Back when my wife and I bought our current house in 1998, we thought it was huge. 1800 square feet of luxurious space, just for the two of us, our cats, and (we figured) a child at some point in the next few years. After the first child was born, our plan went, we'd move to a larger house and get to work on another.
Just the regular old American dream, in other words. But like most dreams, reality turned out a little differently. The first child turned out to be twins, we decided to stay in the house for a little longer, and then our third child made his appearance. Jobs changed, we both started working from home, and spare rooms got turned into offices.
Now, nine years later, the place is full-to-bursting with all manner of stuff. Our once-huge home seems tiny and cramped, and design features we thought quaint and unique nine years ago have turned out to be royal pains in the you-know-what.
But mostly, it's that stuff. Toys, books, old furniture, books, boxes, too-small kid clothes, books, papers, books ... our stuff (not to mention our books) has overwhelmed us. Since we are, finally, planning to move -- next year -- we've started to work on cutting down our extraneous stuff.
And it turns out that getting rid of stuff is pretty easy, but in some ways it's not as easy as I'd thought.
What to get rid of, and how to get rid of it
Clutter -- the state of being overwhelmed with stuff -- is a problem for lots of us in acquisition-happy America. So many of us struggle with it, in fact, that there's now a whole industry devoted to helping people deal with, organize, and eliminate clutter. Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) and Target (NYSE: TGT ) have whole sections devoted to "organizers," little plastic doodads that supposedly help you fit more of your stuff into closets, drawers, and bins. Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) is in on the action, too, with aisles devoted to full-scale closet organization systems and modular shelving.
We did all that -- got the shelves, the bins, the doodads, and even a couple of the closet organizer systems. But eventually, we got to the point where even the most ingenious organizer thingies weren't enough to save us. Our hallways were getting narrower, thanks to the bookshelves lining them. Our closets were stuffed, the organizers straining under the loads.
It was clearly time for us to start unloading stuff, though it took the idea of moving to actually get us motivated to do it. As we went through the house, the garage, and the yard, figuring out what we could do away with, we divided the stuff into categories:
- Stuff to sell. For us, this was a pretty small category, mostly because we didn't think the hassle of selling stuff would be worth the money. But we did decide to sell a few items -- some musical equipment, some relatively valuable books -- via eBay, and we did bring some items to a friend's garage sale. I have to say the garage sale was something of a disappointment -- we sold plenty, but we were still left with an awful lot afterwards. If we had had larger items to sell, we probably would have tried an ad on Craigslist before resorting to the old standby, a newspaper classified. In our part of the world, Craigslist advertisements seem to draw a larger and more immediate response than newspaper ads -- and besides, they're free.
- Stuff to give away. We gave away a lot of stuff that we probably could have sold, given sufficient time and patience. A great way to find new owners for your old stuff is via your local Freecycle list, which is an area-specific email list for people looking to get rid of (or acquire) old stuff free of charge. In our case, several bicycles, my old skis, assorted pieces of old furniture, and some baby items went to happy new owners via Freecycle. The best part: The new owners came right to our house and took the stuff. (Don't underestimate the value of that one.)
- Stuff to donate. Stuff that is too good to be trash, but that nobody seems to want, can often be donated -- and you may be able to get a nice tax deduction for it. Our preferred donation charity is our local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, not least because they send a truck to our house to pick things up, but most areas have at least one or two similar organizations.
- Stuff to throw away. We had a lot of stuff to throw away, including the remnants of an old woodshed I'd torn down a few years back, flood-damaged lumber, broken furniture we couldn't offload any other way, and boxes of, well, junk is the best way to put it. It turns out that getting rid of this much trash is complicated: The trash pickup guys balked when we put even a (relatively) small amount of it by the curb, and the crew at our town's landfill weren't willing to take more than a couple of minivan-loads worth. (And speaking of things I always thought were huge, my Dodge Grand Caravan never seemed even a little bit like a small car until I tried to load it with junk. Or maybe we just had a lot of junk.) Ultimately, we ended up calling our local hauling company and ordering a Dumpster (properly called a "roll-on", they told me). $350 and a hard day's work later, a ton and a half (literally) of junk was gone from our lives forever.
Lessons learned? The return on selling stuff often isn't worth the time and hassle. Not having to transport stuff to its new home (whether that home is a friend's house, a charity, or the dump) is worth a lot. And finally, having all that old stuff out of our lives is wonderful. Suddenly our little house seems a lot bigger, and I doubt I'll miss a single thing we've discarded.
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Fool contributor John Rosevear does not own any of the stocks mentioned above. Wal-Mart and Home Depot are Inside Value recommendations. The Fool's disclosure policy lives an uncluttered, focused, Zen-like existence.