Friday, April 20, 2012

Organizing Principles for My House

So how am I going to simplify our home?

Three times over the last year, I have donated piles of stuff to a charity that picks up donations at our door. Mounds of things have gone. Outgrown baby clothes and baby gear, old exercise equipment, furniture - anything that we don't use.

I love the principle of "useful, beautiful or loved" - that every possession in your life should be one of those things. But the problem is that so many things are useful or loved. If I kept only those things, I would still be drowning in too much stuff.

So when I pile up the the donations and call up Vietnam Veterans to schedule a pick-up (my charity of choice), here are the principles by which I am culling the house:

1. Storage is a cost. Last year I started reading The American Frugal Housewife, and one sentence stuck in my head: "Keep a bag for odd pieces of tape and strings; they will come in use."  Lydia Maria Child was dealing with a much lower level of prosperity than current Americans possess, but her principle still resonated. How many times had I wasted money buying something new when I could have saved an old thing and used it again?

So I tried it. I tried saving bits of this and that, things that might have a use in future.

It was a disaster. Not because I was saving things, but because I had too much stuff already. It does not matter if you save things if your home is so full of stuff that you cannot find the things you saved when you need them. Then, because you don't have ten hours to search through and reorganize enough to find it, you go out and buy a new thing anyway.

So here is what I learned: storage is a cost. It costs you something. It costs you time and space and potentially money. When I consider whether to save something for future use now, I will ask myself if the cost to me of storing it is worth the savings later. With something precious like books,  the answer is obvious. But with other things, a more realistic answer is usually no. If no, then can someone else use it? Can it be donated? Can it be recycled?

If not, the garbage truck comes every week, and I will have learned not to buy that particular thing again the next time.

2. Everything in my closet fits. If I were in an accident tomorrow, and my husband had to bring me a change of clothes at the hospital, could he grab any random thing from my closet? Or would he unknowingly grab something from the dream-of-fitting-into-it section?

Get rid of those clothes.

Maybe you will lose or gain the weight necessary to wear them again. Maybe you will. But then won't you want the excitement of buying new things? Storage is a cost. By keeping those clothes, I am less able to manage emergencies because I have to manage my possessions.

Maybe the issue isn't size.  I have t-shirts I loved when I bought them that just don't fit right anymore (this is why I'd rather buy all my shirts from thrift stores: they come already shrunk), or have had various unremovable stains installed by small, eager hands. Whatever the reason - if I don't want to wear it, then I why am I keeping it? On a day I'm behind on the laundry, I will wear the ugly shirt, and then I will wash it again and store it again, and so forth. All that effort for a shirt I hate and don't need.

3. If I don't want to wash it, then I don't want to keep it. If a dress or a sweater keeps staying on the bottom of a laundry pile because it has special laundering requirements that I don't have time or energy for, I need to rid myself of that dress or sweater.

Maybe it's not a fancy dress or sweater. Maybe it's something simple you still hate to wash. I HATE clothes with velcro, because the velcro snags everything else in the wash, so I have to be careful what I wash with it.  I will no longer keep kids' hats, gloves or coats that have velcro on them. They are too disruptive to the routine of laundry. I want to respond to my life, not my possessions.

4. Buy it once. I read that bit of advice from Dave Cormier on Bonnie's recycling blog. It put  succinctly something we've applied to furniture, but not always to other things.

Buying cheap and disposable creates more clutter than buying sturdy and permanent. I know this. This is why I don't even bother buying paperback picture books anymore. The children might as well eat them, as long as they last.

If something is necessary enough to buy for my home, it is necessary enough to buy carefully and well.

5. Beware of organizing products. I once went shopping with a friend who said she needed, among other things, a container for her pencils. We went to Target and she paid money for a shiny, empty metal canister that looked exactly like the shiny, empty metal canisters formerly containing high-calorie infant formula that were sitting in my house, waiting to be recycled. It was an eye-opening moment for me. And now my kids' colored pencils are gathered into a shiny metal canister I did not buy at Target.

I'm skeptical of organizing products, not just because it may be manufacturing a false need, but because it suggests a "solution" that may actually make the problem worse.  I love Ikea as much as the next person. So calm! So serene! Full of the promise that you can impose order on your stuff by buying stuff to put your stuff in!

But buying more things cannot make my home contain fewer things. Simplifying my life means living more simply. There is no other way to to do it. I can't simplify my home by adding more stuff to it.

That doesn't mean organizing doodads are never useful. This week I will buy a DVD folder to put all our kid movies in so I can finally throw away the jewel cases. That seems an adequately useful product. Bookshelves are obviously a useful organizer. But I still view with skepticism most products on offer.

6. Admit the limitations of my home.  I have several art nouveau prints we bought when we moved into the house, full of ambition about how to decorate. They have been in my closet for years. We have an old house with real plaster walls over two-by-fours that are actually two-by-fours. A stud-finder cannot find the studs in that 100-year-old plaster. We just have to hammer in a nail and hope we're lucky.

In other words, I cannot hang anything heavy on my walls. There is no reason to keep posters whose frames would (and have) pulled out the hooks I used to hang them. My home has limitations. I should get over it and adapt. Goodbye, art nouveau prints.

So that's it. These are the things I will keep in mind when I am scraping my way through the detritus of our home. What about you? What would you add?


  1. My husband and I love to get rid of stuff. Fortunately we also love to GET stuff so we have endless bags and boxes of stuff to toss out the door.

    Recently we unloaded hundred and hundreds of cds and books. With cds, if we could not remember the lyrics to one song it went out the door. With books, we got rid of anything we'd not read or referenced in 10 years, were unlikely to read again or would be able to easily check out of the library.

    My advice is to never tell a non-resident family member what you are getting rid of. Because they will ALWAYS know someone who might want it, or they will try and guilt you into keeping something or they will suggest some way to repurpose it. I find a firm offer to load the item into their car usually ends the conversation.

    Good luck with the Great Purge of 2012.

  2. I love how you write, with such clarity and forcefulness!

    Taking that into cleaning out your home will serve you well. I have gotten rid of roomfuls of stuff, and there has only been one item I wished I had kept. Honestly, I can't remember what that one item was now, only that I did have one (momentary!) regret after the fact.

    Reading what you have written inspires me to do more. There is ALWAYS more to do, but it gets easier with time.

  3. Thanks for the motivation as I tackle piles of children's toys. I'm terribly sentimental about my kids' old toys. Much more than they are, actually.

  4. "Buying more things cannot make my home contain fewer things." I love this, and I need to post it on my desk and stick it in my wallet and maybe write it on my mirror. It feels good to get something new and shiny and pretty, but then the new wears off and it becomes one more thing that needs to be laundered or dusted or put away.

    Great post, thank you.

  5. Today my husband and I created the organizational mantra for our next two years: do we want to pay to ship this to Africa?

    Suddenly those things I was keeping "Just in case" seem less valuable.

  6. I so need to do this. I've done some purging in bits and pieces, but not enough. Right now my house is full of so much stuff that I'm at that place where I'm overwhelmed by it all and don't know where to start. But start I must.