5 Reasons You Keep Clutter in Your Home (and in Your Life)

Man working in home office by bikes and books piled by doorway
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You have clutter. Even when you have the best of intentions to get rid of clutter, sometimes you just can't hep it. Have you ever found yourself putting something in a box just to "get it out of the way" because you don't want to deal with the contents?

In these cases, storing and labeling are really just moving the underlying problem -- not wanting to deal with your stuff -- to another space in your home. That's not good.

But not to worry, because you're not alone:

  • A recent survey by Sparefoot found that 51% of respondents describe their home as cluttered.
  • Of these same respondents, 91% have kept an item because they felt guilty getting rid of it
  • And 90% admit they’d get rid of some of their significant others possessions if they knew there wouldn’t be consequences. 
  • In a survey commissioned by California Closets, only 7% of respondents characterized their homes as 'highly organized.' 

So if you have a hard time decluttering, you're in good company. Most of your neighbors and friends are in the same boat. 

But fear not, because keeping clutter also doesn't make you next in line to be cast on Hoarders. "Very few people are truly hoarders," says Ginny Snook Scott, California Closet's Chief Organizing Officer.

"That whole premise of being a hoarder -- of someone who just can't let go of anything -- is a very small percentage of the population."

Even if you have things arranged neatly in a jar, basket, bin or cubby, folded in a closet or tucked inside a drawer, it might still be considered clutter. How to tell if you've got clutter on your hands? You can use my guide: What Is Clutter?

So let's take some time to dig a bit deeper and figure out why the clutter is in your home and life in the first place. Most likely, we're not purging extra stuff because we fall into one of the following clutter categories:

1. You Like Freebies

Are you the type who can't resist a bargain? Do your ears perk up when you hear something you're casually looking at with no intention to buy is free? We all love a bargain, and once we’ve scored one, we think getting rid of the item is going to take away the glory of finding the bargain. Here’s how to thwart the urge to hold onto things we got a deal on but no longer want, need or love: 

It is easy to justify this type of clutter collecting because, on the surface, it looks like it makes financial sense. "Hello! it's free!" you may be saying, but anything in your home is not truly free, it's taking up storage space and crowding out other items you might actually use. Think of it this way: anything in your home should be earning its keep in rent, and if you're not using it, or displaying it, it's running in the red.

California Closets Ginny Snook Scott recommends you approach sale items with this question: "Would I buy this anyway?" If the answer is no, then it's really not a deal, even if it's free. A good deal is only good if you're going to get heavy use or heavy enjoyment out of something on a regular basis.

How to Tell if You Keep Bargain Clutter

  • Do you regularly accept "free gift with purchase deals" like makeup bags from the Clinique counter without inspecting the contents beforehand?
  •  you automatically bring home the small bottles of shampoo, conditioner and shower gel from your hotel stay?
  • Upon leaving a store, are more than half the items you purchased things that were not on your shopping list when you entered the store?

Stocking up and taking advantage of good deals is a basic human instinct that probably dates back to our early days when food was scarce and procuring it meant fighting a wild animal. In other words, this one may be deeply embedded in our DNA.

Steps to Get Rid of Bargain Clutter

Take Snook Scott's advice and ask yourself if you'd buy this even if it was full-price. If not, it's really not that great of a deal. In most people's experience, they only come across 4-5 items in their lives that they saw on sale and would have paid full-price for, and they were items (a pair of boots, a handbag, a stereo, a vacation, and a pair of jeans) that they had been sale-stalking for a long time. In other words, they had already done the research, tried them on, and was waiting to pounce once a sale hit.

  1. Set some limits for yourself around how, why and when you buy things.
  2. Visualize the word "Spend" instead of "Save" on coupons. If it's .50 cents off something you wouldn't normally buy, then it's not a deal!
  3. Start making and using a shopping list. This is a great plan of attack against 'bargain cluttering' because you'll be forced to admit you're going "rogue" off your shopping list.
  4. Don't use shopping as a form of entertainment. If you're on a diet, you don't go to the bakery, if you're trying to break a clutter habit, don't hit the mall or peruse the tag sales in your neighborhood. Distract yourself with another activity you enjoy.
  5. Think about why you really want something. Are you actually addicted to shopping? Or do you really need that item or piece of clothing?
  6. Wait it out. If you see something in a store and love it, wait it out for 5 days. This is my tired-and-true technique. If I'm still thinking about something 5 days later, I consider it something worth pursuing, then I sale-stalk it online, or I decide to set a go-around purchasing it (if I finish these that super annoying work project by Friday, I'll get it)

2. You Hold Onto Keepsakes and Sentimental Clutter

This is understandable, but there are ways to honor our pasts (and our family’s past) without older items turning into unusable or un-displayable clutter.

Do you have a hard time letting things go? According to California Closets’Ginny Snook Scotty ou're not alone. "The largest percentage of people are actually almost romantic about keeping things. Things are just very meaningful for them."

How to Tell If You Keep Sentimental Clutter

  • Is your wedding dress hanging in your closet and it's been more than a month since your wedding?
  • Do you have boxes of greeting cards and memorabilia in boxes in your basement or garage that you haven’t looked through in over a year?
  • Have you kept more than one or two of your child's baby blankets? Are they in a box somewhere that you haven’t opened in ages?

Confession time: I get a little uneasy when I try to donate or consign something that at one time meant a great deal to me, like a sweatshirt that I wore in high school, or a pair of shoes I wore to a special occasion. It feels almost disrespectful--like I am turning my back on that era of my life. I found a good way to combat this feeling is to select a few tokens, take good care of them, and let the rest go.

Steps to Get Rid of Sentimental Clutter:

  1. Choose to keep 1 or 2 items sentimental or keepsake items. Then, commit to caring for, and storing them properly. This is going to be much more palatable to you than donating or consigning everything, because this way, you're compromising: choosing 1 or 2 items from a collection or an era in your past means you'll have a touchstone to show your children without cluttering up your closet, basement, or attic.
  2. Ensure keepsakes and memorabilia are not crowding out what really belongs in your closet. "Memorabilia does not belong in your closet," says Snook Scott This means creating a space for these items that does not get in the way of your everyday life. Keep sentimental items out of the closet, kitchen and garage. You should not have to hunt and peck your way through old photo albums to find your car’s jumper cables or windshield wiper fluid, just like you should have to move fancy, special event clothing out of the way to get to your work clothes or workout gear.
  3. Store things properly. Move the wedding dress, baby blankets, and childhood keepsakes, into storage containers and then into the basement or attic (away from moisture and heat). Do not keep them mixed in with things you use regularly. If you’re displaying items like old greeting cards and photographs, display them in the living room or bedroom, on the wall or in a glass door cabinet—not in the way of your daily life.

3. You Keep Abundance Clutter

I call this the Abundance Junkie syndrome. I love to have extras around of anything I may need, but there’s a limit to how much our homes can hold. 

There are several phrases that go along with what I am terming abundance clutter:

  • "Stocking up;"
  • "being prepared;" and,
  • "fully stocked;"

These phrases all have very position connotations, and stocking up on household items like food in bulk and bottles and bottles of water is also very comforting. Take a look at this picture and tell me you are not jealous of this full-stocked pantry. This household looks ready to take on the world, a huge dinner party, or a zombie apocalypse.

What's the problem? If no one cooks that food, are they really ahead of the game? If the meat spoils and the humungous bottle of olive oil that is never used, it was really all just a waste of money. Very closely related is aspirational clutter. This is the person whom you have trouble buying a gift for because they seemingly have everything.

There's a fine line between stocking up, and over-abundance.

How to Tell if You Keep Abundance Clutter

  • Do you own a cookbook you've never cooked a recipe from?
  • Do you tend to invest a great deal of money upfront in gear for a new hobby?
  • Are your kitchen cabinets full of appliances you registered for 20 years ago and haven't touched since?
  • Is your coffee table bowing under the weight of your coffee table book collection?
  • Do you have two year's worth of hand soap stacked up in your linen closet crowding out your sheets, towels and tablecloths?

I have a friend, we'll call her Natalie, who decided to take up golf. The first thing she did was not to book a lesson with a pro or plan to do a loop with an experienced golfer friend, what she did was to pull out her credit card, head to a pro shop and buy a very expensive set of golf clubs. She discovered after playing once that she hated golf. Not only was this a huge waste of money, those golf clubs are taking up valuable storage space in her home.

Why do people do this? I think the idea of stocking up is very comforting. Even if you're not a gourmet cook or an expert skier, you can at least lookthe part.

Steps to Get Rid of Abundance Clutter

  1. Get old school and think like your great-great grandparents. This is the easiest type of clutter personality to change if you can get a little old school and start thinking like a tightwad.
  2. Instead of buying that new cookbook, check it out of the library. A library card is basically a passport to tons of entertainment, for both adults and children. It’s the best deal in town.
  3. Rent your skis, golf clubs, or canoe. Thumb through the coffee table book at the bookstore while enjoying a latte. Resist the urge to buy anything related to a hobby until you’ve taken the intro classes or have engaged in the hobby for a good amount of time. Read more about Aspirational Clutter.
  4. Instead of buying the super-size of a new product, purchase the travel size to see if you like it. I do this all the time with beauty products like hair gels and moisturizers, and bonus, small items are (obviously) easier to store.
  5. When buying in bulk, only buy things you know you will use, and make sure you have a proper storage space. When I say “things you know you will use,” I’m talking about staples: toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent. Unless you’re having a party, resist buying perishable items.

You can enjoy these products without bringing them into your home. Commit to a new hobby or product for 3-6 months, then start purchasing the items you need the most.

4. You Buy Aspirational Clutter

This one, on the surface, is tough, because how do you know you’ll never need those half-used batteries, the un-read newspaper or those old receipts? Well, there are actually guidelines to how long to keep things.

I thought long and hard as to what to call this type of clutter and "aspirational" is the best word to describe stacks and piles of things we buy to make us a better version of ourselves. I'm not talking about self-help books, I'm talking about the golf club set you bought before you took a lesson, or the fancy dress that hangs in the closet you've never worn, or the expensive foodstuff sitting in your cabinet that's never been tasted. Think about the items taking up space in your home that you never use, but would like to someday. When is someday?

How to Spot Aspirational Clutter

This is the clutter you accumulate to convince yourself (and others) that you are living the life you want to lead. This is very often not the life you are actually leading, though.

Here is how to spot this type of clutter:

  • Do you have hobbies you've bought a lot of gear for? Do you actively participate in those hobbies?
  • Do you have a ton of fancy clothing you don't wear? 
  • Do you have a large number of books that you have never read?

How to Stop Aspirational Clutter

Once you've learned how to spot this type of clutter, spotting this clutter is one thing, stopping this kind of clutter is emotional. You're going to need to re-learn how to reward yourself. This is very closely tied to abundance clutter. You're buying and keeping stuff around because it makes you feel good and you're using hobbies and aspirations in orde rot justify. Here are some baby steps to take to stop this type of clutter:

  1. Don't spend money on a new hobby until you're actively engaged in it. What does "actively engaged" mean? Here's a good rule of thumb: Conventional wisdom is that it takes three months to form a new habit. Once you're at the 3-month mark, then go ahead and buy yourself the more expensive tennis racket. Until then, make do with your old racket, rent one, or borrow from a friend.
  2. Don't buy a piece of clothing unless you have a place to wear it. Let's say you come across the fantastic blue velvet cocktail dress that fits you perfectly. Now, a blue cocktail dress is great, but has a very narrow wear-ability scope. Do you have a winter wedding coming up? Do you go that dressy for New Years? Don't buy the dress to just hang in your closet. It's a waste of money and valuable closet real estate.
  3. Don't buy a new spice jar unless you have a recipe in mind to use within the next week. Example: I recently read that turmeric is a proven cancer-fighter, so I bought some. Problem is, I hadn't taken the time to research any recipes or uses of turmeric so that bottle of spices sat in my kitchen cabinet for weeks untouched.
  4. Do have a plan. It turns out you can sprinkle turmeric on lots of things I regularly cook -- something I found out after taking about 5 minutes to research it on the web.

Buying the expensive tennis racket will not make you a good tennis player, just owning the dress and never wearing it does not make you a blue-velvet-cocktail-dress-wearer and simply buying the turmeric didn't make me healthier. Don't let new "stuff" cross the threshold of your home unless you're going to actively use that stuff.

5. You Don't Know How to Delcutter

It is daunting! If you have clutter everywhere, which is the most important clutter to get rid of first? Do you dedicate an entire week’s vacation to the task? Do a little bit at a time? Do certain spaces need to be decluttered before others? You’ve got questions, and I got answers on how to start: How to let go of clutter.

In conclusions, in order to ditch the clutter you already know you don't need, you need to start slowly and have a plan. How about beginning the process by joining the 31 Days of Decluttering Challenge? This challenge comes with an accompanying Facebook Group for extra motivation.

Another option is to start with a list of 35 pieces of clutter you can just throw out right now. There's no thought involved in this one, just start tossing.