Get organized on a shoestring

Shelving systems, storage boxes, and drawer organizers are convenient, but they also cost money. When you take on an organizing project, sometimes what is convenient isn’t always in the budget. Here are some tips to help cut costs and become a little more organized:

Boxes: Whether they are cereal boxes, shoe boxes, moving boxes, or mystery boxes from long, long ago, you can make use of them in storing just about anything. You can spruce them up with contact paper or wrapping paper to make them more aesthetically pleasing. Make sure you label them accordingly so you know what is inside. You can also use cut larger boxes to a smaller size or use smaller boxes for drawer dividers. By making use of jewelry boxes, shoe boxes, or any other small box you can keep your drawers organized on the cheap.

Shelving: We made use of some old doors for shelving purposes in our basement. They are large, sturdy, and serve the purpose of makeshift shelving. Light-duty shelving units are relatively inexpensive, but taking a look around your home to see what you could repurpose before you head out to shop. In my opinion, basement or garage shelving should be utilitarian. Scrap wood and cinder blocks made sense in college for an entertainment system, surely it can make due as a place for your paint cans and bins of holiday decorations.

Thrift stores: They are a treasure trove of storage possibilities. An old chest of drawers can be used for tools and painting supplies. You can often find discounted desk sets, file storage solutions, and more.

Unclutter first, store later: Take stock of everything you want to organize. You may be surprised at the amount of stuff you don’t actually need. This may cut down on the storage solutions that you may need.

I know our insightful readers have some great ideas to add to this post. Let’s see them in the comments section.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

36 Comments for “Get organized on a shoestring”

  1. posted by Debi on

    If there are more specific things you’re looking for (plastic tubs, shelves, file cabinets, etc.), post a request on your local Freecycle group. You’ll likely find someone eager to get rid of extras for just the cost of going to pick it up.

  2. posted by judith capen on

    i totally agree re using little, free, boxes IN drawers to compartmentalize and create order.

    i agree much less about shelves from random, bulky, ugly stuff like concrete blocks.

    first is efficiency. if you’re going to store anything you may as well do it efficiently and concrete blocks will only go so high. (assuming you don’t live in a mansion with as much storage as living space. once knew someone who had so much basement she stored vast amounts just as a single layer of boxes on the floor…) likewise, if you live in a smallish house, as i do, you’ll end up with your ad hoc storage solutions occupying as much volume as what you store. i say, invest in some good storage systems. putting your stuff into some king of order does help with decluttering b/c you can’t deassession things if you don’t even know where or what you have…

    finally, i’m an architect. i really believe that order is a high value aesthetic, but how can it be beautiful if random, ad hoc, and ugly in the storage systems?

    i agree however, you can’t wait for the perfect system to begin organizing. but you can be careful with storage systems so they aren’t ugly and are efficient…

  3. posted by Cole on

    I almost have to disagree with the cardboard box thing – they are rather unsightly, and I’ve found by emptying the boxes, tossing them and then forcing myself to go through what WAS boxed, I found I needed almost none of it, and was pleasantly surprised by the one or two things I did need that were in there.

    Now my problem is ridding myself of excess plastic storage tubs I paid too much for!

  4. posted by knitwych on

    Debi made a great suggestion by bringing up Freecycle. I’d like to add that if you’re looking for furniture to repurpose, ask relatives and co-workers. A friend was looking for a small chest of drawers in which to house quilting supplies, and a co-worker was happy to oblige. Also, if you’re a crafter – like me – the clutter battle is constant. One way I found to control my yarns was to use big plastic jars, the type you find holding pretzels and other snacks at bulk stores like Costco. My yarns are contained in dust-free, kitten-proof storage, and the jars add a bit of color to the shelves where they’re stored. These, too, can be obtained free for the asking from people who buy snacks in this format. My brother loves the plastic buckets in which bulk cat litter is packaged. He uses them in his woodworking shop, to hold everything from tools and supplies to small projects. The lids snap on nice and tight, and they stack together. He either labels them with tape or uses a sander to take the screenprinted logos off, and writes on them with a permanent marker. Check your recycling for things that you can repurpose, and you might find you have a clutter solution right in front of you.

  5. posted by Celeste on

    Also disagree with the boxes, except for the excellent purpose of boxing up stuff you are taking to Goodwill!

    I feel like drawers are way to go for things you will keep. So if you have some shelving, use the smaller boxes as drawers within the shelving for your ad hoc storage wall. But the less you have to deal with, the better.

    FWIW I think storage in big boxes and/or plastic crates is the least efficient way to manage things you are keeping; stacking them sounds good, but what you want is invariably in the bottom box.

  6. posted by chessie99 on

    If you live in the US, you can get sturdy storage boxes, in a variety of sizes, delivered right to your door. The post office will ship free Express Mail and Priority Mail boxes, tubes and envelopes; just go to . The boxes come flat, have postal service markings, generally in red and blue. Not the things you’d want on open shelves in the living room (unless you have some kind of postal fetish), but work fine in attic or basement. One size exactly fits cds, while another easily takes books in a quantity that makes it easy to carry and stack. They also make the most enjoyable cat toys my furries have ever seen, especially the MILI-FRB size.
    Technically, these boxes are supposed to be used only for mailing, but I doubt that the postal inspector will come to your house. Do remember, if you order, that they generally come in packs of 10 and 25; if you need 10 boxes, don’t order 10 packs, or your mailman might not understand.


  7. posted by Wise Finish on

    These are great tips. I would add that you will want to be careful about what you put on the floor in your basement. If you place cardboard boxes or furniture directly on an unfinished floor, it can be a breeding ground for mold or mildew. Just beware so that you don’t find your house or possessions ruined by mold!

  8. posted by L. on

    Stuff placed on the ground is also subject to water damage in case of flood or washing-machine backup. I like the $30 Ikea shelves myself. I bought six sets of them and can store a lot (!) on them for $180. I am positive I’ve saved at least that much on not “double buying” – buying stuff you already own but can’t find or forgot you have.

  9. posted by pioneercoach on

    I have to second the cardboard box idea. If your office is anything like mine, you go through several boxes of printer/copier paper a week. and as for asthetics, a row of neatly arranged boxes all of the same size, type and color makes both my basement and garage feel pretty well appointed (at least for a garage and basement storage space).

  10. posted by Jennifer W. (Midwest Neurotica) on

    I find it utterly hilarious that the in-RSS add accompanying this post is for a super-expensive closet system.

    I do agree though, that its possible to be organizing without lots of fancy stuff. $0.99 rubbermaid bins are my lifesaver, especially for bathroom and craft supplies.

  11. posted by L. on

    I also like the trick of getting free, beautiful wooden wine-storage boxes from liquor stores that are discarding them after their shipments are unpacked.

  12. posted by Sky on

    I don’t store in cardboard because bugs, etc. can get in. The Rubbermaid plastic box lids snap on and seal really well.
    I do like the idea of small boxes inside drawers to separate items.

  13. posted by David on

    “Taking stock” is a great idea. Make a list of of everything you have and imagine asking your friends if they want any of it. Or imagine giving it to them for free! Imagine leaving it anonymously in their driveway!

    If you would feel guilty giving something away to another person, if you would find it obnoxious for this thing to show up in your driveway one day, then for God’s sake don’t inflict it on yourself any longer. Just get rid of it in the most responsible way possible — Goodwill, recycling, or (sigh) the dumpster.

    Putting something in a cardboard box is only a solution if the box travels out the front door, never to return. Advice on how to make (or worse, buy) attractive storage in an “unclutterer” blog is like advice on how to overcome hunger on an anorexia blog. Which side are you on?

  14. posted by Mike on

    A big YES to the sorting before storing. A misconception about organizing and cleaning is that you need to compartmentalize your life. It’s actually the opposite. Instead of working on the clutter people head to the store to buy boxes, trays, and such “organizational” compartments. But once they throw everything into boxes they don’t remember, or can’t, see what they have.

    I’d advise to make piles first, such as: recycle, toss, similarities. I often find myself with a lot less than I started out with. A truly uncluttered space appears very open and fresh; not boxed up. The clutter then becomes “optimized”. In my daily life I find that I use more of what I have, thus enhancing my life.

  15. posted by Sue on

    Please don’t take Chris’ comment about using the free USPS Priority Mail boxes for purposes other than Priority Mail. The USPS provides these boxes for a specific use, and trusts that people will be honest and use them only for Priority Mail.

    But of course people aren’t honest. And some of the free items USPS used to supply (Priority Mail tape is one example) are no longer available because people were abusing the freebie.

    By being dishonest and using the free boxes for other uses, you are either going to force USPS to discontinue the free boxes entirely or raise their prices.

    It’s short-sighted, selfish, and unethical. If you have no problems with that, by all means, order a bunch of boxes for storage purposes.

  16. posted by Simpler Living on

    I relate well to the “unclutter first, store later” point.

    One of my recent revelations: Lack of storage isn’t always the problem. Having too much stuff is.

    I was able to give away some of my old storage containers recently because I cut down on my clutter. It seems so obvious now, but it took me a long time to figure that out.

    I use regular cardboard boxes to store some things. It depends on what your needs are. I’m glad I kept some broken down in my closet because I’ll be moving this weekend and can use them. I’ll give them away via Freecycle afterward.

  17. posted by Cole on

    Seconded on Sue’s advice. May be a bit of a buzzkill, but your tax dollars pay for those for a given purpose. Plus, how unclutterer is it to order AS MANY boxes as you’d want to store all that stuff? Talk about a temptation TO clutter!

  18. posted by chessie99 on

    Sue — This same discussion came up when some college student made a sofa out of Express Mail boxes, then put a video on YouTube. A few facts about the program came out that rather neuter your argument. According to the USPS, 99% of their free packing materials are used by large or medium corporations (having over 100 employees); typically, the breakage rate for these companies is 25-30% (they throw away 25-30% of the packaging without using it). The total cost of all provided packaging (not that sold — at a profit — in the Postal Store) is less than the cost of one year’s sponsorship of a certain bicycle racer. The cost of all this packaging is less than one hundredth of one hundredth of one percent of the USPS budget — for non-mathematicians, one dollar out of every million dollars. So the statement “By being dishonest and using the free boxes for other uses, you are either going to force USPS to discontinue the free boxes entirely or raise their prices.” simply isn’t true. If you think that mis-using 10 boxes is going to break the Postal Service, you need a new calculator. If you have a moral problem with using these boxes, then don’t. But, using them for organizing will have an utterly negligible financial effect on the USPS.
    And, when you said “And some of the free items USPS used to supply (Priority Mail tape is one example) are no longer available because people were abusing the freebie.” you were misinformed. According to the USPS, they no longer supply tape (among other items) because of a lack of demand, or because some products did not pass new health and safety standards. They have never withdrawn a product because of misuse. At least, that’s what they say.


  19. posted by chessie99 on

    Cole — “but your tax dollars pay for those for a given purpose.” Actually, they don’t. The government, at all levels, pays for services received from the USPS, but it is a quasi-public company which pays for its own operations out of revenue. It hasn’t received taxpayer funding since it was just USPO.


  20. posted by allen on

    I’m in the process of getting ride of my clutter;

    I really wish my friends who are trying to help, would stop telling me i need to get “bins.” No, I need to get ride of STUFF, and THEN I can worry about “bins.” *rolls eyes*

  21. posted by Joanna on

    I like milk crates and dish tubs for storage! http://librarypendragon.blogsp.....undry.html Thanks for the great post!

  22. posted by kim3timemom on

    Thanks everyone for the great ideas…I love to organize!

  23. posted by greeneyes on

    Uhh thrift store dressers… I just spent my weekend looking just for that because I needed one for my room. I was quite surprised with how expensive USED furniture was! I bought a cheaper one, about half the price of the cheapest used dresser, new at Target. Probably because of the cheaper wood-pressed construction, but works just the same.

  24. posted by Alys on

    Large cereal boxes can easily be cut to make magazine holders like these:

    Once they are lined up on a shelf, you see only the small front section of each holder, so that’s the only part you really need to cover or paint if you don’t like the cereal-box appearance.

  25. posted by Nancy on

    In addition to the Freecycle suggestion, I would also recommend Craigslist ‘free’ section for searching for boxes, plastic tubs, shelves, dressers, etc. for those that live in a city with Craigslist.

    I have to say I am an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ person and cardboard boxes ‘hide’ items from me. I am in the process of converting items I currently use into plastic tubs and putting paperwork, etc in cardboard boxes.

    Also, I have one of those fabric (stand alone) closets that you can get at Bed, Bath and Beyond and the like. We weren’t using it as a closet any longer, so we set it up in our extra room and stacked boxes inside of it to give a better appearance than just cardboard boxes stacked up..much more eye appealing.

  26. posted by Kathy on

    I use shoe boxes to organize my dresser drawers (undies, bras, nylons…) I feel like the thin sides of the cardboard lay flush better which leaves less dead space. I use a plastic cultery tray to organize my make-up and brushes – makes for easy clean up when something spills.

    I did go back to storing my Holiday decorations in cardboard (off the floor of the basement) bec I read somewhere that plastic doesn’t let the air circulate (and I did have a few items discolor, so this is sort of a test run).

    But MY FAVOITE is that I use the dresser in the guest room for wrapping paper etc. Smaller things like tape, sissors, gift cards in the top drawer, gift bags, tissue, bows and ribbons, small boxes and tubes of paper take up the rest. I love that it is all in one place when I need it and it prevents me from putting “clothes, I don’t wear but dont want to toss” in it. I had the wrap-n-craft and where they work great in theory, they didn’t give me the sence of ‘organized’ I wanted.

  27. posted by Gillian on

    For many years, I have used the boxes that paper comes in for the photo copier or printer. The ones that I have on open shelving in my office, I have painted with latex paint, and several coats. Thus they look acceptable. I am a ‘lister’, so the boxes are numbered and I did a spreadsheet list with their contents. I know what category of goods is found there and I only have to check which box.

  28. posted by Nancy on

    Here is an idea someone just tweeted on Twitter… organizing your garage using recycled laundry detergent containers… I suppose you could organize other items this way as well.

  29. posted by Sue on

    Chris, I suggest you read up on “The Tragedy of the Commons”

    One person misusing 10 boxes is one thing. But you are clearly suggesting that lots of people do it. Add it up.

    They started printing the inside of the boxes because they wanted to stop people from using them inside out for other forms of mail.

    They also make you check a box that you understand the boxes are for priority mail only.

    Justify stealing all you want – it’s not right and I really hope no one takes your advice.

  30. posted by Another Deb on

    I agree with Sue. There are many places to get boxes that need to be recycled instead of using resources from the post office.

    My local Goodwill is a treasure trove of storage options. Last week I found two arcylic jewelery containers from the Container Store, and four brand new Rubbermaid photo-sized boxes.

    My pot shelves (no, the kind they build into these homes in the Southwest) are decorated with several large baskets used as long term storage. I have collected these over time at the Goodwill.

    When I phase out one system or style of container, I automatically send the items back to Goodwill. It’s all one big circle of alternative consumerism.

  31. posted by Shana on


    No matter how you dress it up, it’s still stealing. Now not only are you a thief, but you’re a dishonest, slimy, excuse-making one. Classy!

    The thing about ethics and social mores is that our society collapses if we start ignoring the right thing to do and decide to just be out for ourselves.

    Also, if you have kids, don’t teach them this garbage — rude, entitled kids are really, really annoying for the rest of us to have to deal with.

  32. posted by STL Mom on

    I agree with others that it is easy to think your problem is that you don’t have the right storage equipment, when really your problem is that you have too much stuff.
    That being said, I really do think I’ll make headway in my craft/storage room once I get that second set of shelves…

  33. posted by Judith on

    A while ago I started using the IKEA Helmer drawer-units. Each one has six drawers (with a size slightly longer than the letter-format and a height of about three inches), and I have four of them.

    Two of them stand next to each other, and the other two are stacked on top (on those I left off the casters these units have). They are perfect for sorting all kinds of office or crafts stuff or even clothing. I live in a one-room apartment with lots of bookshelves and hardly any drawers and always had small stuff lying around (still do, as a matter of fact, but far less…) and that helped a lot. In two of the drawers are underwear and socks which I used to have to dig out of a pretty unaccessible closet every morning.

    They are pretty inexpensive for what you get. I bought them in white, you can also have silver and red. They are made of metal, so the side can double as magnetic board (or even the front, why not label them with magnetic-poetry-letters?). Each drawer can be taken out completely, so I can take one, use it for my project (my tools are in there as well) and put it back. Careful though, don’t pull them out too far by accident, the metal edges do hurt when dropped on your foot…

  34. posted by M.E. on

    Leaving the USPS box debate alone. (Er, they aren’t large enough to be very useful anyway….)

    What I was going to say is that, in my experience, thrift stores are not actually full of stuff that’s great for organizing (YMMV based on the store in question). Going into a thrift store is dangerous for people trying to unclutter, because it’s easy to walk out with things you never intended to buy.

    Last time I went (for sheets to use to cover my flower beds in early spring and late fall), I wound up with the sheets, a plate I use almost every day (good) and some children’s encyclopedias from the 1970s that I bought for the art (bad).

    Obviously this has to do with personal willpower, but I find that thrift stores are the ultimate Impulse Buy Temptations, and I tend to save money by going to a store where I know exactly what I will find, where to find it, and what it will cost — I’ll get in and get out quickly. Stores like Big Lots also sell inexpensive storage options.

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  36. posted by April on

    I was rather proud of myself when I realized that, with a little bit of altering, the cardboard packaging around our new Wii makes a perfect drawer divider for our narrow kitchen drawers! I had bought a bamboo drawer divider without measuring, and found it to be too wide. All of the store bought ones were too wide. But this pretty bright blue box holds my dry measuring cups and other various kitchen gadgets and utensils perfectly in my narrow drawer. 🙂

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