The crap that crowds us.

I’ve been on a major de-cluttering kick in preparation for “Superfluity,” my church’s annual rummage sale. The idea is to strip your life of superfluous stuff. You get cleaner digs and the church raises cash for its various social programs.

Although I knew my place was getting crowded, I had no idea just how much superfluity existed around me. As I fill bag after bag I can only say, “Holy crap.”

Books, knickknacks, CDs, boots, a silver picture frame, housewares. Canning jars, three-ring binders, floor puzzles, a yoga mat, greeting cards, a file-card box, cookbooks, a sippy cup. Small art prints and larger framed Alaskana that I can probably never sell down here in the flats. (I’ve tried, repeatedly.)

It came to me in various ways: yard sales, gifts, Freecycle, occasionally even a retail purchase. Some of it is left over from my return to college and was hard to jettison, such as those binders and some scholarly books. But for heaven’s sake, I got my degree two years ago – at what point do I let go?

A losing proposition

It was hard for me to let go of a lot of this stuff. Those floor puzzles – I was going to put them together with my great-nephews if they and their mom came down for another visit. The silver picture frame is left over from my daughter’s wedding preparations. Other items were small gifts that I rarely used and that I know might be perfect for someone else, yet I still feel guilty for giving them away.

And oh, that framed Alaskana. It crowded my bedroom for years, along with a bunch of other kitschy northern and Western art, several portraits of baseball players, and tons of sports ephemera. All of it came to me in the divorce.

I was able to unload some, notably the baseball cards (sold in a single lot to a sports-card store) and the baseball portraits (consigned to a sports auction house). I found two buyers willing to take about 15 older Alaska paintings.

The owner of a now-defunct Fairbanks gallery accepted a dozen or so Fred Machetanz prints. She still owes me a big chunk of change.

In fact, I lost money on most of these things – that is, I didn’t get anywhere near what my ex-husband claimed they were worth in the division-of-property documents.

Of course, he may have been deluding himself. Additionally, it’s damned hard to determine an item’s real value, since it’s generally worth only what people are willing to pay. Allegedly those framed Alaska prints and posters are worth something, but no one here wants to buy them.

How much is my time worth?

Alaskans aren’t that interested either – I took some art with me during a trip to Anchorage and tried marketing them through Craigslist and newspaper ads. I got a couple of calls but the would-be buyers never materialized.

While looking at some of these items recently I blurted out the following sentence:  “I am never going to get back the money that he pissed away during our marriage.”

And that’s gospel. How much more time do I want to spend trying to market something no one really wants? Even if it all sold I wouldn’t be able to recoup my losses.

What is my time worth? And more to the point, what is the value of having this junk out of my life?

So into the pile went four framed prints and posters. Maybe a Superfluity shopper will look at them and gasp, “I’ve waited all my life for washed-out posters of mushers and dogs!” I’ll be rid of them, and the church’s social programs will benefit.

I’ll benefit, too. It felt great to get rid of all that other stuff. Each piece that left meant more room in my life.

Clearing a space

I have a plan for the rest of the Alaskan and Western art. I will unwrap and photograph it, then research the current value of the artists’ work. I’ll cut that price in half for Craigslist.

If the art doesn’t sell I’ll re-list it until I get sick of trying. After that I’ll start looking for groups seeking donations for benefit auctions.

No, I won’t make any money that way. I don’t itemize, so I can’t even take the tax write-off. But the works will be out of my life, finally.

Just like the sports ephemera. Three years after the divorce I finally went through the dozens of boxes of media guides and programs and scorecards, mostly from small colleges and non-A-list pro teams. It took many hours and many trips down to the recycle bin, but I finally got rid of it all.

I did hold on to a couple of boxing programs: Evander Holyfield vs. George Foreman and Evander Holyfield vs. Alex Stewart. Six days ago I finally put them up on eBay. They have yet to receive a single bid.

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  1. One day, about six years after my divorce, a friend was helping me clean out things. I gave her a pickup truck of things left over from my marriage, things on my walls that reminded me of people I did not even care about.

    So, off the kitchen walls came all the stuff my exmil gave me, things from Mexico, colorful kitsch. The children liked it, so up it went to decorate the kitchen. My friend took all that, items ex left and never picked up, plus stuff I had that needed to go. My walls looked bare. I was really relieved.

    I got no money, just relief because at last he and his family were not evident everywhere. Now, I am not totally stupid, sterling silver and a diamond solitaire, things worth cash, stayed here…lol. Insulting gifts he gave me went.

    Just a thought, school classrooms might find the Alaskana interesting to children and add peripheral learning.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Practical Parsimony: Forgot to mention that I’m mailing half a dozen of those Alaska posters/prints to my niece, a schoolteacher. But that’s because they had creases or slight wear around the edges and were not ever going to be sold anyway. Plus they wouldn’t do well at a rummage sale because they’ve been rolled up so long they won’t stay flat, and people would have to keep unrolling them. So off they go to my niece’s classroom.
      As for the framed ones: At this point I do not have the time to query Seattle teachers as to whether they’d like them. If teachers want them, they’ll have to come to Superfluity and pay a few bucks for them.

  2. There is nothing quite like the relief of getting rid of stuff you don’t need/don’t use. I used to be caught in the trap of “Oh, but it’s useful I’ll bet I could use this for something” guilt trip. But not anymore. If it would be useful to me, it would be useful to someone else.

    I have also been taking care to not buy things that I don’t really need or use.

  3. And you get the warm glow from donating to a good cause, even without a tax write-off, right?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Nicoleandmaggie: Yep. Every time I take a bag of free-after-rebate toiletries to the food bank or drop something I don’t need in a Value Village bin, I’m glad that someone will be able to use it.

  4. I have to remind myself all the time that something is only worth what someone will pay for it. Even if I was stupid enough to spend good money on it, it does not mean there is another sucker just like me…necessarily. Sometimes there is though, which is why we keep trying with our low, low expectations.

    So, about those canning jars…I am in the Seattle area, and would happily take them off your hands. Just saying…

    • Donna Freedman

      @Dogs or Dollars: I sent you an e-mail about the jars. Get back to me ASAP because they are going to church on Sunday…

  5. Six years ago I began the de cluttering process. Who knew the kids’ art work would get musty in the basement? It was a relief to rent a dumpster and get rid of the wood DH was going to use. Now in my small home, I still de clutter. Especially after I watch ‘Hoarders’. If I don’t use it in a year, I don’t need it. I need my free space around me.

  6. ImJuniperNow

    Here’s my favorite way of letting all the crap (material, not emotional) go –

    I do a “rush job” of going through the place, putting things into plastic grocery store bags. I put them in the back seat of my car. I then go about my daily life, riding around with them. If after a week I haven’t gone into any of the bags looking for something, I know that these things serve no purpose in my life.

    They end up at a thrift shop run by a church that has a food pantry/soup kitchen in a very poor neighborhood.

    • Donna Freedman

      @ImJuniperNow: A friend of mine’s mom is in her 80s. For years she’s had a policy that every time she brings something new home, two things must leave. It works for her.

  7. It’s amazing how stuff piles up. I think it’s great to try and get some money back (or at least a tax credit), but sometimes all you’re going to get is a feeling of relief that it’s no longer clogging up your home!

    • Grace

      @ Ellen Recently I had to downsize drastically. I found stuff that I can’t remember ever seeing before much less used. Thanks to our Church’s Relay for Life Team yard sales, my stuff was sold and the American Cancer Society benefited. Two good causes taken care of at once.

  8. priskill

    Thank you — I needed to hear this TODAY. It is so hard to divest — my house is practically non-functional due to inability to say buh-bye to crap. Not quite “hoarders” level 🙂 but such that I hate having people over. It is time for us get serious and your example is a great one. “I will never get the money back . . .” should be on a tee-shirt and I should wear it every day. Good luck!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Priskill: Good luck with finding a cleaner, more livable space. I’m also going through and recycling a lot of the paperwork I’ve kept for way too long. It’s difficult but also calming.

  9. I moved last fall after 15 years in one place. Thought I had purged most of the excess prior to moving day, but I’m still opening boxes and wondering why I kept the contents. This article is a good reminder that I need to get rid of this unneeded/unwanted/excess stuff rather than shove it into a closet or cabinet. Thanks!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Deborah: I knew I had a lot of books, but the other stuff was a lot more stealthy. It amazes me how much I had — and probably still have. Just about every day I pare down at least one item. Scary.

  10. @Donna – Got your note. Emailed you back! ASAP is good.

  11. As much as I try to live clutter free there comes a point that I start feeling stuff encroaching on me again. How’d that get there! ? They just do in various ways like you mentioned. Good job donating them to a good cause. I know you feel better with more space already. Now if I can just get off the computer and get started on my own pile! Thanks for the inspiration Donna!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Bernie: Keep at it! I will if you will.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  12. I’ve been gradually paring down my stuff for the past 5 years. I was just thinking earlier this week that I really need to get rid of some of my book collection. I seldom keep books anymore, I prefer to donate them back to the library whose used bookstore is on my way home from work.
    Besides freeing up space, isn’t it great to get rid of crap that just reminds you of someone you’d rather not be reminded of? ;o)

    • Donna Freedman

      @Catseye: Yep. That’s the reason I want to get rid of the art — too much negative energy attached to it.

  13. jestjack

    We too are trying to “de-clutter” a bit. Where does this stuff come from? “Percieved value” of items never fails to amaze me. I have had some sucess selling things on Craigslist by being patient. I became the owner of 2 boxes of comic books left by a tenant a few years back. Nothing great…some in plastic with card backing others not. Had a guy come out and tried to “low-ball me” and offered “$25 for everything”….I declined. 4 months later I put them on Craigslist again, nice guy comes out, pays me $200 and couldn’t thank me enough…crazy. Thank you for this timely article and wish me luck going thru my pile….

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jestjack: I once picked a book out of the “free” pile in a campus office building. A year or so later when trying to sell a bunch of textbooks I put this one into a search engine. It brought me $18.44, much more than any of the others. Go figure.
      I think we all suffer from Stuff Creep. It’s insidious.

  14. jestjack

    WOW…$18 for a free book…That’s incredible! Unfortunately my experiences with text books for “my gals” usually goes the other way. Like buying a book for say….$100…only to have it be worth say…$20 the following year… Crazy AND painful.

  15. “Stuff Creep.” Now I have a name for my condition.

    I’ve been going through all of my belongings and purging, big time. The few items that I have kept have gotten thoroughly cleaned. I’m just now starting to see progress, which is encouraging. Of course, I’m doing the main floor first, so hopefully I won’t lose my sanity when it comes to the basement…

    • Donna Freedman

      @Cathy R: After selling some of the art and rearranging what was left, I tried to remember what it was like when I had not just the art but also dozens of boxes of sports memorabilia. I remember feeling crowded and overwhelmed. Much better now.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  16. a reader

    So what do you do when a potential sig other has loads o’ clutter? I’ve been on the decluttering campaign in my own household and have a quasi-minimalist approach. I won’t visit him at his house because of the loads of stuff and herd of cats and a dog.

    • Donna Freedman

      @A reader: This could be a deal-breaker if you’re unable to reach a compromise. I wish I had a pat answer, but I don’t.
      Anyone else?

      • kim bradshaw

        keep separate places: this works for me and my partner of 11 years, and is apparently all the rage in Sweden, even for married couples with young children!

  17. I’m just so proud of you! I just breath easier when I declutter.

  18. Hayden's Mom

    My husband is a horrible “storer of things.” We are both young (under 25) and just moved in together out of state from all of our family due to military career. He keeps things like birthday cards from his 6th birthday and old, broken headless GI Joes that he thinks our son will play with when he gets older. He has even started to “keep things” for our son. I try to declutter as much as possible, telling him that his grandma doesn’t remember what card she got him or who got him that toy, but he refuses to part with any of it. It’s taking up so much space!! I read on another blog that if you have to store it, or you have no room to display or use it in your house, you shouldn’t keep it. That’s been my approach the last few weeks. I’ll have to work on my husband though. 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      @Hayden’s Mom: Good luck — I expect it will be an uphill battle. In the past couple of weeks I’ve had to ask myself questions like:
      When was the last time you read/wore/enjoyed this?
      Do you really need multiple copies of every magazine you’ve ever written for?
      Why is it so hard for you to get rid of college notebooks?
      What’s really bugging you about the possibility of giving up certain items?
      If you had to move next week, would this be one of the things you took along?
      Some compromises have been made. For example, I kept two copies of each magazine article I’d written — but sandwiched them between the front and back covers and threw the other pages away. Progress is a gradual thing.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  19. To those with SOs who have “stuff issues,” there is hope. My husband came to our marriage with every birthday card he’d ever owned, etc. His parents have an attic full of Stuff that they refuse to even think about getting rid of. I wish I had a magic answer that would work for your SOs, but for mine, using logic and compromise actually worked. He was given a certain amount of boxes that could be used to store knicknacks, and everything else had to go.

    We lost the birthday cards and other absolutely ridiculous Stuff, and as the years have gone on, he’s even starting to get rid of some of the things he wanted to keep without prompting from me. So there is hope.

    • Donna Freedman

      @HH: Good advice. I love the way people are beginning to answer one another’s comments and offer suggestions. Keep it coming!

  20. I wish there were more of these rummage sales here. Not only would I possible shop them but I would donate as well. It is hard to find charities that I can 100% feel good donating to, so many use the funds for other purposes (although churches always see to be a safe “moral” bet as far as the agenda of how they would use the money).

    I am in the midst of moving. This is giving me a wonderful reason to purge items. I have stuff on craigslist, ebay and boxes set aside for garage sale (in the spring) and donation now. I now go to sleep thinking about what items I can live without. Altogether purging gives me a great sense of relief.

    Now Donna, go back through everything you still have and you will find even more you could live without.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Christy: The church I attend does a bunch of community work (feeding homeless teens, helping people living with HIV, supporting a home for impoverished seniors, et al.) and also gives cash assistance for rent and utilities. You don’t have to be a member to get this help; people come in off the street and are referred by social service agencies.
      At the end of the sale, the trucks from Value Village come by and pick up anything that wasn’t sold. Win-win.
      I am typing this from a desk I bought at Superfluity when I first arrived here in Seattle in 2004. It cost $3. Yay rummage!
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  21. @Hayden’s Mom, having lived with a mother that would not throw anything away, (not to the point of a Hoarders Show, our home had lots of stuff but not full of trash etc) your husband needs and intervention! Nip that in the butt while you are still young!, it is abusive to live in an enviornment that causes you harm even if it is just clutter, it is still stressful and will be for your children. No hoarder remembers everything they have and certainly something buried in the bottom bin for four years is not needed. Stand firm and set limits for clutter in YOUR and your CHILDS home. Or you will end up like many who have to smuggle crap out of the house for your own sanity.

  22. Over at Unclutterer.com, in the forum, there’s a thread called A Thing A Day. It’s where people post what they’ve found to get rid of (not necessarily every day, but just for those oh-that-can-go moments). For people who are having trouble “getting started” the thing a day approach seems to be helpful.

    Re: significant others, it does seem that having frequent, low-profile conversations about Stuff and our relationship with it is more helpful than trying to get a reluctant S.O. to engage with decluttering. Leading by example, talking about it in a nonthreatening way that is NOT connected to an immediate request to purge. That is, NOT “Let’s attack your closet today.” More, “I finally got rid of all my magazine back issues. Did you know Men’s Health is available online now?” That kind of thing.

  23. Our last/youngest daughter moved out last weekend. Not only have I gained a hall closet and half an attic, but it will get better still – next month she’s coming back to sort out all the boxes and bins that are still here, which are full of toys and children’s books. The plan is to call all of her friends (and a few of mine) who have small children, invite them all here for a one-day free-for-all, and at the end of the day anything that’s still here will go to Value Village. Everyone wins!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Kate: Everyone wins, indeed. Now the real fun begins: Not filling those newly emptied spaces back up again.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  24. Nicolette

    My husband and I downsized from a large house to a very tiny one 833 sq. ft. For a year and a half, almost everything was in storage. Then, when it was time to move in to the tiny house, we found we could only keep the bare essentials. So, EVERYTHING that was in storage was donated to the Salvation Army, without us even opening one box. Didn’t know, didn’t care. I feel so much lighter. Cleaning the house is a breeze. Doing laundry only takes a few loads, since we donated everything that did not fit at that exact time. No more “I’ll lose the weight..” ha ha. I’m a fattie. Yep, there, I said it. So, bye bye skinny clothes.

    • Donna Freedman

      Nicolette: I just finished going through another box. It was tough to get rid of some of the items but I really, really don’t use them. I kept a few things that had sentimental value. The rest were either put into the new donation pile or thrown out.
      I say the “new” pile because my sister and I carted the rest off on Sunday. It completely filled the back of her Subaru Forester. Now I’ve got two new bags full. I’ll take them with me tomorrow, when I go down to help sort at Superfluity. It will make me feel wistful to see some of the stuff going away, but I need to remember to hold on only to what matters. The rest is just habit.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  25. a reader

    Well, there’s no deal yet with my clutterbug; we’re dating exclusively and he knows how I think.

  26. I know the feeling.

    Since 2 years ago I started decluttering my house and it feels so good!
    It was difficult to get rid of the kitsch gifts I have received from my family, but I was able to do it little by little.

    I am now to the point of getting rid of my books, I have put some of them at sale in a site, hopefully those will be bought. If not, I will just recycle them as paper.

    If we can not get money for stuff, at least we can get freedom from stuff.

  27. Midsouth Mouth

    Admirable, everyone! I agree that parting with past glories is tough!

  28. 5-6 yrs ago, my extended family stopped exchanging purchased gifts at xmas. Instead, we host a “family flea market” and anything not claimed goes to Goodwill the next day. I have gotten rid of everything from sweaters to crockpots to cellphone chargers this way. And I don’t end up spending any money.

  29. Misery loves company. I need to declutter. I hate to think that if I died, my poor kids and husband would be stuck plowing through this stuff. No, I’d never make it to Hoarders, but I do need to get rid of things. Here are some sites that may help others: Get Organized Now, Flylady, Mimi Tanner, Alejandra. I have found helpful tips at all these sites. Getting rid of a little is better than getting rid of nothing. I think I have ADD and that makes it harder to get things done, and I’m also sentimentally attached to too many things.


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