How we lost 200 pounds in two weeks… and a little bit of ourselves along the way

A few posts ago, I wrote that my husband and I were beginning a period of intense paper-purging. Our file cabinets had become over-stuffed and we had boxes of papers on the shelves of our offices and in the garage. Our goal was to get rid of what was useless and to better organize and store the records we needed to hold onto. Simplify, organize, purge.

Although not yet finished – will that ever happen? – we have made great strides. We’ve dumped at least 100 pounds of paper into our recycle bin and have taken another 100 pounds or so to a commercial shredding facility. Our house feels lighter and our drawers and shelves have room to breathe.

As freeing as it has been to offload so much unnecessary paper, both of us were unprepared for the loss we are feeling too. Along with the financial statements that can now be found online, saved recipes and travel articles the internet has made irrelevant, and other paper flotsam and jetsam that we’ve squirreled away over the years, a lot of what we tossed was part of our history. Employment records, correspondence, reports that we’ve written, notes for talks we’ve presented, and even some recognition and awards we’ve received over the years.

Over 40 years of work either recycled or shredded.

Gone.

It’s hard to describe the conflicted emotions both of us are experiencing. While we are happy to be retired – thrilled not to be a part of the work-a-day world any longer – it is difficult to completely divorce ourselves from those two people we once were. We were full-time employees longer than we were students or have been retired… combined. Our careers meant a great deal to us. They helped to define us. Our job descriptions were how we answered the inevitable question, “What do you do?”

Now that we have empty space on our shelves, room in our file cabinets, and a garage that doesn’t feel quite so stuffed, we want to keep it that way. Like many retirees, our focus has is switched from acquiring stuff to having experiences. I imagine that the tinge of loss we are feeling now won’t last and will completely dissipate as we move on to our next adventure. Right now, though, we are feeling a little sad as we say goodbye to our younger selves and move further away from what we did then towards what we do now.

Paper Purge

Up until recently, my husband and my efforts to reduce clutter have been mainly focused on things like clothes, books, and miscellaneous household items. I am fairly satisfied with our progress and am pleased that the “public” areas of our house are, if not clutter-free, at least not embarrassing if someone stops by unexpectedly.

Now, we’ve turned our attention to the gobs of paper engulfing our offices. These include financial documents, articles and recipes saved to do something with “someday,” and an astounding number of lists – written on notepaper, on the back of envelopes, on post-its, and at the bottom of other lists. The paper that clutters the top of my desk is bad enough but lurking inside my file cabinets, and in boxes in my closet, are even more papers, and they need to be sorted, shredded, or recycled.

At least I know that I come by my paper problem honestly. My mother had a hand-made sign on her desk that read:

“Those who keep a neat desk will never experience the incomparable joy of finding something they thought they had irretrievably lost.”

I’m not sure if she was the author of the quote (she was a writer/editor) or if it was borrowed but it perfectly described her desk… as it does mine.

So, for the past several days, my husband and I have been slowly working through our piles and files. Boxes with documents for shredding are filling up, as is our big blue recycle can. Although we still have a way to go, we are motivated by three notions:

  • Security: We enjoy traveling and plan to continue for as long as we can. So far, we’ve been lucky to have trusted friends take care of our house while we are gone but that might not always be possible. Our goal is to have limited personal/private documents so that if we participate in a home exchange or arrange for a housesit, securing these papers will be easy.
  • Flexibility: Although we are happy with our current home and neighborhood, recently we’ve talked about alternative living situations. Would we be happier in a condo (no yard to maintain, minimal upkeep, more security when we travel, etc.)? How about an active retirement community or, at least a smaller town with walkable neighborhoods? This decision may be many years away, but why not start purging now so it won’t be as difficult later?
  • Reality: Am I really ever going to read the articles I’ve saved? Nope. Especially with the Internet as my go-to source. Some of the information is worth keeping, but most can be tossed. And those random notes and lists? I am trying to corral them all into one notebook, and as I cross out items, or no longer need the information, the pages can be ripped out and recycled.

Although the process has been slow, the experience has been very satisfying. My desk is neater, my files drawers aren’t nearly as full, and – even better – a couple of times I’ve experienced the incomparable joy of finding items I thought were irretrievably lost.

The tyranny of stuff

When my husband and I retired, getting rid of excess stuff was one of our primary goals. Although our home wouldn’t qualify for hoarder status, it carried the baggage of stuff collecting that had taken place over the years. Because we both had acquired stuff before we met, a good amount of that stuff was transferred from our individual homes into our shared home. And, of course, stuff continued to enter our home after we got married. Then, after my parents died, some of their stuff also found its way into our growing collection.

Now, several years into retirement, we still have too much stuff. Although we’ve done a pretty good job of curtailing the in-flow of more stuff, the out-flow hasn’t gone as easily as we had hoped it would. We don’t have too much of a problem identifying stuff to be tossed or stuff to be donated; it’s the stuff we no longer want but has value – real or sentimental – that is more difficult to manage.

We had high hopes that eBay would be the perfect way to get rid of lots of stuff and bring in some money in the process. Although we’ve used it to sell several dozen items and we intend to sell more, we have found that the process takes a lot of time. When we started out, we put just about anything up for auction, regardless of its hoped for selling price. We once sold some used cycling cleat covers (yes, someone wanted them) for $8.00, plus shipping. But, after we figured the time it took to research an asking price (yes, there were similar cleat covers being sold), write copy,  take pictures, post the ad, then package and mail them when they sold, we were lucky if we made $3 an hour. Other items, of course, have sold for much more, which made the process worth it. As a result, we have become more discriminating about what is worth selling and what we should donate or post for free on Craig’s List.

Stuff headed for the Discovery Shop.
Stuff headed for the Discovery Shop.

Our push to get rid of stuff has ramped up lately. We are enjoying living a less-cluttered life and a better functioning home. We like having a few cabinets that are actually empty. The closet in our guest room has space for guests’ clothes. I no longer seldom am embarrassed when friends or neighbors stop by unexpectedly. As long as they stay out of our offices and the catch-all room upstairs, the illusion of having a well-curated home is maintained.

But, just living with less clutter day-to-day isn’t the only reason we want to get rid of more stuff. We are also looking at a few long-term advantages. Having a home that we could temporarily swap for, say, one in the south of France would extend our travel budget. Renting our house while we take off for extended adventures could provide income and security. Either possibility would be easier to accomplish if our home had less stuff and more space.

When I was younger, I loved acquiring stuff. Now, I view most stuff as unnecessary, restricting and complicating. Slowly, I’m winnowing down my wardrobe to have fewer, but more versatile clothes. Our shelves are being freed of clutter, leaving only a few, carefully selected items. The tabletop piles of paper are being swept away and replaced with… nothing.

Very gradually, we are freeing our home of the tyranny of stuff and welcoming the liberation of having space.

What is on your list?

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I love creating lists in the first place and I love crossing items off as they are accomplished. I’ve even been known to put tasks on a list that I’ve already completed just so I could check them off.

There is a list that has been floating around the interwebs that appears to be somewhere between a bucket list and a “done it” list. The items listed are a combination of places to visit and experiences to have, with a few things we may have done when we were younger (skipped school, played cops and robbers) mixed in for good measure.

When I first saw this list on Denise’s blog My Life in Retirement, I was curious to see how my check marks would compare to hers. If you are a list devotee like I am, you might also want to see how many items on the list you have done.

Although I checked off 45 out of 68, there are only around 9 of the remaining 23 that I either would like to do or have any hope of doing (travel to South America and scuba dive, for instance). As far as the other 14 are concerned, I either have no desire (get divorced or sing in church, for example) and/or certainly the time has passed (skipped school or have a child).

The list is by no means complete (Denise pointed out that “Visit Australia” wasn’t included – Been There for her, Not Yet for me), but I hope you’ll get the same feelings of satisfaction that I did as you check items off, and maybe you’ll be inspired to add a few others to your own To Do list.

 
(x) Shot a gun – once, which was enough
(x) Gone on a blind date – it was not a good experience…
(  ) Skipped school
(x) Watched someone die – my 92-year-old father; a horrible, profound and moving experience
(x) Visited Canada
(x) Visited Hawaii
(x) Visited Cuba
(x) Visited Europe
(  ) Visited South America – definitely on my list
(x) Visited Las Vegas
(  ) Visited Central America – also on my list
(  ) Visited Asia
(  ) Visited Africa – yep, on the list
(x) Visited Florida
(x) Visited Mexico
(x) Seen the Grand Canyon in person
(  ) Flown in a helicopter
(x) Served on a jury – several times, once as the foreman
(x) Been lost – as a child at Knott’s Berry Farm; found by an “Indian” (does that count?)
(x) Traveled to the opposite side of the country – a few times by plane, once on a road trip with a girlfriend
(x) Visited Washington, DC

(x) Swam in the ocean – not a big accomplishment, I live in Southern California
(x) Cried yourself to sleep
(x) Played cops and robbers – I had two older brothers, one who became a real cop later on
(x) Played cowboys and Indians – ditto (except neither of my brothers became a cowboy or an Indian)
(  ) Recently colored with crayons
(  ) Sang karaoke
(  ) Sang a solo or duet in church
(x) Paid for a meal with coins only – not a big meal, but a meal nonetheless

(x) Made prank phone calls – oh my god, we thought we were so funny!
(x) Laughed until some beverage came out of your nose
(x) Caught a snowflake on your tongue
(  ) Had a child
(x) Had a pet
(x) Been skinny-dipping
(x) Been fishing
(x) Been boating
(x) Been downhill skiing
(x) Been water skiing
(  ) Been camping in a trailer/RV

(x) Been camping in a tent
(x) Driven a motorcycle
(  ) Been bungee-jumping
(x) Gone to a drive-in movie
(x) Done something that could have killed you
(  ) Done something that you will regret for the rest of your life – isn’t it the things not done that we regret?
(  ) Rode an elephant
(  ) Rode a camel
(  ) Eaten just cookies or cake or ice cream for dinner – popcorn, yes
(x) Been on TV
(  ) Stolen any traffic signs
(x) Been in a car accident – not my fault… either time
(  ) Been in the hospital in past 24 months
(  ) Donated blood
(  ) Gotten a speeding or any other type of ticket in the past 12 months
(x) Gotten a piercing (ears count)
(x) Gotten a Tattoo – a radiation tattoo… not that fun
(x) Driven a manual transmission vehicle
(  ) Ever owned your dream car I don’t really have a “dream car”
(x) Been married
(  ) Been divorced
(x) Fell in love
(x) Fell out of love
(x) Paid for a stranger’s meal
(x) Driven over 120 mph – 150 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats: I’m not sure if it counts since my husband was at the wheel
(  ) Been scuba diving –  sadly only snorkeling, but it was wonderful!

(x) Written a published book/story/poetry
(x) Eaten snails – “eaten” may be overstating it – I could only manage a small bite

Sharks circling the mailbox

Like many retirees, my husband and I have been focused on getting rid of the clutter around our house. Over the years we have managed to collect a lot of stuff; stuff that is no longer relevant to our lives. But, as we continue to offload piles of things we’ve acquired over the years, there continues a flood of unwanted and useless stuff through our front door, via the U.S. Postal Service. Despite our best efforts to keep on top of it, we often find ourselves drowning in annoying junk mail.

In addition to the grocery store flyers, coupon mailings, and offers of various types of insurance coverage, most of the remaining useless pre-trash fits into one of the following categories:

shark with stamp

Let us help you acquire more debt

Amid the destruction and turmoil the 2007-2008 financial crisis caused, we found one small ray of sunshine peeking through the rubble: no more unwanted credit card offers junking up our already junky junk mail.  Although nothing had changed about our personal credit-worthiness, all of the various banks, retail chains, airlines, etc. suddenly went silent. They no longer were anxious to offer anyone with a pulse the opportunity to accumulate debt by applying for their credit cards. When the economy melted it was as if a spigot had suddenly been turned off and we were grateful for the reprieve.

Unfortunately, judging from the mail that we have been receiving lately, that reprieve is over. Almost daily it seems that we get multiple offers of cards that will earn us airline mileage, free hotel stays, or cash back on specific purchases.

Just as they did before the financial meltdown, these offers go straight to the shredder. We have the cards we need (just one and a back-up) and we probably aren’t the kind of customers they want anyway since we pay our balance off each month.

Even though you already gave, please give us more

Also junking up our mailbox are donation requests from charitable organizations and non-profits that we already give to. It’s not unusual to send in our annual membership fee and, just a few months later, receive another mailing that looks surprisingly like an annual membership fee request. We have started to keep a spreadsheet listing the organization, what we gave, and when we gave just so we can keep everything straight.

You’d think that these organizations could save a ton of money by just mailing once a year, but obviously these ongoing solicitations must work or they wouldn’t send them. It bothers me to think that these organizations I think so highly of have, as part of their fund-raising tactics, a strategy to fool people into making more than one “annual” donation.

You have several years left on your magazine subscription but how about paying in advance for several years more?

Magazines have been employing the scheme of multiple solicitations for ages. Although I’ve cut way back on my subscriptions, I still receive a few print magazines. Choosing the multi-year subscription option will usually save money but I’ve also found that it gives them more chances to send annoying and confusing solicitations. Long before my subscriptions are up, I start to receive requests to renew, extend, and send gift subscriptions to friends.

And, these are just those mailings from the magazine company. Often magazine sales companies – with no connection to the actual publisher – try to trick subscribers into re-ordering their magazines through them. These are the mailings that are made to resemble legitimate renewal notices or even invoices. I’m fortunate to live in a state that requires magazine companies to disclose the current subscription end date on their renewal notices, but they do their best to camouflage them.

 

As annoying and wasteful as this type of mail is, I worry about a time in the future when my husband and I may be less able to keep track of what is legitimate and what isn’t. When I took over the management of my father’s household and finances as his health declined, I was shocked by the number of sharks ready to feed on those most vulnerable. Without an honest and diligent gatekeeper, it’s easy to get eaten alive.

A Backward Glance at 2014, Part 2

In my previous post, I looked at some of the goals I made for myself in my first year of retirement and tried to honestly assess what I did well and what I didn’t. Here are three more of my goals and my evaluation of my progress with them so far.

Get Organized and Off-Load Stuff – C

My husband and I are making some strides in this area. We’ve donated, recycled, tossed, and sold quite a bit of stuff. We also are careful not to bring too much into the house. But, there’s still a lot left to go through and get rid of. I knew this would take time, so I’m fairly pleased with our progress.

One of many bags of work clothes that we don't need anymore
One of many bags of work clothes that we don’t need anymore

Because we have some items to get rid of that have value (at least to someone), I have been selling them on eBay. Although it’s been kind of fun, I’m not happy with how the boxes and shipping materials have taken over our guest room. What used to be the one room that was always neat and clean now looks like a poorly organized warehouse. That mess will need to be resolved somehow in the near future or my foray into e-commerce will have to end.

Keep Busy and Stay Productive – B

I am very easily entertained. Since I’ve been retired, I’ve learned that trait can be a good thing or a bad thing. I can spend a good part of the day on the computer, or reading a good book, or wandering around an interesting part of town. I can Pin with the best of them, get lost exploring the rooms on Houzz, and read and comment on my favorite blogs… all day long. A book can captivate me from morning to evening, and there is always a new one waiting for me when I finish. And then, of course, I love taking walks… just about anywhere… the further the better. And if we stop for lunch, even more better. So, keeping busy? No problem.

Staying productive? I guess it depends on your definition of “productive.” I’ve always worked best with deadlines and in retirement, a lot of those deadlines go away. I know I can do better at accomplishing tasks that I don’t want to do, but need to be done, and ensuring those things get done in a reasonable amount of time. I intend to start that as soon as I finish my book.

Stay Connected – B-

This is a bit of a challenge since many of my friends are still working. More than a few lunch dates have been cancelled due to unexpected conflicts at work. Since that was my world not too longs ago, I always understand and am happy to reschedule.

My husband and I have discussed our need to be more proactive about connecting with people we care about – and expanding our circle of friends. It’s too easy to just rely on each other for our entertainment. Although we always happily say “yes” when we are invited to someone else’s gathering, we need to be better about planning get-togethers and extending our own invitations.

 

In Part 3, I’ll assess my efforts and outcomes in three other areas, including the biggie: focusing on maintaining a positive, enjoyable, and loving relationship with my husband – despite being with each other almost 24-hours a day.