How to get rid of clutter

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Getting rid of clutter

The movers came over yesterday to give us an estimate for our move and the guy walked in, looked around, and said, “Well you guys really don’t have a lot of clutter.”  It made me so proud.  About three years ago we made a conscious decision to reduce the “stuff” cluttering our lives and move to a small downtown Washington, DC condo so our daughter could attend a top ballet school to which she had won a scholarship.   At the time we were living in a 5000+ square ft. house and the closets seemed overflowing and the shelves were packed full.  It was quite an ordeal. 

I am, by nature, a pack rat so when my sister in law (aka Exhausted Mama) asked me how we managed I have to be honest—it was not easy.  I am also very sentimental.  I think I cried every single day.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I always thought I would always regret getting rid of everything.  Truth be told though it was the single best decision of my life. 

It’s so easy to get swept up in the culture of accumulation—big cars, big homes, big wardrobes etc.  It’s like from the time we are little we are taught to work as hard as we can to accumulate as much as possible.  Success is measured not in health and happiness, but in the amount of “stuff” we own.  In reality this obsession with stuff drains us both physically and spiritually.  Counteracting this cultural imperative is not easy, but like most things in life that aren’t easy it is worth it.   

If you want to get rid of the clutter in your life it really needs to first and foremost be an active decision—a life style choice.  If you have committed mentally to the idea then the following steps will help you go through the process.  This is not the quickest way to declutter, but it is the most compassionate that this self-proclaimed sentimental pack rat swears by. 

Set a routine

I’m a big fan of the flexible routine.  It’s not a schedule.  It’s not set in stone, but it does set expectations and norms so nothing comes as a surprise.  It depends on your timeline—if you are selling your home then that timeline is in high speed but if you just want to declutter then one morning a week should suffice.  Ex.  Saturday morning at 9AM we declutter for an hour and then go out for brunch.  Or better yet make it Friday and Saturday night after dinner and declutter while sipping two martinis each.

Be realistic

If you make it miserable you will be miserable.  Pick a time when everyone is actually free and clear of activities.  Block the time.  But, don’t block too much time.  You can work for 1-3 hours a week and get so much done.  Reward yourself with something fun afterwards. 

Start small—one closet or one drawer

That’s all.  Just a closet.

Create a keep pile

If you have three million pens in the drawer try them all out to see if they work—then keep only what you really need.  Three pens max.  I mean it three pens.  Pick three.  If you have twenty sweaters that fit pick the three you wear most.  If you have twenty boxes of Christmas decorations think about the ones you actually use and keep those.  Everything else goes “poof” 

True story: I had THREE fondue pots.  THREE!  Who even uses one fondue pot more than once every six years much less THREE?!?! 

Create a give-away pile 

A friend once told me that saving clothes for the next kid is actually selfish unless you are super organized and truly can’t afford to buy new stuff for each kid because chances are the stuff you save will get sucked up into the clutter and you will be buying new stuff for each kid anyway.  That realization was life changing.  There are some things I keep to pass down to the younger kids.  Things that I know I remember I have—like winter coats or super fancy Christmas dresses.  Everything else gets given away.  This is true not only for clothes.  It goes for office supplies, kitchen gadgets, decorations etc.  We need WAY less than we think we need.  If you don’t use it regularly you are being selfish keeping it.  Someone else can use it.  Just give it away.  If you can’t decide then just give it way.  My favorite saying is, “When in doubt throw it out!”

The give-away pile itself should be dealt with immediately or as soon as possible.  Again, adding when the stuff will actually be given away to your routine is a big help.  Otherwise I guarantee the give away pile will be sucked back into the clutter vortex.  (see below for some of my favorite charities that make giving the stuff away easy)

Create a sell pile

I’m terrible at this.  I hate packing things up and mailing them.  Well, really I do often pack them, but I am not good at actually mailing them.  And calculating postage is annoying.  If this is your thing though and you do have some good stuff to sell then sell it.  But, whatever you do DO NOT JUST PUT IT IN A SELL PILE AND FORGET ABOUT IT.  List it.  Immediately.  Don’t put it off.  Which brings me to my next subheading (which should be obvious by now)….

Don’t put things off 

Pull every single item out and do something with it immediately.  If you don’t know if an item fits try it on immediately. If a toy might be broken then test it.   It’s easy to leave the tough decisions and pile up stuff for later, but don’t do this.  Deal with everything as you see it. 

Keep moving forward

From that first closet or drawer work your way through the house one small step at a time in what I like to call “FOD Walk” style.  (My husband was a Navy pilot, but for those of you less familiar with the term a FOD Walk is simply lining up and walking together to collect any foreign objects from the flight deck to protect the aircraft from sucking it up into their engines)  In the home this means work out from your one small closet in a straight line dealing with every single object you see as you see it.  Don’t hop around the house and don’t pick and choose the items you want to deal with.  Just deal with it all in one long straight line moving through the house. 

I’m pretty laid back with my household organization routine, but if you are more of a lay it out on paper type person you might want to try the Erin Condren Goal Setting Journal.  I use this for my travel company’s bigger projects and it really helps me visualize breaking things down into smaller pieces.  It also helps keep me focused and not hop around without a plan.  I love all things Erin Condren because there is something so satisfying about having something pretty in which to organize your life. 

Now for the nitty gritty….how to decide what to keep and what to give away.

A word about sentimental items

  • Keep several children’s toys that they played with and loved and are in good condition.  You can use these for grandkids.  Don’t keep them all, but just a few of the most loved toys.  
  • Take pictures of your children’s projects/drawings and have an album printed.  If you have one or two items that are really special frame them and hang them on the wall.
  • Keep one large box for each child with the most precious items—Baptismal gown, baby book, baby blanket, coming home from the hospital outfit etc.  Whatever has very special meaning to you as long as it fits in that box.
  • Let each of your children keep a box for their sentimental items.  They probably have different memories and opinions on what is important so let them keep a box of their own for when they are grown. 

A word about books

  •  If you have the space keep them.  Keep them all.  Studies have shown that regardless of any other factor children’s success is school is directly linked to the number of books they have in the home. 

A word about the kitchen

  • How many wooden spoons do you really need?  Think about it.  Then give away the rest.  Do this with all your kitchen accessories. 
  • Do you really need the Micky Mouse waffle iron?  No.  There is no need to think about that one.  Get rid of it. 
  • Use the Thanksgiving Day test. Think about the day you cook the largest meal possible.  For most of us this is Thanksgiving.  If you aren’t sure if you need something think about whether you will use it on Thanksgiving and if so keep it.  If not get rid of it. 

A word about clothing

  • If it doesn’t fit get rid of it.  You might lose the weight, but really if you do are you really going to wear something that’s been hanging in your closet a million years?  Honestly if you lose the weight just treat yourself to something new.
  • You have favorites.  You know you do.  Keep them and get rid of everything else.  There are beautiful clothes hanging in your closet that you never wear because they are uncomfortable.  You want to wear them, but you never do.  Just give them away.  Someone can really benefit and they aren’t helping you hanging there. 


These are my “go to” resources for giving items away or selling them.  Just be sure your clutter is usable and you aren’t just dumping trash on charities.  Anything that isn’t in usable condition should be recycled or thrown away at your local dump.  Your town website will have information for large waste disposal.  When selling items that you need to meet in person check to see if your local police department has a safe meeting spot for internet transactions.   Another fantastic thing is to have a garage sale—you can sell stuff and make some cash, but the most fun part is just to give toys away to neighborhood kids. 

Facebook Marketplace


St. Vincent de Paul—In most cases they will pick up and they will take all kinds of stuff.

Habitat for Humanity—they are a bit picky about what they take, but many ReStores will pick up larger items and it’s a great organization.  Just be sure that your items are totally clean and in excellent condition.  (not just good condition—excellent condition)

College Hunks Hauling Junk—for a fee they will come pick up all your junk and then find charities who will take it.  Anything that is not usable will be either recycled or thrown out.  Super easy when you want the job done quickly and you have good stuff that charities can use. 

Keeping the clutter away

Once you have completed your FOD Walk of your home—a process that should take weeks or months or even a year—don’t let the clutter creep back.  I think that was why I was so delighted when the movers commented on how little stuff we had.  It’s tough to break old habits.  Moving is a great time to get rid of the extras I don’t need, but it’s even better to keep from accumulating in the first place.  I am a work in progress in this department. 

The beauty of living with less though is that everything means more.  If you have one single pen you come to know and love and appreciate that pen. You always know where it is.  You take care of it and it is yours.  If you have a million pens all of them mean nothing and when you need one you have to scramble to find it.  It’s the same with the sentimental drawings and projects from my kids.  When I had boxes of them I had no idea what any of it was, but in keeping only a few they each became very special to me.  Allowing clutter to build up really just makes everything meaningless.

On a final note, for me there is a spiritual component in living with less.  The path to sainthood is not paved with “stuff”.  It’s paved with detachment from clutter.  So if the important thing is eternal life then the stuff has got to go.   Getting rid of clutter is a very practical and earthly thing, but it’s rooted in something so much deeper.  Detachment from materialism is an act of holiness—remember that through the process. 

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About Mary

Mary Stephens holds a degree in international affairs from Georgetown University and a Masters in Teaching from the American University. Mary spent almost twenty years homeschooling her four children and is now navigating post homeschool life in Alaska. She offers personal insights, recipes, homeschooling tips and tricks and travel advice on her website Mary also owns Christopher Travel, a luxury travel company specializing in exquisite vacations around the globe.


  1. Smelly socks and garden peas on July 26, 2020 at 6:12 am

    I need to send this to my mum. Her house and garage are full to the rafters with every nook and cranny stuffed with, well, stuff. Its genetic I swear as her mum’s the same. I’m trying to beat the genes and not let it take over here.

  2. Carolyn on July 28, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks, Mary! I need to work on not putting things off. I have my donate pile and my sell pile, but they are just sitting there. Love the FOD Walk—I’ll have to start doing this!

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