Just Say No to Too Much Stuff
Stuff. For many of us it's worse than any four-letter word. That's because "stuff" can weigh you down and hold you back, says Gail Blanke, author of Throw Out Fifty Things. And, in the end, much of what we accumulate in life isn't all that important. As Marilyn Bohn, author of Go Organize!, points out, "No one ever says, 'I wish I'd kept more stuff.'"
1. Kitchen Utensils
Is your utensil drawer so full you can barely open and close it? You're not alone. When Robin Austin started cleaning her kitchen in preparation for a move, she found she had plenty of duplicate utensils, the result of a new marriage that combined households and six kids. Many of us also buy new utensils but forget to get rid of the old.
Here's a smart way to figure out what you're really using, from Motherboard Mom Jeanne Smith, Overland Park, Kansas: Toss everything—all the spatulas, rubber scrapers, pie servers, and so on—into a box. As you use a utensil from the box, put it back in the drawer. After a month, check what's left in the box. Keep those once-a-year items that remain in the box, like a turkey baster or candy thermometer. But donate the rest.
2. Coffee Mugs
Another item many moms find hogging valuable cupboard space: coffee mugs. "We had over 20 coffee mugs," says Kansas mom Dawn Schnake. She and her husband each chose four mugs to keep and donated the rest to a church rummage sale.
"Even if you received something as a gift, it's okay to let it go," says organizer Marilyn Bohn. "You only need to keep what works for you."
3. Plastic Containers
Mary Pankiewicz, owner of Clutter-Free and Organized in east Tennessee, suspects that plastic containers have a secret life (probably hanging out with those AWOL socks and hangers). How else can you explain why so many lids and bottoms don't match up? She suggests holding a "lid party" to match up those errant tops and bottoms. Pankiewicz recently took her own advice. "I had 25 lids with no bottoms and six bottoms with no lids," she says. After swapping with friends, she recycled the rest of the mismatched items.
4. Little-Used Kitchen Stuff
When was the last time you used that Bundt pan? If it was months ago, maybe you should give it to a friend. That's what Suzy Ayres and a pal did when they performed a joint kitchen cleanup. They took everything out of their cabinets and only put back what they used regularly. "The things that we left out that didn't get used much, we had to choose. If we put one thing back in the cabinet, we had to pick one thing to donate," Ayres says. The two also traded items: "She had lots of muffin pans and I didn't."
An added bonus to the plan: They now know what's in each other's kitchens, and don't need to buy some of those rarely used items, like a Bundt pan. "We've been trading the same ice bucket back and forth for years," Ayres says. "I can't even remember who it belongs to!"
Got vases from the last three Valentine's Day bouquets? Take them back to the florist, says Marla Cilley, who lives in Transylvania County, North Carolina, and runs the flylady.net, an Internet site devoted to housecleaning and organization.
"It takes away your creativity and takes over your mind," Cilley says.
Cupboards full of food you're not sure you're going to use? Some solutions:
•Check the expiration dates on everything in your pantry, fridge, or freezer. If it's about to expire, put it on the menu for that week, says professional organizer Bohn.
•Motherboard Mom Dawn Schnake gives her sons what they call "muffin pan snacks" to get rid of those almost-empty bags of cereal, crackers, and chips. She fills each of the 12 muffin cups with a different snack and throws in some veggies, cut-up fruit, and cheese cubes. "The boys think they've sat down to a feast," she says—and she gets her pantry cleaned out.
•If you know you're never going to use an item—and it's still good—give it to your local food pantry.
•Have an "Eat Out of the Pantry or Freezer" week, says Marla Cilley, flylady.net. You'll be surprised at how creative you can get with your menu planning when you're only using the ingredients on hand. She also suggests this as a way to inspire creativity and frugality: "When you throw away food, imagine you're throwing dollar bills in the trash can!"
Organize Your Pantry
They don't mold and don't appear to go bad, but spices don't last forever, not even cayenne pepper. (Cinnamon's an exception to the rule.) "Dried is one thing, tasteless is another," says organizer Blanke. Give your spices the smell and taste test and if they've gone bland and boring, dump them. To find out how old your McCormick or Schilling brand spices are, go to http://mccormick.com/Spices101/HowOldSpices.aspx. And when you buy new spices, mark down the date on the package with a Sharpie.
Computers were supposed to usher in a paperless society, but it hasn't happened quite yet. "Most of us are still drowning in paper," says organizer Pankiewicz. She suggests an annual cleanup. Check with your accountant about how long to keep important papers like tax returns but, in general, materials that support tax returns (receipts and so on) can be tossed after seven years.
Do you have a stack of magazines by your bed that you haven't read? If two months have passed and they're still sitting there, consider donating them to a retirement home, hospital, doctor's office, or school. Many take magazines for art projects (if not for reading material). If, like former magazine editor Cherie Spino, a mom of four in Toledo, Ohio, you "can't throw a magazine away without reading it," do the flip-and-rip. Spino rips out recipes or articles she wants to keep and throws the rest into the recycling bin. She's putting the recipes in a binder.
Organizer Bohn suggests tearing out articles and putting them in a folder you can grab when you know you'll be sitting and waiting (think doctor's office). Or, if you're a tech-lover, you can get many popular magazines as an app for your phone or electronic reader.
It's a common bad habit: Grab the mail, flip through it for anything interesting, and then set it on "the pile" that accumulates until the day you start searching for overdue bills. "Scan and stand" is the system recommended by organizer Pankiewicz. "Standing is the trick," she says. Don't be tempted to sit down: Bring in the mail. Leave your coat on. Find a place by the wastebasket, recycling bin, or shredder, and stand and handle each piece of mail. Put bills in a basket or pretty gift bag, take magazines to where you read them, scan any newsletters and bulletins for important information, and discard the rest. "Your goal is to make the mail disappear," she says.
Clearing Paper Clutter
11. Unread Books
"Books are our friends," says organizer Blanke. "I know my husband won't ever get rid of his dog-chewed copy of Rudyard Kipling's Kim that he's read 50 times." So, keep your favorites—the ones you'll read again or you use for reference—neatly in a bookcase. In fact, if you're a book-lover with a big collection, a whole wall of books can make a dramatic statement and keep them organized. But, if you have lots of volumes that you have no intention of reading any time soon, donate them. Blanke suggests giving them to www.booksforsoldiers.com. "You really are paying it forward when you donate things," she emphasizes.
Make Over Your Home Office
Here's a sad truth: You're probably not going to lose the weight to fit into those 10-year-old clothes you have in the closet. Just give it up and give them away, says Pankiewicz. This doesn't mean you're giving up on ever being healthier or thinner, it just means you aren't going to be held hostage by some old clothes that don't fit, need repair, or were on sale (but you never liked). Donate them all and we guarantee you'll feel "lighter."
Need closet culling tips? Here's what some Motherboard Moms do:
•"I can't stand to have a closet full of clothes that I don't wear," says Michelle Speak, mom of three in Parker, Colorado. She sorts through her clothes each season, weeding out what she hasn't worn, although she'll make a few exceptions for items like skirts that she wears infrequently.
•Mom Suzy Ayres has an easy way to tell what she's worn. At the beginning of a new season, she turns all of her hangers around backward. After she wears something, she puts it on the hanger and turns it around the right way. Anything still turned backward is donated at the end of the season. "Right before cooler weather hit this year, anything I knew I couldn't part with, I wore it so I could put it in the 'save' pile," she says.
Organize Your Clothing Closet
13. Kids' Clothes
Michaela Freeman, a mom in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, keeps clothes for her children a year after the end of each season in case things still fit. What doesn't is passed to friends with young children. "How can you put a price on helping another person?" she asks. She's benefited as well. Friends with older kids pass clothes on to her youngsters.
14. Kids' Artwork
Of course every piece of artwork your child ever did is a masterpiece. But that doesn't mean you need to keep it. If it's not something you want to put on the wall or in a portfolio to save, take a photo and toss it. You can develop a digital "art gallery" or put photos in a photo album and you'll take up a lot less space. After all, think about it: If you keep four pieces of paper per week per child, by the time they've graduated from high school, you'll have one huge collection, points out Bohn. "Take a picture and let it go!" she says.
Power cords, USB cords, and other paraphernalia for electronics clog up our desks and cabinets, says Chris McKenry, owner of Get It Together LA!, a professional organizing company in Los Angeles. "It's a jungle," he says. "And there's not room for the things you need."
Sort through that "jungle" and match cords to gadgets. Old cell phones can be donated to women's shelters. Other old electronic items, like some printers and computers, should be properly recycled. "It's against the law in some cities to put electronic waste in the trash," warns McKenry. Check with your city for E-waste collection sites. Ditto for old VHS and cassette tapes. McKenry suggests transferring them to your computer for digital storage and then putting the tapes in E-waste collections.
"Most of us have way too many towels and sheets," says The Fly Lady. "Some people no longer even have beds that the sheets fit!" She recommends two sets of sheets per bed and keeping the extra set under the foot of the mattress or in a drawer in the bedroom to free up room in the linen closet.
Organize Your Linen Closet
Check your medicine cabinet for expired prescription and over-the-counter drugs, but don't flush them or throw them in the trash. Instead, take them to your local pharmacist for proper disposal.
Organize Your Bathroom
Start teaching your children early to donate the toys they're no longer using, says organizer Blanke. "I know one mom who tells her kids Santa won't come until they give away the toys they're finished with." Here, other Motherboard Mom solutions to too many toys:
•Carol Showers Brown, mom to three in Manassas, Virginia, also taught her kids to donate toys. "We lived in Bangkok and the orphanages there were so grateful for toys, even used ones." Her kids would fill a basket with toys to give away several times a year. "It worked really well because the kids picked out what toys they were ready to part with," she says.
•Remember that preschool song of "Clean up, clean up"? At Diana Dawson's Austin house the song was more likely "Wade through it," she says. That's why she set "dump-it deadlines"—if the kids' stuff wasn't picked up by a certain time on a certain date, she would gather their things and donate them. Sure enough, the first time she had to follow through with her daughter. "The most difficult were the books on the floor, and I donated those to her elementary school," Dawson says. "The school librarian told her she appreciated the donations and other kids enjoyed her books." Her children and a group of neighborhood kids also put on their own garage sale of their toys to raise money to adopt a family at the holidays.
•Mom Michelle Speak has donated many of her children's toys as they've outgrown them, but not all. "I've kept the toys I can imagine my grandchildren would play with." Put the special, keepsake toys away in a well-labeled box.