There have been a lot of great posts on Hellobee lately about minimalism, and the book The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life. I feel like a lot of what the book says describes me to a T because I have hoarding tendencies. It can be a given when crafting is a hobby. It’s also a double given in my case, because my mom is a pack rat.

Just because I was born in the year of the rat doesn’t mean I have to be a pack rat.

There are many elements at play in my mom’s case. Foremost is that each and every item was bought with her hard-earned money. Another is her overwhelming urge to save things that are outdated or no longer useful with the notion of sending them to the Philippines, because “there are poor people there that can make good use of it.” However, the well-intentioned balikbayan box never seems to materialize, and decades of old clothes, shoes, books and more are still in the same boxes I remember seeing as a child in the basement of our old house. Relief efforts in the wake of the recent typhoon Haiyan have made it clear to me that using space to store, taking time to pack, and spending money to ship a large box of castaways is wasteful on many levels. Instead the gift of money can be put toward purchasing items in their own locale, and help support their own economy.

Now, walking through their attic, in addition to those old boxes, I see dozens of 1970’s mugs that were not there during my childhood but were somehow acquired and stored to generate revenue for an alumni garage sale that I have yet to see come to fruition. I also have boxes of university textbooks stored in their attic. If I hadn’t been such a hoarder I could have recouped even a little bit of money, but my thinking at the time was that I had paid hundreds of dollars for them, why would I sell them back for a small fraction of the cost? The thought process was, if I still have it, it’s not a waste of money, but in reality, the money has already been spent and wasted, and its presence is just a reminder of it.

The Guilt

Most of what I’m harboring in my house is there because I’ve used my hard-earned money to buy it, regardless of how expensive or inexpensive it was. I have so much guilt even just thinking about getting rid of items, even if they have sat unused for years and years. I can probably pick up every article of clothing I own and tell you where I bought it and exactly how much I paid for it – be it a $10 sweater from Old Navy that fits “O.K.” but bunches at the stomach, or a pricey sweater that is cute but itchy and sweat-inducing.


The same goes for gifts. Oh the guilt, the immense guilt I associate with gifts. For the most part, I know who gave the item, but it’s not even a matter of the sentiment for me. I can’t give away gifts because I just feel bad>. My parents always taught me to go over the top with thank yous for gifts when I was a kid. I remember being told, after my pizza and animatronic robot show at  Chuck E Cheese, to say, “Thank you so much! This is just what I always wanted!” to every person who gave me a gift, even if I didn’t like it, because I had to show appreciation that they took the time and the money to pick out something nice for me. Great manners to instill in a young child, but now it’s twenty years later and I feel utterly horrible about even thinking about getting rid of a gift, and I keep it whether I will use it or not.

my daughter drowning in the contents of my dresser

I’ve come to develop a bit of a gift phobia, because I know once I receive it, it will never leave my house. I think no gift-giver ever intends for me to wrestle with the guilt of not using it and the burden of keeping the unused item. But a clothing gift for example remains unworn for any of three reasonable reasons – it’s not my style, it doesn’t fit, it’s uncomfortable, or any combination of these. If so, it just needs to go. Simple. Someone who comes upon my gift through Goodwill will certainly put it to better use than it was to me, buried in the back recesses of my closet.

The best solution to an unwanted gift? Resist the urge to put it away – don’t toss it in with the rest of the cutlery, don’t tuck it away at the back of the closet. Put it in a box to donate right away. Then someone can put it to good use.

What legacy will I leave?

I’ve only ever set out to “collect” one thing – when the Care Bears had a 20th anniversary, I made up for my lack of childhood Care Bear plush and built up two sets of bears, 8 inch and 16 inch. Now I look at them in my parents’ attic, covered in plastic bags, and think, what am I going to do with them now? I’m happy to give one or two to my daughter, but 20+ bears in all colors of the rainbow seems slightly ridiculous.

I got great white Crate and Barrel dinner plates on my wedding registry, and beautiful turquoise Japanese crackled plates, too, but somehow I just needed to use that 10% (big woop!) registry completion discount to buy eight settings of salad and dinner china plates that no one had purchased. I was cleaning out a cupboard and found an unopened box of green Japanese plates, and suddenly felt very silly about all the modern china I had bought and used maybe twice. After reading the book, I realize I would have been more than happy with just two place settings of the china – two I could actually use with some frequency, but to have enough to serve a company of eight means I have to hand wash 16 separate dishes after the meal, and it makes me less apt to use them.

What will my daughter be burdened with when I pass away? Boxes and boxes of college paperwork? Figurines and keepsakes I received as wedding gifts and never cared to display?  What we leave behind is our legacy – our children, our contributions to the successes of organizations, and our material possessions, too. All those material possessions! Am I going to be remembered as a hoarder? Will my daughter be surprised to find a crawlspace filled to the brim with things I couldn’t be bothered to downsize myself? What does my stuff say about me?

Now that I’ve begun to cull down my own things, I’ve become hyper-aware of other people’s surroundings, too. What do the items in their house say about them? It’s always been very quick and easy for me to clean and organize other people’s stuff, but organizing my own things has always been a long, laborious process. I need to look at my stuff like I look at other peoples’ – as an outsider. I need to detach myself, not take the time to marvel and think about each item, because if it’s been cooped up and out of sight, I obviously didn’t care much for it in the first place. I want to come home to countertops free of clutter, to dressers free of knickknacks to make dusting easier, to a bedroom that isn’t used as storage. What ridiculously novel concepts! Why does the box my ipod or clairsonic came in deserve long term storage in my bedroom?

How will I downsize it all?

My mom always said a place for everything and everything in its place. Albeit she’s a bit of a hoarder, but her house doesn’t have the appearance of clutter. But putting things away has always been difficult for me. It’s like my brain shuts down and I don’t know what to do when it’s my possession and it doesn’t have a “home” in my home. Maybe I’m overly right-brained and creative, because something is hampering whatever organizational skills I should have. So all the more reason for me to embrace everyday maintenance, and get my husband on board to help. When we leave a room, we try to remove at least one item that does not belong there. I have memories of being in high school and spending entire weekends trying to clean my bedroom and never succeeding. If I just did a bit every day, organization wouldn’t have been so overwhelming and unattainable. The book also introduces the concept of “one in, one out.” So if I get a new dress shirt for work, it should make sense to get rid of an old dress shirt.

I joined an organizational group once at church. We took turns each week going to a person’s house and cleaning up one room. We didn’t raid every drawer, but worked on the visible clutter. Each item was presented to the homeowner who had to put it in one of 6 places:

  • Inbox – a physical container for items that will be dealt with – ie unpaid bills, a current craft project, today’s unread newspaper
  • Outbox – a physical container for items that will be leaving the house – a letter that needs to be mailed, a document to be brought to work, a gift for a friend
  • Garbage
  • Recycling
  • Donation box
  • In its place

I was surprised to discover that having someone else to force me to deal with each and every item makes the process go a lot faster. If I were to do it again with a friend, I would take it a bit further. For anything I decide to “put in its place” – anything I decide to keep, I would vocalize the reason. Is the reason ridiculous? Having a friend there would reinforce just how ridiculous my reason would be. Here are some great probing questions to pose for each item:

  • What is it used for?
  • How often do I use it?
  • Have I used it in the past year?
  • Do I expect to use it in the near future?
  • Does it make my life easier?
  • How?
  • Do I have something similar, that can do the same job?
  • Is it hard to maintain or clean, and is it worth the effort?
  • Would it be difficult or expensive to replace?
  • Would I replace it if it were misplaced or broken, or would I be relieved to be rid of it?
  • Would I take it with me if I moved to another house? Another country?
  • How would my life change if I didn’t own it?
  • Did I ever want it in the first place?

Some things I’ve saved with the intention of photographing it on a crisp white background before I give it away, to help alleviate the give-away-guilt. Like for gifts that I didn’t care for. But then I realized these gifts are still sitting on my mantle 5 years leater, collecting dust. I don’t have any sentiment toward them, so they should really just go. Off to Goodwill with them. I’ll save curating a book of objects for my daughter’s artwork and childhood keepsakes.

The book suggests that you “rid yourself of remnants of unloved pastimes, uncompleted endeavors, unrealized fantasies, and there will be room for new experiences.” This is perhaps especially hard for me, because I cycle through many hobbies, and can only devote the time to focus on one or two at a time, and only for a time. They’re also not hobbies that I pick up and abandon out of disinterest or lack of skill, either. One year I will play guitar and make jewelry, another year I will get into photography and sewing, another year painting and woodburning, and then cycle back through everything at different times. I envy people whose hobbies require little to no storage space! Hoarding even presents itself in digital photography, of all things, because I can take a thousand photos, and just setting out to delete the “bad ones” still leaves too many. I really want to just “keep the good ones” and delete the rest, but I’m sure many people, my husband included, would find it hard to limit themselves that way with a new child.

In general, I’ve saved things whether I like them or not, whether I ever intend to use them again, because I feel obligated to keep them. Each item was bought with good money and acquired with some effort. Like the soap with scent I didn’t like – just because I used my hard earned money for it doesn’t mean I have to keep it or force myself to use it. I need to pass it along to someone else before it goes bad in my cupboard. If I truly feel an item is sub-par, I have gotten in the habit of bringing it back to where I bought it. Granola bars that tasted like cardboard? Back to Costco you go. Make up that made me break out in a rash? Back to the drugstore you go. A lot of stores are trying to provide customer service on that Nordstrom level, and they will happily return or exchange items that didn’t work out for their customers, sometimes even without a receipt, because receipts are certainly something that can be unnecessarily hoarded, too!

Stop it at the source

I need to adopt the attitude of a ferocious gatekeeper – refuse free samples at the cosmetics counters, deal with unwanted gifts immediately, and ask the “why before I buy.”

  • Does it deserve a place in my home?
  • What value will it add to my household?
  • Will it make my life easier?
  • Will it make my life more difficult?
  • Do I have a place to put it?
  • Do I already have something that can accomplish the same task?
  • Will I want to keep it for a long time?
  • Will it even last a long time?
  • How hard will it be for me to get rid of it?
  • How hard will it be for me to properly dispose of it?

I came to realize just how important that last point is. Sure, recycling old electronics like cell phones and computers is pretty straightforward, but what about old electric toothbrushes and cordless phones? I spent a long time trying to figure out how to dispose of them properly, and in the end felt defeated that I couldn’t easily or conveniently deal with the battery inside.

Buying an item

I didn’t realize all the energy that goes into buying an item. With the plethora of information on the internet to guide me to and through the purchase, there’s so much more involved in buying an item than I realized. Take, for example a serger that I’ve been thinking of buying to make baby clothes with. The same process would apply to anything, big or small, from a new appliance, to a fancy camera, to a new family vehicle. The book sets forth the following process in purchasing an item:

  • Planning
  • Reading reviews
  • Shopping around for the best price
  • Getting the money to buy it, whether earned or borrowed
  • Physically going out to buy it
  • Learning to use it
  • Troubleshooting it
  • Cleaning it
  • Cleaning around it
  • Maintaining it
  • Buying extra parts for it
  • Trying not to break it
  • Fixing it when I do break it, and all the research that goes in to fixing it
  • Insuring it
  • Protecting it
  • Continuing to make payments on it even after it’s been disposed of

My time is precious, and each item in my house vies for my time in one way or another so I have to be thoughtful about every item I bring into my home. I joke that I spend more time with my coworkers than my own husband – it’s a sad, but true, reality. But I don’t want to spend 50-60% of my waking hours going to, being at, and coming home from a job to pay for stuff I no longer use, or even want.

Cull down that Closet

The Joy of Less suggests trying on every article of clothing you own like a fashion show, because things look different on your body than on the hanger, and may look better or worse than you expect. The book goes on to encourage you to affix a stop-light style of ribbons to the hangers, but I say to take it a step further. Green if it fits well and makes you feel great wearing it, red if it’s uncomfortable or unflattering, and yellow if you’re unsure. When you wear an item, remove the ribbon. But if you put on something and take it off five minutes later in favor of something else, do not remove the ribbon. Whatever is left with ribbons after a few months is probably what needs to find a new home.

Dumping out to find duplicates

The author suggests writing down every object in your house on a piece of paper. Does the sheer quantity seem to rival the hairs on your head? How about one room? Still overwhelming? One drawer. If I don’t know what’s inside, what good is it to be storing them all? I just counted how many writing implements I had in my cupboard. They took up 4 containers, and the count came to one hundred and thirty three. If each pen lasts six months, that’s over a 60 year supply! They’ll each be dried out long before then, if they aren’t already.

One of the main tenets of the book is to pare down by dumping out. Not sifting through and selecting  a few things to get rid of, but physically emptying the space and selecting what deserves to go back inside. I quickly realized that dumping out reveals duplicates. We buy items to replace other items, but somehow the old item doesn’t get discarded. It still sort of works, so we keep it as a back up if the new one breaks or goes missing, but what’s the point of replacing it then? My old nail cutters had been getting dull, so I made a big point to find another one made in Japan because it could last 10 years. Dumping out the bathroom drawer recently, I realized not only had I not thrown out the old nail clippers, but lo and behold there was another pair I never knew I had, which yielded three nail cutters! And in my kitchen I had three sets of measuring spoons and four incomplete sets of measuring cups.

.  .  .  .  .

According to the pareto principle, we use 20 percent of our stuff 80 percent of the time. With a new baby and all the laundering that a baby brings, I’m always surprised to find the socks that I wore on Tuesday clean and folded in my drawer by Thursday. So in effect, with a baby, I almost feel like the ratio shifts to something more like 2% used 98% of the time. A new baby will inevitably force me to acquire more things that I would like, but I need to at least keep my possessions in check.

Have you made any steps toward a cleaner, more organized household since your child came into your life?