Want to Simplify? Start Here.

Hi Rachel,
I have been married 23 years and have three teenage children and have accumulated A LOT of stuff. I love your idea of simplifying everything from wardrobe to Tupperware, but I have no idea where to begin! I need some guidelines, please!! -C

and this one too…

Hi Rachel,
I have four small children (ages 2, 4, 6, and 8), I homeschool (love it!), cook mostly from scratch for dietary and budgetary reasons, live on one small income in a little-ish house in the woods out of town, and have never been naturally organized or tidy. I want to devour everything in your blog, but I tend to start things with a bang and then fizzle out. So I was just wondering if you had one or two things you recommend starting with, what would it/they be? -J

If I had to think of one answer that could apply to everyone’s circumstances, it would be this: start by getting a cardboard box or a grocery bag, fill it up with some of your old stuff, and then donate it.

Otherwise you’ll spend most of your time moving your stuff around.

I don’t know what it is, but it’s more than symbolic; there’s something about getting rid of old stuff that works in a loosening, break-the-chains, release-the-baggage, make-space-to-breathe kind of way. Looking at something and being able to say, “I don’t need this anymore” can set you free. And focusing on sending stuff out of your house can help slow the incoming flow of stuff.

I know it’s tempting when you live with a spouse and kids to view them as the source of the clutter and ignore yours, but it’s better to start by cleaning out your own stuff. Focus on your closet or some general kitchen stuff instead of trying to control or change other people.

As you find stuff to donate, you might need a moment for a last look or a memory, but once it’s in the donation box, that brief hard part is over. Afterwards, you’ll like the stuff you decide to keep so much better. When you clean out your closet, you’ll feel like you just got a refreshed wardrobe. It’s practical and emotionally satisfying, all at the same time.

Rachel, HELP! I would love your suggestions. We just moved from a 2500 square foot house with good closet space to a 1800 square foot house with almost none. The furniture fits okay, but we are severly cramped. We have taken twelve boxes of stuff to Goodwill but still have too much stuff. My biggest problem is what to do with our clothes…the drawers are full, the closets are 99% full and we still have no place for our clothes. We also have no place to even put extra furniture to hold clothes. Under our beds have things like the leaves to the dining table and extra pictures that do not fit on the wall. Do you have any suggestions?? -D

It’s really normal to reach the point of, “I’ve given away so much, how is there so much left?”

If you’ve lost 700 square feet of living space, but you’ve only given away twelve boxes of stuff, two words:

Keep going.

You’re going to need to make several more trips to Goodwill over the next year. The good news is that the number of trips eventually decreases, as long as you don’t buy a bunch of new stuff to replace it. When I was living in an apartment I would make a donation run to Goodwill four times a year or more; now I probably do it once or twice a year, and it’s not because I have a house with more space, I just don’t buy as many clothes as I used to, or other stuff.

I sympathize about not having closet space though. Perhaps you will find some storage ideas here: 7 Ways to Add More Storage Space to Your Home.

For more ideas:

What advice would you give?

clear the clutter

About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. I have been simplifying and blogging it for a year now but your advice always helps me tons ! Thank you.
    Tasmanian Minimalist´s last post…Easymeals.net.au

  2. We keep a perpetual charity box in the entry way. (I stash it in the garage when company comes over.) We make deposits into it as often as possible and when the box is full, sometimes each week other times every month or so depending, we cart it off t0 Goodwill. It is replaced with a new box and we begin again.

    • We do this too! We always have a box or bag going for Goodwill drop-offs.

      In getting started, I think it’s helpful to tackle something that gives you a big bang for the buck. Set a timer and attack that desk/dumping zone for 30 minutes. It can be a great motivator to see a completed project (or at least great headway) and that can often snowball into other projects. And OHIO- Only Handle It Once. Avoid shuffling things from room to room to “deal with it later”! Gah- that feels like you’ve worked hard but set yourself up for more work later.
      Katherine@YeOldCollegeTry´s last post…Ways I am Not Like My Mom

    • Do you find it sad (I do) how fast those boxes fill up? I mean, every time I look at my donation/yard sale box, I now see all the money that I have frittered away over the years on stuff that doesn’t matter. Every time I walk past my yard sale corner, I’m reminded that I need to be a better steward, and be more mindful of how I use my resources.
      Carrie @ Busy Nothings´s last post…Making the Cut

      • Oh, Carrie…I understand exactly how you feel! Especially in times when money is very tight, and I look at things and say, “When on earth did I find it a priority to buy THIS?”

        Live and learn…live and learn.

  3. Two things:
    1. Repeat the following to yourself ad infinitum: “There is no such thing as a too-small house. There is only too much stuff.”

    2. I think this is where personal filters have to come to our aid. Simplify inherently means limits. I say to myself when I watch a grain grinding/bread-baking demo at a fair, “That’s neat, but we are not a grain-grinding family.” It’s not that we couldn’t become one, but if we did, something else that takes up time and space in our life and house would have to be eliminated.

    I hate math, but it actually boils down to math in many ways. I have so much space, and I have so much time. If I want both to be comfortably full, I have to make choices.
    Lori @ In My Kitchen, In My Life´s last post…Quick! Before It Rains…

    • This is SO true, Lori! I learned this lesson when I finally sold a pasta maker that had been in my cabinet for 13 years. I loved the IDEA of making homemade pasta, but the reality was that I also knew myself and I KNEW I was never going to make pasta. It’s too cheap to buy it and my time is worth more.
      Carrie @ Busy Nothings´s last post…Making the Cut

      • the cottage child says:

        Me, too – except mine was an espresso machine. It was beautiful, and I was sure I was going to use it (when I put it on the registry), but I think we got it out and put it together maybe twice in 12 years. It went the way of our wine fridge, that ultimately held water bottles, when we moved a couple of years ago. The good news is they went to a friend with a B&B and we can visit them whenever we want!

  4. Oh Rachel, I couldn’t agree more with the KEEP GOING! We came back from living overseas (in very poor countries) over 3 years ago, and when we returned, I was appalled at all the STUFF. I spent weeks purging from closets and drawers and I was sure that I had cleaned out everything extra. HA! In January of this year, I had a strong desire to make 2012 the Year of Simplifying, and that including evaluating EVERYTHING that is in the house – and being HONEST. It also included becoming VERY picky about what I bring IN TO the house. The end result is a pile of boxes and bags that is taller than me (I’m 5’2″), and I’m still going (family yard sale is in 3 weeks). It’s stunning. I think the biggest key is to really be honest with yourself – you may THINK you’ll use it, but if it has been sitting in a drawer for three years, you’re not going to use it. It is freeing to bid it farewell!
    Carrie @ Busy Nothings´s last post…Making the Cut

    • Lizelle says:

      I think you’ve identified what the biggest problem for me was in simplifying my life – BE HONEST! Yes, I would love to make this/do that/try this – but if I’m honest with myself, will I REALLY do it? Now I have that sorted in my head, getting rid of all these things are so much easier!

    • Yes, that’s my problem too! I have got rid of the “easy” clutter, but I still have way too much stuff. I have to be honest about wat I really NEED, and what I would LIKE to use but is in fact just sitting in a closet.

      Great post! Thanks Rachel for inspiring me to keep going!

  5. Thanks for this post. We just moved to a much bigger house and though we have lots of extra space now, our family is still growing and I don’t want to fill every nook and cranny with things that will eventually need to be donated. We are trying to be very intentional with how our space will be used and that involves our storage space too.

  6. Shannon says:

    Funny you should post this today. We are in the process of putting our home on the market which means massive decluttering. Last night I went through my clothes and came away with a whole garbage bag of clothes to send to Goodwill. I thought about your blog as I was tying the overflowing bag closed. I pretty much wear the same things over and over and over and yet here I had that many clothes to give away, plus two boxes of out of season stuff to put into storage. I really think I have at least another garbage bag to donate but baby steps, baby steps, baby steps.

    Flylady uses a method called a 27 Thing Fling (or something like that ) which I use occasionally. Basically, grab a box/bag and find 27 things to donate and then do the same for trash or recycling. I’m always amazed that I can come up with 27 things and sometimes by the time I’ve found that many I can keep going. I like that its a big enough number to challenge but is capped so I don’t think I have to get rid of it all at one time.

  7. I wholeheartedly agree with your advice. Now it’s just a matter of putting it into practice. I’d been doing really well for a while, but lately the books have been piling up again. It’s time to grab a big box and donate some books!
    Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm´s last post…A Delicious Trip Through Italy (Cookbook Review)

  8. One of the problems I had when I first started decluttering was the guilt over the money that I spent on the item in question. I paid good money for it so I thought it would be a waste/shame to get rid of it. I thought I would be wasting my money. Until I realized that sitting in my closet and never getting worn or sitting in the cabinet and never getting used is also wasting money. At least by donating it, someone else might actually get use out of it and I wouldn’t have to see it and feel guilty any more.

  9. I had problems getting rid of wedding gifts, but once I did, it felt great! Even if someone gave you something, it doesn’t mean you have to keep it forever. And let’s face it, some of those wedding gifts were probably re-gifts from their weddings! :)

    Here in Seattle, if I take a bag or box of something to donate to a charity thrift shop called Value Village, I can ask for a coupon for $3 off a future purchase there. I get most of our clothes there and $3 can usually buy one of two pairs of pants for our sons (who put holes in the knees of pants quite quickly).

  10. I’m pretty sure you’ve mentioned it before, but keeping a permanent place in my home (the bottom two shelves of a closet) for donation items has helped us continually purge items we don’t really need. That way it just slowly becomes part of your lifestyle. Good luck to the sweet women you featured here!
    Erica {let why lead}´s last post…Crock Pot Pulled Pork Sandwiches

  11. annie p says:

    if the adults have too many clothes, put them all into boxes. as you need things, take them out. soon enough, you will see that there are clothes you’ll never wear. throw them into bags and put into the trunk as soon as you can.

    if the kids have too many clothes, the number will naturally go down as long as you slow down on buying new stuff, and make sure to donate/toss clothes that are too small or worn out.

    ladies – see rachel’s really good article about having too many pairs of unmentionables.

  12. This is just the kind of stuff I love to soak in. I have been on a simplifying journey for over a year now, and I still have a long way to go.

    I love your advice to keep going. We must make the things we own fit well in the space we have to work with. I need to own less stuff. It takes perseverance.

    I would add this. What I sometimes have to tell myself is “Do Something.” It can be hard when things get overwhelming and you don’t know where to start. I often pick a space that is annoying me most or that I know would save me time and hassle if it were not jumbled with clutter.
    Elizabeth@ReadySetSimplify´s last post…Weekly Menu Plan: 2 weeks! 4/29 – 5/12

  13. Yes! This is always the first step I tell people. First, fill as many garbage bags as you can with trash, then move on to things to be donated. Be as ruthless as you can, and you will still have more than enough left. If you love something and use it often, it will never make it’s way into a box, and you will love it more and more the fewer things you keep.

  14. LaPriel says:

    When we had tiny closets in our house, I took out the shelf and rod and replaced them with these.
    http://www.lowes.com/pd_62114-362-1628_4294857750+4294834272_4294937087_?productId=1094749&Ns=p_product_qty_sales_dollar|1&pl=1&currentURL=%2Fpl_Wire_4294857750%2B4294834272_4294937087_%3FNs%3Dp_product_qty_sales_dollar%7C1&facetInfo=Wire

    It helped a lot. Although, I still stored my husbands suit coats in the tiny hall closet with the broom and vacuum. Our bed room closet was 4 or 5 feet. The kids closet was about 30″. Thank heavens they were just a baby and toddler!

  15. LaPriel says:

    High shelves in the garage for seasonal and infrequently used items.

    Get creative where you store things. In. A small house, it doesn’t always have to make sense where you store it. Like the suit coats in the broom closet.

    We used to have one of these
    http://www.etsy.com/listing/96551877/vintage-distressed-red-painted-country
    Part dresser part hanging. Use tall chest of drawers.

  16. I have begun listing on a local area for sale group on Facebook. Now everytime I see something that I know we don’t need, but feel is too expensive or good quality to thrift I take a picture straight onto the group on my iPhone. Some things don’t sell quickly or at all and sit in the ‘leave the house’ pile for a while, others are collected next day and I can put some money in the piggybank. We don’t get back what we paid but it feels less wasteful on bigger ticket or lesser used things like baby equipment. I have bought a few things along the way but I’m careful only to buy things I need – like school shorts for my son.

  17. Wow, the comments here are so refreshing and wonderful! I love what Lori above said about seeing a demonstration of a grain grinding/bread making demo and had the sense and strength to know that was neat, but she didn’t need one! It reminded me of the time I was visiting my mom and we went to this really nifty kitchen store where the owner was doing a fabulous and free class on pressure cooking with samples and desserts and everything! You guessed it, mom and I both walked out of there with pricey pressure cookers and I even bought the cheesecake pan to put in it. What were we thinking? Fast forward five years and neither one of us ever taken it out of the box. My husband has a co-worker who was thrilled to take it off my hands.

    I too have had the guilt and making myself sick over things I buy that I end up purging. But I have so gotten over that and the big lesson learned for me is, I really think about what purchases I make and what comes into my home. One of the best feelings in the world is when a donation place calls you to tell you of a truck in your neighborhood on a certain day and you can honestly say, I have NOTHING at this time. Yey! Another great lesson I learned a long time ago is you cannot organize clutter, you have to purge! Sure makes cleaning a snap! Thanks for all the wonderful tips my fellow “non clutter bugs”!

    • “You cannot organize clutter, you have to purge!”

      Yes! I completely agree! This is my main problem with most “organizing” sites. You wouldn’t need to organize it so much if you just got rid of all the excess! There is a huge difference between simplicity and being organized for organization’s sake.
      Jennie´s last post…Living Without a Microwave

      • I agree also. For years I bought plastic containers and “organized my stuff”, thinking I was really making progress when I finally realized that for the most part I was just moving my stuff around. Now I have more containers than I need. When my husband and I are at the store and he says, “Do you want to get more containers?” It’s so nice to say, “No, I don’t need any more.”

    • Everyone buys things they don’t end up using. No need to feel guilty. The important thing is to be able to let go of them when you work it out!

  18. As we look forward to our retirement and moving next year, my husband came up with a game we play on the weekends. We each have to find 2 pounds of stuff to throw out. Just tackling the bookshelves and the old files makes that a pretty easy accomplishment! We also join in the neighborhood yard sale once a year and donate every time the Veterans come around the neighborhood. AND our town has Freecycle which is the best way to give to someone else who needs what you have. Now, if our grown and out-of-the-house kids would just come claim their stuff…!

  19. Yes! I want to simplify!

    Now, just to find a box …

  20. LILIANA GARCIA says:

    so good tips, thaks a lot, I want to start right away!

  21. Rachel, thank you for the inspiration! This is such a helpful suggestion! I resonate with your comment that when the old is out, the rest feels more special!

    Here’s to simplifying!

  22. One idea to get started is to ask someone to help. Trade out a set time, say, an hour for an hour, with the helper’s job to continue to point out the need for ruthlessness. The other person isn’t as attached to your stuff. Then, you can do the same for them. When I need a jump start, this always helps me.

  23. I’m definitely at the ‘But my home should look more empty than this! Look at all the stuff I’ve got rid of!’ stage.

    I know- keep going! I have a half filled box as I write; I’ll go and find more to put in it…

  24. Yes, keep going. Decluttering is like weight maintenance, it’s for life, easier for some and more of a struggle for others, but always possible!

    Decluttering saved my marriage. We lived in a big, rambling old house full of stuff we had accumulated over 15 years of having kids. We were drowning. The more my husband earned, the more we seemed to need and keep, no wonder it dragged us all down.
    When my husband couldn’t take it any more and had to get out of the situation, we had to get rid of the house and by getting rid of 3 tons of things (none of which we have ever missed…!) and splitting up our stuff for a new start, we actually found the clarity to rebuild our relationship – this week we will have been married for 22 years, together for 28!!
    Decluttering actually healed us and now we keep up with it…

    • What a beautiful and inspiring example of how decluttering and simplifying dramatically made a difference to your relationship, MelD, thank you so much for sharing your story!

    • My husband and I both had previous marriages – starting over from scratch really had made us look at what brings true value to our marriage, now, and what is just clutter-stuff. So sad it took such a drastic situation for you – and so glad it turned out well! Totally agree – all about the maintenance work.

  25. Aim to set up a home that supports your unique family and interests. Everything in your home should be there because you use it or love it, not because everyone else has one, or someone told you you needed it.

    It is so true that when you simplify, the things you choose to keep become far more meaningful. And because you can actually see them, and get to them more easily, without lots of clutter in the way, you can actually use and enjoy them.
    Kim @ Extra Organised´s last post…Wear your unworn wardrobe

  26. I’ve been pretty good at decluttering previously… now I am finding it much harder with things. I have a great pasta maker, and I have used it a few times, but not for 6 years!!! However, every few weeks I “intend” to make pasta again…and so keep it just to see how it goes… it has not gone for 6 years but I just don’t want to let it go. Why is that???
    Thanks Rachel for keeping me moving into simplicity!
    angelvalerie´s last post…something to brighten your day…

    • Keep it! Especially if you have space. I had a waffle maker that was unused for six years, and now we use it every week. Save the decluttering for the things you know you don’t want to keep.

      • I agree – there may come a time for tough decisions, but in my experience, there is usually a lot of “easy” stuff that could go first! I am in the middle of a big project that is taking a lot of my time and attention, and I have two young children. Regular housekeeping is more of a challenge than usual right now. Every day I say to myself, “Pick up the easy stuff.” It’s not that the other stuff doesn’t matter, but in a season of limited time, focusing on the “easy stuff” allows for greatest impact and helps me to not be overwhelmed.

        • Thanks Rachel & Holly :)
          Friends took me out to dinner last night for my birthday, they said it was because they did not want to buy me stuff that they knew I would not enjoy just cluttering up my house! Yay, I think this means I am on track :)
          I am keeping the pasta maker ;)

  27. Sometimes there are obvious large targets to dispose of that have been nagging away at the back of your mind for years. It can be useful to make a list before you start of potential targets if they’re big. That way you can start small, yet always have somewhere to move on to when you’re ready.

    Which reminds me, I need to get rid of that damn wok from the back of the cupboard! Its been out of sight, out of mind for too long!

  28. Meredith says:

    Great post, as always!

    I have a question about clothing in particular. I have a pile of more personal t-shirts that I’m not sure what to do with. Some are from sports teams, some from band, and some even have names listed on them. I hesitate to take them to Goodwill because I don’t want to clutter their space with t-shirts no one wants, but I don’t want to throw them away. Do you know of a place that would take them? Is Habitat for Humanity or another organization interested in clothes that are OK to abuse?

    • I think Goodwill will accept them as long as they are in good condition – no holes or stains. If they are worn out, try an animal shelter.

  29. Adele Stauffer says:

    My difficulty is that I have a grand old time clearing clutter. I find it extremely relaxing to do so, and really like the look of clear space. My husband, however, holds on to everthing. Like about 100 golf balls just in case he takes up golf again………its been over 15 years. How can I encourage him to loosen to clear clutter???? As I am taking items out to the trash………he discovers a new use for something and brings it back in!!!! Poor love!!!

    • I have that same problem! My husband will not get rid of anything. When he was single, every time he moved, he just swept everything into a box, taped it shut and moved it. There were boxes he’d not opened in 8 years! And he will not get rid of anything with a phone number on it, even if he doesn’t know who it belongs to. And well, we won’t even talk about the 10 computers in the back bedroom…

    • Yes, I am right there with you. My husband is just like yours. I find it frustrating, but have confined it to a couple of different areas – with his agreement ;) – and have accepted that this is my life! He is a wonderful guy and so it seems like a small price to pay to be married to him :)
      Leslie A´s last post…The Danger of Always and Never

    • Ten years ago my husband and I got married. We moved into an apartment and left most things with our parents. When we moved into our first house (8) years ago my husband brought all of his “things” from his parents house. Almost (1) year ago we bought his parents house and moved back – along with all of his “things”. He never opened one box at our first house and now he’s back at square one. I’ve told him he needs to go through his stuff but he doesn’t – now it’s all stacked neatly on shelves in our basement. It might be there forever…I have to ignore it. My biggest problem now is my almost (5) year old – she’s a total hoarder :):)

  30. Heather says:

    It’s amazing how decluttering your own stuff can inspire others. Last week I was getting rid of a few items of clothing, not very much because I’ve gotten pretty good about decluttering my own stuff. My husband walked into the bedroom, saw my pile of stuff, and then got rid of four huge trash bags worth of clothing! It was amazing! He’s still astounded that he could give away the vast majority of his clothing, yet his wardrobe hasn’t changed in the slightest – he just has more room for the things he actually does wear.

  31. I got caught up on the “27 Fling Boogie” on the Flylady website. Every couple of weeks or so, I run around the house with a garbage bag or box and try to find 27 things to throw out (garbage bag) or 27 things to donate (box). It can be as little as the hanger from a new shirt. Sometimes it takes me all day of cleaning the house to get to 27 items, and other days I’m well above 27 items in a short period of time. I’m not sure of the significance of 27 items, maybe it’s to encourage you to lost count and throw in a few more along the way :) But it’s a great feeling to know I’ve made a measurable difference in the amount of unnecessary stuff in my house.

  32. When we moved from 1000 sq feet of a two bedroom apartment (that felt SO spacious), to a 700 sq ft basement I became addicted to apartment therapy’s “cool small spaces” section. They have tons of great ideas for living compactly and uncluttered.

    Now that we’re in a 1600 sq ft house I feel like we’ll never fill it up! And I’m actually hoping we don’t!
    Kait Palmer´s last post…Mobility, Mamas and Mud

  33. I love Rachel’s advice… I am naturally very organized but have learned so much by reading all of your posts Rachel! Most organizing books and blogs don’t offer me new info but because you cover so many topics I’ve taken away so much new info from you! If I could offer anyone advice myself I would say just go with your gut, does something constantly get in your way and annoy you to pieces? Maybe it’s time to donate it! If I keep moving something around my house and find myself annoyed with it, out it goes! Just being honest with myself has helped me cut out a lot of useless material posessions!

  34. Your point about starting with yourself is a great one! I never quite thought about it like that before. I have a husband and 4 almost grown children and we have accumulated a lot of stuff. But starting with my own stuff feels like a doable thing. Thanks for the encouragement :)
    Leslie A´s last post…The Danger of Always and Never

  35. Giving away old stuff is a great way to clean out and make extra room. However, if you want to give selling (on Craigslist or eBay for instance) a shot, I would try this new website I got recommended. I’ve always felt that it takes up a lot of time determining the price of used goods (If the goal is to make some sort of profit out of it). Statricks gives you price reports and trends for free, so you basically get the going price for any used item on both Craigslist and eBay, without having to browse through all the classifieds yourself. I can highly recommend this site, and here is a link to their page:
    http://www.statricks.com/craigslist-used-pricing-tool.html?lrRef=FYHr