Questions to ask of your things when uncluttering

The earthquake and hurricane this past week on the east coast have left me glad I made August’s resolution to update my “In case of …” file. Mother Nature sure knows how to drive home a point in a really big way.

In addition to creating the file, I’ve also started to take a new approach to how I see the items in my home. Not only is the stuff we own there to serve my family’s needs and bring us joy, but it is also stuff that someone else might have to deal with in case of an accident. Obviously, I hope no one else ever has to deal with our things, but it’s important to consider that it is a possibility.

Now, as part of the questioning process I consider when uncluttering items in my home and office, I’ve added another question to the list:

  • Do I have something else like this that fulfills the same purpose?
  • If this is a duplicate item, which of these items is in the best condition, of the best quality, and will last me the longest?
  • Is this item in disrepair and need to be replaced or fixed?
  • Does this item make my life easier/save me time/save me money/fulfill an essential need?
  • Why does this object live in our house and is this the best place for this object?
  • Do I need to do more research to know if this is the best object to fulfill its essential need?
  • If this is a perishable item, has its expiration date passed?
  • Will this item be easy for someone else to deal with in case I am not capable of doing so?
  • Does this item help me to develop the remarkable life that I want to live?

22 Comments for “Questions to ask of your things when uncluttering”

  1. posted by Jennifer Eremeeva on

    I love your site! Such good advice and a wonderful post today. Pushed me in the right direction for getting rid of a sofa. Thank you!!

  2. posted by Wilson Family Adventures on

    My favorie question when uncluttering is:

    “If I had to move tomorrow, would I want to take the energy to move this to a new house?”

  3. posted by Heidi Poe on

    I like that question, Wilson. I’ll be sure to ask myself that when I tackle my junk drawer later today!

  4. posted by Paige B. on

    My own weird/sad take on this kind of questioning is “Would I want my husband to have to deal with my clutter in addition to his grief over losing me? (God forbid) This came to me when my sibs and I had to clean out my mother’s 3,000 sq. ft. home upon her unexpected passing, and the extreme sadness, frustration and tiredness we dealt with. I completely broke down when I had to throw out her makeup case, that was the last thing, and such a personal thing.

  5. posted by *m* on

    “If my basement was flooding and I could only save half the stuff in it, would this item make the cut?”

    Such was my weekend. Very interesting to see what decisions you make in knee-high water with a flashlight.

  6. posted by Sue G. on

    I like that question too, Wilson. I often imagine I’m moving and have to pack things. They seem less important then.

    It’s funny, as useful (functional) as some questions are, they don’t always help me with clutter. In other words, “Does this fit me?” doesn’t always help if I’m attaching sentimental value to sweater, or something.

    Over the years I’ve seen various questions listed out and it’s the following one that really resonated with me and has been helpful in this way (and regretfully, I can’t remember if I got it from Erin, ApartmentTherapy, Peter Walsh, etc. so apologies for whoever put this into the world), and that is:

    Does this make my life better?

    That question has been powerful in my life. It fits for things, people, responsibilities/job, etc. I guess it’s basically a rewording of the last one in Erin’s list above, but something about it is blunt or forward enough for me to really react to it.

  7. posted by Aimee on

    I love the addition of “Will this item be easy for someone else to deal with in case I am not capable of doing so?” I’m terrible about keeping things that are functional, if you know the trick to it. If there is a trick to using something, it’s time to replace or repair it.

  8. posted by Gemmond on

    At a time when many folks are selling off stuff to help relieve financial burdens, others who never really kept much stuff, are saving things because they cannot, quite literally, afford to replace them.

    So I suggest a few other questions, including the great ones you gave:
    How easily can this be replaced, if needed? (Meaning is it still available for purchase)

    How much would it cost to replace this?

    What purpose does this serve in my life? Memory, functional, decorative, etc. after answering this, one should ask how relevant it is to the life you live NOW.

    Something may be useful, functional, decorative, whatever, but it should still be recycled because it’s not part of your current life. (If you feel you will have fewer resources in the future, however, it may still be hard to let go because you are fearful you may not be able to afford to replace it. That’s a tough one to counter because it may be true. But then there is the cost in the present of having it.)

    One question I always ask and that really gets me to let go especially if something isn’t being used but is in great or really good condition:
    Is there someone else who needs and can use this right now?

    That really makes me receptive to “releasing” an item so that someone else can make use of it NOW. This has worked especially well with clothes because I can always find a zillion reasons to cling to them.

    It also works well with many other household items.

    To me, it’s wasteful to cling to something that someone else can use, more importantly, may very well need, in this moment.

    We’ve donated quite a bit to various local thrift shops and charities this way. And it makes us feel good knowing that someone else will then be able to use it. NOW.

    FYI: we don’t have the time or desire to sell these items, which is why we avoid ebay and Craigslist. We really want them to get in the hands of people who need them and where they will be sold at reasonable prices.

    The idea isn’t to provide inventory for someone else to then resell on craigslist or ebay but to get in the hands of people who have limited means and need to be able to purchase at low cost–we wish there was some way to ensure that these folks can get this stuff. Today, even the employees of charities and thriftshops related to charities are taking stuff and reselling it, which is why many of our friends no longer even want to donate to so-called “charities.” And of course, you now have resellers prowling these places which has led to increased prices and underserving the very people the thriftshops were supposed to be helping!

  9. posted by Another Deb on

    That new question sums up the issues my DH has had to face in the year since we lost a member of his family. The deceased person owned several “big boy toys” that were of collector caliber, but virtually useless outside of a competition setting and too dangerous to operate. require special scary fuel, frequent start-ups and additional security measures just to store.

    The market has evaporated for the item, title issues and customization has made it hard to appraise and the whole mess is stored too close for comfort. If we ever get the items sold it will be a miracle.

  10. posted by behejo on

    I came to think of an additional question: Am I comfortable that others deal with this item?
    I know that I still have letters up on the attic from my former boyfriend and also he gave some of the ones I wrote to him back to me when we separated (why, I don’t know). I am sure that I’d feel embarassed if my son or my husband would get those in their hands….not that the letters are ‘weird’, but they speak of deep feelings I had for a person who belonged to another lifetime.

  11. posted by evelyn Cucchiara on

    Can this item serve someone else better then me? Does it deserve to be useful instead of gathering dust in my closet? Will it make someone else happy? (Topic of my blog later toady….)

  12. posted by HelenH on

    Gemmond has a great question – “Is there someone else who needs and can use this right now?” Sadly for me, the yes answers are for people with special interests (see Another Deb’s comment or think Unitasker) or the item is too worn to be really useful to someone. And there is just too much decorative stuff floating around which never lands in the “needs and can use now” category.

  13. posted by hazmat on

    I have been culling through my own stuff & the items inherited from my mom. After taking inventory, I found 4 roasting pans, 2 complete sets of pots and more. A local food pantry is getting my excess cookware for people who really need it.

  14. posted by lisa on

    It takes time, work, and storage space to get items to a place where they are needed. Dumpster divers and resellers perform this work, and keep themselves employed doing it. Canneres perform a great service to the environment. Isn’t it better that a reseller, who has years of experience in knowing what collectors want and will pay, takes an item to where it is valued, instead of it gathering dust in a thrift store, and eventually being thrown out? Resellers do not make a fabulous living, they scrape by. They might do well on one item, but might never sell others for a profit.
    My sister struggles with warehousing items in her home until she finds the ‘right” spot to take them for recycling or donation. She is starting to see that there is a cost for her in doing this.

  15. posted by Barb on

    behejo, I think your point about letters is a very good one. I think women especially hold on to sentimental items. I pitched letters from old boyfriends, although at times I wished I had them just as a reminder of my youth.

    Another personal item to think about disposing of is a collection of diaries or journals. When she was in her 70s, one of my aunts told me she shredded her old journals because she did not want her children to read the personal things she wrote. I’ve thought of doing the same thing with journals I wrote when I was in college and still heartbroken about a man who I was involved with before meeting my husband, who coincidentally was a friend of my husband’s in college. As much as it’s interesting to reread those pages in wonder at the naive girl I once was and how life-and-death minor events seemed to me at the time, I would not want to cause any more pain to my husband at a time when he is already grieving.

  16. posted by Melanie on

    @Another Deb – As our realtor told us, you can always sell anything, for the right price.

    Call a fellow-hobbyist/competitor of your deceased family member and offer them to him or her for the price of hauling them away. You’d be surprised how fast they will be at your door with a trailer.

    You have to ask yourself whether you are trying to make money on these items (this may be difficult), or whether you are trying to get rid of them (this is easy).

  17. posted by Tasmanian Minimalist on

    Great questions. WE should have a little pocket card laminated in our homes/wallets to do a quick checklist with these on.

  18. posted by Becs on

    The question I ask when uncluttering anything is “if our house burnt to the ground, would I replace this using our insurance money?”. It very quickly indicates for me what is essential, especially as I am sure our Insurance wouldn’t cover the sum total of everything in our house! I am, however, sure it would cover everything that matters.

  19. posted by GreyQueen on

    At one point in my life, due to the actions of another person and beyond my control, it seemed highly probable I would have to give up my apartment and retreat, for the immediate term, to the family home in another town. Most stuff wouldn’t fit. I coped with the stress and uncertaintly by dividing my stuff into three categories; Shed Now, Shed Later, and Keepers.

    The Shed Nows were things I could easily do without such as heavy terracotta pots from the yard (sold ’em). The Shed Laters were big mass-produced things like the bed and couch, which could be replaced easily enough for cash. The Keepers were the important stuff; the photos, the quilt I made and a few other bits which wouldn’t be replacable. It was truly astonishing how small a list you get from the Keepers.

    I didn’t need to run away in the night in the end and was able to make an orderly move later on which was much simpler than it would have been before I made my lists.

    I now live near a river which has been known to flood and have a mental list of things to grab in event of an emergency and it’s essentially the same Keepers.

  20. posted by manoj tiwari on

    Thank you !! I really needed more ammo to explain to the rest of my family WHY we need to clean up a lot of things in the house !!!!!

  21. posted by Nathan on

    Great list. However, it is missing the one essential question that I have learned from software development:

    How much does it cost to maintain this item?

  22. posted by Someone on

    This helped me when I began a massive decluttering effort ten years ago:

    * How much space does the total volume of things that I’m saving “just in case” take up?
    * How likely am I to need to replace any of them after getting rid of them,
    * i.e. out of this total volume, what percentage am I likely to need to re-purchase?
    * What’s my best guess at the cost of re-purchasing those few things?
    * Would paying that amount be worth having the aggregate volume of stuff out of my apartment?

    Looking at it this way allowed me to finally get rid of a massive mountain of stuff. I eventually spent $10 replacing things that I DID “need someday”, but $10 was well worth having all that clutter out of my studio apartment.

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