Two years ago, my family relocated from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. We decluttered a lot before the move — I donated my wedding dress, trashed the broken chair that hadn’t been repaired in five years, and sold a set of barely used golf clubs.
And yet, lots of clutter made its way onto the moving truck and lurks in our closets, basement, and garage.
There’s a black dress from the ’80s, with the shoulder pads to prove it. There’s a bike my daughter outgrew years ago. There’s an electronic drum set, still in the moving box, for a musician who gave up the drums for piano.
1. It won’t be easier to get rid of stuff tomorrow
We know the clutter should go, but it’s easier to leave it for another day. Now’s the time to do it, though, says Ginny Underwood, a professional organizer with Virginia’s Easy Living Solutions in Hilton Head, SC. “Downsizing is not just for retirees. Families with children in college might consider downsizing during this transitional time to becoming empty nesters, or when the adult children are settled in their new adult lives.”
And while we’ve only been in our house a couple of years, that’s not the case for many older adults. Ben Soreff, a professional organizer with House to Home Organizing in Norwalk, Conn., says, “Older adults have often lived in their space for 30 to 50 years, and they tend to have multi-generational clutter in their homes — items from their own lives, their parents lives, and their kids’ lives.”
2. Make some progress with the easy stuff first
Most of us put off decluttering because it feels overwhelming. But some stuff is easy to part with:
- Clothing that doesn’t fit, is stained, or hasn’t been worn in years.
- Paper clutter like envelopes, extra copies, or manuals for things you no longer own.
- Duplicates. How many baking pans, coffee mugs, or black T-shirts do you need?
- Books. If you’re not a fan of e-books, there’s likely a library within a few miles of your house that has a copy of just about every book you own.
- Music and movies. They are probably part of a service you already subscribe to.
Next, get to know your scanner. Scanning is time-consuming but not emotionally difficult. We moved with boxes and boxes of photo albums, and that’s one type of clutter we have cleared — my husband scanned them all and tossed the originals.
Scan or photograph any receipts and documents where an electronic copy will do. And download PDFs of owner’s manuals from the manufacturer’s web site. Keep hard copies only when necessary, for documents like Social Security cards and birth certificates.
3. Emotion makes decluttering a struggle
Next, you have to face the stuff you might not want to keep, but you don’t feel right getting rid of, either. Here are some common traps:
It reminds you of someone you’ve lost. “Saving too much dilutes what’s really special,” says Felice Cohen, a New York City-based professional organizer.
Instead, keep one item that represents a collection. Reserve one teacup and one saucer from a china collection. “Either use them or put them in a shadow box on display,” says Stephanie Seferian of Mama Minimalist in Sudbury, Mass.
Same goes for old jewelry — if you don’t wear it, keep that one piece that represents the essence of the original owner.
Your kids might want it. “I can’t remember a single time when I ever asked my parents for something they owned,” says Sherri Monte, co-owner of Elegant Simplicity in Seattle, Wash. “Your kids probably don’t want it either.”
Your home is a living space for your present life, says Seferian. “Your home isn’t a holding cell for items your children may need one day,” she says.
You might need it someday. “Be realistic and honest with yourself regarding the likelihood that you’ll use the item,” says Marty Basher, a home organization expert for Modular Closets in Lakewood, NJ. “If you’ve owned it for a year and have yet to use it, chances are you’ll never use it.” And if you needed it in the future, how difficult or expensive would it be to borrow or replace it?
It was a gift. “A gift is given as an expression of love or gratitude,” Basher says. “If you decide that the gift isn’t something you’ll use or want to keep, don’t keep it. Remind yourself that the gift has served its purpose. Don’t live in a cluttered home because you won’t get rid of items out of feelings of guilt.”
It was expensive. If it’s not adding value to your life now, get rid of it. “The money for the item has already been spent, and retaining the item won’t get you your money back,” Basher says. “Use this experience to be more thoughtful and intentional when you shop in the future.”
It might be worth something someday. What value does it bring today? “It’s taking up space in your home and your mind and creating an environment for you that is consumed with things,” Basher says.
You just can’t decide. Tricia Wolanin, a clinical psychologist based in the UK, says, “Would you actually pay money at a store for what is in front of you? If ‘yes’, keep it. If ‘no,’ discard it.”
You’re worried you will regret getting rid of it. Joanne Archer, a content editor with UK-based Expert Home Tips says, “Remember that most things are available on the secondhand market.”
4. You can keep some stuff
“The biggest myth about decluttering and getting organized is that you must get rid of everything. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Monte says. “Living an organized life is about identifying and prioritizing what’s truly important to you and creating habits in your home to maintain a place for those things.”
If it’s meaningful, go ahead and keep it. Interior design lead David Ewart of UK-based Pavilion Broadway says, “Don’t be too ruthless. People we’ve worked with often report regretting getting rid of their kids’ toys, schoolbooks, school reports, and holiday memorabilia.”
5. You’ll feel better if you avoid the landfill
Have a yard sale, or sell online at Letgo, Facebook Marketplace, or Craigslist. Use the money you earn to treat yourself to a night out, or a fresh coat of paint on a newly decluttered room.
Things that might not sell can still find homes as donations. There’s probably an organization that would be grateful to have things that no longer hold value for you:
- Clothing and household items—Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, or Vietnam Veterans of America
- Musical instruments—The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation or local school music programs
- Magazines—Nursing homes and rehab centers
- Sheets and towels—Animal shelters
- Wheelchairs—Free Wheelchair Mission
- Crutches, walkers, braces, strollers, and bike trailers—Crutches 4 Africa
And many items that can’t be sold or donated can be recycled. Check earth911.com for facilities near you.