Real Simple’s six causes for clutter

Real Simple magazine has a helpful list of clutter causes. These causes have been covered here at Unclutterer, but this specific list is succinct at pointing out the causes and supplying solutions. From the article:

The obstacle: ‘If I get rid of this wedding vase, I’ll feel guilty’

The solution: People feel a responsibility to be good stewards of things, says Randy Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, and a coauthor of “Buried in Treasures” (Oxford University Press). Especially items they’ve been given by or inherited from a loved one. Getting rid of a present feels like disrespecting the giver. But remember the true meaning of gifts.

“When you receive a present,” says Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, an interior designer in New York City and the founder of, “your duty is to receive it and thank the giver — not to keep the gift forever.”

Guilt is a powerful force to make us hold on to gifts from others. Sentimental clutter is equally powerful. The “I might need it someday” cause is also covered in the list along with procrastination, belief in future value, and bill paying.

What excuse do you use the most to justify your holding on to clutter?


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

26 Comments for “Real Simple’s six causes for clutter”

  1. posted by momofthree on

    GIVE things away often is my mantra–Living as a family of 5 in a small house (920sqft) means we have almost no storage space for holding on to too much of anything.

    When my kids were little and outgrowing clothes fast, the nearby pregnancy and mothering crisis center has a donation closet. Once I had filled a box or two, I would then drop the boxes off knowing that the clothes were clean, still in wearable condition and could benefit someone else.

    Now, the kids are teens and all our no longer wanted things are donated to the local Goodwill store. About every three months, we manage to fill a box to drop off.

    Why clutter my already small space with more crap than I know what to do with?
    IF I save anything, it might be shoe boxes out in the garage for the kids always seemed to need one for school for some project. (2 per kid per school year)

  2. posted by Lisa on

    This is why I love Freecycle….something I can’t use might be perfect for someone else. I don’t have a guilt complex about throwing something out if I’m giving it to someone who wants it!

  3. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    I’m the worse at this – the holding on to objects long after I need to. Thanks for the reminder to just let it go!

  4. posted by FupDuckTV on

    I’ve very bad at this… “It was a nice gift, but I really don’t want to keep it… Society tells me it is wrong to “re-gift it”, but I don’t want to throw it away either…. What do I do…?”

    I guess I have to learn to let go.

  5. posted by knitwych on

    FupDuckTV, I think society’s attitudes on re-gifting are changing. At least, I hope so! For some reason, people give me perfume (which I HATE), and I always re-gift that stuff to friends whom I know to like perfume.

    I’m off to check out the Real Simple article. Thanks for posting the link, Matt.

  6. posted by Emily on

    I hope people don’t feel too guilty to give away gifts I give. I don’t want to contribute to any clutter issues. Maybe gift certificates or perishable gifts, like food & flowers, should be favored.

    I like to keep notes & cards that ppl give me (that actually have written out messages in them, not just signed cards). These really accumulate so maybe I should start being more selective.

  7. posted by Kari on

    Emily, here’s a couple ideas to cut down on card/note clutter:

    If you want to keep the actual cards and aren’t sentimental about the picture or graphic on the cards, if they’re only written on on one side, you can tear off whatever part is just blank.

    You could scan the cards & notes into a file on your computer, which has the added benefit of making the notes easier to read since you don’t have to open them all up one by one!

    Except for a few really special cards/notes from deceased relatives, etc. that I wanted to keep the original of, I’ve managed to pare down the large amount of cards/notes I had saved by scanning them into my computer.

  8. posted by lvana on

    Here is a simple technique for getting rid of the “I might need it someday stuff”.

    Figure out how much money it is worth it to you to have an uncluttered house. Say you chose $500. Put $500 dollars in a separate account. Get of rid of stuff that would cost $500 to replace. Over the next year if you need to replace any of the stuff use the money from the $500 account. Maybe you do have to replace the odd thing, such as end up needing a dress or dinner Jacket but at least it will be current and fit right.

    Now if at the end of the year you still have $300 in that account you can get rid of $300 worth of stuff and so on and so forth.

    I have used this to get rid of lots, such as that spare set of old pots(and other kitchen stuff) that I kept just in case, odds and ends, jars and plastic containers, spare coats, jackets, and clothes I never wear etc.

  9. posted by Molly on

    People give you a gift for you to enjoy it, not be burdened by it!

  10. posted by Sky on

    Our family has stopped giving gifts except to the children. We all have more than we need and it really reduces stress at holidays. We enjoy being together, save money and don’t add to each others clutter.

    Sentimental, inherited “clutter” is the most difficult. I have furniture, etc. that was my parents and grandparents. I kept what I love and let the rest go. It was hard but I was beginning to resent my house being overloaded. I know they wouldn’t want me to keep anything that would be a burden.

  11. posted by tay on

    Okay, two questions.

    What do you tell the giver of the gift, when they come to your house looking for the absolutely hideous vase they gave you?

    Does anyone know how to go about recycling old pots and pans. The kind that you don’t want to give to anyone else.

  12. posted by Erin Doland on

    @tay — First off, no one has ever asked where a gift is that I didn’t keep. No one. I think most people have enough tact not to ask such questions. Secondly, if they do ask, just say that you passed it on to someone else. It’s not lying (you did pass it on to someone else), and the person asking the question will get the idea to change the subject.

  13. posted by Heidi - Botanical PaperWorks on

    This is a terrific list that I’m going to review quarterly. I’m a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, and by using this list to diarize a quarterly review, I’ll have a regular reminder to unclutter, streamline and give-away! Thanks for posting the link.

  14. posted by knitwych on

    Tay, I’ve never had anyone ask about something they’ve given me, so I can’t help you there. As for old pots and pans, you might try putting them up on Freecycle. Describe the condition, and if they’re not fit for food prep, offer them as pots/pans for crafters. Candle makers and soap makers might take them off your hands. I ‘reassigned’ a couple of old pots for these purposes after DBF won a spiffy new set of nice cookware in a contest at work.

  15. posted by timgray on

    I always re-gift. but I also ignore all of “society” rules anyways.

    It’s silly to hang onto “stuff” that you never use. What’s left of my grandfather’s stuff is in 5 wooden barrels sitting by the road at his old farm. It’s STILL there and they haven’t had that far m for 15 years. The photos and memories I have are far more important to me than cluttering my yard or den with those barrels.

    collect memories not stuff, and break “society’s” rules every chance you get.

  16. posted by Noelle on

    @Ivana, Thanks! That is a great way to provide a mental safety net for getting rid of unnecessary stuff.

    @Unclutterer, Thanks for the link. I think of myself as a person truly trying to get/stay uncluttered, but the article nicely summarized a lot of the classic cluttered thinking that still exists for me – with strategies for getting out from under :~)

  17. posted by Sue on

    I think that uncluttering is a life long job. Its so easy to drown in the clutter. You need to keep at it all the time. Great list, by the way, and as far as Tays question – If someone in your life comes by to check on the gifts they gave you – maybe they 1. shouldn’t be taken seriously, or 2. shouldn’t be in your life?

  18. posted by susan on

    good article.

    I am a daughter of a hoarder. I do have pack rat tendencies, but am married to someone who breathes feng shui. I am trying to combat my genes.

    I have conquered the guilt about presents. I do regift, but only if I think that person will truly enjoy the gift. I have no guilt selling, gifting, or giving away something that is just not practical, that I don’t love, or have no room for.

    The hard part for me is the “I may need it someday”. My husband tells me all the time “if you need that popcorn decorative tin 7 years from now, we will go out and buy it then”…so on with everything else I hoard for just in case. Even though he tempers me, I still have major problems with this one.
    Any more sage advice like my dear husband’s?

  19. posted by Christy on

    These surface issues don’t address the hardest of them: keeping things that belonged to loved ones who have passed. I’m not talking about keeping some mementos, but trying to fill the void with mountains of visible memories. I suppose it’s a way of postponing the “letting-go” stage. Both my sisters’ small houses and garages are packed full of stuff from various relatives. Recently we had to empty our parents house and I couldn’t believe the things they retrieved from the trash (I was the tossing culprit). They were happy they retrieved them…a plastic cigar box, a falling-apart butterfly book..but if they hadn’t they would have never missed them.

    Has anyone successfully figured out how to distance yourself from the stuff but not the memories. How did you do it?

  20. posted by catmom on

    I so agree with you Sue on how we have to keep up with uncluttering, it’s not a one time deal and then we’re “done for life”. Would be nice if it was, huh?

    On keeping gifts, my husband and I got married back in 1992 and received some that we neither wanted nor needed. We combined households, me moving out of my apartment to his house which we still live in, so we had “stuff” (i.e. cookware, furniture, etc.) I must confess we held on to those wedding gifts for several years, which of course became clutter, then finally gave them to Goodwill with no-guilt at all! We agreed that the givers meant well, we just didn’t have a use for the gifts. When I think about it, I’m sure of all the gifts I’ve given to people, how many of those were given away or re-gifted? They are free to do whatever they want with whatever I give them.

  21. posted by tay on

    Thanks guys. I needed to hear those responses. I’m getting rid of those ugly vases!!!! Yay!

  22. posted by Nana on

    We got an ugly wedding gift vase from good friends (saw them at least once a month). So, I put it out on the bookshelves the first time they came to dinner. They saw it, were pleased it was there…After they left, it disappeared. They never asked; we never told

  23. posted by Jill on

    I like what my grandma says to me when she gave me (or anyone) a gift: “its my gift to you and its your choice in what you do with it” 🙂

  24. posted by katy on

    take a picture of all the things you want to have memories of, but don’t want to keep. pictures are much smaller than anything, and easier to store, especially digital ones.

  25. posted by Kristin Whitehair on

    My husband and I are both only children. There are a lot of sentimental hand-me-downs, and one logical destination.

    I’ve started prioritizing functional items and actually using them. My young daughter wanted a tea set. She now has one, the espresso set to my deceased Grandma’s china set. It will break, and I’m OK with that. I want my daughter to have memories of these fragile items.

    My husband’s clippers are from the 1970s and of higher quality than we could buy today. They came from a relative who had been a beautician.

    Jewelry, costume and fine, are my favorite sentimental items to keep. They can easily blend into modern fashion and take little space to store.

    Each time we use or wear these functional items I remember the person they came from. In fact, the last time I interviewed I wore a pair of my Grandma’s earrings for good luck. (It worked!)

  26. posted by Cynthia on

    I’m going to reiterate Kristin’s thoughts on jewelry — it is a great sentimental item to keep. It’s small and what goes around, comes around.

    Some of my most sentimental items are jewelry given to me by loved ones long gone. Gold or plastic, it’s all precious to me.

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