The 3 Stages of Clearing Clutter

by Chris Tecmire

Trash Heap

As you know, Trisha and I are getting rid of 25% of our belongings as part of the Experiments in Frugality series.  If you’re considering simplifying your stuff as well, here is a quick guide to the 3 stages of clearing the clutter, removing the rubble, or trashing the trinkets.

How To Get Rid Of Clutter – The 3 Stages

1.  Getting Rid of Junk

This is the step that most people take each and every year.  It’s called Spring Cleaning.  I’m not sure I necessarily look forward to Spring Cleaning because of the time devoted to it, but it sure feels good once we’re done.  It’s a chance to go through the house and make it spic-and-span, but it’s also a time to trash unwanted items.

The sort of items that fall into this first stage are:

Ugly, Unwanted, and Unnecessary – You probably didn’t want it to begin with and you have no problem ditching it now.  Most of the casualties of the 1st stage will end up in the trash because they’re probably not nice enough to feel good about donating or selling.

You can certainly stop here.  Most people do.  Or you can continue your journey with stage 2.

2.  Have You Used It Within The Last Year?

The first step was simple and required very few brain cells.  It was just reactionary.  However, if you decide to take this next step, you’ll need to put your thinking cap on…and I know it’s gotten a little tighter over the last few years :)   It’s starting to hurt, isn’t it?  Yeah, me too.

Have I used it within the last year?  It’s a simple question with a revealing answer.  Has it been more than 365 days since you last wore that blouse?  Did you wear those mittens last winter or have they been replaced by the pair you were given during Christmas 2009?  Has your fancy cake plate sat lonely in the cabinet even though you had honestly planned to start baking more cakes and displaying them as grandly as they deserve?  If so, maybe it’s time to move on.

Clothes and Storage

This question is tailor made for clothes and storage.  Clothes are worn by season, so a full year is needed to determine an article’s relevance.  You don’t want to ask, “Have I worn these shorts in the last 3 months?” in March.  You’ll be shopping for a whole new wardrobe in May.  But, if those shorts are still laying in your drawer in August, say goodbye.

Your storage is crawling with unused items…and maybe bugs too.  Here’s a good test.  Go to your attic, basement, or storage unit and sift through the totes and boxes.  Tape a piece of paper to the top of each of the containers and mark the date.  Next time you grab something out of that box, put the date and the item you grabbed.  One year from today, go back to the boxes and find out if you actually use this stuff or not.  Now you have proof.

What About Memories?

The one year rule carries some caveats for many people, and understandably so.  If you are holding onto something for sentimental value or for a specific moment in the future, there’s no reason to cling to such a strict guideline.  If you really want to keep it, by all means, keep it.  This is simply a step designed to locate some of the items that have been hiding in your closet, cabinet, drawer, or basement for far too long.  Most of us have plenty of these type of items lurking in our homes.

But what about the “no longer necessary, but once loved”?  If we’re talking about important memories, that’s up to you.  I’m certainly not going to make that decision for you.  Plus, Trisha and I both have a box of memories that we have every intention of keeping.  I have other more practical items that hold sentimental value which will stay with me as well.

But if we’re talking about an old popcorn maker that was replaced by a much better model 5 years ago, it might be time to move on.  We grow attached to even silly items like popcorn makers or coffee mugs because they’ve been with us for so long and memories become attached, but you can keep the memories without keeping every item you’ve ever owned.  That’s how Hoarders get started.

Still can’t bring yourself to pull the trigger, but want to?  How about taking a picture of the item that holds so many memories and starting a scrapbook of sentimental stuff.  Let’s say that you have a mug that says “#1 mom” that your kids got you 30 years ago.  It’s cracked and stained and the last time you used it was back when the first George Bush was in office.  Take a picture of the mug and begin a scrapbook that tells where the mug came from and a few of the memories attached to it.  Or you could use an online scrapbook service like if you’d rather not pick up scissors.

3.  How Many Tiddle Bits And Doo Dads Do You Need?

You’ve disposed of the junk and even cleared out many of the items that are sitting there unused.  Here’s the last question.  How many tiddle bits do you need?  Yes, you use that doo dad occasionally, but you have 3 others just like it.  Do you need a 4th?

I’ll give you an example.  Trisha and I have accumulated somewhere between 15 and 20 mugs.  The vast majority of them are garage sale finds, because mugs are to garage sales as singing competitions are to television – they’re everywhere!  We also bought a set of dishes when we got married and 8 more mugs came with that set.

So, as we continue to sort through our belongings, we’ve noticed that two people don’t need 20 mugs.  The first ones to go were those that belonged to the place setting.  It seemed like we were breaking a law or something – we were separating the set!  What kind of hillbillies are we?  But, we didn’t necessarily envision our dinner party guests using matching mugs, so we decided to let them go.  Then it came down to keeping our favorites.  That’s a tough process, but this is where people are able to hold onto the sentimental pieces if they wish.  Remember the “#1 mom” mug I mentioned earlier?  If it’s still functional, make it one of your choices.  Ditch the one from the Pottery Barn instead.

But I Might Need It Some Day

Might is the key word here.  If you KNOW of a day coming soon, hold on to it.  If not, ask yourself a follow up question.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Here’s an example from a recent decision that we had to make.  We had two very nice gravy boats from our bridal showers a couple years ago.  One is large and one is small.  When could we possibly need two gravy boats?  I’ll tell you when.

My wife would like to hold large family dinners at our house every once in a while.  Recently we invited each of our parents over for a turkey dinner with all the fixin’s.  Did we use the gravy boats?  We used the large one, but the small one remained in the cabinet.  However, what if we had been watching too many Food Network shows and decided to try several different “gourmet gravys”?  (If there is such a thing)  Or what if we hosted an especially large dinner and needed a ho’ lot of gravy?

First of all, how often is this likely to happen?  The gourmet gravys – probably never.  The huge family dinner – probably not in this house.  If we move into a home with a much larger dining room in the future, we may host such an occasion, but that could be years and may not happen at all.  If it does occur, I’m not too proud to ask a guest to bring a gravy boat or just go buy one at that point (10 years down the line).

This question doesn’t just apply to gravy boats though.  If you really want to declutter, look at all of your items with a discerning eye.  We all have more than we need.

But I might Read It Some Day

If you’ve purchased quite a few books in the last 5 or 10 years with the intent of reading them, and the vast majority have yet to be cracked open, maybe it’s time to let them go.

If you’re someone who wants a large library of books or collects them, disregard the previous statement.  But, if that’s not your goal – you just bought them because you thought you would read them – maybe it’s time to keep the couple that you are most looking forward to and let the rest go.  Look at it this way.  If it’s been 5 years and you still haven’t picked it up, you either misjudged your enthusiasm for that particular title, or you’re too busy to devote much time to a book of any kind.  Unless something is going to change very soon, it might feel a lot better to dismiss it from your To-Do list.  Simplifying your bookshelves can feel just as good as simplifying your closet or your basement.

Most of us dive right into stage 1, but are a little scared of the next two stages.  That’s what Trisha and I are trying to conquer through this first experiment.  We’re learning to evaluate our relationship to our stuff.  How important is it and how do we let go?  If you’re in the same boat, try going just a little bit further than you usually do and see what happens.  Who knows?  You might like it.

If you enjoyed this article or found it helpful, please share it with someone (or everyone).  Thanks.


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Katie May 17, 2012 at 5:38 pm

You’re talkin’ to ME, Chris :) …and it’s working!


Laurel May 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm

No Katie he’s talking to me! “But I might need it someday!!” lol….. I LOVE the scrapbook idea for the things I feel guilty or sentimental about throwing away!!


Kelly May 17, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Oh my word, Chris….I’m getting rid of the 12 coffee cups RIGHT NOW that are part of my dinner set. Why did I hold onto them just because they’re part of a set? They’ve been taking up cupboard space for 10 years ! (Come to think of it….my “set” has been incomplete for a long time because I’ve only got 7 out of 12 cereal bowls ! LOL !!)


Chris Tecmire May 17, 2012 at 9:41 pm

:) Isn’t it funny the things that we hold onto? Way to take action!


Rebekah B May 18, 2012 at 8:17 am

I like the scrapbook idea too – I hold on to so much for sentimental reasons and a pic in a scrapbook just might fit the bill!


Chris Tecmire May 18, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Great – glad I could help. It would be kind of neat to go through it one day and reminisce, wouldn’t it? It’s a lot easier to pick up a scrapbook than find every single item that represents a memory in your basement :)


Dana Pasterjak February 8, 2013 at 8:51 am

But I might READ it one day!

This whole list/article is spot-on terrific, but this part SPEAKS to me, an inveterate book hoarder.

Thank you for putting it so succinctly. I think I even buy books out of guilt such as “I should read this for my job” and then never even crack the tome.

I have purged, but continue to buy. That is the issue. I need to purge more and then not buy!

Thanks for a funny, but reality-based list.


Chris Tecmire February 8, 2013 at 7:44 pm

Most of all we hate to feel like we’re going to miss out on something, right? That’s a tough one to conquer, but I’m glad the article spoke to you. Keep fighting Dana! And thanks for the comment.


Vivian February 9, 2014 at 12:28 am

Heard about getting rid of clothes if not used in a year. Thanks for covering sentimental items and time period on how long to keep books.


Karen March 3, 2014 at 10:36 pm

Really found this article helpful, Chris. Have been struggling with the “how to” of the de-cluttering issue for awhile. Your helpful logic and insights resonate with me, and I think I might just have finally been able to give myself permission to “let go” of several things that feel like they’re holding me back. I need to move in the not to distant future, and struggle with determining what I really don’t need anymore. It’s the relationship to the “stuff”" that I find most difficult. Have had two estates to handle, and I find some things are meaningful, though perhaps not “useful.” Papers are sometimes a necessary evil, so I’ve been thinking of digitally filing anything I might need to produce in the future. That way I can discard with the actual hardcopies. (Some papers, of course, will need to be kept as originals.) Certainly will make for an easier move. The comments you offered about books also hit home for me. I’m a great one for buying books and never finding time to read them. Guess I should think about donating to It’s reassuring to know that I’m not alone in this boat…I’m in pretty good company. Many thanks, again. I enjoy many of your articles.


Chris Tecmire March 8, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Thanks for the comment Karen – I’m so glad I was able to help!


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