The Key to Staying Organized: Getting Rid of Stuff


Are you as amazed as I am at how quickly clutter collects in our houses?  It’s almost like the mysterious accumulation of dust. Where does it come from, and won’t it please stop — for just a little while?

When I was single, I used to be attracted to houses that were chock-full of stuff: wallpapered walls covered with paintings, and dusty shelves jammed with curios, souvenirs, and books.

Now that I am no longer lonely, and my kids fill our house with noise, action, toys, papers, crafts, and clothes, I long for a different aesthetic.  I want clear counters, coats hung behind doors, and shelves that look just the slight bit empty, ready for more.

Because there will always be more. And that’s what I am coming to terms with.

If half of the magic equation for a satisfying life is being organized, then I think the best thing I can do to achieve that goal is to make sure I am always clearing stuff out.

Considering how often I have relocated in my adult life (12 times), I am a little surprised that I am even facing this problem. I have become a veteran at streamlining linen closets, giving away baby clothes without tears, and offloading stacks of magazines on Freecycle.

One time I even went so far as to throw away photos. I finally accepted the fact that there are precious few people (okay, maybe zero, including me) who want to see pictures of archaeological ruins or people I don’t even remember.

Even though my cross-country and cross-Atlantic moves kept me on my clutter-free toes, it seems a decluttering project always awaits me.  As soon as I’m done helping my daughters unstuff their dressers, their craft supplies are overflowing. The tools are organized, but now all the boxes of papers in the attic are multiplying.

The thing is, like dusting, getting rid of Stuff is a never-ending job. It’s as constant as breathing, partly because — as long as we are living — we are always changing. Our bodies change, our interests change, our life stage changes, our dwellings change. And each of those changes almost always requires importing new stuff — and ideally — exporting the old.


Even if our interests and bodies were to freeze in time, stuff would keep flooding into our dwellings — through the mail, wrapped as presents, hidden in backpacks, and disguised by companies as free gifts.

An appraiser I met recently told me that one out of 25 houses she inspects in the D.C. area are so full she can barely find a path to walk through. We live in an age of cheap mass-produced goods, and it’s just easier for most of us to buy stuff instead of borrowing, exchanging, and doing without, as they did in the old days.

Not only is it easier, getting new stuff is simply more fun. It’s why shiny new objects call to us, and messy cabinets make us run the other way. It’s why it’s fun to pack a suitcase, but very unfun to unpack. Buying something gives us a feel-good rush, but listing that same thing on Craigslist a year later gives us a headache.

The chore of moving stuff out of the house is weighted down by emotional baggage. Anything that contains some kind of memory or was given to me by someone is very hard for me to give away. It also pains me to see the money and resources wasted, and I feel ashamed for making the wrong choices.

But the constant flux of our lives that creates much of the clutter in the first place helps me eventually let go. What seemed impossible to give away a few months ago, might be easy now. And when I finally muster up the strength to say goodbye to the college papers that I got B minuses on, the polka-dot curtains I was saving for “someday,” or the mini-dresses that I wore when I was 24, I feel great.

I am moving on. And forward. And so is my stuff. College is over, decorating tastes have changed, my body is a different shape. New good things will replace the old ones. Especially when I can let go, say good-bye, and make space.


Some people have a rule: when one new thing comes into the house, they get rid of two.  My methods are less regimented, but nevertheless pretty relentless. So what does this constant decluttering look like at our place?

  • Keeping a give-away box in the basement and scheduling a free charity pick-up every two months or so
  • Giving away children’s books that I hate to read, even if I bought them or someone gave them to me
  • Not “checking” email until I am ready to take action on them (I always struggle with this one, because, well, Tim Ferriss calls the inbox the “cocaine-pellet dispenser”)
  • Trying to delete half as many photos as I take
  • Occasionally going through the house with a black trash bag and surreptitiously depositing toys and stuffed animals that haven’t been played with forever (we’ll keep this our little secret)
  • Going to the post office to send packages, returning merchandise to stores, dropping off borrowed stuff to friends

Trying to save money puts me in a dangerous position, ironically, because it is easy to accept too much free stuff, overbuy at thrift stores, or stockpile when things are on sale.  But realizing how much time and mental peace that Stuff costs me (no matter how cheap in dollars) helps keep me in line.

I also keep myself busy so I’m not tempted to fill the void with shopping. I avoid stores when my little begging machines are with me. I fill Christmas stockings with loves notes instead of toys.

But please, oh please, do not open a Target anywhere within mile radius of my house. That might be too much to resist.

What about you — how do you keep the Stuff from taking over? Let me know in the comments.

Share this post:


  • Little Linz March 8, 2015, 3:12 pm

    1000 square feet homes?! Only in the US! Here in the UK 1000 square feet homes are for the affluent! I live in a modest 3bedroom home, the third bedroom is so small a bed wont actually fit in it! The master suite is so small that there is only 1 feet of carpet showing all around the bed. (Good job i’m a midget) what i will say though is this, no matter how much or how little space u have u will always fill it!!! Keep on top of the throwing away/donating and you’ll hardly ever need to do a purge! And finally just so that someone acknowledges the enormous white elephant in the corner of the room, stop buying stuff!! Ive avoides the malls for two months now and surprisingly feel proud of how empty my closet is getting and how full my bank account is!!!

    • Amy March 18, 2015, 1:46 pm

      Hi Little Linz,

      Your small home sounds really charming. I love how in Europe people live in smaller spaces, but they are able to squeeze into vibrant cities and have tons of fun things to do and see within walking distance.

      And you are so right on about not buying stuff. Finding things to do that make us happy and fulfill us is a big help in stopping the cycle of shopping and purging.

      I’m so glad that you are making changes that feel good to you!


  • Lizzie T. May 20, 2013, 9:54 am

    Argh. I used to be really good at this. My motto was “Purge like Stalin!” And I’m still pretty good at it; we are 2 adults and 3yo twins and 3 dogs in a 1000sf house, so one really has to stay on top of the clutter.

    But. Four people and three dogs in a house this small just will not be practical over the long haul (particularly since my husband is 6’2″ and our boy shows every sign of surpassing that one day), so we are moving to a much bigger house in a much cheaper part of the country. I purged a boatload of things while clearing out to show the house, but there is still just so. much. stuff. And it’s not stuff I necessarily want to get rid of, because very little of it is cheap tat from Target: the 1840s tablecloth that used to belong to the Cabot family in Boston; my grandmother’s linen luncheon napkins (those we actually do use); the old blue glass canning jars.

    “Now that I am no longer lonely, and my kids fill our house with noise, action, toys, papers, crafts, and clothes, I long for a different aesthetic.”

    Yes. A lot of me still loves the old English country house look (lots of books, lots of paintings, threadbare rugs, wellies left on the floor, dogs on the couch), but I just want it to look less cluttered. I’ve got enough going on in my life right now that having some visual calm at home is sort of crucial. I guess we’ll move all our remaining stuff into the new house in a couple of months and see where we stand. It is quite likely that we will have ended up moving some of it to no purpose, but oh well.

  • Julie May 4, 2013, 11:58 pm

    I’ve found that living in a small house forces me to keep on top of clutter and curb the urge to splurge. Our two bedroom house is 1,000 square feet and with three of us living in it, there is simply no room left for Stuff. I frequently do sweeps and if I haven’t used something recently, send it off to Goodwill, sell it on eBay or drop it off at a local consignment shop.

    I also recently discovered a book, Your Money or Your Life, that encourages readers to align their spending habits with their values. While I’m still reading the book, I love the idea of taking a look at expenses each month and seeing what fits with my goals and what doesn’t. The idea? To eventually get rid of the latter. The result? A cleaner conscious and a cleaner house.

    By the way, your site’s redesign looks great!


    • Amy May 5, 2013, 8:26 am

      Hi Julie,

      I totally see the logic in how a small house keeps life more streamlined. We often think we need more space, but then the space just becomes a place to accumulate more stuff. And so often, it’s stuff we rarely use.

      I love that book Your Money or Your Life. I’m so glad you have discovered it!

      Take care,

  • Joan April 29, 2013, 9:27 am

    Always nice to read your tips.

    My tip would be to put items on Craigslist- even that old mattresses, drapes… people have camps and are always looking for these items. Also, don’t forget the homeless shelters… that need your old sheets, towels. Some of the shelters really have just about nothing to speak of. Our old items are their needs.

    • Amy April 29, 2013, 9:41 am

      Hi Joan,

      Good point about homeless shelters. It’s nice to have a connection to one through a school or other organization — otherwise, it’s hard to know what they need and how to donate. I’m so glad our school supports a soup kitchen and organizes a monthly lasagna dinner. Makes helping out so much easier when someone else takes over the liaisoning.


    • Shirley April 29, 2013, 12:46 pm


      I just sold 2 things on Craigs list this week and gave away other things and now we can do yoga in our garage and actually see the floor! They know me at the Salvation Army drop off:) I agree that other people can benefit from our long term storage. I especially like the idea of going through old college paperwork – after 15 years why is it still in my attic!

  • Melissa April 29, 2013, 9:13 am

    Have you read ‘throw away 50 things?’ Just got it at the library and it inspired me to throw out soooo much stuff. Including some outdated definitions of myself too!

    • Amy April 29, 2013, 9:39 am

      Sounds like a great book, Melissa. It’s funny how redefining oneself is not actually as painful as it seems at first.

      Take care,

  • Shirley April 29, 2013, 1:24 am

    I have slowly been de-cluttering over the years, its helps to have a small house as you can’t put too much of anything anywhere! Of course with little ones, things do accumulate quickly. One way that keeps junk mail from traveling past the front entry is keeping a trash/recycle can right next to my main slot – approx 95% of what comes through ends up there and I am constantly emptying it! You have to sift through and trash it the minute you check mail. It keeps those endless grocery store ads and everything else that I don’t need to clutter my counters, tables and then take more of my time to sift through. My next step is to make cute little mail holders nearby for my family members for actual mail so these things also don’t clutter. I also open the letters/bills and throw away the envelope, and all the other useless papers stuffed inside and usually just throw away any bills once I have looked them over (scribbling over important info if needed) – slowly trying to everything online but thats still on my to do list ….a great resource has been a book called “Simplicity Parenting” by Kim John Payne who gives great ways of decluttering and simplifying which in turn can make a dramatic difference in the lives of our children and our family. Thanks for all of your tips Amy!

    • Amy April 29, 2013, 9:39 am

      Hi Shirley,

      Thanks for sharing your tips about keeping the paper clutter down, particularly as it has to do with mail. Even in the electronic age, we still get so much mail!

      I’ve heard lots of good things about Simplicity Parenting.

      Take care,

  • trish barron February 26, 2013, 1:31 pm

    hi, amy. i read nadia’s post and had to comment. when i was little ,55 plus yrs ago, kids only got gifts at birthdays and christmas. maybe a stuffed rabbit in our basket at easter. my grandkids get stuff all the time. any holiday is an excuse for toys, in amounts like christmas time. but you know, it’s not just mine, it’s anybody’s nowadays. how can we teach our kids to value anything when we have so much it’s just easier to toss then curb the urge to buy? well, i’m going to climb off my soap box now and toss it. cleaning awaits. keep purging.

  • Nadia February 18, 2013, 9:56 am

    Mom often complain that today’s children are too many different toys: they are full of all the existing boxes and closets. As we approach the holidays, when parents go to choose a baby gift, a real nightmare begins: “What to buy?” The most unpleasant sensation that frequently visits with mothers and fathers, it is thought that another baby toy will only moments of joy, and then will safely stacked in a chest of drawers, as well as all the preceding her things. What about the parents? Do we have to stop buying toys for our children before school?

  • trish barron February 7, 2013, 7:07 pm

    hello, i hope this goes through, i’m new to all this. when my husband lost his business, we basically went into survival mode. pay only bills and grocery shop,buy only necessities. i loved to antique and junk shop and all that stopped. we are slowly getting back on our feet but with a new outlook. i don’t recreational shop. also, i am getting older and cleaning all those knicknacs is not that fulfilling. i keep only the clothes i can fit in half a walk in closet, husband gets other half. we share a four drawer dresser. i read on one of these tip site to throw 10 things away a day, not good stuff per say, but go through drawers ,start small. it gets to be a habit and can be addictive. (wonder why) that’s what got me in trouble, to start with. i give stuff away all the time. i actually used to think my stuff would miss me . it doesn’t.

    • Amy February 13, 2013, 2:13 pm

      Hi Trish,

      I totally hear you. I have come to putting away knick-knacks in boxes in the garage and not buying anymore. It’s a cleaning and a clutter issue. My husband and I also share a closet, and really, it’s a enough space. I just went through the closet again and gave away a lot of it.

      It sounds like you are doing great with not only decluttering, but curbing the impulses that got you there in the first place.

      Great job,

  • fan in the 22301 January 18, 2013, 7:10 am, the charities come to you for pick up. Makes donating and downsizing much easier.

    • Amy February 3, 2013, 3:15 pm

      Hey there,

      Thanks for the tip! I had never heard of, where you can schedule a donation pickup that benefits multiple charities.

      Great to know,

  • Elle - SeeMomWork January 12, 2013, 6:49 pm

    I am not one to throw things out. I think “I might need it”. I’m not going to buy a bigger house and our cabinets aren’t going to get any bigger. I also refuse to buy any more storage bins, so I am forced with the reality of having to throw things out. But instead of solving the problem, I’m working on what to write for my next blog post… priorities.

    I need an “Alice” from Brady Bunch at my house. Help!
    Elle –
    All work and no play makes mommy a dull chick.

    • Amy January 15, 2013, 9:36 pm

      Hi Elle,

      I know, being frugal it’s easy to save things for someday, to avoid having to rebuy. I have found, though, that this hardly ever happens.

      I’d love an Alice too!


  • Daisy January 12, 2013, 12:34 am

    I’m getting rid of lots of stuff at the moment. I have been absolutely ruthless! I did have a moment where I thought I had given away something I might use. I think that is something that people fear, but it really isn’t the end of the world.

    • Amy January 15, 2013, 9:37 pm

      Hi Daisy,

      I so agree — it’s not the end of the world. I can usually re-find those things for really cheap at rummage sales or thrift stores, so it’s not a big loss.

      Good for you for being so ruthless!


  • Sara Tetreault January 11, 2013, 6:14 pm

    Amy, my husband often says that if I worked for the Smithsonian, we’d all be in trouble because I would have gotten rid of everything! That’s only partly true…;)
    People often give me their items as well. They know I’ll accept them because I like “free” and will re-purpose just about anything but I also think that it’s hard for folks to get rid of things. They’d rather give things away to someone they know instead of strangers.
    I do like shopping at Goodwill and other second-hand stores because I make myself bring items to donate before I buy something “new” for our family or the house.
    We also got off of all catalog lists and I quit getting magazines filled with pretty homes. Looking at catalogs and magazines made my home look “ratty-tatty” instead of homey and comfortable.
    Good reminders, Amy, thank you.

    • Amy January 15, 2013, 9:39 pm

      Hi Sara,

      I like your practice of taking something to Goodwill every time you shop there. Also, I think I’m going to do the same with home magazines. I thought I would get inspiration, but I can’t learn interior design from looking at images, and I certainly can’t afford 99% of the things they feature.

      Thanks for the reminders,

  • Emily January 11, 2013, 4:11 pm

    The couple who podcast at have put a challenge to get rid of 2013 things in 2013. I’m ahead of the game; think I did that last spring. ;)

    • Amy January 15, 2013, 9:39 pm

      Thanks Emily for the tip!


  • Isra {TheFrugalette} January 11, 2013, 10:39 am

    I hate clutter so much and it’s very easy for me to get rid of things, because really they are just things that can be replaced! I spend 15 min. everyday, focusing one part of one room. I have 3 bags, trash/donate/put away. I actually put a timer on and it helps to keep me going super fast and motivated, inevitable the trash bag is always more full than the donate and put has really helped and the kids even do it with me too. :)

    • Amy January 15, 2013, 9:40 pm

      Hi Isra,

      I love your ideas for getting rid of stuff. I’m impressed with your discipline! 15 minutes every day is a great way to get anything overwhelming done, but I don’t often stick with the “every” part of it. You are inspiring.


  • Lynn Carden January 10, 2013, 3:29 pm

    A great post, Amy. I think photos have become a problem for lots of us, because we tend to take so many these days. No film to buy! So here’s a comment about culling pictures. After I’ve dumped all the misfires, I further edit by asking : 1) does it tell the story? 2) is it well composed? and is it different from all the rest. Hope this helps.


    • Amy January 10, 2013, 9:11 pm

      This does help! Because there can be five excellent photos of the same scene. I guess you just pick one, and let that one tell the story. Then move onto the next scene. It’s still difficult, but a few rules like yours, definitely help make those decisions.

      Thank you,

  • Alison @ L is for Latte January 10, 2013, 12:07 pm

    “We live in an age of cheap mass-produced goods, and it’s just easier for most of us to buy stuff instead of borrowing, exchanging, and doing without, as they did in the old days.” Yep. It’s almost always 10,000 times easier and faster to just order something on Amazon than try to find something among friends and neighbors–and then attempt to find a mutually agreeable time to pick up the item.

    But the low cost of things is also a huge part of it. I will never forget the Christmas several years ago where I made mittens, hats, and scarves for friends and family. All of a sudden I knew why the Ingalls girls of Little House on the Prairie received only a few presents at Christmas–because making those gifts takes tremendous amounts of time.

    • Amy January 10, 2013, 9:09 pm

      Totally agree, Alison. Cheap and easy is why we struggle with clutter. Is that where the word “cheesy” came from?

      I think it’s so sweet that you knitted gifts for friends and family, but can totally understand how it got overwhelming. I keep trying to limit the amount of gifts we give each year. Try to avoid exchanging with friends, and only with close family, which helps a lot.

      We love the Little House on the Prairie books, and their way of life has also become a reference point for me.

      Take care,

  • Kris Deutschle January 10, 2013, 10:20 am

    I am guilty of bordering on hoarding. It makes my skin crawl when I throw away one piece of a toy, only to find the rest of it later. The same goes for craft projects, broken things, and sentimental items. I think to myself, “one day I’ll do a, b, or c with this thing.” I’m guilty of having banker boxes in the basement and in my children’s closet (one each) that house bits and pieces of things. I go through them when they get full and reunite things or toss them because their missing pieces haven’t been found. (I never EVER do this with a child’s help. Tears ensue.)

    I’ve also learned to circulate toys. I have bins in the basement of Little People, cars & trucks, dolls, and games. When my kids start jumping on the couch instead of looking through the toy boxes, I know it’s time to change up the toys.

    However, my major problem right now is with responsibility. My kids displace their belongings constantly. My youngest child is a toddler and often displaces his older siblings’ things even more than they do. They dote on him and let it happen. I’m a big believer now in the saying, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” I have worked very hard to minimize our stuff and provide organizational materials (hooks, bins, baskets, drawers, etc) so that everything can have a place. What I have yet to do is create a system for putting things back in place. I’m trying the tactic of placing “crap baskets” on the stairs- each kid has a basket and has to empty it in their rooms when it gets full. (It’s up to them if they just dump it into a toy box or if they put it away nicely.) I also have a bin for Legos on my counter. I rescue them from the vacuum cleaner and from certain death under our counters. The idea is that my son will empty the bin into his larger Lego box when it gets full.

    Like every new rule, my kids are resisting but I know I need to teach them these skills or they will suffer clutter-stress as adults as well!

    • Amy January 10, 2013, 9:05 pm

      Hi Kris,

      You say you border on hoarding, but from what you describe, you sound like an extremely organized and methodical person. I’m impressed how conscientious you are about keeping toy parts together, and about rotating toys when kids get tired of them.

      I agree that it is sad to give something away when it’s not complete, like a puzzle or a stamp set, because the chances are good that it will never get used again. I hate it too, when I find the missing pieces after the toy has already been shipped out, because it seems like a waste.

      Your stair baskets are a great idea. We have our older kids straighten up the living room and their bedroom before going to school, and that helps with some of the clutter.

      Thank you for writing in,

  • Candy Lyons January 10, 2013, 8:46 am

    Hi, Amy. You must have been reading my mind when you posted this. My New Year’s resolution is to purge the house of the stuff we no longer use or need or want. Jonathan has a hard time throwing things out, but I can be merciless. The only thing that I find — and can’t figure out — is that for everything I throw away, another thing appears out of nowhere!

    Hope you are having a good New Year!


    • Amy January 10, 2013, 8:57 pm

      Hi Candy,

      I think the desire for a fresh start is in the air at this time of year. It’s hard when one spouse is not as willing to let go, which is often the case, I find. And that dang law of nature: one things leaves and another takes its place. But we can still fight the good fight!


  • Melissa January 10, 2013, 6:18 am

    I am guilty of sneaking into my son’s room with a bag when he’s at school to rid his bins of plastic junk from Chuckey Cheese when he was 4!!! He is a pack rat – I bet I’d be showing him a good example to ask him if he really needs something he hasn’t played with and could share it with a less fortunate child – but I know he will say oh no mom, I’m still going to use it… and so I sneak…

    I LOVE getting rid of things too. Very purifying. My sister believes in zero growth – for everything new that comes in, something old has to go…

    • Amy January 10, 2013, 8:54 pm

      Hi Melissa,

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who does the secretive bag trick!

      Your sister is impressive. I don’t know if I could be that disciplined every day, so I salute her.


  • Julie January 9, 2013, 11:53 pm

    Like you, Amy, I realize that I will be purging stuff out of my house for my entire life–and that makes it pretty bearable! It’s just something I do, like the laundry and dishes.

    I find that rotating the toys (keeping a big bag of stuffed animals and a couple of crates of toys in the closet, then bringing those out and putting away a new batch every few months), and also staying the #@!! away from stores in general, helps the most to keep things fresh, relatively uncluttered, and interesting in my child’s room.

    I find that keeping a paper recycling bin in the living room helps a lot, too.

    Now if only someone could show me how to get my husband not to want to keep every last kitchen gadget…

    • Amy January 10, 2013, 8:53 pm

      Hi Julie,

      I really like how you put it: decluttering is not a once-in-a-while thing; it’s a daily or weekly chore like laundry or dishes. Takes some of the mystique out of it and transforms it into something you just “get done.”

      Thank you,

  • j January 9, 2013, 10:38 pm

    Thank you for saying all of this out loud! I have been a clutter-er for all of my adult life. I recently visited 2 of my friends house and saw how orginized their houses were. It made me sad. I want. My house to look nice and orginized as theirs is. I have one 4 year old girl with WAY too may toys (mostly bought by me. Love thrift & consigemt stores and sales!!) I too have began to clean out the wonderful treasures I have collected along the way. I start to get to cleaning, & then I get overwhelmed. I have. Learned to take 15 mins to clean every hour or so. It keeps me sane. I’m not like the people on Horders. Thought when I watched it. I don’t feel so bad about my house. I’m afraid I will never have a BetterHomes and garden house, but it will be sort of cleaned up. Thanks for this! I’m glad I’m not the only person who feels like this!! Your awesome!!

    • Amy January 10, 2013, 8:51 pm

      Hi J,

      You are definitely not alone! I think your strategy of cleaning 15 mins at a time is a great one. I have been using that to get myself to tackle projects that I avoid. Usually it’s because they seem too big and overwhelming, but 15 minutes is totally doable.

      All the best,

  • Nancy Shohet West January 9, 2013, 9:02 pm

    When the kids are absent, I go through their bedrooms and playroom picking up all the toys and stuffed animals that I don’t think they care about anymore and putting them in a black trash bag. Then I stick a label on the trash bag with the date and put it in a corner of the garage. If after six months, no one has asked for anything in the trash bag, it goes to Goodwill. (And you know what? No one has EVER asked for anything in the trash bag! But this way I don’t panic that I’ve given away something precious!)

    • Amy January 10, 2013, 8:49 pm

      Hi Nancy,

      I like your organized method, and how it prevents those panicky moments when you’re sure your kid is going to ask about the toy you just tossed. Great idea.

      Thank you,

  • Javamom January 9, 2013, 11:23 am

    I am challenged with clutter too and wrote about it once or twice, mostly on purging. Post-Xmas is the worst time!

    The bag I started prior to Xmas is still in my bedroom. I still haven’t dropped it off.

    • Amy January 9, 2013, 4:52 pm

      Hey Javamom,

      You make a good point. Even when we are able to decide to give things away, several steps (like dropping off) remain between us and the final result. Do any charities, like Vietnam Vets of America or Purple Hearts, pick up in your neighborhood?

      We get a lot of postcards asking for donations of household goods and clothing. Having them come to me is a huge help.

      Good luck,

      • Vicky E January 29, 2013, 5:52 pm

        Big Brothers and Big Sisters picks up in the Kansas City area.

        • Amy February 3, 2013, 3:03 pm

          Thanks, Vicky. We get regular free pickups here from Vietnam Vets of America and Purple Hearts, among others. It’s really a great service.