Reader uncluttering strategy: Buy back your stuff

Yesterday, in the comment section to “Downsizing after a divorce” reader Clutter Junkie left an amazing strategy for reducing clutter that I wanted to highlight as its own post. From Clutter Junkie:

I’m rubbish at decluttering, but I had a girlfriend help me do my place.

She brought $20 in coins to start me off, and put everything I owned to one side of the room. If I wanted to keep anything, I had to buy it for a dollar (Just one dollar!) at a time. You soon realise that you wouldn’t pay a dollar for that CD in a junk shop — so why are you keeping it? All the money I paid went to charity, the amount of stuff I didn’t want also went to a charity store. It’s amazing how unappealing that old sweater looks when you have to pay for it.

I think this idea would work amazingly well for some situations — helping kids to minimize their toy collections, reducing the number of clothes in a closet, and deciding which sentimental items to keep and which to toss are a few situations that instantly come to my mind. If you have to “buy” your things again, you will certainly be more selective with what you choose to keep.

I also love the idea of the money and the left over items going to charity (assuming they’re in good condition). It’s nice to know that good things can happen as a result of your uncluttering efforts. Thanks, Clutter Junkie, for sharing your uncluttering strategy with us.

33 Comments for “Reader uncluttering strategy: Buy back your stuff”

  1. posted by Lee on

    Clutter Junkie – where were you when my children were living at home???

    This is a great strategy and I want to try it. We need all we can find. Our experience has been that one strategy will work for one type of things, but we need another for something else. We and our stuff are quite complex.

  2. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    When I was in the Pony Club the barn manager used to go around the barn at the end of the day and pick up everyone’s things that hadn’t been put away.

    We had to BUY them back the next week if we wanted them! It certainly taught us to put our stuff away and keep the barn clutter-free!

    The money we used to BUY our stuff went to purchase supplies for the club and for us to travel to pony shows.

  3. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    What I love about this idea is that it crystallizes the fact that you actually *do* pay to keep your stuff: you pay in space, you pay in maintenance time, you pay in the form of the tiny, tiny hook that attaches each possession or obligation to you. It’s funny how we give those resources over so easily for our stuff, but when there’s a dollar involved, that’s a whole different story. 🙂

  4. posted by Keri on

    Awesome idea- thanks for sharing! I just subscribed to your blog and I love it =)

  5. posted by Mike on

    I dunno. I usually love ideas like this because they force a frank evaluation of items, but the coins and their value are entirely arbitrary — they could as well be poker chips labeled $1000 each, and it’s like “well heck, I wouldn’t pay a grand for anything here except my computer… can I just have the rest in cash?” And of course there is no cash. It was just an arbitrary exercise. They could as well have paid $20 to charity and cleaned out the room with no connection between the two acts. Don’t get me wrong, I love the underlying goal here… just not sure this is the most cogent approach.

  6. posted by amandalee on

    I don’t know if I’d take this exact approach except in extreme circumstances, but I like this mode of thinking: would I buy this again? Nice idea.

  7. posted by Margo on

    We do this for our kids in a backward way. We pay them for their stuff. Granted its barely garage sale prices and I don’t pay for trash but it makes it easier for them to get rid of things and helps to pay for one higher priced item. My older kiddos are also happy to donate to charity but sometimes the “buy back” option really helps to get the uncluttering ball rolling for young children.

  8. posted by Handy Man, Crafty Woman on

    cool idea!

  9. posted by infmom on

    When I saw the header I thought you were referring to something I’ve been doing for the past five years or so. There are some items I valued from my past that were taken from me, destroyed by other people or lost in one of our family’s moves, and I’ve been buying replicas on eBay. The only thing left on my list is a high school yearbook that it’s proved impossible to get, so far.

    As for the real subject of the message, I plan to start using that tactic very soon, especially with old CDs, books, and other items that we’re not using and that we should be donating to a charity for someone else to have.

  10. posted by Mrs.Mack on


    Judging from the title, I thought the same thing you did.

    As for the original post, this really is a great idea. Love @Jacki Hollywood Brown’s idea too! Great for those kids who just won’t pick up their stuff around the house… or the husband who doesn’t empty his pockets when throwing his pants in the hamper!

  11. posted by Lisa on

    I moved back and forth across the country several times in the early 90’s. At that time it cost approximately $1 per pound to move.
    When decluttering I look at each item and ask myself if it is worth $1/lbs. If not, out it goes. Works great when confronted with a now-old-fashioned 32″ tube television or that tired sofa in the family room.

  12. posted by The Tiny Homestead on

    I love this idea. It would work for me where other concepts have failed to get me to part with something. Thanks for sharing.

  13. posted by Courtney on

    Can you use your own money to buy things back? Or does this mean you can only get 20 of your things back? I don’t understand.

  14. posted by Adventure-Some Matthew on

    Interesting concept, I like it! While I probably won’t use money, I certainly will be using the idea for my upcoming move. If I wouldn’t buy it again, there’s no point in packing and moving it to a new place!

  15. posted by jbeany on

    I’m packing to move while simultaneously clearing my 92 year old gram’s estate. She had a mid-range hoarding problem, so most everything she’s ever purchased is still in her house, 3 car garage, and pole barn. Lots of it is plain old junk, but there are plenty of vintage things that have sentimental meanings. So far, though, I’ve only kept a handful of small things, except for a beautiful antique dresser that will replace a cheap, ugly one of my own. Just asking “Is this worth carrying up my new apartment steps?” is doing the decluttering job for me. If I have to pay in sweat equity to keep it, then the cost is too high for most of it!

  16. posted by Shalin on

    What a fun, useful, and sweet idea 🙂

  17. posted by *pol on

    Love it!

  18. posted by Mari Garza on

    @infmom – Have you tried contacting the yearbook department at your high school. Sometimes they have extras of certain years and may let you buy one. Or submit an ad in the wanted section of craigslist in your hometown.

  19. posted by Sylvia on


  20. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    Great idea! I love the “Would I carry this up a flight of stairs?” test of whether or not to keep something.

    Thanks, again.

  21. posted by Lynne on

    Wow! Great idea.

  22. posted by Clare K. R. Miller on

    @Courtney: I was confused too. After reading the post a couple of times, though, I think it means that her friend gave her $20 to start, so she could effectively get 20 things for “free” (so she can have a reasonable amount of stuff). Then if she wanted more than those 20 things, she had to spend her money.

    I do think this is a great idea. Like many posters, I probably won’t use money, but I’ll keep this idea in mind!

  23. posted by Margaret on

    I have just barely begun to unclutter. I do ask myself if I would buy something again, or if I would buy it if I found it at a garage sale, or if I COULD buy it again at a garage sale if I really needed it.

    But the big problem I have right now is that I live way out in the country, so if I get rid of stuff it either has to make a long trip to town for donation OR if I wanted to have a garage sale, I have to store it and then haul it to someone else’s home in town who is having a garage sale. On the one hand, I want to just GET IT OUT OF MY HOUSE, but on the other hand, we have a massive amount of debt, so selling has a lot of appeal for me. So what I find myself asking is, “How much could I sell this for at a garage sale”, and really, most stuff would be in the $1 and under range. Maybe I should say 25 cents and under, since if I did go to the effort, I would darn sure want to get rid of EVERYTHING. So is it worth storing and then hauling around? I have to say, mostly no. But I have to keep reminding myself over and over and over.

  24. posted by Lise on

    I’m at the stage with decluttering where I’m looking to _literally_ buy back some stuff I’ve gotten rid of. For example, at a fleamarket last year I unloaded a salad spinner I found at a garage sale for 25 cents, and a dedicated salad storage container, with the argument that I never eat salad.

    Well, here it is a year later, I’m subscribed to a CSA for the first time in my life, and I’m inundated with greens. A salad spinner looks really handy right now.

    Oh well. I can probably find another at a garage sale for a quarter.

    While I generally don’t regret stuff that I get rid of in the interest of decluttering, there have been some notable exceptions like this.

  25. posted by kristine on

    I do something like this with my kids. Any clothes/items left on the the floor for days after being told to clean up go in a hefty. They then have to earn the items back by keeping a spotless room for a full week, or two, depending on the severity of the original mess.

  26. posted by Benjamin on

    We do a very similar thing with kiddos at Christmas. After opening all the new toys/presents, we collect everything into a big box, and then they have to “buy” their new toys/gifts with old toys… and usually we do things like 5 old toys for 1 new toy. Really helps clear out the clutter of toys that they haven’t played with in a long time…

  27. posted by LeahGG on

    @Lise: I read somewhere that you can get the same effect by wrapping your lettuce in a towel and spinning the towel around. Since you probably have a few hand-towels in the kitchen, it’s free and clutter-free.

  28. posted by Victoria - Ozarks Crescent Mural/My Freelance Road Trip on

    Here’s a variation on that theme if you’re ever tempted to go into debt again for silly purchases.

    Pay yourself the same amount you paid for an item you already own and stick that money in savings!

    You’ll have a greater appreciation for an item you already own and one that at one time you must’ve thought was important enough that it just had to be charged.

    And you’ll have yourself a nice savings account.

  29. posted by Katie on

    When I saw the title of this, I thought it would be a more extreme version of the same thing: take everything you own (or certainly the things you are undecided about keeping) to a charity shop, wait a few days/week for the goods to come out on sale. Go back and purchase anything you want, of course always dicing with the risk that it has already gone! And if you are truly gutted about loosing a particular item, then go ahead and get another one when you can afford it.

  30. posted by Steve on

    I have been looking at our office full of stuff and thinking “is this worth $5000”? That’s the difference in price, per year!, of an apartment with an extra room to hold that stuff vs. one with one less room. Even so it’s hard to let stuff go.

    Only 20 “free” items seems a little spartan to me. The least I’ve heard of was someone who was going down to 100 items. But the concept could be adapted for any base number one wants I guess. You could even partition it out, say, 100 free items per room. Or the first 20 books are free and $1 each after that.

    Even putting everything on one side of the room, and saying “if you want an item, you have to go over there and carry it back to this side of the room,” seems like it could be powerful. I think the power of the technique is that it makes an extrinsic/hidden cost into an intrinsic/obvious cost.

    That’s probably why poker chips wouldn’t work – in fact the very purpose of poker chips is to create a mental barrier between gambling and the money you are (almost certainly) losing.

  31. posted by Sian on

    I love this idea. I find these mental exercises really helpful in uncluttering-‘would I pay a dollar for this’ is going to be the other question I ask myself now (along with Erin’s red rope test).

  32. posted by Lise on

    @LeahGG: I have seen that article before, and I considered that method, but I have four cats, and every dish towel I own has at least small bits of cat hair on it. I’d rather not have that in my salad (more than it is already is).

    I’ve been drying them with paper towels (which manage not to get as cat-haired) but I dislike the waste in this system.

    Oh well. If I see another one at a garage sale, I’ll pick it up, but I can improvise until then.

  33. posted by Way on

    Thanks for the strategy! Back in high school, one of my teachers would collect lost or stray pens and pencils in his classroom and sell them for a quarter each. One clumsy student kept buying the same pencil back every school day!

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