How To Become Un-Thinged

I read somewhere that people burn 55 minutes a day looking for stuff they own.  Even more shocking: 80% of our stuff never gets used.  This was at least partly true in my own life.  I couldn’t believe how many items I didn’t recognize (or remember purchasing) when we began cleaning out the closets, basement and rarely used rooms in our Virginia home.

Getting rid of it all was amazingly easy.  In our case, we needed to reduce our clothing and personal items to one suitcase each for travel.  And, we did not want to rent a storage facility.  Past experience taught me that items in storage are quickly forgotten and usually damaged when you finally get around to fetching them.  This meant that we had to seriously limit the number of items we simply couldn’t part with (mostly art, kid memorabilia, and a few family heirlooms).  All I really had to do was set aside the small number of items we wanted to keep and let an estate sale liquidation company do the rest.

Many people have asked me how it felt to let go of all of my beautiful things.  I loved my home and spent years creating a unique space that was the scene of many happy memories — dinners on the patio, holiday celebrations, graduations, summer evenings on the deck, birthday parties, even a wedding.

The truth is, it was a big deal, and it wasn’t a big deal.

I’ve given a lot of thought to this topic and I firmly believe that part of what grounds us, what makes us feel tethered and connected in the world, is the physical space we create:  acquiring a home, improving it, feathering the nest, taking care of all the stuff, using it in ways that make memories.  Imbuing a space with personal meaning is a creative act (and it keeps us busy, which is a big driver of happiness for most people).  It is only natural that we feel a special connection to our homes and things.  For me, this is especially true of places where I have put my hand into the earth and planted things.

And yet, we are not our possessions.  We are more than our houses, our landscaping, and our lovely things.  And, home is not a house.  Home is the people we love and it matters little where those people are physically located.

We need to rethink our relationship with stuff, no doubt.  Fevered activity around acquiring and maintaining things can distract us from what matters and prevent us from being completely present in the moment (and appropriately grateful for a beautiful day).

I won’t pretend that I’ve got this down.  Without all my stuff, I feel a little untethered, a little disconnected.  That said, the extra time and new-found freedom that comes with being un-thinged feels refreshing.  Perhaps our little adventure will help me discover new creative outlets and different ways to “make meaning”.  We’ll see.

For more about our experience liquidating our estate, read on…

I used Great Estate Solutions in Northern Virginia to handle our estate sale.   Within 2 weeks of our initial meeting, they had priced and tagged every item for sale in our home.  Once items were priced, the staff at Great Estate Solutions sent out emails to several different in-house lists of decorators, antique store owners, and individuals who like to haunt estate sales.  Many of our items were sold directly through the email campaign.  What was left was sold off at a 3 day estate sale event.  After we removed the items we wanted to keep, my husband and I got in the car and drove away for a few days.  When we came back, pretty much everything was gone.  The few items that did not sell were hauled away by our favorite charities the following day (all arranged by Great Estate Solutions).

I couldn’t have been happier with the process and the outcome of the sale.  In fact, you could have knocked me over with a feather when we got the final check (within days of the sale by the way).  It was far more than I expected.  An added bonus: Getting to know the owner, Amy, whose life as a former world traveler and serial entrepreneur left me slack-jawed in amazement.

If you want to close out an entire estate and you live in Northern Virginia, I highly recommend Amy.  If you do not live in Northern Virginia, here are a few tips for hiring an liquidation service:

1.) Get references to verify that the liquidator has experience handling homes of your size and in your area.  If you have antiques, collectibles, or other unusual items, the liquidator should be able to show demonstrable experience in selling such items (pricing the items and having a strong following of buyers who want them).

2.) Pricing is a key element of a successful sale, so ask your liquidator about the process used for pricing. Prices have to be low enough to move the items, but high enough to yield a decent profit (for both you and the liquidator, who will make money from a commission).

3.) Ask about security!  Anything can happen when strangers are in your home (this is true when selling a home as well).  Great Estate Solutions had clear security protocols set up to protect the home and its contents, including processes for monitoring its own employees inside the house during set up, sales and close-out.  Many companies are licensed and bonded.

4.) As in any transaction, get a clearly written contract that specifies the commission structure (most liquidators work on a sliding scale with reduced commissions for total sales over 10k, over 20k, etc.) and the terms.  Make sure that your liquidator provides an itemization of all sales and promptly produces the money (as noted, Amy had a check cut for us faster than I thought possible).

5.) Before you hire a liquidator, attend at least one of their sales. Notice the pricing, the number of people who attend, the type of buyers, the items in the home, the security, etc.




  1. says

    Nan, though I can’t quite relate yet to giving up ALL our “things”(still got my house in VA complete with crap lol!), in a way I can relate as starting over from scratch in Singapore makes you realise just how little you really do need. Family and friends, and their connection is definitely more important.

  2. Kathy Hale says

    Nan, I really enjoyed hearing you talk about things and homes and meaning. Good for you for taking a chance on finding meaning in other ways. I think about being untethered sometimes, but so far the “don’t touch my stuff” demon jumps right in there and grabs me. Working on it.

    • Nan Dawkins says

      The stuff demon is right up there with the list demon for me (more on the list demon in a future post). I definitely don’t have any of this figured out — I guess it is something we all have to work on all of the time, right?

  3. Frankie Patman says

    I sold everything I owned at age 32 and took my 5-month old son and 4-year old daughter to a remote village in Cameroon, where we lived what by U.S. standards would be a monastic existence. Deciding to spend $50 on a dress felt like an act with huge moral implications. My freedom came in realizing much later that things in and of themselves are neither traps nor evil.

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