The secret shame of my obsession with decluttering

If you’re currently drowning in clutter at home, you’re not alone. A recent UCLA study showed it’s a huge problem for middle-class families.

“Managing the sheer volume of possessions – including clothing –  proved to be a crushing problem for the families … Mothers who lamented messy rooms or unfinished projects when describing their homes were more likely to have elevated levels of stress hormones.”

Further,

“The garage is the new ‘junk drawer’. Only 25 percent of garages could be used to store cars because they were so packed with household overflow.”

But what if you’re at the other end of the spectrum? What if you’re someone like me who declutters on a weekly basis? Is that a virtuous place to be?

Hardly.

While I send a lot of stuff to Vinnies and Good Sammy’s (thus making my clutter their problem), and while I use this service to deal with larger items in an environmentally responsible way, the secret shame of my constant decluttering is this:

A lot of the stuff I get rid of cannot be recycled, upcycled or go to a new/better home. A lot of it ends up in landfill.

So, hanging on to all of this stuff is not good for us.

But, constantly throwing away stuff isn’t good either.

What’s the solution?

We need to slow the rate at which we accumulate stuff in the first place. Here are eight suggestions for reducing stuff in your home:

1. Adults need to stop buying each other presents

Birthday gifts, thank you gifts, ‘thinking about you’ gifts – I understand the need to show someone you appreciate them, but all this appreciating is creating a great deal of junk and clutter. So: give vouchers, take them out for dinner, buy them a plant or make a donation in their name. There are lots of ways to show people love that don’t involve buying them something they don’t need.

2. Don’t accept free stuff

Unless it’s stuff you’ll actually use. Say no to the caps being handed out at the football clinic, free samples from the cosmetics counter, and ‘novelty’ anything. This is SO difficult when you have kids. But it’s also an opportunity to start a conversation with your kids about where these things end up once they’ve finished playing with them after 20 minutes.

3. Avoid fast/cheap fashion where possible

It’s very easy to buy a t-shirt for $15 and think ‘It doesn’t matter if I only get one summer out of it because it was so cheap.’ I know this because I’ve done it more times than I care to admit. It does matter, however. If you can’t wear that t-shirt anymore because it’s falling to bits, no one can wear that t-shirt and it goes straight to landfill.

4. Don’t do things that involve people buying crappy things for each other

Like Secret Santa. Yes, it’s hilarious to watch your boss open the doodle shaped cup that will deliberately spill their drink all over them. But that plastic piece of hilarity is going straight to their cupboard when they get home. And will find its way to landfill when next they move house.

5. Resist the urge to buy novelty souvenirs when on holiday

If you want a lovely reminder of your holiday, take lots and lots of photos. This will also help you avoid overweight luggage on your way home 🙂

6. Buying toys for other people’s kids

Before you do this, check with their parents. Do they even play with toys? Many kids don’t (my kids don’t really and it’s taken about three years to get my family to understand this!). If you’re desperate to be the hip auntie or uncle who buys cool gifts, buy things that build on each other, like Lego or train tracks. When your friend has a new baby, rather than getting them that beautiful baby book they’ll never fill in, get them a meal service or a cleaner for a day.

7. Don’t buy things that are for one-time use

See if you can borrow them from a friend or neighbour instead.

8. Choose to fix/clean things rather than buy new ones

I have two rugs at home. They were pretty cheap, less than $200 each. Both rugs are filthy and it will cost more to have them cleaned than simply buy new ones. We also have a couch that will be cheaper to replace than recover. It costs as much to re-sole a pair of boots or get a dress made one size smaller as it does to get new ones of those things. It’s not always in our means to repair things rather than getting new ones … but if it is, it’s an option we should consider.

An important end note

Understand that, no matter how vigilant and mindful you are, stuff will still find its way into your house. Especially if you have kids. So, you (and I!) can’t be all or nothing with this one. We can only do our best.

At the same time, it’s important to remember there is no magical place called ‘away’ (as my friend Alexx likes to say). If something’s being thrown ‘away’, it’s going to landfill.

If each of us takes small steps towards reducing what we send out to landfill on a daily basis, however, while also taking small steps towards being mindful about we let into our houses … we can remove the mental shackles of all that clutter whole doing a tiny bit for the planet too.

And, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know how avidly I believe in the power of many tiny changes adding up to something really worthwhile over time.

Comments 50

  1. Gosh, I have been thinking about this a lot lately. These are all great solutions to the relentless collection of “stuff” in our homes. Thinking about gifts as something that adds joy but not clutter to peoples lives is so much kinder. Flowers, home baked gifts, movie vouchers are all options I would love rather than gifts that I feel guilty about not wanting, needing or loving.

      1. I give food items around the holiday season, gift cards for groceries, eating out, hair salon are practical for adults who don’t need more stuff.

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  2. The hubs and I keep a little list of things that we would like as gifts. Just before the birthday or Christmas, etc we cross off anything that no longer appeals. It’s actually amazing how many things can get crossed off. What’s left is our ‘wish list’ and I love getting gifts this way. I’ve recently started the kids on this as well. They keep a list all year and the best bit is I get to say, “Write it on the birthday list” rather than “no you can’t have that so how about you whine and we’ll argue about it for the next 3 hours”.

  3. I love this. You make so many spot on points. I’ve been decluttering for a few months. I’m determined to not accumulate that much crap again. My hoarder husband just (willingly) did a decluttering over the public holiday and I was shocked! It feels good to release things that we’ve had in our space for way too long. Some of that stuff (even some mundane household stuff) has had slightly negative connotations for me, so it’s been good psychologically – very freeing. The more I declutter, the more I realise how little we actually need. A good lesson in this recently was cleaning out my home office and starting fresh and minimalistic. It made me wonder what the hell I was thinking all those years before! While it’s crap knowing I’m sending stuff to landfill during this phase, I hope that my present/future decisions will make up for it as best as I can.

    1. Yes, that’s exactly right – and it’s why I like the Minimalists thing of putting everything in a box, and then only taking it out when you need to use it. Anything still in the boxes after 6 months, it’s unlikely you need those things 🙂

  4. Yay! You don’t know how much I love reading this! Just seeing the amount going into landfill makes me feel ill. However – I don’t always follow through – I’m still working on replacing an ingrained shopping as a reward habit. But like Maxabella and her birthday lists, I’m trying to have a list of things needed (for me or others) – and sometimes it’s as exciting as undies for the kids because they’re growing. And that (sort of) can give me my fix (or alternatively, buying something from an op shop – not undies!). But, really, rather than decluttering, stopping things coming into the house is so much better.

    1. There’s nothing I love more than a Skip Bin for doing a huge purge – but then I just feel really ill at the fact that I’ve managed to fill a Skip Bin

  5. I think this post addresses a key often overlooked in the decluttering conversations – if you’re constantly decluttering you need to look at what is coming into your home even more carefully than what is going out! I realized this myself when I was patting myself on the back for my monthly decluttering around the house. Not all of the things being given away were old! How had they arrived here in the first place? Books are my nemesis and I’m learning I don’t need to own every one, the library is my happy place and source of all the books I could want for free. We have a 1-year-old grandson who comes to visit often. A high chair is the only piece of equipment we have purchased and it was secondhand. It will convert to a chair at the table as he grows. He brings his portacot and a few toys. We have books and Lego of his mum’s and there are loads of interesting things in my baking cupboard to play with as well as a piano to make lots of noise on. We spend a lot of time outside too. We are devoted to just him when he is here, not daily chores and responsibilities so the need for distraction or other entertainment is rare. The joy of being grandparents! So many grandparents seem to replicate every item baby has at home, it’s really not necessary. Decluttering is good, not cluttering in the first place is better.

  6. Fabulous list! I was aware of most of them and trying, with many fits and starts, to implement them but a couple were things I had not really thought about as clearly as your articulation of them. I would respectfully add two more tips.
    First, look at what things you are regularly purging. Do not do this to beat yourself up but so you can pause the next time your hand is on a similar object at the store and think about why you are getting ready to buy it and (hopefully) rethink the purchase. I find that I tend to buy/declutter the same things over and over. I need to just suck it up and buy one pair of shoes that really fit and that I really love even if they are expensive so I stop buying shoes that are sort of cute but sort of uncomfortable because I just purged the last pair that was sort of cute but sort of uncomfortable.
    Second, and similar to the put it on a list idea, wait 48 hours before buying. The internet makes it way too easy to hit the buy button. I do not even have to get out of my pajamas. Often, when I just wait 48 hours, the urge to buy will pass. If I miss a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to buy as a result, I tell myself it was meant to be and move on.

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  7. Very true!
    Thanks for this, it gives me some motivation I needed to continue to give items away on the “pay it foward” Facebook group in my community. I was slowing down, as it’s a bit if work. But because it’s a bit of work it really helps in making be acquire less. I think trying to declutter in ways that will actually get the stuff to households that will actually use the items should be a goal and the effort it takes us teaches us and reminds us to slow down the accumulation of things.

    Recently I went through a fairly big overhaul of items it my home and I started the process my telling family, friends and aquatainces that if they need ANY household items to check with me first. It was amazing how many items were snapped up because they NEEDED it. I didn’t sell items to them, I figured that I wanted it out of my house now and anything else left over was sold over Facebook, given away over Facebook or donated.

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      I think the harder we find it to give away stuff we want, the more mindful we get about what we bring into our homes in the first place. It’s a good cycle to get into!

  8. This! Just yesterday I almost fell prey to “my daughter needs two new laundry baskets to manage her clothes better” until I pulled way back and said can I reconfigure the existing basket situation to make it work? Shifted things around and we’ve got a workable solution.

    Another thing I find helpful is to overtly think through an item’s lifecycle before I buy it. The end is always “toss or donate” and having mentally gotten rid of it already, I can better assess whether the pain of maintaining/storing/disposing of it will be worth its purchase. (Spoiler alert: it’s usually not)

    Oh, one more. Before I buy something I ask “what problem does this solve?” If I can’t come up with a good answer or I can ninja a different solution with existing items, then I don’t buy it!

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      That stuff that you can buy at department stores for $3-5 – it’s so easy to buy it mindlessly because it’s so cheap. But the more we all buy of that stuff – the more of it gets made. Which is pretty horrifying when we think about it!

  9. Amen! I have come up with exactly the same list over the years, with a couple of additions. I am especially in agreeance over the whole gift giving thing and when I feel the giving of a gift is required I have rules which I follow so I am not creating clutter for others – I always give a new set of cot sheets for the birth of a new baby because they are useful. I will always opt out of secret santa gift giving if I can. If it is compulsory, eg, as part of a work Christmas party, I choose very carefully, even if it means i am spending a bit over the set dollar value. Saying no to freebies is a big one – especially where children are the target audience.
    In the long run, it all helps.
    Like another reader, I will not buy books (other than cookbooks which are referred to often.) I peruse the shelves at my local book store, then write down what I am interested in and check to see if it is available at my local library. In recent years, ebooks have also come into my life.

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      Love this. Love the mindset of ‘not creating clutter for others’. As important as not creating clutter for ourselves x

  10. well done thanks Kelly!
    i’m always in the midst of decluttering!
    my resolve is certainly not to buy any junk and I’ve reduced clothes buying etc! I don’t over buy at the super market either! i’m a bit of a tyrant when I go with mr m! … I keep saying, no we don’t need that!
    ENOUGH! is my favourite word!
    I’ve had enough! and I have enough!
    simples!
    much love m:)X

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      It’s so hard, and I feel like such a party pooper sometimes … but when we are mindful about what we buy, it makes other people more mindful too

  11. Excellent article Kelly, it’s these supposedly small items that are such a big issue and I’m glad you have talked about them. Secret Santa’s and gift giving for adults are the worst! They have always made me cringe, especially when they say it has to be under $5!!

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      I know it’s all in good fun – but those crappy little cheap presents aren’t useful, or wanted … so we need to find other ways to build staff morale at Christmas I think!

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  12. Kelly, thank you, I love this so much, on so many levels. I’m constantly struggling with stuff coming into the house. For my birthday for ages I have asked for no gifts. My family and some friends now have a tradition to take each other out for dinner for birthdays, it’s been amazing! And I ask for experience gifts for the kids, and try to give these to others too. The idea of having a party for my kids and inviting the whole class, only to have the house fill with more “stuff” fills me with dread. Any tips to avoid this?

    1. We once asked everyone to bring a can/bag of dog or cat food for the local animal shelter to my daughter’s birthday party as the gift. This worked really well because my daughter was totally on board with the idea – I would definitely not force this on a child!

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      With this – I tell the parents that my preference is no presents, but if they can’t bring themselves to do that, then I ask for a small box of lego, $5 in a card or some colouring in/drawing stuff 🙂

  13. I NEED to get my MIL on board with this. Every time she comes to visit or stay for a ‘short’ time, she is either buying things to use here and leave here (like I don’t have enough coffee mugs in my cupboard already?!) or going to second-hand or cheap novelty stores to buy things for the kids.
    My kids just want to spend time with their Nan, they don’t need or want those items. Last Christmas was not nice. Because I had not yet pulled my Xmas decs down from the roof when she arrived 2 days after the kids & I finishing school and work for the year (first weekend of Dec), she went out and bought a bunch of cheap Xmas stuff that I didn’t actually need, and then left it here for me to find storage space for. I have been trying to establish less of a need for materialistic items at Christmas, instead having a home-grown tree (healthier too!) and we spend time as a family choosing decorations to use and doing recyclable Christmas craft to replace those that need replacing.

    She went to a second hand shop and bought books for my eldest daughter without checking with me first and I happened to have invested in a box-set of books which included those books for her Christmas gift. So not only did she ruin the excitement of my one big Christmas gift I had bought my daughter, but also added to the books on the book-shelf. I am very careful about which books come into my home permanently as it is a small home.

    I have gotten into the habit of ‘window-shopping’ the book department in stores and taking a photo (on my phone) of new books by my fave authors or books that catch my eye and I add them to my digital wish list at my local library.
    I used to be obsessed with buying every book written by a certain best-seller author. Not only does it become expensive, but also cluttering!

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  14. A couple of years back I let everyone know about September that Christmas had become a trial, and that I was no longer buying anyone but my Mum and kids gifts, so that I could enjoy the season, so please to not buy me gifts. It kind of works! I also noticed that the happiness advice is to give presents of experiences not things, so I spend a bit more on birthdays and do that, as experiences can be a bit more expensive than things. Sometimes the experience I buy is me travelling to see them! It is also helpful my gift spending is spread through the year, rather than December breaking the bank.

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      Yes, I was so happy when I was able to convince my family that adults buying adults presents for Christmas was just a bit much! The expense + all of us trying to buy something meaningful and useful for a relatively small amount – too hard and just created clutter for everyone. The experiences thing solves everything!

  15. I appreciate the minimalist mindset, and am somewhat of a minimalist myself. We don’t like to clutter up the house too much! However, this article is missing a key piece of the discussion, I feel. When you can’t use that $15 t-shirt anymore, donate it to a thrift store or Goodwill. Most of the items you feel go to a landfill could just be re-purposed in that way.

    I agree though regarding our consumerism mindset–we don’t need to give and receive so much stuff!! One solution I’ve found to this is to give gifts that are consumable. Flavored coffee, body spray, art supplies for kids that they will use up–these things help to clutter our friends’ houses less. Thanks for the article! 🙂

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      I guess the point I was making about the $15 t-shirt is not that they go out of style, they go out of shape. So they’re not really donate-able after they’ve been worn for a season 🙂

  16. There are companies that collect clothing and shoes to be recycled which is great so they can stay out of the landfill. In my area they have bins all over the place so it is also easy to support their mission. I am a huge believer of reducing to begin with though! 😀 Fantastic post!

    1. Yes – there is a business I linked to in my post who will take your junk away and sort it. But with clothes and shoes, a lot of the stuff we all donate is unusable and in giving it to the charities, we’re making it their problem unfortunately 🙁

  17. I’m so happy someone finally addressed this issue. I have read so many minimalist
    articles where the author gleefully announces that they have thrown out “20 bags
    of garbage!” and “donated 15 bags of unwanted clutter to the charity shop!”. Where on
    earth do they think this stuff is going? Out of their houses and into the landfill! And
    charity shops have to throw out many of the “treasures” donated because they are
    unsaleable- old, worn-out, unhygienic, full of holes, mouldy, faded etc. So in dumping all
    your unwanted and unsaleable stuff off at the charity shop you are actually creating more
    work for the staff. Now they have to “declutter” what you have just “decluttered”!

    These are wonderful suggestions. We need to take more responsibility when it comes
    to what we allow to enter our houses. We need fewer “decluttering” articles where
    authors extoll the virtues of dragging off bags of unwanted stuff to the curb or
    unsuspecting charity shops and more articles like this which give helpful tips on
    reducing the amount of stuff we acquire in the first place. This is true minimalism.

    1. Thanks Cathie – decluttering has its place for sure, we are all drowning in too much stuff. But we also all need to be more mindful about tackling the problem at its root which is buying too much

  18. As a big fan of The Minimalists your email is ‘on the money’, as in not spending it on stuff. So great to hear an Australian take on it and addressing it from the landfill issue.

    We sold our house nearly 2 years ago, packed our house up and moved into an appartment in Balmain and then moved to the Southern Highland for the start of the school year this year.

    With each move I have donated and eBayed things we no longer needed but we still had a wall of boxes with ‘precious things’ in them.

    I have been sorting through these and now have 15 empty boxes, 20 repacked and organized boxes and 12 left to sort through. So much stuff to look after! Working away with straight and curly, the Minimalists and Marie Kondo as company.

    I have taken on one of The Minimalist’s tips – if you want to buy something put it on a list for 30 days. If you still want it then go and buy it. It works.

    I’d love to say I can follow their supermarket tip of only buying what is on my list but I am not there yet.

    However with your podcasts and their’s I aim to consume less, set an example for our kids and make a difference one day at a time.

    Keep inspiring! Your podcasts are what I call my PD (professional development!)

    Thank you

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