The United States of Clutter

I hope Aunt Trixie will forgive me for not getting permission to use her photo on my blog, but really she wouldn’t even know what a blog is and it would be too hard to explain. I value her privacy, but I just have to trust that there’s no reason why I should worry about posting this photo of my husband’s 97-year-old aunt coming at us with two slices of fried chocolate pie. That’s about as happy as I’ve ever seen her.

I think the photo is cute, and it’s also a good illustration of how tidy her apartment is, at an age when most people have let their places go to clutter.

While visiting my husband’s family in Alabama and Tennessee, we noticed that a lot of people have A LOT of clutter. After just reading an article about an old man who was buried (and suffocated to death) under stacks of his own lifetime collection of crap, I’ve come to think that the clutter problem is a serious national disease. My 91-year-old grandfather is afflicted with it, and I think when someone has lived in one place for most of their lives they have trouble letting go of things because the STUFF reminds them of people and memories.

But we noticed that clutter littered the homes of many people, old and young. I hope my friends and relatives who read this blog will forgive me for saying this, I’m not trying to embarrass anyone. My point is that this problem affects many people to varying degrees, maybe almost all of us. I have a lot more stuff than I had 10 or 20 years ago, and certainly much more than I can use or need.

Aside from Aunt Trixie and a few other notable exceptions, many people’s homes were cluttered, some of them to a dysfunctional degree. That affects their lives, not just whether or not they can invite guests into their home, but their state of mind every day. Whenever we’re doing a project and things are cluttered, I feel on edge and uneasy. I like to roll with the punches and not let it affect me, and I’m not a neat freak, but I do feel calmer when things are generally neat and in their place.

The result of our “clutter visits” was that my husband and I returned home more determined than ever to continue our decluttering efforts and to get rid of anything we don’t need or use.

My husband gets the award today for clearing off our perpetually cluttered coffee table and putting away all the DVDs that were piled up, ready to be watched. Some of them have been there for months, a few for years. He left out only 5 or 6 that are borrowed, and put the rest away. Our shelves are neat enough to find them when we want to watch them. He even has a print out of all the DVDs we own.

I’m beginning to realize that decluttering is a continuous effort. I haven’t gotten rid of as much as I’d like during my Buy Nothing New year, but the good part is that at least I’m not adding anything new to the stashes of stuff. Anything coming in – via gifts, swag, or freebies – has to be carefully screened before it’s put away so it doesn’t end up being next year’s clutter.

What about you? Is clutter an issue in your life? Please share your favorite decluttering stories and tips in the Comments section.


  1. Cate says

    Clutter isn't an issue in my life anymore, but I used to be a HUGE pack rat (in the family tradition…seems like everyone in my mom's family holds onto anything that enters their house, literally until they die) and have just recently discovered how much all of my stuff (particularly the useless, why-am-I-keeping-this? stuff was holding me prisoner. I've been putting forth a concerted effort to declutter since spring, and I'm almost done! I think our entire house will be decluttered by the end of the year.

  2. Angela says

    Cate- Congratulations! I made it part of my goal for my Buy Nothing New year to declutter the whole house, and unfortunately I think it's going to turn into the major project of next year since I've barely started. I really had no idea how bad it was. On the good side, I'm not bringing in new stuff or clutter anymore. And our most lived-in areas are clutter free: bedroom, bathroom, living room, dining room, and kitchen. But the amount of clutter in my office alone is staggering- it's so hard for me to get rid of and go through magazines and paperwork, partly because I'm a writer. And there's way too much stuff in the basement and garage that we've accumulated since we bought a house.

    Good luck with achieving no clutter by the end of the year! Well done- especially since you've had to overcome the genetic tendency…

  3. Queen Lucia says

    I think one thing that contributes to clutter is the great change in lifestyle in the last few decades. Thanks to the computer (and cheaper goods from overseas) we have way more access now to stuff than we used to – and not just physical objects, but ideas and entertainment, hobby possibilities, etc. Most of these areas require some kind of investment in stuff. The amount of choice that we enjoy in all areas of our lives contributes greatly to clutter, because I think a lot of us have trouble filtering out what we're not "so" interested in, or don't have time for, or can't take care of, etc. This is certainly true for me, and as a confirmed anti-clutter adherant as well as someone who likes a lot of different things and activities, I have to constantly have my filter on. For example, Angela, the DVD clutter your husband cleaned up probably isn't a problem for Aunt Trixie! (and could he come and clean up mine?!?)

    Caveat one – I would never say that too much choice is "bad" but I think it requires stronger priority setting.

    Caveat two – certainly there are pack rats among the Aunt Trixie set, as well as younger people who've grown up with more choices – going through the Great Depression will do that to you! She's adorable by the way, and a real inspiration.

  4. WilderMiss says

    I'm so with you Angela – what is it with us North American's and our clutter? It's all part of the "stuff" addiction that this whole non-consumer movement draws attention to.

    I am a clutter HATER. It makes me feel anxious. Clutter in kitchens especially makes me nuts. How can people function with all that crap on their counters? MM's place drives me nuts because one of his roomies is a big packrat. God, you should see all the unused furniture stockpiled in the garage.

    End rant.

  5. Tam says

    I love this topic. For some reason, I am fascinated with shows like "Clean House" and "Hoarders." I have tried very hard to keep my home clutter free and have to say that I feel so much better now about my house and possessions than I did a few years aog. Even though I have about half of the clothing I used to, I seem to have a lot more to wear! Lately, I've embarked on a project of throwing/recycling/giving away at least one thing a day. I think Amerians just have too much stuff.

  6. annet says

    My decluttering is sporadic. Last year my closet rod collapsed and I got rid of half the clothes in it that I never wear, or used to wear for full-time work but now don't because I'm retired. I now live by the rule "new item in – old item out".

    A couple of weeks ago I had to clear a corner of the basement for the installation of a tankless hot water heater. A number of things went on the boulevard and thence to new homes.

    This week I'm decluttering outdoor stuff because I bought a new, smaller kayak which I absolutely love (and have used every day since I got it home). I advertised the old kayak today and tonight I now have my new kayak tucked away in the storage space formerly occupied by the older kayak. Fall is also rapidly approaching and I'm trying to free up space in the yard shed for the stuff we do use every year. I know I can reuse the poles from old yard shelters, but the material is useless to me — it's going.

    The thing I'm noticing is that though the decluttering is sporadic, the results seem to be permanent in the area worked on.

  7. Beth Dargis says

    That's the main problem with clutter that you mentioned – it just makes people's lives harder and not work as well. And it's so true that you are never finished decluttering – even if you don't buy anything, things still end up in the house. That's why for certain things – clothes, toys, books we have the one in one out rule. For every new piece of say clothing, another piece has to be given away.

  8. Betsy Talbot says

    Decluttering has been my main job the past year as we downsize everything to a couple of backpacks for our trip. Some of the things I run across and think "why in the hell have I been keeping that?" It is actually embarrassing, until you realize that everyone does it.

    My process is getting a little bit better. Instead of deeply decluttering one area, I do it in waves, going deeper each time. I guess it is because we have a departure date a year away so it isn't urgent, though it isn't as far away as it seems.

    For people not running away from home, this could be a good method as well. Not too taxing at one time, though it does mean thinking about it a little bit every day.

    And I'm not perfect – I just brought home some gorgeous costume jewelry from Warren's grandmother. I guess it goes in the one "keep" box that gets shipped to Mom!

  9. Julie says

    Seeing the amount of crap that my parents and my husband's mother have in their homes has inspired us to de-clutter. (Of course, we're also worried that some day the job will fall to US to clean out everything they own, since none of them act in any way to get rid of it.) We've moved 5 times in 14 years (crazy) and are preparing to move for the 6th time coming up soon. Each time, we get rid of more stuff. The hardest parts: getting my husband to let go of his collection of records by The Doors and '90's Seattle bands, and convincing my son (8) that it's okay to donate toys you no longer play with. I have given away a ton of stuff in the last year and even went through my "nostalgia" boxes and files and got rid of old letters from guys I was crushing on 25 years ago and stuff like that. I kept journals and photos and that's about it. But I did throw out most of the high school journals, those were just too sappy and pathetic! And hilarious…

  10. Angela says

    Thanks for all your insightful comments!

    Queen Lucia- I definitely agree that the change of lifestyle has increased the problem. My husband and I live in a small house where the people before us raised a family of 4 kids. People just didn't used to have so much stuff. And you're right- some of it is good, and stuff that adds to our lives, but we need to be constantly on top of it, and honest with ourselves about what stuff we want and need, and what stuff we should let go of… And I'm the same as you, I like things uncluttered, but we both have lots of projects and "hobbies" so there is a lot of stuff around. The key for me is to keep it out of the living area. And you're right about Aunt Trixie- she doesn't have DVDs or a lot of modern "gadgets," so in some ways it's actually easier for her. And yes, isn't she adorable? When she knows you're going to take her picture, she looks grim, almost like a 19th century view of a portrait. But she didn't know my husband snapped this, and it's the best photo of her we have.

    Tam- I haven't watched those shows, but I would probably like them. It is somehow a fascinating topic that almost all of us can relate to. For instance, most people have too much clutter but say they don't like clutter. I'm actually fascinated by people who can get rid of stuff easily, and have no sentimental attachment whatsoever (what you wore on your first date with your husband, your childhood teddy bear, old letters, etc.)

    Wildermiss- I agree- clutter in kitchens is particularly annoying, and dysfunctional.

    Annet- Congrats on the "sporadic" declutterin- it seems to be working for you. And on the new kayak! I love kayaking, it's one of my all-time favorite things…

    Beth Dargis- I think once you do a thorough decluttering and feel good about your level of possessions, the 1 in/1 out rule would work especially great. And of course would certainly help what might be an overwhelming task. It's a great idea.

    Kate- Yes, I'd never heard of fried chocolate pie. It's a bit like an eclair. Two days after this, the day we ate our Southern breakfast in Memphis, I was looking quite voluptuous.

    Betsy- I like the "waves" method, it's not as painful. And that's a great idea to save a few boxes- if I were you I'd start asking people if they ever got rid of something they wish they hadn't, and post about it. I feel like there's nothing wrong with having one or two boxes from your life, especially letters, photos, diaries or journals, jewelry, and a few precious gifts or keepsakes. And the costume jewelry from your MIL- be happy you have it! That's the kind of thing you'll really appreciate when you get older- you'll have something that belonged to her, and you'll probably be better able to pull it off. I always admired my grandmother's turqoise jewelry, and after she died I hoped to receive a piece to remember her by, and found out all her jewelry was stolen by one of her caregivers. That was really disappointing. Having her jewelry would have been such a strong reminder of her.

    Julie- yes, I think moving keeps you more on top of the whole issue. I'm thinking we need to do a huge declutter every 4 or 5 years if we don't move. The worst cases happen to people who've never had to go through their stuff for a move. And yes, these clutterers serve a purpose of inspiring us, don't they? My husband had to go through his dad's stuff when he died, and since he had Alzheimer's and never organized or discarded before he got it, it was a nightmare job. It would be tempting to junk it all, but there were a few treasures (WW2 medals, no kidding) mixed in with the trash.

    Thanks again for all your comments!

  11. Carol says

    As a mother and grandmother, I had to laugh at the comment about sending the costume jewelry to "mom" to store. I have boxes in my closets labeled "some of my favorite things" – that aren't MY favorite things. My daughters have downsized, but my house is bursting at the seams. Gotta love 'em…

  12. jenniwaka says

    I moved to Japan right out of college and then moved back a couple of years ago. Such a long-distance move really helps you see how little you can get by on, so now my biggest clutter problem is the stuff that I left in relatives' closets before I went. My goal is to empty those closets in the next few weeks before a town tag sale where I hope to make a few dollars getting rid of the stuff, then I'll donate whatever is left to the local freecycle pages. If it's been in someone else's closet for years, it's certainly not important to my everyday life! Though I'll probably keep ONE of my old porcelain dolls in case I have a daughter…

  13. Angela says

    jenniwaka- Welcome! And thanks for commenting. Your plan sounds good, and it's a nice idea to save one doll in case you have a daughter. I saved so much stuff for a possible daughter, and now that it looks like we won't be having children, it's been kind of a waste. I'm in the process of preparing some of it for my niece.

  14. Julie says

    I saved dolls for a daughter, too, and then had a son. I do have two nieces, but by time I decided that one kid was enough for me, they were teenagers and certainly too old for my 1977 Madame Alexander Scarlett O'Hara doll and 1985 Cabbage Patch doll! So I gave the Cabbage Patch to Goodwill (because it really didn't have that much sentimental value since I was 18 in 1985!) and listed the Madame Alexander doll on freecycle. Lots of collectors wanted it, but I chose to give it to a woman who actually wanted it for her daughter. I kept chatting with her by email, and ended up giving her a lot of my stuff and being "e-penpals", to coin a phrase, with her. So I know my doll has a good home, and I made a friend in the process. I highly encourage you to consider freecycle for your special dolls, since you can choose whom to give them to and that's kind of like being Santa Claus! Good luck with decluttering…

  15. Angela says

    Thanks Julie! And thanks for commenting. I have a set of the "Little Women" Madame Alexander dolls. No daughter, so they're boxed up. I definitely need to do something with them. Thanks for the encouragement.

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