Many women who responded to our Retirement Voices questionnaire last year talked about how decluttering and downsizing their homes was part of their retirement transition. No longer working, they finally had time to purge—clearing out closets, attics and basements and getting rid of outdated and unused “stuff” that had accumulated over the years.

That said, however, there’s often more to it than simply divesting ourselves of possessions and moving to a smaller home when we retire. Instead, there’s a psychological or spiritual shift that frequently needs to take place when it comes to letting stuff go.

It’s what author and fellow blogger Kathy Gottberg (pictured above) calls rightsizing. And she sees it as the perfect path to a happy retirement.

“Rightsizing is the ultimate journey to find what matters to each of us,” she says. “It’s about discovering what gives your life meaning, makes you smile, and allows you to sleep well at night.

“Society is constantly trying to convince us what to do and believe, telling us what stuff we’re ‘supposed’ to have,” she continues. “Happiness is just one purchase away—a bigger house, a more prestigious job, a nicer car.”

But ridding ourselves of the desire to acquire can be truly liberating, particularly when it comes to retirement.

“A lot of people feel trapped in unfulfilling jobs because they have to pay the mortgage on their big house, make payments on that fancy car, and they can’t afford to retire,” she says. “But by rightsizing, maybe they can afford to pursue work they love that pays less. Or they can work less or step away altogether—retire—when they choose to instead of being chained to the hamster wheel.”

Walking the walk

Kathy and her husband Thom walk the walk in this regard.

“Like many people, we got caught up in the more-is-better mindset, then the recession hit in 2008, when we were in our fifties,” she relates. “Thom worked in real estate, so we really needed to pare down. We took a hard look at our expenses and were shocked at how much it cost to live in our 2,400-square-foot house with a three-car garage and pool. The pool alone was costing us $350 a month!

“We decided to sell even though we’d get less than we paid,” she continues. “But we figured we’d lose less than if we hung on. Then we looked at homes we could buy outright that had no association dues, no pool, good walkability. We found a 1,375-square-foot house that fit our needs.

“We had no mortgage, slashed our monthly expenses, got rid of our three cars and a motorcycle, put in desert landscaping and did our own gardening,” she says. “We were able to start socking away money without sacrificing. And Thom, who’s the breadwinner, was able to work part time. That was real freedom.

“It was a progression for us, but we learned to be more self-aware by focusing on where we wanted to be in the future,” Kathy says. “We don’t live lavishly, but we love to travel. We’re careful about prioritizing what’s important to us. We have no interest in trying to impress others.

“There are other metrics for how ‘wealthy’ we are, like our health and well-being—something the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into even sharper focus,” she adds.

What prevents others from taking the rightsizing route with their possessions?

Barriers to rightsizing

“I’ve seen people retire and admit they should downsize but fear that if they don’t keep the big house, their kids won’t visit,” Kathy says. “Or they simply can’t imagine letting go of all the stuff they’ve accumulated that fills that big house. Or being surrounded by all their stuff gives them a sense of control.

“Sadly, some people define themselves by their possessions,” she notes. “Or they feel that by giving up things they’ll lose the memories associated with those things.

“But we don’t need physical possessions to hold onto memories,” she stresses. “Sentimentality can be a trap, like keeping your mother’s china that you never use. If you don’t use it, why keep it?

“I’m not saying get rid of what you love,” Kathy adds, “and everyone’s different. But we can be conscious and mindful about it, and ask ourselves, ‘Really, how important is this to me?’”

She also points out that many parents convince themselves that they can’t get rid of anything because their children will want their stuff after they’re gone.

“I’ve never seen an estate settlement that didn’t require a dumpster,” she says. “At the very least, ask your kids if there’s anything they want. If so, give it to them. If not, donate, consign or sell it.”

Learning to say no

A variation on the rightsizing theme in retirement relates to the activities and people we choose to fill our lives with. For example, women often struggle with saying no to requests to volunteer or babysit their grandchildren. How do you set boundaries and decline without guilt or defensiveness?

“I still grapple with this,” Kathy says, admitting that the old tape about “good girls should” can start to play. “Rightsizing reminds me to be aware of how I’m feeling and the consequences of my choices. If I’m mindful that I’ll resent saying yes, then I’m not doing anyone—including myself—any good. You need to stay aware of your priorities.”

Similarly, we should be able to freely choose to surround ourselves with people who enrich our life rather than the so-called emotional vampires who deplete it.

“By the time we reach retirement age, we’re entitled to hang around with the people who support us, respect our choices, and share our values,” Kathy says. “I believe friendships are contagious—and I want to catch ideas, joyfulness and positive attitudes from mine.”

So what’s her advice for how to let go of things (or people) that are simply taking up space in our homes or our lives?

How to let go

“Rightsizing asks us to really evaluate what matters,” Kathy says. “Does a possession or a person bring you purpose, satisfaction and happiness? What’s it doing for you, really and truly? And what’s behind why you can’t let go?

“It requires serious self-reflection and you have to be honest with yourself,” she continues. “And you have to be open to changing. The more comfortable we can get inside our own skin, the more we can rely on ourselves—not our stuff—for a sense of safety and well-being.

“When I talk to people who’ve actually taken the steps to rightsize, I never hear any regrets,” she adds. “They always feel better than they thought they would.”

What do you think? How do you feel about the concept of rightsizing when it comes to your possessions and the people in your life? How difficult is it for you to let go of stuff—or relationships—that no longer enrich your life? Please share!

Read more about Kathy and how rightsizing can help you before and after retirement on her SMARTLiving365 website.

PHOTO CAPTION: Kathy Gottberg on a trip to Vietnam. She and husband Thom consider travel their “splurge.”