Decluttering Made Simple
When my husband and I were finishing seminary, we moved in with my parents to save money. Also to save money, we packed up all our belongings and stored them in their barn, instead of renting a storage unit. We weren’t sure how long our stay would be, but it turned out that most of our items were stored there for 27 months while we house-hopped, moving four times with our two kids before we settled into a home of our own.
Sure, there were times it was frustrating to know we owned an item and weren’t able to use it, (Merry Christmas! Oops, the tree stand is packed.) but for the most part it was eye-opening to realize that by moving our stuff out of proximity we moved it out of our minds—and didn’t miss it at all.
When the day finally came to unpack all our belongings into a large home of our own, I felt a tinge of sadness. Sure, I now had table-service for twenty, but our days of simple-living had been sweet. When we finally unpacked everything I felt suffocated by all our stuff. Why do we have all this? Item by item, we began to sort, toss, and give away. I’m still in process, but the whole experience drove home one key principle that’s been helpful in the de-cluttering process ever since:
Slowly step away from the stuff.
This is the basic idea behind a toss box – a box in your garage where you put items you think may be unnecessary. If you put them there and don’t miss them, it’s probably safe to toss or give away.
Take this idea and run with it.
It’s hard to de-clutter when it’s an all-or-nothing deal. A “keep or toss” mentality makes it really hard to let go. A few of us may be blessed with the “ruthless-purger” gene, but for the rest of us, we need help pulling our grubby little hands off our precious things, don’t we?
So consider this simple way of slowly stepping away, moving items out of proximity. Once they’re out of sight they’ll soon be out of mind, making them that much easier to eventually haul way. So, if you’re really out to de-clutter, simply pretend that you’re moving—temporarily—into a tiny space. Keep only your favorite things and move the rest out of sight.
Closet — Keep only your favorite clothing items in your closet. Only the best 2-3 pairs of jeans, shirts, sweaters, etc. Only what fits perfectly, is the right color, and makes you feel fabulous. The rest move into the kid’s closet or hall closet or a tote elsewhere. Move out those fabulous four-inch heels you’ve never worn and that jacket that looks great on the hanger and terrible on you.
You don’t have to toss, and you might bring them back later, but chances are a lot of them will not be missed. If this sounds overwhelming, consider calling in reinforcements. A friend who is unattached to your stuff can be a huge help.
Kitchen — Keep only your favorite pots, pans, and dishes in the kitchen. Move the rest to a box in the garage. You can still pull out that turkey roaster at Thanksgiving. Just think of it as an experiment, to see what you can live without. Last year I tossed more than a dozen pots and pans and traded them for three multi-purpose cast-iron pieces.
Kids — Keep only your kids’ very favorite toys. Keep the items they actually love and play with. Keep kids from panicking by explaining that the other toys are simply going to rest for a while in the garage. Don’t throw them away, just give them a break. If/when you do bring them back they’ll be like new! And if the kids never miss them and never ask for them, consider it good riddance and haul them away.
Get creative and apply this principle wherever you can. We used to have an office in our home where we kept all our books. When we downsized, the books were moved out into a storage room in the garage. Next step? Goodwill. It gets easier and easier the farther they are from the center of your life. Out of sight, out of mind. Look around and find any items you can move out of sight. Then, mark a date on your calendar 2-4 months down the road to re-evaluate and move the items even farther away—to the donation bin.
Finally, If the de-cluttering is especially difficult for you, create a system of baby-steps for moving items out of your mind and sight. Use the process above, in smaller steps. Unworn clothes go first, still hanging nicely, in a hall closet. Then folded into a tote in the garage. Then boxed and into the back of your car. When you work up the courage, take that box to Goodwill and congratulate yourself on a job—eventually—well done.
Slowly but surely you can step away from your stuff; and better done slowly than not at all.
Kari Patterson is a pastor’s wifey, writer, speaker, reader, blogger and frugal living enthusiast. She writes all about the beautiful mess of life over at KariPatterson.com.
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Of a hundred posts I’ve read on the subject, THIS was actually helpful. Thank you!
Katerina Greece says
“out of sight is out of mind”. I like this. I am in the decluttering process, and love every minute of it. From the first items I let go, I started feeling more free. The more items one has around, the more time one has to spend to take care of them. Memories? They are best kept in photos and in our minds. In our neighbourhood, we have a so called “wall of kindness”. One can put there anything, and anyone interested is free to take it. Books, cds, dvds and clothes,: I am giving to selected people, who I know will use them, (or pass them on to someone else). Hang in there, and you can do it. Little by little every time. Good luck to all
So nice that I can relate with so many of you. I truly feel that my clutter/desire to excel at organizing & using every bit of it, is what has kept me from ever getting married… Or getting out of the house long enough to actually meet someone. This sounds like a safe idea to try for someone like me who was also poor growing up & feels the need to repurpose EVERYTHING. At least, store it until I find time to start on the endless list if up cycle projects! Those thoughts are so overwhelming!! And sadly, life surrounded by a this STUFF is still so very lonely.
With 5 kids, I found that having a designated spot for “get rid of” stuff was very helpful. The kids could toss outgrown stuff into the designated bin and I could go through it and make the decision about where it went. Always having someplace for them to put get rid of items really helped keep their rooms, dresser drawers and stuff from overrunning the house! Sometimes, if one kid had outgrown it, a younger sibling was waiting to snap it up, or a cousin could use it, or it could go to the thrift store, or maybe in the trash! Being organized and able to find everything makes me feel better! I love having a place for everything and everything in it’s place…even the stuff we don’t want!
I love this post! I am blind, so the “out of sight out of mind” thing is taken care of-I lost my vision when I was 24, so I get the idea very well-and I also am on board w/the giving it away part-I was raised not to “waste” anything either, and thinking someone else might have a use for it is fab.-but it’s hard for me to always know which clothes look good, or what everything is all of the time-should I just toss it in a box and ask questions later?
I am generally neat person but I struggle to get rid of things when there’s nothing wrong with them. I grew up poor enough that we didn’t just get rid of anything without good reason. I cringe when my husband throws away a tube of toothpaste I’m sure I could squeeze one or two more uses out of. I just don’t want to be wasteful. So how do I look at my drawer full of knives & say “This knife that works fine should be donated”? I recently got married & had to go through this painful process because we had (at least) two of everything. I still feel like I wasted my resources. Can someone give me a spiritual angle on why it’s OK with God to get rid of things I used resources to acquire. We sold a lot but for pennies on the dollar. I don’t hold tightly to the “thing” it’s the wasteful feeling that is a struggle. Help me with a new perspective please.
Perhaps you could think of it more that you’re able to bless others (who perhaps have less than you at this time) rather than you’re wasting resources. If you don’t think of tithing as wasting your resources, then giving unused/unwanted/unneeded items away to others shouldn’t be seen as such either. We are called to give of our time, our talents and our “resources,” the latter of which has been inerpreted to mean money. I like to think of “resources” as having a larger meaning.
Thanks, that’s good perspective.
Carrie, please don’t think you wasted your resources by letting go of items for which you no longer had a need. Perhaps you could think of the items as “gifts” you purchased–unknowingly!–for others who needed them more than you; otherwise, they would not have bought them second-hand! Which do you think God would choose for you to do: share your excess with others, and be thankful and grateful that you are in a position to do so; or, keep the duplicates tucked away, no longer in use, and serving no purpose–for you, or anyone else?
I feel the same!So I have tons of “stuff” filling and over flowing in the house, garage and store room! That I cant get rid of because I feel that I have used my hard earned money to buy it, so how can I just toss it????IT IS SO HARD! my husband has been trying for years to get me to declutter, but I get so emotional when he tries to throw anything away!
I usually donate items to certified charities and can itemize these things for a nice tax deduction. It is time consuming to keep track of it but worth it in the end. Also, I use this as a mental warning bell when I am tempted to buy something that I don’t have an immediate use for just because it is on sale (Will I really use this or just store it for a while then put it in the donation box??).
I finally found a way to itemize donations that is far less work. I use an app called “Its Deductible,” It is through Turbo Tax and is online too. I can input my donations as I give them away and then at tax time I have a calculation for the year. It helps me donate more easily!
Hi Carrie, a bit late in the reply department here, but in response to “Can someone give me an angle on why it is ok to get rid of things I used resources to acquire”: I donate items that are in working order but that I no longer need or use. This way, someone else benefits. I have bought many items at salvation army or was given them by acquaintances when I needed them at the time. Now, I play it forward and give even good stuff away – as long as it is working. And it is ok with me as long as I have the impression people appreciate them.
Alternatively, you can sell them at low price at forums such as eBay – then you don’t have to give them away, or put to the curb, but offer them free to interested parties or for a small cost to show they really want it.
Well, this is really late but, I too, was raised to repair and repurpose things. We weren’t ‘poor’ but we also weren’t well off and my parents and grandparents all lived during the depression. You just didn’t waste things especially when you worked hard to afford them. I very much agree with and managed to move on to the ‘help someone else’even if they have the same funds or lack of that I have. From another (this time just plain money sense) perspective that had never occurred to me – I watched a show once featuring a home organizer. I have never forgotten what she said. Houses and homes are real estate. Real estate prices are very high in pretty much any area. When you store stuff you no longer use or can no longer justify how much actual money are you throwing down the drain using valuable square footage storing all these things you no longer really need? It can really add up fast. If you want an actual $ value check with a realtor to see how much a house of your size would go for on today’s market. Maybe it is still worth keeping your things, maybe the dollar signs will do some heavy duty down to earth talking. I have to note here that donations to thrift shops in most places in Canada are not tax deductible. So I have had to think long and hard about many things and ultimately feel if it can help someone I better try to do that for them, and, I do not consider myself to be a terribly philanthropic type.
Becky Jarvis says
Spring is a good time to consider consigning your kids toys and clothes and women’s clothes. If you haven’t worn something, get rid of it and make some extra money.
Thanks for putting together this article. The way it’s written is very influential. The best part, for me, is that reading it calms down and encourages me for the process of de-cluttering. I also like most of the comments. Thanks for the helpful tips. What a nice way to inspire each other for living simple and happier.
My family of 5 (soon to be 6) has been living with my parents for the last 2 1/2 years…I honestly can’t believe it’s been that long already! Due to the economic downturn and loss of jobs a few years back, we had to leave our 2100 square foot home to live in 2 bedrooms with ALL our stuff. We rented a storage unit and have had our stuff in there for 2 1/2 years (except for some essential things of course). I am completely ruthless when it comes to keeping or tossing…my husband has learned from his parents to keep EVERYTHING, oy!! Now that we’ve lived without all that stuff for a few years I am ready to get rid of it all any day, any time. My hubby on the other hand prefers to wait until we can move into our own place and see what’s there. I made a compromise with him…he can look, but I still get to toss, haha!! He understands a lot better now, though, how hard it is to have all that stuff and I don’t think he’ll fight too hard:) Especially when it feels so cleansing!! With the little room we have now we are constantly decluttering and reorganizing, and it helps us keep our sanity. Now if I can pass that lesson on to my kids, we’ll be all set!
May I suggest that you also actually keep an actual fiscal account line for how much you are spending to have that storage unit. They usually aren’t free and many (depending on where you live) can be a substantial monthly cost. If the items there could be moved on they should be. Dollars and cents often make more sense to people on paper. You could have a substantial outlay already in that storage unit and I strongly suspect those funds could have been put to far more beneficial use for your family. Just a thought to consider. Best of luck,e
I think de-cluttering is one of my most favorite things to do! I love it when I get the feeling that it’s time to do it … I pick anything from a drawer to my email inbox to a whole room to tackle, and go straight to getting rid of stuff (garbage, give-away, etc). Rarely do I store it out-of-sight. I’m ruthless like that. LOL …
I tend to have boxes full of memories. Like an entire box of college stuff. Now, I’m taking just one or two items that represent that time in my life and dumping the rest. I can’t take it with me when I die…
Also: I have all these photo collages in frames (that are now sitting in boxes), I’m taking out the collage and selling the frames. It now takes up way less space and maybe I’ll make a few bucks! 🙂
Kari Patterson says
Great idea. Yes, the sentimental items are tricky. We allotted my husband and I each one tote of mementos, then we have one tote of photo albums. Thanks for sharing!
For me, space in my 600 sq. ft. home is precious, so whatever is in it must be useful. Momentos and sentiment have their place too. If it is not a useful item then it must fit in a large shoebox under my bed. Pictures are scanned into the computer or into a digital frame for a rotating display.
Fantastic post! I give a resounding AMEN! We lived in a 730 square foot home in Portland. It had lots of storage space but I still felt like there was stuff everywhere. When the time came for us to put the house on the market and move, we boxed up everything but the essentials and put it into storage. The only time we ever uttered the words “Dang it! It’s in storage…” were when I dropped the last few pounds of baby weight and needed my old jeans. (But even then I still had plenty of clothes that DID fit.) When moving day arrived, my husband pulled up to our 10×15 storage unit with the U-Haul and wondered why we were even going to take it all with us. By eliminating the initial shock of getting rid of something forever(!), this experience taught us a valuable lesson about differentiating between the things we NEED, USE and WANT.
Kari Patterson says
YES! That is exactly the experience we had, Jackie. I’m impressed that you could live in a 730 SF space to begin with! It’s so true though… it’s so freeing to realize you don’t need much stuff. You’re inspiring me today, thanks!
I have been working on this-but don’t feel that I have made as good of progress as I want to, so thanks for the encouragement & ideas! I know my life would be easier if I didn’t have so much STUFF!!
JoAnne-great point-I have been trying to be very careful about what I bring in also!!
Kari Patterson says
Stick with it! Maybe Shelly’s suggestion about watching an episode of Hoarders can be good motivation. 🙂 I’m cheering for you!
The funnest way to get rid of clothes/shoes/accessories is to do a clothing swap with friends. The first time it was hard to convince everyone, but now we love it so much we do it in fall and spring. We sort our clothes into piles (sweaters, jeans, etc) and someone holds up each item while we take turns “calling” it. Then we all try on our new piles and swapping stuff that doesn’t quite work for us. We all end up with a new wardrobe and fun new stuff to try for a while…and some of it ends up in the next swap.
Kari Patterson says
LOVE clothing swaps! We’ve done this before too, but not for a while. We’re due for one. Great suggestion, thanks Heather.
For a second there I thought you were going to have us choose which kids we wanted to keep. 🙂
I love the kitchen one. I recently heard that you really only need 3 kitchen knives. I have a ton of kitchen knives and I agree that I could keep just my 3 favorites and be fine.
Just yesterday I took things out of my closet, and out of sight just to see if I could live without them. I think I need to do that more often.
Great post, thanks
Kari Patterson says
Well… there are times when putting our kids out of sight might help keep our sanity as well. 🙂 So true, the big one for me was cookbooks… why have 20 cookbooks? Narrowing it down to 5 beloved ones (that were gifts) tamed the chaos. Thanks for your thoughts!
PS – It’s great to remember the handling/attached connection when shopping too so you don’t end up with so much stuff in the first place!
Kari Patterson says
JoAnne, great tip! That is such a great insight–quickly toss it and quit touching it! Thanks!
Great article and LOVE Beth’s garbage tip!!!! It totally makes sense, because it is a fact that you get burnt out when you have to make too many decisions in a day. So if you only have to decide to keep a few things rather than deciding on each and every item you’ll last longer into the process.
Also, the more you touch something the more you get attached to it, so it can be helpful have a friend hold up things for you instead of handling them yourself.
I love to go through my closets and junk drawers to sort and clean and organize. I usually find that many of the items need to be taken to Goodwill because I haven’t worn them or used them for over a year. I recently bought a curio cabinet and in it I put all my treasures, things that were my Mothers, special baby items that were in my childrens rooms when they were babies, my collection of ceramic, glass and brass whales, even placed my grandmothers quilt on the bottom shelf. These items were all over my house in drawers, boxes and some were on display. But now they are all in one place on display and I do not have to worry that I might give an item to Goodwill that I did not mean to.
Kari Patterson says
Great idea! Have a sacred space to keep those sacred items, then purge the rest of the house. Love it. Thanks for sharing.
How timely this article is. My sister is coming this weekend to help me start decluttering and get rid of stuff. I am not sure when I started to feel like things were my safety net and part of the family but the mental adjustment is beginning as I must get ready to move. I am slowly moving towards getting rids of things. It is just hard to let go of the things that I got from my parents or other family members. But I have a ruthless sister so that will make it easier I am sure!
Valerie, I used to have a hard time getting rid of things that were given to me by family members too. Eventually, I made myself think about how much someone else needed it or would love it as I put it into the give away box. And this sounds completely crazy but for some things I would say a few parting words as it went out the door/in the box/in the trash. Something like, “Thank you grandma for this shirt. You were so generous to think of me when you bought it/made it. Even though it doesn’t fit or it’s not something I enjoy wearing, I will always remember your thoughtfulness. I love you very much – getting rid of this item is not a reflection of my feelings for you.” See? Completely nuts, but it totally worked for me.
Kari Patterson says
Jackie, I love your honesty! Great idea. And you’re right, it’s not a reflection of your love for that person. Even if it’s crazy it sounds good to me!
One thing that I have found that helps is to take a picture of the special memento and scrapbook it, a single picture takes up way less space than the item. This also allows me to include a fun story or memory associated with it to pass down or along.
I stop and think about gifts I’ve given to others and whether I’d want that person to feel obligated to keep it forever. Of course not! I know when I give a gift the time will come when that person is going to pass it on somewhere, somehow, and I’m fine with that. And because I know my friends and family wouldn’t want me to feel overly attached to something they gave me they are fine with me letting go too. My attachment is to the person, not the stuff.
Beth at Five Kids Is A Lot Of Kids says
I just love it when a post comes along that speaks to something my head & heart have already been saying to me! This post did that – thanks!
My very favorite decluttering tip is to consider it all garbage.
Wait! Don’t run away, even though I’m not kidding.
I honestly get very, VERY overwhelmed when I have to pick through, oh, say, a bathroom drawer and pick up every broken hair-tie and toothpaste-covered comb, and rusty bobby pin and think “keep,” “store,” or “toss.” It’s just SO MUCH TEDIOUS WORK, and even though I know it’ll be worth it in the long run, it’s hard to get motivated by the mind-numbing potential of the chore.
To combat that problem, I decided to have a temporary “garbage” box. I take the drawer, and I up-end it into the empty garbage box. I assume that everything in there is “toss,” but I pick through it quickly and pull the things that immediately jump out to me as “oh, this is TOTALLY A KEEPER.” Then, when I’m done pulling out the “keeps,” I empty the “garbage” box into the real garbage and start over with drawer #2.
It’s really just a mental game, but it honestly makes decluttering take less than 1/2 the time for me to have that intermediary “garbage” box by my side and to only pull out the “keeps.”
Now, no one come look in my bathroom drawers lest you see how desperately I need my own advice! 😉
I do the same thing with my kids rooms. My daughter is an “artist” and before I know it her floor is full of her “art”, scraps of paper she’s colored and cut up, various toys, broken stuff. After weeks of begging her to clean it all up, I finally go in with a broom and dustpan and sweep it all into a pile. I then pick out the few “keeper items” and throw away the rest. I have found that much easier than trying to sort through everything when I know she’ll never miss most of it. Plus, it ends up being an easy fast fix to the messy room, lol.
Kari Patterson says
Great idea, Beth! I did that recently with five huge boxes of paper/files etc. from our years in grad school. Just dumped it all! Perhaps there are things we’ll miss, but saved me HOURS of time. Great tip!
I do that when there is too much on the floors. I have a cronic pain disorder that makes it hard to bend down. Now I sweep everything into one pile, tell the kids to pull out anything they don’t want trashed, then the rest is swept away! So much easier than bending over a zillion times.
I love to purge. It feels so great to get rid of stuff. I heard about the flylady.net website a couple years ago and loved her suggestion of decluttering for 15 minutes each day. She also suggests asking yourself, “Have I used this in the last year?” Once you’ve decluttered your house, it becomes easier to manage! I now have a permanent box in the garage where I put things I plan on donating. We also use craigslist on a regular basis. If you want some motivation to get rid of stuff, watch a few episodes of Hoarders (it’s available on NetFlix)! Thanks for the post!
Kari Patterson says
Yes! Love FlyLady, and that’s hilarious—watch a few episodes of Hoarders to scare us into declutter mode! Love it. Thanks for sharing.
Also! We use craigslist for EVERYTHING!! I even put items up in the free section for people to come by and take so I don’t even have to use the gas money to go donate and I made someone’s day 🙂
Kari Patterson says
Yes! Two thumbs up for Craigslist. 🙂
I use Freecycle alot as well. I recently helped a young couple who are homeless and a single mom who just got a new apartment after being homeless for two years. I gave away a lot of ‘non-donatable’ items as well (such as a stack of gently used Christmas gift bags and bows etc). The feeling of knowing I did something nice for someone else is almost as good as freeing up space in my house.
Great post Kari 🙂 I wanted to mention a few things. I know a lot of people feel that Salvation Army is more helpful to those in need vs Goodwill, but I do know that they are a bit more picky on what they accept. Also, I heard that there are a few book stores-one of which is in Oregon City I believe, that will pay good money for your used books (may just be Christian books?). I know a friend of mine cleaned out her shelf and come away with $22! Oh and I love to consign my clothing…you get a lot more bang for your buck than selling those items in a garage sale. I go to Spanky’s…kind of a love hate relationship because I have to drive out to Vancouver and sometimes they don’t take items that I think are absolutely amazing ;). Also, Plato’s Closet will pay cash for clothing, but are even more selective and limited to trendier junior items. LOVE the idea of keeping a box of toys in the garage for a few months & then presenting them to the kiddos later as if they were new again!
Kari Patterson says
Great ideas! Yes, I agree that Goodwill is sort of a “last resort” for us. We mostly give stuff away to friends, or do Craigslist, Plato’s Closet, and Powell’s books. But, like you said, it’s sometimes sad how little they take/pay. Thanks for your thoughts!
I use eBay a lot. Sometimes it helps me to know I will make a few dollars. It also helps me to know that someone who wants it will get it.
I’ve used eBay before as well. I prefer selling books on Amazon though because they don’t charge you a listing fee until your item sells.
What an amazing post! I’m going through this very thing right now. We have lived in the same home for 11 years but we are getting prepped to relocate… about 1500 miles away! The thought of hauling everything I own to our new location is awful. I started talking with a friend about this and realized something really important. But let me step back a moment… My garage is FULL OF STUFF. Lots of it. I have a myriad of Rubbermaid-type totes and they are stacked, floor to ceiling, all over the place. If it was up to my sweet husband, they all would have been dumped years ago. He makes sure the garage stays empty enough to get his car in (he refuses to scrape windows at 5am!), but every other square foot of space is taken up.
So what did I realize? I realized that if my house burned down tomorrow, I don’t think I would miss much of anything out in that garage… simply because I can’t really recall what any of it is! YIKES! I would miss my kids’ baby blankets a handful of favorite baby clothing items I’ve packed away. There are photos I’d miss. But after that, I don’t honestly know what’s in all those totes. So it is with great happiness that don my purging armor and prepare to throw out or give away most everything that is in there! YAY!
By the way… I hear on the cast iron. I did the same thing a few years ago. Cast iron is the ONLY way to go! 🙂
Kari Patterson says
Thanks Christina! Wow, yes you have a VERY good motivation for decluttering–it is no fun to haul garbage 1500 miles! 🙂 I’m so glad this can be helpful, I wish you the very best as you purge that stuff. Email me for encouragement if you get weary in the process! 🙂