Cleaning House: When Little Messes Become Big Problems

Kris and I drove down to clean Mom's house last night. Over the past decade, her place has gradually been overtaken by Stuff and clutter. Since Mom is still in the hospital, we figured this was a great time to tackle some of the mess.

After three hours of cleaning clutter and sorting Stuff, there's no mystery about where I acquired my compulsion to buy. I come by it honestly. But while I've managed to kick the habit, Mom is still under its sway.

The gift that keeps on giving
We started cleaning upstairs in the spare bedroom. It was difficult to even get the door open, and when we did, we didn't know where to begin. The room was piled with boxes and bags and bubble wrap.

Mom has a thing for ordering from catalogs like Current, ABC Distributing, and Colorful Images. Over the years, she's ordered boxes and boxes and boxes of Stuff from these companies to give as birthday and Christmas presents. She's given most (but not all) of these things away, but, for some reason, she's kept the boxes.

She's also kept some of the gifts, misplacing them beneath stacks of paper and plastic. Kris found one item intended for our nephew, Michael. Mom wrote herself a sticky note: “Christmas 2002 2004″. It's now 2008. Michael will be ten years old this winter, and the gift is no longer appropriate.

The spare bedroom also contained:

  • Over 50 rolls of wrapping paper
  • Mom's collection of mail-order dolls
  • Unused exercise equipment
  • A personal computer from about 1993
  • Stacks of newspapers from the mid-1990s
  • Immense quantities of packing peanuts and bubble wrap and other shipping debris

At one point I stopped and sighed as I looked around the room. “This is a great example of why you shouldn't buy too much in advance,” I said. “This whole thing is a mess.” I'm sure Mom no longer has any idea what is left in the room. She ought to take an inventory.

Best by date
Next we worked on cleaning Mom's refrigerator and pantry. We sorted the old, expired food from the good. Little was good. “This soup is from 1997,” Kris said, discarding a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom. “And this Wheaties box has Clyde Drexler on it.” We laughed.

We found many similar examples:

  • Mayonnaise “best by” 1996
  • Juice boxes from 2003
  • Green olives black with mold
  • Snapple long since turned to sludge

Mom apparently buys a lot of food at Costco in bulk packages. She might drink the first two bottles of a Snapple four-pack, but then the last two become spoiled. Or she'll buy a six-pound bag of pretzels but forget about them.

(“Maybe she likes pretzels,” I said when Kris showed me the bag. But she replied: “No woman living alone should buy a six-pound bag of pretzels.” The bag was from 2001, so I'll give Kris the point on that one.)

We threw out several hundred dollars in spoiled food, nearly all of it in giant Costco containers or bound as part of a Costco bulk pack. Costco (and other warehouse clubs) can be a great way to save money, but not if the food doesn't get used. A bargain is not a bargain if it goes to waste.

Little messes become big problems
Eventually we noticed something alarming. My father had actually purchased many of the items in the freezer and the fridge. My father died in 1995. Obviously it makes no sense to throw food away just because the person who bought it has died. But it also makes no sense to keep the food for twelve years past the expiration date.

“You know,” I said. “Mom probably never meant to save this Stuff so long. I'll bet it started small. She let a couple little things slide. She kept this jam, for example, or those pickles. Before long, she wasn't throwing away any of her old food.”

A similar problem became apparent with the cats' litter boxes. What had started as a single “accident” is now a looming disaster, an accretion of months or years of similar accidents. The stinky mess has ruined not only the linoleum, but perhaps also floorboards underneath. If you let the little things slide, they eventually become big things. In this case, a mess that might have taken a few moments to clean will probably now cost several hundred (or several thousand) dollars to repair.

A small step
Going through all of Mom's Stuff, and handling her finances recently, I feel like I've been given a peek at a secret life. I'm able to see how she handles money, what she spends it on. Mostly she's doing okay, but like all of us, she has blind spots.

We didn't finish the job tonight. We managed to get a lot of Stuff out of the house, but Mom's back porch is littered with trash. Her laundry room reeks of cat urine. We have a shopping list of things to buy for her. Even after we take care of these tasks, the work will continue in the weeks and months ahead.

More about...Psychology

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Nathan
Nathan
12 years ago

Well best of luck on the clean up job. I think its great you and your wife are taking the lead on getting these issues resolved for your mother before she returns to her home. I would guess that at somepoint you just become to old to take such issuse, and maybe unwilling to ask for help.

Fish Finder
Fish Finder
12 years ago

Keep at it big guy. My family is going through this with our mother. She is going through chemo after breast cancer surgery and we have found much of the same things you have, especially the food. I guess people her age living alone become pack rats. The whole experiance has helped us grow closer as a family so there are positive sides to bad things.

Jessica
Jessica
12 years ago

I sometimes worry that this will happen to me in the future. I tend to hold onto a lot of things, thinking that they may be used in the future. I have gotten a lot better at it by making a point of finishing food/other things before I buy something, and that means even if it is on sale. I think I am making progress, and making money in the process too!

Eric Hollins
Eric Hollins
12 years ago

Good thing for cleaning out this stuff. I used to be a major pack rat but lately I’ve been trying to really simplify my life and throw out stuff. I’ve avoiding impulse buys with this mentality and I’ve thrown away a lot of clutter as well. It is nice to not really be tied down with “stuff”. I have “stuff” but I don’t keep it around if I don’t think it’ll be needed.

Jen
Jen
12 years ago

My parents (63&65) are getting to this point. It wasn’t like this when my brother and I were still living at home. They are lazy when it comes to housework and my Dad is so “Dutch” (as he calls it) that he doesn’t throw things away that “might still be useful.” My husband hates to eat dinner at their house for fear of food poisoning. The house smells of cat urine. I have tried getting mad about it, appealing to the health and safety of grandchildren, helping out, but nothing helps. The piles keep getting higher. Now Dad is building… Read more »

RJ
RJ
12 years ago

Long time reader, first time commenter. This post brought back some memories of my families old home. When I was younger, and my parents divorced, this same type of situation developed. Small problems avalanched into large issues, and would then be mostly ignored, instead of addressed. By the end, there were ruined hardwood floors, overgrown gardens, and many many other issues that could have been addressed easily earlier.

I know that I took away the lesson of constant maintinance.

I hope that your effort is appreciated, and that this problem doesn’t reoccur. Good post, and keep up the great blag!

Rachel
Rachel
12 years ago

Good for you helping out your mom with this type of chore now when she really could use it.

Perhaps if there is anything salvageable you can put it up for sale on ebay and maybe use the proceeds for something she can enjoy like a new tv or pay her cable for a year or something.

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
12 years ago

Wow, between the bulk bag of pretzels and the reference to ABC catalogs, this really made me think of my own mom (who is also currently hospitalized).

Lots of posts floating around the last couple days on eliminating “stuff” from our lives, maybe we are all in a late spring cleaning mood, or maybe seeing our parents fall ill has reminded us that one day someone else will be responsible for all our “stuff.” Either way, it feels good to get rid of some of it and live a simpler life. Hope your mom continues to recover.

Harm
Harm
12 years ago

My parents were never really bad about
clutter, partly because they had several
friends and aquaintances that were, one to
the point of being the sort of person that
was on tv when she died, just because of
house clutter, a la the Collyer Brothers.
I keep some stuff for recycling, and some
nonperishable food, but I’m also trying
to reduce the amount of STUFF I have to the
point where it would only take me a day to
move, LoL….AND that if I expire, cleanup
would be a relatively straightforward job.

HollyP
HollyP
12 years ago

My sympathies for having to deal with this mess.

The Current cards gave me a giggle. My grandmother was also a lover of all things Current, and my grandpa is still using up the extra greeting cards ten years after her passing.

I hope your mom is recovering quickly.

Belinda
Belinda
12 years ago

That is so nice of you both to help your Mom out like that.

My exdh and I cleaned out his Father’s house a couple of times. The last time we ended up renting a dumpster.

Belinda

Melissa A.
Melissa A.
12 years ago

Hey! I’m a woman who lives alone and I could totally get through a 6 lbs bag of pretzels! I wouldn’t buy that much, but I could eat it before it goes bad, especially if they were honey mustard 😛

Seriously though, this is a great article. I’ve been letting things slide in my apartment, just little things, but I really need to get to it.

maya
maya
12 years ago

you’re lucky. my mom won’t let us clear out her clutter. she says there are papers that she needs in there and that she’s the only one who can go through them. but she doesn’t go through them. she says she can’t because everything is so dusty, it bothers her eyes and allergies too much. and it would – she has a few health problems. but if you haven’t seen certain papers in 10+ years, do you still need them? there was a point where her house was fine. then we started meeting at my grandparents house for Sunday dinners… Read more »

Mary
Mary
12 years ago

Sorry for having to deal with the mess, though I’m sure your mom will be greatful for it. After having to go through that disaster with my great aunt, my mother makes it a point to get rid of the clutter before it gets overwhelming. Of course now my annual trips back home usually result in her filling up my car with all the junk she’s trying to get rid of from her house!

brad
brad
12 years ago

The poet Donald Hall told the story of a man who was cleaning out the attic of an old New England house and came upon a box filled with tiny pieces of string. The label on the box was “String too short to be saved.” That says it all, I think. 😉

PW
PW
12 years ago

It is so comforting to read your article on stuff. The crazy thing is I finally watched “The Story of Stuff” video you’ve talked about last night! This post was comforting because my parents are drowning in stuff and I’m at a loss to help them because it’s just me and I am drowning in my own stuff. I have inherited being a pack rat from them and feel overwhelmed. My dream is to get rid of my stuff so all I have is what I actually USE. Thankfully, I have a friend who is willing to help me, as… Read more »

melissa
melissa
12 years ago

Glad to read that your mother is doing better. I hope she appreciates the clean home once she gets out of the hospital.

It’s best that you’re doing these things now. When my maternal grandmother passed away a few years ago, it took 6 months and several large dumpsters before the house was finally clean enough to put on the market.

d^2
d^2
12 years ago

kinda makes me sad to read that some of the stuff was purchased by your dad. maybe she was keeping it because it reminded her of him. every time she opened the fridge, she’s see the stuff that he bought, and she’d be comforted, or something.

still, 13 years is way too long to hold on to that kind of stuff!

K.R.
K.R.
12 years ago

I know you haven’t talked much about your mom’s diagnosis but the condition of her house leads me to believe it may involve Alzheimer’s or dementia. I moved in with my grandparents two years ago and found a similar mess. Please be strong and keep your cool when/if Mom has a meltdown when she sees the house. Dementia can encourage hoarding when patient forget they’ve bought an item or where they’ve stored it. Patients also lose the motivation to start new projects like the cleaning one you’ve described. Best of luck with this work in the coming weeks and months… Read more »

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
12 years ago

Good grief. You’re scarin’ me, kid! This is exactly the predicament that terrifies me as I approach old age. As you get older, it seems to get harder to shovel out the mess. Last December, about the time I started FaM, I had a decluttering frenzy in which I threw out as much junk as I could, with exactly your scenario in mind: I don’t want my son to have to spend days and days cleaning up a gigantic mess after I die. Fortunately, I’m not given to buying a lot of useless junk…but that could change with age. The… Read more »

Christopher
Christopher
12 years ago

This really reminds of a few Taoist ideas. The one that comes to mind is the classical “journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Each big task is composed of a lot of little ones. It works the other way too. Each big problem is composed of many smaller ones.

I wish you luck, JD. I know it’s a rough time. Stay strong.

-CD

katy
katy
12 years ago

oh boy, I certainly identify with you.my mom passed in 96 and my dad is living in a museum. we threw out a little when she passed and cleaned and painted. but it’s still really bad.

my heart goes out to you.

I have a lot to do now myself. Prayers for all of us.

Sarah
Sarah
12 years ago

My in-laws are major pack rats, and it gives me nightmares to think of having to clean out their house. What I think is so sad is that all this stuff is considered important to them for some reason. However, there is so much of it that when we (maybe) have to go clear it out one day, it will all just look like trash to us.

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

Ouch. My mum too is a bit of a hoarder – I think she’s improved during the years ’cause I see her decluttering quite often, but her fridge still scares me. I’d prefer one with the reign of Gozer inside to hers. 🙂

HIB
HIB
12 years ago

Keep at it man! Your mother is very lucky to have someone helping her.
-HIB

Anne
Anne
12 years ago

Don’t be disappointed if your mom isn’t appreciative — or if she is even angry or upset. We’ve had these sorts of discussions with family members in the generation that grew up in the World War II era. My parents are currently ok (though expiration dates are something I check for when I visit). I don’t know how old your mom is, but think that there is something about growing up with rationing that triggered hoarding (both food and “stuff”) as a survival instinct…and I see the anxiety that surfaces when I even suggest going through a closet or the… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

It’s so easy to let things slide and it’s not just a function of getting older. I’m naturally lazy, really lazy and I have to make a really big effort to do things all the time otherwise it’s like I turn my back for a minute and the clutter has multiplied.

I bet it’s much easier to see your mum’s blind spots than to correct your own. 🙂

Lynn
Lynn
12 years ago

I went through the same experience with both parents and a grandmother- all packrats. In the last years of my father’s life, he would buy cans and cans of food because “it was on sale”, forgetting that he had a huge stockpile already. I threw away hundreds of dollars of spoiled or outdated goods. He also was incapable of throwing away opened envelopes, junk mail, plastic bags, etc. Consequently, I have turned in the opposite direction, and have been steadily “pruning” away at everything in our house. I do keep goods in thepanrty, but I go through it regularly to… Read more »

Moneyblogga
Moneyblogga
12 years ago

Having been through the “cleaning out the in laws house” once already (and probably risking Hantavirus in the process) my partner and I decided to never allow the clutter to start in our own home. It’s easy to say that, however, because the older one gets the harder it is to deal with life’s blows (such as ill health or death of a life partner) and subsequent depression. Good luck.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Plonkee wrote: I bet it’s much easier to see your mum’s blind spots than to correct your own. Heh. No doubt! 🙂 As we were working last night, I actually began to think it might be useful to have somebody come in from outside my life to perform a similar frank assessment of my own situation. What would this person say? “Why do you have computer parts from machines that died eight years ago? Why haven’t you purged all of these comics? Your workshop is filled with boxes of books and other things that you want to get ‘good money’… Read more »

Helena
Helena
12 years ago

Longtime reader, first time commenting. This situation is so very similar to what my mom dealt with when my grandmother passed away a few years ago, and what my husband and in-laws and I dealt with earlier this year when both of my husband’s grandparents passed away. In the latter case, we were throwing away food that had expired in the nineties…that had moved to three different houses with them in that time! Not to mention home-canned goods that were no longer identifiable, rugs absolutely ruined by dog urine (we inherited the dog, he’s actually housebroken, but it turns out… Read more »

mari
mari
12 years ago

I’ve got a lot of the same behaviors in my family as well as my husband’s.

Be very careful. I read an article some time back about the dangers of “rehabbing” a compulsive hoarder without their consent and knowledge. I can’t seem to find it (am pretty sure it was an offline read), but maybe wikipedia will help: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsive_hoarding. Good luck and I hope your mom gets well and can adjust to the new living conditions.

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

I don’t think it’s all the fault of the hoarding instinct. The desire to be frugal and not wasteful is also at work, and there’s also the fact that there’s too much packaging in the world! The Consumerist site often shows the wasteful packaging used by Amazon and other shippers, and until this year, when I started bringing my own bags even to department stores, we had significant numbers of “shopping bags” in the house, which I kept thinking “well, if I have stuff to donate to good will this will come in handy…” the desire to We’re also lucky… Read more »

Peter
Peter
12 years ago

My parent’s are also like that, except not to the same extreme. My mom use to buy clothes in boxes because they are cheap. However, she didn’t no one wants to wear 50 shirt with the same design.

Best of luck for your family situation

middleclassdream?
middleclassdream?
12 years ago

My inlaws are moving towards this point. I have mentioned to my wife several times that we need to send them on a weekend long vacation and help them get organized. They are neglecting their only asset of value, their home and that is causing it to depreciate because of the increasing disrepair. I am going to stop talking about it and set a date. Thanks for the motivation.

db
db
12 years ago

Oh, bless you and your wife JD — and your mom too. JD – do be prepared for your mom to be upset with you though. We went through something similar with my grandmother and great-uncle. They were living in the family home of 100 years, and there was literally 100 years worth of stuff in the house and it was also attached to a family storefront with 100 years worth of remnants of the different family businesses that had run out of it (grocery, then craft store). There was some old/freezerburned food, but there was an absolute ton of… Read more »

db
db
12 years ago

re Elizabeth:

The “wasteful packaging of Amazon.com is what allows your books to arrive to you undamaged.

I’ve noticed as Amazon has tinkered with how they ship books to reduce packaging, that more and more of my purchases are arriving in a condition that isn’t acceptable to me. I’ve started returning books to amazon simply because the packaging is insufficient to prevent damage.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

db wrote: What everybody kept asking ourselves was how it was ever allowed to get so bad.

Exactly!

It’s a little like boiling a crab in water: the temperature change is gradual enough that the critter doesn’t notice until it’s too late.

We’ve been aware of some aspects of Mom’s situation for a while — not just with the house, but with her illness, as well. But we just thought she’d take care of things. We were wrong. Now we know she needs help.

Barb1954
Barb1954
12 years ago

After my husband took his 90-something father to live with with my sister-in-law in another state, we tackled cleaning out my father-in-law’s house. It took 18 months, countless filled garbage carts, and, with help from the junk haulers, ten 20-foot trucks to get rid of the wall-to-wall/floor-to-ceiling junk from just the basement, garage, shed, and attic. (The junk guys said it was one of the worst jobs they’ve ever seen.) Dealing with the furniture and housewares in the house was a whole other task. Like you, we found long-expired food, unopened mail from years ago, and enough projects to keep… Read more »

Victor
Victor
12 years ago

@brad – I heard a similar story of a man cleaning out his grandmother’s apartment. He found a FULL shoebox with the following label:

“Pens that don’t work”

Heather
Heather
12 years ago

My dad has a similar compulsion to keep everything. Right now my mom is doing her annual forced-march through all his stuff and making him choose. What’s interesting (and a little heartbreaking) is that he keeps the stuff because it’s part of his identity. He told me he got rid of about 1,000 books (keep in mind that many of these books are computer books from the 1980s or 1990s–totally obsolete). It made him realize that he’s retired and getting rid of them was like the nail in the coffin. Maybe your mom kept that food from you dad and… Read more »

Mrs Pillars
Mrs Pillars
12 years ago

My 70-something mother and I joke about this – when she says I’ll have to deal with all her junk and I say I’ll have a giant yard sale, she replies with mock horror “What?! Sell all my treasures?” Fortunately, she downsized homes a couple of years ago and got a bit of a start.

slackerjo
slackerjo
12 years ago

I’m not gonna lie to you JD, your Mom may yell at you! The compulsion to hold on to stuff is a hard habit for anyone who lived during the Depression/WWII.

I suppose if Mom yells at you, it means she’s feeling better

liz
liz
12 years ago

My grandma used to love a bargain and buy things in bulk. I think because of watching her have to throw things away (or rather, me throwing them away when I’d clean for her), I’m the only person I know who never goes to Costco– it’s just not a place that’s organized for a single person living alone.

Continued good luck! I’m finding with my aging mom that she just hates to ask for help, even though she’s 76. It must be a tough new role for parents.

Aaron
Aaron
12 years ago

J.D., Not sure how I stumbled onto your site – through Tim Ferriss’s 4HWW blog, I think. Anyway, great stuff. Practical, useful, easily understood in layman’s terms. An endorsement from Money magazine goes far in my book. One thing I find particularly interesting is our attitude about money in North America. More is better, simply for the sake of having more. Really? According to who? Being the land of opportunity and so forth, we all have the opportunity to become wealthy, so we all feel the pressure to try. Most of us won’t make it, at least not to the… Read more »

Celloluv
Celloluv
12 years ago

I brought this discussion up with the people I work out with and the stories all mirror many of the stories already here. 98 rolls of toilet paper, leaky pans that could be repaired, etc. The best story was one woman’s grandmother had sewn all her jewelry and money into the linings of coats and the hems of dresses. They had to handle every single item of clothing to make sure they found everything which added up to thousands of dollars and then they discovered money stuck in the piles of newspaper and old magazines…. Thankfully my parents seem to… Read more »

deepali
deepali
12 years ago

Oh no. People really are like this. My worst fear about myself. Luckily, in a few months I’m moving overseas, so I’ll get rid of lots already.

Good on you for doing this. I might try something similar with my Dad over Thanksgiving.

Paula D.
Paula D.
12 years ago

I’ve been helping my parents (in their 90’s) go through their stuff in preparation for moving. Because their used to volunteer with the local senior’s group they could bring home anything they wanted. Any little decorative item that struck Mom’s fancy, cases of toilet paper (there were 6 packages of 24 roll each) and I can’t tell you how many dusty silk flowers were returned to the very thrift store they came from. At least it was easy to hold up an item to ask Mom if she wanted it, and if it came from the thrift store, she could… Read more »

Kim
Kim
12 years ago

I agree with those who say this might get unpleasant. I know how tempting it is to just go in and “fix” things for people but don’t be surprised if the person being fixed isn’t too happy about it. The anxiety and anger that comes from people going through your stuff and getting rid of things when you are not psychologically ready for it is real and not to be joked around with. I wish you the best of luck with your situation. It is not an easy position to be in but do try to see it from her… Read more »

Kristen a.k.a. The Frugal Girl
Kristen a.k.a. The Frugal Girl
12 years ago

You have to promise to tell us about your mom’s reaction. My grandma would have been furious if we’d gotten rid of her stuff while she was still alive.

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