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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Eventually.

Categories: Making Time, The Juggle


There’s a reason why I don’t have a house cleaner. In addition to the fact that I can’t afford one, I mean.

The reason is: I’d have to clean my house before the house cleaner came over to clean my house. Really, I would. Hiring help might actually create more work for me in the long run.

I have a tendency to clutter. I can’t bear to part with things that might come in handy. I try to practice the three R’s — reduce, reuse, recycle — but, while I dutifully do the latter and try hard to do the former, most things seem to fall into the “reuse” category. The problem is that not everything can be reused immediately, which is why our kitchen cuboards are overflowing with plastic take-out containers and mismatched lids.

My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t need to save things “just in case.” I wouldn’t call him a neatnik by any stretch of the imagination (and the amount of car paraphernalia he has in the garage boggles the mind) but he can let go of things in a way that I can’t. He is OK with getting rid of something and re-purchasing it if he wants it later; it’s anathema to me to shell out money for something I used to own but threw away.

I say it’s a mindset: If you pinch the pennies you’ll save the dollars. But I’ll be honest: It’s not just the tightwad side of me at work here, I’m sentimental to boot. My journal from 7th grade? It’s in a purple plastic bin in the basement. Our 14-year-old daughter recently wrote a letter to her friend on stationary I was given when I was 9. On our toddler’s bed is the blanket my mother wrapped around me when she brought me home from the hospital when I was born.

Also: We have five children. That makes for a lot of stuff, even without a packrat in the house, and, of course, I keep all of their things, too. I swear there’s a method to my madness — why throw away clothes that another child will wear in a year or two or five? The baby may be too young for the toys his 9-year-old brother doesn’t play with anymore, but hey, they won’t go bad.

My husband understands this logic, but he also knows that the more space I have to fill, the more likely it is that I will fill it. (Incidentally, this is why I don’t carry a purse; I’d end up hauling around hand luggage instead of a cute Coach clutch.)

I suspect my problem may be genetic — my parents’ pantry has an even-larger cache of plastic containers, and my mother’s cooking magazine collection dates back to the late 1970s. At the very least, it’s longstanding: My father likes to remind me of how he tried to clean out the attic and give my old stuff to the Salvation Army once when I was very little, only to see me sobbing in the back seat as the bags went down the donation chute.

At any rate, I never intend to keep so much stuff around. It’s just that I can’t seem to find time to sort through it all. So, my husband takes things into his own hands.

When he thinks I’m not looking, my husband will go around the house with a plastic grocery bag (reuse!), scooping up my stash of whatever is irritating him at the moment (reduce!), and taking it out with the garbage (recycle! Sort of). I watch him out of the corner of my eye and, later, poke through the trash to rescue things I “need” to keep. It’s madness. Most couples fight about money; our last fight was about margarine tubs.

Recently, we reached a compromise: Give things away or sell them on Ebay. It softened the blow to think that the stuff lying around the basement could be put to use by someone else. I donated (most of) my 400-plus cassette tapes to Goodwill. Some of my husband’s Saab parts sold almost as soon as he listed them online. I gave away bags of kids’ clothes that even I understood had to go — our 14-month-old son will never wear the adorable pink overalls that our 3-year-old daughter outgrew. And the Christmas cards from 1996 went into the recycling bin.

It’s enough, for now, but we still have a long way to go. I know that, one day, I’ll come home and my decade-old stack of Bon Appetit magazines will be gone. (But I swear, I’ll rip out and keep the pages with the most interesting recipes before my husband gets to them. He’ll never know.)

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13 comments so far...

  • If there is a freecycle group in your area, it would be an excellent way to get rid of things to others who want them.

    Shelly  |  January 14th, 2008 at 5:28 pm

  • OMG, were we separated at birth? That’s all I have to say here. Continue on holding on.

    Mandy  |  January 14th, 2008 at 9:01 pm

  • Yup … I can totally relate! Just be careful about ebay … it can get addicting and soon you’ll be buying stuff just to sell (or at least that’s what I ended up doing!)

    I’m trying to completely declutter .. we did move this fall so that has helped although we still can’t use 1/2 of our garage but I guess I have an excuse … once the weather warms up though, we’re doing a “clean sweep” approach on the garage with the “keep, toss, donate” piles.

    Good luck and keep on keeping on … you’ll get there!

    PS: My kids have a bin that I kept of sentimental stuff … stories they wrote in elementary school, birth cards and graduation cards, etc. They can deal with it when they grow up more … I’ll just pass it on to their kids! ;)

    Mary  |  January 14th, 2008 at 10:13 pm

  • I used to be like this, and it only took one move of 1100 miles from one house to another to break me of my saving habit. I now throw things away (or give them away, or sell them) with wild abandon, and find it very freeing.

    I don’t really recommend this method, though. ;)

    Mir  |  January 15th, 2008 at 7:27 am

  • I agree freecycle has helped me with a lot of my clutter.

    Laila  |  January 15th, 2008 at 2:45 pm

  • Great tips, everyone! I’m going to look into Freecycle — I used to be in a group in my town, but no one ever listed (or picked up) anything… maybe they’ve re-energized by now! Mir, I’m going to try the “wild abandon” part without the “moving 1100 miles away” part.

    I’ve been trying to declutter this week. So far, I’ve managed to move a massive pile of stuff. Unfortunately, I moved it from one side of our bedroom to the other. I have much more work to do… :)

    Lylah  |  January 16th, 2008 at 1:28 pm

  • I am completely the opposite. I hate having clutter around. Though I have found I have tons of stuff in my attic still packed from when we moved into this house almost 5 years ago. I am slowly going through all of that now and purging. It is very freeing to give things away to people who will use them, not just stack them in the closet :-)

    I helped Mir pack her house before her move and I’d like to think my reaction upon seeing all 95 pair of sheets in her linen closet helped her ;-) They were all nice and all neatly folded, but holy cow I am still having heart palpitations.

    chrisjordan  |  January 16th, 2008 at 7:17 pm

  • 95 pair of sheets? OK, my linen closet looks positively Spartan in comparison!

    Mir… how many sets went with you to your new place?

    Lylah  |  January 16th, 2008 at 9:42 pm

  • I am like Chris — clutter gives me heart palpitations. I am constantly getting rid of stuff, nagging my husband about this random thing and that, the smallest piece of paper on the kitchen counter can drive me nuts. YEs, a bit OCD, now you know, but can’t do without it.

    (And yes, I love Monk, the show:)

    Nataly  |  January 17th, 2008 at 10:47 am

  • I recommend the gradual and systematic approach. After living in our current home for 12 years — longer than we’ve ever stayed in one place — I realized we had amassed way too much clutter. I now make a point of throwing out one extra bag of garbage each month, and every time the thrift shop calls for donations (bi-monthly) I say yes. It means getting at least one box packed up and gone, and I’ll do it until I can’t.

    Daisy  |  January 19th, 2008 at 9:07 pm

  • Daisy, that’s a great approach — one that I think even I could handle! I’m going to try…

    Lylah  |  January 20th, 2008 at 12:29 pm

  • [...] other day, my husband went on a cleaning tantrum. He started with the kitchen, moving things off the counter tops and scrubbing the stove and [...]

    My husband is cleaning. Shouldn’t I be more psyched? - The 36-Hour Day - Work It, Mom!  |  July 28th, 2008 at 1:32 am

  • it’s amazing to find out that i’m not the only one. i’m a pack rat on self-therapy :-) i moved to a tiny apt and use it as a base for de-cluttering my life.

    inggita  |  September 18th, 2008 at 12:24 am