15 Feb

I like to keep up with what other people write about downsizing. So, it was with great anticipation I read Matt Paxton’s hot off the presses book, Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff: Declutter, Downsize, and Move Forward with Your Life (Portfolio/Penguin, 2022). The title alone is inspiring. Paxton is best known for being a featured cleaner for 13 seasons on A&E’s TV show, “Hoarders,” and more recently has been the host of PBS’s show, “Legacy List with Matt Paxton.” 

This book is designed for those clearing out a lifetime of memories, whether your own or someone else’s (such as a family member), with a view towards moving or at least moving on. Organized into nine easy to read steps/chapters from understanding the stories behind the possessions through to the final cleanup and moving process, the book takes both an emotional and practical approach that resonates with my own. Each chapter includes highlighted sections with specific tips that serve as a useful future reference. The book ends with a list of resources. 

Matt’s own journey began when, as a young man, he had to clear out the house of his recently deceased father and then was approached by an older woman whom he’d known all his life to do the same for her. He learned in his second unofficial clean-out job that the most important thing he could do was elicit and listen to the stories behind people’s possessions so that people can let go. As a professional downsizer, he sees this as an oral process but also encourages recording (tape or written). 

In his chapter on photographs and papers, Matt observes that these items are the toughest to sort through. He notes that photos are reminders of our life, and they, too, require the sharing of stories. He recommends keeping only 10% of the actual photographic collection (enough to fill no more than two shoeboxes), digitize others you care about (with backup), and create digital slideshows or scrapbooks (using professionals if you need to). He doesn’t mention those pesky color slides I talked about in my last post, but this chapter provided some useful tips. 

His section on paper documents focuses only on those practical documents you should keep and what to do with these. There was nothing about the masses of paper mementoes that I’ve discussed extensively—such as travel souvenirs, playbills, school papers. That oversight was disappointing, as I was hoping for some new ideas, and these kinds of paper documents make up a big percentage of my own archives. 

Perhaps Matt’s most important contribution, though not necessarily a new one, is his concept of the Legacy List, a group of “memory-packed items” that in all likelihood have little financial value to keep “ourselves and our loved ones alive when we’re apart.” As with Marie Kondo’s approach, the focus is on what to keep (rather than what we toss), but it is also about the stories behind the items. (See my own 2018 post on "Sparking Joy: Picking the Keepers" on this same subject.) Matt suggests choosing five or six items. He also provides an example of how some items can be fashioned into some other form to be used or appreciated (“upcycling”), like making quilts from old t-shirts. 

Another key idea for me was his one to donate as much as possible rather than trying to sell things. Unless you really need the money, you won’t be happy with the small amount of cash that your prized possessions will bring. To you they have value, so you believe that they should also have value to someone else. To avoid this heartache, “give yourself permission to give.” He provides numerous suggestions of types of places that will accept specific categories of things and encourages the use of “free-cycle” sites, as I do.  Nevertheless, he does cover selling in reasonable detail but undercuts his own argument about the minimal price you will get for most of your possessions with the example of a woman who had determined her grandfather clock was worth $5000 and then received $35,000 in it from an online auction. 

His final chapters focus on moving and are not relevant to those who just want to downsize. In the section on cleaning, he provides an example of a client who found valuable items underneath the basement steps—again setting up false hopes of hitting the jackpot. 

Overall, I did find this book to be somewhat more useful than most I have read on this subject, and I will keep it on my shelf as a reference book. While giving a range of helpful, accessible tips, it is not as narrowly prescriptive as Marie Kondo’s, which advocates only one approach. Although a minimalist himself, Matt regularly acknowledges the range of emotions that accompany the entire process and doesn’t downplay our need to feel these. He liberally illustrates his ideas with stories about his clients’ experiences. However, because the book tries to cover so much ground, it may not provide all the answers you seek. But, then what one resource does? And that’s why I write this blog—to fill in some of the holes. 

Here are my big takeaways from Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff, not necessarily new ideas, but important reminders. 

  • It’s about the stories. Share them, record them, write them down.
  • Know your end goal—whether that’s moving to a smaller place or wanting to live a more clutter-free life. Be as specific as you can be about that goal (e.g., the size and type of place) as it will shape the way you downsize.
  • Develop a habit by starting small (e.g., ten minutes a day) but regularly tackling your downsizing.
  • Ask for help if you need it, including using professional help. (Matt provides tips for hiring someone.)
  • Build your Legacy List to preserve your stories and those of your ancestors.
  • Focus on donating rather than selling your stuff, but tailor your donations for those things that have some importance or meaning to you (rather than just giving everything to Goodwill.) Generally, you will assign more monetary value to your things than they will get on the open market.
  • Celebrate your successes.
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