Decluttering – Are You Making These 3 Mistakes When Purging Your Stuff?

While I’m busy preparing my daughter’s 17th birthday celebration, Emily from So Damn Domestic stopped by to share this great post on purging with you.

You’re doing it wrong.

Yes, you.

I see you over there, on one of your decluttering sprees. You’re holding up each item, asking yourself if you love it or not, if you have the space for it, or if you’ve used it in the last year. You’re dutifully depositing it in one of three boxes labeled “Keep,” “Donate,” or “Trash.” You have a smile on your face and you’re staying focused while your timer ticks down 15 minutes, because dang it, this time you’re going to win the War on Clutter!

But while you might win your 15-minute battle, you’re losing the war.

Why? Because you’re making some mistakes along the way. You’re skipping over some important questions that could cause you to slam the history book closed on this War on Clutter once and for all.

Decluttering - Are You Making These 3 Mistakes When Purging Your Stuff?

Mistake #1: Thinking that space is the only cost to keeping something.

Most people ask themselves, “Do I have the space for this?” or even, “Does this item have a home?” when they’re on these decluttering jags. But that’s the wrong question. Of course you shouldn’t keep things that will float around, homeless, randomly appearing on surfaces all over your house at the most inconvenient times.

That’s not what I mean.

Just because you live in a 3 bedroom house (with a 2-car garage) with your 2 kids (oh wait, that’s me) doesn’t mean that you need more stuff than your friend who lives in a one-bedroom apartment (no garage) with her husband and daughter. But stuff has a habit of filling available space, unless we intentionally stop it.

So instead of considering whether space exists for something, consider the costs to keeping the item. Sure, using “valuable real estate” in your home is one. But there’s also the cost of maintaining the item, cleaning it, time and energy spent moving it around, and possibly most importantly – the mental clutter it creates. Even if something is in a labeled box on the top storage shelf of a closet, not bothering anyone, if it’s something no one in your family actually needs, it’s creating mental clutter.

I won’t pretend to be a Feng Shui expert, but it’s one of those types of things. Just like having a dead houseplant or spent bouquet of flowers in your house just saps the life out of everything around it until you pitch it in the trash, those unneeded items filing the nooks and crannies of your home are just vibrating with negative energy. It’s true.

I know it’s true because I’ve purged so many of those things and the energy in the rest of my home instantly changed.  But you won’t know how true it is until you ask the hard question: What will it really cost me to keep this?

Decluttering – Are You Making These 3 Mistakes When Purging Your Stuff?

Mistake #2: Forgetting the item’s life purpose.

Ok, again with the energy vibes and life force and stuff… I’m not that woowoo, but I do know that things were created to be used. If you have four sets of sheets for your bed and rotate between the two softest whitest ones with the highest thread count, the other two are wasting away in your closet, wishing they could snuggle happy sleepers.

If you have shelves upon shelves of your favorite paperback novels because you enjoyed them, but you don’t actually re-read them each year, the stories are locked inside their pages, screaming to get out, while they languish in the bookcase.

So set those things free. Let someone else have them. Maybe a woman who has just escaped an abusive relationship will accept your sheets from a shelter, and find that she sleeps better each night wrapped in fabric that holds no terrible memories. Or maybe if you write “Read me,” inside the front cover of your favorite novel and leave it on a park bench, a teenager will find it, read it, love it, and become inspired to author a bestselling series.

Those are dramatic examples. But they show just how powerful the life of an object can be, if you let it serve its purpose. Don’t forget the item’s life purpose when you’re hoarding it away in a closet or on a bookshelf, just because you can, or just because it’s “organized.”

So if you’re keeping things that never see the light of day, ask yourself: If I set this free, what good could it do in the world?

Mistake #3: Needing a reason to let go.

So many typical decluttering questions invite you to find reasons to let objects go.
• You need the space for something else.
• It doesn’t fit you, or it’s out of style.
• It doesn’t make you smile the way it used to. You haven’t touched it in 6 months.

But what about the other questions?
• What if you keep it “in case” but you never actually need it, and you die with the item still in its packaging?
• What if you move it 3,000 times over the next 10 years, just so you can dust around it?
• If your house burned down and everything were lost, would you still be thinking about that Very Special Item (a cute mug you just have to keep, a monogrammed bathrobe you got for your wedding that you don’t actually use, the decorative vase of sticks the kids are always messing with) in 15 years?

let it go 2
The real question to ask yourself when decluttering isn’t “Why?” it’s “Why not?”

Clutter doesn’t leave enough room in your home for love, light, friendship, fun, and happy moments, even if it’s stored away. If something isn’t serving your priorities, it’s tearing them down. So instead of making those three huge mistakes above, ask yourself:
• What is the actual cost of keeping this? In terms of time and energy spent, as well as mental clutter?
• If I set this free, what good can it do in the world? Is it wasting away its “life” here in my house?
• Why not? What’s the worst thing that could happen if I let this go?

With this mental shift, you’ll be able to let go of so much more that you’ve been holding on to just because you could.

Emily Chapelle headshot
Emily Chapelle is an expert homemaker, having set up six different houses in seven years of military moves. She’s also the mother of two adorable curly-haired kids, wife to a Navy fighter pilot, and a former teacher, childcare provider, and nanny. Now she works from home to spread encouragement and inspiration to other homemakers with a no-nonsense attitude and lots of tough love. She blogs at So Damn Domestic. Get her free eBook, Finding the Awesome: 3 Steps to Doing More & Stressing Less for more inspiration and guided, broken-down exercises to find your Awesome.

Linking up: House of Rose, Design Dining and Diapers, Six Sisters Stuff, Thirty Handmade DaysYour Homebased MomSkip to My Lou

Filed under: Clutter Control, Emily, Guest Bloggers, Organizing Basics, Purging


60 Responses to Decluttering – Are You Making These 3 Mistakes When Purging Your Stuff?

  1. 1
    Elissa P says

    Wonderful advice here, Emily. There was a time when I did number 3 a lot. I worked hard at trying to find a reason to just let things go. Now, I am so sick of stuff that I have down size to only having beds and a table.

    Thanks again and wonderful job.


    • 1.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      Thank you, Elissa! I’m so glad you enjoyed my ideas. I can’t believe you let go of so much that you only have beds and a table. Serious minimalism. You’re awesome!
      Peace back to you. 😉

  2. 2
    Alana says

    So true! It’s hard with parents that have depression era mentality that we *might* need it someday. It’s so much better to let it be used. We cleared tons of bookshelves, because we can easily get those books at the library if we do want to re-read them.

    We were shocked when we put some non-used toys on Ebay and made over $200! One set we got more than we paid for them brand new. My kids we excited to find more toys they didn’t use to get money for, even if they bought Legos (which they use every day).

    Also, are those cute gDiapers you’re getting rid of? We LOVE Gdiapers!

    • 2.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      I think you’re right that a lot can stem from that time period and the lessons that “rippled” out afterward.

      That’s awesome you were able to sell some toys on Ebay! I LOVE when I see kids selling their own stuff on Facebook groups and stuff… getting into the decluttering, realizing that if they don’t actually use it anymore, it’s not worth anything to them. So fantastic. Way to go, teaching your kids that too!

      And yes, they’re gDiapers. I sold the “regular” ones ages ago and have been holding these because they’re “worth more” and I wanted to sell them properly for more money. haha. Listing them in a gdiaper Facebook group super soon. I will be SO HAPPY when they’re gone. But we loved gDiapers too.

  3. 3
    Heather says

    I love number two. I want to start leaving poetry books on all the park benches now, change some teenagers life. Also, I have too many poetry books that don’t get read and I feel guilty keeping them to myself. I think I will challenge myself to pick out 7 books to deposit around the city with notes attached of “read me” on them. No Joke. I am picking them out now.

    • 3.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      That sounds like such an amazing project! I can’t wait to hear where you leave them. Are you going to hang around and spy for a little while to see if you can peek at who ends up picking them up?

  4. 4
    Amber O. says

    Oh #2: “If I set this free, what good could it do in the world?”… I need to repeat this 50x day when I encounter things in my home and work (at a consignment store!). My husband lives by the reasoning that “they make more for a reason” to which I rebuttal with “but I own it now/already!!” so it is a constant struggle for me to let things go. Thanks for the reminder that it is okay and I CAN DO IT!

    • 4.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      Do you mean you need to repeat it at work so you don’t “accidentally” buy and bring things home with you? hehe. It’s seriously something I say to myself over and over too though. If I’m having a hard time letting go of something, just imagining what it could do for someone else really helps.

      And they DO make more for a reason. And the stores will still be open later. Unless you’re going into a fallout shelter or something…

  5. 5
    Amanda says

    Refreshing Emily! #2 especially. I’ve felt great about donating in the past, but I’ve never thought about the negative energy of something sitting there not being used before. This was a perfect article to read just before another cross country military move. After two garage sales I’d told my hubby what ever books and DVDs didn’t sell we’re keeping. I’ve officially changed my mind. Thank you. 🙂

    • 5.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      I’m so glad my post is giving you the inspiration to let go of even more! I’ve done the whole “well I’ll just save it for the next yard sale we do” thing too… but at some point, I had to realize I was just holding on to junk! It felt SO good to let it all go. I had a “yard give” which was like a yard sale, but everything was free. I told people to take anything they wanted, and they left SO happy. It was a blast.

      And afterward, I donated the rest. Such a weight lifted.

      Where are you PCSing? We’re moving cross-country again back to California in January!

  6. 6
    Kim says

    What a great and motivating article! I especially like #2 about letting an item serve it’s purpose. This is the theory that I use to get rid of outgrown baby clothes.

    It is so tempting to save some of the adorable clothes (little boy dress-up outfits are my weakness) for the next baby. But you could save a box full of adorable boy clothes only to be blessed with baby girls in the future (or vice versa)

    Plus styles change so much (even in baby clothes) that by the time the next baby is ready to fit in it, you may no longer love it. So I’m much happier to pass along the baby clothes that I no longer need and I am happy that they are making someone else’s baby look adorable rather than hanging out in my closet and taking up space. (and creating mental clutter!)

    • 6.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      Yes! My kids were close together (only 20 months apart) so keeping the girl stuff until I found out what baby 2 was wasn’t too crazy…. when I learned he was a boy, it was gone. But even if it had been another girl, my daughter’s birthday was at the end of July, and baby2 was born in March, so weather and seasonality would be a factor too! Unless all of your kids are born in the same season, the baby stuff isn’t very likely to overlap a ton.

      That’s so great that you pass on your kids’ outgrown things to be enjoyed and used by other families while they’re still cute and fashionable. 🙂 Way to go!

    • 6.2
      IR says

      We saved and reused our baby clothes and I,couldn’t have been more pleased with the decision. We are not typical, though. We had four boys in four and a half years, and just passed down from one to the next. Finally, with our fifth boy (two girls were in between), I am finding some pants with bad elastic or totally outdated, which I am getting rid of. I love not spending/wasting money on new clothes, and I love not having to go shopping!
      But it does take up a lot of space in the garage.

  7. 7
    Brandie says

    Wow! This was really great advice. I am one of those people who holds on to things for the “what if” factor. I am in real need of de-cluttering. We have emailed about this and my plan is this weekend! My closet it a danger done! There is so much stuff in there that could go. How do I get my husband on board? He has so much stuff he doesn’t need and it takes up a lot of space. I am ok with getting rid of stuff but he brings home things after i make room and can actually see the floor somewhere he has something to go there.

    • 7.1
      Haley says

      To get your husband on board have him read this and one or two other inspiring articles. After reading the articles ask him to do a quick sort. Talk honestly with your husband about how you feel about the clutter without pointing fingers. Also get a pretty basket or laundry hamper and label it “Donate”. Hopefully seeing this each day will help to remind you both that you can clutter a little at a time.

      • Emily Chapelle says

        The “donate” container is huge, I think! We usually have one in the garage, right where we walk in and out of the house. So we are reminded to add stuff all the time.

        I say usually because, well… the last trip we made to donate? We donated all of our storage bins we weren’t using. So now there’s no actual container to put things into. Haha! Gotta find a big box somewhere….

        • Aprilsseat Johnson says

          Banana Boxes from the produce backroom of supermarkets Are awesome for this.. or maybe in your case A (uno ) Banana BOX

    • 7.2
      Emily Chapelle says

      Thanks Brandie! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Careful opening that closet door. 😉 Wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt. hehe.

      Don’t worry about your husband right now. Just start working on yourself and YOUR stuff… maybe in a few weeks when you’ve made some progress, you can tell him, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been trying to clear out some stuff I don’t use and don’t need. And it just feels so good to have those things out of the house! I’m more focused, have less busy-work to do taking care of the house, and I’m just feeling so energized by the direction our home is taking now.”

      Keep it about you, not about him. But focus on the benefits of decluttering you’re starting to notice! You can invite him to add things to your goodwill box or donation bag or whatever… but no pressure. “Hey, I put a big box in the garage so when I decide to get rid of something, I can get it out of the house as soon as possible, and donate when the box is full. If you notice anything you’re finished with or not using, feel free to pitch it in with my crap too.”

      If after a while he still isn’t joining in at all (even a little tiny bit is progress, right?), maybe you could talk with him more directly about it. Something like, “Remember how good and energized I told you I felt when I started doing my decluttering sprees? I still feel that, but sometimes I feel discouraged because of the new items coming into our house so frequently. Do you think we could work out a better system to maintain some sort of equilibrium in the house so it doesn’t get so crowded again? Or could I help you go through some of your things to figure out what you’re finished with?”

      Does any of that sound like it could help you get somewhere with him? Crossing my fingers!

  8. 8
    Nina Patel says

    Great Tips Emily. I can relate to #1. Our family loves to travel and one of the things we do is pack away school supplies, books and sometimes gently used clothing & toys that we can bring with us on trips to donate to local communities. An easy way to find out what they need, and something you may have in your house already, is visiting

    • 8.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      That is SUCH an awesome idea. I love that! Totally fits into #2 also, about the life of the item and what it could do for someone else.

      Bookmarking that site and sharing it with my friends now. Thanks so much!

  9. 9
    Catherine says

    This!!! I’ve been trying to get my mother to let things go with the typical arguments you mentioned: does it have a home, are you using it, etc. However, she’s emotionally attached to these items. The idea of these items serving their life purpose with people who need them is so empowering emotionally. I can’t wait to share your article with her! Thanks! 🙂

    • 9.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      You’re very welcome! I’m so glad it’ll give you some new things to discuss with her. Lucky mama to have a daughter like you watching out for her. I’m so glad you found my suggestions so empowering. Thanks for letting me know!

  10. 10
    Kirsten McCulloch says

    I love your last question especially Emily. ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen if I let it go?’. I find that reminding myself that if I occasionally wish I’d kept something, it’s worth that regret to have decluttered and got rid of so much more than just that item, really helps me to let more things go.

    • 10.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      So glad you like that one, Kristen! And you’re so right. It’s well worth the freedom of letting allll of that go in exchange for maybe possibly someday buying a replacement for an item or two you passed on to someone else.

  11. 11
    Kathleen Krueger says

    Love the “read me” inside of a book idea. I have several clutter issues, but one of them I haven’t heard addressed. I feel good about letting something go for someone else to make use of, but I have a hard time taking the time to box up and deliver things to the appropriate places. Any advice for me?

    • 11.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      Taking everything to a thrift shop is still a huge step closer to those items being used and appreciated. When you clear out the initial bulk of your clutter, you can be more selective and mindful about where you take your donations. I honestly wouldn’t worry about making trips to 6 different donation places for specific purposes in the beginning.

      No “paralysis by perfectionism” here, okay? Just start moving in the direction of the destination you want to reach.

    • 11.2
      Shawn says

      You could call places like salvation army or epilepsy foundation. They do pick up in some areas.

    • 11.3
      eileen gifford says

      Cute idea about leaving a book somewhere for someone. A better idea is to donate books to the library so it can sell it for almost nothing and raise money to improve the library or allow the library to present guest speakers.

  12. 12
    RonelleCannon says

    Great advice! I’m spending my year keeping my temporary home as minimalistic as possible and getting excited for applying the control I’m learning when I get back to my permanent residence. Love the tips.

    • 12.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      I think it is so cool what you’re doing this year with your family, keeping things super-minimal. I wonder how much you’ll get rid of (because you realize you didn’t want/need/miss it at all) when you get back to CA!

  13. 13
    Brandie says

    I will try all these ideas! We need some space that doesn’t occupy junk!

    • 13.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      So excited for you to find some space to breathe. I hope these tips help!

  14. 14
    Brandie says

    Where in California? I’m in So Cal

  15. 15
    Nancy G. says

    Emily — These are great questions! You are a natural coach. One of the most important things that we coaches learn right from the start is to ask questions that lead to people to seeing & thinking about things differently. You’ve done that here, with great humor and acceptance. You’ve certainly shown me some new ways to approach MY situation.

    • 15.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      Aw thanks so much Nancy. So cool to hear I’m a coach from a coach 😉
      Happy to offer you a new way to look at your stuff!

  16. 16
    dalia says

    this article is wonderful and truly inspiring!!

    I’m sure that those question that you suggest us to ask ourselves will be very helpful in my weekly decluttering ruitine.

    Thank you!

    • 16.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      You’re very welcome. I’m glad these questions will be able to help you!

  17. 17
    Sarah says

    This was such an excellent, excellent article! I was completely inspired! You are absolutely right and I could feel the lightbulb over my head turning on quite brightly as I read this. I never thought about clutter this way before but as I think about my home I can already see how many boxes of stuff I could easily get rid of just to give me some mental freedom. Giving us some examples of how our clutter could be someone else’s treasure was inspirational and definitely set a renewed fire under me to “just do it already”!! Thank you very much! 😀

    • 17.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      YAY for bright shining light bulbs! I’m so excited for you that you’ll be able to let go of so much more now. You’re so very welcome.

  18. 18
    Sarah says

    I love this post. Seems as if written just for me. #2 hit home the most. I really need to let other people enjoy the things I enjoyed…but no longer use. Thanks for the nudge to set things free.

    • 18.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      Thanks for letting me know! So glad you’re going to share your unused things with other people. I love thinking about that when I let things free too.

  19. 19
    Christina Nelson says

    Nice job! I need a truck. I am in the “Well I have room for it” camp. I’m really really good about decluttering clothes since I like new ones, but there’s room for improvement even in areas I feel are cleaned out. Lots of things already come to mind. Thank you.

    • 19.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      Haha a truck! Where we lived before I could call salvation army and they’d come pick up donations (or set it up online). It was awesome!

  20. 20
    Stephanie says

    This. Was. Awesome. Thank you so much for writing and sharing it.

    Selling on Craigslist really helped me see #2 in action. I didn’t love the idea of getting rid of one of the first pieces of furniture I ever bought, but it served its purpose and it was time to move on. The woman who bought it was SO excited and talked about how she just bought a house, this item was beyond perfect for her guest room, etc. Win for her, win for me!

    Though I felt guilty about selling one of the items from my late grandfather’s estate, but it was very much not my taste and no one else in the family wanted it. I actually found a woman who collected the china pattern (yay, Craigslist!) and she was delighted to get more.

    Onward. Much more to go.

    • 20.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      You’re so welcome! And I agree about what you said about craigslist… i found that with free cycle a LOT. When I saw how excited people were to get my things, and the difference it was going to make for them, it was so inspiring to let go of more.

      Onward, indeed!

  21. 21
    Vanessa says

    Fantastic post! You made me think about the clutter and letting go in a whole new way! Thanks!

    • 21.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      You’re so welcome Vanessa. Thanks for your comment!

  22. 22
    Bea says

    In my decluttering I took all my untouched vegetarian cookbooks and left them at my health clinic on the magazine rack!

  23. 23
    Susanne says

    Excellent advice and very timely as I’m just starting a big purge.

    • 23.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      Thanks Susanne! Sending encouragement for your purge!

  24. 24
    Bianca says

    Thank you, what wonderful advice, its definately helped me changing my area of focus and giving away items that others could use.

    • 24.1
      Emily Chapelle says

      Oh that’s so wonderful to hear! So glad I could help you let go of a bit more, and share your excess with others.

  25. 25
    Heather B. says

    Thanks for this article. I’m a pack rat (it’s literally in my genetic makeup, I’m positive!), and I’m really trying to purge. There’s a lot of food for thought here, and I really appreciate everything I’ve read! I’m hoping to get my husband to help me with work on the garage this weekend! Wish us luck.

  26. 26
    Heather says

    Right on!!! Thanks for this no-nonesense love!

  27. 27
    Jill says

    Great thoughts Emily! I have been trying to explain #1 and #2 to my husband using his DVD collection as an example. Although he hasn’t added to the collection in the past 8 years since our children were born, he already had just over 100 DVDs of his favorite, must-see-again movies. He actually watched two of the DVDs in the past year. Mind you, we have cable TV with a DVR and On Demand, Netflix on multiple devices, and his most recent purchase was a Roku streaming stick which gives him access to over 1 million channels (I exaggerate, but only slightly). That is not even counting everything that you can watch online now. Who has that many hours in a day?! But I digress…I tried to explain that the DVD stand being there, up against that wall, with all those DVDs not being watched, was actually creating negative energy. He said, “But I don’t even notice it and it doesn’t bother me, so it isn’t creating negative energy.” I replied, “It bothers your wife, so it IS creating negative energy!” I don’t think I made any progress, and I don’t really care if he decides to keep his precious DVD collection. It was just one tiny example of the clutter that has accumulated in our home. I hope to at least pare down my things to the items that I actually use and love so that I can access them all, enjoy them all, and have room to breathe.

  28. 28
    Melinda says

    Wow, Emily, you’re a hard hitter! And I love it!
    I finally let go of my beloved collection of Grace Livingston Hill Christian romances, some dating back 4 decades. I realized they had been sitting in boxes for over 4 years. And what good were they doing me? None, so I put on my big girl panties, and donated them to a woman’s shelter. They were thrilled! Yay for my beloved books getting some love again!


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