Cleaning out your cluttered car

I want to introduce to everyone Sue Brenner, a new contributor to Unclutterer. She’s a mother, performance coach, and a writer living near Silicon Valley.

Just last week, maybe you tossed a business card from a new client into your car? You can look up the website on the Internet, but you would like to have the e-mail address and direct phone number of this hot new prospect. Is it under the ream of paper spilling onto the passenger’s seat? Wedged between the booster seat and the seatbelt? Or, is it mangled in a corner of the glove box?

Whether it’s a business card, your cell phone, or the extra pair of socks you need for the gym, it’s great to be able to find what you need in your car when you need it. The more you use your car and the more people who travel in it can result in your car becoming quite a clutter collector.

Use these tips to unclutter your car for mind clarity, fewer distractions, and, hey, you might just find the pen you need when you’re in the drive-through teller line at your bank.

The Ideal

If you envision your car exactly the way you want it, what would it look like? How would you feel when you got behind the wheel? What things would be useful for emergencies? What things would you want to keep to a minimum (such as trash, gym clothes, and popcorn kernels)? Start with the ideal in mind. You don’t have to create the perfect car setting, yet … but it’s good to have a goal to move toward achieving. With small steps, you can make it happen.

Divide and Conquer

Tackling car clutter can make you sweat. Divide your car into zones before you begin. Your zones might include: the driver’s quadrant, the front passenger’s side, the space behind the seats, and second-row seating. Unclutter one section at a time, and be sure to have a recycling bin and trash can handy for the apple cores and junk mail. Even uncluttering just one section of your car can begin to part the sea of clutter.

Do I Need This?

Let us say, hypothetically, that you find your old cell phone in a cup holder of your car. Do you keep it as decor or should you donate it to a charity that accepts cell phones? You will want to get rid of what you don’t need or what never should have found it’s way into the car initially. An extra pair of safety scissors? That may be a keeper for your car. Four coffee mugs? Probably not. (You can pass along used cell phones to Collective Good, a company that supports groups such as Red Cross.)

The 3-Bag Approach

This tip comes from my book The Naked Desk: Along with your trash and recycling bins, bring three grocery bags with you when you clean out your car. Label the first one “Does Not Belong Here.” Write on the next one, “Give Away/Return,” and label the final one, “Storage.” Each bag will serve as a receptacle for the variety of things that found their way into your car. The “Does Not Belong Here” bag, for example, would be good for tossing in the spoons, client folders, and other items you want to keep but don’t belong in your vehicle. Return these items to their homes after you’ve completed your car uncluttering project.

Junk in the Trunk

Depending on what’s in your trunk, you may need at least 15 to 20 minutes to free up space in this part of your car. Just like you did for the interior, you can section off your trunk into sections. Starting with one small area will help you sift through the jackets, dig out the suitcase from last month’s business trip, and take out the ski gear from January’s family vacation. Getting through a section will motivate you to clear out the other stuff jammed in there. Continue the 3-Bag approach to fully de-junk your trunk.

Try one or all of these tips and let us know which ones lead to a smoother, more clutter-free ride.

29 Comments for “Cleaning out your cluttered car”

  1. posted by Mer on

    My car is the one area of my life where I’m a complete minimalist. There is nothing inside but a folding umbrella and a road atlas. My car is unloaded every time I get home.

    I keep the glove compartment uncluttered so that I can quickly and easily find my proof of insurance and registration. It also holds my owner’s manual, spare napkins and a notepad, so that I can jot down an address, phone number or grocery list.

    I keep cd’s in my center compartment and spare change in the ashtray. No one smokes in my car.

    My whole family is dying to buy this car off me when I get rid of it because it’s practically brand new as a result.

    I do eat in the car from time to time, but I toss the trash in the nearest receptacle immediately afterward.

    It sounds really anal, but it’s the one environment I have complete control over and I like it neat. I hate climbing into someone else’s car that’s reeks of garbage and dirty clothes. Cars shouldn’t be dorm rooms on wheels.

  2. posted by Anne on

    For the minivan we might need two boxes for “Does Not Belong Here” – one for disgusting items such as a used spoon with gunk on it and another ‘clean’ box for things like the client folders. 🙂

  3. posted by Pete on

    I am going to hold this article for everyone i know with a dirty car. They could certainly use it, b/c I feel the same way…they should not be dorm rooms on wheels.

  4. posted by Jessica on

    Uncluttering your car is also more fuel-efficient. The more weight you are carrying around, the worse your gas mileage is. A business card or two is not going to make a difference, but it’s important to take larger items out of the trunk if you don’t need to be carrying them around.

  5. posted by Emma on

    @Jessica, that’s exactly what I was going to post!

    This is a great idea. I spend quite a lot of time in my car and having it clean and clutter free would help me arrive at work in a better mood. It’s not too bad, but it’s getting worse all the time!

  6. posted by C on

    Topical and brilliant! The state of your car is a parallel to the state of your life.

    The trunk is your past; the back seat is your present; the front seat is the future (presumably, the clip ran out before then sadly).

    Welcome aboard, Sue!

  7. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    Thanks for the tips. I sooooo need to clean out my car. Will forward to my husband, too. He’s bad, bad, bad about leaving extra stuff in his car.

    Random side note: I once found a french fry wedged under my seat. I rarely eat fast food, so I’m pretty sure it had been there for months, but it still looked exactly the same as a fresh one. That’s not right. That stuff will kill you.

  8. posted by Harris on

    I have a small (and attractive) bin in my car for all the thing that are going elsewhere….library books, store returns, etc. It keeps everything from rolling around in my car and getting lost under the seat. I keep a blanket and first aid kit in a plastic bag in my trunk along with my cloth grocery bags and fold-up chair.
    When I get home I always take in what doesn’t belong in my car so it’s clean for the next trip.
    Yeah, I’m a neat freak, but it’s easier than a big half day clean up. It only takes a few minutes to vacuum and wipe the surfaces.

  9. posted by Mary on

    @Mer: My car was a total mess until I learned from that loose objects in a car can become dangerous flying missiles if one has to brake suddenly. That cured me completely and now my car is like yours. It is funny how people do line up to “buy” your car even when it is not for sale! Keeping it uncluttered does keep that “new car” look if not the smell!

  10. posted by Tiffany on

    OMG, how did you know my old cell phone was still in the center console? GET OUT OF MY CAR, UNCLUTTERER!

  11. posted by Tuppenz on

    I can’t believe all of this hocus pocus about keeping your car clean. Either when I get out of my car or when I return home each day I empty everything out of my car. In the glove compartment I keep one reading book, a car manual and my insurance/ownership info. In the covered storage unit between the front seats, I have tissues and a bright pink ear cover to stop sun damage. I may look like the Easter Bunny driving down the street but my car is clean. It is so easy to remove everything when you leave the car for the day – how nice to get into a clean, clutter-free car each morning.

  12. posted by sunny on

    hmm..I appear to be in the wrong comments I am in need of the Clutterer article. I call my car “my purse” as it holds what I need for the week. I have a purse, gym bag and sometimes my cloth bag of groceries to carry in and don’t know how to add to that collection to lug it upstairs to my apartment. So items stay and they attract other items.

    I will try the three bag idea…..and will aim to be more like y’all and keep my car as neat as possible.

  13. posted by sunny on

    Oops..make that the “Unclutterer” posting..not the “Clutterer”. *sigh* See? I need it. Maybe a clean car would help me think clearly!

  14. posted by lucille on

    I keep a laundry basket in the trunk. It holds all of our reusable grocery sacks and a cheap windbreaker for an emergency rain coat. The laundry basket also doubles and some place to put small items or purchases so they are not rolling around everywhere.

    There is a microfiber cloth folded up and put in one of the cubbies of the console. Having it there makes it easier to keep things clean when your sitting waiting to pick someone up or another delay. I try to keep a small paper sack on the drivers side floor to gather junk mail and other trash. When filling the car with gas I empty all the trash out of the car that didn’t make it to the bag. My car is one of the few spaces I have control over, keeping it clean makes me feel better.

  15. posted by Leslie on

    My car is actually the one relatively uncluttered place in my life. I say relatively, because there are things that occasionally stay in the back that should have been removed (I drive a pick-up with a topper – right now I think there’s a couple cardboard boxes in the back that should have been put in the recycling a month ago).

    In the front I have kleenex, owner’s manual, stereo owner’s manual, insurance and registration in the glove box. There’s a couple CD wallets in the middle of my bench seat. My ashtray has a box of breath mints and sometimes change. A little cubby below that has a spray air freshener. There’s a plastic bag hung over the gearshift for garbage, but mostly I take garbage out when I leave the vehicle. Behind the seat I have an atlas, tire changing supplies, an ice scraper, and a squeegee. I also recently started leaving my yoga mat and wedges and my camera tripod in my car, because I never use them in the house and it seemed silly to keep taking them inside and then bringing them back out again.

    I’m totally going to print this article out and give to my husband and point him in the direction of HIS car with 3 garbage bags though!

  16. posted by Craig on

    I too am surprised that there are cars that have THAT much junk in them. I’ve always been one for a tidy car (may not be “clean” but it’s always tidy.) Even with 2 kids almost constantly in her car my wife maintains a relatively neat car as well.

    Not to go off topic…but one of the ways I uncluttered my Ford Explorer for gas mileage reasons was to remove the roof rack (wind drag.) I also took out the 30 pound spare tire (for local trips I just carry fix-a-flat and AAA card – for a longer trip I’ll pop the spare back in) but removing the full size off road tire has made a reasonable difference in weight.

  17. posted by Liza Lee Miller on

    Getting new cars helped us immensely. If my car gets cluttered with stuff, I clean it out quickly. In the back of it, I have a toolbox that I got at a home improvement store. It is open on the top and has pockets all around the side. Great for holding those essentials for emergencies. In the glovebox, I only have the owners manual and reg/insurance paperwork. I try to keep the center console stuff to a minimum — tissue, lip balm, hand lotion, and a pair of gloves in the winter. One thing I think ALL cars need is a trash receptacle. Drives me nuts that not only isn’t there one in a car but there isn’t a good place to put one in a car. And, don’t suggest the back of the seat dealies — yea, that’s handy when I’m driving down the road. I’m hands-free on my cell phone but drive off the road trying to throw a tissue away.

  18. posted by Mary Beth Figgins on

    I’m surprised that no one mentions carrying flashlights in their cars.

    I have to admit my car needs a good cleaning. There’s all sorts of small wrappers such as cough drops that miss the wastebasket, empty water bottles, etc. I do keep maps, GPS, flashlight, book flashlight, car registration and insurance, pencil, small notebook for recording mileage, fingernail clipper, lip gloss, kleenex, tire gauge, cell phone charger and other items that I’ve needed when on the road. Including a small phone book which has been very handy from time to time. The trunk has grocery bags, first aid kit, and foldable shovel. During the winter I like to add a blanket and sometimes some cat litter or sand for ice emergencies.

  19. posted by MindyF on

    With 2 kids, I always make sure both our cars have a pack of tissues, and a pack of wipes in the glove compartment. I also keep warning flyers about leaving pets in hot cars in there so I can use them when I need them. Also, in my trunk (Saab hatchback), I have a clear plastic bin (the kind in which you store off-season clothes in the attic) that I was supposed to return to the store because it cracked on the bottom. I’ve found it so useful for keeping a few grocery bags from rolling all around my trunk that I keep it there on purpose now.

  20. posted by Tom on

    Um, just clean out your car. Is this that hard?

  21. posted by Beverly on

    You used to be able to tell the day of the week by how many coffee cups, pop bottles, and fast food bags were in the backseat of my car. Somewhere along the line, I changed. The only thing in my car today is an umbrella and a pair of sunglasses. Woe be unto anybody who leaves stuff in my car. Now if I could only keep my house clean!

  22. posted by Me! on

    I had to check the date – I thought this article was some sort of late April Fool’s joke. Seriously, I never knew anyone kept so much crap in their car. I take everything out of my car that shouldn’t be there each time I get home.

  23. posted by » Cleaning out your cluttered car on

    From » Cleaning out your cluttered car…

    Just last week, maybe you tossed a business card from a new client into your car? You can look up the website on the Internet, but you would like to have the e-mail address and direct phone number of this hot new prospect. Is it under the ream of paper…

  24. posted by Ricky on

    yay for the picture of the mazda3 interior, that’s what my car is!

  25. posted by Marc on

    I started to get serious about removing the clutter from my care when started border crossing between the US and mexico every day. For me a clean car can mean the differance between a skipped inspection or a 30 minute delay. On the US side if you have nothing visible through the windows but a laptop bad and the trunk is empty you never get pulled into secondary inspection.

    One of the most funniest things I have seen is a Mexican soldier inspect my car and spend more time on my lunch bag than my trunk.

  26. posted by KB on

    Thank you for posting this article. I’m an adult with ADHD and one of the many symptoms is clutter everywhere.

    i loked at hwta had happened to me recently and while my car was gettign more and more cluttered, my insurance policy was canceled. Arggh! So I looked at the state of my car and as of today I have a cooler in there I had for one month and a surfboard in there for 1 week! Uh…yes…unmanagibilty in my life.

    I’m going to take care of the car business today and re-dedicate myself to taking car of my car.

    To those who posted they struggle with car clutter, thank you for your honesty. It takes a lot to admit that there is a clutter problem in our cars.

    To those of you who posted that you don’t understand how anyone could have problems with clutter or you may have thought this was an April Fool’s joke, please have more compassion. For the people that do struggle with clutter this is an issue that is no joke. We ALL have our stuggles. My car clutter just happenes to be one of them.

  27. posted by GGB on

    Some of us struggle with it valiantly, others doggedly, and at least one of us faces it humorously. It’s kind of comforting to see this family’s situation and to know I’m not the only one.

  28. posted by Rue on

    I cringe every time I get into a friend’s car and they have stuff all over it. One of my friends has so much stuff you can’t even step on the floorboard when you’re getting in, so it’s more like a crawl-across-the-backseat to sit down!

    I keep an umbrella and tire gauge in a side pocket of my car, a CD case (one that holds a bunch of discs) in my glove box, and an ice scraper/snow brush in my trunk. I also have a car trash bag (it velcros around the headrest of the passenger seat – these are great for catching straw wrappers, etc instead of tossing them in the floor!). Occasionally a jacket will find its way into my car. I might leave it there if the weather has been chilly lately, but if it’s nice weather, out it goes!

    The best way to keep your car clean is to not bring crap into it to begin with. If you just HAVE to bring stuff in your car, keep a small box or bag and EVERYTHING goes into it. That way when you decide to clean out your car (or need to find something) it’s all in one spot.

  29. posted by Lisa on

    LOL…I would get so confused using a system for my car. Plus my car gets so cluttered that no way would the stuff fit in bags. When I clean, I just take 2 laundry baskets and piles everything physical in there, regardless of what it is. Anything that’s trash goes strait in a trash bag never to be seen again. It usually takes about 2 hours to do. The baskets go inside where I can sort the stuff (there is rarely anything that I truly “need” that goes back in the car). Then I vaccuum and enjoy the empty car for a week before it begins to get slowly cluttered again.

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