Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sell Everything and Start Over

Two years ago I wrote a blog post about uncluttering in which I pondered the concept of selling everything and starting over. I was prompted by Australian Ian Usher's "A Life 4 Sale" eBay auction. The 44-year-old man was selling his house, jet ski, car, clothes, a try-out for his job offered by his employer at a rug store, and even promised access to his friends who said they'd welcome the newcomer. I also referenced the 2007 "sell everything" auction by Lisa Perry and John Freyer's "sell almost everything" art project auctions in 2002, which proved to be smart marketing for his career. He used the proceeds from those auctions to go visit his things in their new homes, then created a book about the experience called All My Life For Sale.

All that happened before the financial meltdown.

In the last several months, I've noticed that the most frequent general Google search that currently directs people to my blog is the phrase, "sell everything and start over." Sadly, I suspect that has become an enforced reality for many people rather than a choice to consider, but I think the idea of starting over appeals to many of us, no matter what our situation might be. Americans are a fairly nomadic lot. We leave family behind, move around the country and usually idealize the lure of the open road. Unfortunately, we also usually haul all of our stuff with us. Even if we stash our stuff in pricey rented storage space, it still takes up space in our heads, not to mention the bite it takes out of our budgets.

Why are we so conflicted? We love the idea of freedom (in this case, I'm talking about literal freedom of movement or at least the feeling that we could move) and resent it when we feel trapped, yet we so often trap ourselves by clinging to our possessions. How many choices in your life would you have made differently if you had been unburdened of everything except the necessities to live? What would you have done differently if you hadn't felt obligated to keep your great-aunt's heavy wrought iron treadle sewing machine ("but it was hers") or boxes full of every single one of your kids' school papers ("it's their history") or the expensive furniture and decorative things you bought when you finally landed a good job and could handle the ongoing payments ("I paid . . . well, I'm still paying good money for that")?

Even in my own relatively uncluttered household, we sometimes look around the rooms and think, "Let's sell everything and start over!" It's just such an appealing possibility. I stand by what I said in my previous post:

I'm still rather fond of my youthful idea of being able to fit all I own in the back of my car and hit the open road. Very Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson (minus the substance abuse).

What does "selling everything" mean, literally, for most of us? We probably wouldn't really want to sell every single thing we own, but there are "stealth items" that we all know we could part with if we could simply let go of the feelings of obligation we have to keep them: the extra dishes, clothes, books, papers, even pieces of furniture and artwork; the hobby paraphernalia for hobbies that are no longer intriguing; the "fantasy life" stuff (no, I will never garden; will you ever rollerblade?); the "past life" stuff (I'm not talking about reincarnation; I'm talking about things you've outgrown intellectually or emotionally).

What would it take to make you let go of the remaining stuff that's holding you back and preventing you from feeling free (not the kids or grandkids!)? I think it's a question worth pondering. I'm not even addressing the issues of attitude and mental baggage; those can be formidable. But what choices would you make right now if you were no longer responsible for the stuff that currently fills your living space? Would you head for parts unknown or retrench in a better way right where you are?


I thought I'd do an Amazon search to find out what's been written about starting over or at least taking a substantial amount of time off. I can't personally recommend any of these titles, but I offer them in case they might pique your interest. While many people are being forced by circumstances to rethink their life plans, starting over to allow time to travel is the ideal. Full disclosure: I hate travel. I like being somewhere else, but getting there seems to be an incredible pain. I have mentioned previously that I am fond of author John Winokur's observation that the root of the word "travel" is the same as that for "travail." And yet, I find it just as fascinating a topic as anybody who does it voluntarily! Go figure.

Here are a few books about taking time off and travelling as a family:

One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children
by David Elliot Cohen

360 Degrees Longitude by John Higham

The Family Sabbatical Handbook: The Budget Guide to Living Abroad with Your Family
by Elisa Bernick

Judging by the available titles, when you're older, RV travel is popular:

Sightseein' and RVin': Travel Adventures After Fifty
by Sue Cook and Ed Cook

Travel Tales...: An Old Retiree, His RV, His Dog, and His Woman (Not Necessarily in Order of Preference) Hit the Road
by Ken Halloran

Travels With Susie: A Hilarious Account of One Couple's RV Journey Across America
by Gordon Grindstaff

The self-help titles were abundant, including:

Starting Over: 25 Rules When You've Bottomed Out
by Mary Lee Gannon

You-Turn: Changing Direction in Mid-Life
by Dr. Nancy B. Irwin

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up
by James Hollis

If you're thinking of starting over, or if you've already done so, please share your experiences!

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob


Anonymous said...

I could have written this! Strange to see my thoughts coming from someone else. For the past year or so, I've really been evaluating my life, and aside from my husband and kids, there's not much in it that I'm pleased with. I hate my job as a nurse, I'm becoming frustrated with the church parish I belong to, I am disgusted with my house as cute as it is...I'm tired of it. I'm living a rat race each day to pay for a home, cars, and things that aren't necessities. Why do I have those things? Because I've tried to keep up with society and friends. Things don't have to continue the way they are going though. If I didn't have many of the things I have, I wouldn't have to work as much as I do. I want to live each day to the fullest and teach my children the same, I want to focus on the important things in life like God, my family, my health, and doing things that I enjoy--traveling and exploring. I can't do that now because so many unecessary things have ahold of me. I'd love to sell almost everything and move to an island. Some place totally different than where I am now in NY. I don't want to work in the corporate world, I don't want to work for others unless I'm doing something I truly love. I would love to work for me and have a huge sense of pride. I would love to get rid of all the electronics and teach my kids to use their minds. I'm becoming more and more bitter because I hate this mess that I'm living. I just don't knwo where to start. In the near future, my husband and I have decided to go through our house and collect everything we do not want and have an estate sale. Hopefully one day, my dream of starting from scratch will come true!

Thank you for your post!

upstate NY

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thank you for your comment, Jennifer. I'm sorry you're in the midst of so much frustration, but, fortunately, you've realized that you can start making choices that will help you change the situation. So often we're not aware of how much power we have to make those better choices. You sound motivated and focused on what you want from your life, so you're already on your way!

Suggestions: I hope you have a place in a garage or basement that you can designate as the sorting area for the stuff you no longer want or need. Don't try to tackle the whole house all at once; take it room by room. It sounds like your children are old enough, so get them involved in the process. Start by throwing away everything that has no value, recycling when you can. Teach your children the joy of charitable giving by donating some items. Set aside the items you think are worthwhile to sell. A caveat: most items are worth far, far less than we think they are, so donating and taking a tax write-off is often the better choice -- and it gets the stuff out of your house right away. If you're really having an estate sale (in my book, I referred to selling many of my family antiques as my "pre-estate sale!") as opposed to a garage sale, you might want to get an agent involved fairly early in the process so you can get an idea of what has value and what doesn't.

Once your load has been lightened, you'll begin to see other options more clearly: job changes, location changes, or life changes that allow you to stay right where you are but make you feel satisfied. If the whole family is on board, this could be a very exciting time for everyone!

I wish you the best and hope you'll let me know how you're doing!

Lisa Perry said...

I am the lisa who had the auction on ebay in 06. Since then I have kept my possessions pared back and tried to only replace things that wear out. I am much more ruthless in donating or handing down things that no longer fit or I don't use. Occasionally I miss items I used to own, mostly when I'm looking for that one suit or pair of shoes or serving plate that would have been perfect for a situation.
When I was in Japan this spring I found I really enjoyed living with a very limited closet and items.
Look forward to reading more of your posts.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Lisa, what a delightful surprise to hear from you! I'm pleased to learn that having the auction still feels like it was the right thing for you to do and that you're maintaining an uncluttered life now. The Japanese lifestyle certainly does confirm that living with less can be done beautifully and comfortably. So glad you'll be reading the blog and, I hope, posting further comments!

Anonymous said...

I have worked and worried and been tied to this lifestyle for the past 15 yrs. Working for the American dream. I own a beautiful home and have my own successful business. But I feel trapped. I am tired of all the responsibility and obligation. It isn't my dream. It's what society tells you will make you happy and then when it dsnt we feel lost. At least I have. I have 3 great kids and I want them to be my priority. I want to have relief from the day to day worries.
I was looking through all my possessions, my tools and holiday decorations and lawncare items....its a lifetime collection of things. Things I have exchanged my time with my kids for. Time I could have been enjoying. It takes time to organize these things too. More time to pay for space for them. I am literally trading life (time) for material things that break, get lost or thrown out. But the time I will not get back.
I'm done. I want freedom. Freedom from the stress and worry it costs to live the American dream.
My dream is different. I am determined to live simple so I can live my dream.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Anonymous, I think it's great that you have such a clear understanding that your dream will take you down a different path than the one you've been following. I have no doubt that you'll make the right decisions in the future. Good luck! And please check back in to let us know how you're doing.

Anonymous said...

Freedom can be defined as not having anything left to lose. I believe this quote in that the things we own most certainly tie us down. I myself have tossed everything out and even moved to Japan. It was the best decision I ever made. I was able to grow up emotionally in way that allowed me to become the better person I knew I could be. I am happier and wealthier now... Only because at one point in my life I decided to stop the endless cycle of materialism that we all suffer from. I wish you much luck in your search for fulfillment and happiness, and knowing that you won't find it in a house or a car is a great start.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Anonymous, I'm delighted to hear that your move has worked out so well for you. May we all be so fortunate! Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a blog - so I don't mean to 'dump' to the public, but who else...LOL...In my mid- 40's and single, successful in some terms, lost everything once and spent a lot of money replacing losing my mother to cancer and ready to change my life again! Interesting to look around and want to sell everything and start alone in a five bedroom house full of 'stuff' and how much everything I touch has a memory. Everything has a memory - from who gave it to me, when, where I bought it, why, how owned it first. My goal is to take the 'irreplacables' and store them at Dad's...give it a few years and then revisit...and what doesn't fit in the small 8 x 10 foot spare room - GOES this May onto the front yard with a price tag...Lets see how it works...lets pray it helps with this heavy heart. -

Bill in Michigan - for now

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Bill, I'm sorry that you're going through such a difficult time, but I think you're on the right track to make yourself feel a bit better. Unburdening your life of stuff always unburdens your mind, so why wouldn't it also help unburden your heart? I send you my best wishes and hope you'll check in here again after you've made some of the changes you have planned.