Ask Unclutterer: Keeping cardboard boxes?

Reader Douglas submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I had a quick question about boxes. How long do you recommend I hold on to old boxes for things like TVs and computers? I have some big boxes, I’ve kept just in case I have to return the items. I’m not sure if it’s actually necessary for me to keep them though, because they take up a lot of space.

This is one of those questions that I answer so often that I thought I had already used it for an Ask Unclutterer topic. Apparently, I haven’t.

Most electronics purchased from major retailers have a 30 or 45 day maximum return policy for those instances when you simply decide you no longer want the item. This date is always printed on the receipt, which you’ll also want to hold on to if you are seriously considering returning the item. So, for items you think you may not want to keep, it is reasonable to hold onto the box for that amount of time.

In all other circumstances, I only recommend keeping the box IF:

  1. You plan to sell the item in less than three years after its date of purchase, and
  2. The original packaging improves the price of the product when you sell it.

For example, I sell my laptops on eBay when I upgrade to a newer model. After tracking laptop sales on eBay for many months, I found that people will pay a little more for the product if it still has its original packaging. So, I keep my laptop boxes to ship them in to the new owner. Granted, the boxes that laptops come in are relatively small and, since I only have one computer at a time, our storage space isn’t overrun with cardboard boxes.

If your situation does not meet both of the qualifying statements above, then you should recycle the boxes immediately or right after the 30 or 45 day return deadline. Keeping lots of cardboard in the house is an awful fire risk and it wastes a significant amount of storage space. There is also no need to keep the packaging because if the product is a lemon or has some other manufacturing defect, you don’t need the original packaging to return it. Additionally, if you move, you can wrap your electronics in towels or bubble wrap surrounded by packing peanuts and put them into traditional cardboard boxes.

Thank you, Douglas, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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71 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Keeping cardboard boxes?”

  1. posted by Shandos Cleaver on

    Interesting comments about large flat screen TVs. My partner and I no longer have the box for our TV, as we were storing a lot of our stuff at my parent’s house whilst travelling and we simply didn’t have the room to store that. Buckling the TV onto the back seat is a handy way to move them without a box.

  2. posted by chaotic kitten on

    Thank you for addressing this question, I often wonder whether to keep the packaging for certain items.

  3. posted by stef on

    wait a minute: if the item’s warranty is still valid (normally 1 year but can be extended to 3) you might need to dispatch back the item to the manufacturer in its original box if this got broken. So one more case to keep the original box of the item.

  4. posted by Hilary on

    Hi Erin .. interesting about the ebay sales .. I keep my boxes so that I can transport the breakable items easily and theoretically more safely.

    Interesting blog .. I’ll be back to look at more posts – thanks
    Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  5. posted by Onepot on

    I nth many of the comments above: if you have the storage room, save the boxes of pricey/oddly shaped electronics. I am a big-time purger; however, I must say that I was glad for our speaker/stereo/computer boxes during our last move, since it made the packing so much faster (they just slip in and are instantly safe–no need to worry what to wrap them in!).

  6. posted by Lauren on

    The returning issue aside, I’d recommend keeping boxes for things like TVs and other electronics if you’re planning on moving anytime soon. It makes it so much easier to have the perfectly-fitted styrofoam when it comes time to pack everything up. When I was in college, I kept boxes for EVERYTHING because I had to move home every summer/change apartments and dorms every year and it made life so much easier. I finally got rid of the box for my TV this year when I moved to New York (after using it to ship the thing here), because it took up way too much space in my teeny apartment!

  7. posted by Spencer on

    I keep boxes for odd shaped appliances like food processors, blenders, coffee makers, etc. because moving a cube is far more easier than a pile of odd shaped things. I also keep boxes for monitors and things like that to help protect them during moves or transports.

    Additionally, I keep sturdy printer and bank boxes without styrofoam supports because they take up almost no space when collapsed, and if you have to move it’s nice to not go hunting for decent boxes. Collapsed, they fit nicely behind couches and dressers, or in the back of the closet (or in the garage, if you have one).

    Can you tell I’m sort of a pack rat?

  8. posted by gypsy packer on

    Cardboard boxes are bug condos and mildew pits. And, yes, I’ve had a black widow spider and her babies crawl out of one. For this reason, I keep only plastic tubs to store clothing, and use funky antique wooden packing cases for organizer boxes. If I move, I’ll wrap the electronics in clothing and pack those items in the plastic crates, and pack the surplus in cardboard boxes.

    My old computers and electronics go to the local unsung teenaged computer nerd, who can use them or sell them in exchange for all the low-priced and free help he gives me.

  9. posted by Tracy on

    Freecycle is a great place to get or give away moving boxes.

  10. posted by Sarah on

    I’m piling on to the “keep electronics boxes for moving” bandwagon. Of course, my husband thinks this should apply to boxes for things like alarm clocks (I, of course, disagree, and get rid of them in one way or another.)

    Otherwise, we keep some boxes broken down in case we need to ship a gift or something but many go straight into the recycling.

    Another great source for free boxes when moving is liquor stores – we found in our last move that wine boxes are just the right balance of size to weight for moving books and DVDs/VHS.

  11. posted by BakeLiteDoorBell on

    I hate storing things so much that if I have to keep a box, it will impact my decision to buy something in the first place.

  12. posted by Jennifer on

    Ok, This post has really given me a good chuckle to start my day! My husband has a mighty fine collection of boxes! Pencil sharpener boxes, boxes for various childrens toys, shoe boxes, all added to the boxes for all of our electronics! Trust me if it came in a box- we’ve got it! How large is our collection? Well it is taking up the attic and a parking space in the garage. I would also like to add that we have every. single. piece. of paperwork that came in those boxes too! It’s a sickness I tell ya! Oh, I would love for him to read this post and get rid of them all, however once he gets to the comments and see’s that there are a bunch of box collectors that disagree with the post my arguement will be lost…thanks.

  13. posted by Judith on

    Maybe you should check what your laws say about the requirement to keep boxes in order to keep the warranty. I live in Germany, and although some companies write this requirement into their warranties they are actually not allowed to do it; it’s a void clause. They are required by law to accept returns inside the warranty-time as long as they are packed safely, original box or not. Many people here don’t know that either, though, and I imagine many companies gladly keep on weaseling out of the warranties as long as the customer doesn’t raise a stink about it.

    That said, I do keep some original boxes for easier packing, those from my scanner and printer (they have inserts and any attempt to recreate a save-enough packing would result in a much bulkier package – not what you want during a move). I also keep the boxes from my lenses and cameras, as the resale-value is slightly higher.
    Unfortunately I have to keep those in my apartment as my basement is a small compartment in a shared area you can look into, and I don’t want to alert people to the fact that there is some quite expensive stuff in my apartment. In cases like this a usual insurance wouldn’t cover a theft, as it is above hobbyism. I hope I can afford adequate insurance soon, but it is insanely expensive.

  14. posted by Rue on

    @Gina Yeah, I’ve been to Wal-mart during restocking and seen some of their boxes that have instructions to flatten them and send them back because the store gets a monetary credit for doing so. They’re not gonna let you have any when that’s the case!

  15. posted by WilliamB on

    These are the rules of thumb I’ve developed about boxes and moving. They work for me, maybe they’ll help others as well. Of course, all of these depend on having space. It’s generally cheaper to buy more boxes than to buy the space to keep old ones!

    1. If you move a lot (military, student, etc), keep boxes. I’ve used the sames boxes for up to 6 moves, and specialized boxes for over a dozen.

    2. Keep the boxes & inserts for oddly shaped items and for expensive electronics. Note that the box isn’t much use without the specialized inserts. My KitchenAid Standing Mixer is 15+ years old; keeping the box & inserts has saved me about 1/2 the cost of the mixer, because I didn’t to buy specialized packing for it.

    3. Keep the boxes & inserts for anything you want to sell. This will increase your price – partly because it’ll be easy to pack and partly because people who keep the original packaging are perceived to take more care of their goods.

    4. If you have kids, keep shoe boxes if you have the space. They’re very study, have lids, and a good size for projects and storage of small items.

    5. For expensive or oddly-shaped items, keep the packaging till the warranty runs out. Some warranties require it and it’s much simpler to move/ship in the original packaging.

    I like to keep U-Haul book boxes. I find them to be a great combination of sturdy and size: most things I need to store will fit in one. Having boxes that are all the same size does wonders for organization and efficient use of space. I also like to keep the expensive specialized boxes, like the wardrobe boxes and dish boxes. What I don’t keep I give to friends, freecycle or recycle (in that order).

  16. posted by WilliamB on

    PS: I’ve done the scrounged box routine. I don’t like it. The boxes are of uncertain quality and almost always random and varied. Packing and shipping is so much simpler when the boxes are good quality and uniform size. Sometimes it work out – like the time I got 5 dozen egg boxes, each about 4′x2′x2′ (the local supermarket had a sale on eggs *and* a very sympathetic shipping manager) – but mostly it makes my life a lot harder. YMMV.

  17. posted by DaveL on

    If you decide to keep boxes and are concerned about bugs/spiders, try this. I do model railroading and read in a forum that used dryer sheets tucked into out-of-sight spots on a model train layout on a will repel bugs. So tuck one or two in each electronics box you deem worthy of saving and hopefully the bugs will stay away. I know this sounds VERY counter-decluttering, but sometimes ya just gotta flex a bit to achieve your goals :)

  18. posted by Freddy on

    The Fellowes SmoothMove moving boxes (Amazon has them) are absolutely wonderful. After using them, I will never ever use scrounged boxes for moving again. They unfold instantly and require no tape, the lid is built in and they are STRONG. They are also easy to put back flat for storage or reuse.

  19. posted by Jay on

    I would suggest getting rid of a box after the period for *returning* an item to the vendor is over, at the latest. I personally do not worry about the *warranty* period. If a product becomes defective during the
    warranty period, I am confident that the manufacturer will honor its warranty whether I produce an original box or not.

    When needed, new boxes are cheap and easy to get.

    I live in the Washington, DC, area, where the air in the summer is humid, and there are lots of bugs. I would not want to keep in my house a bunch of boxes that might attract bugs or become moldy.

  20. posted by Packing Tips-Cardboard Boxes for Electronics-How Long Do You Save Them? Tips on Packing and Unpacking Moving & Packing Blog-How to Pack Moving Boxes on

    [...] Unclutterer blog had a wonderful post asking should you keep cardboard boxes for electronics? They asked if you should keep your original box packaging and for how long.? I felt this was [...]

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    posted by melissa.moreno05 on

    I use my cardboard boxes for storing things. One of them is for letters, another is for my crochet supplies, yet another for old school notes in case I ever need to refer back to them. I say keep them and use them to stay organized as I do. Loving this web site by the way.

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