Cluttered home with overlay Why Downsizing Tips Don't Work

Why Downsizing Tips Don’t Work

Thousands of books, blog posts, and podcasts offer downsizing tips that don’t work, at least when it comes to reducing your possessions with an eye toward preserving your family history. If you want or need to downsize your home, apartment, or other living situations, you need to do three things.

Why Traditional Downsizing Tips Don’t Work

Two of the most egregious downsizing tips that don’t work when you are also trying to preserve your family history are:

  • If you haven’t used it in 6 months, throw it out.
  • If it doesn’t bring you joy, throw it out.

Item of historical or genealogical value lack frequency of use. How often do you use a death certificate for your 2nd great-grandfather?

Do you remember that you have a certificate from your 2nd great grandfather?

Not every sentimental item brings you joy. Sometimes you feel sadness, guilt, or regret. Should you throw out a Family Bible that documents your slaveholding ancestors?

Yes, I went to the extreme on that one, but you get the idea. Traditional downsizing tips fail to help you sift through items in your home with an eye geared toward preserving your family history.

Tip #1: Give Yourself Enough Time

When you downsize your home or your genealogical files, you need to give yourself enough time to make the best long term decisions. Your biggest roadblock when downsizing is nostalgia.

When you attempt to decide whether to keep your grandmother’s sewing box, your grandfather’s antique clock collection, or your aunts family history, you need to brace yourself for the memories that flood your mind and cloud your judgment.

Plan on nearly twice the amount of time you would use to decrease the functional items in your room to process your sentimental. For instance, I spent 4 hours downsizing my daughter’s shared bedroom. The majority of the items sorted involved clothes, books, make-up, and old school papers.

The sentimental decisions took twice as long as we also needed to find ways to preserve the memories before we could part with many of their treasures.

Give yourself enough time to process nostalgia so you can downsize with more success.

If you have a short timeline to downsize, you need an action plan to keep you on track even while nostalgia creeps in. That’s why our book, Downsizing with Family History in Mind, has timeline-based action plans to keep you focused and help you achieve success whether you have 1 hour, 1 weekend, or 1 year to downsize.

Tip #2: Use the Right Boxes

The most common tip for downsizing that doesn’t work relates to the boxes used to sort your possessions. If you use the correct boxes, you will succeed in reducing what you keep in your home and preserve your family history at the same time.

Typical downsizing boxes are KEEP, SELL, DONATE. Some organizing experts will add other boxes but they are derivatives of these three boxes.

Most people who downsize begin with gusto sorting items from their garages, attics, sheds, barns, storage units, and homes only become easily defeated. They can’t determine in which box to place family and personal history items.

These boxes do not help you when you have to process your sentimentally, historically, and genealogically significant artifacts and papers. So do something different!

When downsizing with a focus on preserving your family history, you need different boxes. You need KEEP, GIVEAWAY, PROCESS, and TRASH. The difference between success and failure in downsizing is that process box.

On your first pass of sorting your possession, there are items that you will:

  • KEEP items due to their functionality and usefulness in your life right now. Items that have strong family history value.
  • GIVEAWAY items that you no longer wish to be the caretake of but still have family history value to someone else.
  • PROCESS items that have family history value but need to be digitized before the physical item can be given away or trashed.
  • TRASH items that have lost their value and are not valuable to other family historians.

Notice how the Process box helps you to place the items you are unsure of whether you should keep it or not until you can make a final decision. You can make that final decision after you photograph the item, scan the papers or photos, convert slides, negatives, old audio, and video media to a digital format. You can also migrate genealogy research notes to a digital family tree.

Once you have processed the items in the ‘Process’ Box you’ll know for certain whether to keep, trash, or give away these items.

If you need guidelines to help you know how to evaluate your genealogical items, use the reference guides in our book, Downsizing with Family History in Mind.

Tip #3: Make Use of Archives and Repositories

One downsizing tip that doesn’t work in genealogy is selling your family history at a garage sale or taking everything to a charity facility. Instead, you need to take advantage of archives and repositories for your collection of materials.

One reader wrote about her great aunt’s papers, plaques, business ledgers, guest books, and photos. She wanted to know where how she could preserve these items because her family did not want the information about this great aunt with no children. We created this list based on further details:

  • City Historical Societies & Museums (especially for a large city)
  • County Historical Societies
  • County Genealogist Societies
  • State Archives and Libraries
  • University Special Collections in the area the ancestor lived, worked or died
  • Ethnic History Museums in the area her ancestor lived or any ethnic history museum in the US.
  • Military History Museums, especially ones with collections about women in WWI.
  • National or Regional Genealogy Libraries

Whew, that list is not exhaustive, but the point is clear. There are numerous places where she can give her collection to preserve her aunt’s legacy. My neighbor has everything organized, identified, and even made a spreadsheet for museum curators to review before they make a decision to accept the collection.

Make use of archives and repositories for your family history to ensure the content will be available when your posterity wants to access it.

Cluttered home with caption Why Downsizing Tips Don't Work
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Ignore Downsizing Tips That Don’t Work

Genealogists have a habit of being boarder line hoarders but definite pack rats. However, if we don’t take time to downsize with family history in mind, those tasked with taking care of our household after we pass away will likely throw everything into the trash. Therefore we must act and act with wisdom.

Avoid the downsizing tips that do not help preserve your family history. Instead, give yourself ample time, use the correct sorting boxes, and make use of archives to preserve your family treasures.

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.


  • Jeannet Greiving

    Your Family History Fanatics videos that I have seen on Youtube are extremely informative. I have DNA results on 4 databases that are competitive with their various titles and techniques for similar end results. Because of watching your videos I have a chance to make the most of them and someday find a record of my 3 great grandparents. As far as downsizing only the paper copies of census records and the extra copies of family group sheets are on my list to let go of.
    Thank you, please keep up the good work!

  • Anne Young

    Downsizing is definitely a challenge. Probably one of the techniques that will work is the Marie Kondo approach of “does it bring you joy?” If you can articulate the meaning the object has for you then that will help. For paper scanning the paper and attaching to your tree might be a useful backup and in some cases, for copies of documents but not for original certificates, allow you to dispose of the paper.

    • Family History Fanatics

      Thanks for your thoughts. I’ll push back on bringing you joy. Many documents and genealogy significant document don’t bring us joy and yet they should be saved. However, they can be donated to Archives and Libraries if they created extreme negative emotions. Or, they can be kept for those bitter – sweet items.

  • Lynn Tenney

    I have participated in the “cleaning out” of the living quarters of my parents, my husband’s parents, and my husband’s sister when they passed. Your comments rang true with how I went through the sorting process, especially when working with other siblings. I am the only genealogist/family historian on either side. My siblings know my passion and were very understanding. Now my spouse and I are working on our own “clutter” so that our children don’t have to make those decisions. Nice article and the book sounds really interesting!

  • Jennifer Bigham

    Thanks for this great information. I have not yet had to downsize or declutter any houses but I do work on what I should keep and should not keep. My genealogy files are a little different but mostly they are digital files. But I do have some paper files I need to sort and decided what to keep.

  • Dianne

    This post resonates with me. I had to go through that with my parents and grandparents places, and when my cousins went through their parents stuff they thankfully dumped the genealogy type photos and documents on me! I am lucky that all my kids and some grandkids are interested in our history so I have told my kids where to find all my documents and treasures and what my passwords are etc. I told my husband if I go first to keep his hands off and let the kids do it lol. I caught him one day throwing out important family story stuff from his parents box! :-0 I made a good save there!

  • Diane Anderson

    A sentence in a town history book regarding my 4th-great grandfather (one of the 1st settlers in 1818) still makes me cry. When his oldest son passed away, it says “The executors of the Moore estate sold the furnishings and other contents of the old house to an antique dealer. What he left was swept out into the yard and burned–a tragic loss.”
    I have helped clean out my father’s house (a packrat) and my uncle’s (a hoarder). I will not do that to our children. My son is not that interested, but my niece is. She will get our shared lines. My stepchildren will get their dad’s. Everything else is going to the appropriate places now, or being decided in the very near future.

  • Gwynn Socolich

    A note regarding archives and repositories: several require a Deed of Gift, also some may require a specific format for donated items, such as a table if contents for each box or pedigree chart. Check collection policies before donating genealogy collections.

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