Conquering the belongings that formerly overwhelmed me

September 12 | Guest post by Matilda
We're definitely keeping THIS item. © by Katie Tegtmeyer, used under Creative Commons license.

I'm moving to Chicago to start law school and for the first time in my life, I've been taking active steps to control the huge amount of crap I own.

There've been many times when I moved to a new place without going through any of my stuff — carrying extra boxes and crates full of unorganized… well, crap. For a long time, all that stuff represented safety to me — security against want and unfulfilled needs. I failed to take into account the fact that when everything's shoved together in a box, it's easy for me to forget I have something, so I'll go buy another… and maybe another, just to be safe. I'm fairly certain this is how I accumulated three boxes of replacement razor blades, four boxes of band-aids, and five umbrellas.

Honestly, though, in the last few years my priorities have really changed. I lived in London for one glorious semester my junior year of college, which forced me to really consider what I needed to live. I lived out of two suitcases the whole four months and did not want for anything. Of course, I hadn't yet conquered my need to buy and hoard things, so I came home with four new pairs of shoes… but it was a good wake-up call about how much of my stuff I genuinely don't need.

I felt empowered to realize that I could go anywhere and do anything with just a few possessions and be totally fine. This opened my eyes to a lot of traveling I've done since then, usually with just a backpack of clothes and basic toiletries.

I've been out of college for two years now and you know, it's really funny how supporting yourself and paying all your own bills reins in your spending. I've also had some experiences with roommates who had so much stuff it overwhelmed them, but were not able to let any of it go because they treasured it so much. Watching one couple try to move out and have meltdowns over the huge amount of books and knick-knacks they had was quite the education.

So, I've been slowly whittling down all my belongings — going through everything I own and really looking at whether it's being used and loved or not. I've gone through my closet, my baking supplies (I'm a cupcake girl), my harp music, my craft supplies — everything I can possibly imagine — picking out large amounts of things to sell, donate or throw away. When I was done, I took a big breath and did it again.

It was a lot of hard work. I took a lot of cues from an article that ran on Offbeat Home about how to move the Army brat way . I didn't follow it perfectly, but it helped me be a lot more ruthless in determining what I should keep around. Another Offbeat Home article about determining where everything belongs helped me sort out in my mind what was actually getting used and what wasn't. If my answer to "where does it belong?" was "nowhere," I really didn't need to keep it around at all. It made me realize… What was the point in keeping all these things that people have given me over the years if I'm just not using them? I've cut down my t-shirt collection from 20+ to about eight that I'm unwilling to part with — I think that was one of the toughest things I had to do.

Though I'm never going to be a minimalist, I'm proud to say that my belongings are more under control now than I think they have ever been in my life. They don't overwhelm me any more. I'm about ready to start putting everything into boxes and loading them up into a container for the ultimate move out. In the meantime, I've got to find my dream studio apartment in Chicago, which will probably be so small that it will set off another belongings purging frenzy. And for the first time in my life, I'm actually really looking forward to it.

  1. Thank you for this! I have struggled with the mountain of boxed crap move three times and I know another is coming in the next 24 months (and most likely to a much smaller place), so it is really reassuring to hear about succesful detachment from crap! Crafting/art supplies are hardest for me. Any specific advice?

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    • I had a really hard time purging my craft supplies! I did use the six month rule for some of my stuff. My main task there was getting rid of bits and pieces that were left over from a one-off project (like sandpaper from a furniture painting experiment) and old things I was hoping to repurpose (after my cute striped socks sat on my shelf for half a year waiting to be turned into armwarmers, I decided it was time to toss 'me). I tried to prioritize what was important to me (my stationary and fancy paper, my embroidery thread) and got it organized so I could actually see what I had at hand. It's a constant work in progress though- I'm beginning to realize that I may never have time to paint again (law school), so am considering getting rid of my paints and paintbrushes.
      I've been trying to sell things of value and larger items- desks, chairs, tv- and donate things like clothing, books and purses that people won't generally buy off Craigslist.
      Sorry if any thoughts seem scattered, typing on my smart phone from my doctor's office and can't see all of the comment at once. :)

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    • I find it much easier to get rid of stuff if I know it's going to someone who is excited to use it. So my suggestion is to find friends or groups who want and will use it. If you don't have friends who are interested, then try knitting groups for yarn or elementary schools for other craft supplies.

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    • In my local area, there is a "craft thrift store" where you can donate craft items of all sorts – even incomplete projects, half-used skeins of yarn, or mate-less knitting needles. All proceeds benefit a local nursing home. There may be a similar thing in your area. Even check with local schools.

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  2. Oh, I so needed this. We live in a 4 bedroom townhouse in the Chicago suburbs right now and are thinking about moving to a 2 bedroom apartment in Dallas. We don't have kids, but we do need a 2nd bedroom for all our stuff (I knit and crochet, hubby plays drums, and cats need some play space). When we moved into our house, I felt the need to FILL it. So we have a guest/craft room, a basement that's a second living room, complete with a couch, chairs, and tables, and a drum room. We have SO much stuff to get rid of! I've only started on my half of the closet so far, but I managed to donate 2 trash bags of clothes already! Next I'll be posting our extra furniture on Craigslist to scrape up some moving dough.

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  3. Yay my article's up!
    So since this was written, I've moved into a studio in Chicago and started law school. The umbrella count is up to 7 somehow, and I genuinely don't know where 4 of them came from. As predicted, I'm slowly getting rid of even more of my possessions. I have an absolutely gorgeous, historic with cool stories building but my room is tiny tiny, with really really tall cabinets and ceilings (I'm short so it's been a challenge). Good to see my article up, it's exactly the push I need to go post even more stuff on Craigslist. :) Anyone want a shark backpack?

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  4. I have 'tinkered' with the purging process, mostly getting rid of clothing and books (the latter broke my heart!). We currently live in a basement apartment, occupying about 500 sq ft, so we don't have that much stuff to begin with. My next goal is purging the collection of art supplies. This is going to be another difficult task for me as I'm very emotionally attached to the items, but I don't use them. My reasoning behind this has always been "I will use them when we get a bigger place, there just isn't enough room to create!" Do you have a six-month rule, i.e. if you don't use it in six months then it's to be purged? Also, how do you decide what to sell and what to donate? That seems like a daunting task in itself…

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    • I have some advice with regard to selling or donating. It is often harder to sell things than to just give them away. If you've ever tried to sell used clothing, it's usually kind of depressing, 'cause they sort through all your stuff and usually turn their noses up at most of it (there is a great Portlandia sketch about this!). And if you plan to list it online or have a yard sale, it becomes easy to have all the stuff you were going to get rid of remain in your house, awaiting sale.

      Sometimes, if you are really serious about getting the stuff the heck out of your house, it's better to just give it away. It also takes much less effort, so it's a great lazy solution as well! :P

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      • Absolutely agree with just giving it away. I have stuff that sits around for months (years?) waiting for me to find the time to sell it … sometimes, generosity is the better option.

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        • And, I've found, even when I'm really worried about money, my time is probably better spent on something career related than on the time it takes to (get myself to) sell things.

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      • A huge YES to giving it away. I gave away so much stuff when cleaning out my grandmother's house, and then after when preparing for an international move, and again when leaving town after my partner and I broke up. I used to feel that if I didn't get a good price for something I was being naive or stupid, but i realized that i felt way better about the two truckloads of stuff i donated to Habitat than the money i made from auctioning stuff. I've learned to let that go and realize that the sense of lightness I feel when I give away something I no longer need is totally worth the (likely small) amount of money I could have made by selling it.

        I watched my grandmother bury herself in her giant house because she couldn't let go of stuff. Having given away her stuff, most of my stuff (I still have an anxiety-inducing and money draining storage unit in the US that I need to go back and empty), and now living in extremely simple conditions, I know I can give it all away again and again and if I need something and can't replace it immediately I really will be ok anyway.

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      • HA – so true with the clothes! I gathered a ton of clothes and brought them to a couple of second hand shops in Portland (I think I really need to start watching Portlandia!) and they literally took nothing of it. My clothes really weren't that lame, but I really felt like $hit afterwards. You can totally skip that step. :P

        I always figure – there's plenty of thrift-shoppers who would be thrilled to have my not-quite-cool-enough for hipsters top and then it's doing some good too.

        One last tip: you can always take pictures of stuff (especially clothes) that is hard to part with or see if you already have some pictures you like where you're wearing it. Usually, if it was beloved, you'll have some "iconic" pictures of yourself in it. :-)

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      • Over the past 3 years I've been purging my hoard and clothes was a huuuge part of it. I just gave them to charity and it was great-instant space. Not sure if you have them where you live but I just started weighing my clothes in at a clothes recycling place. Its not megabucks, but 3 bags of clothes gone and £10 in my back pocket, all in the blink of an eye

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  5. Perfect timing! I'm in the process of packing to move 2 adults, 1 baby and 2 cats into a considerably smaller house. I was going to have a garage sale, but am doing as suggested above by just giving stuff away. I've been emailing friends about stuff I have to see if they would like it and they've just been coming by with their trucks and cars and hauling it away. What a relief! Both my husband and I are mid-century collectors and some stuff is not so easy to part with! So I've been trying to find homes for it with other collectors as I know they will look after my things properly and appreciate them. The house I am in now is also the house that I shared with my late brother, up until the time of his passing, so some things that aren't really important are rendered vital because of the emotional attachments. But as I start giving things away and putting others in boxes, I'm really enjoying how uncluttered the place looks! Perhaps when we get to the new place I'll be able to keep it looking that way?

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  6. I totally feel this post. I have moved many times, sometimes purging and sometimes just shoving everything into boxes. About a year and a half ago I inherited a whole bunch of stuff and have been battling with what to keep and how to get rid of various items. Some of it I want, some of it I feel obligated to keep and some of it I never what to see again. I noticed it goes in stages, after a few months I am ready to get rid of more. My guess is it correlates to the grieving process over the person I inherited from. As the grief softens so does my need to keep everything.

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    • I hear you. As mentioned above, this also happened to me, and while overwhelming, the process of cleaning out the house was, I think, a critical part of the grieving process for me. At first all I could do was watch Clean House and the force myself to get up and put ten things in a trash bag during commercials. It got easier over time. I kept a storage unit full of stuff and now feel a need to go back and let that go too, but that last bit took three years to release emotionally. I found that the process of considering each item and letting it go helped me engage with and let go of my physical grandmother, and conversely that my attachments to certain things were sometimes indications of memories or emotions (guilt, frustration, helplessness) that I was having a hard time releasing.

      Sending you grace and healing as you grieve and sort through it all!

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  7. This is just the kick in the pants I need to go through my stuff. I'm a life-long pack-rat, but I've been working very hard to overcome that the last few years. My basket moment was when I was living in Japan during the big earthquake. My husband and I were fine, luckily, but we moved our already-planned trip to Australia forward by a few weeks to let things settle down. We were sure that it would be safe to return a month later, but had to accept the possibility that the nuclear situation would deteriorate and we'd have to abandon all our things. We were already planning to move back to America, and decided to send anything we would be gutted to lose back home before our trip.

    We sent two very small boxes. It turned out that nearly everything in the apartment was stuff I could live without. I sent some pictures and a few mementos – not much in the end. Asking myself if this is something I would miss or replace or even remember having if it were lost in a natural disaster is a bit extreme, but it seems to be working for me.

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  8. Good luck in Chicago! :) Yeah, I had that lightbulb moment when I moved back from first year at college, and when I helped my sister move apartments… like "who actually needs to carfuls of stuff?!?" Definitely a wake up call.

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  9. We live in a small apartment for the moment, so I pay $114 a month for all my stuff to live cozily in storage…. my husband had his own storage… With the exception of my holiday decorations and giant antique dinning room table and a few things I inherited from my grama I can't really name anything important in there. Just stuff. And boxes of family pictures… Ok ok I'll go through it.

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  10. I learned from my mom to go through everything once a year. This is usually spring or summer, then you know what's in every container and it's easy to remember for later, plus you might be less attached to something this year than you were last year. It's a lot less work than putting it off because you've just seen it last year, and can decide quickly what to do with it.

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  11. After a recent move, I've realized that I still haven't conquered the crap. This post makes me itch to go out and sell all of my books right now. They are boxed up in the garage until I can find a bookshelf I like. But. I have so many. So many I've read once, twice, three or more times. I think I have a trip to the used bookstore on my agenda now!

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  12. I recently got married and moved in with my husband, and Oh, my GOSH did I have a lot of crap to purge. I mean, at least for a 21-year-old who has never had an apartment just on their own… So, I'm still working on making decisions about some things, but most things have a home now, and we have several boxes of stuff to donate. The challenge at this point is figuring out where we can take a box of used-but-in-good-condition clothes — without a car.

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    • I'm having this issue too! I sold my car when I moved out to Chicago and it's tough trying to take things to donate around town without one.

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      • Some charities will send staff to pick up stuff – just be sure to check their i.d. when they come to collect. Good vibes all round!

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  13. OH HOW DO I FEEL THIS POST, LET ME COUNT THE WAYS.
    Me and the Mr. recently moved countries and because i had a pretty good idea this was going to happen in the near future, i instituted a "one in, three out" rule for myself about a year prior to the actual move date. I kept a list, and for every one thing i bought and came home, three comparable things had to go. I found this worked especially well for cutting down my shoes, clothes and books, and let me spread out the shedding of stuff so that the pile left wasn't so daunting. In the end we posted 4 boxes of stuff and brought 2 suitcases with us. I continuously sent friends home with carloads of stuff and held "Crapmas" with my knitting group, where they got to go through ALL my stuff and take whatever they wanted. Merry Crapmas! I would shout as i jammed more bags of clothes into peoples' hands…
    Anyway, by the time we actually came to leaving the house, we still had a lot of crap that was not donatable and no-one wanted, so we rented a 9 cubic meter rubbish skip and filled. it. to. the. brim.
    I have never felt such joy as watching a guy haul away a skip full of crap we had been unable to get rid of.
    Now we live in a one bedroom apartment and are loving not having stuff. moral of long and rambling comment: GETTING RID OF STUFF IS THE BEST

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  14. Since I'm out of work for the moment (summer ending is always sad), I've been using my new found time to do just this. Eighteen years at my parents' house, four years in the city for school, and then back again means I have a lot of unnecessary stuff and not a whole lot of places to put it.

    Honestly, the thing that would help most would be getting rid of all this scrap paper that my mom always brought home from the school for me to draw on. I think I have about four boxes of the stuff. We don't have any recycling centers around here, and no one else wants it. We could burn it, but then I'd just be left feeling even worse about all that paper going to waste. Ugh.

    Oh, and for fellow book lovers torn about getting rid of their collections, you can always donate it to the library! No one will stop you from borrowing a book even if you were the one to donate it, after all. :)

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  15. I LOVE cleaning up the clutter and getting rid of unused things in my house. My fiance does not like to get rid of anything but I explained it to him like this….

    Getting rid of things that we don't use is like giving them another life with someone who will love them more.

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  16. I started treating all the space in my apartment as "real estate" – as in that SPACE has VALUE. A gorgeous piece of ocean front property deserves better than an industrial wasteland, right? In that same way, that prime shelving unit in your living room deserves better than a precarious pile of bills that threaten to fall, and better than that vase you got for your birthday 5 years ago, and you never use, and you don't really like.

    And, my closet space has value that exceeds some old stained shirt that i never wear but keep because it was expensive, once. So, it goes.

    This really really helped me declutter. When i determined the SPACE was worth more than the item occupying it.

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