Too Much Old Stuff: How to Bust the Clutter


It accumulates. Over the years, a combination of sentimental objects, things we’ll use one day, the vestiges of a former life and too many years of tax returns, newspaper clippings, little gifts we never used… the list goes on and the house fills up.

There are obvious reasons to declutter. Safety: clutter can trip us up. Efficiency: with declining eyesight, it gets hard to find things we use everyday. Focus: messy environments can make it hard to process information.

But the best reason to declutter comes from “Ms Fix-It” Jennifer Phelps in Houzz, the online resource for home design and organization:  “When your house is full of things from your past, things that only remind you of who you were, you very literally have no room for who you are now and who you are becoming.”

Why Is It So Hard to Do?

Whether you want to pare down the stuff in your home, garage, or even your computer storage, one problem is knowing where to start. The more we have, the more overwhelming it is.

A lot of what we hold on to is loaded with meaning. You might not even like that big ugly vase, but it was a gift from someone you lost touch with and you feel guilty.

For some of us, getting rid of stuff is actually painful. A recent Yale study found for some of us, parts of our brains react the same way to the anticipated loss of valued possessions as they do to the idea of quitting an addiction. A deep and gut-wrenching anxiety sets in.

How to Start Decluttering

Enter Sara Getzkin, President of Hands On! Organizing. As a professional organizer, Getzkin has been been on the TLC show “Hoarding: Buried Alive” five times – soon to be six. In the course of that work, she has come across everything from sex toys and firearms to marijuana brownies! One of Getzkin’s cutest finds was a dance card belonging to a client’s great aunt.

Getzkin has some tips from her ten years of experience as a Professional Organizer:

1. Don’t try to tackle too much at once. Getzkin tells her clients, “Let’s carve out three hours and see what we get done. Then you are going to rest and not even think about this.” Very few people can sustain focus for more than three hours and stopping before you get stuck means you can start again tomorrow feeling positive .

2. To start, Getzkin, recommends preparing three bags or boxes and labeling them Keep, Toss, and Sell/Donate. You might add a fourth box for things that need repairing, mending or dry cleaning, but don’t add more options than that. Put away what’s in your Keep pile at the end of the day and throw out what’s in your Toss pile. (We’ll tell you how to use online resources to sell or donate next week.)

3. Decide what you really use and consider what storage space is available. Be relentless in your decision-making and follow through.

4. Find local consignment stores to sell stuff that’s in great condition (do a Google search for [your city] + consignment stores) or sell your stuff online. Craigslist is a good option for selling locally; eBay is good for more valuable stuff. Stay tuned for a Senior Planet guide to selling and donating online, coming next week.

Paul Foreman, the creator of Mind Maps, gets deep into the decluttering problem with the fantastic map below. “As you move up a gear in de-cluttering you may hit some tough questions and need to battle some gremlins,” he writes. “Are you hanging on to the past? Do you need to move on? Whether you spend 20 years, 2 years, 2 months or 2 minutes the end result is the same – you have to let go. Deep down you know this – holding on, is simply delaying the inevitable.”


Decluttering Challenges

  • Medications and medical apparatus  Medical needs vary as we age:  the medications and dosages change, but all too often we don’t throw away prior drug prescriptions. Time to get rid of them. Find out if your pharmacy has a take-back program; if not, figure that most prescription drugs can be put in the garbage. The FDA advises taking the pills out of the containers and mixing them with coffee grounds or vegetable peelings; then use a marker to black out the label – or scratch it out – before you put the container in the garbage. Some substances, such as narcotic pain relievers, should be flushed; check the label for instructions. Old crutches from 10 years ago? If you need crutches again, you’ll want to get a new and improved pair. Donate the ones you have.
  • Eyeglasses and hearing aids  We keep them because they were expensive purchases. “But they are not doing you any good sitting in the drawer if you’re not wearing them,” says Getzkin. Keep you last pair of glasses for use in an emergency, and recycle or donate the rest.
  • Nostalgic objects In Psychology Today, Jim Davies, Ph.D. recommends photographing some of those keepsakes you’ve been holding on to for years. “I take a picture, and save it in a folder called ‘nostalgia.’ Once I have this picture, I feel better about giving or throwing away the object, because part of why I wanted to save it was because I didn’t want to forget.”
  • Inherited Items  Things we inherit from parents or grandparents, can be hard to part with. “You feel like you are throwing away a person, but you’re not. You’re throwing away a possession of that person. Part of my job is to give you permission to let things go,” Getzkin explains. “In the old days when we didn’t have a lot of storage or big houses, we had one set of china and it was passed down from generation to generation,” she says. Nobody really needs multiple sets.
  • Clothing  On Houzz, Jennifer Phelps tackles a closet edit. Phelps recommends discarding clothes that make you feel bad about yourself: clothes from working days past; clothes you’ve “grown” out of. And she relates an exercise in editing she used with a client: She taped to the wall a picture of a jacket that the woman very much wanted to buy, and then hung each piece of clothing alongside it. Would her client choose this over the jacket? If there was no contest, it went in the giveaway pile.
  • Old gadgets  Jim Davies in Psychology Today refers to the “endowment effect”: he explains that “When we own something, we value it more than we would have been willing to pay for it when we didn’t have it.” In his decluttering, he asks himself if he would be willing to pay what a gadget is worth – say, $20 for his old point-and-shoot. If the answer is no, he sells or donates it.
  • Utensils On Oprah, Peter Walsh came up with the “cardboard box test” for utensils. You could use the same test for those pens and pencils that have been accumulating in cups and jars. Take all the utensils out of the drawer and put them in a cardboard box. For the next month, each time you use one, put it back in the drawer. At the end of the month, whatever you haven’t used, you don’t need.
  • Paperwork  We live in a world of digital files and virtual paperwork. Having a real paper trail is wise under certain circumstances, but we don’t need 30 years of financials. “There are some papers you need to hang on to for life, some you can relinquish after a set amount of time and some papers that you can throw out the same day they arrive” says Getzkin. Your attorney or accountant can tell you which papers fall into the different  categories. Making the effort a few minutes each day to sort and toss incoming paperwork keeps piles from forming. “Eighty percent of what we keep, we’ll never look at again,” Getzkin estimates. “It’s just taking up space in our homes.” Some paperwork can be scanned and saved on your hard drive.

Have a decluttering tip to share? Add it in the comments below.


29 responses to “Too Much Old Stuff: How to Bust the Clutter

  1. I never took into account the fact that nostalgia and sentiment could be the reason behind a hoarder’s behavior. We’ve been becoming increasingly worried for our brother ever since we found out he’s been keeping all sorts of useless items in his house causing it to get cluttered and dirty. We may need to talk to him about it first to sort out his issues before getting a decluttering service to help us clear out all those unnecessary items.

  2. I would take caution when disposing of old drugs, prescription or not. If flushed down the toilet or placed in the trash, they can wind up contaminating both local waters and lands. To avoid this, many jurisdiction now have drug collection days and/or designated drop-off points at local drug stores.

    1. I agree. I also write RTS-Return to Sender on the front and cross out my name. I keep one magazine( I receive at least 3 in a month from the same company) Fund Raisers same thing. I send it back and you know what? it does not stop them from sending a new one. I continue to put the RTS on the label and at least I don’t have it in my home.

  3. Even though this blog is geared toward seniors, this is probably one of the most informative de-cluttering blogs I have read—I really enjoyed it. I have been trying to get into the mode of “Spring Cleaning”, and sometimes it is overwhelming to even know where to begin!

    I like where Getzkin suggests to “carve out three hours”, so you can de-clutter in chunks. Trying to do everything at once always makes me abort the whole project before I begin!

    I also like the idea to take pictures of objects and put those in a folder called “Nostalgia”—great idea! I am 100% going to use that on my next cleaning spree.

    Here is my tip: I think Oprah’s tip with utensils could also be used with clothes, to toss the clothes you are not sure about in a box, and if you don’t use them in 3-4 months, get rid of them. What do you think?

    Thanks for the great blog!

  4. You can use a small off-site storage unit to get quick results and reduce what is in there over time. You may find it less distracting to clean reduce storage later, while enjoying a pared down apartment or home now.

    You might be on a list for a new apartment, and the less you have to deal with under time pressure to move, the easier your life will be.

    1. Thanks for the great article. I most appreciate the comment about the value of old technology. I often keep outdated electronics way too long because of the original amount I invested in them. No matter if they are long obsolete. Lately I’ve gotten better about throwing out these items or donating them.

  5. Start by the easy things, such as old bank statements. Once you have a plastic bag full of them – and any other papers you wish to discard – walk to the recycling center and enjoy the thought of recycling.
    Done, you have earned a cup of coffee. Tomorrow is another day, but you have come to understand how enjoyable it is. then move to the next drawer.

      1. You can easily get old tax files, credit card statements and so on shredded at UPS outlets, where the company has a box of shredded info that they go thru, in the back of their truck. I make a note about which items i’ve put in to shred as my local UPS store (also mail and go quick check fasting.

        Then simply keep in mind that all you have gotten rid of is old paperwork…never to be seen again. I did this yearly with my mom-in-law’s paper things which I ended up with post death. Now I’m clearing out her saved pictures..things NO one else in the family wants to have.
        The funny thing is that even though NO one in the family wants these items, no one wishes to get rid of them..I guess I’ll take pictures, open a photo bucket account and send the url to them so they can look into photo bucket for the “Cook Family” menus, recopies and things that maom made..and that I continue to slave to keep…I’m looking forward to the day when the Nursing home care book is page after page of websites about Mom’s back yard in the spring etc.

    1. If you have too much to shred at home, and you can carry it yourself…take it to your local Office Depot or Staples where you will pay by the pound. Office Depot actually shreds it right in front of you, while Staples has locked bins that are taken off-site and shredded by pros. Both services will weigh your box or bag, tell you the weight, and they average .99/lb. for the service.
      If you cannot carry it (or you have a garage full of boxes), consider having a mobile service come to you. Although they shred everything on-site in front of you, this may cost $100 or more depending on the amount of shredding.

  6. When expert opinions are given about de-cluttering I think that not enough attention is paid to how objects can access memories. Its as if certain objects can function like a key. I will pull something out of a box, not seen for 20 years, and click, I will have a vivid memory associated with it. I’m often amazed that that experience is still lodged in my brain. If I had gotten rid of the object I may have never accessed the memory. Photographing may work, but the image is only part of the object. There is holding it and the tactile feel which can be part of the key.

    1. Paul-
      I know how you feel, but you’d be surprised at how visual we are. I urge my clients to take pictures of items. After that, I suggest they assemble a photo album with these pictures (not just a folder) AND take a minute to write up an index card with a short description. It will jog your memory and your family members will enjoy it too.

  7. Great article, gives everyone a place to start.
    Accumulating ‘stuff’ is no longer an option as you age. Getting rid of unwanted clothes in your closet, or extra things in the kitchen really do save time and money.
    As for paper, just start with one drawer and give yourself a pat on the back when you finish, so you can go to another drawer and start working on it. Purge your computer of files no longer needed.
    Good article.

    1. Hi Helen-
      Paper is the biggest and most dreaded job among my clients. I usually suggest setting a timer when working by yourself. Give yourself an hour to work (and read the fine print) and then give yourself a coffee break, a walk around the block, or a 1/2 hour of something to take your mind off of paper for a bit. Remember, it took years to accumulate it, so it’s going to take a while to go through it.



    1. Go into FedEx Office and look for the banner and posters for EBAY VALET. They partnered with FedEx Office. It is free to ship your items for them to list and sell, and if they sell you get a percentage and if they don’t sell you get your items shipped back to you free. So there is the potential opportunity for MONEY.

    1. Having a buddy system is a great idea!

      It’s like having someone to get you out the door to exercise with. Making a “date” with a friend to help each other declutter is wise. You can take turns helping at each other’s homes, too.

      Thanks for the tip!

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