The Only 5 Words You Need to Declutter Your Life


In 2008 I downsized my personal belongings by 85% when I moved into Dinky Manor with Mr. Foxypants, my now husband.

Initially, Mr. Foxypants and I agreed that we would both downsize our belongings by 50% in order to fit the acquisition of our two adult lives into a 1000 square foot house with terrible closet space.

Downsizing by 50% was easy. I managed that in just a few weeks by creating a game called "Do I like this object more than my boyfriend?" Since I have OCD, I really wanted to avoid negatively impacting our relationship with my personal clutter issues. I never wanted to be in a position where we would argue about my stuff. Conflict avoidance is a huge motivator for me. (See also: This Is How You Declutter and Keep Your Stuff, Too)

However, I soon realized that 50% wasn't going to cut it. The 1937 layout of Dinky Manor wasn't designed for 21st Century life. Our house predates both television and refrigeration, so just arranging our major appliances in our tiny, period kitchen was challenging.

Because I love a good challenge, I decided that I would downsize by 90%. After speedily ditching half my belongings, I thought, "How hard could this be?"

Not that hard, but still hard enough that I actually didn't make my goal of downsizing by 90% because I couldn't bear to purge my enormous crafty crap stash of fabric and yarn. But I made it to 85% with the help of the 5 R's.

1. REFUSE (To Bring In More Stuff)

Curbing consumption is actually the first step in downsizing. I think of it as a diet for my home. To this end I try and get rid of 10 things a day. I will not keep my house free of clutter and shrink my carbon footprint with a one-in-one-out policy. In order to cut my clutter I also:

  • Refused to acquire new-to-me clothes, furniture, or house wares until I found a place for everything I already owned.
  • Refused to restock the pantry until I'd eaten through my current food stash. (This took two months).
  • Refused to bring single use items into my home. And by single use I mean items that generally are used only once like wrapping paper, plastic shopping bags, drinking straws, and little hotel shampoo bottles. In addition to being environmentally unsustainable, single use items were using up precious storage with their additional packaging. Most importantly, by using "convenience" items I was making mindless consumption a habit. Doing a periodic trash audit helps me discover where I am over-consuming in my home.

Decluttering Is the Mother of Invention

The direct result of refusing to bring new things into my home was innovation. I was forced to find reusable replacements for all my convenience goods. This is actually easier than it sounds because single use items only rose to prominence in the last 30 years and I am old enough to remember when everyone drank from the drinking fountains or thermoses rather than disposable water bottles.

If I couldn't think of a suitable reusable replacement, I called my mom and dad and asked what they used when they were growing up instead of Saran Wrap (a plastic shower cap) or a to-go coffee mug (a jar with a tight fitting lid). Every single use item has its reusable counter part. Often it took just a few moments of looking around the house to find a suitable reusable replacement — a practice that is actually way more convenient than driving to the store to buy consumables.

2. REDUCE (What You Already Own)

The ease that I was able to part with half my stuff taught me a very important lesson: If it's easy to part with, then it's not something I really need in my life. Clearly, I was massively over-consuming, a fact that was really difficult for me to admit to myself, as I have always prided myself as being a very careful, and efficient shopper. I rarely go shopping and when I do buy something, I try to buy used to conserve resources. Alas, all my anti-consumerist smugness had gone to waste; I might be a minimalist compared to my fellow Americans, but I was still collecting too much stuff.

Speaking of too much stuff, my grandmother, an accomplished hoarder, referred to herself as a founding member of the SABLE club. SABLE stands for Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy, of course. How many books can I realistically read before I die? And, do I need to store them all in my house? Can I store my stash of future reads at the public library instead, or in my Audible queue? Is packing my books Tetris-like into the bookcase a good use of my short life?

Reduce Redundancies

One of the speediest ways I reduced my belongings was by seeking out and eliminating repetition. Between my boyfriend and I, we owned two lawnmowers, two toasters, four coffee makers, seven flashlights, and 29 pairs of scissors. I went room by room and distilled our belongings down to the best of each item, and we sold the runner-ups at a garage sale.

Increase Sharing

Another easy way to reduce clutter is by sharing. My brother-in-law Jonathan and I share a china pattern. He has place settings for 12 and I have place settings for eight (which is the maximum number of plates and cups that will fit into my kitchen cabinet). When I have a dinner party for more than eight people, I borrow Jonathan's dishes. When he needs spare pieces for an event, he borrows mine. I share a weed whacker and garden tools with my friend Laura and kitchen appliances with my neighbor Alexandra. What is the point of buying and storing items like ladders, luggage, or camping gear that get used only a few times a year, when I can save money and space by sharing these things with friends and neighbors? I'm not a doomsday prepper. There's no need for me to own my own everything.

Reduce Exposure to Advertising

Another thing I hate to admit about myself: I am super sensitive to advertising. While I am grateful to Pinterest, Etsy, and eBay for making my life easier and my wallet fatter, those sites are also incredibly triggering. Window-shopping on those sites fills me with desire for things I never knew existed and certainly don't need. Fashion magazines and blogs are equally crazy-making. While in hardcore, downsizing, purge mode it is often necessary to take a sabbatical from media, social networks, and even people that encourage consumption.

Less Stuff = Less Stress

Reducing my belongings had an unforeseen benefit: It dramatically reduced my stress level. In addition to having 85% fewer things I had to curate, clean, and care for, it allowed me to stop looking at my everyday schedule as one, long To Do List. Every book in my house is something that needs to be read. The yarn needs to be knit into sweaters. The video games need to be played.

3. REUSE (Through Repair and Repurposing)

My great-grandfather was really good with money. He raised six kids on his earnings as a card shark. One of his favorite sayings was, "Nothing is cheaper than the thing you already own." From an environmental standpoint, nothing is greener, either.

As I write this I am wearing my new shorts. Last night they were my old jeans with holes in both knees. My new shorts will help me get through the disgusting heat of September in Los Angeles. I won't have to buy new shorts, nor will I have to buy new oven mitts for my kitchen, as the leftover denim from my old jeans will be sewn into hot pads. Also, I will save on electricity costs by wearing shorts to stay cool instead of turning on the air conditioning.

Shopping in your own closet is one of the easiest ways of stretching your wardrobe budget. According to Ginny Snook Scott, the chief design officer of California Closets, the custom storage design firm, most women only wear 20% of their wardrobes. Before bringing anything new into the house I now ask myself, "Do I already own something that I can use instead of this?"


Check with your local recycling plant to find out what is actually recyclable in your community. For example, mirrors and crystal are both made from glass. However, they are a different composition of glass than food jars and bottles, and cannot be recycled curbside in my city. Although single use plastic water bottles are recyclable in my area, the caps from the water bottles are not. Greasy cardboard food wrappers are not recyclable anywhere (although they can be composted).

That said, a little research into your local recycling might result in some pleasant surprises. Many communities now have e-waste facilities that accept old appliances and computers. My e-waste depot also accepts old paint, pesticides, and other types of household chemicals. Nike collects old sports shoes of any brand that they turn into Grind Cover, a court surface for playgrounds. Most dry cleaners are happy to take returns of wire hangers. The Lions Club recycles old eyeglasses, with or without lenses.

Earth911 has a search application that helps users find recycling centers in their area for items like cell phones, batteries, CFLs, BBQ grills, and bicycles, too.

5. ROT (Compost Like a Champion)

While most people don't think about the trash they generate, garbage is the clutter that is forced onto other people. Composting is a great way to downsize your garbage clutter. Although there are tons of people who get all judge-y and micromanage-y about composting, composting is actually really easy. In fact, Mother Nature does all the heavy lifting. Banana peels, coffee grounds, cotton rags that have seen their last mess, cat hair, and paper and cardboard packaging that is too dirty to be recycled all gets broken down by microbes and worms in my backyard into nutrient-rich plant food, instead of languishing in the landfill. Even apartment dwellers without yards can compost their waste using an under-the-kitchen-sink worm bin. Let me just say from personal experience, that homemade worm poo compost is a great gift for all the gardeners in your life.

People who do not have access to recycling in their community, can use composting as a way to keep paper waste out of the landfill. Before I had a yard with trees, the brown component of my compost consisted of pizza boxes, old phone books, and paper deli-wrap.

By keeping paper food wrappers and food waste out of the kitchen garbage can, I can go over a month without having to empty the 13-gallon garbage can in my kitchen. (I can go on vacation without coming back to a house that smells like rotting food— bonus). Alas, even with my tiny garbage output, my garbage bill is the same as my neighbors that throw away everything. Even so, composting does help me save hundreds of dollars on my food and water costs.

Organic compost costs $12 per bag at my local nursery, and fertilizer costs even more. My homemade compost works as an all-in-one soil amendment to make my clay soil more friable, as an organic fertilizer to feed both my crops and my decorative plants, and as water-saving mulch all over my yard. Just about every new home gardener has experienced the $20 home grown tomato — the start up costs of their garden exceed their actual grocery bill. Composting allows me to grow my homegrown produce, for much less than what I'd spend at the store for the same items.

Finally, my garden hack of using citrus peels as biodegradable seed starter pots has been pinned over 165K times and been featured on design blogs and magazines ranging from Ready Made to Apartment Therapy to Buzzfeed. Food-based garbage is my friend.

Have you recently downsized your house? How did you do it?

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