Do Yourself (and Your Heirs) a Favor!
For most people we know, the correct answer is yes.
Some folks have only a little bit of “too much stuff”: outgrown children’s clothing; two-generations-old Apple electronics; the water skis you haven’t used since – when was it? A little bit, but not zero, and it deserves weeding out.
However, most people have far too much “stuff.” Perhaps your kids are in college and you are thinking of a smaller house. Maybe you’re looking at a retirement home that will, no way, hold everything you currently own. Moreover: what if you die? What will survivors do with your stuff?
Someday, you will be willing to say goodbye to a few of your precious acquisitions. To bequeath stuff. If that day has arrived for you, read on!
Digression: Three times, I experienced or witnessed a struggle to dispose of a deceased relative’s belongings. It was a serious burden to the survivors, even in the case of one decedent who lived very simply, almost ascetically. That’s because in developed countries today, even a near-hermit acquires an amazing amount of stuff. These instances motivate Nola and me to downsize now, to reduce the burden we will leave behind. Nevertheless, no matter how much we downsize now, we know that what remains will be a daunting challenge to someone.
A tip of the hat to my friend Zenon Neumark, who suggested a blog on how to downsize now. Today’s article rests on my own experience plus the best of many de-cluttering articles I have read. I’ll suggest how each of us can simplify our lives and find the best new home for some proud possessions.
The Downsize Now Goals
Let’s look ahead to where we are headed. What are our goals if we downsize now?
Certainly, we are trying to free up our lives, to allow more flexible living. Yet I claim that there’s also another goal: to find the best long term home for the treasures we have gathered during the last – how many? – years. And the best home is one where others can appreciate and get joy from the stuff that gained our love.
Who are these “others”? Of course, the folks we want to share with first of all are our relatives and friends. However, in many cases they are not the best recipients. As Forbes says, “Millennials Don’t Want Your Stuff“! So instead, let’s spread our net more widely. Giving joy to someone else, even a stranger, is a fine thing to do. In fact, it can make the world a better place.
Therefore, here are the main sections of today’s blog:
Who Wants Our Stuff When We Downsize Now?
Let’s start by listing the kinds of folks who might want our treasured “stuff”:
- Hoarders. They want “everything.” But let’s not feed their sickness!
- Collectors. Each collector wants a specific category of things. They are proud of their collections. They have collector friends, with whom they discuss their stuff. And they enjoy the thrill of tracking down and acquiring yet one more item, especially one that helps fill in a set.
- Dealers. This category embraces people for whom this is their primary occupation, as well as those who buy and sell stuff in their spare time. They value only stuff that they can sell for more than they paid for it.
- Family History Lovers. Some people care about family history. This emotion drives interest in ancestry.com, 23andMe.com and other DNA/genealogy sites. Such services find cousins who may become new friends. You may discover famous people in your ancestry of whom you are proud, and about whom you want to brag. Of course, you may also find criminals or people you look down upon in your ancestry. In time, you may be able to interest a younger family member to carry on the tradition of caring about family history. If you have family memorabilia, it all becomes part of your family’s bigger identity. Photos, letters, objects owned by an ancestor have an emotional value apart from what their market value might be.
- Charities. Nonprofits sometimes want specific stuff. For example, our local library welcomes book donations. Their second-hand book shop raises funds to help support the library. Other charities accept near-new business clothing to help needy people dress to get and perform at a good job. And some nonprofits want vehicle donations, usually to sell for cash.
Who Do We Want To Have Our Stuff?
Recall that we posited that our stuff should go to people who will appreciate it. I propose the following priority order for recipients when we downsize now:
- Family members.
- Personal friends.
- Organizations whose goals we support, usually charities.
- Individuals or collectors who love our stuff, who will pay a fair price for it.
- Individuals or collectors who love our stuff, but who won’t or can’t pay for it.
How Can We Sort When We Downsize Now?
We need to assign our “stuff” to categories that will tell us where each type goes. And our categories will reflect the priorities in the previous list:
These are items that mean more to you and family members than to the general public or to a collector.
Destination: A family member or close friend who cares about these items. If no such person now exists, they may in the future, perhaps when someone retires or has grandchildren. So, you have some options: (1) Gather sentimental value items together, with descriptive information, and put them in climate controlled storage until the right recipient comes forward; or (2) If they are too large or costly to store, consider them for one of the subsequent categories; or (3) Perhaps an attorney can help you put them into a cornerstone, a time vault to be opened at a distant future date!
High Value Items
Some items have high intrinsic value due to their materials or historic significance. Examples are silver, gold, jewelry, pearls, rare coins, rare books, fossils in amber, artwork, famous autographs.
Destination: A specialized dealer or an auction house. By converting these items to cash, you have turned them into something that even distant family members will care about!
Destination: Clothing and household items that are not shabby are welcomed by Salvation Army, Goodwill, Purple Heart and local charities. You may have a local library like ours, which accepts second-hand books for its shop. A museum may want items that fit their collection or which they can sell to raise funds.
Just about any item can be a collectible if there are collectors for it. It needs to be plentiful enough to attract an army of admirers, but scarce enough to keep them always wanting more.
The best collectibles are easily describable. For that reason labels, brand names and maker imprints are all important. Some examples: autographs; old photos; baseball cards; comic books; art pottery; Tiffany; Fabergé; Disneyana. If an item is collectible, you can find books to identify the items and online sites that provide a marketplace.
Any defect will reduce the market value substantially. Therefore, a collectible should have no cracks, chips or defects unless perhaps it’s very old – think 100 years and up. If you watch Antiques Roadshow you will quickly learn the immense variety of items for which there is a viable market.
Destination: eBay or a specialized market site if you choose to sell it yourself. Plan to use lots of bubble wrap, and double-box anything fragile. On the other hand, you could hand items over to a consignment store which may give you 50% of what they sell things for. If you have a large related collection of objects, consider offering them to an auction house.
What if you have “stuff” that you don’t really need, but it doesn’t fit any other category? Consider donating it to a passerby.
Destination: In our community, we can leave items at the curb on the night before recycling and trash pickup. Perhaps there’s an analogous venue in your city. The curbside is a good way to dispose of large items like unwanted furniture. No matter how old and worn your table or dresser is, there is someone who needs it and wants it so long as the price is right – meaning zero. It’s an easy way that you can make a stranger happy!
How Charities Can Help Us Downsize Now
We have mentioned the possibility of donating items to charities whom we want to support. In addition to the prospect of doing good, a charitable donation may reduce our income taxes, provided that our tax deductions are large enough to itemize. The comments below may help if you make charitable donations of your stuff:
A wide variety of organizations qualify for tax-deductible donations. Investopedia tells us:
The list of eligible entities includes organizations operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, literary, or educational purposes; the prevention of cruelty to animals or children; or the development of amateur sports. Nonprofit veterans’ organizations, fraternal lodge groups, cemetery and burial companies, and certain legal corporations can also qualify. Even a donation to a federal, state, and local government may be eligible if the donated funds money are earmarked for charitable causes.
Receipts and Appraisals
Some donations require receipts or appraisals for tax deductibility. The Motley Fool gives this summary:
- $250 or more value requires a written acknowledgement from the charity.
- Property worth $500 or more requires filling out IRS form 8283.
- Gifts over $5,000 require a qualified appraisal.
- Gifts over $500,000 require a qualified appraisal which you attach to your tax return.
Fair Market Value
You’ll need to determine the fair market value of noncash donations:
- Assign noncash donations to many distinct categories. Keep individual categories and individual donations under $500 if you can, certainly under $5,000.
- For a donation between $5,000 and $10,000, structure the donation so that ownership passes in two approximately equal portions in different tax years.
- If the item is new, value it at its purchase or retail price.
- Find comparable prices on eBay or etsy.com. If you register as an eBay seller you can search for completed sales. Save copies of those pages as proof.
- You might give a gift to a friend or relative in a high tax bracket who itemizes deductions. They can donate it and take a healthy tax deduction. You can make the gift worth more to them by providing some proof of value. Just keep gifts below $15,000 per year per individual to avoid tax paperwork (and get your tax advisor’s blessing!).
Specific Types of Items
- A well-preserved book can be worth a lot of money. Learn how to rate its condition. Then find the same book, in the same condition, for sale online. Here are some sources: bookfinder.com, abebooks.com, alibris.com, biblio.com and “Collectible” listings on amazon.com.
- For artwork or antiques, get prices from auction catalogs or from websites recording auction sale prices. You may have to join the website for a fee to see the prices. If you have a lot of items, you might pay a local dealer a fee to appraise the entire group and sign the required tax form. Online appraisals are inexpensive, but online appraisers will generally not sign your tax forms.
- Vehicle donations are subject to special requirements. If you donate a car to a charity and the charity immediately sells it, they will give you a receipt for the amount of money they received, and that will be all you can deduct. However, if you can persuade them to keep the vehicle and use it in their work, then you can deduct the blue book value. IRS rules are complicated, so ask the charity to advise and assist you.
Eat the Elephant
No doubt you have heard the classic question: How do you eat an elephant? And its answer: One bite at a time…
So let it be with Caesar. In other words, do not attempt a whole-house “downsize now.” It will not get done. And no one is requiring you to do that anyway.
But neither should you do nothing. If you bequeath stuff now, just a little, it will bring you great joy. You will have released a few shackles from your life. You will have delighted someone else. And you’ll feel so good about it that you may be inspired to do more.
I suggest a modest start. Choose an identifiable group of treasures, and make it a small project to send them to their best destination. Examples: A few years ago Nola and I donated Spanish colonial sculptures to a museum, and books about artist René Magritte to a library. Soon, we will dispose of Roseville art pottery and Inuit soapstone figures. In addition, once in a while (when the stacks get too high) we cull clothing and books to donate locally.
Can you take a small step to downsize now? Where will you start?
Image Credits: (all from pixabay.com)
Tea set from Greg McMahan; matruschka from Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke; nutcrackers from Wissam Chidiak – fletchergull; dolls from klimkin; jewelry from JamesDeMers; Christmas buildings from 1195798; pottery from Hans Braxmeier; books from Gerhard Gellinger; butterflies from Gerhard Gellinger.