Ideally, you'd spend months or even years carefully purging excess belongings — but life could have other plans. Maybe you or someone you love has a health crisis and needs to move into assisted living. Or someone has died and their house has to be cleared before next month's rent is due. Maybe you're just moving soon and want to lighten your load.
If you need to downsize in a hurry, here's how to go about it while minimizing stress — and avoiding sending something valuable to the dump.
1. Gather paperwork, photos, prescriptions, perishables.
Dealing with paperwork and photos takes time you may not have, says professional organizer Katherine Lawrence of Ashland, Va. Consider boxing unsorted documents and photos for temporary storage in a climate-controlled area, Lawrence suggests.
Make a plan to sort through the boxes later, since you don't want to store old bills and blurry photos indefinitely any more than you want to risk throwing away something important if you rush (what's important? see arkansasonline.com/522papers).
Next, deal with the stuff that can't be sold or donated, Lawrence says. That includes unneeded medications -- a pharmacy can offer suggestions about proper disposal -- and perishable food that won't be eaten in time. Nonperishable, unopened food items typically can be donated to a local food bank.
2. Identify the "keepers."
"Keepers" are possessions that have a definite home. If someone is moving, that includes stuff that will be going with them. If you're clearing out after a death, keepers could include items destined for heirs.
Those officially charged with settling someone's estate, such as an executor or successor trustee, could be required to hire appraisers to value possessions before anything is distributed. An estate planning attorney or real estate agent can offer referrals, or you can check with the Appraisers Association of America, the American Society of Appraisers or the International Society of Appraisers.
If you have potentially valuable stuff — such as antiques, jewelry, artwork or collections — a personal property appraiser could help you figure out what may be worth the extra effort of selling, says Julie Hall, an estate expert in Charlotte, N.C., who specializes in personal appraisals and estate liquidations. The appraiser might also suggest appropriate venues, such as an auction house or consignment store, Hall says.
However, hiring an appraiser can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, which is not always practical. You also can get a rough idea of many items' potential worth by checking eBay and using the "sold items" filter.
Once you've identified all the keepers, Lawrence recommends tagging them with painter's tape, which is safe for most surfaces. If items are going to different people or locations, she suggests buying different colored rolls and assigning a color to each person or destination.
Next, make arrangements to get each item to its new home. That could involve hiring movers, renting storage, shipping items or setting a date and time for recipients to pick up their treasures. Avoid holding items indefinitely for others: The point is to declutter, not provide free storage for procrastinators, says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Specialty & Senior Move Managers, an organization that helps people downsize and relocate.
3. Decide what to do with the remaining stuff.
If you have several rooms of furniture and household items left over, consider an estate sale. These are most commonly held in someone's home after their death, but they also can help those who need to dramatically downsize, Hall says.
Estate sales are often organized by professionals who advertise the sale, price the items, handle transactions and provide security. Estate sales agents may agree to donate or dispose of whatever doesn't sell. In return for some or all of these services, estate sales agents typically get 30% or more of the sale proceeds. Estate planning attorneys and real estate agents may offer referrals to reputable estate sales agents, or you can check with the American Society of Estate Liquidators, a referral organization owned by Hall.
A yard or garage sale can be a do-it-yourself alternative. You also can list items for sale on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace or Nextdoor if you have time to photograph each object, write a description and deal with inquiries from potential buyers.
Giving stuff away is another option, but this can be harder than you expect, Lawrence says. Charities are often selective about what they'll accept, so check their websites or call first.
Some charities will send a truck to pick up approved donations, which could be a time-saver. Another option is giving stuff away using Freecycle.org, a Buy Nothing group or a "free stuff" listing on Craigslist.
You may still wind up renting a dumpster, making trips to the landfill or hiring a junk removal company. The waste can feel painful but may help you be a more conscious consumer in the future.
"I always tell my clients it's actually harder to get rid of something than it is to acquire it," Lawrence says.
Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and author of "Your Credit Score."