How much is enough?

As part of my second set of 2010 resolutions, I started going through my entire home and office playing the “I’m moving overseas!” uncluttering game.

However, I ran into a problem because I know I’m not actually moving overseas. It’s like setting your alarm clock 10 minutes ahead — you always know it’s 10 minutes ahead. I can’t seem to trick myself into behaving in a way that makes the game beneficial. And, since I already own much less stuff than the average American, I’m using that as some strange justification for my decision-making process.

I’ve come to realize that this game isn’t for me and that I need a new approach. Taking the place of “I’m moving overseas!” is my new “How much is enough?” evaluation procedure.

The premise of “How much is enough?” is simple:

  • Sort objects into groups by product type. All hammers in one pile, and all free mini-tubes of toothpaste from the dentist in another.
  • Evaluate product types and decide what we need and what inspires us. Is it necessary that I have three hammers? Is one hammer enough to meet my family’s needs? Is more than one hammer a distraction (clutter)? Is having one pair of scissors in the sewing supplies, another pair in my office desk, and another pair in the kitchen the best solution for our family? Do I have more yarn than I could possibly knit in a year or in a lifetime?
  • Sort remaining objects into groups by purpose. All home maintenance and repair tools in one pile, and all toiletries in another.
  • Evaluate purpose groups and decide what we need and what inspires us. Is it necessary that I have a cream rinse, conditioner, and a leave-in conditioner for my hair? Do we need earthenware when our china is more durable and can go in the dishwasher and microwave? Do I need 40 photographs of family and friends on display, or will five really great pictures inspire me more because I’ll actually look at them instead of seeing a mess of frames?
  • When returning objects to their official storage spaces, ask again if what I have is more than I need or effective at inspiring me. Am I owning this object just to own it, or is it an object that my family or I really need and/or find truly inspiring?

What I’m learning is that I have more than I need to achieve the remarkable life I desire, and I don’t need to be surrounded by so much stuff. It is ridiculous for me to own 10 sweaters when I only wore one this past winter (and this was the worst winter we’ve had in D.C. in my lifetime). One sweater is enough for me. I’m simply not a sweater-wearing person. And, if I need another, I thankfully have the resources to easily acquire another sweater. All nine of my other sweaters can be donated to a charitable group for people who really need sweaters during the winter to stay warm.

My answer to the question, “How much is enough?” is turning out to be much less than I imagined. My family and I don’t require too many physical objects to be healthy, happy, and comfortable in the modern world. And, in a couple rare cases, I’m also finding that there are objects we need but that we don’t own. In these situations, I’m making room in our home for these items and I’ve started saving money to buy them.

If you choose to use the “How much is enough?” evaluation procedure to help you sort through your clutter, remember that your answers will be very personal. The decisions that you make will likely be different than mine (you may need more than one sweater in your wardrobe), and that is okay. What I’m learning is that my answer to the question is much different than it was even just two years ago. Don’t be surprised if your answers have changed over time, too. Happy uncluttering!

49 Comments for “How much is enough?”

  1. posted by Mrs. Happy Housewife on

    Okay, I dispute getting rid of the extra scissors. Kitchen shears and sewing scissors function differently than desk scissors. I cringe at the thought of using the scissors that cut up last night’s chicken breasts to cut out fabric for a new skirt.

  2. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    I sorted all the small travel-size and sample size toiletries and have been using them up. I don’t travel that much.

    I do think that simply sorting through things and having a PEEP can help you use what you have. I agree that the functionality of, say, scissors may vary– I have hair-cutting scissors, thread snips, fabric shears, flower scissors, kitchen shears, paper scissors, etc. Each is uniquely well-suited for its function. I also have two pairs of kitchen shears for when one is in the dishwasher–I often need the second pair. I have a pair of paper scissors in each desk, and one with the gift wrap. This works well because I know where every one is and each is near where it is used.

    Now to get the rest of my stuff similarly sorted.

  3. posted by Rue on

    @Mrs Happy Housewife: I don’t think she was referring to different types of scissors, because those wouldn’t be multiples of the same thing. I’m thinking she was referring to multiple pairs of scissors used to cut paper and packaging, not meat and fabric.

  4. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Mrs Happy Housewife — Rue was right, I was just talking about standard scissors. Regardless, I actually decided to keep the multiple scissors. I found that we have need for multiple pair.

  5. posted by Amy on

    I like the “How much is enough?” gauge because it allows for each person and family to vary.

    Our family will keep quite a few hammers. Different ones for different jobs and a few multiples of the same ones. My hubby and I can work along side each other with multiple hammers. Case in point was our floor – multiple hammers and crowbars allowed us to rip up the 3 layers of icky old linoleum and board on our floor more quickly. (Though it was funny that I had to convince him to “let” me help.)

  6. posted by Fred E. on

    I’m using up the last one of those little bottles of shampoo right now. A couple of the ones I had were so old they had gone off. I did wash and save a couple of them for sunscreen to slip in my pocket this summer.

    The little tubes of toothpaste were mostly dried out.

    I’m not going to take these items any more unless I have already used part of the contents. The small containers are inefficient and the plastic is a waste of non-renewable resources.

  7. posted by MaryJo @ reSPACEd on

    You’re absolutely right that your answer to “how much do I need?” may change over the years. That’s why it’s necessary to re-evaluate our need for all our stuff at least once a year, maybe more often. Sadly, we can’t just declutter once and for all and hope our house will stay organized from now on. Thank you for providing inspiration for this ongoing home/lifestyle maintenance!

  8. posted by Vanessa (One New Thing) on

    Woman, send your extra sweaters to me! I live in SC and still manage to wear lots of sweaters. To me, anything below 60 degrees is sweater weather. :)

  9. posted by Julie (World of Julie) on

    The game I play is that we are putting our house on the market and it needs to be “staged.” I never actually get to the point of having it look staged (I’m about to have my fourth kid, let’s be realistic here), but it helps to pretend I’m a prospective homebuyer. What clutter corners would turn me off? There are a lot of areas I just don’t see anymore that I know someone new would notice right away.

    As far as “how much is enough”: yesterday I tackled one of our kitchen utensil drawers and found FOUR oven thermometers and three meat thermometers (and we’ve been almost-vegetarian for a few years now!).

  10. posted by Mrs. Happy Housewife on

    I concede the point, Erin. Lol. Although the fact that you decided to retain multiple scissors makes the discussion moot. We have an abundance of riches in the scissors department at my house. Perhaps I should take your advice to heart and purge a few. I definitely should get rid of the pair with the broken handle.

  11. posted by Loren on

    I struggle with this type of thing every time I get invited to a ‘pampered chef’ party. Yes, I only have 6 pots and pans (including the huge 8-quart soup pot), yes I might USE more if I had them. But do I need anymore pans? No. I can make do with what I’ve got. Yes I only own 4 kitchen knives, yes I only own 2 cookie sheets, and one cutting board, and yes I might USE more if I had them. But do I NEED more? No.
    If things are dirty I will wash them, if I need to bake more than 2 sheets of cookies, I will wait for the others to get out of the oven.

  12. posted by Amanda on

    I like the “how much is enough?” evaluation because as commenters have already said its personal.

    More than most: Trash cans, I acquired them when moved into an apartment with a cold and found I needed more trash cans to throw out tissues, because I was too tired to walk to the kitchen (really bad cold). I’ve since discovered it makes it easier to clean my house and keep it clean.

    Less than most: Electronics, I don’t have a TV or a DVD player. I use my computer and I read for alot of entertainment.

  13. posted by Megan on

    This is a great post! Very thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing the “How Much Is Enough?” process. This is a fantastic way to help weed out things and avoid over-abundance. I sense a trip to Goodwill for another drop-off in my near future!

  14. Profile photo of

    posted by Sky on

    This is a great subject. It seems to me that over the years how much is enough has changed. Growing up (50’s and 60’s) my Mom had everything necessary in her kitchen. She could cook amazing meals (everyday) with basic equipment and no dishwasher. Same for my Dad. His tools didn’t include nail guns, air compressor, riding lawn mower, etc. But he managed and our home and yard were well maintained. In fact, everything was done and we had time for picnics, church and family.

    All our labor saving devices we have now and we can never get it all done. Maybe too much time spent keeping up with all the stuff.

  15. posted by Jessiejack on

    How much is enough” is definitely a good question for me because not only do I assess how much I need but I then pick the best of what I have. Each item remains because of a mindful choice and not just out of carelessness or laziness. This can address all kinds of decisions-big to small. Sometimes the small ones are even funny – how many nail polish bottles is enough? One pink,one red and one clear – the rest can go.(ok I kept the blue sparkly). Do I really want/need 10 shades of polish? what about blank journals, turtleneck shirts etc.

  16. posted by Carla on

    I have three cardigans (black, brown, red) and nearly every day this winter wished for a navy one, too. I’m going to order a navy and be done with it. Just because you already have three sweaters does not mean you can’t have a fourth IF YOU WILL REALLY USE IT. A navy cardi will not be “clutter” in my wardrobe. However, if I had only once this winter wished for a navy one, then that probably wouldn’t be a good investment for me. Each situation is different and should be judged on its own merits.

  17. posted by Joe on

    The trick is to actually plan to move overseas. :-)

    Last year we were going to relocate to Australia. The move fell through at the very last minute, but not before we’d divested ourselves of a LOT of our stuff (too much, actually). But wow, are we uncluttered now.

  18. posted by amanda lee on

    I’m with you on the one-sweater habit – I have a cashmere wrap sweater that was the only one I wore all winter. :-)

    Good call on the mission for enough. It’s so easy to acquire extras when they’re cheap and easy to come by.

  19. posted by Joanne on

    Whenever you mention YARN I get nervous. I hope I don’t have more than I can knit in my remaining years, but I have a lot!

    What saves the yarn collection from too much is that it inspires me. This year has changed in that I am shopping from the yarn supply far more than in the past. Actually using the inspiration (and the yarn) for a productive hobby.

    Now, as I was cleaning out the garage this weekend I used the how many are enough often. I also used “haven’t touched it in x months”, “will I use this in the future”, and “how do I store it so I don’t get more when I want to use it?”!

    It’s always a challenge!

  20. posted by TanyaZ on

    I think, if there is a way to come up with a untasker, people will. For years we used one pair of scissors. I think, it is the hair-cutting type. They cut fabric and paper fine. We used knife in the kitchen to cut food (cut chicken with sheers?). Now we have a pair of kitchen sheers to open packages and cut flowers, but really a knife could do in most circumstances. So, two it is. Now, if only I could cut down on the number of wine openers we have collected (three)!

  21. posted by Shannon on

    Your “how much is enough?” approach is brilliant because it aims right at the heart of a problem for lots of people: multiples of stuff you already own.

    I also really like Fred E’s point about refusing to take free stuff that’s just going to clutter your life and landfills. I no longer take free samples from hotels, dentists, etc., because I NEVER use them.

  22. posted by Nana on

    Speaking up for free samples / hotel toiletries: Even if you won’t use them, they are ALWAYS sought after at shelters, homes, packages for troops, etc. In addition to my Donation box, I keep a Troop box. Easy and gratifying.

  23. posted by LucieD on

    Absolutely, positively the best way to declutter. I made a heroic effort this winter and threw out every last itty-bitty cosmetic this and that in my bathroom. What a relief! Like returning all the empty bottles in the garage.

  24. posted by Nat on

    The “how much is enough?” question also works great when you need to remind yourself to not buy anything. I didn’t have a horrible shopping habit, but I do think I spent a lot of time acquiring stuff instead of spending it on some other free hobby. (Unfortunately, I think the hobby I acquired is reading too many blogs.) Anyway, my point is that you can also save time by knowing how much you’ve got in the first place, which is why I’ll never spend 2 hours at a Pampered Chef party again. I’d rather find other ways to socialize with and support my friends.
    Also, since someone else mentioned yarn, I’ve picked up a bad yarn habit, in addition to art supplies (actually business, not hobby) and fabric stash problem. As an off shoot to the question, I’m giving myself a year to either make stuff or give it away after the year is up, even stuff I might have bought over the year. I find I do more if my craft stash is light.

  25. posted by grace on

    Great post! Lots to do.

  26. posted by MomsManyProjects on

    I love the way you think! “I’m moving overseas!” wouldn’t work for me either! I still calculate what time it really is without Daylight Savings Time! So “How Much is Enough?” is a much better way to go through those extras. I’m planning on doing just that with the clothes. We all have more than we wear with our favorites worn over and over. Why do we even bother to keep the rest?

    On issues like extra shampoos and toothpastes, I would end up keeping those, but make a point to use them before buying more! The small toothpaste tubes from the dentist are great when your traveling or the boys are sleeping over somewhere!

  27. posted by Daniel Ho on

    Instead of the moving-overseas method, I prefer to ask “I just moved into the city in a luxury hotel suite, what do I get now?”

    It seems like it’s the same thing, but it’s not. Now the question isn’t what to keep, but what is necessary for my daily activities and happiness.

    It reframes how I view my possessions, because chances are good that I probably wouldn’t buy what I currently have, if given a second chance.

  28. posted by Linda on

    I’m just jealous because you only had to wear one sweater.. *lol*

    Greetings from icy cold holland!

  29. posted by The Simple Dollar » The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Routine Edition on

    [...] How Much is Enough? Most people answer this question on the high side, which is why a lot of people wind up in financial trouble. They’re seeking some level of “enough” that is no longer satisfying and is more expensive than they can afford. (@ unclutterer) [...]

  30. posted by Barbara Tako|ClutterClearingChoices on

    Great post! The picture frames you mentioned seemed like a lot. I LIKE a lot of family and vacation pictures on display too.

    My solution was to buy large inexpensive almost poster-size frames and print out my favorite pictures and make photo collages. I can cut and trim each photo as needed to fit even more together. I can group together and display over 30 awesome pictures in one simple frame on the wall.

  31. posted by Luke @ simplifi.de on

    Since i am seriously thinking about moving overseas, this one is easy for me!

    This post reminded me of what @guynameddave and Leo Babauta at @Zen_habits are doing, with the 100 Things Challenge. It’s entirely possible to live with much much less than we realize, and still be comfortable and more happy.

  32. posted by timgray on

    Get rid of most of it. Remember every “extra” item you have costs you more of your time and life. Weigh it’s value compared to it’s cost.

    The other problem is that motivation to declutter is reduced if you have tons of space compared to living smaller. Its difficult to really get rid of clutter when you have only 2-3 people living in a 3500 sq foot house compared to a 900 sq foot times square apartment. When you dont “have to” get rid of it, one tends to inflate the items value. You did spend your money and time in acquiring that item… Unless you have a mother like mine that brings over unloved random items from other people’s homes…..

    “Aunt Judy was throwing this away, I though you would like it!”

  33. posted by WilliamB on

    This is a great question! Everyone’s going to have a different answer. For example, I have many pair of scissors because having the right pair where I need it streamlines my life. So I have a small pair in the mending basket, enough small pairs to keep one with each active knitting project, one in the knife block for cooking, one at my desk, one in the “main room” for everyday use.

    Joanne, I made the same mistake with yarn. When the knitting store at which I worked went out of business, I bought yarn in sweater-size batches but no actual pattern in mind. After that I got smarter: I didn’t buy yarn at close-down prices unless I had a specific pattern to use it with.

    I second Nana’s comment about donating toiletries. If you have more unopened containers than you can use, take it a homeless shelter or church. They always have a need.

  34. posted by David C on

    Great post. My wife and I are starting another declutter cycle and are making progress. On the subject of scissors, we alway seem to have plenty and stored out of the way, but try to find a pair that is sharp!

    I am looking at my hobby materials and seeing what I am no longer interested in pursuing. If it no longer strikes my fancy, I am going to donate it or give it to some of my nephews. I find my threshold of “How much is too much” is getting lower with every year that passes.

  35. posted by M Beck on

    Erin, How many hammers are enough?

  36. posted by Marie on

    I like the “would I replace this if the house burned down?” method. There’s no mental trickery involved, just an honest assessment of what I’d truly miss.

  37. posted by Barbara on

    The move-overseas trick really does not work. I moved five times overseas in the past and found out that after arrival in the new country I threw out again bags full of stuff (mostly papers) I did not really need (I am now down to one binder of my best college papers I wrote – I finished college 20 years ago). And, that was always AFTER I did a pretty good job at decluttering for the move. I concede that staying lean is much harder when you don’t move at all. It helps that all these charities call me every couple of months if I have something for them, and that I (mostly) stopped shopping. One tip from me: Make all your seasonal house decoration decomposable or edible. For dinners I always use fruits and veggies for deco, or twigs out of my garden. Eat your pumkins after Thanksgiving, your easter eggs on Easter Sunday. Sure, that does not help with scissors and hammers. Anyway… (I got carried away)

  38. posted by Tara on

    I also use the “Would I repurchase this if the house burned down?” method. Since I have two homes filled with stuff, I actually cancelled my insurance coverage for the contents of the house, since I have a full backup set of stuff at the other house, and it’s unlikely that both houses would burn down simultaneously on opposite sides of the continent.

  39. posted by Sandra Wilde on

    I moved from a 2-bedroom house to a 500 sq. ft. studio, so it’s even smaller than the luxury hotel suite that Daniel Ho mentioned! Basically a hotel room plus a kitchen minus maid service. However, I’m already unable to find stuff. My spring break project will be to go through every drawer and shelf (not that many), weed out, and ideally make a list of what’s where.

  40. posted by The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Routine Edition | Frugal Living News on

    [...] How Much is Enough? Most people answer this question on the high side, which is why a lot of people wind up in financial trouble. They’re seeking some level of “enough” that is no longer satisfying and is more expensive than they can afford. (@ unclutterer) [...]

  41. posted by The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Routine Edition | Shares Trading on

    [...] How glazed is Enough? greatest citizen’s cleared this divisive almost the antipathetic side, which is why a bushel of citizen’s careen afoot encompassing fiscal trouble. They’re seeking either bombard of “enough” IE no longer approachable and is gilding dearly than they canister afford. (@ unclutterer) [...]

  42. posted by theora55 on

    I treat those extra tubes of toothpaste as inventory, and store them in a container in the bathroom so I always have a fresh tube for traveling. Having scissors in my bedroom and on the dryer is a big help; I use scissors a lot, and if they’re handy, and have a place, I don’t have to worry about someone else taking the scissors from the kitchen and not putting them back. Same with flashlights; having them in several places means I can find one when the power goes out.

    For me, the distinction is between consumables, like shampoo and toilet paper in the bath, or canned tuna and chicken broth in the kitchen, and more permanent items, like sweaters. I’m getting better about recognizing that a cotton sweater is getting a bit raggedy, and getting rid of 1 before buying another. I balance between the frugality of buying next year’s new sweater now, while it’s on sale, and not buying lots of sweaters just because I needed a shopping fix.

  43. posted by Praveen Pandey on

    A must question before buying anything.

  44. posted by Tame Clutter By Asking “How Much Is Enough?” | Lifehacker Australia on

    [...] How Much Is Enough? [Unclutterer] Tagged:cleaningclutterhousehold [...]

  45. posted by samantha on

    25 workers (16 economists, seven administrative workers and two research assistants) whom Mr Harper and Ms Sellen studied spent 97% of their time working on documents of some sort; of that, 86% of the time was spent working on paper. They liked paper because they could spread it around; because they could annotate colleagues’ work without interfering with the text, as they would if they annotated electronically; and because paper interfered less with communication during a meeting than screens would.

    In order to observe the differential impact of paper and computers on how people work, Mr Harper and Ms Sellen set up an experiment with ten people, five of them using paper and pens, five of them using screens only. Their task was to summarise a number of reports.

    The people working with paper spread out all the reports on a desk, flicked through them, annotated them, moving easily from one to the other. The people working on computers struggled to do something similar, creating a number of windows on their screen. They found navigation—scrolling, clicking and dragging—slow and cumbersome, and several of them got quite cross. One started shouting at his computer.

    The relationship between workers and their clutter is similar. People spread stuff over their desks not because they are too lazy to file it, but because the paper serves as a physical representation of what is going on in their heads—“a temporary holding pattern for ideas and inputs which they cannot yet categorise or even decide how they might use”, as Ms Kidd puts it. The clutter cannot be filed because it has not been categorised. By the time the worker’s ideas have taken form, and the clutter could be categorised, it has served its purpose and can therefore be binned. Filing it is a waste of time.

    Computers are fine, in their place; but their proper place is at the edge of a healthy distribution of clutter.

  46. posted by Beverly D on

    Samantha, thank you!!! I have been trying to explain exactly this to my husband but didn’t know that there was a study. I have a couple of piles of things on my desk at home and things get spread around and I know where everything is. It’s all part of my mental process, which really hasn’t gelled yet and I can’t make things all neat and tidy because my brain isn’t. When my brain gets there, then things do either get finished, or things get filed. But telling him I’m still processing it makes him crazy! So we shut the door to my study and change the subject…

  47. posted by Spring cleaning « elle & ish – shopping, decor, fashion, makeup and figuring out how to pay for it all on

    [...] also been inspired by Unclutterer’s How Much Is Enough? post and post-apartment-move-in day I’ve been purging like a mad woman.  This quote really [...]

  48. posted by Clutter « The Waki Librarian on

    [...] can you not like a blog called Unclutterer? This is a nice article: How much is enough. Some good tips about organizing and sorting through your stuff (and junk). The only caveat I have [...]

  49. Profile photo of

    posted by Amy on

    I struggle with this, too. Periodically I go thru & edit my possesions, and then I feel deprived and I go buy something new, or else it’s the reverse…I go buy something new & come home and get rid of something old to make way for the new. I’m getting better, though. I have only bought one new piece of furniture in the past year.
    I have enough but I always find something else I need.

    As far as sewing scissors, mine are fisgars and off limits for anything but fabric. I asked the girl who cuts fabric at the fabric store what would she buy for scissors if moiney was no object, and that’s what she reccommended. For some things, there is no substitute.

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