6 Steps To Help Empty Nesters Unhitch

Last fall, my husband and I made the empty nester leap. We sold our home of 24 years and got rid of two-thirds of our stuff. We moved back downtown, ironically just two blocks south of the walk-up we’d lived in before heading to the ‘burbs to start a family.

It had been building for years. We weren’t sure exactly where we wanted to go, but we could definitely say why. The pressing urge to simplify, explore and live a more meaningful life grew to the point where we both said, ‘let’s just do this now’.

Whether it was supporters or doubters, most said we were brave. That stumped me. Brave? What was there to be afraid of? We’d been planning this for years and it made a ton of sense. Besides we weren’t breaking new ground here. Higher percentages of empty nesters were choosing to downsize once their brood left.

Different things scare different people. For me, two months tackling 24 years of memories and imprisoned items that a family of four can heap in a basement definitely induced night sweats and cold sores.

But when I asked, here’s what I learned; apparently we were brave because we didn’t seem to have a blueprint for this next era. Nope, we had no firm idea where (or even if) we’d like to settle. Yep, we were going to rent short-term to figure that out, and you bet, we were far more interested in walk-score than property.

Most of our culture still deems stepping out of conformity after 50 as radical and risky. For sure things can go terribly south at this age, and stay there, if big changes are impulsive and emotional. However, healthy life shifts based on honest reflection, planning and patience bring huge payoffs, financial being only one of them.

About ownership….

Back when we were living for our house, we’d often question whether property ownership was really the end goal. It’s nice to get there but in terms of a life, what is the cost really?

Like so many suburbanites around us, we’d pulled off a major renovation. Polished hardwood, rustic stone, copious amounts of light, vast deck space, wrap around kitchen, babbling creek, sunny pool area – we had tackled that house and made it our own.

But what really owned whom? Ensuing costs, projects and upkeep outweighed the moments to stop and let the house give back to us. Even vacations and family time were watered down.

Then the kids left. Now we revolved through the same 800 square feet while portions of the backyard, second floor and basement became unnecessary. Meanwhile, time, money, purpose; it was all draining away.

We wanted to see the world, develop a deeper sense of community, and be more available. This became a mission and it was exciting to realize we weren’t alone. Sites like theminimalists.com were really enlightening (seriously, check them out.)

The Comfort Cart

It’s a given that North Americans have an insatiable appetite for comfort; striving for the specific money, cars, clothes, homes, food, vacations, jobs, etc., that we believe are priorities. If only it stopped with acquisition!

But it doesn’t. Before long we can find ourselves hitched up to a “comfort cart” heaped with selective choices that have morphed into boulders of life and time-sucking demands and distractions. That cart is pretty dang heavy. Some would even say immoveable, if they’ve lost a wheel or two. Lugging around the roadblocks to a truly intentional, vital life, is sad and exhausting work.

We lifted the covers of our own comfort (or if you’d rather, dis-comfort) cart. There was so much breeding under there – what to tackle first, and how?

Here’s what finally helped; we stopped scrutinizing separate issues. We put the spotlight on values instead. Over time, we were able to define some guideposts to help us stay on track. And that’s when we started to see results.

If you’ve got the itch to unhitch, simply cutting back on Starbucks, shopping consignment stores, even making more money won’t lighten the load. Changing your mindset and habits will. Here are six challenging but pivotal prompts to consider:

1) Wants vs. Needs

I’m going to go out on a short limb and say that by the time we’re 50, we certainly know the difference. (But, if you need help…food, clothing, shelter, education, and friends and family who support you are needs. Gourmet takeout, 35 pairs of shoes, the trendiest address in the city, the yearly cruise are wants). Wants are the spawn of our desires, interests and passions and they aren’t bad in themselves. But if they’re the inspirational fuel driving our engine and getting us through the week, something’s going to burn out. Centering on needs before wants brings clarity, focus and freedom. This is one of the basic tenets of avoiding poverty, not only the financial kind, but the body, soul and spirit kind. It’s really that simple but us humans are so good at self-destruction. Catch yourself when you’re trying to warp one of your wants into a need to justify having it. Do you really need that third big screen TV because the deal is just too good to pass up?

2) Important vs. Urgent

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” When our house was full and I was feeling conflicted remembering to choose the important over the urgent would align my craziest of days. It’s good to know that many of today’s world leaders build the important but not urgent quadrant into each day too. Like Wants vs. Needs, we can easily convince ourselves everything is important and urgent – some things are, like paying the mortgage and attending a hurt child. However, we habitually default to the urgent (answering every phone call, chronic email checking) because busyness is addictive; it can supply a false sense of accomplishment. Freeing up a credit card versus buying up the end of season clearance rack to prepare for something 12 months away? Yeesh – throw it all on the cart! It’s the important tasks that enhance our life mission. Here’s a great article about how to stay on point. 

3) Your Filter

Are you planning the second half of your life by first running creative ideas and major decisions through a filter of obligation, guilt, fear or approval? Not everyone is going to support you, especially if what you’re proposing smells like it’s anti-status quo. Just take that fact in. Accept it. Love everyone. Keep moving.

4) Do the math

If we don’t get down and dirty with the forecast of our personal financials we risk creating a scenario that we believe is the new normal. The fact that even those Jones’ that everyone tries to keep up with are carrying some serious debt load too, doesn’t make it ok! It’s a dangerous lure and doing your math will show you how far downstream you’ve run with it. Strap up and face down the good, the bad and the ugly numbers. Meeting regularly with a financial advisor, sticking to an effective budget, implementing an envelope system, culling credit cards, slaughtering debt, all these tactics work but only if teamed with consistent and committed behaviour. Otherwise, meet the mountain that you’ll be going around for the rest of your life. Yes – the rest of your life.

5) Faith

Activate it. If you let fear, panic and dread supersede every challenge or crisis you’re facing, you’re relying totally on yourself. On the other hand, running to friends and family to vent, disclose and pick their brains every time stuff is tumbling around in your life – which could be daily – is like taking a run at the express lane in drive-thru therapy, it might make you feel good for a while but it won’t actually change your life. Pray, meditate, be still and listen. Peace is always available and the answers will come.

6) Give

This should really be top of mind, or at least close to it. We never need to wait for giving power; we always have it. Time, attention, service, items, support, food, patience, grace, smiles, praise…this is an endless list. Studies show that when we sincerely consider and care for others; we set off a chain of generosity. Others are often tweaked to pay it forward in one form or another. Giving releases healthy chemicals like dopamine and reduces stress hormones responsible for depression.  Giving can become a chronically healthy habit. When we start to stretch the parameters of giving beyond the comfort zone of friends and family, to include the rest of the world, that comfort cart starts to get lighter too.

Months into our new place, we’re still relatively cart-free. We’re not living like monks and we’re not against nice stuff (remember the cart gets piled up with the messy residual of our choices). We’re just more selective about what brings value to our life now.

We’re also in a nomadic phase, it’s delightfully stress free to turn that key and walk away. Yet ownership is not off the table. We’re just not obsessing about it. And with guideposts in place, it’ll never again be the end game.

Nest empty? Starting to downsize?  Tell us about it here 🙂

Photo Credit: CC-PD-MARK/PD OLD

4 thoughts on “6 Steps To Help Empty Nesters Unhitch

  1. You have that right. I learned that ten years ago. When I was downsizing I found it so therapeutic giving things away and getting rid of things I did not want or need. My guide was “If I did not know it was there, I did not need it” so out it went. Even now in an apartment I am still using this rule. Works for me. You have written this so well……Helen

  2. In this interesting, but factual blog, you have definitely nailed it! Uncluttering, dispersing of things that haven’t been used for ages does indeed make the load a lot lighter. It’s funny how it clears your head as well! Those nagging thoughts like “I should, I could, I would” in getting things done are words you won’t be using much anymore because it is now done. Great work, Kathy.

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