Little boy with donation box full of toys
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The Joy of Getting Rid of Stuff

Mar 20, 2018

Like many families, we tend to accumulate lots of stuff — clothes, toys, books, crafts, unused kitchen tools, well-intentioned gifts, whatever. Some of it was once beloved before it got outgrown or outworn, while some of it was never really needed. Regardless, there’s this collective clutter continually building in our house, taking up space, making a mess and slowly causing me anxiety.

The easy answer would be to stop bringing things home, but every birthday party or holiday brings in a new wave of stuffies and games, while toys keep mysteriously materializing after each grandparent visit. At the same time, my kids are inconveniently continuing to grow, becoming too big too quickly for everything they own.

When I was a kid, I loved getting stuff. Now that I’m an adult, I find just as much joy in getting rid of it.

There are a lot of not-great things about being in an overly consumerist society, but here’s a relatively low-key one: the more stuff you have, the harder it is to keep everything organized and clean. So last year, my wife and I finally made a calculated plan of attack to declutter our house and donate, pass along, recycle or trash a lot of stuff.

Here’s what it taught me: When I was a kid, I loved getting stuff. Now that I’m an adult, I find just as much joy in getting rid of it.


Cleaning the house, detoxifying my soul

As is the case for most good ideas in our house, the decision to declutter came from my wife. As is the case for most good ideas in our house, I was skeptical and hesitant to try.

I was frustrated with the overfull toy boxes and stuffed closets and libraries of unread-in-years books, but I was also reluctant to part with things. I’m not so much a hoarder as I am too nostalgic to say goodbye to faded T-shirts and too scared to recycle chargers, plugs and adaptors I might one day use (even though I don’t know what they're for).


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But once we brought in a few big Rubbermaid containers and started cleaning house, it was exhilarating. It was freeing. It was therapeutic. We now do this a couple of times a year — organizing piles of stuff to be donated to friends whose kids are smaller than ours, dropped off at the thrift shop or dragged to the end of the driveway with a big handwritten “take me” sign.

I feel better after these purges, not only because they leave our home less cluttered and get things into the hands of friends or strangers who can make better use of them, but also because it weirdly makes me better appreciate the stuff we would never give up.

We’re not quite at the level of Marie Kondo (guru-author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing) who suggests tossing out everything that doesn’t bring you joy, but I see where she’s coming from. Of course, decluttering can be tricky with kids. You may think that teddy bear has passed its prime, but your little one’s opinion needs to matter as well.

Here’s how we approach whether to keep or say goodbye to a bunch of household items.


Clothes/shoes

Kids grow so quickly, a lot of their clothes (including the expensive ones we got as gifts) are still in great shape once they no longer fit. I know there are legions of people selling baby clothes on Facebook groups, but we preferred to either pass them along to friends with kids younger than ours (we have been the beneficiaries of many hand-me-downs over the years, so I know how great it is to get a bunch of new clothes for free) or donate them to a thrift shop. We saved any clothing that was particularly meaningful in a plastic tub in the attic, just in case one of my siblings ever has kids (it’s OK — they’re not reading this).

Unlike my kids, I’ve stopped growing (in height, anyway) and have zero fashion sense, so I tend to wear clothes until they’re semi-destroyed. Since we live in a municipality that’s actually outlawed throwing clothes in the garbage, any stained or ripped items end up as rags for cleaning or get sent to a textile-recycling bin.


Toys

We’ve actually involved our kids in decluttering, and encouraged them to think about which toys, games and puzzles they still enjoy and which ones are ready to be given to other kids (i.e. donated to the thrift shop). It’s great to empower them to help make decisions rather than just unilaterally choosing things.

They’re actually pretty honest about what they enjoy and sensible about what they’ll give up. They’re also kids, though, and might change their minds. So, anything they say can be donated goes into a Rubbermaid container that then disappears from them for about a month or two in the attic or under the stairs. If they haven’t asked for it by then, it heads off for donation for real.

Of course, anything broken (and stuffed animals that have seen better days) aren’t going to make it into someone else’s home, so they end up either part of the textile recycling or sent to the landfill with our garbage. The last option makes me feel guilty and I swear we’ll never buy another stuffie again… and then my son sees this adorable mandrill Beanie Boo and the cycle begins again.


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Books

We have a lot of books in our house — like, a lot a lot. And most get read and reread a surprising amount, but some others have been outgrown or were duds that never connected with anyone. Books are also big and heavy and require bookshelves that are big and heavy. Since we’re avid library-users (and the library has more room than we do), we’ve started to scale back on purchases.

Much like with the toys, we get the kids to tell us what they no longer need to have around the house. For some great reads they’ve outgrown, we’ve moved them into semi-permanent storage in the garage. A lot of my kids’ book collections were handed down from me and my wife — and now any subsequent generations in our family will inherit a lot of second-hand Elephant & Piggies to go with the third-hand Dr. Seuss.

Some of our books get donated to thrift shops, but most of the kid stuff gets trucked to my daughter’s school for its regular used-book fundraisers. (Of course, my daughter then comes home with other families’ donated books, so it’s not a perfect system.) Depending on where you live, there might also be other charities or libraries looking for donations.


Mementoes

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing, and if it gives you joy or comfort to hold on to that box of concert tickets or baby teeth or 20-year-old birthday cards, I completely understand. But I personally found it freeing once I gave myself permission to view keepsakes as ‘just stuff’ and said goodbye.

After almost 40 years in the same home, my parents are downsizing and recently dropped off a big box of my old stuff — short stories and university certificates and high-school yearbooks. It went pretty much straight in the blue box and reaffirmed that I probably don’t need to hold on to my kids’ stuff for the next three decades.

Of course, there are certain paper things (receipts, kindergarten paintings, Ikea instructions) you don’t want to send to the recycling box. For these instances, taking photos or making scans, saving them in an organized digital folder system and having a colour printer on standby can be a good way to save on space.


Big stuff

Whether it’s the bedroom dresser that gets upgraded, the baby furniture that gets replaced, or the massive treadmill we inherited and never used, some things take up more space than others. I know lots of people who sell their stuff on Kijiji or via closed Facebook groups, but for us, it’s rarely worth the trouble of having strangers haggle for prices in our garage. We’ll offer to give it to people who might need it (our backyard swing set is already earmarked for a good home once this year is over) or we’ll bring it to the front of the house for freecycling — regardless if it’s a kid’s kitchen playset or a pair of night tables, nothing ever lasts more than a couple of hours on our street.

And now that we suddenly have all this free space, we can give it six months or so before we have to do it all over again.

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no-ish hair and edits technical articles. He and his wife are the proud parents of a six-year-old girl who is already pretty adept with a tablet, and a two-year-old boy who probably will be sooner than appropriate. He received his MA in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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