7 Smart Ways to Free Yourself from Your Stuff

Stuff. We’ve all got it. We want more of it, yet we seem to have too much already. Whether you’re drowning in clutter, can’t display all your favorite photos or knick knacks, or you really want to move into a smaller pad, your stuff is on your mind, and you probably aren’t very happy about that. What has your stuff done for you lately?

Having too much stuff for your space isn’t just a pain, studies show that clutter can actually contribute to stress. What’s worse, it costs you money. So, if you’re ready to clean up, simplify, de-clutter or downsize, read on, my friend. This is how you’ll do it.

1. Write Down What’s Most Important to You

This doesn’t mean the things that are most important to you– you probably already have a hard time figuring that out. Write down what you want most out of life. Think of the kind of accomplishments you dream about, the kind of experiences you want to have and what aspects of those you’re working toward right now. Every time you make a new purchase, or concern yourself in some way with the upkeep of your many things, you become distracted from these more meaningful pursuits.

While a comfortable life in a comfortable home may certainly be a part of your dreams, it’s unlikely that you would reflect on your life and think, “I’m am so glad I was able to have a nice house and fill it with things. Nothing is more important than that.” Could that even possibly be the meaning of life? To spend, consume and collect?

You and I both know it isn’t, yet it’s a trap of middle and upper class America. It’s part of what we call “first world” problems– struggles that billions of others around the globe wish they could have the chance to worry about. So instead of accumulation, it’s time to start thinking about elimination.

List 5 or 10 “bucket list” goals– accomplishments or experiences you want to have before, you know… you kick the bucket. With those written down, what can you turn into a near-term objective? What concrete steps could you start taking toward your dream?

Because advertising, public perception, and those dang Joneses to keep up with are all ever-present, it’s important to find simple ways to remind yourself of your deepest motivations. No one else is doing it for you. Most things are just distractions. Put your dreams or objectives on post-it notes where you are sure to see them all the time: your nightstand, bathroom mirror, television, your car’s dashboard, your desk, etc. Train yourself keep your own priorities top of mind. It’s amazing how behavior starts to change.

2. Start Making Some Easy Decisions

Having too much stuff is about avoiding decisions, or setting the default switch to “get” and “keep” rather than “do” and “accomplish.” Before you get to add another pair of pumps to the closet, set a goal to go one or two or ten weeks without repeating a pair (whatever it takes to exhaust your shoe inventory). Either you end up realizing you don’t need any more after all, or you decide which two pairs need to go to buy one more. Do the same thing for jeans, button down shirts, or whatever– wear your way through them. Think about what you’ve got. If you do spring for a new item, be sure to swap out two old ones.

Teach your kids the same process for toys and other “must-haves.” If they really want that new thing, they’ve got to let two old things of equal or greater value go.

Want a new kitchen gadget or other amusement that you’ve had your eye on? Sometimes, the simple act of doing, precludes buying. A Cuisinart doesn’t make you cook. Running shoes don’t make you run. A Kindle doesn’t make you read. Try doing any of these things for a week or more without making a purchase. Either you discover you didn’t need it, only wanted it, or you really could use it, in which case, you’ve earned it!

Can’t bear to curb your buying habits just yet? Then start tracking every purchase and see what it tells you about your budget. Then try this: track the time you spend shopping, online and off. What else could you be doing with your time and money? Oh, I know, you already wrote something down on a post-it note. What is it?

3. Get On a Schedule

Willpower is like a muscle that tires when exercised. The best way to ensure your willpower works for you is to preserve it with pre-planned routines. The fewer decisions you make on the fly, the better your decisions will be. For example, limit your online window-shopping to certain times of day. Set appointments for offline shopping.

When it comes to eliminating what you already have: set goals for finding one item a day to remove from your house, for example, no matter how big or small. Don’t binge on it, just let your evaluation process slowly develop. Small, consistent steps help you develop the mindset and habits you really want, and here are some practical steps for specific kinds of stuff.

4. If your problem is paper…

Get a scanner, hard drive and shredder. It’s important to know what’s needed and what isn’t, but it you can scan, store and eliminate the paper, it doesn’t matter nearly as much whether you decide to keep the file or not. I once had a dozen or more boxes of “files” sitting in my basement and office, just because I wasn’t sure about what to do with them, and put off the process of getting rid of them. What was so important about all these papers? Not much.

Most households don’t need more than a single small filing cabinet to hold all their important records. In fact, it’s a good idea to destroy old records after they are no longer useful. For example, the IRS only requires you to keep tax records for three years (or six years if you under reported earnings by 25% or more). You only need to keep bills that help in proving tax deductible expenses, but otherwise, shred the old one when the new one comes in.

Set an appointment with yourself to scan and shred mail and other documents at least weekly, so the job is quick and painless. Grab a small stack out of old files each time, just to keep picking away at it. You might even enjoy scanning holiday cards and your kid’s doodles!

A one terrabyte hard drive holds as much as 250 DVDs of data, or approximately 2,000 file cabinets of documents. That means you don’t have to be all that choosy about what you keep and what you don’t, because it’s all contained on one small hard drive. It’s also a good idea to back up your most important files online and to be extra careful you can also store the hard drive in a fire proof safe when you’re not using it.

5. If your problem is furniture and family “heirlooms”…

First question: Do you actually like the piece? Many times, we can’t stand to get rid of “perfectly good” furniture, or things that other relatives have owned, just because we’ve had them forever. If you don’t really like the thing, see if other family members or friends do, and let someone else enjoy it. Sentimental “value” just means that it helps you remember something important to you from the past. How else could you have those memories? Photos? Other items that you like more?

On the other hand, when you really do like something and want to keep it around, or want to replace it due to wear and tear, it’s a good idea to investigate refinishing or re-upholstery. A fresh look for an old piece is a great way to quell the spending urge, and to encourage creativity with the items you already own.

Second question: How does the space flow? Massive over-stuffed furniture has taken up residence in the tiniest of places– some so big for the room it seems the house was built around it. Get a second opinion on what really fits, not just the size of the furniture, but the number of pieces, too. You live with it for so long, it can feel normal, when others can more objectively tell you it’s crowded in there!

Third question: If you stuck the item in storage, would you miss it? Should you find that you don’t need it around, what’s the plan for it? There are countless stories of self-storage units filling up with stuff, only to be left and never opened until some stranger buys it at auction. It may make sense for you to store some things (from any or all of the categories we’re discussing here) so that you don’t have to get rid of them permanently because you can’t manage that decision just yet, you’re waiting on someone to take it, or you’re living arrangements will change, and you expect to need it again. Whatever the case, you can use storage to experiment with what you really need to have around and what you don’t.

6. If your problem is clothing, blankets or linens…

Vacuum-compressed storage bags are a great way to store extra clothes and such, saving space, and sealing out dirt, moisture and bugs at the same time. Under-the-bed boxes and closet organizers help, too. But those aren’t really addressing the problem: you have too much stuff.

In addition to the technique above for justifying new clothing purchases, check for what you haven’t worn in two full years to see what you can lose. What would make you start wearing that thing now? If that simple reasoning isn’t enough to empty a good chunk of your closet, select a handful of neglected season-appropriate items and lay them out in a prominent place to wear each of them in the next week or two. Can’t manage to do it? You must not need (or even want) those garments. Give them to a consignment shop to make a few bucks back, or just donate them at the nearest charitable thrift store or collection box. Do the same thing with your shoes, hats and outerwear.

Most people can wear about half their current wardrobe; the rest is just taking up space. The sooner you rid yourself of things you don’t wear, the more likely they are to still be in style and be worth something on consignment.

For those extra blankets and linens, having twice the sheets as you do beds is more than enough, get rid of any extra sheets. Now, imagine that your house is at full capacity with family and guests in the middle of winter. First, is that ever going to happen? If you really think it might, then dole out all the blankets and comforters until your imaginary brood is toasty and warm. What’s left? Ditch it.

7. If your problem is childhood memorabilia, souvenirs and such…

Remember, like we said above, sentimental value is in the memory, the feeling. How many things do we need to have around to evoke those treasured feelings? Photos, videos, scrapbooks and journals can all be used to capture the essence of important days and events from our lives, and those of our children and loved ones. What is the use of 87 swimming trophies after your daughter has left for college?

As your children age, go through items accumulated over the past year, and work on reducing them by half. Use those items in creative ways to make scrapbooks each year. Use an old steamer trunk or other large container to let your child choose whatever he or she wants to keep… so long as it fits! You can do the same. The very act of sorting through old keepsakes and reminders of past events is the perfect way for them to serve their purpose. You could even take video of the process, and not risk forgetting a thing.

Lightening your load isn’t just about space, spending or frugality. It’s about making room for what matters in your life, and getting you ready for new experiences. The burden of too much stuff limits your choices in more ways than you know. Until you start to free yourself, you may never see it.

Kenneth McCall builds creative and innovative tools for customers seeking self storage units. Kenneth is the director of operations at storage.com which provides self storage San Antonio listings, and storage units in many locations across the country. In his spare time he likes to get outside, ideally with a boat and waterskis.

2 Responses to 7 Smart Ways to Free Yourself from Your Stuff

  1. Wow, excellent and thorough article. It’s funny you never realize how much stuff you have and how much of it you won’t miss until you do something like a cross country move and have to get rid of a bunch of it. I had to do something along those lines recently and i must say, I don’t miss the clothes/furniture I let behind one bit! Instead, I’m enjoying having a cleaner closet and a clutter free space to live in :)

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