There are many reasons why you might choose to whittle down your belongings. Perhaps you’re planning to move into a smaller and more manageable home. Or you’ve decided to devote more of your time and money to traveling, seeing family, or having new experiences, rather than to shopping for—and maintaining—more stuff.
Maybe you’re becoming more aware of the environmental or the ethical impact of consuming more consciously, or your tastes and priorities are shifting as you grow older. Or you could be one of the millions of people intrigued by the growing popularity of minimalist trends, inspired by bestseller Marie Kondo or by the alarmingly named phenomenon that is Swedish Death Cleaning.
But when you set out to declutter an entire home, especially one in which you’ve accumulated possessions over decades, it can be so overwhelming that you don’t know what to focus on or where to start. If that’s where you are in the downsizing process, working your way through the following ten categories—in whatever order appeals to you—will get you well on your way to a seriously downsized home and a new perspective on what you really need.
1. Clothing, Shoes, and Accessories
The closet is often the first place people turn when they want to cut some clutter from their lives. There’s just something satisfying about clearing out unworn clothes, shoes, and accessories. But although the result is rewarding, downsizing your wardrobe can be tough. You might be holding on to clothing that represents a former career, a size you no longer wear, or the guilt that accompanies having invested in pricey pieces you didn’t get much use out of. But a move or other new adventure is the perfect time to overcome these obstacles.
To seriously reduce the size of your wardrobe, assess every item—even the small things like T-shirts, socks, and jewelry—and get rid of anything that you wouldn’t wear right now (if the weather and occasion were appropriate). Get rid of anything that doesn’t fit, physically or otherwise. If you’re moving, pay special attention to whether your clothing will work in your new location; if the move is tied to a new job or retirement, factor in your new daily lifestyle, too.
2. Furniture and Home Decor
Even if it’s easy for you to part with a stretched-out sweater or too-tight pair of shoes, it can feel wasteful to get rid of large household items like your couch or dining room table. These items take up lots of space, can be costly to replace, and often have been in your home for many years.
But don’t let all of that stop you from honestly evaluating your furniture, along with decorative pieces like artwork, and asking yourself whether you still use or truly enjoy each item. Determine what fits with your current lifestyle and, if you’re moving, what you will need in your new home and new life. Keep in mind that transporting large, heavy items can sometimes cost as much as buying new ones.
3. Hobby Equipment
If you’ve ever gotten interested in fitness, painting, or any other activity that requires special equipment, you’ve probably accumulated a stash of stuff you no longer use. But if you gave up knitting in 1993, it’s time to admit you don’t need boxes full of needles and yarn anymore. This can be surprisingly difficult, because so many of these items either were acquired as part of a self-improvement project or represent a real passion. We truly intend to learn the guitar; we really want to be the kind of person who rides an exercise bike every day. And no one wants to be the kind of person who sheepishly drops off their unused yoga mats at Goodwill.
A more useful way to think about this unused stuff is that there’s nothing wrong with trying something new and realizing it didn’t work for you. It’s far better than never having had the interest in the first place, and you probably learned something about yourself in the process. You may have since found an activity you enjoy more; if not, you may find one in the future. But holding on to the tools of an abandoned hobby doesn’t move you any closer to that future. Let them go and make room for an activity you’ll actually feel motivated to do.
4. “Junk Drawer” Items
Even the neatest of households can unwittingly accumulate dry ballpoint pens, single socks, broken gadgets no one will ever repair, and assorted thingamajigs of uncertain origin. If you don’t know where to begin downsizing, this is a safe place to start. It is probably the quickest, easiest, and most immediately satisfying category to declutter, and cleaning out your junk—whether or not it’s literally in a designated junk drawer—is a relatively mindless project that lacks the emotional or logistical decisions that can slow you down in other areas.
You can tackle your junk by dividing your space into sections; clearing out a desk or small room might take just minutes. Or, you can dedicate a day or weekend to walking through your house, garbage bag in hand, searching for caps that fit no bottle, buttons that match no coat, or any other extra bits and pieces you don’t need.
5. Duplicates and Backups
Not everyone will have a lot in this category, but if you’re a “just in case” type or a “buy it in every color” shopper, you might have closets full of things you’ll never use, acquired out of a habit that’s no longer serving you. Some backups are good to have around; it’s only logical to stock some extra paper towels, batteries, and pantry staples. But this tendency can get out of hand when it leaves your space cluttered with goods you don’t really need. And that’s especially true if you’re getting ready to pack and move.
Items to get rid of in this category include unopened foods, medications, vitamins, and beauty products you’re not intending to use soon. Check their labels, because these often expire faster than you’d think. Also look out for frequently misplaced items like umbrellas and reusable shopping bags. It’s handy to have multiples of these, but it’s also easy to accumulate too many. You may also encounter duplicates in the clothing, kitchen, or other categories, and recognizing them as such will help you part with them. If you’re moving, getting rid of backups you don’t need will help make packing and unpacking easier. It can also help you get away from a clutter-creating mentality.
6. Kitchen and Dining Gear
Cookware, gadgets, dishes, coffee mugs, and all things cooking- and dining-related are among the most fun items to buy and the least enjoyable to declutter. They’re fragile, heavy, and useful (unless they’re broken), so it can be hard to justify giving them away. Plus, like clothing and hobby equipment, they sometimes represent a phase of life that’s over (for example, wine glasses for those cocktail parties you used to throw), or an unrealized dream (such as specialized tools for those elaborate meals you once thought you’d enjoy making).
But having more kitchen goods than you need leads to serious clutter, and having to bring them all with you when you move is a bubble-wrapped nightmare. Unless the unused item is a beloved heirloom, pass it on to someone who will actually use it. After all, you can always find another spiralizer if you feel the need to make zoodles someday.
Bedding, towels, throw rugs, and other bulky inhabitants of the linen closet are easy to hoard, even if you don’t intend to. You start out needing extras for guests and cold nights, or wanting to change the look of a room, and, before you know it, you’ve got a closet full of soft, cozy clutter. To cut down, discard any items that are torn, stained, or badly frayed. Then get rid of any items you don’t actually use, whether it’s because you don’t like them or you simply don’t need them anymore.
If you’re moving soon, think about the number of boxes — and the amount of space in a moving truck — unnecessary linens can occupy. And of course, if you’re moving from a five bedroom house to a two bedroom condo, you won’t need as many pillows and blankets, and, if you’re moving from the coast to the mountains, you probably won’t need that many beach towels.
8. Outdoor Equipment
You might not think of this category as a potential clutter zone—in fact, it’s easy to ignore lawn mowers, garden tools, and outdoor furniture or decorative items altogether when you’re not using them. Because they’re usually stored not in the house but in a garage or shed, they’re easy to buy, stash away, and put out of your mind. So you may wind up with a collection of outdoor equipment far beyond what you really need. Let go of anything that doesn’t function properly or that you haven’t used in a few years.
If you’re moving, consider whether you’ll need the same tools and toys in your new space, climate, and lifestyle. You might balk at parting with larger, more expensive items if there’s even a small chance you’ll use them someday. But, as with furniture, it can sometimes be financially and logistically easier to find new items that better fit your needs once you’ve reached your new location.
Nearly everyone keeps some treasured memories of the past, like an album of family photographs or a collection of personal letters. Most people also have collected quite a bit of less meaningful memorabilia—items they never intended to save but don’t feel quite right about discarding. This could include birthday cards from relatives, souvenirs from long-ago vacations, and anything that blurs the line between keepsake and clutter.
There are two ways to handle this sort of unintentional collecting. The first is to save the items, or a select few of them, in a manner that reduces the space they take up; for example, you can scan those nostalgic birthday messages before tossing the paper cards. The other is to train yourself to think differently about the significance of physical objects. You don’t need old ticket stubs or fridge magnets to remember the shows you’ve seen or the places you’ve visited.
10. Long-Term Storage
These items often live in a basement, attic, or storage unit, and, unlike the memorabilia mentioned above, they once served a real purpose. They are often documents, like bank statements or college notes. But they can also be toys from your grown children’s youth or sets of high school yearbooks. It can be hard to simply shred or donate these items, even if you haven’t looked at them in 20 years. And yet, you probably don’t want to store them for the rest of your life, especially if you’re about to move.
To pare down these items, start with anything that doesn’t belong to you. Ask your kids if they want their old books, papers, or teddy bears. They may come and get them; they also may give you the green light to toss everything. Then, determine if anything really important is lurking in the remaining clutter. Documents you need to keep can often be digitized to save space. As for anything you don’t need, ask yourself if it makes you truly happy knowing it’s stored in your home. Also be honest about whether you’ll ever really go rummaging through those boxes for a particular memory. If the answers indicate that the stuff isn’t a meaningful part of your life anymore, it might be a good time to give it up.
If you’re moving, you might not want to cart hundreds or thousands of heavy volumes with you; if you’re working towards living a more streamlined life, it may suddenly strike you as wasteful to be hanging on to all those books collecting dust or from your college courses that you haven’t read in decades.
To pare down your personal library, start by going through your books one by one (yes, it’s tedious, but it’s worth it and can even be fun when it leads to surprise literary re-discoveries.) With each book, ask yourself the following questions:
- Will I read this again?
- Do I need this as a regular reference for work or life? If yes, is the same information now available online where I can access it just as easily?
- If I lost this book, would I notice?
- Would I make an effort to replace it?
- Would it be easy and affordable to replace?
- Do I really enjoy owning this book, or am I just keeping it to remember that I read it?
Making a list of books you’ve read can help in the process of decluttering and there’s even an app for that called Good Reads
- Is this book meaningful to me as I am today, or is it a more of a souvenir of another time in my life?
- Is it truly a cherished keepsake or simply an old item you no longer need?
- Do I have duplicate copies of this, and is there a reason I need more than one?
Who Will Take My Unwanted Books?
Some people hang on to old books because they don’t know how to dispose of them. If that’s you, there are usually plenty of options.
- Many libraries accept donations of books, usually for fundraising sales.
- Some used bookstores will buy books; they may also offer to donate for you the ones they can’t buy. (For rare or antiquarian books, search for dealers in your area, who may or may not be associated with a brick and mortar bookshop.)
- If it’s permitted in your city, try setting your books out on the sidewalk with an eye-catching “FREE” sign.
- Seek out a Little Free Library near you, or start one yourself.
- Inquire whether your local resale and thrift stores accept donations of books.
- Have a tag sale and include a book section with attractive pricing.
- Gift books to friends and family members in accordance with their tastes and interests.
- Find out whether a school, prison, shelter, or community center in your area would welcome donated books.
- There are many nonprofit organizations that facilitate the donation of your books to readers around the world. Just do some searching online to find one whose mission and method works for you.
Downsizing and moving can be both stressful and exciting. It’s also the perfect time to embrace one of the key lessons of decluttering: Many possessions come into your life for a specific period of time. When that season is over, and their usefulness and value to you are gone, you can feel free to let them go — to help make room for your adventures that are still to come.