I knew that if downsizing guru Matt Paxton and I ever got together, we would never stop talking. Fortunately, his publicist, who was hosting our Zoom call last week, had other places to be, or Paxton and I would have gone into extra innings. Such is the territory we both know, love and share: people, their houses, and their stuff.
The former host of "Hoarders," which ran for 15 incredible seasons, Paxton is fired up about his current show, "Legacy List with Matt Paxton." Now in its fourth season, the two-time Emmy-nominated series premiered on public television in January. Episodes feature him and his team visiting houses across America helping families unpack not only their stuff, but also the stories buried within.
"In all the houses I've been in, it's never about the stuff," he says. "It's always about the stories."
Both Paxton and I unwittingly became downsizing experts out of personal experiences. I wrote my first downsizing book while in a state of PTSD, after clearing out my parents' home of 50 years. Paxton lost his dad, stepdad and two grandfathers in the same year, and cleared out each of their estates.
It changes a person.
"Is that your home office?" Is my first question when I meet Paxton virtually. I ask because the white wall behind him is completely empty, like he's taking a passport photo, unlike my walls, which have, well, stuff.
"Yes," he says. "I share it with my wife."
"You share it, and it looks like that?"
He spins his laptop around to show me more of the pristine workspace, no papers, no books.
"Wow. You guys are hard-core minimalists."
"We have seven kids in a 2200-square-foot house. We have to be."
I do not show him my office, but I can tell by what he says next that he knows what it looks like.
"People who surround themselves with papers and books do it because it makes them feel important," he says, "and they think it lets others know they are important; they have the papers to prove it."
Happy to change the subject, I pepper Paxton with questions about, what else? Stuff:
Marni: You've worked with hoarders and downsizers. What's the difference?
Matt: Hoarding is a mental disorder where people need to acquire lots of items to feel worthy. Invariably, these people have suffered a massive trauma, and are looking to compensate. They are looking for happiness or comfort in stuff. When working with a hoarder, you have to address the trauma behind the behavior, and help them remember a time when they felt love in their life.
People who need to downsize often worked hard to get where they are. Their insanely hard work ethic makes it harder for them to let go of what they worked so hard for. When dealing with downsizers, the key is to celebrate their life of hard work, capture their stories, and let the stuff go.
Marni: How do you get people who need to downsize (and that's almost everyone) going?
Matt: I ask them to choose the five or six items that mean the most to them and their family and talk about why. Everyone should do this. Your story doesn't need to be perfect. Just record what you know, take a picture, and attach the image to the story. Have Grandma tell you her stories over Zoom and hit record. It's a slow start, but once you capture the stories behind those five or six items, it's a lot easier to get rid of the 15 potholders.
Marni: Once they pull out their legacy items, then what?
Matt: The next cut involves deciding what items to keep and which ones to get rid of. If you decide to get rid of an item, you then need to decide whether to sell or donate.
Marni: What three things do you wish more Americans knew?
Matt: One, you already have enough stuff to live.
Two, my TV show makes the job of downsizing and decluttering look a lot easier than it is. We have a team that comes in and works nonstop. Realistically, it takes most people trying to downsize about six months if you work at it an hour a day. If you feel overwhelmed, call in a professional to help.
And three, sorry to bring this up, the clock is ticking. Do you want to spend your time dealing with housing and paying to store your stuff, or free yourself to have more time and money to spend on life experiences?
Marni: What would you like to say to retired empty nesters still living in the home where they raised the kids, a home that's jammed with yesterday?
Matt: I would like to ask them why they are living in a storage unit for their adult children. Your house is not a storage unit. Tell your kids to get their stuff. Set a firm date.
Marni: What are some of the minimalist rules you live by?
Matt: What you bring in should equal what you take out. If you get new a new pair of jeans, get rid of a pair. Minimalism is keeping only what serves your life now.
Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books, including "What to Do With Everything You Own to Leave the Legacy You Want."