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Messy, cluttered closetStuff, stuff and more stuff

Adapted from MU Office for Financial Success Finance Tip of the Week by Lucy Schrader, former Associate State Specialist and Building Strong Families Program Coordinator, University of Missouri Extension


Stuff. Most of us have it — tools, toys, knick knacks, collections, clothes, files, school papers, tech gadgets, appliances, etc. Many of us save and collect items. Some of it was given to us as a gift, some was inherited, some bought and other stuff seems to just miraculously appear. According to French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “to have” is one of three basic forms of what we do as humans (the other two are “to do” and “to be”).


What do we do with it all? Sometimes we keep it, try to organize it, store it somewhere else or sometimes the stuff piles up in a room, on a desk or in a drawer. Regardless, taking care of the stuff (or even the act of trying to ignore it) requires our resources of money, time and energy. These resources can be better spent in many other areas of our lives.


If the stuff becomes clutter or becomes overwhelming, it can add stress to our home or work life. People often set new goals during this time of year, including getting rid of things or getting organized. A search on Google for “cleaning clutter” gives over 9 million results and “organizing” brings up 125 million hits. Stuff is obviously on our minds and many consultants and companies make a living helping others take care of what they have.


Organizing and cleaning will make a big difference. But sometimes we fix a space only to have it fill up again. In order to get rid of things and to truly get rid of the clutter habit, it is helpful to understand why we keep what we do and how to deal with this cycle.


I got this as a gift or it was inherited

  • We often feel like we have to keep a gift out of obligation or to be respectful to the person who gifted it — “I can’t get rid of this; my friend gave it to me.” Even if we don’t like the item, we hang on to it. One way to let go of the object is to shift the focus from the object itself to what your friend or family member wanted for you.
  • Focus on the kindness and the intent of the gift. “That was so nice of her to give me that vase. She wanted me to have somewhere to show off my garden flowers.” The focus becomes gratitude toward your friend and remembering good things about the relationship. You can take a picture of the object as a way to remember it.
  • This can be even harder to do with heirlooms (furniture, dishes, etc) given to you by a family member. For that person, this object meant something — it was tied to a memory or to another person. You, however, may not have that connection or the item does not bring you happiness or a special memory. Once again, you might use the strategy of thinking about what this meant to the family member and how that family member wanted you to have the same type of feeling.
  • Ask yourself: Does this bring me happiness or truly serve a purpose? If not, find someone else who would really like it, or donate or sell it. You can take a picture of the item as a keepsake instead of keeping the item itself. You can also choose just one piece, especially if it’s a set of something, and donate the rest. If you pass an heirloom along to another family member who wants it, then you can still enjoy the piece without owning it.


I spent money on it — I have to keep this to get my money’s worth

  • You spent your money on something and often the more expensive the item the harder it is to get rid of it. For example, you bought a high-tech toaster oven. It takes up a lot of counter space, it takes longer to toast bread than you thought it would, and you don’t even utilize the extra features on it. But you spent $89.99 on it so you feel like you’d be throwing money away if you get rid of it.
  • You are holding on to the item because of a sunk cost. In economics and business decision-making, sunk costs are retrospective (past) costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. You spent the money and that is done. Now it is time to look at the other costs that are involved — what is this toaster oven costing you by keeping it?
  • What happens every morning when you see the toaster oven? How much time do you spend thinking about how much you don’t like it and how you wish you would have spent your money on something else? You spend energy and time that takes away from other experiences. Maybe you could brainstorm your presentation for work. Or be more present with your family, instead of thinking about this toaster oven.
  • Ask yourself: Is the frustration worth it? Are these other costs worth keeping the item? Ask if anyone wants to buy it, give it to someone who wants it, or donate it.


I’ll save this for when I get older or when I am retired or when I…

  • In The Clutter Cure, Judi Culbertson writes about a time when she was waiting in line at a store. An elderly man in front of her was talking with the clerk (obviously enjoying life by his conversation) and then hefted a propane cylinder to take with him. The author had the thought that he probably wasn’t going home to read old Christmas cards like the ones she kept at home. He was living his life.
  • This passage says a lot. We’re trying to capture and save memories to relive them at some later point. What is missing in the here and now by putting so much energy into those papers and pictures that we collect, shuffle, store, organize? The author asks the reader to think about future moments. Won’t we always want to live in the moment and keep on having new moments, instead of looking back through boxes?
  • Ask yourself: Do I really need all of these papers and scraps? How can I live in the here and now?


I might need this one day

  • We hear messages daily to reuse or recycle items and to be less wasteful. In our consumer culture, this can be overwhelming. Think about the number of items that we come in contact with on a daily basis — food containers, school papers, mail, emails, packaging, scraps of metal or fabric. We might have gifts, toys, fans, books, fixtures and decorations that we keep for that future need. And that’s what is so difficult — we don’t really know what we will need. Here are some strategies for avoiding this trap:
    • Set a limit for what you can keep (e.g., 10 food containers and recycle or throw out the rest, 4 packages of nails or screws and give the rest to a local charity or vocational school).
    • Focus on using what you have at home and not buying more of that (e.g., craft materials).
    • Remind yourself that if you do need something in the future, you can figure it out (either using something you already have on hand or getting something from a neighbor, for example) — you do not have to keep everything.


More questions to ask yourself as you go through your stuff

  • Can I live without this?
  • If this thing were destroyed by a fire or flood, would you replace it? Culbertson says that if the answer is “no” then you do not need to keep it.
  • What do I want for myself or my family?


These points are a starting place for dealing with stuff. There are many websites, books and resources available to help with the process.


Note about hoarding

There are many other issues involved for someone who is a true hoarder, and it goes beyond just needing to clean and organize. Many hoarders are not able to get rid of things and/or they are not able to discern between items (e.g., a family picture and a scrap of paper hold the same amount of meaning). Furthermore, forced clean-outs do not work. Finding counselors who specialize in hoarding can be very helpful for the person or family members involved.


Drs. Steketee and Frost offer insights and research into compulsive hoarding in their book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (see more information in the reference list below).




Culbertson, J. (2007). The Clutter Cure: Three Steps to Letting Go of Stuff, Organizing Your Space, & Creating the Home of Your Dreams. McGraw-Hill.


Steketee, G. and Frost, R. (2011). Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Mariner Books.


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Last Updated 04/18/2016