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Clean Up, Pick Up, Put Away (and Throw Away): Decluttering our Home for Good


I grew up in an apartment, which meant that we didn’t have a garage or an attic to hide junk in. Instead, if something couldn’t be shoved into the deep depths of a closet, it would remain in plan sight for all to see.

I am, for the most part, pretty neat. Clutter and mess actually make me physically agitated, to the point where I cannot focus on anything else until I get the clutter taken care of. 

There is nothing like having kids to take a Type-A mom’s clutter meter from a 1 to a 10. And, unlike my parents, my husband and I own a house, with a garage and an attic. Translation: we have lots of room to hide clutter. And often, if clutter is out of sight, then it’s also out of mind.

Until it’s not.

Our family is currently in the process of moving. Prior to listing our house, we had to basically empty it to make it sellable. Two adults and two kids living under one roof can accumulate quite a lot of junk over the course of five-plus years. I had done my best to keep things in order, but as a work-at-home mom of two small people, I just didn’t have the ability to clear things out regularly. During this gargantuan clean-out process, my dad sent me a New York Times article about open houses. The article quoted someone who suggested regularly treating your house as if you’re getting it ready for an open house, but not actually selling it.

Call it a lightbulb moment, but that’s what I have been doing ever since, and my life has been forever changed. I don’t claim to be an organization expert (thought I do secretly want to work for the ladies over at The Home Edit). But here is my rough list of things that we’ve done in our house, and will keep doing in our new house, which help us get rid of and prevent clutter.

Donate Donate Donate – I always have one cardboard box in our basement filled with items for donation. If I notice my daughter’s pants are too short, I tell her that it’s donation time, and the pants go straight into the donation box. I don’t stuff the pants back into the drawer to deal with later. The box slowly (or sometimes quickly) fills up, and then I take it directly to donate.

In with the New, Out with the Old – After every birthday or holiday, our whole family goes through the toys to decide what we should donate to make room for the new stuff. There will always be something to donate, and our kids actually like doing this now. This rule also applies to us adults and whatever we’re accumulating (if I buy two new pairs of leggings, donate the oldest two as long as they’re in good condition).

Ask for No Gifts – For our son’s most recently birthday, we included a note asking for no gifts, but suggested that guests make a donation to their favorite charity, if they felt like they needed to do something. People seemed to like this, and we’ll do it for our daughter’s birthday as well. They still got plenty from family.

Stop Browsing – I don’t go on Amazon, or any other website that encourages impulse-buying, unless I actually need something. Conveniently, this is also a good way to break some bad habits of unnecessary spending and impulse buying.

Shop with a Purpose and Get Out – I really like home decor, probably more than I should. I used to randomly buy things like pillows because “look how pretty they are!” Not anymore. I don’t detour through the home section of Target if I’m there buying milk and paper towels.

No More Tchotchkes – If I’m looking for something to decorate with, I focus on things that can go on walls or on shelves. If I have to put it on a side table, or my counter, then I’m probably going to complain about how it’s in the way, takes up too much space, and my kids will just play with it. Keeping items off of flat surfaces has been life-changing.

Add to Existing Categories – I know what my kids like to play with. Currently, my son likes die-cast vehicles, and my daughter loves figurines. Once these things are unboxed, the smaller pieces go into an already-designated bin,  so we don’t have to make extra space for something new.

Kids Art – Display then Put Away – Last year I bought a kids art shelf from Minted. The shelf comes with about 10 clips, which we hang our kids’ art on. If a new piece of art comes in, they tell me which one they want to take down to make room for the new one. Then I mark the back of the old piece with their name, the date, and any other important information (if they made it at school, or what they’ve titled it), and then I put the art into a big box in our basement. I used to keep all of the art. That became overwhelming. Now I keep just what is special, unique, interesting, brightly colored (add your categories here).

Reign in the Grandparents – All of the grandparents now run most of their ideas by us to make sure we’re okay with what they’re planning to buy. We sometimes veto (though we try to not be Scrooges). We generally say no if it’s giant and plastic. We’ll also suggest they purchase things like a week of summer camp instead of more toys.

Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind – No more shoving into the garage or attic! Unless we actually have to store something that we know we will need in the future, we take a good hard look at it and determine if we are better off selling or donating it. Going through an attic full of things we had shoved up there to “deal with later” was pretty awful, and frankly a waste of time.

Everything in its Rightful Place – Sometimes clutter isn’t extra stuff that you don’t want or need. Sometimes it’s stuff you use all of the time but were too busy (or lazy) to put back where they belonged when you were done with them. Like when I hang three separate coats on a chair in the kitchen instead of taking the 20 seconds to walk them back to the coat closet. Just like I ask my kids to pick up their toys when they’re finished, I’m telling myself to do the same. And my house is so much neater (shocker!). 

Furniture Storage Boxes – For those things that just cannot look neat, I use storage boxes that double as furniture. I work from home and have piles upon piles of paperwork. Just looking at it makes me twitch. I have a giant ottoman-style storage box filled with my files, papers, envelopes (you name it). When clutter is necessary, hide it neatly.

Take the Emotion Out of It – Do you hold onto things because they have emotional value? Yeah, me too. I always have. But once I had kids, I found myself almost incapable of letting go of anything. Everything held emotional meaning for me, from my kids’ favorite stuffed animals to dirty old socks. I eventually realized that if I kept it all, I’d end up on an episode of Hoarders. As hard as it was, I taught myself to let go a little more. 

The moral of this decluttering story? Don’t do later what you can do now. Once you start decluttering, you’ll never stop (or maybe that’s just me…).

Are you drowning in years of clutter too?

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