When we moved a couple of years ago, I spent weeks and weeks sorting, packing, trashing and giving away. Moves are great for making you realize how much stuff you’ve accumulated – and how little of it you actually use! As I packed, I vowed that once we moved into our new house, things would be different.
While “stuff” is still an issue to some extent, I’m pleased to report that even though our current house is smaller and has a lot less closets than our old house, we actually have less clutter because we have so much less stuff. It feels great.
Following are some tips and ideas I’ve gathered from experience and wise friends that have really made a difference.
1. Downsize your Current Stuff
Downsizing our “stuff” is an important key to clutter control. It’s so easy to wind up with over-saved mementos, seldom-used or outdated electronic gadgets, mismatched dishes, out-dated and out-grown clothes, and broken or incomplete items that “I might get fixed or need someday.” Sometimes people end up needing storage units and larger homes to accommodate their ever-increasing piles of stuff. It’s so easy to accumulate in our society. So many things are relatively cheap and buying things is pretty much a national pastime. We buy stuff to make our lives easier and more fun – but often that stuff ends up making our lives harder and less fun as we have to take care of it, sort it, store it and make hard decisions about when to get rid of it.
Here are a few rules of thumb that I’ve learned to live by:
- “If in doubt, throw it out.” There are so many things we keep because we think there’s a slight chance of needing them again. But there’s a far greater chance we WON’T need that thing again. And if you do happen to need it down the road, it’s probably not that big a deal to get another one. So get rid of it! We keep important official documents and throw away pretty much all other papers (or we avoid even receiving papers – most bills and correspondence can be handled online these days). When it comes to all the “special” things my kids create, most of them get thrown out too – but only after they’ve had a place of honor on the bulletin board for a while, they’ve been properly photographed, and the digital photo has been added to that child’s “special things” folder on the computer that they can review any time. They do keep a handful of their “most” special things in hard-copy form, and these go into sheet protectors in their own binder (we create a binder for every three years that contains these most special things).
- When something comes in, something must go out. If you buy something new, or if your child gets new toys for Christmas or for a birthday, you can make it a general rule that something should be given away to Goodwill or to a younger cousin or friend – or thrown away in the case of things that are shabby or broken – in exchange. We do a special “clean out” day at the beginning of the holidays where we go through toys and books and give away quite a few things to make room for the few special things that they just might get for Christmas (and we really minimize the number of holiday and birthday gifts while maximizing the meaningfulness of them – but I’ll save details on that for another time…).
- Embrace an “abundance” mentality. Sometimes we hold onto things because we paid good money for them, but we don’t even really like or need them anymore. You know that sweater you paid $100 for that you never wear? Or that laptop computer that was the fastest thing on the market when you paid top dollar for it but is now sitting in your closet because you got a much faster one? Rather than embracing a “scarcity” mentality where you feel that you need to cling to everything you’ve worked for, embrace the “abundance” mentality. We all have more than we need. We don’t need all that we have. Giving is a pleasure. And we can make someone else really happy when we give something that is still perfectly usable to a thrift store or directly to someone who could use it.
- Think of toys and clothes as consumables (like food, toilet paper or tickets to a movie). There are some heirloom toys and clothes we may want to save for posterity. But in general, if you think of toys and clothes as regular consumable parts of life that you’ll use and then pass along or throw away when they’ve been outgrown or aren’t particularly used anymore, it’s easier to get rid of them. If you pay $10 for a toy and your children really enjoy it for a month and then it’s just taking up space, just think of that $10 like you’d think of the $10 you spent to go to a movie or go bowling. It was money well spent because it provided nice enjoyment for a period of time, but just like you don’t have to keep the movie ticket stubs, you don’t have to keep the toy. It can be passed along to someone else who might really enjoy it.
- Have a “giveaway box” on hand all the time and use that trash can freely. According to one mom, Sharla Olsen, “I routinely keep a charity donation box that fills up as I find things that have out-lived their usefulness around our home. My favorite aid to downsizing is my trash can. I use whichever method fits the moment and item in question. It’s empowering!”
2. Don’t buy things!
At a recent Learning Circle meeting we were talking about stuff-control and I suggested that one great method is to stop buying things. Several of my friends burst out laughing at the idea. They thought I was joking. But I was actually totally serious. I went on to explain that last fall, determined to keep the relatively “stuff-free” atmosphere in our home after our move, I bought the kids’ school clothes and shoes and a few basic items to fill holes in my wardrobe and my husband’s and then we went on a serious “stuff fast.” We went for 6 months without buying hardly anything other than truly necessary consumables like food and toiletries and cleaning products (and kids’ shirts, socks and shoes – those are consumables around here given the rate they wear out or get ruined).
It was hard at first. I was used to browsing around Target or Costco a bit when buying groceries and finding several things I “needed” or something that was a great deal and that I might need. I was used to running to the store when the kids shoes looked a bit shabby or when I had an event to attend and a new outfit seemed like a good idea.
But we learned to live by the old pioneer motto: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” And as we got creative and dug around a little, we’d usually find something that would work out just fine for whatever was needed. (If you look at the Retreat reports from the past year, you’ll see that I’m wearing pretty much the same clothes in most of the Retreats. It actually made packing very simple when I only had a couple of presentation-worthy outfits!)
As I kept my resolve to not buy stuff, I discovered two things: 1) I was spending SO much less money (I thought I’d been pretty careful with money but the little things I’d been picking up here and there had really been adding up); and 2) I had SO much more time (If you go the grocery store once a week and don’t do other shopping in person or online or have to deal with returns and exchanges, you sure have a lot more time to do other things!).
With the money I saved during those six months, I was able to finally buy the new couch we’ve been needing for years (the old one was pretty pathetic – I guess even couches are consumables at a certain point . . . ). With the time I saved, I was able to get a whole lot of Power of Moms work done while having more time for my family and other things I enjoy.
You may not want to try a full-on “stuff-fast” but you could try cutting back a bit on your stuff intake and see what it does for you. When you’re thinking about buying something, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I need this? Really?
- Where will I store it?
- How will I maintain it?
- Will it really make my life easier or better?
So there’s a little food for thought. We CAN take back our homes and our lives from the stuff that tries to take over. Please add your own tips and ideas in the comments below.
QUESTION: Do you have too much stuff?
CHALLENGE: If you answered yes, do something about it! Choose one thing from this post that resonated with you and adopt it into your life. If you want extra credit (from whom, I can’t tell you), try going for a week – or a month – without buying anything other than truly necessary consumables (be honest with yourself about what is truly necessary!).
*** This post includes excerpts from our Learning Circle curriculum that will also be included in our new book, Deliberate Motherhood: 12 Key Powers of Peace, Purpose, Order and Joy (coming out next week!).