How to Declutter and Find New Homes for Your Old Stuff

We live in a culture of excess. Clothes, food, books, and floss are necessities. Files, gadgets, decor, bobbleheads, Windex, hello kitty false fingernails—not so much. We are compelled to buy more, when we should spend less.

The past two years, my wife and I have sorted through every closet, box, and storage area. The result? Half our possessions set free. The experience is a cathartic—if arduous—process: choice after choice that ends in exhaustive relief. I kept certain items for decades in hopes of using them in the future. Instead, they became stale relics of my old self.

The five steps below, spoken from experience, help ensure each item in our house holds purpose.

Step 1: Take Everything Out

This step is vital. Move your possessions out of their usual place, extract them from where you think they belong. When I decided to cull my book collection, my wife suggested I take them all down. One by one, with great reluctance, I removed each reverential tome from its sacred space. Turns out I kept hundreds of books for years in hopes of reading them someday; I was astounded by how many books and authors no longer resonated.

If it’s your wardrobe you want to downsize, pull out every last pair of socks and underwear and throw them on the bed. To choose with a discerning eye, separate your stuff from its habitual space. This may feel like pulling gum from the bottom of a table: things get sticky when they stay in one place too long.

Step 2: Have a Friend Help

Decluttering can be a monumental task. Don’t start at ten o’clock at night, as I once did with my four-drawer, legal-sized filing cabinet, aka “the beast.” By midnight, the den was a maelstrom of paperboy receipts, first drafts (and seconds, and thirds), school papers on iguanas and cheetahs, and cards from ex-girlfriends. Needless to say, I stumbled into bed overwhelmed by all the things I did not need.

Ask someone for support and supervision. Have them lounge on the bed while you tear through your closet. Get them to ask questions like:

“When is the last time you wore that? Is it multi-functional?”
“Do you feel fantastic wearing it?”
“How many pairs of shoes do you own? Are any pairs redundant?”
“Do you love it? Do you need it?”

This support person is not here to tell you what to keep and what to toss. That’s your job. They are here to provide a mirror for what you are trying to hide. To keep you on task, and to make sure you don’t cheat.

Step 3: Avoid Excuses

Do not skip over any item. Consider them all. I have tried the easy solution.

This drawer of electrical stuff? Oh yea, I definitely need all that.

My wife called me on it. Twenty minutes later, I went from two hundred to twenty feet of wire and cord. Not because she told me to get rid of ninety-percent of that drawer. Rather, in careful evaluation of each item, I realized how much was redundant. Clarity is key.

The worse and most pervasive excuse?

I’ll keep this for now, because I might need it later.

Unless you have a specific need for an item, and you know when this need will arise, do not fall prey to your biological imperative to horde. Let go of anything that you will not use during the next year (or ideally, the next month). Of course, there are exceptions (e.g. snow shovels or the Valentine you got in grade five from that girl you had a huge crush on). But most things are not exceptions. And guess what? If you get rid of something then find you need it, you can always buy it again, this time with more intention.

This process can be exhausting. To help, I often sort items into three piles: yes, no, and maybe. In this way, I can examine the whole picture, and better grasp what needs to stay and go. A further option is to keep your maybe box around for a month, in a place that you’ll see it. If you use something, take it out. After thirty days, change the label of the box from maybe to no, and move on to step 4.

Step 4: Use Craigslist and Freecycle (aka Get It Out of the House)

Deciding what to get rid of is important. Getting it out of your house is mandatory.

People want your stuff. Keep it local, and put it on Craigslist. Be specific in your post. Attach as many photos as possible. I always indicate what flaws are present, as well as the item’s age and condition. Be honest. Earn good karma points.

You might make money. My last three purges each earned me an average of $900 through Craigslist. But then, I keep good care of my stuff (even the stuff I don’t need). For specialty items, Ebay may be a better choice.

Be friendly. People like to hear the story of your stuff. If it has a history, a theme woven into your life, then it transcends being a static object. I treasured my Kurosawa deluxe box set, complete with Kurosawa’s personal storyboard paintings and foldout shoji screen. I owned this box set for nearly a decade, and looked at the contents maybe three times. With my excited buyer, I shared my love for the sansei of cinema, and, like someone having to give up a cherished pet, I was assured this new home was right.

Purging can be an emotional journey. I do not long for my Kurosawa box set, because I am confident it is being appreciated. Letting go of material possessions is a letting go of the past. Alternatively, as the family historian, I fiercely cling to the family heirlooms–the stories held by these items imbue them with monumental meaning.

On Craigslist, try to respond to every person who inquires. They took the time to write; you can reply in seconds, even if to tell them it’s no longer available. Take down your post as soon as you sell the item.

Be safe. If you are a single woman, you may not want to give a stranger your phone number and address. Meet them in a public place, or have a friend with you.

Use Freecycle if you want things gone fast, and don’t care (or don’t think) your possessions are worth much. After our latest purge, my wife and I advertised the remainder on Freecycle and Craiglist. I put up a big list of what we were giving away (over 500 items), and we lugged everything out to the end of the driveway. The locusts arrived early. By the end of the afternoon, every single book, record, poster and toothbrush was gone. I don’t know if they went to good homes, but any home is better than the dump.

Take the rest to the thrift store. Clean every item first (yes, you are obligated, because you got them dirty by keeping them so long). Find out what time the thrift store takes donations. No midnight deliveries!

Step 5: Repeat as Needed

You may need to repeat this process several times, over a number of years. Be intentional in your spending habits, and avoid unnecessary purchases. Don’t buy just because something is on sale, or five cents at a garage sale. Spending less reduces waste. Shopping is poor comfort food. Cut the fat and leave the lean muscle.

And don’t make yourself crazy. We all have our quirks. I own Gandalf’s sword. It has a name: Glamdring. And I keep floss in five different places, including the car—I get away with this because I use them all.

Start small. Focus on one shelf or drawer. Who knows? That first step may inspire you to tackle the garage.

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