A Hard Lesson: Most of Our Stuff Has No Value to Anyone

Have you had to help settle a parent's or grandparent's estate?  I have.  My mother lived in a typical middle-class suburban home filled with furniture, china, crystal, art, clothing, collectibles, and more.  There were plenty of things that had simply been stored for several decades. 

Mama was a tidy housekeeper.  Her house didn't look cluttered.  But it was packed with stuff that wasn't used more than once or twice a year, if that.  Every room, every closet, every shelf, every drawer was full of a lifetime of stuff.  And something needed to be done with all of it.

old stuff for sale

What do you do with a lifetime of stuff?

Losing a parent is hard enough.  Deciding which belongings should be saved, which have some resale value, which can be donated, and what will have to be hauled to the landfill adds even more stress.  And if you can't manage it yourself, the cost of hiring a company to go through everything, separate trash from treasure, and hold an estate sale might actually be more than the sale itself generates.

The lesson learned from the whole experience is that most of the stuff we claim to value is worthless.  Even to ourselves!

Many of us live in good-sized houses that we've filled with stuff over the years.  I once owned dishes I used only at the holidays.  Special tools and appliances I used once or twice and continued to store "just in case" I might need them again.  Clothes, shoes, accessories, décor items, and more bought because they once caught my eye.  Old tech.  High school mementos.  Hundreds of books read once.

I realized that if I didn't streamline what I owned, eventually someone – probably my children – would be burdened with the job of getting rid of it.

Did you know that even the stuff you worry about the most, the stuff you think is so good that you hardly use it for fear of breaking or staining it, has little or no resale value?  Older Baby Boomers have already flooded the market with their castoffs:  china cabinets, entertainment centers, tea sets, crystal, collectible figurines, and more.  Millennials, the next generation of buyers, don't want them.

After all, Millennials have student loans, move often, and tend to rent for many years before buying a house (if they ever do).  They don't want to move a piano, grandfather clock, or fragile once-a-year china from apartment to apartment.  They're not into formal in-home entertaining, and they don't like "brown furniture," meaning any furniture (regardless of quality) other than clean-lined modern styles.  

According to many estate professionals, there's no market for brown (also known as "grandma") furniture.  Even if it's donated, much of it won't be resold.  Some will wind up in a landfill.

There are three things you might have in your house that currently have some resale value:

  • guns
  • vinyl records in excellent condition and with the original cover
  • precious gems and metals (which doesn't include silver-plated flatware or serving pieces)

Related article:  What Do You Do With All of Your Stuff?

6 steps to reduce the burden

Here's what you should do now, before you saddle your kids or grandkids with your worthless stuff.

1.  If you aren't using it, but it might be useful, donate it now.

There is absolutely no sense in letting something sit for years or decades gathering dust.  If it's dusty now, you don't need it.  But maybe it will get some use if you remove it from your home today.

2.  Resist the HGTV mentality.

more old stuff for sale
Constant home makeovers are good business for furniture manufacturers and home stores, but really bad for our wallets and the environment.  And much modern furniture is made of particle board or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) that contain formaldehyde and other toxic substances.

Keep what you have if you are using it now, and take care of it.  If you want to, update some of that solid wood "brown furniture" by painting it.  Paint your kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them.

Resist trendiness and stick with the colors you like.  Have old rugs cut down and rebound.  Create your own art, or decorate with those family heirlooms you claim mean so much to you.

3.  Buy fewer, but better quality, clothes and shoes.

The world is overflowing with used clothing.

A lot of clothing made today is meant to last only a season or two.  In fact, much of it isn't going to withstand more than a few washes.  And I'm sorry to say you aren't doing much good when you donate unwanted clothing to charity shops.  Much of it will never make it to the racks in the store, and only a small portion will eventually be sold.

When you need to buy, choose a few high quality, classically-styled items that you'll keep and wear for many years.

4.  Rethink book-buying.

Millions of books end up in landfills every year.

However, you don't have to stop reading books.  (Don't!)  If you haven't been to the library in a while, now is the time to go back.  It might also be time to invest in an e-reader.* (Just FYI – with Amazon's free Kindle app, you can read e-books on your phone or tablet instead.)  

If you do want to own a physical copy of a book, look for used copies online with Amazon or Abe Books.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission at no cost to you.

5.  Be ruthless about sentimental items.

Keep just enough stuff to remind you of someone, but not so much that your own kids will be dealing with piles in another 30 years.  I kept some photographs, two pieces of furniture that I use every day, and one item of Christmas décor from my mom's house.

When you keep less, you're able to use or display it in a place of honor.  Even one useful or on-display item will trigger memories of your loved one.  If a bunch of stuff is only going to sit in the back of a closet or in your garage or attic, you might as well dump it now.

one precious keepsake
This goes for photos too.  If you create a small scrapbook that will have pride of place on your coffee table, or if you choose a lovely portrait, frame it nicely, and hang it prominently, then you honor your loved one and have a chance to regularly see and remember her.  Simply keeping a pile of moldering photos in a box in the basement (or in a forgotten computer file) isn't preserving memories for anyone.  Might as well toss them.

I'll definitely think twice before keeping any of my own sentimental items for someone else to deal with after I die.

Related article:  How to Uncover Your Treasures by Decluttering Your Keepsakes

6.  Stop shopping for extras.

I dare you to use up what you already own!  Are you really in need of more?  Is your life impaired without the latest phone or gadget?  Is your holiday less joyous because you're using last year's décor or tableware?  Do your collections need to keep growing?

Find other ways to add variety and surprise to your life.  For example:

  • Try the cuisine at that new restaurant downtown.
  • Read an author or genre you haven't tried before.
  • Vary your hairstyle.
  • Venture out of your comfort zone with a different news source.
  • Engage your senses with music, an art museum, or a garden.
  • Spend time with a young child, and share their sense of exploration and discovery.

And pay attention to nature, which is full of endless beauty.

Coming this spring...

... my new book!  It's called Clutter-Free Kids: A 10-Step Guide to Help You Take Control of Your Own Space.*  Some of my husband's students gave me input during the editing process, and I had a great time working with them.  Clutter-Free Kids is aimed at children approximately 7 to 14 years old, but has lots of good information and examples that parents and grandparents should find helpful too.

* This blog is reader-supported. If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

I'm also working on a book about downsizing, which I hope to have out later in the summer.  In fact, this post was a little teaser.  I hope you found it useful.


  1. Great article! Look forward to your new book.

  2. This article was the kick in the pants I needed. I already live a minimalist lifestyle but sometimes things get away from me like gremlins fed after midnight. Thanks for the reminder that the simple answer is the best answer.


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