10 Things Nobody Tells You About Clutter (and How to Get Rid of It)


It’s January, and chances are high that you’re either in the midst of decluttering or mulling a decluttering project. Here are 10 things to know about clutter (and decluttering) before you whip out the garbage bags.

N.B.: Featured photograph courtesy of Christopher Howe, from A Gloucestershire Barn, by London’s Idiosyncratic Antiquarian Christopher Howe.

1. Clutter impacts your mental well-being.

You probably already know this on a gut level. How many times have you avoided cluttered areas of your home because they give you anxiety? (I myself have an entire floor that I studiously steer clear of.) Now there’s research proving it’s not in your head. According to a New York Times story, studies show that clutter can “induce a physiological response, including increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.” Yet another reason to get organized!

2. Got kids? Go ahead and blame the clutter on them.

Shira Gill Expert Advice Kids Art
Above: Photograph by Vivian Johnson Photography for Shira Gill Home, from Expert Advice: How to Stay Organized and Sane, Back-to-School Edition.

According to the University of California’s docu-series, A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance, the U.S. has 3.1 percent of the world’s children, but consumes 40 percent of the world’s toys. Yikes! Need help figuring out which toys to keep? Be sure to check out The Minimalist: The Only 10 Toys You’ll Need for Baby and The Minimalist: The Only 10 Toys You’ll Need for Toddlers.

3. Your wardrobe is also to blame.

In 1930, American women owned an average of 36 pieces of clothing. Today, says Cladwell, a company that helps clients create capsule wardrobes, the average woman owns 120 items yet wears only 20 percent of them. Suffice to say, you can probably trim down your wardrobe with no problem. See Your Weekend Project: Edit Your Wardrobe to Just 10 Essential Pieces.

4. You may have clutter you’re not even aware of.

The average size of American homes has nearly doubled since 1973, from an average of 1,660 square feet in 1973 (the earliest year available from the Census Bureau) to 2,687 square feet in 2015. And with this increase comes a compulsion to fill it up with stuff, much of it unnecessary. So even if you think your home is tidy, take a closer look; you likely still have a lot that you can get rid of. Read 7 Things You Can Live Without in a Small Apartment, from Someone Who’s Been There for helpful advice on living with less.

5. Storage units are often a waste of money.

 Photograph by Carmella Rayone McCafferty, from Your Weekend Project: A 7-Step Plan to Clutter-Free Living.
Above: Photograph by Carmella Rayone McCafferty, from Your Weekend Project: A 7-Step Plan to Clutter-Free Living.

It sounds like an easy fix: Remove items you’re not sure of or don’t need right away and put them in a storage unit. According to the Self Storage Association, 1 in 10 of us choose this option to store our overflow off-site. Thing is, it’s a costly choice. The average rent of a storage unit is about $91, which means that putting things in storage could cost you upwards of $1,000 a year (and much more if you live in high-cost cities like New York or Los Angeles). More often than not, what you spend on renting a storage unit is pricier than what it would cost to replace the items you’re storing.

6. There’s prep work before you pare down.

It may be tempting to embark on a spontaneous purge session, especially if you’ve binge-watched Tidying Up With Marie Kondo (see our review of the Netflix show here), but you’ll have a better chance of succeeding if you take time to lay the groundwork for decluttering. To do it right, professional organizers Cary Telander Fortin and Kyle Louise Quilici suggest that you set a date, collect the cleaning products you’ll need, make sure laundry and dishes are done, gather all the bags and boxes you’ll need to hold your castoffs, and enlist an assistant (for moral support and second opinions). For more of their prep tips, see Expert Advice: Strategies for Successful Decluttering, from the Authors of ‘New Minimalism’.

7. And there’s work to be done after, too.

Like half the world, I felt compelled to clean house in the New Year. I did great: Our basement has never looked so organized after I forced our kids to finally get rid of unused toys. Problem solved, right? Not quite. All those neglected toys didn’t go very far. They’re currently in the trunk of our car, as I figure out where to donate them. Lesson learned: Have a donation strategy in mind before you declutter.

8. You don’t need to buy organizers.

Junk Drawer in Organized Home Book by Matthew Williams
Above: Featured photograph by Matthew Williams and styling by Alexa Hotz, for Remodelista: The Organized Home. See: Junk Drawer Wisdom: What to Keep, What to Toss, and How to Keep It Organized.

We’re the first ones to encourage buying baskets, bins, and trays to organize your possessions, but when it comes to arranging your drawers, don’t feel as if you have to buy specialized drawer organizers. “People can usually solve their storage problems with things they already have,” Marie Kondo tells us. “In terms of general organizing strategy, I try to reuse whatever is in my home instead of purchasing storage items. My favorite item is empty shoeboxes—hey are sturdy and the perfect size to store anything, not to mention that it’s more environmentally friendly to reuse than to throw them out.” See our interview with her in Think Like Marie Kondo: 9 Tips from the World’s Top Storage Fanatic.

9. Regret happens.

It’s inevitable that you’ll throw or give away something you’ll later wish you still owned. As a helpful guide, here are some items you may wish to think twice about before tossing out: iconic clothing, art by a loved one, bad photos of you (because you’ll have a different perspective 10, 20 years from now and that awkward picture of 25-year-old you won’t look so bad to you when you’re 55). For more decluttering regrets, go here.

10. Decluttering is never-ending.

Done decluttering? Pat yourself on the back, admire the tidy results for a few days, then get back to work. Keeping your home organized isn’t a once-and-done activity. It requires maintenance and mindfulness. Our biggest advice to keep disarray at bay? Reconsider your shopping habits. Buy less and buy better. Pull out your credit card only for quality products that will last, and resist trendy or shoddily made items. For tips, see Happier at Home: 7 Tips for Mindful Shopping.

For more stories on living with less, see:

N.B.: This post is an update; it was first published December 2020.

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