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Extreme downsizing: Lessons from selling everything you own

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — In the summer of 2000, John D. Freyer sold everything he owned.

Freyer was single, in his 20s and was flush with the easy money of the dot com boom. He had been studying for a year at the University of Iowa, but a summer in New York City convinced him he wanted to move to the Big Apple instead.

So he jumped in his white Honda Civic and drove 1,000 miles back to Iowa with the intention of picking up some of his possessions and selling the rest.

"I was resentful of the stuff in my house," he says. "How should I get rid of it? Garage sale? Yard sale? Put the stuff on the street?"

Freyer was experiencing a desire for extreme downsizing — a feeling of wanting freedom from all possessions. To one extent or the other, the feeling isn't uncommon. Amazon.com, for example, lists 1,681 books on the topic of clutter. But, as the Self Storage Association reports, 50 percent of storage renters are keeping items they do not even have room for in their homes. The lessons Freyer and other extreme downsizers have discovered apply to anybody who wants a simpler life with less clutter.

Everything must go

Freyer decided to use eBay.com to auction off his possessions. He thought it would be interesting to create a website keeping track of all the items. Every domain name he wanted, such as yardsale.com and garagesale.com were taken. Finally, he decided on allmylifeforsale.com.

The name of the website took over the project. He took photographs of everything and wrote not descriptions, but the history of the objects.

The media loved it.

He sold a bowling belt buckle, an old electrical bill, a Jesus nightlight, old socks, half a bottle of mouthwash — everything.

"The things I cared about the most, such as family photographs and a ring from a friend, I sold last," he says. "But I had to follow through with the project."

When it was all done, he jumped in his Civic and drove around the country meeting the people who bought his stuff. The result, ultimately was a book called “All My Life for Sale.”

"If you talked to me immediately after the project, I would say it changed me a lot," he says. "It made me think about my stuff. I was reticent to bring things back into my possession."

He eventually sold the white Honda Civic as well.

All or nothing

Lisa Perry, 49, had a similar experience. Perry is an attorney and adjunct instructor in communication studies at the College of San Mateo in California. In the spring of 2007, however, she was living in Saint Paul, Minn., and was planning on moving to the San Franciso Bay area.

"I had way too much stuff," she says.

Perry moved often over the years and had gradually downsized with each move. Yet she had a storage unit with things — including things her parents gave her when they decided to downsize.

She also chose eBay.com to sell everything — except she wanted it all gone at once and tried to sell everything in one auction.

"Everything I didn't use on a daily basis was going to go," she says.

The gradual method wasn't working for her.

"Trying a big change a little bit at a time almost makes it harder," she says.

In the middle of the online auction, Perry changed the online description of the sale to say that any proceeds over a certain amount would go to the charity Heifer International. Unfortunately, that change violated eBay's rules and they canceled her auction. She had to start over again.

This time, she broke the selling into smaller chunks of her possessions and put many items on Craigslist.com. In a few months, everything — about 800 items — was gone.

"It was fun," she says. "It was interesting to meet the people who picked up the stuff."

Knowing the items were going to be used by other people made it easier to let them go.

Perry also says she felt a relief in gaining simplicity. To move to California, all she had to do was pack her car.

The persistence of stuff

Jump forward to 2013 and Perry says she still has very few material possessions.

"If I need something," she says, "I will try to borrow it first."

She also replaces things — getting rid of an older sweatshirt, for example, when she buys a new one.

Ironically, John Freyer, now 40, never did make it back to live in New York City. He fell in love and married a woman in Iowa City, where he became an assistant professor of art at the University of Iowa. They had two children and eventually filled a home with clothes, furniture and all the toys and things that go with typical family life.

His 2000 project came back to mind at the end of 2012 when he and his family moved to Richmond, Va.

"We've been in the house a month," says Freyer, now an artist in Richmond. "I have plenty of apple boxes (he says they are great for moving) filled with books I wonder if I'll ever open."

Part of Freyer wishes he had created a "Sell Everything That I Own 2" project. But he couldn't sell everything. He was no longer young and single.

"When you are responsible for other people," he says, "your relationship to stuff is also their relationship to stuff. It's not just my decision."

This doesn't mean he didn't downsize. Freyer says he got rid of a lot more things on this move than he did in his 2000 project. "But we moved about 10 times that amount of stuff to Richmond," he says. "If you are looking for advice about downsizing, ask a 10-year younger John Freyer."

Freyer does, however, recommend selling things online — particularly if they are heavy and the people will come and pick it up themselves.

He also says people should think about their possessions as if they were moving.

"Ask yourself if you had to ship this, would you do that?" he says. "If you wouldn't, you don't need it."

Anchors and homes

Ian Usher, 49, is another extreme downsizer. A few years after a divorce, he auctioned off his life online. Like Lisa Perry's original idea, it was one large auction. Everything was part of the auction — his expensive home in Australia, his TVs, furniture, clothes, vehicles and more. His friends even promised to be the winning bidder's friends.

Usher left in August 2008 with the clothes on his back, a wallet and a passport.

"It's all just 'stuff,' I reasoned, and if I ever needed anything, I would just end up buying more 'stuff' when required," he says.

Freyer and Perry had both continued working and built up their lives again. Usher, however, traveled the world for two years on the money he made from selling everything. He had enough adventures for Disney to now be in the process of making a movie based on his book,“A Life Sold: What Ever Happened to that Guy Who Sold His Whole Life on eBay?”

Usher says stuff can be like an anchor preventing people from doing what they would like to do with their lives.

"You really don't need everything that you think you need," he says. Life can be simpler, and you can have a great deal more freedom if you want it."

But in the years since he sold his life, Usher says there will always be some sort of a desire for a place that is home "where you can unpack the backpack and hang your clothes in a wardrobe."

For now, he says that home is "my own little Caribbean island" in Panama. Usher says he also discovered how easy it is to start collecting all that "stuff" again.

"For me it is time to downsize once more," he says. "I've gathered way more than I am comfortable with in a two-year period. Argh, how did that happen?"

Meanwhile, John Freyer in Richmond, Va., can't get away from his old stuff he sold in 2000 in Iowa City.

Along with all his family's possessions, Freyer moved a few cases of his book "All My Life for Sale" to his new house.

"People lose stuff all the time in tornadoes, hurricanes and floods," he says. "Some stuff they remember they had, but they can't remember it all. I can sit in front of this book with all those things I had back then. I don't know what it means, but as much as I let it go, it is still here and portable."

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