This guest post is by E. Evans and entry in our non-fiction writing contest .
Stuff accumulates over time. Through inheritance or hand-me-downs, by impulse shopping or survival preparation, the material possessions we acquire seems to always grow to match available space unless steps are taken to guard against becoming a packrat.
An oversupply of things can become a liability, not an asset. While each person is unique and has different needs, the packrat mentality, if left unchecked, hinders efficiency and mobility in addition to becoming a health hazard.
During my efforts to become more self-sufficient and better prepared, reducing clutter has been the best survival preparation practice I have ever performed. Here are thoughts from my personal experience.
It was a defining moment. Totally unexpected but life-changing.
I looked at my junk.
Yes, I had seen it all before. In shelves. On the floor. Boxed away. I saw it everyday and navigated through it like a lab mouse in a maze. Stubbed toes. Near-dangerous falls from tripping over boxes that had magically fallen down.
Certainly, I knew my things were there, but this day was different because I actually paused to contemplate over my hoarding habits. I looked at the material possessions I had accumulated over the years and asked myself this important question:
“If this country entered another great depression tomorrow and our system collapsed, how would any of this help me?”
Naturally, that question, as reflective questions of this nature are prone to do, lead to more questions.
“Would I be able to sell any of it to buy food and water?”
“Could I drink it? Could I eat it? Would it provide warmth? Is it any good after 20 years stored away in a box where spiders and mice have made their nests?”
“What truly useful things would fill the space instead?”
“Could I generate some cash from this to create an emergency fund?”
After scrounging through mountains of boxes of moth-ridden clothes and other items saved, stored, and forgotten about, I was answering “No” to most questions I posed. Despite the quantity of my possessions occupying several rooms, storage sheds, and the garage, very little would help me in a moment of crisis. Why keep it then?
It had to go.
The more questions I asked, the more I found myself questioning my living habits. I believe in having extra supplies on hand for emergencies, but this was too much.
The more I looked at my junk, the more cluttered my mind felt. Life felt suffocating by things that were practically useless and served no real value. Something had to be done. I then asked, “How can I turn this junk into something beneficial to my well-being and survival preparation?”
The answer to this question led to a change in thinking, which produced a change in habits and lifestyle for a freer, cleaner, uncluttered life.
–[What Is Junk?]
Before moving on, let’s describe junk. Junk is not essential stuff like soap, first aid supplies, food, and water. We need these things to survive and live in good hygiene. Junk refers to the excess clutter in our lives that has little useful value and we could easily live without. Often, it’s stuff we hold onto thinking it might be useful “someday.”
The broken Tonka toy in the closet. The ugly, bunny pajama set from Aunt Edna that was shoved in the closet where it was forgotten for several years. The golf clubs no longer used. The cracked, dry garden hose. The termite-infested scraps of wood under the workbench. The list goes on. All of these things accumulate almost imperceptibly over time until our lives feel cluttered.
–[Why Do We Collect So Many Things?]
No doubt, you, the reader, are thinking something along the lines of, “You pitiful thing. How could you allow yourself to accumulate so much needless stuff? I have things too, but they are all important. I have no junk. Why can’t you be like me?”
One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. One reason why we allow things to accumulate over time is that we fail to recognize the junk. In our eyes, everything we own or purchase has a purpose that can be rationalized. Therefore, in our eyes, it’s not junk.
So, it’s easy to condemn a man for packing a garage full of things we would never buy for ourselves yet justify filling three storage sheds full of our most cherished possessions that the garage packrat would never purchase.
Since everything we acquire is so important in our eyes, we hold onto it. Left unchecked, this added stuff creeps into our lives. Whether it be a new HDTV, extra cases of canned beans, a new sleeping bag, or that old tintype made of Uncle Doofus when he was outrunning the law during the Civil War, it’s easy to develop a hoarding habit.
Our things can possess us, and when that happens, it clouds our judgment and we become over-possessive and tend to hoard even more. Things become our sense of security, and we allow material possessions to define our identities.
The key to reducing clutter is to change how you evaluate your possessions. There eventually comes a time when you wake up one day, look at how cluttered your physical living space has become, and think, “Do I really need to hold onto all of this stuff? How is it helping me now? Could I be more efficient?”
Sifting through my clutter, I categorized my junk and developed a five-step plan.
1. Separate everything into groups for evaluation.
2. Throw the immediate garbage.
3. Sell all immediate impersonal items.
4. Reuse or sell the “Later” impersonal items.
5. Dispose of the personal items that I truly do not need to keep by giving or selling (if possible). Keep only the truly valuable, irreplaceable possessions.
6. As more junk is discovered, repeat the process.
Some things had value, even if not to me, so I decided to sell what I could and then throw away or give away the rest.
“That’s obvious. Everyone knows to do that.”
True, but knowing and doing are two different things. I have seen scores of packrat people who agree that their deteriorating possessions are in the way and pose a health hazard, but they cannot bear the thought of parting with any of it.
I recall one man who perspired at the thought of parting with any of his things. He became angry and defensive when someone made an offer to buy a few items from him at a reasonable price. People are obsessed with their things without realizing it.
So, yes, parting with items to reduce clutter is something “everyone knows,” but few can do it. It requires discipline, commitment, a new outlook, and the willingness to change our thinking and habits. Unfortunately, people naturally resist any form of change, so reducing clutter is easier said than done.
At first, I was so disgusted with having so many things, that I was tempted to throw everything away that had not been used in the past year, but this method was inadequate. Some items, such as photographs, held immense personal value even if they were not useful, so I had to devise a better strategy to avoid tossing the items I truly needed or wished to keep.
I found that my junk could be grouped into three categories: Personal items, Impersonal items, and Garbage.
Personal things are those that have personal, sentimental value only to the owner. Photos of family members, golfing trophies, and gold stickers awarded for Junior’s drawing of a rabbit in kindergarten hold meaning only to the owner (or to the lonesome mother pining away for days gone by). Chances are, these items cannot be sold because nobody else cares about them. They go into one pile for careful evaluation later.
The second type of junk, impersonal junk, offers better chances of generating a profit. Things like outdated electronics, video games, movies, furniture, books, and a host of other commodities still have value to other people, so you stand a good change of selling these for cash. Impersonal junk goes into a separate pile.
This is exactly what it sounds like. Garbage. It is junk that holds absolutely no value to you or anyone else. The three-day-old banana peeling in the corner of the room. Empty cans of spray paint. Bent, rusty nails salvaged from an old house twenty years ago and stored in a rusty coffee can. Clothes that resemble a rat’s nest more than clothes. Scraps of wood ruined by moisture and termites.
Garbage is easy to spot, and it needs to go. Of course, little of this was garbage when I originally obtained it, but it deteriorated over time and I failed to keep track of its condition. I stored it for the long term thinking it would “come in handy someday.” Years later, “someday” never arrived. The leaky batteries, leaky cans, and moth-ridden protections eventually collapsed, and nature took over.
Donning gloves, a mask, and garbage bags, I sifted through my things and immediately discarded all of the garbage I could find. Whew! With much of the garbage out of the way, it was easier to sort through and find salable items.
–[Handling Impersonal Items]
Personal items require more thought since they often hold emotional attachment, so I saved those for last. Impersonal items are easier to distinguish, so focused on them first by dividing them into two groups: Immediate and Later.
—-[Immediate Impersonal Items - The Marble Chess Set]
These are things I can dispose of now since I have not used them in over a year and I will likely never use them again. Neither will they be of any use during a crisis. On the good side, they often have a monetary value, so they can be sold.
One example is a marble chess set. The glossy chess pieces are carefully crafted, and the pure marble board is arranged in shiny black and white marble tiles. It’s a beautiful work of art, but I have not used it in over two decades. It just sits there, in the way, occupying space, and useless during a time of crisis. A chess collector would probably love to have this in his collection, so I know I can sell it quickly for a profit.
—-[Later Impersonal Items - Books]
“To hold or to throw?” that is the question. Impersonal items I hesitate to part with immediately go into the “Later” group. These items need better inspection for quality and condition to determine whether or not they can be sold or given away.
Some Later items involve books that I am unsure of selling just yet. I might want to have one more look through them before selling. The Later group gives me a chance to be absolutely sure that I want to part with something in order to avoid rash regret. I ask the questions like, “When did I last use this?” “Would I use this again?” “If so, when?”
If I have not used something in over a year, then I sell it, but if I know I must use it again within a year, I keep it. Honest appraisal and an evaluation of my habits showed that very few items meet the “Keep” requirement, so I ended up parting with most of the Later items in the end.
—-[Salvaging - Tuna Cans]
Later items are often reusable for other things. Asking, “What can I use this for now?” breathes new life into items otherwise thrown or sold. One example is the lowly tuna can. I found several used tuna cans I was saving for “someday.” Tuna cans with the lid pulled back make excellent candle holders. Having found a few lone candles laying around, I made a few impromptu candle fixtures (something useful during a blackout) from a few tuna cans. I threw the rest away.
The key is the word “Now.” If you cannot salvage something now, then dispose of it. If you think, “I can think of ten uses for this…someday, so I guess I’ll hold onto it a little longer,” then you will never throw anything away. Once you get started making excuses, it’s possible to rationalize a reason to keep everything. Avoid this trap. Keep only what you need and dispose of the rest. I only kept a few tuna cans and candles, which, based upon my habits, is all I need.
Thinking of unorthodox ways to recycle stuff can save money, but excess creativity for “someday” leads to clutter. Maintain a balance.
–[Selling Impersonal Junk - Psst. Wanna Buy A Watch?]
This is much easier than disposing of personal items. Mainly because these are things that become outdated and replaced by something else, unlike personal items, which cannot be replaced.
Electronics, the VCR in an age of Blu-ray players, VHS movies, unwatched DVDs, the pool table nobody uses, the book shelf you never liked in the first place, the vase from Greece that you are afraid to place in the living room because somebody might bump it over and break it — these are salable items because other people value them. They hold little emotional value, so you can part with them easily.
Auctions, garage sales, classified ads, and word of mouth are a few means of selling your unneeded items.
Of course, you will not know exactly how much your treasure is worth until after you sell it. The market value will often surprise you. A book you thought was worth only 25 cents might fetch $50 or more due to its printing and condition.
Other times, you may find yourself disappointed that the doodad you originally purchased brand new for $50 is only worth $8 today. This led to the discovery of a truth that no advertisement or high-powered salesman dares mention: The price you sell will be far less than the price you paid.
Nonetheless, selling things adds up. If you are tempted to think, “Why bother selling this? It’s only worth five dollars,” then look at it as five dollars on the shelf. Would you leave the stinky federal reserve note where it is or would you tuck it away in with the rest of the cash?
Sell insignificant items first and work your way up to the more valuable items you are reluctant to part with. This helps you get a feel for the marketplace and its selling system to avoid loosing money on truly valuable items. Also, once you develop the habit of parting with your lesser-valued stuff, it becomes easier to part with your higher-valued items.
If you decide to sell, sell quickly. Sell now. Non-survival-related items, such as a marble chess set, will be worth more money when times are good than during a crisis when people are scared and hungry. People care nothing about a marble chess set, a DVD player, or a plastic potted plant for the living room when they are worried where their next meal will come from or when flood waters force them to evacuate their homes, for example. Besides, even if you do manage to sell items like this during an emergency, chances are you will receive far less than you would during good times.
In short: Be patient.
Furniture is the hardest item to sell because people buy furniture based on their personal tastes, and everyone has different tastes. The couch that looks good in my living room with my color scheme might repulse somebody else.
So, if you decide to sell your furniture, be patient. The right buyer will eventually appear, but it might take several months or even years. If you need to dispose of your furniture quickly, you would be better off giving it away to charity.
Because of its disposal difficulty, I now think twice before buying any furniture.
–[Personal Items - I Would Never Sell My Wedding Dress!]
Some items hold immense personal value, so they are nearly impossible to part with for two reasons: 1) Refusal to part with them, and 2) Nobody else wants them.
One example is a wedding dress. Even though she might be 220 pounds obese and never wear it again, almost every married female relative I have encountered still has her wedding dress tucked away somewhere, and not a one would dream of parting with it under any circumstance.
We all have items like this and they warrant careful thought. I found many personal items that I was reluctant to dispose of but were were also impossible to sell. After all, who wants a trophy containing somebody else’s name on the plate? Unless you are a famous legend, your personal artifacts are junk to the rest of the world.
When it comes to items like this, keep your most cherished possessions just to ease your mind, but consider giving the rest to relatives in order to keep the items in the family. An example is a dining room table over 100 years old. It was ugly, too large, cumbersome, creaky, smelly, and matched nothing. It was in the way. However, it was a family heirloom, so instead of throwing it away or turning it into firewood, it was given to relatives who were delighted to have it.
–[Avoid Going Overboard]
It has been well over a year since I began clearing out my junk, and it shows no signs of stopping. The more I find, the more I can sell. It’s amazing. I never realized how much junk I had until I stopped to look at what I had collected over the years thinking, “I might need it someday.”
It’s also refreshing. Physical clutter leads to visual clutter, which leads to mental clutter. As I remove clutter from my life, my mind feels cleaner, fresher, and more free. With less to keep track of in my mind, I can think more clearly now.
However, once you gain momentum, tossing things becomes an addictive pastime. There is the danger of going overboard by disposing of useful items you truly need. How do I know when it is time to throw something away or sell it? One general rule is to ask when I last used something. If I have not used something in over a year, chances are good that I will never use it again. So, I sell, throw, or give it away. After observing my own habits and recording them in a notebook, I find this to be the most common scenario.
The items I need most are used on a daily basis. Experience tells us what we need and use. Whether it be movies, electronics, vehicles, food, pencils, toys, or whatever, if it has not been used in over a year, I refuse to allow it to clutter my living space.
Keep in mind that this does not apply rainy day supplies and survival goods. Recall the definition of junk earlier to avoid selling emergency supplies.
–[Keep the Fun Things]
As you experience the joys of uncluttering and collect a profit in the process, you may become tempted to sell everything in sight. Once you break away from the cherished possessions, everything else becomes fair game, including the wedding dress.
Keep in mind that you still live in a home (hopefully). Some people need the touches that give a home its warmth. Does a certain painting provide satisfaction in your heart and put a smile on your face every time you see it? Then, keep it. Hang it on the wall prominently for frequent viewing.
While preparing for the future, never forget about the joys of everyday living. The psychological morale derived from a calming painting may be just what you need to provide a sense of stability when times are bad. However, avoid plastering your walls with every single work of art that comes your way. Only keep what you like the best and sell the rest, or give them away and put smiles on other people’s faces.
Keep some games on hand. Retain books. Stock some drawing supplies if you enjoy drawing. Have some toys. Again, experience shows what you use most of the time. Keep notes about your daily patterns and observe your life. Is there a certain board game you play often? Then, that is probably the one you will pick to play when the electricity goes out. Sell the lesser used games nobody likes.
Sometimes you may find situations where you have two ways to solve the same problem. Rather than keeping both, select one and sell the other for greater efficiency and less clutter. Here’s an example:
Years ago, I purchased a high-end theater system because I like music. Speakers. Powered subwoofer. HDMI receiver. The works. It was brand new and expensive, but it sounded good. It still does. The problem? I rarely use it. Yes, it’s there and it functions perfectly, but it has seen only a few hours of use in the years that I have had it.
I also purchased a portable music player around the same time that plays the same music though earphones. I cannot carry a home theater system with me, but I can carry this, and I use it all of the time. The music might not be as crystal clear or as thundering as the home theater system, but it sounds good to me and does its job well.
I use the portable player 99% of the time and the elaborate theater system only 1% of the time. The theater system is large, bulky, gets in the way since it has needs of its own (furniture to store everything neatly), and consumes more electricity than my solar system can handle, so it’s dependent upon the grid.
By contrast, my portable music player sounds almost as good through earphones, it’s small, lightweight, extremely convenient, and runs on batteries that are rechargeable with solar. If a power outage occurs, I can continue playing music with my portable player while the theater system continues to collect dust.
Always ask, “What is the problem I am trying to solve?” before rushing to purchase something. In this case, the problem was a way to listen to music. Both items solve the same problem, but the portable player meets the same need for less.
After reviewing my music habits, I decided to sell the home theater system and keep the portable music player. This frees up much space and reduces dust-collecting clutter. I can enjoy music without $5000 Polk speakers and do so independent of the electric company. My life becomes more efficient.
“I could never sell my home theater system because I might invite guests over to my house.”
Here is that “it might be useful someday” thinking. Stop that. It’s dangerous, and it leads to packrat habits and overconsumption. I thought the same thing at first, but in the years of owning a home theater system I have never once invited others over to see it. The reason? I do not want people snooping through my home. It’s private.
So, if you have two items that perform the same function, consider selling one and keeping the other. Not sure which to sell? Look at both items and ask yourself, “How often do I use this, and how will this help me during an emergency?” My home theater system can’t do squat during a crisis, but my portable player can.
–[Changed Habits and a Changed Life]
My thinking has changed. When something comes my way, I no longer pack it away in a box and save it for a rainy day. I immediately decide to keep it, throw it, or use it. It doesn’t matter if Aunt Edna spent the past year knitting it. I refuse to collect clutter again because I am the one who must live with it. Aunt Edna will just have to get over it.
Oddly enough, the more I am resolved to guard against letting junk back into my life, the more opportunities appear that test my resolve. It’s as if Life is saying, “Let’s see how serious you are. Here’s a pink bunny suit. Take it! You don’t want to hurt Aunt Edna’s feelings, do you?”
We can always be tactful regarding situations like this, but never lose focus on the goal of a clutter-free life. I am still on the journey, and the best way to manage clutter is to prevent it from appearing in the first place. It’s (usually) much harder to dispose of something that it is to acquire it.
This is much like weight-loss programs. It’s easier to gain weight than it is to lose it. I have seen many people take diets, lose weight, and then gain it all back plus more. Why? They have not changed their thinking that lead to obesity in the first place, and thus, they returned to their old habits when the diet was over and regained their weight. Nothing changed.
Now, instead of buying something when I think I need it, I write it on a list and wait. Usually, after a few months, I find that I no longer need what I thought I did. The problem somehow disappeared or I found a better way to cope with it. If I still need the item after all that time and the situation is worse, then I buy it.
Evaluations of this nature help curb impulse shopping and buyer’s remorse in addition to reducing acquired things. It’s not exactly what advertisers want to hear, but it works for me, and I save my money.
–[The Dangers of Junk]
Before closing, let’s look at the potential danger and expense clutter can cause.
Junk and other things improperly stored are a danger to your well-being and could cost you money in the form of expensive medical bills. One incident that taught me this lesson years ago involved an elderly woman in her eighties.
She was not an excessive packrat, but what she did have she refused to part with and always kept in the most poorly-chosen locations throughout her house. Almost everything consisted of old doodads from thirty years ago and more. Never used, and only laying in the way. Her home was a maze of paths and trails. Visiting her house felt like taking an indoor nature walk — You never knew what would scurry across your path, and you had to watch your step lest you trip over something and fall.
Relatives and neighbors warned her about the dangers her possessions posed, and even offered to help her organize and move things out of the way, but she refused.
Then, one day, it happened. While walking through her home as usual, she tripped over something that relatives had warned her about. Being over 80, she broke her hip when she fell and had to be hospitalized for several months. She needed surgery, but, due to her age, this led to more health complications.
Many months and many bills later, she was finally released from the hospital and allowed to return home. She never fully recuperated from that fall and found that she needed a walker, forcing her to clean up her junk anyway in order to move about.
Junk is dangerous. Of course, in her eyes, her possessions were most certainly not junk. However, the fact remains that she still tripped and fell over them resulting in a worse physical condition and with less money.
–[The Psychology of Clutter]
“If a cluttered desk signifies a cluttered mind, then what does an empty desk signify?”
My answer? A clean, efficient, neat, tidy, well-organized mind. From what I have observed, people with cluttered spaces and cluttered desks waste time trying to find things. “Oh, no! The lights went out. I know I had a tactical flashlight around here somewhere…”
Clutter is exhausting on the mind. When we view excess junk, clutter, and lots of things, it give the brain more things to process. Living in clutter creates the habit of dealing with clutter. Moving things around. Hunting for pencils buried under moldy papers. This wastes time. Besides that, if a disaster occurred at night and Packrat Pete needed his flashlight, how would he possibly find it? Clutter obstructs survival preparedness.
The point is, the less you have around you, the less you have on your mind. The fewer worries. The less clutter and unneeded items you possess, the easier it is to inventory and rotate the essential items.
There is nothing wrong with having things. The danger lies in when things have us. Are you afraid to leave your house and take a vacation because you possess too many valuables? Do you resist the idea of moving to a better location because you have too many things to move? What if you need to evacuate at a moment’s notice due to a natural disaster? What? You can’t find your bugout bag?
This is not freedom, it’s bondage. Things are now limiting your life and your actions. This is when things have taken over, but until you stop to think, look, and ask some questions about your possessions and habits like I did, you will only acquire more things and erect a taller mountain of clutter.
Had I known years ago what I know now, I would never have acquired so many things. The consumer machine knows how to brainwash people into buying, so half the task of uncluttering involves deprogramming ourselves.
However, this is a learning process, and clearing my life of needless clutter has taught me much about myself and caused me to change my thinking and habits. There is still plenty to do, but the reward is a life that feels more free, efficient, and better prepared for adverse circumstances.