Clear the Clutter: Free Stuff

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Photo by renee_mcgurk

I bombed my first real job interview spectacularly. My suit cost all of $20 (new). It didn’t fit right, and my shoes weren’t right, but that’s what I had because I was in college at the time, and I couldn’t show up for the interview in my usual sweatshirt, jeans, and flip flops.

I sat stiffly, tense and nervous. I was a lot too eager and a little too loud in my efforts to be perceived as an enthusiastic go-getter.

When she reviewed my résumé and remarked at all my extracurriculars, with all my nerves I too honestly explained, “Yes, I was in a lot of clubs. I spent my first year of college joining all of them and the next three years trying to get out of them.” But then I knew I shouldn’t have said that, so I gave a weak laugh.

She looked at me and said nothing.

I didn’t get a call back.

I went to a different interview and talked through all of it (four hours) with parsley in my teeth, but this time I got the job.

I moved to Houston and set up my new apartment, and I started each day by driving down the I-45.

My college apartment had been decorated with roadside and garage-sale finds. My shopping criteria was that it had to be less than five dollars, or better yet, free. My decorating philosophy at the time was “something is better than nothing,” so whenever someone offered something, I accepted it.

I collected free household goods the way I collected event t-shirts and extracurriculars. It was easy to come by, and it filled a space.

My new apartment was furnished with stuff I brought from college. Gradually I realized that I didn’t want to keep all of it. It wasn’t good enough for something to be free and fill a space. So just like in college when I dropped out of clubs to commit to the two activities I cared about, I became selective, and I started cleaning out my stuff and keeping what was important to me.

Yesterday I came across a post I wrote a couple of years ago about passing on a clothing sale. A thought stuck with me:

You cannot simplify your life unless you can skip a sale and say “no thanks” to a free offer.

We spend so much time acquiring without thinking about what we’ll have to do with it next. If you have clutter sitting around your house that you have because it was cheap or free, but you don’t want or need it, find someone else to give it to.

A couple of possibilities:

  • Excess hand-me-down kids’ clothes
  • Mini hotel shampoos (give those to a women’s shelter)
  • Company swag.

Then next time you can say, “No thanks, I’m good.” Because even free stuff has a price.

What are your thoughts?

clear the clutter

About Rachel

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


  1. “…even free stuff has a price.”

    Yes, indeed, and you pay for it on an installment plan — every time you try to use it (but it doesn’t work or fit very well or fill your actual need), clean it or clean around it, shift it to get to what you *do* need, or (groan) pack it up and move it to a new house, you pay and pay again.

    Thanks for the good reminder, with a vivid illustration most of us relate to.
    Lori @ In My Kitchen, In My Life´s last post…Unsolicited Advice: Five Ways to be a Particularly Good Guest

    • Jessica says:

      Amen. At this very moment, I am taking a break from figuring out how much stuff I can fit in the trunk of my car before my cross country move next week and dealing with the stuff that won’t. So I’m paying for my extra stuff in storage and moving costs, trips to the thrift store to donate or visits from Craigslist people, and guilt (because some of it is going in the trash), and stress about getting it all done in time and keeping curious wet noses out of the boxes. It’s shocking how much can fit in a visibly uncluttered studio apartment!! Hopefully the end result will be worth it, and hopefully also I’ve learned more what I really use and what’s just clutter.

  2. Amen! I 100% agree. My dad is in the promotional products business and I finally just had to tell him to quit sending my son and me things. I told him if we needed anything I would ask. Thankfully he listened.
    Jenni´s last post…Christmas in July

  3. I love this! ‘Even free stuff has a price’ is so true.

    I’ve recently started dealing with things given to me as gifts, that I felt bad for not wanting. I’ve decided that the giver’s intention was to make me feel good, not bad! So they wouldn’t want me to feel their gift was a burden. I have given lots of lovely and useful things (that just weren’t lovely or useful to me) to the goodwill, and I feel so much better about it. Nobody has commented on the fact that pillow / vase / book isn’t in my house anymore.

    I feel better for clearing the clutter, giving something to charity, and knowing that the givers real intention has been fulfilled, however I chose to deal with the gift I was generously given.
    my honest answer´s last post…How To Find Friends After College: Part One

  4. Yes, free stuff does have a price. I try to keep anything that won’t be useful from entering our home in the first place whether it’s free or not.
    Steph´s last post…A Snack List

  5. Suzanne says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I have to ask myself if I would be willing to pay money for what is being offered for free. If I’d not spend my money on it, it’s still too expensive with a free price tag.

  6. YES! This is so true. Conference swag and “free with purchase” items are my hot spots. People have the hardest time understanding why you don’t want something that’s “free.” Thanks for the fortification, Rachel.

  7. Its so true! The hubs & I have gotten all our furniture in our house except a few small pieces b/c they were given or gifted to us for free. They’re all very useful & we’re so grateful for not having to pay full price to furnish our little rental but I wonder if we’ll be wanting to hang on to it all in a few years. I feel the need to de-clutter more & more. :-)

  8. You know the old adage “Less is More”? It really is. I am much happier in a house that is culled of junk and filled with the things we use and love.
    Thrifty Mom in Boise´s last post…Christmas All Year Long – The Budget

  9. Jackie s says:

    At the grocery store i go to they give you a free bottle of vegetable oil (yuck, i dont use it) if you spend $100. I said “ummm no thanks :)” and they were shocked. They said, “its free, just take it..” i said “nah, i wont use it, thanks though”. When i got home, i found it in my grocery bag :/ Its just sitting under my sink, useless. I actually offered it to the cashier, and the bagger but i think its against company policy or something.

  10. I just accepted a box of free baby stuff yesterday. I knew I had plenty already but thought, “Why not?” I think I’ll leave it unopened & donate it this morning, thanks to your timely post. :)
    I also find this to be true with “upsizing.” I really just want a small soda, even if the medium & large are the same price! It shocks folks when you turn down these “free” offers.

  11. My big thing is that I don’t collect free t-shirts. So many of my friends are a walking advertisement. I prefer plain inexpensive tees that I can wear often. It really simplifies my wardrobe!
    Debt Free Teen´s last post…Community Colleges Give Financial Aid!

  12. LOVE this! I just cleaned out my bathroom cabinet and an extra basket of “bathroom stuff” in my linen closet. I’d love to donate them to a shelter. Thank you so much for this post.

    Oh yeah, and I graciously accepted a box of hand-me-down baby girl clothes, sifted through it, took a few cute things in good condition, and donated the rest. I feel great!
    Paige´s last post…Father’s Day 2012

  13. Wait. You mean I don’t have to accept and then weed through four garbage bags of free kids’ clothes, just because they are offered to me?

    What the…

    This changes everything.
    Katherine@YeOldCollegeTry´s last post…The Wait is Over

  14. Elizabeth says:

    You know, this post was timed perfectly. We are drowning in kids stuff that I just couldn’t
    Pass up at thrift or yard sales, that I’ve been planning to consign in September. But, even if, best case scenario, I made 500 dollars,’is it worth it taking up so much room and causing so much chaos over the next three months? Is it worth all the extra cleaning time and ‘finding’ time and general crustration created by clutter? think instead I’ll create a few boxes to consign and only allow that amount to be held onto. My local nonprofit will get the rest.

    • Michelle says:

      I am at the same point Elizabeth! I’ve had some pretty good results from a local semi-annual consignment sale, as a result, I offered to take all the clothes and toys from a good friend. Only problem, turns out none of it worthy of selling… ugh. Waste of time. I’ve also decided I’m not taking anymore free stuff, even if I know it will turn a profit. As a full-time working mom with soon-to-be three kiddos, my well-being depends on minimal chaos. :)

  15. The past few years I’ve gotten a lot better about not taking stuff offered to me by well meaning family members, mostly my Mom, unless I’m absolutely sure I’m going to use it. It helps that the people offering are general close enough relatives they won’t be offended.

    Funny you mention furniture. I have two wing chairs I got for $70 from Salvation Army right after I moved to Milwaukee in 2001. Every year we go back and forth on whether to keep them. They’re not too much of a space problem but we don’t really *need* them. The thing is, they’re high quality chairs that would be well worth the money to have them reupholstered. Buying new chairs that nice would be super expensive. So we hang on to them for the few times a year we actually use them. Sigh.

  16. Shannon says:

    I completely agree! My husband and I were talking just yesterday about a pile of swag he brought home from a take your kid to work day last week~ useless crap that we couldn’t even identify the use of for a couple. Felt good to get rid of it but I might need to use fresh eyes around the rest of the house ~ the lotion I brought back from vacation, the bag of hand me downs for the kids that we don’t need, etc. Creeps in no matter what we do, doesn’t it?

  17. Oh yes, the excess hand-me-downs rings a bell! But, my dilemma is, they were “loans” as a friend debates having more children or not. She wants them back if they do. So I have to keep ALL of them as part of getting to use them for Eleanor and potential future children. (Just an example: in size 2T there are 19 pairs of jeans. NINETEEN).

    But I’m grateful for all the free clothing, and I’ll just really, really enjoy having closet space again someday when I can get rid of all 10 containers.
    Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm´s last post…My Auto-Buy Authors (Eight authors I can’t get enough of!)

  18. You are so right. I hate it when people want to give me their old stuff. Especially if they feel hurt when I decline :S
    Maaike´s last post…Those Who Wander

  19. I love that – even free stuff has a price. My mother-in-law (whom I honestly adore) says that her poor upbringing keeps her grabbing for free stuff anytime she can. She even grabs handfuls of dum-dums at the bank just because they’re free! Just the other day I was thinking about how they really come with a small price if it means you have to store them somewhere. Well said!
    Erica {let why lead}´s last post…Let Why Lead on Facebook

  20. I totally agree. I love getting all the free samples and things that are always available as much as the next person, but I pass on a lot of them because I know I won’t use them. If you don’t wear contacts, you don’t need a free sample of contact solution. If you don’t have a dog, you don’t need free dog food samples. And how many of us accept that kind of stuff with the plan to give it to someone else, only to find it gathering dust on our counter top months later?

  21. Sandra Gonzales says:

    Driving I45? You poor thing.

  22. Ugh, yes. I’m saving most of my baby stuff (either in my apartment or at my parents’ house) in case I have another baby, or in case I ever have some nieces or nephews. BUT I keep catching myself hanging on to everything else because I’ve gotten used to storing bottles, onesies, etc. Not taking something home in the first place, definitely curbs this problems quite a bit. Our library has a program where kids in the reading program get a prize every week and they look at me so strangely when I say I don’t need age-inappropriate junk like an inflatable baseball bat (for a teething fifteen-month-old?!), but it’s definitely some degree of clutter out of the house.
    Jen´s last post…What I did on my summer vacation: July 2

  23. This article in Slate really helped me rethink even donating to the Salvation Army/Goodwill. So many times I have donated useless junk that either I’ve gotten on sale/at a garage sale or as hand-me-downs thinking “well, somebody will do something with this” and not realizing that poor people don’t want junk either. They need quality long-lasting goods, as well. Basically, I’m just passing on my clutter problem to someone else. Now I only donate useful stuff that I no longer need, and junky clutter does not make it through my front door.

  24. This post really touches something in me. When I did Project 333 a while back, I realized how much clothing I bought because it was such a good deal. But much of it was poor quality and/or poor fitting, and I didn’t feel good in it. I realized I had become unable to walk past a sale and a “good deal.”

    Taking a break from getting anything helped me change that behavior. I realized that it stemmed from childhood (doesn’t everything?), and growing up with not-enough. I can provide enough now, and I don’t need to hang onto those behaviors learned when I was young. Easier said than done. Reminders like this help me keep focus. Thanks.´s last post…Adirondack chairs anyone can build 10 dollars, a hand saw, a couple of hours and you are sitting pretty!

  25. This is one of the truest statements ever made:
    Because even free stuff has a price.

    EVERYTHING we bring into our lives becomes and obligation to us. We are so conditioned to acquire that I honestly think we are unaware of how “easy” we are to sell to.

    As a former professional organizer, I spent many hours working with clients to break their acquisition habits. Tought stuff! But, it can be done, it just takes practice.

    My rules for stuff- it must be:
    Easily Stored and Accessed

    If items don’t fit that criteria, out they go!

    Loved your example of adding and subtracting obligations in your life.


  26. I’m loading up the truck with stuff to take to a consignment shop. Ridding myself of furniture I don’t need and getting money to put in the travel fund. Win-Win!
    Sandra at Thistle Cove Farm´s last post…Sabbath Keeping

  27. Fly Lady has an article that basically says: free clutter is still clutter. It’s true! I don’t like to keep stuff just “because”, even when we have a full basement in which to store it in. I keep a bin by the stairs to put things to donate. Every so often I make a run to a local thrift store and get rid of the excess.

    Something else to consider is not to place the burden of extra/unwanted stuff on someone else – so I carefully consider before passing on things to friends, and give them the option to take or not take whatever I’m offering.
    Tammy´s last post…July!

  28. I felt exactly the same way when I started dressing for my body and skin tone. The amazing impact that buying only what I knew would look good (rather than just a passing fad) had a huge impact. Initially I hated getting rid of enough clothes that there was space in my wardrobe (so I filled it straight back up) but over the years since then I’ve learned that I wear really a very small amount of all those things and only in the last year or so have I really started to recognise the price of holding onto clothes that I don’t really wear. Now I luuurve getting dressed in the morning because I can actually see all my clothes in my wardrobe!
    Fiona @ Everyday Spiritual Wisdom´s last post…Can’t Decide What to Wear?

  29. I so totally agree! I will sometimes take the free things that someone is offering me (like kids’ clothes) and then pass them on if I don’t need them. I like to keep my pipelines open because if I say no too much to my sources, they will find someone else who says yes. But I have firm boundaries about the stuff needing to be useful in my house, not just in storage hoping to be useful.
    I wrote a post about this:
    Margo, Thrift at Home´s last post…The Nasturtiums Bloomed

  30. Completely agree. Too many possessions means more clutter, more stress and less space in your mind as well as your house. xx
    Kelly´s last post…Recipes

  31. “Because even free stuff has a price.”
    Very, very well said…and so true! Free is never free! I think once we become comfortable with the idea that everything has some kind of price, we’re better able to realistically decide what we’re willing to “pay” for something. Thank for the insight!

  32. I recently stumbled upon your blog, and am so very glad that I did! In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s now on my “must read” list :) I use to think I was so weird/different than the average person because of my obsession with simplifying my life/cleaning out the clutter/minimizing .. until I started stumbling upon blogs of people who share this very same habit/trait with me.

    This post is great!

  33. Love this post! My sweet husband ‘used to’ go to lots of conferences and bring home all the trinkets that marketing companies create for vendors to give away, including the bags to carry them all home in. Every now and then there was a really useful item, a flashlight or letter-opener, but most of it went straight to recycling-of-some kind. Finally got him to just say “no thank you” in the first place. Sometimes hard to do, still though.

  34. Yes, yes, yes! This is why I stopped playing the drug store game, too. I didn’t have the time it was taking, and I ended up with things that I didn’t really like using, but I had gotten them for free so I kept them!
    Johanna @ My Home Tableau´s last post…Things I Learned On Vacation

  35. “A bargain’s not a bargain if you don’t need it.” The originator of that pearl of wisdom is unknown to me, but I couldn’t agree more. My hubs has always been a “you never know when we might need it” person, even when “it” was broken, we might be able to use that piece. He’s finally realizing there is such a thing as too much. And as we’ve aged and in “retirement years”, the bodies don’t want to carry junk upstairs. De-clutter ASAP, you’ll never regret it.

  36. You hit the mark once again, Rachel.
    I have noticed recently that I have also begun “passing” on most of the giveways that are held by the blogs on my reader. There was a time I wouldn’t have even considered not joining in a giveaway – no matter what! Now I always ask myself whether I really really want the item and whether I could just easily purchase it myself. I always then feel guilty for entering the running when some other person might truly love and need the item. So I refrain and then always feel better. Win win for all!!

  37. Don’t I know it. Toys that is my nightmare. People assume we need every toy they want rid off. I have sometimes accepted them and then given them to charity soon afterwards. It is kind of people to try and help me out but it really does get silly the amount we get and never use

  38. Wow, what a timely post! Earlier this summer I got a letter in the mail and for $6 I could get a popular women’s magazine for a year PLUS a free tote bag. That letter sat on my kitchen table for 2 weeks while I stewed, I really wanted that free tote bag. But then I put my big girl pants on and tossed it. As ridiculously silly as this sounds I was quite proud of myself resisting the temptation. As much as I wanted that really cute and FREE tote bag, I had to remind myself years ago when Oprah’s magazine first came out and the whole year was only $8 (and come on ladies, we all jumped on that bandwagon)I did not read even one of the twelve issues that faithfully came to my house every month. Bottom line, I don’t read magazines, ever, and I just had to keep reminding myself over and over and not get my free tote bag. I will survive!

  39. An excellent post. Now I just need to figure out how to tell my MIL no. My husband is a “but it may be useful someday” person and tells her to bring it with her. I don’t think he knows how to tell her “no” either.

  40. Yes! We have so much stuff that people, most family, have given us for free. We’ve been enthusiastic acceptors of pretty much everything, but now we need to be a lot more discerning. I’ve found, though, that soemetimes people’s feelings are hurt when we turn stuff down.
    Meghan´s last post…Caught!

  41. OH YES! I always say yes to children’s clothes (with labelled bins and Goodwill bags at the ready)

    but being clergy…people like to give us 1. multiple crosses (how many does one house need?) 2. broken rosaries and torn holy cards (they don’t want them) 3, etc, etc (like really old yogurt that’s “been frozen” so don’t worry about that old sell-by date. It’s not easy to not hurt feelings
    priest’s wife (@byzcathwife)´s last post…just because ‘Priest’s Wife’ is curious…take this survey, please!

  42. Oh boy, thank you for the wonderful suggestion regarding donating shampoo, etc to the women’s shelters.

    I have an entire basket of shampoo, conditioner, hair caps, toothpaste, etc from every motel we go to. They are in our guest bath. I will keep a few in case our guests should happen to forget something but the rest will be donated!

    Great Idea!

  43. So agree with this. I used to pass on hotel goodies too until I found homeless care package idea from pinterest:
    Books are my weakness. It’s hard for me to pass on cheap good books from library sales. Thankfully, we have a small place so I got to regularly get rid of clutter including books that we won’t read again.

  44. Joyfulmomof6 says:

    You really have a way with words and just good ol’ fashioned common sense.
    Love it!

  45. I recently had a sort through my childrens old clothes, divided them in to girls and boys clothes and emailed my friends I have given hand me downs to in the past. I told them to come round and take what they wanted and if they felt inclined, to make a donation to charity for the clothes they took – completely up to them. I left them to it, don’t know who took what. By asking them to make a donation they thought about what they really wanted.

  46. Angie Hall says:

    This post is right on! I just finished dragging boxes upon boxes of promotional stuff from my tv-executive husband’s job straight to the curb. The DVDs, T-shirts, mugs, mouse pads, etc. that piled up were driving me nuts! Anyone need a snow globe from The Closer? It’s all too darn much!

  47. CmwithEricka says:

    Your post is very true.

  48. Oops … ignore that comment above, as I must have hit Submit before I meant to. Anyway, I donated blood recently and they tried their hardest to give me a free t-shirt before I left. I “accidentally” left it on the chair and didn’t turn back when I exited the room, just in case they tried to flag me down. I’d rather they use money toward administrative costs instead of trying to thank me with a t-shirt that I don’t need and won’t wear!
    Hollie @ I’m Busy Procrastinating´s last post…New life for unwanted wall art

  49. “You cannot simplify your life unless you can skip a sale and say “no thanks” to a free offer.”

    Thank you for the new mantra! I have been subscribing to this thought for the last 6 months or so and am really starting to improve at saying ‘no’. Thanks for putting the thought into 1 simple sentence! Keep up the great blogging! I really enjoy your posts. :-)

  50. The year we got married, my mom and my in-laws both moved out of the houses my husband and I grew up in. We were given A LOT of stuff. We appreciated it, because we didn’t have much of our own, but over time some of it has become burdensome. With bigger items, each time I have sought to get rid of something (either because we just don’t need it or we are replacing it with something more to our taste) I have learned that being clear is best, “We don’t have use for for this item any longer. Would you like it back, or do you mind if we donate it?” My mother-in-law is also very prone to randomly give me small things – a vase that belonged to her mother, that sort of thing. I appreciate the sentiment there, but it started to get out of hand! Now, if I don’t like/need it, I say, “I really don’t have a need for this, if it means a lot to you I’d rather you keep it.” It’s taken a few years to come to this place, but I think we both appreciate the level of honesty!
    Jennifer´s last post…Planning