Your Awesome Stuff? It’s Just Stuff — Musings on Decluttering

by Katy on February 4, 2013 · 54 comments

Decluttering. Overwhelming, yet boring. Anxiety producing yet cathartic. Simple yet multi-tiered.

Why, oh why is it so much harder to get rid of stuff, than it is to acquire it in the first place?!

I’ll tell you why. Because once you bring something into your home it imprints on you. It becomes your responsibility, and that sense of responsibility takes over.

“Can’t just throw this advertising ball-point pen away, I have to make sure it goes to someone who can use it.”

or

“This enormous platter probably has some value. I should open an eBay account and sell it.”

or

“My great aunt Ethel gave me this set of cheese forks as a wedding gifts. I love her, therefore I should love the cheese forks, even though I’ve never used them in twenty years of marriage.”

or

“I should keep this huge pile of scrappy towels, as I might need to clean up something messy some day.”

Multiply this by a thousand, and you’ve got an insane number of decisions to make. And if it takes you an hour to get rid of each and every unused and cluttery item in your house, you will never get to the point of a decluttered home.

How do I know this? Because I have gone through this, and continue to go this this mindset. I see potential in less than perfect items. Those thin magnets that come attached to the phone books? They would look cute Mod-Podged with old maps. And that wobbly dresser I plucked from a curb? It would be super easy to re-glue and turn it into something spectacular.

The creative mindset that sees potential in everything is the same mindset that creates a home overfilled with stuff.

The answer for me lies in being hard on myself. This may sound borderline masochistic, but being my own taskmaster is the only method that works. I’ve even noticed that being in a bad mood actually aids the process, as it cuts the sentimentality in half. (Not that I’m ever in a bad mood, as puppy dogs, butterflies and baby unicorns usually float through my clutter-free home. Oh, who am I kidding?)

And once I get an area decluttered with a system for order in place, I want to keep it that way. My bedroom closet, with its matching Goodwill wooden hangers is a pleasure to behold. Everything is easy to find, and easy to keep clean. And that drawer organizer that I made for my desk? It’s as tidy as the day I first placed the sharpies into their own special cubby.

Hello, lover . . .

Do I have an answer or specific advice for wannabe declutterers?

Yes.

Recognize that the stuff in your home is just that. Stuff. Some of it useful, some of it beautiful and some of it with potential. But it’s still just stuff.

And what would happen if you did get rid of something that you later needed, would the world come to an end? Or would it be possible to borrow that infrequently used item from a friend, neighbor or family member.

This is all coming from me, the woman who salivates over the perfect lamp, the perfectly textured cloth napkin and studies the weather forecast for possible spray paint friendly days. (FYI: between 50° and 90°.) I love my stuff, but I know it’s just stuff.

And after countless donated loads of stuff to my local Goodwill, I have zero regrets.

Because once it’s out of my house, it’s no longer my responsibility.

Ahhh . . .

Do you have a hard time getting rid of stuff once it enters your house? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca February 4, 2013 at 10:51 am

I don’t usually have a hard time getting rid of things, its mostly fear of my mother finding out rather than my desire to be rid of stuff.

It amuses me how many people are appalled by my decluttering of certain items. My MIL is totally offended by my taking my wedding dress to Goodwill within weeks of our wedding. She has saved hers for over 45 yrs. Why, who knows.

My mom would die if she knew I want to get rid of the baby blankets made for my 3 kids by my SIL. They don’t play with them, never had, and are just taking up space.

I have to watch myself from bringing in too many potential “projects” into our home. My time is very limited and although I could do so many neat things with stuff, I rarely have time. So for now I am making myself either complete current “projects” or get rid of them before bringing in new ones.

And we are making great progress in finishing up our %10 in our home. I may have promised some “wifely” favors to my husb for finishing up some trim, but hey, it got done!

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Katy February 4, 2013 at 10:59 am

“Wifely favors” in exchange for household projects? I love it! 😉

Katy

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Erin February 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Um, you mean there is another way to get the hubby to finish projects???? 😉

–erin

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Joyce February 4, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Wifely favors? I promise those for my husband to dance at weddings or parties. tee hee. HE is actually the one all sentimental about things. I have to hide them in the goodwill bag. haha

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Amanda February 4, 2013 at 5:34 pm

My mother can’t throw things away to save her life. Sometimes she brings me stuff and asks me to take care of it, as long as I don’t tell her that I got rid of it. I’m like her gangster axe man.

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Elizabeth February 5, 2013 at 5:19 am

My mom kept her wedding dress for decades… until she realized her only daughter was too tall and a completely different body type and would therefore never be able to wear it 🙂

People are disappointed or even offended when they learn I haven’t kept any of my formal gowns or bridesmaid’s dresses. It’s no reflection on the people with whom I enjoyed these events — I just prefer pictures to the actual articles. I hope someone else has made happy memories too thanks to my donation.

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Emily T. February 4, 2013 at 10:52 am

Clean (declutter) when you’re angry. It cuts through all the emotional garbage of being attached to things. It clarifies what’s important and you get a tremendous amount of sorting/pitching work done with the energy anger gives you.

Best of all, when you’ve calmed down, your house is lighter and more pleasant to be in.

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jennifer February 4, 2013 at 11:16 am

I find when I”m upset, I tend to get more cleaning done! LOL
I’m more motivated to do it for some reason and it helps me to calm down.

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Kris K February 5, 2013 at 8:57 am

I ‘almost’ look forward to being upset; my head is so much more tuned into the task of cleaning, trashing, getting rid of, organizing. Such a positive way to use negative feelings. I often find the peace of clearing out the physical helps me clear out the mental at the same time. So much better then eating my way through a box or carton of something. 😉

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stephanie February 4, 2013 at 11:00 am

I have a harder time purging my own clothes because I do fluxuate in my weight some and have regretted getting rid of some stuff when I needed something ‘new’ to wear at a higher or lower weight.

BUT, when it comes to household items or my kids old clothes or toys I can be pretty ruthless. I think part of it is that I don’t have a huge financial investment because I’ve gotten a lot of hand me downs and lots of it was thrifted – it makes it easier to let go of the item for it’s next adventure with the next kid. . . I think some of my friends get wrapped up in ‘but I paid $50 for that sweatshirt for my kid so I hate to get rid of it.’ The financial investment ties you to items lots of times, I’ve found.

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Susan February 4, 2013 at 11:14 am

You just put into words what I’ve been thinking the past few days. I see a little project in everything; from the picture frames I need to fill to the bits of dryer lint that can be crafted into x,y, and Z! I tend to throw most stuff away, but if I have an crafty idea in my head I will keep an old nasty sock until I can get a chance to make it into a new creation.
When my daughter was born 16 months ago, I really had to cut down on crafty ideas because it stressed me out SOOOOO much! I couldn’t figure out how I was going to take care of a baby, do household chore stuff, AND do all the wonderful crafts with the junk laying around my house. It stressed me out so much that when I would lay down to take a nap while the baby was napping, I couldn’t relax. My mind kept thinking about all the stuff I had to do. I finally gave up on almost ALL of my odds and ends around the house, threw them away (or recycled them), and never looked back. What a weight off my shoulders!

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Pollyanna February 4, 2013 at 11:26 am

I SOOO struggle with decluttering, yet I don’t like the burden of having it and looking at it. It seems like I think something is “valuable” and should be sold on eBay vs donating to Goodwill. I also carry the burden of so many excuses: this was expensive, I’ll get back into that size, this used to be X’s , this was given to me by Y, I’ll do something with this someday (creative side), and on and on. I have books on the subject of decluttering that are part of my clutter! I know what I need to do, but for a multitude of reasons, I don’t do it. I need some ruthlessness, more bad moods or something!

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Alex February 4, 2013 at 11:34 am

Thanks for this fantastic article. The best way I have developed to avoid bringing more stuff into the house is to think, in very specific terms, about dusting it, washing it, or otherwise keeping it looking as attractive as it was when I first saw it. More often than not, the item stays where it is.

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Katy February 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I have to picture where it’s going to go. If I can’t then I don’t buy it.

Katy

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Dan Garner February 4, 2013 at 11:50 am

I just spent 2 days purging my house of things that I might want someday – to the tune of almost $1,000 on ebay. De-cluttering can pay.

Dan @ Zen Presence

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Katy February 4, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Great job. My problem is with people who hang onto stuff thinking they’ll figure out the whole eBay thing without ever doing it.

Katy

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Reese February 4, 2013 at 7:34 pm

This is totally me. And I also hold on to random crap thinking I’ll have a yard sale…and glean money off it. And then years go by without a yard sale. *sigh*

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marie February 4, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Creative Mindset. I love that, it described my sister to a tee. She saved everything, when I had a box of goodwill ready to go, she would swoop it up, because she was sure there was something useful in there.
She got sick, and we had to put everything in storage for her. It took a huge storage unit to hold it all.
Well, she didn’t make it thru her illness. Before she died, she asked me, to not let her son just throw everything away.
Her items had huge memories in each piece, more so than for most.

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Elaine in Ark February 4, 2013 at 1:18 pm

I’m so sorry for your loss. I have sisters, and I tear up just thinking about losing one.

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Carolyn February 4, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I feel so much lighter when I let go of no longer needed items. The biggest help is not to bring all that stuff into the home in the first place, thus the Non-Consumer Advocate is here to save the day.

Full disclosure that I am a professional organizer and am always looking for ways to live better with less.

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lindsey February 4, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I would throw away everthing but the shell of our house. It is my husband who saves every screw “because someday we will need it.” It is not to pathological levels, and doesn’t involve clothes because i could throw all but one set of pants and a shirt away and he would be happy to wear the same thing every day. But if it is metal, wood, associated with tools (like, honestly, a tiny tin can of oil we found in the drawer of a Singer sewing machine my grandmother bought in 1946 and willed to us with the original purchase receipt in it), I don’t dare get rid of it. I have no idea how to fix his fixation with saving this stuff. I cope by shoving it out into the garage, while our car lives in the driveway in the 50 below zero winter temperatures in Tok, Alaska.

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Monica February 4, 2013 at 1:06 pm

I hear you!! I am a neat freak and my new husband is a pack rat. It has made for some terrible arguments very unhappy days in our home. Any advice out there on how people cope with a pack-rat spouse? Its not new things he buys and brings into the home (other than used CDs and books he’ll NEVER read). Its the tools, screws, plastic containers, minutae he hangs onto…help…..

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Joy @ Joyfully Green February 4, 2013 at 12:16 pm

I laughed out loud when you said being in a bad mood helps you declutter–it’s so true for me, and I will add that the later in the night that I am decluttering, the easier it gets. Who can be sentimental at 2:00 a.m. when they’re cranky and exhausted, sorting through papers and junk mail? Put it all through the shredder, and it’s off to bed!

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Mr. Everyday Dollar February 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Good points. I’m reminded of a book entitled Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century: 32 Families Open their Doors, which profiles middle-class, two-income families in LA and their struggles with clutter. Some tidbits I found juicy:

3% of the world’s children live in the US and the US consumes 40% of the world’s toys.

Managing the volume of possessions was such a crushing problem in many homes that it actually elevated levels of stress hormones for mothers.

Only 25 percent of garages could be used to store cars because they were so packed with stuff.

The rise of big-box stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club has increased the tendency to stockpile food and cleaning supplies, making clutter that much harder to contain.

Personally, I don’t have a hard time decluttering, I have a hard time keeping things!

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Sharon February 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Does this mean I must get rid of my wedding gift relish tray, the one with three dishes and three special relish forks?? It’s only 26 years old and only used about 5 times. Really do I ?

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Bonnie February 4, 2013 at 3:38 pm

I love to collect certain things and I love thrifting. However, a recent move prompted me to have a rather ruthless garage sale. Most of the stuff was easy to let go of. There were certain items that I loved but knew I would have no place for in the new home. It was difficult, but I just told myself that I was “setting them free” for someone else to love and enjoy. I enjoyed seeing the buyers get excited about their new found treasures, and I also enjoyed making some extra money!

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Marcy February 4, 2013 at 5:11 pm

I am infinitely glad that my Mum has good purging habits that I also picked up and continue to this day. I regularly go through drawers, cupboards, wardrobes and purge and toss items which I don’t need.

In all my years of taking clothing to Goodwill (hundreds and hundreds of items) as well as regular clothes swaps (every 3 months I still manage to find clothing to take to swaps), I have only ever regretted one pair of shoes that I wished I had kept.

But what do you know, I managed to find a very similar pair for $5 at a Goodwill type store a while later.

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lisa February 4, 2013 at 5:30 pm

You also tend to bring things in one or a few at a time. Purging requires shedding many things at once, so it’s understandably more effort. That said, I’d be hard pressed to identify any purchase that brings me more pleasure than a good decluttering.

We received a “caviar set” for our wedding–a special two-level dish that could hold ice and two horn spoons. It sat there in our cabinet, gathering dust, until…SOMEONE BROUGHT OVER SOME CAVIAR ONE DAY. I will have to say that having the proper equipment made me happy…but motivated to keep it around for another 15 years? Dunno.

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Queen Lucia February 4, 2013 at 5:43 pm

I’m a regular declutterer, but it’s interesting how stuff separates itself into “layers”. Some stuff was easy – dishware and clothes. Books were harder – I had to go through several rounds over a couple of years to get to the point where they all fit on the shelves nicely. The sentimental stuff, and things packed away in boxes are surprisingly difficult, the experienced thrower-outer. Some decisions were made for me (turns out, mice LOVE the beans in old stuffed animals and the glue holding some dolls together – traumatic when discovered, but over it now. And we moved out of THAT house quick!). And don’t get me started on jewelry – the most drenched in guilt items of anything I own, thanks to my mom and her sentimental leanings. I’m finding the best way to deal with it is to get it all out, live with it for a few days, then feel so impatient with it cluttering the surfaces, it’s much easier to get rid of!

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Renee CA February 4, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I love “several rounds over a couple of years”. A good idea when you are in no rush. If I have something (especially books) that is a hard decision, I just keep it. Maybe it will go with the next round.

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Ellie February 5, 2013 at 11:04 am

This is exactly how I have to work.

Ruthless simply doesn’t work for me – it makes me stressed, and being stressed makes me avoid decluttering at all.

It’s MUCH easier for me to declutter with a “no pressure, if in doubt, keep it” mind set. By not forcing decisions, I can just “keep moving”. Not sure if I should hang onto this thing or not? Don’t stress about it – just put it back, move on, get rid of the other things I’m sure about. (Somehow, there are always plenty of things that I’m sure about getting rid of. )

There will always be another round of (low stress, keep it if you’re not sure) decluttering. And more often than not, the “not sure” stuff from one round becomes the “gotta no” stuff for the next, with no regrets.

Different mind sets work for different people.

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Renee CA February 5, 2013 at 12:45 pm

That’s me exactly!

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tna February 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm

My major declutter was swift and mostly painless. Moving across a few states I could only take what I could carry, everything else was sold or given to my Hawaiian performing neighbors who had moved with only what they could take on an airplane. Three years later and I haven’t restocked the stuff. I am surprised how much I like living without stuff. I am surprised how I don’t care what others think. I walk down the road with a smile and a little kick in my step. : )

and sometimes I actually jump up in the air waving my arms and holler WOOHOO!

I found a penny today. The poor little thing was at the side of the road and had been run over so many times it was barely even a penny anymore but it has value and I will spend it for something I need.

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Brenna @ Almost All The Truth February 4, 2013 at 8:40 pm

“This enormous platter probably has some value. I should open an eBay account and sell it.”

This is me right now, except with cloth diapers and baby clothes and other baby items. I’ve been given a deadline though. Normally I am so good about that kind of decluttering!

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dusty February 5, 2013 at 4:51 am

I am a total clean freak and minimalist, no clutter at all in my home which was the way my mother was. For the last 5 days I have been cleaning out my mother-in-laws condo as she has moved into an assisted living facility. I cannot believe how much stuff she has and how she has never thrown anything away or donated it at least. I filled up almost an entire dumpster of items that I thought couldn’t be donated. I then filled up 10 boxes of stuff to donate (along with old furniture) to Habitat for Humanity and I still have the dining room, kitchen and hall closets to go. My hubby and I have had some laughs though. Found a pail and shovel ( you know the kind you give to kids at the beach), well the handle was broken and my m-i-l stapled it. I guess you give that pail to the kid you don’t like too much. And they cost a dollar brand new!! Also found my hubby’s baby teeth in a box and some of his hair. I didn’t know moms saved these things, I almost passed out when I opened the box. Of course, found some really cool things like a lot of his baby clothes, in perfect condition, which are adorable, will consign them at a local baby store. Also found a box of airline tickets dating back to the early 1960s, every trip my m-i-l took so that’s kind of cool. She has lived a wonderful life and has lots of stuff to show for it!!

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Renee CA February 5, 2013 at 8:10 am

This is one of my fears – that my children will have to go through ALL of my stuff. My mother whittled down everything (she had a long term terminal illness) and at the end it was so easy for my sister and I to go through what was left. Still hard, but I am so thankful she had it down to manageable size. My in-laws – that’s another story!

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dusty February 5, 2013 at 8:50 am

i totally agree with how your mother did it. Give stuff away to your kids while you’re still alive and let them enjoy it. Pare down what you want to keep and this way your kids don’t have to do it. Fortunately my m-i-l is still alive and does have input. I’m sure if she were gone, this would be much more difficult.

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Elizabeth February 5, 2013 at 5:24 am

Thanks for this post – it’s a much needed wake-up call! I’m pretty good at decluttering items that have an obvious destination — like books, clothing, household items. It’s things like the ring I haven’t worn in over a decade or the still-in-mint-condition crock pot I think I should sent to a women’s shelter that I have a hard time getting rid of because I don’t know how best to do it. Then there are those DVDs I think I should sell rather than donate…

Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself to find the best possible way to donate or sell something — and I end up putting it off as a result

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Pollyanna February 5, 2013 at 10:26 am

Elizabeth, “find the best possible way to donate…” I do this too — delaying because I have to do the “right” thing as far as disposal. I just can’t toss cables and old keyboard and mouse into the garbage, I have to set it aside to bring to computer recycling. Ditto with extra pens, paper, pencils – I set aside for a trip to our local school to donate where they would be most useful. My old batteries have to queue up to go to recycling. It makes it a lot harder than if I could just sit there and toss, toss, toss. I just cannot put in landfill what might be useful elsewhere despite the fact it makes it sit around longer.

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Coco February 5, 2013 at 12:45 pm

It’s exactly what I wanted to say, happy to know I’m not the only one.

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Julie February 14, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Me too! I get stuck because I want to try to donate things to the best appopriate place (and can’t figure out how to do that). I’ve even thought about setting up my own database, for my area, of items and donation locations, and populate/maintain it….. (I’ve tried to find something like that locally and haven’t found anything really comprehensive).

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Ann February 5, 2013 at 5:49 am

Hi Katy
What a great post today! It resonated in every fiber of my being because I’m a pack rat. Worse, I’ve never met a flat service I didn’t want to put something on. However, I’ve come to the end of the trail as my DH has retired and we need to sell our home in Austin and move to our weekend house in the country. This means I have two homes to declutter. It’s overwhelming. So, thank you for this most timely post.
Ann

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Anne Weber-Falk February 5, 2013 at 6:40 am

This was a very good post today. I used to have a problem with stuff. I don’t anymore. I live in a house with people that really like stuff though. They find great comfort in being surrounded by all their stuff. I don’t anymore. Sometimes that is hard to think about and it makes me nervous. My mother is a hoarder. She has cured me of too much stuff. There is nowhere to sit at her home. There used to be only paths through the downstairs until she got hurt and was too embarrassed to call the fire department to help her. She broke her shoulder tripping on her stuff and couldn’t get up. We had to call anyway for help. After they took her to the hospital I spent hours and hours “clearing” the living room to make it safer and more livable. I was coughing for days from all the dust and unseen mold. I found my dad’s wedding ring in the stuff. His fingers are getting thinner with age and he lost it when it came off his finger as he was waving at something. We all cried when I found it. There is still no place to sit but at least we can see the floor. Their sunroom is filled with stuff that is all ruined and rotting and molding because the roof is leaking. We can’t get to the inside to repair it because my mom won’t part with her stuff. I told her that there is nothing important in there anymore because it’s all ruined. It’s just stuff now. I have seen people lose things in fires, floods, storms. They all have some regret but most of all they are thankful to have each other. They all say that things are replaceable but people are not. I hope someday my mother can see this too.
Thanks for listening.

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Coco February 5, 2013 at 7:24 am

I laugh at people who don’t know what to do with their spouses who like to keep everything because here we are both like that. The only positive point is that we both rarely buy stuff.

My main problem is that I can’t put anything into the garbage. Seriously, I wish I could be cured out of that “problem”. I have no problems giving things to someone who will use it but I’m always fretting over what I give to goodwill because I fear they will throw it away.

Isn’t acknowledging that you have a problem the first step in the good direction?

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Julie February 14, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Does anyone know how good Goodwill is at disposing of items they can’t sell? Do they have goals of minimizing what they send to landfill? (for example, I’ve wondered if they send non-usable clothing off for textile recycling)

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michelle d February 5, 2013 at 9:33 am

I am selling my house and this forced me to declutter. In the middle of my mess my three year old walked in and asked what I was doing. I said “We can’t take this to our new house. We don’t move trash” I had to laugh as he kept stopping by to monitor my progress and tell — we don’t move trash. I’ll have to keep that mantra for the next house.

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Diane C February 5, 2013 at 10:13 am

Oh, I needed this post today! New husband and I are buying our first house together because his mom has dementia and neither of our homes has a downstairs bedroom. We’re selling mine first and new carpet is coming tomorrow. I don’t want pack and unpack, so I’m purging as much as I can now. Then we have to do the same to the house he’s lived in for 26 years. It’s not terribly cluttered, but stuff still has a way of multiplying. Next, we have to empty and sell his mother’s second house. Unfortunately, they were life-long garage salers and savers. There is so much crap, we don’t know where to begin. We’re also afraid of missing something valuable among the clutter. Finally, once the new house closes and we move his mom in, we will clean out her first house and clean it up to rent. OMG! I am tired just writing this. I look forward to shrugging off this burden of stuff.

Our new house, while much larger than any of the others, has only one living area. Once the purge has been completed, I hope the format of the new house will help us keep it neat and clutter-free.

Thanks for the timely words. I surely need them now. Okay, back to purging with renewed vigor!

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Sherry February 5, 2013 at 10:23 am

If I’ve read this correctly you must purge/declutter four houses???? This boggles the mind! It is hard enough to do one house. I would get professional help, especially for your mil’s second home. If you think there might be something of value hidden in the chaos, it would help to have someone there not identified with the stuff, and who would recognize a treasure if they stumbled on it. Wishing you luck and a light at the end of the tunnel.

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Jackie February 5, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Diane,
I would suggest contact an estate sale company. Plenty of the stuff that you see as “crap” and “clutter” are just what someone else is looking for. It doesn’t have to be artwork or collectibles. Estate sale companies love crammed full houses. And they do know where to begin. You can let someone else do the work and they will take a commission. But I bet you will end up with more money anyway.

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Iris @ Treasuring the Journey February 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm

I would swear Katy that you and I are twins from different mothers! The creative, repurposer mentality is both a blessing and a curse. We have a hoard of stuff that I am trying my best to sort through and am having the worst time parting with some of this STUFF! Off I go to romp with my unicorns and purge, purge, purge! Love your blog, I read it every day. 🙂 Iris

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Katy February 5, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Too funny! Thanks for the kind words.

Katy

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Jean February 5, 2013 at 9:07 pm

I had to smile at the comments regarding wedding and special occasion dresses. I bought the dress I am wearing to my daughters wedding at the DAV store, -probably worn once by some other mother of the bride, but I am forever grateful to her for donating it since it fits perfectly, was exactly the color I was looking for, and I have only $12.50 invested in the dress and matching jacket. And after the wedding, I will most likely donate it back and hope it attends another happy occasion!

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Andrea April 10, 2013 at 10:17 am

I am in the middle of a huge unloading of ‘stuff’. I wasn’t even bad to begin with, but it creeps in and adds up. I have even worked up the mental fortitude to get rid of *books* (the holiest of holies in my house).

One thing that helps me is ‘if my house burnt down, would i actually care about [insert object here]?’ Usually, no.

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