The high cost of clutter

Do you have piles of papers lurking on your desk? Mountains of laundry looming beside your bed? Shelves double-stacked with knick-knacks? I have a bit of a clutter problem myself. The other day, I spent an hour looking for the vacuum cleaner, which eventually turned up buried under a pile of laundry almost as tall as I am.

All that clutter isn’t just annoying. It’s expensive. That’s right: Excess Stuff can keep costing you money even after it’s been bought and paid for.

How expensive is your Stuff? Professional organizer Jen Hunter of Find Your Floor in Boston says clutter can cost us real money in a lot of ways:

Buying replacement Stuff

Somewhere in your closet is that pair of running shoes you bought last year. Probably next to the ones you bought the spring before that. Clutter costs us dollars and time when we have to buy duplicates of stuff we know we own but just can’t find.

Damage to your Stuff

When you have more Stuff than space, storage can become a problem. Things can get stepped on, stored improperly and broken, water-damaged or just so buried they can’t be retrieved when needed.

Missing deadlines

When your Stuff is disorganized, you wind up paying hundreds of dollars a year in bank fees, late charges, library fines, overdue fees and tax penalties. Trust me on this one. I speak from years of painful experience.

Renting storage space

Almost 10% of U.S. families rent storage space for belongings that don’t fit in their homes. That’s a lot of dollars going to serve your Stuff instead of your life. Even those that don’t rent space may choose larger homes than they need so that they can store more Stuff.

Health costs

Out of control clutter can pose health risks from falling, and encourage the growth of allergens like dust and mold. Treatments for those can get expensive. Clutter can also affect your mental health. Writer Ariel Gore saw a therapist until she realized that what she really wanted was a clean home. So she hired a housekeeper for less than she paid the therapist and lived happily ever after.

To Hunter, the biggest cost is an intangible. “It’s the impediment that it presents to people’s lives,” she says.

Stacy J. Kaplan of Clutter Away in San Diego agrees. “You can’t function at your optimum level if you’re disorganized,” Kaplan says. “You wouldn’t run a business without a business plan. If you’re not organized your business will fail. A house is a small business in a way. It’s the operating structure behind what your family is doing.”

Clutter stops us from working as effectively as we otherwise might. At its most basic level, time spent looking for your car keys is time you’re not spending working, playing or relaxing.

It also costs us time because all that Stuff demands attention. While clutter might be a sign of neglect, it requires us to spend time working around it to accomplish basic household tasks like paying bills or preparing a meal. Those extra hours of housework are a drain on time and energy that could go into creative side projects, education or any number of other productive pursuits.

We can become prisoners of our Stuff. J.D. has written a lot here about how Stuff ties up our money. We can inadvertently tie up a lot of our earnings in rarely used sports equipment, video games, and other pricey toys. Selling that unused Stuff frees up not only your cash but your energy. When there’s too much Stuff around you, you’re like a plant in a too-small pot. It’s hard to grow or thrive when hemmed in by clutter.

Of course, the answer isn’t to move to a bigger place. There are families who live happily in 100-square-foot apartments. They just have less Stuff than we do.

The solution is to put your space on a diet. Some basic steps to get started:

  • Consider adopting The Compact, an agreement to buy nothing new for one year. This should cut the flow of Stuff coming in down to a trickle.
  • To deal with the Stuff you have, go through one small area at a time. Don’t try to do the whole house at once. Choose a room, a closet, a desk, or even just a kitchen drawer.
  • A good rule of thumb: Get rid of anything you don’t use or love.

A habit of clutter can be hard to give up. If you’re used to having a lot of Stuff around you, a pared-down space can feel too spare and empty. Before you rush to fill that void, try sitting with it for awhile and really setting an intention for you want to replace your clutter with. It might be original art, new bookcases, workshop space or just more breathing room.

Whatever you choose to do with your space, you can use the same techniques you used to clear it to keep it clean. Don’t keep Stuff you don’t use or need. Don’t buy Stuff you don’t want or need. Spend a little time each day keeping your space organized.

Here are the top three clutter-busting tips from GRS Twitter followers:

  • “Throw clutter in bags, put them in the attic. As you need something, take it from the bag. After 6mo, donate bags.” — @jacobmlee
  • “For clutter: I’m using @gretchenrubin‘s rules: Make your bed and the 1-min rule: if you can do it in 1 min, do it now!” — @jc_losangeles
  • “My fave declutter advice: Spend 15 Mins a day!” — @BudgetsAreSexy

I know we just talked about Stuff last week, but how do you combat clutter? What tips and tricks can you share with readers?

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There are 81 comments to "The high cost of clutter".

  1. Sarah says 09 March 2010 at 05:20

    I post alot of stuff on freecycle. As long as the item can be used/re-used/re-purposed I post it. 95% of the items I post get picked up within a day or two. When I’m in a clearing out mode, I’ll post three items or so a week. It has been a great resource for getting little used items to those who need or will appreciate them.

  2. Sam says 09 March 2010 at 05:33

    I’m a fan of Rubin’s 1 minute rule and making the bed. I also use the flylady 15 minutes of decluttering. My big problem area is our office, papers all over the place. Getting the office organized has been on my list now for a year. I can’t find stuff, documents for taxes, etc. leases, etc. Part of the problem is stuff doesn’t get filed and the other part of the problem is Mr. Sam pulls stuff out and never puts it back.

  3. basicmoneytips says 09 March 2010 at 05:35

    I had never really thought of clutter in these terms but I guess I can see the point the author is making.

    I know when you move, that is a great time to go through old stuff and sort it out.

    One thing I will mention is start small, or it could get overwelming. Maybe start with a closet this weekend and next month move to another closet, etc.

  4. jeannelli says 09 March 2010 at 05:38

    I am a professional organizer and therapist.To ” declutter” your life, one must first understand the psychological hold possessions have on their life.For some it is a daunting task of mammoth proportions no matter the amount of stuff.It’s not just getting shed of things it’s a mindset that you live with every day!The use it or lose it approach is an excellent way.In 6-12 months if you haven’t used, worn or needed it then adios!I see “clutterholics” just like any other addictive behavior disorder.I personally have “downsized” my life from 6k sq.ft. to 1800 sq. ft. and two-thirds of my possessions.Wonderfully freeing!!!!

  5. Allison says 09 March 2010 at 05:47

    I read somewhere (it may have been Gretchen Rubin’s blog) that most of the time when we say we want to “get organized” we actually should be getting rid of stuff. Rather than filling boxes, buying shelves and containers and making labels, we should find the stuff that we don’t use and just toss it!

  6. threeoutside says 09 March 2010 at 06:26

    1. The one-in, one-out rule. For every new (to my home) object I bring in, I have to get rid of one old one. When I’m in Decluttering mode, that’s 2 or 3 or 5 to 1.

    2. I made myself develop the habit of always putting my car keys in the same place, even if I had to get there from two floors away because I discovered them in my pocket. Eventually, it got automatic, and I VERY seldom have to hunt for car keys any more.

    3. I sat myself down and analyzed my attachment to things. Most often, it’s because someone I love gave it to me. First I ask, am I using it? Or, is it beautiful (for my space)? If not – out it goes. Because I can still love and remember the person without a useless dust-catcher sitting around cluttering up my life. (If the person is still around, I may keep it out for show for a year or so before re-gifting or donating the items somewhere.)

  7. lupalz says 09 March 2010 at 06:26

    Not buying new stuff for a whole year may not be practical but we try to stick to a few simple rules:

    1. Buy the best quality you can possibly afford. The clutter will decrease quickly. You will save time and money in the long run

    2. Replace, don’t add. If you buy a new pair of shoes, another pair has to go in the bin

    3. If we haven’t used something for 2 years, we will never use it/wear it. Give it away.

    4. There is some stuff you know it’s useless but you love, in this case I give the object ‘family heritage’ status. Does it deserve heritage status? Is it useful? Bin it if it isn’t. It sounds strange but it’s working very well for us.

  8. Peggy says 09 March 2010 at 06:30

    In her books, Alexandra Stoddard calls the decluttering process “editing”. It’s helpful for me to think of it that way. I get rid of things that aren’t in harmony with what I want my future life to be like.

    Another term she uses is “de-thugging”, I like the mental picture this evokes of striking back at the Stuff that is stealing my time, energy, and peace.

    Some people find it helpful to take pictures of the room they’re working on, because the clutter is more obvious to them in the pictures. We get out of the habit of seeing what is really there.

  9. Slackerjo says 09 March 2010 at 06:31

    I’ve said this over and over again on GRS and other blogs. One in, one out rule. You get to a point in your life when you really don’t need more. Think replace over accumulate. If you get a new pair of jeans, an old pair must go!

  10. Molly On Money says 09 March 2010 at 06:35

    When my husband and I want to start a new project or hobby we go through our stuff and sell what we don’t love. It’s a great practice because if we REALLY want to move on to the new hobby (beekeeping is the current one) than we have to get rid of the old!
    Our kids do it too. The one thing I grapple with is we are still in the practice of ‘accumulating stuff’, we’re just moving it through.

  11. Madeline Arce says 09 March 2010 at 06:36

    This is more of a perspective than a tip that’s helped me. Understand decluttering isn’t a one time huge project or you’ll just keep getting discouraged. It’s a lot like your finances, you’re constantly “editing” and “re-editing”. This happens for a lot of reasons but mostly I think it’s because once you see how well you do with less stuff, you move on to having even less stuff. Things just seem less and less critical. So for an average family, allow yourself time and patience. It always feels like you’ll never get there but just take a look at all of those receipts from your previous donations to see how far you’ve come and then- keep going! I personally have been on a major de-cluttering mission since my husband and I separated in June of last year. I’m probably not even halfway where I think I’d like to be, but it’s ok because I’m a lot better off than I used to be!

  12. Craig Ford says 09 March 2010 at 06:50

    We bought a smaller house. Less storage space means less place to keep junk. Eventually you weed out the unnecessary things.
    Another tip is to move. Everytime we move we get rid of a lot of clutter.

  13. Tiffany says 09 March 2010 at 07:05

    uncluttering is so hard for me! i decided to dedicate 20 minutes per day to HONEST keep-or-donate gaming. the hard part for me is the wasted money i have spent on something when i donate it. i don’t have an emotional attachment to the thing, but feel i need to keep it because it cost money! i decided instead to look at this as a lesson on mindful money spending.

    example: i tossed about 10 long sleeve t-shirts because they were filthy. i work as a nurse and wear them all the time. my immediate instinct was to order more online. so i filled up my online shopping cart with ten more…then closed the window. i have five left! that’s plenty! when those are gone, i will replace with 5 more…not ten!

    it’s definitely an on-going project and new way of thinking.

  14. Amy(Super Healthy Kids) says 09 March 2010 at 07:16

    Whenever I feel like making a purchase, I always think about myself driving that item to the local Goodwill/ DI, because ineviteably it will end up there. It has curtailed loads of lame, clutter causing purchases.

  15. Ella says 09 March 2010 at 07:20

    It can be fun to paint or draw on things before you throw them away.

    I had notebooks full of old math research notes. The paper was pretty good, so when I was sure I was never going to use them I painted all over them. It was quite cathartic and I think it looks quite nice to have the algebra underneath, and since I’m really just learning how to paint, I don’t think it matters so much that it’s not a clean piece of paper!

    Also, you can paint on a lot of objects if you put gesso on them first. Any old wood, cardboard, etc. I’m not an expert, but if something’s going in the garbage, you might as well try to paint on it.

    This quickly uses up a lot of really old clothes-turned-into-rags at the same time, because you can use them to clean brushes and wipe off mistakes.

  16. Financially Fab says 09 March 2010 at 07:24

    I used to shop frequently, but never seemed to have just the right items. So I’d go shopping again.

    1. When I moved 3 years ago, I gave away/sold/trashed 75% of my possessions. It was scary at the time. Years later, I don’t miss any of it. Now, when I’m shopping, I occasionally ask myself, “If I had to move next year, would I keep this item?”

    2. When I’m considering whether I need an item, I ask myself, “If I put this off for a month, will I be okay during that time?” I keep postponing the purchase until the answer is no.

    3. If I’m shopping and unsure about whether to buy something. I tell myself that I can come back in a week or two if I still want it.

    Those three tricks have done wonders for simplifying my life. Less stuff to organized = less stress.

  17. smileymamaT says 09 March 2010 at 07:24

    I have 3 teens and so Stuff seems to seep in through the walls when I’m not looking. However I feel better knowing they’ll take or box up most of their Stuff when they move out! For my own clutter, I live by a 4-foot rule. I only declutter a 4 feet by 4 feet section of the house at any one time – keeps it short and sweet and I do it nearly every day…at least once a week if schedules are crazy. The kids have to pitch in to do the same on the weekends. 🙂

  18. Monica says 09 March 2010 at 07:25

    I think poster #6 (threeoutside) makes a great point. I also find that I hang on to things that I don’t really need (or want) anymore because someone I love gave it to me.

    For me, sentimental items often aren’t about the items themselves so much as the memories associated with them. When I was packing to move the other week, I took pictures of items I was ready to get rid of. I get to keep the image and the memory — but not the “clutter” of the item.

    I also came up with a similar idea for t-shirts I’d like to share. Like many people, I have a whole box of old t-shirts I am never going to wear again but have been hesitant to get rid of. I plan to take a picture of each, and then create a photo scrapbook using Shutterfly. I think it will be a great way to preserve the memories, and it’s a lot less expensive than turning them into a t-shirt quilt.

  19. Ellen says 09 March 2010 at 07:45

    I got a dog – an exuberant dog who loves to chew and will get into anything in less than 15 seconds when you turn your back on him. My house has never been so clutter-free.

    (The dog is actually now a lot better about not getting into stuff, but the anti-clutter habits I picked up have remained.)

  20. Sandy E. says 09 March 2010 at 07:50

    I reclaimed my house, one room at a time. Here’s how I reclaimed my kitchen: I picked 12 of my favorite dinner recipes and side dishes to go with and handwrote each on a sheet of notebook paper and put them in a 3-ring binder in plastic pages. Then I went through easch recipe and jotted down what spices I needed for each. I went through my spice cabinet and relocated the spices that I would not need for these recipes. (took them out of the kitchen). Next I noted what cooking utensils I needed for them, like which baking dishes and pots and pans, and again got the rest out of the kitchen. I even took it one step further and took a look at what serving dishes I would need for each recipe and again, relocated and/or got rid of those that I wouldn’t. I even took a look inside my refrigerator and took out what I wouldn’t need for these recipes too. That’s how I reclaimed my kitchen. It is a pleasure to cook in there now because there are no excess spices to move to find the ones I need and the same goes for not having to move pots and pans out of my way to get to the ones that I need.

  21. kelle says 09 March 2010 at 07:52

    I have the future projects problem. Great old things (that needs a face lift) clutter.
    Watch a episode of Hoarders on the A & E TV website. It works great for me to get off my b*** and get rid of more stuff.
    Photographs are the toughest thing, even the really bad ones are hard to get rid of.

  22. Jane says 09 March 2010 at 08:00

    “If you get a new pair of jeans, an old pair must go!” – Or perhaps a better rule – don’t get a new pair of jeans until the old pair falls apart or are otherwise unwearable. If you’re replacing perfectly good clothes with new ones, the one in one out rule will certainly reduce your clutter, but it doesn’t address the larger issue of buying things you technically don’t need. I’m not saying it’s wrong to buy things, but the one in one out rule doesn’t technically solve rampart consumerism.

    I like this post, and I really struggle with clutter as well. But I think sometimes we go too far with this or set too high expectations for our houses. A friend gave me a subscription for Real Simple magazine, and I find that it stresses me out that my house doesn’t look like the pictures in the magazine. But why should my house look like that? Frankly it’s just unrealistic with a toddler (and another on the way). I think simplifying our lives is ultimately a good thing for psychological reasons and financial reasons, but there is such a thing as obsession with it. I notice a trend towards that, and in general if the clutter doesn’t bother you, I hope that reading an article like this doesn’t make you discontent with your house. Because clutter is not inherently wrong!

    I was really disturbed by the idea of counting the number of your possessions that was suggested in the article last week. To me, that defeats the purpose. Life isn’t perfect. Our homes don’t have to be perfect and clutter free to be happy. If that is necessary to maintain my sense of peace with the world, I worry for myself if things spiral out of control.

    Having said this, I feel better when my dirty and clean laundry are both put in their proper places!

  23. Joey says 09 March 2010 at 08:25

    If I think I need something but know I haven’t even touched it for a long time, I put it in a box. Then write a label on it saying “Haven’t touched this since [today’s date]”, and store it away in the attic. I’ve found boxes before that I hadn’t even opened in over a year. Trashed!

    Plus, I get rid of most books. I’d rather pay for it twice than buy it once and hold onto it for years and years. Chances are you will never read it again anyway. Just keep the ones you really really like!

  24. Nicole says 09 March 2010 at 08:27

    No mom, I’m not going to make my bed. It feels all wrong.

    Embrace comfortable levels of clutter. Stop stressing out so much about stuff whether you’ve got it or you don’t.

  25. Kathy says 09 March 2010 at 08:30

    We live in a small house: family of four in about 970 square feet. I am very selective about what I bring in here! We just don’t have the room. Additionally it is a good excuse not to take things people try to unload on me when they declutter their own homes.

  26. Mrs. Money says 09 March 2010 at 08:36

    Following that post last week, I went through my closet and tossed a ton of clothes I was not wearing. It was liberating! Of course now I feel like I’ll need something and not have it. But I love living with less! 🙂

  27. kaitlyn says 09 March 2010 at 08:37

    I just “saved” almost $100 by decluttering this weekend. I thought I had another box of Frontline flea medicine, but I couldn’t find it to save my life, so I was going to buy some next weekend. Lo and behold, I found the Frontline while decluttering my closet.

    Since we’re moving, I’m trying to look at everything with “do I REALLY want to pack and unpack this?” It’s easier for me, but my fiance is still stuck in the “but it might be useful some day! It’s a waste to throw it away.”

  28. Patti says 09 March 2010 at 08:42

    I maintain a simple method of purchasing….if I think I need it/want it I give it 2 or 3 days. If I still feel the same way then I go get it. However, in the last 20 years of doing this I can only remember going back for 1 thing.

    I have a house full of stuff and have been working to clear out over the last year. I really did not need 12 candle holders. I love candles but I can’t use them all and so I got rid of those and bought me some new updated ones.

    I did as another reader did and put all my receipes in a 3 ring binder in plastic sleeves. It is full, if I get another receipe then one has to go.

    I’ve used the 1 minute rule for 25 years now and it works. Put dishes in the dishwasher when you use them. Unload the dishwasher while chatting on the phone. I’ve also used the if I’m going down or upstairs I rarely go empty handed. I can carry the mail that needs filing or schredding to my office so it isn’t laying around on the counter.

    I’m single and as such there is no other person to help with chores, car washing, laundry, shopping so I’ve had to get organized and declutter for my own sanity.

  29. Kathy B says 09 March 2010 at 08:49

    My parents had a lot of stuff. My dad had a 2 car garage full of his stuff. When he couldn’t find his rake or shovel, he would buy another one. My mom collected stuff as well, but on a lower scale. I collected stuff because that was what we did in our family. When my father passed away my mom had a garage sale every weekend for a month and still didn’t get rid of all his stuff. She ended up donating the remainder.

    When I moved 2000 miles away. I took all my stuff, stayed 5 yrs, and then I moved back with all my stuff. When I married my ex-husband he had more stuff than I did. Wow, what treasures we had. We moved 1500 miles it took 2 trips to move all our stuff. When we divorced I rid myself of a lot of my stuff because I was tired of packing it up and moving it with me. Every year I have a yard sale and what I don’t sell I donate to our local Salvation Army.

    I now have used the 6 month rule in the last 10 yrs. I pack it up and if I haven’t missed, needed, or used it in 6 months then I donate it if it didn’t sell at my annual yard sale.

  30. ebyt says 09 March 2010 at 09:26

    Hmmm I didn’t realize normal people had such problems with clutter that they’d lose a pair of new runners and have to go out and buy another pair. Seems a bit ridiculous. I understand having a basement with some crap you never use, but I’ve never had a huge clutter problem. I live in an apartment and routinely chuck stuff I don’t use. I like having the place nice and tidy. I say if you don’t use the item for a few months, toss it (or give it to charity). Also, shop smarter. Think about what will happen to the item in 6 months. I’ve done this and reconsidered many purchases.

  31. Kate says 09 March 2010 at 09:33

    Generally, I have no problem getting rid of clutter or unused items. I have two issues though (would appreciate anyone’s hints on these) –

    1. I have a really hard time getting rid of my “skinny” clothes. My weight isn’t constant. I’ve been somewhere between the same 3 sizes for the past 15 years and have learned to keep things in each size for when I move up and down. BUT I have things that are like 5-6 sizes smaller from when I was in college that I have a really hard time parting with. And I know it’s just because I don’t want to admit that I’ll never be that thin again. I feel like if I get rid of them than I’m admitting that I’m destined to be overweight.

    2. Because I’m trying to pay off debt, I’ve been intending to sell a lot of clutter on ebay or craigslist. But I haven’t done it and there’s been these piles of things waiting to go for months. Is it better to just donate them to get them out of the house and off my mind? Or really ante up and spend the time to get them listed online? How much can I really make off a used CD or random kitchen item?

  32. chacha1 says 09 March 2010 at 09:39

    Right this very moment I’m looking at a big piece of clutter: a giant aquarium tank and stand that have been unused since I brought them home. Well, “unused” in the sense that there’s never been water in the tank.

    DH wants to have a reef system someday. Early in our marriage he had a little tiny tank (saltwater) with a cute little tiny fish. Eventually the fish died and after we moved to our new big place I got him a new big aquarium.

    After six years, I think it is clear that this is not going to happen during our working lives. Saltwater aquaria are expensive to set up and maintain, and they take a lot of time that DH obviously doesn’t want to devote to it. I’m about to take the aquarium to one of the local charitable thrift shops.

    Sure, it cost some money, but not so much that it’s “worth” keeping just because we have it. Frankly, it’s annoying me every time I look at it.

  33. Crystal says 09 March 2010 at 09:56

    Kate @ #31: I have some thoughts for you

    1- Don’t get rid of your skinny clothes if it makes you feel defeated, thats not the point of de-cluttering. You DO still need them, if for mental reasons only. Get your self a nice box or two and store it

    2- I started with the Craigs list thing and it ended up being a hassle for me more than anything. Try pawn shops (here in Fort Worth you can get about .50-$1 for a used CD), have a yard sale, then donate the rest

  34. Kristi says 09 March 2010 at 10:10

    The reason I don’t like clutter is because I have found it to be a major cause of my stress and eventual depression. I do not buy a lot of things because I just don’t need them and I know that the more “stuff” I have, the more depressed I get. My motto: “There is a place for everything and everything in its place”. It frustrates me to no end when I know I have something and I know where I put it, then when I need it and can’t find it in the place that I put it, I just get angry at the collosal waste of time trying to find it. Well, I recently got rid of the main perpetrator of the clutter in my house – my spouse. Even the three kids do not have as much clutter as the one man. He is not a believer in my “motto” and would move things out of their place into different and completely illogical places. It’s sad to say that the way I decluttered my life was to get rid of my husband – but so far, it is working out great!

    • Tiffany says 10 September 2012 at 09:02

      How terrible, from many perspectives. Terrible you are getting a divorce. Terrible he wouldn’t compromise. Terrible “stuff” was a deal breaker. I’d rather just not have the stuff than fight about it and loose my life partner. How tragic a compromise couldn’t be met. I wonder how often excess possess and excess spending compound emotional differences in marraige and lead to divorce 🙁

  35. Michele says 09 March 2010 at 10:10

    I go through things as I clean each week and set aside things that I don’t use, don’t love, don’t need or don’t fit. Then, once a month, I pile it all up on the dining room table, take an inventory of it and a photograph. I pack it up, and it goes to Goodwill. the items get re-used, the money from the sale of the items supports developmentally disabled folks, I get the use of the item for as long as I needed it, and I also get a tax deduction. Much less hassle than craigslist or a garage sale.

  36. Erica Douglass says 09 March 2010 at 10:37

    I don’t think this article will force many folks who are living in piles of clutter to take action. And it’s nothing against this article, in particular–it’s just that the truth is most people won’t take action.

    So here is my advice: Hire a professional organizer. Most likely, his/her fees will be paid back by stuff you find (checks, cash, even stuff you can sell or were planning to buy another of!) Have the organizer help you make the mental/emotional decisions.

    Otherwise, it probably won’t get done. is a good place to start to find a professional organizer in your area.


  37. Christy says 09 March 2010 at 10:51

    Kate @ 31

    I have to disagree with Crystal on one point. Get rid of the skinny clothes save one item. When you can fit in it you can thrift store/consignment shop for new clothes. In the mean time those clothes are going or are out of style and you probably wouldn’t want to wear them anyway.

    Pawn shop is a great idea.

    just my 2 cents.

  38. Pat says 09 March 2010 at 11:02

    One of the things that helped me start to beat the clutter bug – more specifically my overflowing closet & drawers – was the concept of sunk cost. As an accounting & finance instructor, it took teaching this concept to students awhile before it clicked in my head that all this stuff is NOT going to provide a return to me. The money has been spent and is gone – therefore cost is irrelevant in my decision to keep or give away or toss. What is relevant is space available and pleasure given by having the item.

    It’s taken awhile but my closet & drawers are rarely overflowing, as I keep a bag at the ready for donations to the thrift store so as soon as I do a “I don’t like this” to something – into the bag it goes. Hubby has started thinking this way too and so we are slowly decluttering our home. We find it is easier to relax as we get rid of the clutter and keep it under control.

  39. Justin says 09 March 2010 at 11:10

    I LOVE decluttering. My only problem is I don’t do it enough.

    My bookshelves are all full with books that I havent read in 2-3 years, and probably never will again.

    I have at least 20-30 movies that I definitely havent watched in 1-2 years.

    Ever since moving from a small 1 BR apt. to a house, I’ve learned how muchs tuff I really have- and don’t really need.

    I personally like my little 1600 sq ft house, and couldn’t imagine the costs of filling up a big one, as well as how much time it must take to clean!

  40. JennW says 09 March 2010 at 11:12

    I’m amazed that nobody has mentioned FLYlady. FLY stands for finally loving yourself. She has powerful essays on her site about the effects of clutter on our pocketbooks, our self-esteem and our families. And she has GREAT tools to deal with it, many of which I see listed in the comments above, but they are organized into a system that you can work to not only get to a state of clutter you can deal with, but then to stay there and avoid backsliding.

    Check it out:

  41. Kathy says 09 March 2010 at 11:16

    @ Kate – if you had your “skinny” clothing from college they’re probably out of date anyway. Think of how nice a reward of some new feel-great-in-them clothes would be after you’ve done all the hard work necessary to need them!

  42. Piccolina says 09 March 2010 at 11:42

    My parents’ home is very cluttered, and it stresses me out to visit. My mother loves to buy things that she thinks are a great bargain.

    Now she buys things for me that I have not asked for and do not want, but I feel obligated to keep them because she bought them for me and they are in perfectly good condition. It hurts her feelings when I tell her I don’t want these things, so I can’t give them back to her. She often orders things and has them shipped to my house. Even though I’ve asked her to stop several times, she can’t seem to stop herself.

    I’m running out of places to tuck these things away. What to do? Any advice?

  43. Budgeting in the Fun Stuff says 09 March 2010 at 11:44

    I’d suggest tackling the areas you see most first. It was so invigorating to get our downstairs organized! Coming home to clean counters, an organized pantry, and a calm living room was awesome!

    I’m now using Craigslist to sell a few items that were just taking up space in the garage (fish tank I no longer wanted and a wall mount we never even opened that came free with our tv).

    I’ve also donated half my closet to Goodwill since I was just keeping stuff I hoped to fit into again…bad reason to use space. My next project will be to get the guest bedroom set up with bookshelves since we just have piles of books taking up space in the office. Then I can tackle the office…yuck…

  44. benoit says 09 March 2010 at 11:48

    Nice article. However “There are families who live happily in 100-square-foot apartments”?? Please, that is a bit too much. There are families that live in 100-square-foot apartments but none of those are happy. The article you are referring to is about a couple (not a family) and they live in a 175-square-foot flat. This is a hugh difference.

  45. Josh Wheeler says 09 March 2010 at 12:05

    Just wanted to say great article! I really enjoyed it… well researched too. Thanks for bringing in some stats and opinions from outside sources to bring some extra dimension in.

    So many times we want to keep “stuff” cause we think someday it may save us money if we ever happen to need it… yet, it’s not unlike new distribution models that businesses have adopted over the years to implement lean inventory systems that deliver on demand cause of all the time it saves. Taking care of “stuff” takes a lot of time, and we say time is money… but do we really believe it?

  46. Karen says 09 March 2010 at 12:15

    I love de-cluttering!

    For some weird reason, it gives me the same pleasure as buying something new. Perhaps because de-cluttering makes my space/remaining clothing look “new”?

    So now when I sigh and look at my house and think “oh it needs something to pep it up”–I just start throwing things away instead of buying new throw pillows etc.

  47. Emmy says 09 March 2010 at 12:16

    Kate- Oh my God, yes. I have the same problem. And really, the clothes I’m holding on to aren’t even very nice, I just can’t bring myself to get rid of the perfectly worn in pair of jeans that I practically lived in at 18. Or the cute top that is really too fussy and impractical to wear on a regular basis. I’m slooooowly starting to let go of these things, but the emotional factor is a big obstacle. I think it’s because that was a really exciting, fun time in my life, and I’m associating the clothes I wore then with my level of happiness. Now I just tell myself that if I ever get that skinny again I’ll buy new stuff that’s actually in style and actually flattering to replace my ratty college clothes.

  48. Tyler Karaszewski says 09 March 2010 at 12:36

    I think all these ‘unclutter’ sites and posts are missing the point. Well, not entirely, but they’re largely focusing on a small aspect of something that could have a big impact.

    Sure, having a neat, tidy house with lots of open space and flat surfaces looks nice and modern and Frank Lloyd Wright-ish and will impress your “rarefied middle-class San Francisco greenie” (from that “The Compact” site) friends. That’s fine, and your house will look like an architecture or home decorating magazine.

    But the biggest gain in not in the *absence* of stuff, but in the lack of *acquisition of new stuff*. That’s not an absolute rule of course, sometimes you need new things, and getting used things doesn’t count. A used bicycle takes up just as much space and requires just as much maintenance.

    Obviously, this is a financial gain, since you don’t have to pay for all that stuff, but it goes far beyond that — there’s an opportunity here to change the focus of your life away from stuff entirely. It’s easy for us to end up with lists of “goals” that read like shopping lists: buy bigger house, buy new kitchen appliances, buy new car, buy exercise equipment, buy, buy buy. Then a site like “unclutterer” comes along on the premise of changing this, but instead it becomes: buy flatscreen TV to save space when we junk the old tube TV, buy stackable organizers, sell old bicycle in garage, donate old shoes to goodwill. And it’s a step in the right direction. You’re buying fewer things, but still your focus is on how much stuff you do (or don’t) have.

    The goal shouldn’t be to stop saying “man, I can’t believe how many clothes are in my closet!” and start saying “wow, look how few clothes are in my closet!” it’s to start saying “I’m not really sure how many clothes are in my closet, I’ve been to focused on learning to speak French and climbing mountains and traveling. Maybe my closet *is* a mess. Oh well.”

    That’s where I want to be, the guy who really doesn’t care about stuff, so he doesn’t buy it unless he needs it, and he doesn’t get rid of it unless it’s in his way. I don’t want to obsess over it, having exactly the right amount, throwing out my oldest pair of underwear because it puts me at “101 personal things” or trying to find a place that can replace my punctured tire with a used one because I promised myself not to buy anything new for a year.

  49. Carla | Green and Chic says 09 March 2010 at 12:39

    I try to look objectively at what I have ever few months and ask myself if I really need it or at least really want it. I tend to purge clothes more often than anything else. Whenever anything gets too big, its gone. I never hold on to clothes “just in case” (if it doesn’t fit me). Everything either gets sold, or given away. There were certain items that I regretted selling like an older sewing machine that was much better than my newer one, but that is rare.

  50. Sierra Black says 09 March 2010 at 12:41

    Great comments. I love all the creative things people do with their unwanted Stuff.

    I’ve never been overweight per se, but my weight has fluctuated a lot with having two kids. I did get rid of all my skinny clothes when I got pregnant, and had no trouble replacing them with stuff from clothing swaps and thrift stores when I lost the weight. It was fun getting new things.

    I did hold onto some stuff, and as many people have said, when I was skinny enough to wear it again it had gone out of fashion or no longer fit my lifestyle. I wound up giving most of it away and getting different things anyway.

  51. corey says 09 March 2010 at 13:22

    As I always say…

    You can spend a little time getting organized, or you can spend all of your time being disorganized.

  52. The Skeptical Housewife says 09 March 2010 at 13:36

    This was a great article! Great suggestions in the comments, too! It inspired me to go through my closet AGAIN and get rid of more clothes that I do not like to wear.

    Now if only I can get my cat off my feet…

  53. Chris says 09 March 2010 at 13:52

    I hate all sorts of useless stuff. George Carlin: “A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”

    I have almost completely decluttered my life and it feels great not owning any possessions besides a couch and TV. Trouble in paradise though is my wife and kids. Seems like whenever i throw something out, they bring something right back in. Drives me insane as now I’m picking up all their stuff constantly.

    Just thought I’d rant . . .

  54. Steve says 09 March 2010 at 13:57

    I would like to implement the 1-minute rule, but my spouse seems to be opposed to it. She gets frustrated if she has to stand around while I’m doing one of these small tasks. (Even worse is when she finds a small task, then I finish mine and see she is busy so I start another task… leapfrogging until one of us gets frustrated).

    We’re also at odds about decluttering. I have finally gotten her on board that decluttering needs to be done, but we’re still orders of magnitude apart as to how much stuff we need to get rid of. Sometimes she even resists when I want to get rid of my own, personal clutter (e.g. clothes.)

    Anyone have advice for me?

  55. Budgeting in the Fun Stuff says 09 March 2010 at 14:07

    Steve, if you are attached to your spouse, have a sit down and figure out what both of you want and how you’re willing to get there. The stupid arguments will stop when you both have the same goals or at least support each other’s goals (at least they did for us and it’s been about 6 months since our sit-down).

  56. Lauren says 09 March 2010 at 14:44

    Here’s the strange part for me. Most of my space in my home looks beautiful – lots of space, cool artwork, everything in place but lived-in cozy. Then, enter the walk in closet in my office and all hell breaks loose.

    Just moved recently – no, let me correct myself – movers moved me, all 12,000 pounds worth. Hell, I used to move all my stuff in a VW beetle! What happened? I never thought of myself as consumer oriented :-). Maybe I should start by getting rid of some of my 65 boxes of books…oh, but oh, I love them so!

  57. Jasmine says 09 March 2010 at 16:51

    What really works for me is the 5 a day rule. Every day I toss or donate 5 items. It only takes a few minutes. I started doing this in January and now that it has become a habit I find that I look forward to getting rid of 5 items every day even if it is 5 pieces of paper from a file. It really adds up that’s approximately 150 items a month or 1800 items a year. I’m loving the extra space that is being created by getting rid of items that are no longer needed.

  58. JaM says 09 March 2010 at 17:01

    Clutter in the US is directly related to Consumerism

    How easy and affordable it is to just buy another item than search for it among clutter in the US! Only if Americans would travel to just Europe and not even any third world nation would they realise in how much excess they live. Here we not only have monster size homes but then folks even rent storage on top of that.

    I have had the good fortune of moving for jobs (many times not because of choice)that I had to be selective of what I needed to carry or store. I have realized that things that were not used for 6 months to 1 year are never going to be used, these are prime candidates to get rid of.

  59. PB says 09 March 2010 at 19:22

    About 10 years ago I needed to pack up the children’s play room in the basement — they had all outgrown it and it was an unused mess. However, between work, teenagers, and all the other things that make up a life, there was never time. I managed the whole thing this way: each time I went into the basement, I took care of one thing — whatever would fit into one hand. By concentrating on the very small, the whole project was accomplished. Did it go quickly? No. Was speed important? No — the end result was. The room is now lined in book cases and has a scrapbooking table and room to exercise. If it hadn’t been for the one-thing-at-a-time approach, it would probably still be a mess.

    By the way, things from the playroom were tossed, saved for future grandchildren (washed and stored in the attic), given away to friends, or donated to the elementary school’s after school program — something which I heartily recommend. They constantly need to replace odd checkers, chess pieces, and other small game pieces, so hang on to them and pass them on!

  60. CERB says 09 March 2010 at 19:50

    I remember Suze Orman demonstrating this years ago. When she was on the Oprah show, she would call out of the audience a couple of people who had debt and a couple of people who didn’t. Then she’d have them open up their purses or wallets. People with debt had messy purses, while those with no debt would be neat, with their dollar bills neatly lined up in order. She also visited them in their homes. People with debt often had messy houses, filled with never used purchases, duplicate items, misplaced checks or bills, etc. It was interesting.

  61. Karen says 09 March 2010 at 20:15

    If you’ve ever been through a divorce, you learn to not value “stuff” because you lose a lot of said stuff due to the extreme reduction in income (at least in my case anyway). I now value people and relationships and don’t get attached to my things. Over this past year, I took what was left from our last move, sold a bunch of stuff on Ebay, sold more stuff at a flea market, and got rid of all the clothes I have outgrown 🙁 at a consignment store.
    I took the proceeds from all this selling and used it toward our yearly vacation in the Carribean.

  62. Mimi says 09 March 2010 at 21:14

    I’ve found that a lot of stuff in our house gets accumulated in small packages centralized in the kitchen and bathroom. How many types/containers of pasta do we have because our pantry is unorganized? A lot!
    Our bathroom is a also mess because I love buying cosmetics/facial products; my goal is to not buy anything until I use everything up. As a sucker for the next snake-oil cream, this will be challenging, but I’m looking forward to a clean medicine cabinet.

  63. Leigh says 09 March 2010 at 21:30

    To Jane in Comment #22:
    About jeans, They absolutely have to fit great in all the right places! (Remember to check the 3-way mirror!)
    As far as expectations: I totally agree. Don’t obsess about the perfect house. Enjoy your little ones. But get a system for dealing with the outgrown clothes and toys, and purge regularly. (I wish I had done that.)Otherwise you’ll quickly be overwhelmed. Limiting the number of toys is tough, but a great goal. Maybe they can learn to donate them to a kid’s charity as they get older. Keep 2 or 3 of the cutest baby outfits/shoes in a cedar chest and hand down all the rest.

  64. Leigh says 09 March 2010 at 21:56

    Maybe a face-to-face about what your “Ideal” home would look like. Start with one room. Clip pictures and websites for style ideas for inspiration. (Our daughter did a complete HGTV-style makeover of our bedroom. It opened my eyes to the possibilities.) Then decide on practical, manageable ways to make it happen. I use realistic deadlines to help me keep my goals. (And it’s always a work-in-progress.)
    What is your spouse’s history? Tough childhood or maybe suffered a loss (house fire, loss of a parent when young?) If so, she may have issues that she needs to work through (with the help of a life coach/therapist). Good luck

  65. Lisa says 09 March 2010 at 22:18

    Our small home cannot accomodate alot of stuff…With bedrooms as big as 9′ x 9′ (we can fit a twin bed and desk. That’s all) I have to find ways to pare down. I do purge every so often as the kids grow out of clothing and put shelves on walls so toys can be within reach but not take up floor space. I have also learned to clean as if I was moving. I have purchased large plastic bins to store items that are collectible or to make things more organized and label them..As time goes by, I go through them and donate alot of it for a tax write-off or have a garage sale. My husband says I “just want to live in a box” and not have anything around. I agreed to that. I’m not into “Stuff” taking up alot of valuable space. My mother had gotten into the habit of going to garage sales and sending me things she thought I could use (I live 1500 miles from her). I told her I could not use candles that were melted, old yellow coloring books, cake mixes (I’m diabetic), or empty tins. She said I did and kept sending me more of it. I sent her photos of my home, which encouraged her even more as she felt my home was uncluttered and had plenty of room to store more of this valuable stuff she was shipping to me. It took years of me telling her that I throw all of it away or donate it to charity before she stopped sending it. Needless to say, dad used to call mom a “pack rat” and I’m not sure why she felt I needed to become one too, but it has all stopped. WHEW. I am much happier in a uncluttered living space and believe that a cluttered room leads to a cluttered mind. My mind is more clear now.

  66. Leah says 09 March 2010 at 22:23

    I have to say that this post inspired me. My boyfriend and I have a fairly small apartment (made seemingly smaller by not much storage). We cleaned out one of our two closets today and were amazed by how much stuff we managed to fit in there. We’ve trimmed several boxes worth and repacked. In the process, we found a few things we’ve been looking for. So, thanks for encouraging me to take care of my clutter. I don’t think this stuff cost us any money, but it sure did cost us psychologically.

    Actually, come to think of it, cleaning out will probably cost us, since we got rid of a lot of stored dishes and decided to throw in the few matching pieces we are using (so that we can donate a whole set). We’re likely going to buy a new set of dishes and get rid of all the rest of our mismatched collection. But at least we’re rid of clutter, and we’re looking for a matching set that will fit neatly together in our cupboard, meet our needs, and not be more than we need.

  67. Maharani says 09 March 2010 at 22:48

    If you really want to be motivated to get rid of clutter, take a look at “Squalor Survivors”. When I get lazy about housecleaning I take a look…… It always succeeds in motivating me to stay organized around the house and keep clutter to a minimum. Also watch “Hoarders”..

  68. David/yourfinances101 says 10 March 2010 at 02:48

    Two of the biggest reasons for me to always stay “de-cluttered”:

    Less wasted time. Which to me, means less wasted money

    Less mental stress.

    Plain and simple.

  69. savvysavingbytes says 10 March 2010 at 10:12

    I live in a small apartment so for ages every time I have bought something new, I’ve had to dump something old. This has taught me to buy only things I 100% love and not waste time or money on unnecessary stuff.

    My office papers, however, need a major de-clutter attack.I plan on adopting a friend’s method, which has always kept his apartment (even smaller than mine) clutter free. He says you have to be “ruthless” about dumping unnecessary possessions. With that tough word in mind, my dusty old papers don’t stand a chance.

  70. Steve says 10 March 2010 at 11:54

    Thanks to those who responded to my comment. So far after years of effort I have managed to raise my wife’s commitment level from “opposed” to “agrees it’s a good idea but it’s uncomfortable, like eating broccoli and going to the dentist.”

    I haven’t had much luck trying to convince her to use tactics such as the 1 minute rule, one-in-one-out, “put all the stuff in one place and move it to another as you use each item, then after X time get rid of the stuff you haven’t moved” (this would work perfect for clothes, or for our collection of hundreds of board games.)

    I don’t think there’s anything psychological here. Heck, I am not that much behind her, it’s hard to let go of something you like, plan(ned) to use someday, sentimental, etc… We’re closer together on the scale than we are apart. I just feel all our Stuff is getting in the way of our life, and so have slightly more motivation to get over my feelings than she seems to.

  71. Bella says 10 March 2010 at 13:01

    I have friend. She and her husband live in NYC. They pay an astronomical amount of money each month in rent. When they moved into their current place – which was bigger (and more expensive) her husband enforced the ‘Is it worth the rent?’ rule. Basically asking her for every knick knack that she owned (most given to her in her teens and twenties) is it worth the rent to keep it? And MOST were not. She ended up with only the things that she really loved, and a beautiful new apartment that despite being in NYC seems spacious because they got rid of so much stuff.
    The way I keep the clutter to minimum in my house – I hired a cleaning service. They come every two weeks, they don’t do clutter they just clean. So to get my money’s worth, at least every two weeks the kitchen counters, living room tables, and bedroom and bathroom floors are clutter free to allow the cleaners to do their thing. I grew up in a house that was constantly covered in clutter (mail and clothing) and it is so refreshing to know that my house is never more than 1hr from being clean and houseguest worthy.

  72. BB says 11 March 2010 at 04:53

    Sell on eBay; donate to Vietnam Vets; give to my grown children starting their households.
    I also belong to, a really great way to recycle books and read new ones.

    My husband is a bit of a pack rat though; wish I could get him to declutter his old stuff. Not that he’s not organized- au contraire! Maybe one day.

  73. Karen says 11 March 2010 at 05:15

    I start with the public areas of the house. Then I pick one drawer in the chest of drawers or one shelf in the bathroom. Limiting it this was seems much less overwhelming.

  74. Jen Hunter says 12 March 2010 at 08:00

    Hi. I’m one of the professional organizers quoted in the article. Great article, and I also love the comments. I’m glad to see that so many people are thinking about their relationship with their stuff, and choosing to take action to make it better. One more idea: Donating your unwanted things will help other people get rich slowly, as they will save money buying things secondhand!

  75. ladykemma2 says 13 March 2010 at 07:58

    i told friends and family i didn’t want any more stuff, that i was clearing out 20 years of stuff, and if they wished to give me something, would it please be smelly candles, incense or jewelry.

    i am a reformed clutterer. in my 30s my motto was acquire! now at 47 my motto is discard and minimize!

    i don’t have time to sell my unwanted things. in my neighborhood it is the custom to place unwanted object on the curb. someone will give them a new home.

  76. Tammy says 15 March 2010 at 10:46

    A lot of my clutter comes from sentimental things. Clothes I wore as a child, events I attended etc. Now I take pictures of these items and find I can still go back in time with the memories even though the items are long gone from my house.

  77. Melissa Schmalenberger says 16 March 2010 at 12:22

    As a professional organizer I am always interested in what treasure we will find while working with the clutter. It often is uncashed checks, savings bonds or money from a trip. Often the money we find will pay for my services 🙂

  78. JAM says 27 March 2010 at 15:38

    I hate decluttering! I agree with being organized, but I say never get rid of good things. I’m telling you, I decluttered my basement last summer and got rid of things and during the winter I regreted much of it. Now, I’ve had to buy or borrow things I had at one time! Go figure. 🙂

  79. Sierra says 31 March 2010 at 13:29

    Piccolina: Find a friend or two who don’t have a lot of spending money and gift them with these items from your mother!! Your friends will LOVE you for it … and if your mom specifically asks about an item, tell her, “Oh, I gave that to Jill because she really needed (fill-in-the-blank), and she was SO thankful!” If your mom knows the item is appreciated, even if not by you, she’ll probably be OK with it.

    The better option would be for her to stop wasting her money on things you don’t want/need … but in my opinion, she won’t stop doing that unless it’s her OWN decision.

    So in the meantime, bless some other people in your life with these items. 🙂

  80. Cathyhaden says 25 December 2012 at 02:35

    Hey there,
    Clutter is a powerful enemy in busy families’ struggles to stay happy and sane. Its psychological aspects can contribute to stress and undermine relationships. Few people realize the importance of dealing with it until it is way out of control.

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