7 Things I Learned When Downsizing From a House in California to a Shoebox in NYC

Posted in: I'm Moving, Organization

Full disclosure: I’m a child of the suburbs. I grew up in sprawling northern California, where trips to used bookstores and the mall are practically pastimes. There wasn’t much spatial constraint when it came to accumulating things. If I picked up a tchotchke, there would definitely be a place for it somewhere in my home.

In 2015, though, I swapped Golden State living to make good in the Big Apple. I soon realized the differences between our nation’s coasts are stark – and I’m not just talking bagels versus sourdough. I’m talking space.

My mother state is known for sunshine, smiles, and sufficient square footage. New Yorkers, on the other hand, manage to thrive in their shoebox apartments. And if I wanted to fit in – I mean, literally, fit my stuff in – I’d have to downsize.

Here’s what I learned (and am still learning!) during that process:

Downsize Ahead of Your Move

This is ridiculously important. It goes without saying that the more stuff you have, the earlier you should start. Maybe you need three months, maybe just a couple weeks. Either way, give yourself enough time to figure out your elimination style and needs. My own move was limited to what I could fit into two suitcases, and I kept both open for two weeks, adding to them as I went along.

As you approach the moving date, keep four storage bins out within easy access. Label them “Save”, “Store”, “Donate” and “Eliminate.” Take a few minutes every morning or evening to sort some of your belongings into these categories.

If you’re second guessing yourself, follow the OHIO (“only handle it once”) rule. Give yourself a time limit – 30 seconds or so – to categorize each item. Consider that decision final, and don’t look back through the bins.

If you’ve set aside enough time, you can even use apps to make money off stuff you’re nixing. Try OfferUp for selling your furniture and larger appliances and Poshmark for any threads you’d like to shed. Who knows, maybe you can put some of those proceeds towards pizza for your hybrid move!

If you’re still struggling, follow this decluttering flowchart, or seek out a second opinion!

And Downsize After Your Move

Even the most meticulous planning won’t account for certain objects that fail to mesh in your new digs. That plastic flamingo that looked quirky kitsch in your old place may be too stark now. Even blazers that once dictated your wardrobe can seem wonky under new lighting.

Don’t waste time and sanity trying to squeeze has-beens in. Make friends with your local Goodwill (MakeSpace offers free Goodwill pickups in NYC, Chicago, and Washington, DC), and get rid of those space eaters immediately.

The Mantra Is True: A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place

You don’t have to pull a Carrie Bradshaw and keep shoes in the oven. But you should have a designated spot for each and every one of your kicks. Otherwise, they’ll pile up pretty quickly. Probably alongside the T-shirts you haven’t yet hung on miracle hangers, and the linens you’re not sure what to do with (here’s what to do with them).

Bottom line: When you’re moving into a small home, each square foot counts, so make sure every item fits. If it doesn’t, consider alternatives. Do you need to install more shelves for your hat collection? Hang plants from the ceiling?

Think outside the floor.

Getting Storage Is Way Helpful

Remember those winter coats I packed? They definitely came in handy during Winter Storm Jonas. But by the time Memorial Day weekend rolled around, I needed to make room for my summer dresses instead. And let’s just say my bedroom closet isn’t exactly forgiving when it comes to multi-season usage.

Then it dawned on me: Storage!

It’s definitely the simplest way to keep my winter coats safely snuggled away while making room for my warm weather goodies. 

Yes, You Have to Keep Decluttering!

Some people will tell you for every new object that enters your home, you should release two. I’ve never fully embraced minimalism, so that’s not exactly my style.

But I am eternally conscientious of what I’m bringing into my home. Do I have a space for this dope tea kettle I found on a brownstone stoop? Where will I keep my third pair of clogs? Similarly, I’m a constant declutterer. I’ll keep a tote stashed away for easy donation tosses, then take five minutes before I go to bed to put everything in its place.

Not sure whether to donate an item? Take a cue from Zen Habit with a “Maybe” box. Throw in whatever you’re feeling iffy about and seal it up for six months. If, after all that time, you haven’t even opened the box to get something out, donate everything. (Here’s where to donate your old clothes, books, furniture, and more.)

You Learn About Yourself as You Go

One of the funniest things about downsizing is you start to realize what matters to you. My wall space is limited, so I can only hang the photos that make me really happy. And my shelves are filled with books (see the photo above), because fiction is the one clutter “vice” I allow myself. These things make me happy – and therein lies the difference between them taking up my space and wasting it.

There’s a Definite Sense of Freedom

Limiting my possessions has made it easier to be spontaneous. Trips are easier to pack for since I can reach into my closet to grab what I need without knocking over never worn Uggs. Outfits are easier to plan since out-of-season clothes are also out-of-sight.

Recently, I was able to pursue a longtime dream of living in Berlin. The hard part? Learning German. The easy part? Packing all I needed into one suitcase, and everything else into storage.


Molli Carlson works as an editor for MakeSpace, a full-service storage company that picks up, stores, and delivers your stuff so you never have to visit a storage unit.

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