Spring Cleaning: “One Year Rule” For Reducing Clutter

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photo: sindesign

I spent most of today going through all our stuff to see what would go in the house. The one negative of having your employer pay for relocation costs is that you are less motivated to fully purge all of your belongings…

As I went through all our things, I wondered – What if we were forced to toss anything that we hadn’t used in one year? Clothes, sports gear, electronics, books, magazines, trinkets. Either sell, donate, freecycle, or throw it away. Critical things like birth certificates or anything that would fit on a hard drive would be exempt. Imagine what your home would look like if you did this…

I don’t know if I could pull off that “One Year Rule”, so instead I made up an alternate one for myself: Once every May I will unpack every single item in storage, consciously make the decision to keep it, and inventory it. Theoretically this would be for insurance records in case of loss, but realistically I am hoping this actual process of having to go through 10 boxes of stuff annually will make me less sentimental about things like my old textbooks.

A few years I ago banned all travel souvenirs except for photos and one postcard from each place I visit – instead of those odds and ends I used to keep accumulating – and it’s been very liberating.

Forget carbon footprint… What kind of tips or tricks do you have for convincing yourself to reduce your stuff imprint?

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  1. Charlie says

    Turn it into a financial decision. Craigslist is great for getting rid of old stuff.

  2. I built a lot of shelving! Honestly, it’s a good idea that I used to do all the time. As far as knick knacks, well, it’s not big deal. But I could swear that anything remotely useful that I had not needed in 3 years would come in handy the week after it met its demise!

  3. With me, it always comes down to books. It’s hard to get rid of them when they’ll last so nicely until I may want to read them next year. Somehow I forget that I work at a library. Perhaps I should get rid of the easily available ones…

  4. Jon Matthias says

    Excellent advice Jon – I’ve been doing the same thing for the last two years. You’ll find that after year 2 you won’t have anything left in storage to go through!

    Here’s an idea I got form Unclutterer – anything you have in storage that has sentimental value (and don’t decide to display in your home), take a high quality picture of it and then give it away (or sell it, if it is valuable). 99 times out of 100 looking at the picture will be as good as holding it in your hands.

  5. @Mrs. Micah: It is usually books for me too. I am pretty ruthless about giving away books I don’t think I’ll read again, and I try to not buy books I think I’ll read only once. I must know myself pretty well, because in all the years, I’ve only given away one set of fantasy novels that I wanted to read again later. Nearly everything else on my shelves has been read multiple times.

  6. I’m gonna go w/ Justin on this one.

    But I could swear that anything remotely useful that I had not needed in 3 years would come in handy the week after it met its demise!

    Though I’m not much of a packrat, I do have my share of crap I really don’t need either…………but then…….. all else be damned……… as soon as I friggin’ throw that (enter crap item here) away……… that very next weekend I end up NEEDING the damn thing!!!



  7. I hear you on the old textbooks 🙂 I’ve got a couple boxes full of them sitting underneath the stairs.

    My wife and I have found that donating most items works for us. Selling every single thing is a huge pain. We’ll sell larger ticket items, but most things like books or clothes go in the goodwill bin. The time it takes to sell (or even freecycle) all those small ticket items isn’t worth it to us.

  8. Move onto a 35 to 40 foot SAILBOAT and see how much stuff you get rid of. YES it is liberating to NOT have stuff. Give it all away or Ebay it or CraigList it and free yourself…

  9. I encourage any college students reading your blog to sell their textbooks at the end of the semester or at the end of their matriculation. You probably won’t use those books again and they just end up taking up space.

  10. I’ve got most of my music and books on amazon and half, but its slow and a bit of a hassle for the few bucks here and there…But at this point I need that money and so it is worth it to me. Those that I cannot sell I will donate when we have to move. Push comes to shove. I’ve also noticed a trend of collecting used books I think will go for money online, alas, the pile never really shrinks…
    I’ve started to get rid of more books that I are worthlittle and I can get cheaply at a later point if I so desire, or free at library or ebook. Of course I’ve never been one to reread many books.

  11. I’ve heard that rule before and I think it’s smart… I tend to be a packrat too and you really have to do something to counteract that tendency. 🙂

  12. FeedTheFam_Gretchen says

    I always throw stuff away if it hasn’t been used in a while. My husband keeps everything “just in case.” I have to admit that there have been several times when I have thrown something away and then needed it again. Let’s just say he doesn’t let that go easily!

    I am still kicking myself over telling him to throw away his crock-pot when he moved in with me. I think I said something like, “no one uses a crock-pot anymore that is so uncool”! Now I’d love to have one. 🙂

  13. Great idea. I think the whole packrat thing is definitely culturally influenced. Older generations associate having lots of stuff as being wealthy.

  14. I throw away the “stuff” and keep the things that can be categorized as memories—mainly pictures. My bookshelf only has about 10 books on it, as I’ve found that the ones I want to keep and read again usually never get touched.

  15. When I am having trouble getting rid of things, I remind myself that I don’t want to let “things” own me instead of the other way around. The following excerpt from a poem by Emersom sums it up perfectly:

    The horseman serves the horse,
    The neat-herd serves the neat,
    The merchant serves the purse,
    The eater serves his meat;
    ‘Tis the day of the chattel,
    Web to weave, and corn to grind,
    Things are in the saddle,
    And ride mankind.

    There are two laws discrete
    Not reconciled,
    Law for man, and law for thing;
    The last builds town and fleet,
    But it runs wild,
    And doth the man unking.

    (Complete version available here: http://www.emersoncentral.com/poems/ode_inscribed_to_william_h_channing.htm)

  16. it’s one of my favorite issues. part of the reason i recently moved (two miles) is to shed stuff. the larger something is, the more it has to matter. and no storage. capacity is a stuff invitation. i also store things in transparent bins or milk crates so i can see everything. i’m always throwing something out. there’s always a box by the door with stuff i want to relocate. maybe i put it in a FREE box on the street, or maybe i cave in and take it back, but the pressure to push more stuff out is always there. i’m getting to the point where the bigger stuff i have has value, like a printer i don’t use (until the day comes when i need a printer), or an antique wall projector. (it’s just neato.) being light is not hard and it makes life more enjoyable. i was able to move and save on rent because i have so little stuff. next i am considering relocating a longer distance, and that’s made much easier by my ever-lightening overhead.

    you’re right about stuff on a hard drive. but let me take it a step further: if it’s scanned onto a hard drive, encrypted, and stored off-site, then quite a few official documents may not need a physical manifestation. but what if it’s not encyrypted and stored off-site? then you’re just foolish.

  17. I’ve had ‘swap’ parties in the past. I’m guilty of buying beauty products that are expensive sometimes, then they don’t work or I don’t like them. You feel guilty and you end up keeping them! What for? So, we swap them. You get to try new products without buying new ones, then we donate the leftovers to a teacher at one of the schools.
    Same thing works for books, clothes, etc. Swap it, then donate or sell the leftovers. Yard sales are kind of a pain. Craigslist is the way to go! I have never not gotten rid of something on craigslist. Even a bunch of rocks from our back yard and leftover toilets from remodeling!

  18. Whenever *anything* goes into storage, we put a date on the side of it. If that date is more than six months old, then it goes into the yard sale. The lone exception to this is baby stuff, since we’re quite confident we’re going to have another child.

  19. Text books: half.com
    It doesn’t cost anything to list so you can put them on there without any financial burden to yourself (vice eBay).

    Other books: your local library
    Anything you think you’re ready to do without (for me that’s anything I’ve already read) you can give to the library. They’re almost always happy to take anything you’re willing to give and most will also give you some sort of receipt for deduction purposes if that will help you.

    Small desks
    I purposely bought a tiny desk for my room. It has room for my Macbook, two speakers and the printer and that’s about it. I think it’s technically and entrance hall table, designed to throw a lamp and keys on.
    The “small desk” principle — specifically limiting the amount of space you have — has worked wonders for me. The more space I have the more reasons I find to fill it up. Limited space leads to limited stuff.

  20. Nerdy Jen says

    I can relate to this post. I’m cleaning up my apartment, and it’s tough deciding what to keep and what to toss.

    Your “How Long Should I Keep Records?” post helped. Having a recycling center and a Goodwill close to where I live helped, too.

    Right now, any fiction book that I can get from the library or Sony’s eBook store goes to either Goodwill or a friend. That leaves me with a lot of nonfiction books, though.

    I might try Craigslist to get rid of some items.

  21. I highly recommend Julie Morgenstern’s book “Organizing from the Inside Out” which I have yet to put into practice but her approach is very liberating and doesn’t use guilt to force you to get rid of stuff. This topic is a good reminder b/c today is the first day of my ‘spring’ cleaning. I just hope I don’t run out of steam.

  22. Mark Forstneger says

    Nothing helps clean out clutter like downsizing from a one-bedroom apartment to a one-room studio!

    When it comes to souvenirs, I go for refrigerator magnets over kitschy tchochkes. They take up less room in my luggage, I can see them every day, and they serve a useful function.

  23. The flylady says you should throw out 27 things a day, until your clutter is gone. She has a website, but also wrote a book — which I never finished. Even worse now, the book is one of those pieces of valuable clutter that is shoved in the middle of an overcrowded shelf of junk. I think I’ll get back to that 27 thing toss she recommended. Some days, it’s junk in my livingroom, sometimes clothes in my dresser or storage bins. It really does feel great getting rid of stuff.

  24. sfordinarygirl says

    I read Jean Chatzky’s book and less stuff means more time devoted to other important financial tasks. My roommate moved out and I got rid of all this extra clutter in the kitchen including the sometimes toaster oven. That means in the mornings I’m not going to waste time trying to toast bread or warm something without a functioning knob. I sold a bunch of books and magazines on ebay – I can sell the magazine rack holder I was using for that. Instead of worrying about how to get the toaster to work in the morning or maintaining other stuff, I can spend more time doing things I enjoy like running or walking around the city.

  25. A past co-worker of mine used to put a piece of neon tape on every piece of clothing he owned one day of the year. He’d take the tape off of anything he wore. Next year, when Tape Day came around anything with tape already on it got donated to charity.

  26. Just a mandatory link:
    has a ton of relevant information for those who want to “clean up”.

  27. One of the benefits of living in a city like Chicago that has a superb public library is that one can go through one’s book collection and cull everything that is available at the library, and sell all the personal copies. Just knowing I can always find that book again for free at the library is motivating. I hope I can do this soon.

    And of course the thought also comes to mind that I could offer to donate some of the ones that aren’t in the library yet but should be.

  28. starbucksgirl says

    Live in a smaller house; this forces you to get rid of unnecessary items. Very liberating.

  29. Currently, my husband and I are going through our annual “Slash and Burn”. That’s where we go through every item in our house and decide if we keep it or not. We try to use the 1 year rule, but there are some items of sentimental value or that we just love, that we continue to hold on to that have no obvious use. But over the years we have even cut down on that by taking pictures of those items that just take up closet space.
    It is always a liberating feeling to keep our house clutter free.

  30. Clare Welker says

    We are paperless and that’s good up to a point: You still have to have hard copy original birth certifcates, marriage papers and the like. That iuncludes insurance contracts adnd estate documents too!

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