Life in Balance

5 Questions That Will Help You Get Rid Of Clutter

Right now I’m hooked on the Marie Kondo television series on Netflex – “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” 

The series is based on the organization methods detailed in Marie’s bestselling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:  The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.  If you have a chance to watch even just one episode, I promise that it will motivate you to declutter and part with all of the excess stuff that weighs us down and wastes our time (Yes my friends, having to constantly reorganize and resort our stuff is a HUGE time buster). 

The premise of Marie’s decluttering technique is to ask yourself if an item in your home – be it clothing, toys, furniture, cooking utensils or what have you — sparks “joy” in your life.  In other words, does the item still resonate with you in such a way that it makes you happy or connects with you on a positive level?  Is the item still useful or has it served its purpose in your life and can now bring “joy” to someone else?   In short, is the item a keeper or something you should part with?

If you haven’t read Marie’s book or watched her series, the thought of asking yourself if an item “sparks joy” may seem a bit odd but I think it really speaks to the psychological connection (good or bad) that most of us have with our stuff and why it’s often difficult to part with things we don’t really need.

Which brings me to share an experience in my life that has really come to define my relationship with “stuff.”

About 16 years ago when my son was just a few months old, my mother made the decision to relocate to southern California to be closer to us.  I spent a few days with her up in the Bay Area to help her pack and tend to all the related details of moving.  One of our errands involved visiting her rental storage unit that she hadn’t laid eyes on in several years.  In fact, it had been so long since she last visited that the padlock on the door had rusted through and her key wouldn’t open it.  The manager ended up having to cut off the padlock so we could get into the unit.  Once we were in, we sorted through the accumulated items, most of which she had forgotten were in there.  Many were things I remembered packing for her several times before when she moved from one home to another and, like deja vu, here they were again.  There were bedspreads that had yellowed with age.  Old dishes and kitchen appliances.  Miscellaneous knickknacks.  Containers of paperwork that was no longer relevant.  My old school work, almost ALL of it, from kindergarten through 12th grade, was packed away in several big boxes my mom had held on to thinking I’d want them as memories when I became an adult.  There were a few furniture pieces that didn’t gel with her current décor.  With the exception of some family photographs and a few mementoes, we ended up throwing away or donating almost everything in there.  I did the math and calculated that my mom had spent at least $10,000 over the years to store items that had gone unused and forgotten.  And now here we were, parting with the heap with very little sentiment and just a tinge of regret.  We didn’t have too much time to think about it since we had other tasks to accomplish before moving her to a new life with us in Pasadena.

The realization that my mom had inadvertently thrown away $10,000 to store things that she really didn’t need or want made a significant mark on me.  I realized that having too much stuff weighs us down, can encroach on our resources, causes us to spend repeated time sorting through things when we could be doing something more fun and valuable, and just adds to our overall stress.

From that moment on I began to change the way I looked at stuff.  First of all, I promised myself that I would never accumulate so many things that I would ever need to rent a storage unit.  Second, I began to understand that like all aspects of life, our belongings have a “season” when they are useful, pertinent and bring us “joy.”  A favorite book from our teenage years may not hold the same sentiment for us when we’re 30 and it may be time to let go (and to move on to Kindle).  Or a favorite dress that no longer fits can now bring pleasure to someone else.  I began to realize that we often hold on to things because they are markers of times in our lives that we hesitate to let go.  But in the end the markers are just “things” and the real value was in having lived the memory in the first place. 

Years later I am still mastering the art of balancing my belongings and deciding when and how to let go. Now when I try to decide if an item in my home brings me “joy,” I ask myself the five following questions:

  • Do I still like it?
  • Do I need it?
  • Is it still useful? 
  • Do I already have another of the same?
  • Will this help someone else, especially someone who can’t afford a new one?

What helps me with the last question is thinking about where I can donate the item to help specific people.

Churches, schools and shelters are just some of the places that welcome many of the items we no longer need in our lives but can help others to get through tough times. There are organizations that welcome gently used business attire and accessories for people re-entering the workforce who can’t afford a new wardrobe.  Groups that take wearable shoes to countries where people cannot afford to buy their own.  I often donate my gently used items to a local thrift shop where all proceeds go toward scholarships for girls who can’t afford to pay for college.  Let your heart guide your giving!  And many of these organizations will gladly send a truck to your home to pick up the items, making giving away logistically easy.

Selling particular items at a garage sale or on eBay is another way to let go of things we don’t need.  The money earned can go towards funding a special project, a trip, or savings for a rainy day.

Sometimes I take photos of an item before I part with it.  Over the summer my 13-year-old daughter decided to redecorate her bedroom and I found myself becoming emotionally attached to her old furniture because they held such memories for me of her early years.  I took pictures of everything before we sold or donated the items so I could look back at the photos should I begin to feel nostalgic about her little girl room.

My daughter’s dollhouse bookcase is now giving joy to another little girl

Throughout the year I try to stay ahead of our stuff by keeping two boxes in our garage where I place anything I’m not keeping. I make a point of donating or selling those items at least every other month.    I also think through questions 1-4 before I buy something new which often stops me from making a new purchase in the first place.

Of course there are things I own that I won’t be parting with any time soon like my wedding dress, my late mother’s eyeglasses (my dear mom passed away in 2011), my favorite doll from childhood, or the clothes my newborns wore home from the hospital.  These items are still “in season” for me and definitely continue to bring me joy. 

How do you decide if something you own brings you joy?  How do you part with the “stuff” in your life?  What’s your method for keeping ahead of all the clutter?  Let’s get the conversation going!  I’d love to hear from you.


  1. Salve on February 10, 2019 at 10:19 am

    I have been trying to de-clutter my garage for years. Just today my hubby mentioned he was ready to put 5 bags of my daughter’s old toys to his Mom’s house for their upcoming yard sale and I stopped him. Our family members have offered on several occasions to help clean our garage and I have mostly come up with some delaying excuse and stopped them from showing up – knowing full well the garage is brimming full of stuff and paperwork and I haven’t missed the contents inside. I did recently decide (and slowly am progressing) to declutter the inside of my home having watched the first 3 episodes of Tidying Up. I set up a staging area with the Pop Up Tent but the recent rain has delayed my progress. I should be more productive in the spring to continue.

    • Keeping My Head Above Water on February 10, 2019 at 7:13 pm

      Salve, I hear you! Sometimes it’s easier to make a decision about what you will part with when you can go through the process on your own, especially those items that are attached to positive memories. Setting up your staging area is a step that will help you to get into the mode of parting with your things. For me, just putting the items into the boxes in the garage moves the items out of the house and eventually into the hands of others who can use them. I think we all have our own method. Let us know about your progress in the spring! Have you tried any of the other Marie Kondo techniques? I am going to try her folding methods next!

Leave a Comment