Ask Unclutterer: How do I convince my spouse to get rid of unnecessary papers?

Reader Kat submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

How do I get my husband and stepson to follow the systems I set up? How do I work with other people to attain organization? How can I convince my husband that we don’t need to keep every piece of paper that crosses our threshold??

Full disclosure: Kat’s email was significantly longer than the paragraph of questions quoted here. The gist of the other part of her message was that her family has incredible qualities, they’re truly wonderful people, they just LOVE keeping paper and not doing anything with it except for stacking it. This behavior drives Kat, a newlywed, batty.

Kat, the first thing you need to do is accept that you live with paper keepers and stackers. It’s who they are. They were this way before you married into the family two years ago, and you will never be able to force them into becoming shredders, scanners, and filers. As much as you want to, you can’t force anyone into being an unclutterer.

That being said, you can implement strategies to help you deal with your frustrations about their behavior, and you can also talk with them about your uncluttered and organized preference and hope they choose to adopt them.

The first step is to sit down and have a family meeting about the paper situation in your home. If you can maintain a calm conversation at home, have it there. If voices are likely to be raised, take pictures of the rooms in your house that are cluttered with paper and head with your family to a restaurant to have the conversation in public. People are much more likely to keep level-headed in public spaces.

During your conversation, be specific with how you feel about the paper clutter, the impact the paper clutter is having on your life (don’t over dramatize, state only facts), and describe exactly how you wish the space to look. Then, ask your husband and your son how they feel about the paper clutter in the house, how is it impacting their lives, and how they want their home to look. Try your best to come to an agreement between the three of you for how you want your space to look. You will have to give a little, and they will have to give a little, but the three of you should agree on a state that works for all of you. Then, discuss in detail how you plan to make the vision a reality.

If you cannot agree upon the way you want the house to look, I strongly recommend seeking the help of a therapist. Talking things over with a person who doesn’t live in your house can help significantly in these situations.

After you decide on the desired state of your home, everyone should do a walk through of the entire paper handling process with each other to make sure everyone will work in the same way. Since you already own a shredder and scanner, everyone should practice on the equipment. Don’t be condescending to each other, just walk through the process.

Then, when the walk-through is over, you need to trust your family to stick to the plan. You also have to stick to the plan, no exceptions. If your husband or son do not follow the agreed upon behavior, they have two choices. Ask, “The three of us agreed that we want our home to look a specific way. Do you still agree with this or has something changed and we need to revisit our goals?” As long as the person still agrees with the goals, he will very likely get up and process the papers appropriately. If the person no longer agrees with the goals, you need to sit back down and have the conversation about paper in your home again.

If the paper situation doesn’t bother anyone but you and neither your husband or son have interest in changing their ways, there may be a point where you will want to take over as the paper person for the house. You can’t take over this role without the permission of your husband and son. If everyone is okay with you being the paper person, though, trade it out for chores you don’t want to do but that your husband and son do. Maybe you agree to process paper and your husband agrees to do all the yard work? Maybe you agree to process paper and your son agrees to load and unload the dishwasher every night after dinner? Whatever trade you decide to make, be sure the chores are as close as possible to taking the same amount of time and energy to complete. We do this separation of responsibilities with numerous home maintenance work in our home.

Thank you, Kat, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck getting the paper under control in your home and be sure to check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

22 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: How do I convince my spouse to get rid of unnecessary papers?”

  1. posted by Karen on

    People think in different ways, and sometimes it’s better to find a system that works with your way of thinking rather than trying to force yourself to use a system that you’ll never be happy with. (Or in this case, that your spouse will be happy with.)

    People who are paper stackers are usually visual people who like to see things in order to understand them. I’m that way when it comes to work papers. Even though I know that papers in a file cabinet are no different from papers laid out on a shelf, I find it very difficult to think about my work when it’s hidden away in a file cabinet. I need it laid out and visible to be able to work effectively. So I store most of my papers on bookcase shelves and in cubby-hole systems so the paper is organized, but still visible. It may not be as ideal as a scan-or-file system, but it’s a system I will use, which is more important to me than a perfect system I’ll always be fighting against.

    If you try to find out why your spouse prefers papers sitting out in stacks, maybe you can come up with a system that’s less cluttered for you but still works for him.

  2. posted by Loren on

    I have this same problem with my S.O. I’m a sorter, he’s a piler. We came to the unspoken agreement that he gets a big folder in our filing cabinet to shove all his papers when he needs to. That way everyone knows exactly where they are.
    Once this folder becomes ‘to much’ for me I am allowed to ask ‘Can I sort these for you?’ and he’ll OK me to file the bank statements and bills and toss the trash. I make a ‘throw away’ pile for him to look through before it goes into the recycling. Since he really doesn’t mind the piles lying around the house it doesn’t seem fair to make him sort & put them away according to MY system. But he really doesn’t mind me sorting and filling once we established the ‘ask before messing with’ rule.

  3. posted by Karen on

    Interesting comment, Karen, as my name is also Karen and I, too, am a visual-paper person.

    This is my one organization issue. I can usually work my way out of any other organizational problem.

    I haven’t found a solution yet, but haven’t given up, either.

  4. posted by infmom on

    We’ve been married almost 40 years and I’m convinced that if I go first, my husband will be a prime candidate for an episode of Hoarders.

    He cannot let go of anything on paper. He has magazines piling up for months because he’s convinced he “might miss something” if he doesn’t read them–but he never has time to read them. He complains there’s no space to write on his desk, and my pointing out that it’s because he’s got a six inch stack of untouched, messy papers occupying that space goes nowhere. He’s got a basket piled about a foot high with papers sitting beside his desk, and beside that is a file box with another 8″ pile of papers on it.

    His bookshelf in the bedroom is crammed with technical books and “leadership” books with copyrights circa 1990. He won’t get rid of them because he hasn’t read them yet.

    And he’s a digital hoarder, too. Over 10,000 messages in his Gmail inbox and FOUR YEARS worth of un-listened podcats in his iTunes.

    I have no idea what to do to help him fix this. He won’t let me do away with any of it because only he knows what’s “important.” I did once manage to get a bunch of college textbooks out of our living room bookshelves (he graduated from college in 1969) over his vehement protests that the information was “still good.” I only got them as far as a box in the storage room, though.

    If anyone’s got any suggestions, I’d sure like to hear them! I even got him to watch an episode of Hoarders where a paper-clinger could not be persuaded to let anything go without “going through it” first, but he didn’t really pay attention. Sigh.

  5. posted by CM on

    Loren, we use a similar strategy, except my husband has an entire filing cabinet to himself. I manage anything that’s important for our household and I use my own systems for this. He does what he wants with his paper and I don’t care how it’s (not) organized as long as it’s shut away and not spilling out all over the place.

  6. posted by Erica on

    You should try to find a system that works for them as well as you. I set up and used several mail sorting/recycling systems for months only to find paperwork still on the counters. Apparently whatever system I was then using wasn’t as easy as the making a pile on the counter. I finally tweaked our system the other week and no more piles of paperwork!
    I think that no matter how organized or logical your system may be, if there are piles of paper, then it just doesn’t work in your household. Try tweaking it a bit.

    By the way, (and this is not an ad), we use Freedom Filer to file away all the paperwork that needs keeping. It helps my husband know that I’m not throwing away a receipt he’ll need for taxes next year, etc.

  7. posted by Anne on

    @ infmom – I realise we can’t all be the same, but your husband’s obsession with hoarding paper sounds like it has got to the point where it is very unhealthy, and quite selfish. It’s clearly upsetting you, and yet he hasn’t compromised at all. Your husband isn’t made of porcelain – throwing some of his junk away isn’t going to break him. I’d encourage you to get tough and seek some sort of compromise.

    Since we’ve only seen a small snippet of the original letter, I wonder whether Kat’s husband and stepson have even considered scanning as a solution. Before I discovered this site, I had no idea devices such as the ScanSnap existed, so it never occurred to me that it was possible to scan hundreds of sheets in a short space of time. Maybe if Kat’s husband and stepson saw their papers all nicely organised and very readable on the computer screen, they’d feel better about throwing the hard copies away.

  8. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Loren — I really like your method. A terrific compromise. It might be a great strategy for Kat (and others) to try.

  9. posted by Liz on

    I am bother by general clutter, but my last apartment mate, a dear friend, needed to be able to pile stuff in order to feel at home. So for the shared living room/dining room combo, we came to a compromise. We kept the coffee table clear of things that weren’t in current use, and she got to pile whatever she wanted on the dining table. This worked pretty well, and whenever her clutter crept onto the coffee table, I stacked it neatly and moved it to the dining table. She got the bigger surface to use for her stuff, and I got one clear surface for my sanity.

    That said, our living arrangement, though of undetermined length at the time, was always temporary. If we had been married, and the dining table would forever and always, ’til death do us part, be piled with stuff, I’m not sure how well I would have coped with this. We probably would have needed to find a different solution. Perhaps a different room for the piles rather than a different table.

  10. posted by whit on

    Besides how you all want the house to look, you can ask your family how they want the household to function. Currently, can they find a piece of paper when they need it? (Probably not) Would they like to be able to find it quickly and easily? They might not even know that this is achievable, I never did until I moved away from my mother and learned that fumbling through piles and getting upset is not the only way to deal with paperwork.

  11. posted by Tara on

    I’ve always wondered why my house is so messy, while other people’s houses seem to be effortlessly neat. Recently (through the help of an ebook, actually), I have come to realize that it’s a whole different way of thinking.

    Whereas I would step over an out of place item on the floor, someone with a neat home would stop and pick it up. I stack papers on the end table in the living room while someone with a neater house would file and throw them away.

    It hasn’t helped me to clean up my space just yet, but it helps to know that it’s a mindset problem. Perhaps Kat’s husband and stepson don’t understand what it takes to keep the clutter away, and they need to be taught.

  12. posted by barb on

    i do a very sneaky thing to declutter my husband’s magazine collection. He gets many subscriptions including auto mags & time(weekly) i take out only time mags randomly from the piles periodocally & donate them to the laudramat. he never even misses them.

  13. posted by Jodi on

    I have an unusual situation, and a need to keep an extensive amount of paperwork. Part of my system includes baskets that hold “piles” of papers grouped by category until I have time to file them. (each basket corresponds to a drawer in one of my file cabinets).

    Another possible solution would be to get 4 baskets: One for bills, one for action, one for household reference and one for interests. As paperwork comes into the home, it all gets sorted into “piles” (contained in the baskets).

    Bills wont get lost.
    Action items will be in one spot.
    Household reference that needs scanned and/or filed will be separate from action items.
    Information (I.e. old magazines, newspaper articles, outdated reference etc) can be kept for the peace of hubby and step-son, without that mixing into the household paperwork necessities. It could also be filed monthly-ish, and eventually (hopefully) the realization that nothing is being done with that stuff will settle and purging can begin.

    As someone who deals with an insaine amount of paperwork that piles up by default of not having enough time, one of the big fears and problems was that important priority documents were mixed in with old, outdated documents. The constant fear something important would be tossed, mixed with the stress of processing the critical stuff, paralyzed me for a long time.

    I am always amazed when Erin posts that she files papers while on the phone; that its one of her low-attention requiring projects. My paperwork is very different, and requires very intense brain-power to file, even when they are sorted by category. But, I can say without a doubt that the basket system I am now using has been a life-saver. Even my kids are able to do basket sorting (i.e. they know homework belongs in the education basket), even though they aren’t allowed to touch the file cabinets. Its changed my life having the help with the pre-sort!

  14. posted by MizLoo on

    Bless you, Jody, I think you’ve just solved my clutter problem. Or at least given me a logical-to-me starting point. I have a room with the paperwork of my former life and if I use your sort to get it to a manageable amount, I’ll be golden. Many thanks.

  15. posted by Jay on

    I receive many documents electronically and use a scanner/shredder regularly. I do not like paper clutter.

    That being said, I am not convinced that the husband is such a bad guy here. If the problem is as bad as we are led to believe, it would have been noticeable prior the marriage. Did Kat and her now-husband talk about the situation then? If not, why not? If so, what did they agree would be the way of handling the problem? Which spouse is reneging on the agreement?

  16. posted by katrina on

    Kat, one thing to be cautious of is that you’re not blowing this out of proportion by being too strong in your discussions. All new arrangements need compromise, including an unclutterer compromising to accommodate a clutterer. I’ve found that slowly bringing someone around to your point of view works best and avoids tension in a relationship.

    Something like Jodi’s system would be a good idea. Maybe suggest it along the lines of ‘you both know I like to tidy, and I’m concerned that I’ll put something where you can’t find it. So how about we do something simple like this with the papers?’ Once the system is set up and going well resist the urge to say ‘I told you so’ and just compliment them on how well ‘their’ new system is going. Ownership of a process often gets people involved.

    Also, gradually encouraging eco-sustainable behaviour is a good idea. Paper recycling is a big part of this.

    But also be aware that you must keep the originals of some documents. Here in Australia there are certain documents of which only the paper version is legally acceptable, this is especially true of anything issued by the government on paper only.

    I also agree with Jay. Is there really that much clutter or is this more about Kat’s way being the only way? I hope it’s not

  17. posted by WilliamB on

    I’m a disturbed by the implicit assumption that the solution lies in Kat’s husband and stepson coming to see things her way. She’s pleading to the converted or those aspiring to be converted so *of course* we think the solution is less paper, but that’s not the only way to do things.

    Combine this unease with the fact that this sounds more like a martial communications issue than a clutter issue, I don’t think this is right forum to supply an answer.

    My recommendation is that the goal should be improved communication. A social worker, family therapist, or professional organizer-therapist could facilitate the communication, and let Kat’s family figure out the right solution.

  18. posted by Helen on


    Perhaps your husband and mine can be on the same episode of “Hoarders”. We too have been married for forty years, and he is a hoarder of paper (and other items!). In our garage are boxes of newspapers from 2006 – unread by him, but must be kept because some day, he will read them.

  19. posted by Jodi on

    When we cleaned out my husband’s storage unit this summer, he had a box of church bulletins from when his daughter (from his first marriage) was in gradeschool.

    She just graduated college.

    In response to WilliamB, since we don’t have the entire email its a bit difficult to evaluate the entire issue, but my take on it was her husband and stepson didn’t want to throw papers away. My suggestion was for Kat was intended to give her a way to adapt her system to their system – keep everything but separate out the critical action items and household reference from the “will get to it someday” pile. Keeping everything, but organizing and sorting it, was hopefully a system that would allow her to keep her sanity, and her husband to keep his papers.

    I apologize if my suggestion read like I was discrediting his position; that wasn’t my intent.

  20. posted by Carolina on

    How I handled it: had our neighbor (insurance adjuster) come over and see the attached garage full of boxes and etc. my husband would not part with (giveaway calendars going back 10 years, product brochures from the 1990s, worm-eaten college textbooks, binders from training seminars he did 15 years ago, etc.) He told my husband under no uncertain terms that he had created a serious fire hazard, and our home would go up too quick for the fire department to do anything about it if he didn’t get rid of it all. That was the end of the hoard at our house.

  21. posted by Christine Barker on

    My sister was once married to a paper hoarder. He had studied for 2 professions and had kept every note he had taken/given at Uni and everything else paperwise that you tend to collect. His papers filled the garage and the car had to stay outside. When he was safely in New Guinnea on a work tour, we went through the papers and we found they were full of cockroaches of different species and we (yuk) learned about how they live in famillies. She threw half his papers in the dump one day – it took 12 trips loading her van. She then hired my son to put the rest in the roof. Bad idea as this brought literally hundreds of rats in nesting season and before the pest exterminator arrived we literally could not hear ourselfves speaking. The rats just seemed to know the paper was there (for the asking?). My sister’s husband did not seem to mind about the papers being shifted and did not connect the coming of the rats to his immense amount of paper. (By the way it took my son an entire day and some of the next to put the papters in the roof. My sister and I kept passing them up to him. Lord only knows where the cockies went. This is a true story.

  22. posted by Meg S. on

    I recently got to take my husband to Japan on a business trip. It was delightful to spend time in a hotel which a maid cleaned daily, with no accumulated piles of anything, other than guide books, pamphlets and whatever paper we had brought with us in our carry-ons(!).

    While there, my husband bought an english-language version of “<a href=";,My Darling is a Foreigner,” a sweet manga cartoon series about a Japanese woman, Saori Oguri, and her relationship with a white guy whom she eventually marries.

    In one section of the book, Saori talks about how her darling loves to keep piles of paper. Then they come upon an organization technique where he puts each piece of paper into an envelope, which is sorted according to date. Saori’s happy anticipation of a paper-free apartment evaporates as she realizes she now has to deal with all the paper that was there in the first place, plus all the envelopes in which the paper is now lovingly encased.

    I howled laughing. It was too close to our own experience to do anything other than laugh or cry.

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