divorce after 35 years. My mother took a houseful of furniture and still somehow managed to leave a houseful of furniture. Number of her “reject” tablecloths she left my father: 48. Every time I think about buying more household stuff, I think of those 48 tablecloths and squelch the urge!

  23. posted by BGV on

    Clutter Junkie – Can you use as much money as you want? at 20 dollars you only keep 20 things. what about 200 dollars?

  24. posted by rio on

    I was reading halfway and think: why throw away a bunny that followed you all your life…then you decided to keep it. Wonderful.

  25. posted by Kimberly on

    You are wonderfully brave! I left my husband last October and we just sold the house. I’m living with a friend and I have stuff crammed in her office, her attic, and her garage. (She’s a very loving, patient friend.)I have a storage space filled with furniture. I must have 15 boxes full of books! (And this is after I had a garage sale!) When my husband and I separated, my things became little security blankets. That jar of pretty rocks from Lake Superior? The plate I bought in Spain? They had nothing to do with my husband and they provided some link to the quirky, fun person I was before my life took a turn. Perhaps that bunny mug will do the same for you. And thank you – it’s nice to read articles and responses by people in similar situations.

  26. posted by Gilrean on

    As well as divorcing at the time I also moved halfway across the world. I took my stuff to a rented in between place and sold the furniture, when I made the move across the world. I did leave just about everything he’d bought me. It was not an amicable split.

    I got my life down to 9 boxes and a suitcase. I called it the essence of me. I could have managed with less had I had to but I had 1 m3 (the minimum amount) booked with the movers.
    I had the following piles:
    Gotta come with me/essential
    Should come with me/would love it if it could but could manage without
    May come with me/if I have room to spare I would like this as well
    Not required at all.

    Much to my surprise pile 1 was very very small. Pile 2 was larger and could come in full and pile 3 was huge and some things came Pile 4 was the largest and was thrown out.
    What I tool from pile 3 was my fabric (I sew). I used it as packaging/wrapping material instead of paper.

  27. posted by Clutter Junkie on

    @BGV – you can set what rules you like I suppose!

    It just makes you think – If I didn’t already had this, and had to spend a tiny amount on it (eg if I saw it in a shop at that price) would I actually do it?

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