A cluttered life is an unintentional life.
Consider this: Nobody, when asked what they most want to accomplish in life, responds by saying, “I just want to own as much clutter as possible.”
Owning more stuff than we need isn’t something people purposefully set out to do. But somehow, it happens—despite being a great source of stress in our lives.
So why does it happen? Certainly, advertisers and retailers and social expectations put pressure on us to accumulate more and more. But there are more reasons than that.
Sometimes, it is the lies we believe.
Here are Seven Lies That Lead to a Cluttered Home
1. I have the space.
Most empty spaces in our homes get filled. Not always right away, but slowly and surely.
Empty rooms get furniture, empty shelves get boxes, empty cabinets receive storage. As a result, the bigger the house, the more stuff we own.
But our actual needs don’t change all that much from one home to another. A husband and wife living comfortably in an 800-foot apartment don’t automatically need 1,800-feet worth of possessions just because they moved into a larger home.
When we have more space, it becomes easy to rationalize keeping an item. But our physical possessions don’t just take up physical space in our home, they also take up mental space in our mind.
And just because you have the physical space available in your home doesn’t mean you should keep more stuff (or even buy it in the first place).
2. I can afford it.
“I can afford it,” by itself, is a terrible filter.
It’s an important question to ask, for sure. At the very least, if we can’t afford something, we shouldn’t buy it.
But we fall into clutter trouble when it becomes the only filter we use. Just because we have the money to buy an object doesn’t mean we need it.
There are other, more valuable things we can accomplish with our money than buying things we don’t need.
Your money is only as valuable as what you choose to spend it on. And just because we have some extra in the bank account, doesn’t mean we should spend it on physical possessions.
3. But I use it.
Just because we use an item doesn’t mean we need to keep it. This is an important shift in our thinking about possessions.
A common decluttering question to ask ourselves about any item is, “Do I need it?” When an item in our home is used frequently (or even occasionally), it becomes easy to answer, “Yes, I need that item because I use it.”
But just because we use an item doesn’t mean we need to keep it.
As an example: You may wear all six coats in your closet, but that doesn’t mean you need to keep them all. You could probably own three coats and still be warm when you go outside. Or, you may use all the different sets of bed linens in your home, but that doesn’t mean you need them all. (We keep only one set per bed).
Now, obviously, the inverse of this lie isn’t always the case. I’m not saying that we should get rid of everything we use. But if we’re looking around our home and notice there’s too much clutter, we may be falling into the trap of thinking “I use it, so I’m keeping it.”
But if there’s another item in your home that already serves the same purpose, we don’t need to keep both. Keep just your favorite instead.
4. I need to keep it “just in case.”
“Just in case” thinking can be very dangerous when it comes to clutter.
There are different approaches that people recommend to overcome this thinking, especially when we’re trying to declutter. The Minimalists, for example, recommend, “If you can replace an item in less than 20 minutes for less than $20, you should get rid of it.“
Personally, I recommend three questions we should ask:
- What is the likelihood, really, of me needing this item in the future?
- Can I afford to replace it if I do need it?
- Is there somewhere else, other than repurchasing, I could get the item if I need it?
In most cases, these questions help us part with the items in our home we’re holding on to “just in case.”
Often, there is less likelihood than we think that we’d actually need the item in the future. And if we do, almost always it is something we can borrow from a friend or neighbor if the need does arrive in the future. On the rare occasions we do need it replaced, the cost is usually less than we think.
There is a mental and energy cost associated to the clutter in our home. Rather than keeping things just in case we might need them in the future, we would be wise to consider the drawbacks to this thinking.
5. My spouse/partner is the problem.
It is always easier to see everyone else’s clutter than it is to see our own. As a result, we can be quick to point the finger at our spouse or children as the reason why our homes are cluttered.
“They are the problem, not me.”
But this thinking results in clutter for two reasons:
- It prevents us from seeing our own clutter.
- It keeps us from getting started in decluttering our homes.
Rather than waiting for someone else to go first, it would be more effective to remove everything of ours that we no longer need. That first step often makes a bigger difference in our homes than we think. And often leads to others seeing the benefits of minimalism and taking their own steps toward it.
6. I don’t own too much stuff.
I suppose, in many ways, this lie may be the most common of them all.
According to a recent survey, only 27% of Americans believe they own too much stuff. (53% believe they own just the right amount.)
But some of the other statistics tell a different story. The average American home has tripled in size in the last 50 years, while over 10% of us still rent offsite storage. One professional organizer reported the average American home has 300,000 things inside it.
Of course, in a society built on consumerism, we are repeatedly told that our lives will be better if we own more stuff. Advertisers change our thinking on products from “want” to “need” with amazing effectiveness. So it doesn’t surprise me, necessarily, that most people think they own just the right amount of possessions.
It seems normal to buy more and more.
But it is impossible to feel the weight of our possessions until we begin to remove them. Everything we own demands our time, money, focus, and energy. And the less we own, the more freed we are to pursue our greatest passions in life.
Just because we own the same amount of stuff as everyone else doesn’t mean we don’t own more than we need. Look around your home again, with new eyes, and begin to see the possibility of owning less.
7. Owning less will be boring.
We are quick to tie an exciting and satisfied life to the number of possessions we own. As a result, we often live life chasing bigger houses, nicer cars, newer technology, trendier fashion, or cooler toys.
Owning more is presented as the pinnacle achievement in our lives and becomes the desire of our affections—the highest level of excitement.
But physical possessions can never satisfy the deepest longings of our heart and passions. That is why, no matter how much we accumulate, we always desire more and more.
The most exciting and satisfied lives are those focused on our greatest passions—however we choose to define that.
And the less we own (and desire), the more we free up our most finite resources to pursue those passions. And I can’t think of anything more exciting that living a life aligned with your values.
Let’s commit to not allowing the lies we believe to keep us from that freedom.
Sandra Long says
I am getting excited to see less! Excited to walk a path through the house without bumping into things! And always looking forward to getting to my goal of a minimalist life.
Every time I move I get rid of so much. I’m currently just putting things in boxes and have retrieved a couple of items, but not much.
How do I keep from accumulating more stuff??? How did I get this much stuff???
I’ve been looking around at everything I could sell on Marketplace to free up space/visual clutter. Otherwise I’ll have to pack it up and haul it to the donation center.
So much of what I have doesn’t add value to my life or spark joy.
I’ve always had a messy home/car and I think just having less is the key.
Beth Niedzwiecki says
I started decluttering last year and love the benefits. My neighborhood has a Facebook group and when I have something to get rid of I post it on there for free and it is almost almost taken. Saves me lots of trips to the donation center. (And my neighbors are happy!)
I’ve begun using the 20/20 method and it’s really helping me focus.
Joshua, I am inspired by your articles to declutter something nearly every day, definitely some items every week.
I find that it takes me time to emotionally part with things that (I think) provide comfort or convenience. I find that I do not miss the things I have given away or thrown away or sometimes sold.
I love the mental and emotional challenge of this endeavor to declutter and look forward to being emotionally and physically
freer from the effort. Thank you!
Good points! With the ‘just in case’, I ask myself a fourth question: do I think there may be someone around who might need/use/enjoy this NOW? If so, I feel less inclined to hold onto it for a feeble chance I might use it in the future. Blessing myself with space, blessing someone else with the stuff.
That’s a great question to ask!
Your posts are so good Joshua! I’m getting there slowly .. like real slow ? – but since my Mum died and I discovered she had so much but it was all hidden. That was the start of my going through all I have, along with the lockdowns over last 2 years in my part of Canada. I discovered can shop from home. Yikes! The thrift shops in my town that use the monies from items I donate, go to helping feed others, etc. Plus majority of my clutter is due to friends who buy without trying on ..and then … to me. I didn’t realise this was happening until sadly the friendships ended. All good for both community and landfills. Live with what we need because it’s just stuff and way less stressful.
Susan F says
We have a good number of specialty tools, like a wet saw for cutting tile, that I’ve kept from various projects. Recently I noticed a neighbor asking on NextDoor if someone had a tile saw he could use to make a couple of cuts on a final piece to finish a floor. Another neighbor answered immediately that he could borrow theirs. I also learned that our local equipment rental place has a nice tile saw available. Our saw occupies a whole shelf in our overstuffed storage area, and I haven’t touched it in about 20 years. It truly has served its purpose and there are alternatives to buying another, in the quite unlikely event that we decide that (a) we want to tile something, and (b) we want to do it ourselves.
Great post, Joshua!
I like number 5. I cleared a space on a closet shelf and within a day, there was throw pillow in that space. Uggghhhh
Carole Hodson says
This struck a chord with me. My home and garage is full of stuff I don’t need, I’m sure. It does overwhelm me at times but although I’m pretty good at decluttering, I have my limits and find it very hard to part with a lot of things. Xx
Michelle H. says
I can relate…
My husband had cleaned up/organized our shelves in the living room and then after a month (or maybe sooner) it looked cluttered again. :(
Christine Schnabel says
I don’t fully agree with item 3. In my opinion, this doesn’t apply to things subject to wear and tear like most clothing items. I have maybe twice as many pairs of jeans as I need but I’m not getting rid of any of them because sooner or later, the fabric gets thinner, holes appear and I have to throw them away. But I agree that most people won’t need six coats.
Diane Gibbons says
I’ve been decluttering since my husband passed away just over three years ago and a week or two ago i went into the spare room closet and brought out all the smallish tote boxes of greeting card I’ve saved over the years…. I whittled them down to one medium box .. then I spoke with a friend and told her and there was a second of silence and she just said ‘why?’ Why do you keep them?’ …. It was a good and relevant question and again the answer was because they are special to me ?. Today I plan on whittling them down more but it’s going to be so difficult…some are from my family in the UK who are passed away … and from close friends and handmade …. Then there’s the box of 30+ years of cards my husband gave me …. I’m just not ready yet even though I know I should. I so appreciate your blog and the emails I receive that keep me decluttering
I am sorry for your loss.
I feel the same way about sentimental things like cards. My Grandmother made placemats from them. I have taken pictures of them, then thrown them away.
I agree we need a discussion on things from the past where loved ones are gone. That is why I keep them.
Thank you … yes that discussion would be so helpful. I’ve taken photos of some items that I’ve now thrown out. That’s a lovely idea your Grandmother had
there is no „should“ involved here. In Germany we say „it doesn‘t eat bread“ when talking about items that don‘t bother us. If you aren‘t ready to part with them, keep them – no harm done. Maybe you could put a collage of then in a large picture frame and hang them on a wall – only if looking at them doesn‘t make you sad, rhough.
Thank you. I love the saying ☺️☺️
You could click a pic of the card. It will always be there in your phone’s picture gallery and just place the card on his grave next time you visit. Memories are in our minds and hearts not in memorabilia..I don’t mean any disrespect to your relationship with your husband…. Just remember it as a beautiful phase of your life
Michelle H. says
I have a friend who said that I don’t need to keep everything a loved one owned to feel their presence… and I don’t need to feel guilty about giving those things away.
My mom died in 2017 and I am starting to work on keeping less of her things, just choosing a few things.
It’s a long process but I am slowly whittling away at those things. For example, I tell myself that I would rather keep her paintings than her clothes… which don’t really fit me or my style anyway.
I have also kept cards and letters from those who have passed away, so I understand.
I have kept sentimental notes too & tried to keep a rule of it can’t expand this box etc
I like idea of making digital copies or pairing down if multiple letters or cards from someone keep the one most special but if they all are then they are.
Give yourself grace with notes from your husband grief is such a process
Veronica van Rij says
You could take pictures of the cards.
I own way too much….. I also own not enough of the things we actually need or things that are useful. Blankets tend to be our downfall- I’ve purchased blankets for my kids rooms only to have them not use them, not like them or they graduated to a larger bed and needed something else. Also plates- that one is not on me. We have somewhere close to 40 plates. The cheep white corral ware ones. My husband kept buying more when our sons wouldn’t do there chores and we had no plates clean. Ugh I intend to get rid or most of them. Wish me luck!!
Joan Silva says
Absolutely. Totally true. As I pared down, minimized and simplified, each step I’d think, ah now that’s just the right amount. Yet, each time, I’d find more items that were unnecessary. As I cleared things away, the hidden came forth. We really do kid ourselves.
The death of my father many years ago, and dealing with his estate, taught me volumes about the value of de-cluttering. So did the process of moving, and the wisdom of your blog. Too many things weigh down our lives, preventing us from spreading our wings to fly.
John you are so right! In less than 2 years I helped empty 4 homes to the point where I thought I would drown in “stuff”. It changed my entire perspective. I’m also blessed with not being sentimental with much.
I am learning a lot and working every day to minimize things, and you are right they are just things I will be 60 this year, and I want less stuff, less things which will then be less stress, less cleaning etc. I have gone back to one of my favorites reading (relaxing) learning, and happy I follow you and it is my daily reminder, less is better. Books can be shared, not kept. My goal is to travel and that means stuff is not needed.. Thank you so very much for your thoughts, your posts…
Hi Joshua! I was just wondering if your kids swallow hard when they see you noticing a new item they might have brought home!
I am the acknowledged de clutterer in my house and when something can’t be found the cry goes up”mom, did you get rid of my ….?”
I want to straighten out that rep for myself so no more behind the back decluttering.
Linda Sand says
We learned to keep a second set of sheets for each size bed in our house when our daughter woke up in the middle of the night vomiting all over herself and her bed. Not having a dryer meant we couldn’t just wash those sheets and put them back on the bed. We don’t need a second set for every bed just one extra for each size of bed. It’s the rare “just in case” item in our house.
I don’t really own a lot of stuff and the old ones I tend to keep in incase but it takes up a lot of space around my home. I keep wondering how to get out of the mess