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woman sailing a boat

How I Downsized My Home to Live on a Sailboat: 9 Proven Decluttering Tips


by Kristin Hanes Posted on August 3, 2020

When I decided to move onto a 41-foot sailboat with just a couple hundred square feet of living space, I knew I had to get rid of boatloads of stuff (no pun intended). I’d been renting a room in an apartment near San Francisco, and had furniture, clothes, knick-knacks, and books. What in the world would I do with all that stuff?

At first, it seemed like a daunting task. How would I decide what to get rid of and what to keep? What was important to me? Where would I store the stuff that wouldn’t fit on a boat?

I only had one month to downsize and move out, so no time for endless reminiscing or hemming and hawing. In those four weeks, I got rid of most of my stuff and fit the rest in a few gray bins that I stored in my mom’s attic.

It’s been four years since I’ve been mostly stuff-free, and I’ve never felt better. Getting rid of stuff sets us free, removes us from the rat race, and gives us a sense of well-being.

If I could downsize my belongings to fit inside a tiny home like a sailboat, you can, too. Whether you’re staying in your current house or moving into a smaller place, I hope these tips motivate you to start downsizing your home immediately.

You’ll be forever thankful you did.

woman happy after downsizing her home
After downsizing, Kristin Hanes has more time to enjoy the outdoors, while still running her own successful business.

1. Know Your "Why" for Downsizing Your Home

While a 30-day deadline to move onto a sailboat gave me a major kick in the pants to start downsizing right away, your goal may not be as concrete.

If not, it’s important to know your why. 

Chris DiCroce, an author, sailor, and minimalist at chrisdicroce.com, says it’s a good idea to articulate your goal/dream/desire for downsizing your home. Put it into one simple sentence you can refer back to often.

“When the process becomes difficult, you can lean back on that goal for support,” he says. “Whether it’s going sailing, or becoming debt-free, or living a simpler life, write it down and have it in a visible place. That will be a daily affirmation that will keep you focused on your goal. For me, I posted a picture of the sailboat I wanted on my bathroom mirror. It was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw before bed.”

Make sure your goal is motivating and keeps you on track, and make it a point to read that sentence every day.

Rows of shoes laid out
How many shoes do we really need?
(Credit: @willlimitless via Instagram)

2. Start with the Easy Stuff

I was lucky to only have a couple of rooms to go through when I started downsizing my home to move onto a sailboat. Whether you live in a two-bedroom apartment or a five-bedroom house, it’s a good idea to start with the easy stuff that you aren’t attached to.

For example, it was easy for me to go through my clothes and create a Goodwill pile, and to sort through my paperwork for recycling. My childhood mementos? Much harder.

Start with the stuff you know is junk. 

“Those remotes in the drawer that you have no idea what they go to? Those burned out candles on the mantle or bookshelf? Throw them out! Go into your attic, basement, or closet and gather up those dusty old suitcases and gym bags. Half of them have broken zippers or missing straps,” says DiCroce. 

Next, take aim at the duplicate items. 

“Ladies, you have purses in that closet that you rarely use but just can’t get rid of,” DiCroce says. “They might only match one outfit. Gather them up!”

Donate or sell the good stuff. If it’s trashed, don't donate it to someone else. Throw it out, or better yet, find a recycling center.

If you start with the easy stuff and start seeing clutter go down, you’ll be motivated to tackle the harder items.

A cluttered closet

3. Take Stock of What You Use and Need

When you downsize room by room, it’s important to think about what you truly use and need. I knew I wouldn’t need my full-size bed and chest of drawers on a sailboat, so I got rid of those things immediately. Since I’d also recently lost my job, I got rid of a lot of my work clothes and high-heeled shoes.

While it was difficult to let go of those things on some level, I also knew they’d be easy to replace, should I ever need an apartment or office job again.

As you assess what you really use, consider getting rid of duplicate items. Do you really need five different moisturizers? What about several sets of measuring cups? Do you really use 15 plates on a regular basis? 

Keep only what is currently valuable in your life. Remember, it’s only stuff. It can always be replaced later if you think you’ve made a downsizing mistake.

Trust me, after you get rid of stuff you’ll barely miss it down the road.

A garage sale for decluttering

4. Figure out the Best Way to Get Rid of Your Stuff

Part of downsizing your home is getting rid of unnecessary items. You can do this in several different ways. Here are some ideas to help you declutter and banish stuff for good:

  • Host a garage sale and advertise it on Craigslist, Nextdoor, or on neighborhood Facebook groups
  • Sell stuff online using eBay, Poshmark, Craigslist, OfferUp, LetGo, or Facebook Marketplace
  • Donate stuff to Goodwill or The Salvation Army
  • Post stuff to your neighborhood’s Buy Nothing group
  • Freecycle is another great resource for donating items
  • List stuff “for free” on Craigslist and see it disappear within hours
  • Ask friends or relatives if they can use any of your stuff

What you no longer have use for is probably another person’s treasure. In fact, I had way too many gorgeous cast-iron pots when I downsized my home. I gave them to family members to “hold onto for me.” They’ve enjoyed those pots now for years, and I know I can get them back if I ever need them again.

Sometimes, parting with something temporarily is easier than parting with it for good.

Measuring furniture

5. Measure your Furniture

If you’re downsizing your home to move into a smaller place, you’ll have to figure out which furniture stays and which goes. The last thing you want is to pay movers and deal with loading and unloading if your stuff isn’t even going to fit.

Take some measuring tape to your couches, end tables, dining room table, and bedroom furniture and make sure it has a home in your new place.

The more you can get rid of before your move, the better!

Also, make sure you actually use the furniture you’re going to take. Is your bookshelf just home to endless knick-knacks you don’t really care about? Get rid of it! Is your bedroom end table cluttered full of stuff? Think about what can go.

PODS portable container

6. Consider a Storage Unit or Portable Container

The only things I can’t store on my sailboat or in my campervan are my childhood mementos. Really, there’s no room for bins full of childhood artwork, photo albums, yearbooks, and a few treasured toys in a small space.

Luckily, I was able to store that stuff in my mom’s attic. I’ve also got a few other random items in my partner’s storage unit, which is otherwise filled with his tools and outdoor gear. 

But most downsizing projects are bigger than mine. Maybe you’re moving from a four-bedroom home where you’ve lived for 20 years to a condo less than half that size. In that case, consider giving yourself a break by renting a storage unit or portable storage container. 

Since PODS portable containers are delivered right to your driveway, they can be an immense help while downsizing and moving. You can put boxes, furniture, and belongings in your container as you’re sorting things and making decisions. 

“Just because something goes in, doesn’t mean it stays in,” said Sherry and John Petersik of the popular Young House Love podcast when they used a PODS container to help their family of four downsize from a whopping 3,150-square-foot home in Richmond, VA, to move into a cozy 1,400-square-foot beach house in the Florida panhandle.

Then, when you’ve loaded your container to the brim, PODS will take it to your new home, or a secure storage center that provides easy access. When you’re ready, PODS will bring the container where you need it, whether it’s across town or across the country.

To watch Sherry and John’s ingenious container-loading and moving out process, see their Instagram story. Learn all about their amazing downsizing and home remodeling journey by listening to their Young House Love podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.   

DiCroce says to be extra critical of what you’re paying to keep. “Usually, if we're going to store washers, dryers, or refrigerators, we're paying to store diminishing technology. A year from now, the refrigerators, washers, and dryers will be more efficient than the ones you're planning on storing,” he says. “It might be better to sell the appliances and tech you have (that right there could pay to store other items) and replace them when you know what you need in your new life.”

Little girl holding a picture of memories
Making art from memories is a fun way to downsize.
(Credit: @framebridge via Instagram)

7. Get Creative with Emotional Mementos

One really hard part about downsizing your home is getting rid of stuff that has emotional value. For me, it was the Breyer horses I played with as a child. I moved those horses from home to home, and finally decided to get rid of a bag full of them a couple of years ago.

I almost couldn’t drop them off at Goodwill, but then imagined the happy children that would get to play with my treasured horses. A day after I dropped the horses off, I didn’t think about them again!

However, I did keep several of the horses to remind me of my happy childhood days. I just didn’t need two boxes full!

If you have birthday cards, letters, or dozens of similar items you’re holding onto, consider keeping just two or three of those items and giving the rest away.

For example, my dad had boxes of Christmas and birthday cards that all said basically the same thing. He kept two or three examples and recycled the rest.

You can also consider taking photos of some of your treasured items and turning the photos into art or a wall decoration. Then, you’ll have a reminder of your stuff without actually needing to store and move it around.

Laundry closet used as additional storage
John and Sherry of Young House Love turned their small laundry closet into a workhorse with these quick shelves.
(Credit: Young House Love blog)

8. Think Outside the Box for In-Home Storage

Once you arrive at your smaller place, or even if you’re staying in your current one, there are ways to get inventive with storage for the things you do keep. Unique storage ideas can keep stuff out of sight and out of mind, reducing clutter and stress.

For example, podcasters John and Sherry now have only three closets in their new beach home.

“We added shelving and vertical storage to our closets, which got a lot of things off the floor,” said Sherry. “We built several shelves over our washer/dryer which gave us a lot more storage space.”

Keeping only what you need and then finding a good home for those items is one way to keep your house open and clutter-free.

9. Don’t Buy More Stuff!

Once you’ve successfully downsized your home, you’ll really enjoy the sense of space, tranquility, and openness you’ve created in your house, your mind, and your life.

Now it’s time to keep that clutter-free existence and put your buying habits in check.

After I got rid of most of my stuff, my buying habits changed. Now, I think critically about each item I buy. I ask myself several questions before making a purchase:

  • Do I really need this item?
  • Is this item duplicating anything else I currently have?
  • What will I get rid of to make room for this new item?
  • What purpose does this item have in my life?
  • Will I use the item on a regular basis, and does it justify the cost?

I simply don’t have the space to keep multiple versions of the same item, whether that’s running shoes, a hiking backpack, or coffee cups. 

By downsizing your home, you’ve taken a major step to prioritize what’s important in your life.  You’ll save money because you’re not buying tons of new stuff, and you’ll know every item you buy has a purpose. 

I think you’ll enjoy your newfound freedom. Instead of feeling bogged down by all your stuff, you’ll feel a lightness and energy you can put toward other goals, like hobbies, outdoor activities, and visiting with loved ones. 

Hopefully, you’ll feel inspired to start downsizing your home today.

Kristin Hanes is a writer and blogger who helps people downsize and live in tinier homes, whether that’s a campervan, RV, sailboat or tiny house on wheels. She now splits her time between the sailboat and a campervan. You can find her blog at The Wayward Home.

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