Help From a Former Pack Rat: Getting Rid of Stuff


I am writing to you from the trenches — my parents' house in New Hampshire — where the me of today is engaged in battle with the pack rat me of the past. Our battlefield is the drawers, boxes, and bins full of stuff that I left here. Right now, I am happy to say that I am winning — although the fight has not been easy.

Overcoming my pack rat tendencies over the past several years has taken some serious work. Part of the trouble is that, on the surface, being a pack rat can seem very frugal — it's easy to justify keeping stuff by telling yourself that you're saving it to reuse. For example, I used to craft a lot — but when I realized that I had multiple bins of craft supplies sitting around, untouched for years, I had to admit that I had a problem. (See also: Simple-Living Lessons I Learned From "Hoarders")

Below are some of the things that have helped me get rid of stuff — and if you've had a pack rat past, I hope they can help you too.

1. Set a Deadline

People who are able to get things done without deadlines, I salute you. But for me (and so many people I know), a deadline really helps drive productivity. Whether it's something big, like moving, or just agreeing to participate in a neighborhood yard sale, set a deadline to get yourself sorting through stuff.

2. Ask When You'll Use It

This isn't the same as how you'll use it. It's easy enough to look at a bag of yarn and tell yourself “Oh, I'll pick up knitting again sometime.” If you haven't used an item in the last six months and you can't see yourself using it in the next six months, toss it. If you do decide you want to knit again, there's always a good chance someone else will be selling their old gear around that time.

3. Work With a Voice of Reason

It's easy to argue with yourself about whether or not you'll use something and then get frustrated. Ask a trusted friend or loved one to help you sort through stuff and provide another perspective.

4. Get Excited About Making Money

Hey, you don't just have to get rid of stuff — you can sell it. Whether it's at a yard sale, on Craigslist, or via eBay, getting excited about the extra cash your old stuff might bring in can help you get active.

5. Experience the Joy of Giving

I'm not ready to have kids yet, but many of my friends and cousins have started having children...while I still have toys from when I was a kid sitting in my parents' basement. Yikes! But that means I also get to be the awesome person who bestows gifts on all of my friends' kids, and if you haven't seen a kid open a gift recently, let me tell you — it's pretty joyful.

6. Take Pictures

Digital photographs don't take up physical space — unlike the piles of middle and high school art I have. Now, when I'm throwing out art, I always take a digital picture first. That way I can still see my bizarre artwork if I really want to (and I'm serious about the bizarre part — earlier today I found a colored-pencil drawing I did of Scully from "The X-Files" standing near a phone booth on an abstract, multicolor background) without having to carry things around.

7. Go Through Again

I thought it was a good idea to keep some photos from my college photography class...until, when I was going through another closet, I found even better versions of the photos I decided to keep. Revisit what you've decided to keep. After you have a better sense of the big picture, you might be more willing to part with things you had previously decided to save.

8. Save Some Stuff...or Don't

There are two ways to approach what to keep, I think, and it all depends on what matters to you. I'm keeping a small selection of photographs, journals, and items that really matter to me. It makes it easier to get rid of other things when I think about how truly important these items are.

At the same time, getting rid of everything can really help you focus on the present. The important thing is to spend some time thinking about what really matters to you.

9. Remember the Joy of Simplicity

To not be bogged down with stuff, to not be paralyzed by too many choices, to live without clutter — these things are wonderful. Remember that as you get rid of things. Even if you can't sell something, even if you have to give it away for free — in many ways, you are not losing, you are gaining.

Are you a former (or current) pack rat? What helps you get rid of stuff? Leave you answer in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

I used to be a pack rat myself but since moving into a smaller home, I've learned to let go of some of the stuff I have kept from way, way back. Although, I still have pack rat tendencies sometimes.

Guest's picture

One thing I would add - as a former pack rat! - is that the ACT of parting with it is the hardest part. You will NOT miss it once it's gone. That, I think is the hardest and scariest part of making the decision to let something go - you fear that you will miss it and you are hanging onto it to avoid that feeling. But once you let it go, almost as soon as it's out of your sightline, you are over it! Keep that in mind when you are hemming and hawing over something that really has no meaning for you.

Believe me, having emptied out (relatively) closets, space in the garage and room to BREATHE beats that handing it over itch every time!

Meg Favreau's picture

Yes! Great point. At the beginning of the trip, my mom asked me, "Do we have anything you might want?" (They're getting rid of a lot of stuff too.) I took a few minutes to think about it, but the answer was pretty simple: If I've gotten along fine without stuff that's at my parents' house, I definitely don't need it.

Guest's picture

Great Article! I am still a major pack rat, so I really needed this. Parting with old stuff is really the hardest part. It does sound cliche, but its a good piece of advice. I spent a lot of time trying to sell old comic books (hoping other would see their value) and ended up realizing that I'd be better off just giving them away and using the time to be more productive. Parting was tough, but I honestly forgot about them within a couple weeks. Thanks again for the article!

Andrea Karim's picture

I had no idea that you used to be a pack rat, Meg. You struck me as a minimalist since birth.

Meg Favreau's picture

Ha! No way. At some point in middle school, I decided that I wanted to keep everything I ever "created." While I was home, I threw out two giant bins filled with sketchpads featuring bad drawings of "fashions," made-up comic book characters, and portraits of Scully and Mulder.

Guest's picture

I just gave away over half of my possessions because I moved into a smaller home. I am still not completely done, but it has been both freeing and draining. The books were the hardest, and the albums and CDs are still sitting in the kitchen waiting...I was thinking today about when I was headed off to college, and all I owned fit into my Honda. Now, after a marriage (and a divorce) and child, I think it took me two 14ft Uhaul trips to get in this house. But, as I said, half of that is gone. It's amazing, but I'm exhausted. One thing I recommend, a merciless friend or family member who does not let you talk for too long about the stories behind things.
Thanks for sharing!

Meg Favreau's picture

I agree -- as much as I like having some solid furniture that will last me for years, I miss the days of being able to fit everything into my Chevy!

Guest's picture

I'm also attempting to pare down - I moved into a house that was too big, worked hard to fill it, and am now working harder to empty it. Two things I learned in the process that I don't see often mentioned:
1. Most people say if you don't know what's in a box, you clearly don't need it. I almost threw out my birth certificate, an old pass port, and a handful of diplomas that way. Much as I hate to, I now open every box (before pitching most of it).
2. Storing it in my possession will not provide it with value (I can't turn trash into treasure by keeping it in my basement). If I can't donate it mostly as-is, I have little business giving it space in my home, cleaning around it, and fretting over how I let it deteriorate slowly or how/when I will resurrect it only to give it away because even when refurbished I still don't want it.

Guest's picture

Having a garage sale around here never nets me very much. All I get are people with handfuls of change (I live in a rather shabby neighborhood), but it does help some. The leftovers go to a charity that maintains a thrift store. I call them and they pick it up.

Right now, the biggest space-waster is craft stuff. I'm going to actually use it this winter and sell the results at another garage sale in the spring. That's the plan, unless I lose my house and end up selling everything all at once. :P

Guest's picture

Thanks for the encouragement, it's exactly what I needed right now. I'm clearing out stuff as we speak as I found myself starting to slow down and drift off. So, I took my camera out (I thought I was the only one who came up with that idea haha). It is extremely helpful. I have a lot of old toys from childhood and I don't want to waste too much time trying to sell them so I just take a picture and it soothes the parting (it really does)!
I haven't found a good trick for 'papers' yet. It is horrible to sort through it and I am always afraid to throw out a document that I might need later (It's pretty bad, I still have every bank book I ever owned and I'm in my forties! When am I ever going to need to go through the bank book I had when I was sixteen!)
Ok, I better get back to work before I get side tracked :)
Thanks again, I will concentrate on the liberating feeling it must provide when one is all done.

Guest's picture

Make a goal to give away or sell one or two things a week. Before you know it you'll be down to the essentials!