Sam Holstein

You’re Not Messy, You Just Own Too Much Stuff

You’re Not Messy, You Just Own Too Much Stuff

When people ask me to help them declutter, it’s typically the same story. They learn that I’m a minimalist and I’m very clean, they come over to my space and enjoy the way it looks, and then they say “Hey, could you help me clean up? I’m so bad at it!” I agree to it because I heckin’ love organizing stuff (I’ve considered becoming a home organizer) and we set a date.

The day comes, I show up at their house, and I always say the same thing:

“Well, it makes total sense that you have trouble keeping your home clean. Look around. You have more stuff than this home can fit!”

Their smile falls.

“No no,” they say. “That’s not it. It’s a fine amount of stuff! I’ve had it organized before, in this very home. I’ve just fallen behind. Life has been so stressful. I’m not like you, you know.”

OK, first of all, I’m not “like me,” either. I spent most of my life a dreadfully messy person. My stuff piled up in the corners of my room, my dishes piled up and rotted in the sink, and old food was left to rot on my end tables. I always managed to throw things out before they developed flies, but that was about as good as it got. I wasn’t born tidy, I learned how.

And most of what I learned is not actually that I “learned” anything. I spend about as much time cleaning now as I did back when my stuff was piling up everywhere and my trash cans were exploding at the seams. My dishes still pile up in the sink sometimes. The only thing I learned is that I owned an unmanageable amount of stuff.

Most people don’t believe me when I say this because prior to becoming a minimalist, I owned a perfectly normal amount of stuff. The clothes I owned filled my closet, my dresser, and maybe an under-bed storage box for the winter items. My kitchen stuff filled the cabinets, the island storage, and maybe some rarely used kitchen items at the bottom of the pantry. And if I spent an entire day really getting down to business, all the stuff piles could be neatly put away in shelves and drawers where they belong. But that perfectly normal amount of stuff was way too much stuff.

The proof? When most of it goes, you become an organized person overnight.

That’s what happened to me. I tidied my possessions using the KonMari method, and ever since, I’ve been a supernaturally organized person. It’s taken no extra effort, willpower, focus, or organizational bins — all it took was owning less stuff in the first place.

Very rarely does the person I’m working with believe me. They wanted to hear something else, I think, some kind of magic “organizing” method which will transform their home into a zen monastery and allow them to own 75 shirts.

Organizing is really, really simple.

  1. Pick a place for everything. Make sure that place has enough space for the stuff and is easy to access.
  2. Put stuff in its place when it’s out of place.

The end.

I’m not perfect. I mess up step 2 fairly often, actually. My clean clothes often spend a day or two on my vanity countertop before making it into my closet. But my home never looks like a tornado swept through it. Everything has a place that is easy to access, so it only takes me five or ten spare minutes to put everything back in its place, and then my home is magically clean again.

When people’s homes are a total wreck, they’re often messing up step 1. They picked places for things, but they didn’t pick a place for everything, and the places they picked for things are too small to accommodate the things themselves. They say to themselves, “My clothes will go in the closet and in the dresser,” when they own far too many clothes for one closet and dresser. They own one laundry basket when they are routinely in the habit of dirtying enough clothes for two baskets. They say “My pots and pans go in the left-hand cabinet” when there are enough pots and pans for three cabinets.

The excess has to go somewhere. The mess is where it went.

The excess in our homes is a symptom of the excess in our culture. The size of new homes in the US has tripled since the 1950sSo has the number of outfits the average US woman owns. Unsurprisingly, consumer debt rises every year.

We don’t only feel the effects of this excess in our home organization; we feel it in our constantly climbing credit card debt, payments, and constant low-level financial stress. We feel it in our bodies, when we feel exhausted as we enter our own homes and when we feel we have no energy for hobbies or recreation. Believe me, when you live in a tidy house and with a net positive cash flow, you feel a lot more energetic and ready to learn how to speak another language.

Our excess makes sense. It’s animal instinct to gather up as many resources as we possibly can. But like most of our animal instincts, it’s been perverted by marketing-driven companies to create a consumerist culture so that billionaires can keep making a profit. And it works; we will continue to do what’s natural, to accumulate resources, until we pause and make the considered decision to stop.

Easier said than done.

First, we’ll talk about how to get rid of all the stuff cluttering up your home. Then we’ll talk about how to keep yourself from buying any more.

Decluttering a house is really easy. You just take stuff, put it in boxes, put those boxes in the car, and take them to charity or a secondhand shop or wherever. The hard part is coming to terms with the fact that you would be better off without that stuff.

Barrier #1: “I Need This Stuff!”

Clearly not. If you needed it, you would use it. But it’s sitting on the floor/on the table/in the back of the garage, where it has for years now, completely unused. So no, you don’t need it.

Barrier #2: “But This Stuff Cost a Lot of Money!”

I’ll bet it did cost a lot of money. But you can’t do anything about that now. That money is gone. It was gone the moment you stuck your credit card in the payment machine. You now have only two choices:

  1. Box it up and take it to a consignment shop to make a few bucks, or to charity.
  2. Leave it in your home where it will continue to clutter up your house and make your life worse.

Accepting this stings. It means all the money you spent on this stuff in the first place was wasted. It hurts now, but that pain is a good thing. It will keep you from making the same mistake in the future.

Barrier #3: “I Can’t Afford to Buy More!”

Well, then maybe you shouldn’t have bought it in the first place!

I’m serious. The thing you’re considering discarding right now is something you’re not using. Buying something you don’t use is the definition of wasting money.

So whether you’re chronically poor or just tight on money right now, the best thing you can do is take this thing to a consignment shop, see if you can get a few bucks for it at least, and make sure not to waste money like this again in the future.

Barrier #4: “But What If I Need This Later?”

Home organizing pros like to brush this off by saying “You can always buy it again later!” That’s true enough, but poor people respond with the legitimate complaint “I can’t afford to just throw stuff away and buy it again!” That does get expensive, fast.

First, if you’re a poor person trying to declutter your house, the reality is that you’re good enough at finding stuff despite being poor that you have a house full of stuff. If you found it once as a poor person, you’ll find it again.

Second, the whole point is that you never needed it in the first place. Stop worrying about what you’ll do if you need this item later when you never even needed it in the first place.

Barrier #5: “But I Can Repair These Things!”

You know, I’m sure you can. Human beings are a wonderful and inventive bunch. And if you did repair all those torn clothes and mend all those broken things, you’d save so much money it would blow my mind.

But here’s the thing. You haven’t.

How many things are piled in the corner of your room because you’re “going to fix them?” How many projects are piled in the back of your garage? How many rickety bookshelves, torn shirts, and worn-out shoes are taking up space in your home?

If you were going to get to them, you would have already, but you haven’t. Which makes sense! These projects are a very low priority compared to the important things in life, like feeding yourself and your family, getting work done, making sure the bills are paid, and tending to your health.

If you’re living in a disorganized home, chances are these things are not going well for you. It’s hard to cook healthy meals and do home exercises in a home that is a total wreck. And as long as you keep holding on to the delusion that you’re going to “get to this stuff,” your home will be too messy for you to actually get to what really matters.

Don’t let the sunk cost fallacy distort your thinking. Let go of all these excuses — and let go of your stuff, too.

Once you declutter all your stuff, you have to keep it out of your house.

It’s one thing to read an article about overconsumption and think to yourself “Man, I really need to buy less shit.” It’s harder to see a t-shirt in a store and think “I like this shirt a lot, but I don’t want to buy it.”

Actually, it’s not that hard. It just requires a few mindset shifts.

Shift #1: Don’t Go to the Store for Fun

A lot of people shop for fun. Going to Target and buying a bunch of fun stuff is their idea of a treat. Going to Macy’s and coming home with new clothes or shoes makes them feel like they’re living a decent life.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel good after going to Target and buying a bunch of fun stuff too. But I don’t feel good 7 days later when the stuff I bought is laying around my house and the money is gone from my wallet. I don’t feel good when the clothes I bought end up hanging in my closet (or sitting in a pile at the bottom of my closet) forever.

Stop viewing the store as somewhere you go for fun. Start viewing it like a chore, like going to the grocery store or running an errand to the post office. After all, they have the same vibe; big ugly warehouses, underpaid employees, large dirty parking lots… what’s fun about that?

Next time you want to get out, treat yourself, have a nice day off, whatever, take yourself to the park. I like to bring my hammock, books, laptop, and some snacks. Some people bring a football, others folding chairs. Bring whatever sounds fun to you. Or go to a coffee shop. Or the local library (they are like coffee shops, but free).

Some people, when they try to shift bad habits to good ones, go too far. They bring only a book to the park and then end up bored because they’re not that interested in reading. Don’t do this. You’ll just end up shopping again. Just have fun somewhere that doesn’t sell things.

Shift #2: Liking Something Is Not a Good Enough Reason to Buy It

In my favorite ContraPoints video, she makes a fabulous point about beauty:

“You cannot possess beauty.”

But as she points out, so much of our culture is an attempt to possess beauty — more broadly, to possess what cannot be possessed. We feel tempted to buy things because we like them, and we like them for their immaterial qualities; we think they’re beautiful, cool, edgy, refined, dignified, adult, or any number of things. We buy them because we hope that by owning them, these qualities will rub off on us.

We sometimes tell ourselves stories about how we want things because they’re “more functional,” but these stories are lies. You can tell they are lies really easily: Because if it truly were about the new thing being functional, you would have had an urge to buy the new thing before seeing it in the store.

I remember to buy new shoes without going to the store because my old, worn-out shoes hurt my feet. But I don’t think about buying a new backpack because my current backpack works just fine. So if I see a cool new backpack in the store and want it, I know for sure that my desire is a reaction to an emotional response, not a legitimate need.

The desire to buy things is tricky. We can see something we have never wanted before and immediately start coming up with a dozen reasons why it’s a legitimate need. I’ve done this myself. There were a few years there where I was trying hard to be a minimalist, yet still ended up buying stuff every now and then only to realize two weeks later that I’d been duped yet again.

I’ve finally overcome this annoying habit. Here’s how I’ve done it:

  1. I’ve taken to just totally ignoring the desire to buy something in a store. If I’m in Target and I see a beautiful candle I want, I think to myself something like “Oh, if I were here to buy a candle, that would be the candle I would buy, but I’m not here to buy a candle.”
  2. If the urge persists, I recall all the other times I bought candles like this one and lived to regret it. If you’ve already gone through the decluttering process, this is easy, because you’ll have memories of boxes and boxes of stuff that you ended up just donating, stuff you paid good money for… like the candle sitting in front of me. Thanks for the offer, Target, but I think I’ll keep my money in my pocket this time.
  3. If the urge still persists (I’ve probably spent five or ten minutes staring at the item in the store by now), I don’t have any memories of living to regret a particular purchase, I’ll ask myself if it supports any of my goals. For instance, I’ve never really spent money on desk organizing stuff. Would buying a lovely set of desk organizing stuff support my goals in life? Let’s think about it: Having an organized desk is important, but I don’t spend much time at my desk at home. I spend a lot of time out and about with friends. So keeping the money in my pocket, to spend either at coffee shops or investing into my future, is a better use of my money.
  4. Last step, I leave the store without the item. If I still want it tomorrow, I come back and buy it tomorrow. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done it, and I didn’t end up regretting any of them.

By the time I’ve moved through these four steps, I’ve filtered out 90% of the stuff I would have otherwise taken home with me. I never experience any regret the day after, either, nor do I regret it now. Looking around my home while I write this article, I’m very grateful to my previous self for not wasting my money on stuff that would have just ended up as clutter anyhow.