Written by Liza Kaufman Hogan for Next Avenue
I used to be able to put all of my belongings in a 1985 Honda Accord and still see out the back.
Now, I can barely see out of some of the windows of our four-bedroom house. What happened?!
Here’s what happened: Marriage, kids, dogs, hobbies, a reluctance to let things go and years of living in progressively larger apartments where I could stash the stuff without having to look at it.
Now that I’m turning 50, it’s time to take stock and get rid of some stock. On Aug. 1, I decided to take the Next Avenue 30-Day Declutter Challenge, getting rid of one item on Day 1, two on Day 2, and so forth for 30 days.
By the end of the month I will have collected 465 items to give away, throw away or sell on eBay. That’s 465 items that I no longer need at midlife — like toys from when my daughters were six and four, books I have read but don’t need to keep in the age of Kindle and clothes that clearly, and embarrassingly, date back to the 1990s.
Halfway through the challenge, the offering pile in my basement has grown from a single button to an ugly but glorious heap of 120 things.My most satisfying find to pitch so far: a large humidifier from a previous home that was taking up half a closet.
My most inspiring find: the car bike rack tucked behind rows of boxes — I’ll use it this fall.
The most fun I’ve had doing this project: having my 15-year-old daughter set up our old I-can’t-believe-it-still-works video camera to make a funny video.
In many ways, the project has been easier than I thought, maybe because I have way more than 120 things to get rid of and haven’t had to make the hard choices yet.
Breaking the decluttering down into 30 small projects has been easier than trying to do it over a single weekend. The Challenge also makes me think about getting rid of things in categories. Okay, today is going to be the kitchen utensil drawer, tomorrow it’s shoes (though my editor and I do not agree on whether a pair of shoes counts as one or two items. It’s two, right?).
Later this month, I’ll hand shopping bags to my daughters and ask them to collect at least 20 items from their rooms.
My husband has already helped by going through the toolbox and finding way more than than the 12 items he was assigned on August 12. If we counted nails, screws and hinges as separate items, we’d be done. He was more than happy to participate. Raised as the youngest of eight children sharing closets and bedrooms, he is far better at keeping his belongings pared down than I am.
For those of us without built-in clutter discipline, knowing what to lose can be a challenge. So I use the following seven rules to identify what needs to go:
Even following these rules, my inner-clutterer is evil and tries to convince me that I really should keep the things I’ve selected to toss. I will make homemade pasta. We will play Parcheesi on a rainy afternoon. I will refinish that table.
As I pick up things to toss, I hear myself say: “Wait! Maybe this is the missing cord to the coffeemaker that I couldn’t find at Thanksgiving … I could send these old towels to the kennel with the dog next time … My daughter could use these bowls when she goes off to college … What if an adorable, small child visits us and has nothing to play with?”
You can talk yourself out of giving anything away if you think like this. Resist!
Here are five roadblocks I’ve encountered during the challenge and ways I’ve overcome them:
Missing Parts — I have locks without keys and keys without locks, a large basket of mismatched socks and VHS tapes with no video player. I hate to give these things away because they are incomplete.
Solution: As they sing in Frozen, “Let it Go.” You haven’t lost the charging cord to your current phone because you use your phone every day. Missing parts are a sign that you are no longer using or need the thing. As for giving away things that don’t fully work, let the good people at Goodwill or Salvation Army figure it out. If it has value, they’ll find it.
Sentimentality — It seems that I am attached to every fingerpainting, every pasta necklace and every potholder our two daughters ever made for us, even if I am not sure which one made it and when. Some of these things I will carry with me to the nursing home, but do I really need to save them all?
Solution: Every painting your child makes is not a masterpiece worthy of framing or even slapping on the refrigerator. As a more practical friend once told me, most of that art is process — your child learning to work with paint or color or do what her teacher asked. Pick a few drawings that are special, photograph more if you must and put the rest in the recycling bin, repeating the word “process” as you do. It works.
Good Intentions — I have shelves full of photos that I need to put in scrapbooks, recipes I want to try and books I plan to read.
Solution: Be realistic about what you really have time for. Then, paste some of the photos, make some of the recipes and read some of the books. Give the rest away. Just between us: You’re never going to read that 700-page biography of Thomas Jefferson, are you?
Hanging Onto Our Youth, Sadly — Some years ago, my husband and I managed to part with our extensive cassette tape collection. But we still have boxes and boxes of CDs collecting dust. (Hey, some of us really liked Marshall Crenshaw, okay?)
Solution: Go through the CDs and set aside those you actually want to play again. For us, it’s about 60. Keep a small stack near your CD player or in a holder in the car to enjoy. Give the rest away. When you have time, download onto your computer or hard drive the CDs you kept, so you can listen to the music on your MP3 player.
But It’s Valuable — Among the things I’ve bumped into this month: a laptop I no longer use, an American Girl doll in mint condition and a tags-still-on designer purse someone gave me (not noticing that I’m not that fashionable). I can’t just can’t give this stuff away, can I?
Solution: If it’s valuable but not useful to you, sell it on eBay or donate it to Goodwill and add it to your charitable deductions next year. A few years ago, I opened an account with PayPal where I keep proceeds from anything I sell on eBay. It’s a mad money fund I can use for things that might seem like a frivolous purchase otherwise.
Speaking of purchases, buying too much stuff is what got us into this mess in the first place. Though it seems hard to believe that we’ll accumulate another 465 items we don’t need any time soon, all it takes is one too many trips to Target or Ikea and you’re back where you started.
Once all of this stuff is gone, I like to picture all of our belongings — the things we really need and love — neatly packed into that 1985 Honda Accord and our riding away with not a care in the world.
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