Julia Zaetta’s 10 best tips for lower-stress decluttering

Nov 10, 2020
Getting rid of things without feeling guilty can be hard. Source: Getty.

Julia Zaetta has already downsized from a family home to an apartment so she knows what it’s like to have to declutter a lifetime’s worth of treasured belongings. Luckily, she was also the editor-in-chief at Aussie home improvement bible Better Homes and Gardens for more than 18 years so she knows a thing or two about making the most of space.

That said, Julia admits she’s still “training” herself to declutter her own spaces; despite her best intentions, her Sydney apartment is currently home to 26 cushions!

“Decluttering is a particular love of mine even though I don’t do it very well and I’m training myself to do it better because it’s really important to free yourself up,” she says.

“I’ve got a home full of all those things that matter. I say to people, point to anything in my home and I’ll tell you the story that goes with it. That’s the reason why you keep things in your home and continue to amass more and more, because everything has meaning, whether you buy it yourself or someone buys it for you.

“But it also matters to declutter when you’re moving so you’re not taking masses of things that you don’t really need and ultimately that you don’t want.”

If you’re in the same situation – with a home full of much-loved pieces that you really must reduce in number, either to free up space or so you can move to a smaller property – this is the process Julia uses.

Get in the right ‘headspace’

Decluttering takes tenacity so Julia recommends ensuring that you’re mentally prepared for the journey – and if you’re not ready yet, take time and make serious effort to mentally prepare.

“You need to get into the headspace and convince yourself that really, you are going to declutter,” she says. “And if it’s going to be difficult, you need to let yourself know that you’re going to pursue it and see it through to the end. Otherwise you’ll just put it off.”

Start with the small stuff

Getting started is by far the hardest part, so to ease yourself into decluttering by starting with smaller, less significant items.

“Look at them, see if you actually really need them and those that you don’t, box them up,” she says of more mundane bits and pieces.

For more meaningful small items, Julia recommends asking yourself ‘is the story behind this piece still valuable to me today?’. If you can honestly answer ‘no’, put it aside to be removed along with the mundane items that are no longer useful.

If you’re unsure whether to toss or keep an item, box it up anyway, Julia says, and pay attention to whether you miss it terribly or quickly forget about it. Quickly forgotten items can stay boxed and be removed.

“If you’re really, really torn on an item, put it away for even longer. You can visit it. Put it in a cupboard or in the garage and learn to come to terms with it not being around,” she adds. “If three days turns into 10 days before you visit it, you’ll realise that you’re not missing it. And you can then decide to let it go.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you never loved the piece or the person or memory it represents, Julia notes, simply that you can love it and still let it go.

“I have a lot of boxes of things in storage in the garage that I didn’t bring into the apartment, all that have meaning,” she recalls. “If you were to ask me what’s in those boxes, I’d have no idea! So it just proves that you can love something and let it go and free yourself up.”

Move on to the big bits

Clearing your home of many small belongings allows you to really see what furniture and other large items you own. Use the process above to deal with these too.

“Move them out of sight and see if you miss them,” Julia says. “Nine times out of 10, you won’t, which enables you to make the decision about letting them go.”

Call on friends

It can help to get perspective on your belongings by asking family, friends and even a real estate agent or two for their opinions on whether your items are trash or treasure.

“Get your family or friends to come in, who will tell you every single time ‘oh for goodness sake, get rid of that, you haven’t used it for years, it won’t matter if it’s gone!’,” Julia says. “Sometimes the honesty of people really helps you. I have a friend who comes and visits me often, who always tells me to ‘get rid of all this dead people furniture, it’s just weighing you down with dead people’s emotions’.

“I do query her on the value of antiques on that one! But sometimes I look around and think, ‘yes, she’s right, do I really need to keep that ugly little table just because Mum had it?’.”

Use it, don’t lose it

When Mum’s things are just too meaningful to part with, though, Julia suggests getting them out and actually using them, rather than storing them away for ‘good’.

“Small jugs, sets of spoons, how many of these do we have in our life?” she asks. “And we tuck them away because they were our mother’s. But if they’re so important and so pretty, why not bring them out and use them. You’ll get much more pleasure from the fact that you’re doing something with them because it’s a really sad thing to leave something that’s pretty just sitting there and not giving it its proper use.”

If beloved family hand-me-downs and keepsakes can’t be used, think laterally about how you display them, Julia adds.

“I like the idea of taking baby clothes and turning them into quilts or children art in photo canvases,” she says. “I’ve got bunches of them, the art on my wall is what my son did at school and it’s lovely to keep hold of those treasured items and release yourself of the things that don’t matter.”

Be a smart storer

Some things just can’t be chucked, such as must-keep paperwork and irreplaceable photographs. So Julia recommends using ‘decorator boxes’ to store keepsakes and a single, stylish filing cabinet for your papers.

“Decorator boxes are great for storage because you can line the bottom shelf of a bookcase with them or put them on top of bookcases and they look like decorative items while they’re storing tonnes of your stuff and freeing-up shelf space, walking space and seating space,” she explains.

“And then with the important things like your files, a slim filing cabinet that can be tucked away is pretty much all you need. It’s really critical to have one of these, otherwise you’ve got papers all over the place that you can’t do much with and they make you feel cluttered.”

Get inspired

If you’re having trouble picturing how your downsized space will look with fewer of your belongings in it, look for motivation on online home decorating sites or design magazines.

“Look at websites like houzz.com.au that has thousands of the most exquisite pictures of very beautiful spaces,” Julia says. “You’ll fall in love with some and chances are that you’re going to fall in love with the ones that have fewer things. Decide that you want that look or feel in your house and use that desire to drive you a little more to be able to let things go more easily than you thought.”

Be a smart seller

An upside of decluttering is the change to make some extra cash, as well as ensuring your belongings get a second life. This means not just throwing things out or leaving them at the nearest second-hand bin, but choosing the right places to sell your goods. Julia recommends Facebook Marketplace for cheaper items and talking to auction houses for expensive ones, particularly collectibles, antiques and jewellery.

“You’ll be amazed at the response you get from buyers,” Julia says. “And as you start to sell your items, you start to become obsessed with it because it’s lovely that people actually want what you’re letting go of, plus a little bit of extra cash is always good.”

If your home is in a high-traffic area (and the public gathering rules in your state or territory permit), a garage sale can be a good way to clear out a lot of items quickly, she adds, leaving you only the more unusual pieces to sell individually online or at auction.

“It’s a lovely feeling when your garage sale ends and you’ve got six things instead of 600,” Julia says. “Consider that presentation is pretty much 80 per cent of your sale so make sure you’ve cleaned things up, then display them really nicely and you’ll sell a whole lot more than if you’d just put them out there without care.”

Julia cautions against dismissing your belongings as valueless too, pointing out that some books and records can attract surprisingly high prices that make it worth seeking a valuation from a specialist seller, such as vintage vinyl dealers.

Let yourself cry

Material things might be disposable but that doesn’t mean they don’t hold a significant emotional weight, Julia acknowledges.

“It’s going to very hard and there’s going to be things that you don’t want to get rid of, that you’re going to want to hold on to,” she says. “It’s really wrenching  to rid yourself of things that have mattered to you for a long time and things that hold stories and memories. If you have to sob and weep over something, do it, but you need to continue with strength if you’re determined to declutter.”

If working from the outside in (starting with the less meaningful items first) doesn’t suit you, try the opposite.

“Maybe what you should start with is the things that really, really matter and move out a little bit each time in an ever-widening circle. And don’t beat yourself up too much if there’s things you really want to hold onto because you can declutter in so many other ways. Plus, you’ll start to feel better and better the more you learn that divesting yourself of things is cleansing and eventually you might love that feeling.”

Say thank you

“I think it’s critical just for our emotional wellbeing, if something has given you great pleasure or it’s kept your memories alive, to thank the item as it goes out the door or in the box for what it’s given you,” Julia concludes. “You’ll feel a whole better about letting it go.”

Julia’s tips were shared with Starts at 60 members at our recent Downsizing with ease masterclass. You can watch the full masterclass here.

You can join veteran finance guru Noel Whittaker, downsizing expert Rachel Lane and Marilyn Graham, Aveo’s expert on retirement living, on November 17 at Starts at 60’s newest masterclass, which focuses on retirement community living, including how downsizing can impact your finances and how to weigh up aged care options for the future. Register your attendance at this FREE online event here!

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