My Ruthless Rules for Stuff

If you've ever browsed through a second-hand shop and wondered who can give away their grandmother's yearbook, or their great-aunt's old wedding dress or their family's heirloom dresser, the answer is me.

I'm the one.

I've never actually had my grandmother's yearbook or my great-aunt's wedding dress or an heirloom dresser. But I feel certain that, at this stage of my life, they wouldn't last under my roof.

I am done hanging on to things for mere sentimental value. I only want things in my house that I will use and enjoy. If I won't use it or enjoy it, I will give it to someone who will or donate it to a charity that will put it to better use.

(I'm so mean.)

This hard-nosed approach is a distinct change for me. I used to be nostalgic to the core. I kept every note I ever passed to me in high school. (Reflect on that a moment. Every. Note.) I kept old clothes that didn't fit anymore and were hopelessly out of date because they reminded me of a sweet moment in time. I shlepped boxes of my childhood toys across the country, and I dutifully cared for the hand-me-down furniture given to us by well-meaning relatives.

Then came move #10. We had almost a full six months to plan this particular transition, and we knew early on we would be leaving behind our large, 5000-square-foot home behind and starting over in a 1900-square-foot townhouse. We knew we would have to get serious about selling, donating or tossing many of our worldly goods to make this happen. So we did. We sold big items on Craiglist, we sold smaller items at a local consignment store and we donated loads and loads to the area Goodwill.

And you know what? It felt GREAT. Turns out, all my childhood stuffed animals had mold on them anyway, thanks to that damp cellar in our Northern California home. And the notes were most illegible. And getting dressed was much easier without all those old clothes hanging in my closet. The more I got rid of, the lighter I felt.

In the midst of the Great Purge of 2006, I read an article in our paper.

Seems there was a local man who, in the 1970s, started collecting kerosene lamps. It was a fun hobby for him, made easier by the fact that he was a truck driver and able to visit antique shops and auctions across the country on his travels.

Problem is, he couldn’t stop collecting kerosene lamps. Or tools. Or toys. The article said he first fell in love with the sing-song rhythm of the auctioneers conducting the sales.

“I used to get half toned up and go to these sales,” he said. “I didn’t care, I’d give them bids.”

Eventually, he ended up with 14 buildings – 14 BUILDINGS! – stuffed with stuff. “And I didn’t even know what was in them,” he admitted. He recently opened a store in his farming community to sell off some of his stuff. The store’s name? Dad’s Good Stuff.

I couldn't stop thinking about that man. His story both amused and horrified me. And honestly, it convicted me. I wasn't a hoarder. But I wondered where one draws the line between holding onto things because of the memories associated with them and holding on to things because stuff is our security blanket.

It renewed my energy to be ruthless as I sorted. In the end, we fit into our cozy townhouse with room to spare.

And you know what? I didn't lose a single memory. They are all in there still, tucked behind the library due dates and the reminders to pick up more orange chicken at Trader Joe's.

So now I live my life under the banner No More Stuff. Everything in my house must meet my two rules: Do I love it? Will I use it? If not, it doesn't stay.

P.S. Corey and the kids are grandfathered in.

This gets tricky in two areas, which I'll discuss tomorrow. But for now, because it's a blustery Monday in my neck of the woods and I feel chatty, tell me your story: How do you decide what stays and what goes?


  1. This is SO great. And timely, as we prepare to have a garage sale in 3 weeks. I'm not nearly as much of a hanger-oner to stuff as my husband, but he has gotten better in recent years. I want everything we own to have a purpose and a place. If it has neither, out it goes. It's hard though. Especially with clothes. Because what if I really DO lose the weight I've gained since moving here? Is it foolish to sell a pair of jeans for $2 and then go spend $30 to replace them? That's where I get stuck.

    1. I tell myself, 1) by the time I lose the weight, the jeans are going to be out of style so I won't wear them anyway and 2) if I lose this stupid weight, I will deserve to treat myself to some new clothes!

  2. My husband grew up in a household that kept EVERYTHING. I grew up in a household that threw it all away. We have come to a compromise - most things get tossed, but we keep some. We have to judge it on an individual basis.

    And I AM keeping my grandmother's wedding dress - but I do have plans to turn it into a quilt someday, along with leftover fabric from my own wedding dress. That way it gets to be sentimental AND practical.

  3. I am completely (!) with you. I have no tolerance for stuff at all. I can trace it back to being raised by professional organizer, Growing up, limits were given to the stuff I could keep ("It must fit in this box with the lid ON", etc.). After college, I spent a year living in a third-world country, and living with very little stuff comparatively, so I grew even more ruthless. Now I'm married to a man who loves stuff and reconciling our two mentalities will ever be our challenge!

  4. Every move I've grown better and better at getting rid of stuff. This current house is the one I finally adopted a similar mantra of "surround myself with things i love". I went without any kind of couch for weeks because i refused to buy some used ugly thing just because i needed it. It feels more like carefully curating art into the house than just settling for hand-me-downs or whatever I came across first. :)

  5. Good for you Kelly! I try to follow the same ruthless rules! I also have a rule for buying something new. If I start out saying, "This is so cute." It gets left in the store. No buying cute stuff. If it's cute it's probably not necessary! Definitely helps me keep the clutter to a minimum. Mostly. :)

  6. I'm in the middle. I'm beginning to purge. I realized this Christmas that I have a lot of decorations. A lot. And I really don't like that many of them. I'm trying to figure out what my "style" is and toss (and purchase) accordingly. The same goes for fall decor, spring decor, summer decor and then just general decor. Do I really need to keep that picture in a frame? Or that one? And, do I even like it anymore? As for sentimental things? I'm super sentimental, but I've managed to keep a lot of those memorable items in one rubbermaid (albeit, a large one) bin. Admission: I still have all my notes from 8th grade. Most are from Mindy. And I still have all my New Kids on the Block posters. I tried to get rid of them this winter, and just couldn't. Ha ha!

  7. Hey. Come over here rub some of that minimalism off onto me, please.

    I feel like my 2 biggest hinderances to downsizing and purging are: 1) Time. And I don't mean I don't ever have time to do things, I mean I don't have time to sit on the floor and make piles or empty closets without said piles and closets being destroyed by my (precious, gentle, calm) children. (I know you feel me on this.) 2) Will I need it next month/next house/next kid? I feel like so much of life is yet to come for us that I have the hardest darn time letting things go that could potentially be used down the line.

    Neither of these excuses apply to the half-used bottles of shampoo or the expired sunscreen in my linen closet though... so I'm clearly not off the hook. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. My husband and I just recently had a conversation about this. We need to have a big garage sale soon and though I don't have a ton of sentimental things around the house, I do still have some furniture that I've had since I was a child that I feel totally guilty getting rid of. But we built this house five years ago and he's right (as are you)- it doesn't go with the style of our new home and I'll be just fine getting rid of it. Thank you for the encouragement. :)

  9. Moving is a big killer to sentimentality. I look at everything and say, "Do I love you enough to PAY someone to haul you to Austin?" The answer is usually no.

    I heard a pro organizer say that for everything in your house should you should ask: Do I love this, or does it love me? Like, I love my dishes. I don't love my dishwasher, but my dishwasher loves me. This has made me get rid of the things I just 'like.' There's no room for like. We gotta be havin a love affair or you're out the door.

  10. I am a chucker, but my husband has the potential to be a hoarder. Sometimes it's really hard because he wants to keep EVERYTHING and I want to get rid of it all. I'm not super sentimental, though I do have a box for each of our kids where I save some special things. Mostly I'm all about tossing it if it hasn't been used within 6 mos to a year. There have been a couple of times that I've regretted getting rid of something. But not enough to turn me into a saver.

  11. I used to be terribly sentimental, but I grew up a sort of nomad. As an adult, I'm still a nomad. So overall, we don't have a ton of stuff (I mean, we do, but we don't have much that's not out there getting used). But I am sentimental. I've lost both my parents, and I miss them fiercely still, and I will keep even stupid things because I don't have much of theirs, and it's a tenuous connection. It's a hard balance. You do feel free when you get rid of lots of things, but then sometimes you miss things too.

  12. That's one of my favorite mottos as well. :)

    A favorite quote that I use to help motivate/encourage clients is from William Morris:

    “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

    Another question I ask (myself and others) is, "What's the *WORST* that would happen if I got rid of _______?

    Keep up the great work!

    I'm a Twin Cities transplant whose also had her share of moving around. So pleased to meet you! :)


  13. I am definitely getting to this point! With 4 kids in a 3 bedroom 1000sq ft house, something's got to give! My husband has move a couple times with only what he could fit in his car. Obviously that's easier done when single, but I'm definitely the sentimental one here! However I did manage to give away ALL my baby boy clothes except one shirt for each child. It probably helped I'll be seeing them on my nephew!
    I am so ready to be out of the baby stage and get rid of all that junk! My maternity clothes are all leaving this week even though that means I only have 2 pairs of pants that fit... Now the scrapbooking supplies on the other hand... Need work!