Cleaning Hack: Have Less Stuff

Can I let you in on a little secret? Want to know one of the easiest ways to have a neat(er) house? Have less stuff.

Intuitive, yes, but harder to implement than you might imagine.

One of my favourite ways to unwind is to declutter a space – the kitchen, a closet, my purse. I really do enjoy puttering around, putting things back in place, organizing what we have, and finding new homes (friends, donations, garbage) for superfluous, unneeded, or broken items.

I haven’t always been this way. My teenage and college rooms left much to be desired; I wasn’t much bothered by piles of paper on my desk or clothes draped haphazardly over chairs.

Some of my adult enthusiasm could be a form of prolonged nesting that comes with having children and buying a home (the sheer volume of “stuff” I’m responsible for has grown exponentially since adding tiny humans to the mix). But I think another reason is at play: Overall, I now have less unnecessary stuff.

There are never-ending hacks for organizing and rearranging a space for maximal efficiency. But at the end of the day, the easiest way to have a clean, uncluttered space is to have less stuff. Every time I help a particular child in our house clean up their room, I’m reminded of this. There are baskets full of paper, shelves full of books, yardsale knickknacks in every nook and cranny. Even when it’s fully organized, it still looks messy (to me). On a sliding scale of children’s rooms, I know it’s not that bad. But there is still so. much. stuff. Incredibly, it all gets used or has sentimental value so, for the most part, it stays. This particular child doesn’t seem to notice the volume of paraphernalia, so I’ve learned to let it bother me less (I’ve also learned to close the door more; being out of sight really does help push some things out of mind).

A friend of mine – a friend whose basement is full of neatly organized totes from which she can pull, with shocking accuracy, a particular toy set belonging to her now twenty-something daughter – once commented to my Mom: “Elisabeth’s not very sentimental is she.”

It’s true – I didn’t save a single baby outfit from either of my children. I have gotten rid of most of the things my own mother saved for me from my childhood. But I’d still argue with my friend’s assessment. I am deeply sentimental, but I choose to keep the nostalgia alive in photos (I make enormous photo books every year), traditions (food, music, decorations), and memories. We are a family of adventure, not possessions.

One year for Christmas we “gave” the kids a night in a hotel as their main gift. Not a single ounce of current clutter in my house is related to this trip, but we have memories of the hotel waterslide, the shoe-shine service, and the old-fashioned machine churning out free popcorn in the lobby at bedtime. We remember how we met an old friend along the way at a quirky cafe for delicious muffins, drove through an evening snow squall to get supper, and watched all the Hotel Transylvania movies while piled atop comfy hotel beds.

Last year for a birthday, we bought passes to a local ski hill. While skiing does necessitate gear (we could rent, I guess, but cha-ching), once it’s organized in our storage room it doesn’t really factor into house clutter).

We definitely “do” gifts – but most of these are consumables (food, bath products, clothing) or long-term toy investments (like LEGO)

Material things can hold deep significance and I love bringing items into our home that are beautiful and useful – things that improve our wellbeing and the function of our living spaces.

There’s nothing wrong with hacking and storing and buying all the fancy organizational doohickeys you want (and I do hack and store and, occasionally, buy some of those doohickeys myself). But the simple math of it is this: the less we buy, the less we own – the less we own, the less we have to manage, store, and maintain. Having less stuff will, in general, not only make our homes feel lighter and more streamlined, our lives may follow suit. In the words of Gretchen Rubin: “Outer order, inner calm.” I couldn’t agree more.

One night over Christmas Break we told the kids they had to play downstairs when they woke up in the morning and they had to do LEGO (quiet, less chance of fighting) while we slept in for a change. For the next week of mornings they wowed us with Christmas-themed LEGO creations.

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