I reorganized our house. And by “reorganized,” I mean I went through every single closet, drawer, cabinet, and shelf, and every single t-shirt, shampoo bottle, and Christmas decoration that we own. And by “house,” I mean all of it: from the front hall to the basement to the new baby’s room, I systematically deconstructed every single inch of our living space. Even the guest bathroom, which, as it turned out, was harboring a most random panoply of unused toiletries, a humidifier, and a hairdryer I’d forgotten I owned.
This entire process took me an embarrassingly long stretch of time–I didn’t keep close track, but I’d say four or five months. Of course my work wasn’t constant, but rather, as all my work is, sporadic and crammed into naptime and preschool time and the ten minutes I can grab at any given moment during my hectically joyful days of parenting a two-year-old, being pregnant, managing a homestead, launching my book, and writing Frugalwoods.
I’ve so wanted to share how this process felt as it unfolded, but I knew I needed to finish it first. I think I was afraid if I told you about it before it was completed it might never get done. I did the same thing with my book–I didn’t want to tell you until after it was written for fear it might not happen. I think I’d do the same with my pregnancies–just show up one day with a baby–except that it’s quite obvious I’m carrying around an infant in there.
A Need For Control
I undertook this project in large part because I am pregnant and pregnancy overwhelms me with a desire to control my surroundings. I’m also keenly aware that an organization project like this won’t happen in the aftermath of birth, which lasts at least a year. Or two. Or more. The unknowns of birth and child-rearing terrify me (continually, daily) and I’m cognizant of how many factors stretch far beyond our control where our children are concerned. Organizing my house, however, is something I have complete control over. I did it on my own because I didn’t want Mr. FW’s help and I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone else’s schedule or organizational tactics. In Babywoods’ words, “I do it myself.” I will point out that I am remarkably consistent in my pregnancy neurosis as the last time I performed a whole-house organization was when I was pregnant with my first child; I have the proof right here: My Quest For A Clutter-Free Life.
Having a newborn is difficult (really difficult), but it’s even more difficult if you’re in a disorganized house where you’re constantly tripping over clutter and can’t find what you need. I’m all about controlling what I can control with the understanding that it’ll make all those uncontrollable factors easier to cope with.
I often talk about the liberation that stems from controlling your money and I feel the same way about my stuff. When you’re in charge of your money–when you know what you’re spending, where you’re invested, how much you need in order to reach your longterm aspirations–you’re empowered. Money can destroy lives, or it can be something that’s peacefully managed with a concrete plan. I find there are only two options: either you control your money or it controls you. Same story with material possessions.
When my husband and I started our quest for a financially independent life four years ago, I had no idea that the benefits and lessons of frugality would eventually extend to encompass every aspect of our lives. Once we were in complete and serene control of our money, I started to think about everything else I might be able to control. One of my ongoing quests is to control my stuff. I’ve learned that clutter stresses me out. I’ve realized that unnecessary objects sprinkled around my house are a source of contention. I now understand that I have minimalist tendencies and that I crave empty space and efficiency. It’s easier to operate in a home that’s not crammed with junk, it’s liberating to know where everything is, to have a clean spot for all your possessions, and to not waste time looking for things. It’s wonderful to not desire more stuff and it’s a boon to realize when you have enough.
Acknowledging That I Have Enough
What I’m finally learning is that my ‘enough’ includes quite a bit less stuff than I originally thought. The less money Mr. Frugalwoods and I spent in our extreme frugality approach, the happier we became. We ingrained a mindset of immense gratitude, we became more content with what we have, we were liberated from caring what other people thought about us, and we stepped out of the rat race and off the consumer carousel of always needing more, more, more. I’m starting to see the wisdom of owning less stuff. The more I own, the more I have to clean, the more I have to store, and the more I’m responsible for.
In many ways, it’s entirely possible to be owned by your stuff. To create lives beholden to material possessions. To spend our time cleaning, organizing, storing, and managing our stuff. We humans have a strange tendency to instill our belongings with far more respect that they deserve. We try to get stuff to serve as stand-ins for human emotions and we exalt material goods as more than their intended function. A couch is not the holder of memories–it’s a place to sit. A car is not an indicator of success–it’s a way to commute. Your clothes do not define you–they keep you warm. We can let things become more important to us than actual people and we can let the acquisition of more things start to dictate our finances. Or we can choose to use our possessions for their intended functions, be grateful to have them, and let go of the desire for more.
Through the process of combing through every single thing we own, I realized that more often than not, my stuff is holding me back as opposed to bringing me joy. I’m always going on about spending money only in service of things that bring you a high return on your happiness investment, but what about only keeping things that similarly deliver a good return on your investment of storing them? I’m not quite there yet, but I’m evolving.
I’m Not A Real Minimalist
In slight contradiction to everything I just said about the freedom of simplifying one’s life, I must say that I am not, nor will I ever be, a true full-on minimalist. A true minimalist would not keep a box of unused curtains in her basement. A true minimalist would not keep several different sizes of jeans on hand just in case… But I do all of these things for the simple reason that it’s frugal to do so. I choose to keep–in organized, labeled boxes–duplicates of things (such as multiple sets of sheets for the same bed), items we haven’t used in years but that are still functional (a blender that works perfectly), and sentimental items (Mr. FW’s boy scout uniform, my old ballet shoes).
I do this because it’s a cornerstone of my frugality, and my environmentalism, to reuse and repurpose instead of buying new. It makes no reasonable sense to me to get rid of sheet sets that I will surely need when my current set of sheets falls apart. And you never know when you might need some perfectly good curtains! I just put up three curtains in my office to create a nap room for our new baby, and those curtains hadn’t been used in years! But I had them and I didn’t have to buy them. For this reason, I will never be someone who owns very little. What I hope is that I’m becoming a person who only owns things that I either currently use or could reasonably see myself using in the near future.
My approach to decluttering, thus, is not perfect and would be frowned upon by the devotees of Marie Kondo and the minimalists among us. However, it’s a system that works for me. And that, ultimately, is the end goal of all of this soul-searching we perform together here on Frugalwoods. All of our budget conversations, our investing lessons, our Uber Frugal Month challenges, our Reader Case Studies… all of it is designed to help you figure out what works best in your life.
I’m of the belief that everyone has an optimal mode of life they can pursue, but that this optimal mode is different for everyone. The key is having the willingness and the self-awareness and the optimism to determine what that optimal system is for you. Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and how true that is.
We can float through life, beholden only to the expectations of others, or to how we’ve always done things, constantly frustrated by our daily routines, constantly unfulfilled by our work, constantly dismayed about our money, constantly furious about how our partner loads (or perhaps more aptly, does not load) the dishwasher. Or, we can step back, make a plan, and change things.
In one of her songs, Rilo Kiley intones, “all the immediate unknowns are better than knowing this tired and lonely fate,” which is a quote that guides my drive to act decisively and quickly. While re-organizing a house is not exactly a life-altering event, it was a soothing balm for me in this time of chaos. Accepting and leaning into the phase of life you’re in is an important approach for me. Having the perspective that I need to do what I feel called to do–even if it’s re-organizing a house–frees me from feeling any guilt around what I do. In my opinion, it’s inaction that stymies our longterm success, not action, no matter how banal it might seem (and I’ll warrant that house organization can seem pretty banal).
Don’t Complain, Take Action
I’ll be honest, I have a low threshold for tolerating people who complain endlessly about a situation but refuse to take actionable steps towards change. Know why I have such a low tolerance? Because I used to be that person 100% and to the core. Massive complainer; very little in the way of doing. After Mr. FW and I launched our radical life-transformation process in 2014, I learned to either: 1) begin work on a project or, 2) decide that it wasn’t all that important to me and to let it go, without complaint or guilt.
As an example of how I implement #2, I gave up (temporarily) on my desire to learn how to play the piano and to accompany myself while singing. Yes, it’s something I want to do, but I had to recognize and accept that it’s not a top priority for me right now and so it’s not going to happen. I’ll reopen that goal in future years, but for now, I’m at peace with letting it reside as a goal towards which I’ve made zero progress. There’s no sense in berating myself for not doing it; I merely accept that now’s not the time for it.
And now for an example of how I implement scenario #1: becoming a writer. This is one of those things that I wasted YEARS whining about wanting to do but never did anything about. Until I finally just sat down and–wait for it–started writing. It was that simple and that difficult. I stopped complaining and put all of that energy into action. It was the same story with this house reorganization project. Since we moved here with a five-month-old and a ton of outside homestead-related goals, Mr. FW and I sort of phoned in the whole unpacking and organization process when we moved in and this haphazard unpacking was eating away at me. Driving me nuts.
Devoted readers may recall that the outset of this reorganization process started with our basement, which had become a pit of despair. There’s really no other term for it, it was a certifiable pit of despair. I hated going down there. Half-unpacked moving boxes littered the concrete floor and no one could find anything. Needing to locate a hammer would initiate a hair-tearing 25-minute search. How ridiculous and inefficient is that?! What a massive waste of time and effort. And so, I knew I needed to take action.
Instead of complaining about it for weeks on end (as I would’ve done in the past), I simply got started and I was hardcore about it. I made Mr. FW haul off reams of cardboard boxes to recycling. I made Mr. FW drive entire CARLOADS of stuff to donate to the thrift store (I actually think we donated so much that they won’t let us give them any more stuff for awhile because they gave Mr. FW the stink eye last time he was there… ).
Instead of stewing over how deplorable our basement had become, I just did it. I started with one box and worked my way through the entire contents of our lives. A great deal of this problem stemmed from the fact that I packed up our Cambridge house while parenting a three-month-old infant. People, it was one of the worst packing jobs I’ve ever witnessed and I’ve moved a lot and I’ve helped a lot of other people move. I packed–this is not a joke–empty shampoo bottles because I was too exhausted to realize they were empty. I packed clothes we never wear. I packed–this is also not a joke–old electronic toothbrush heads (??!!!). Why I didn’t recycle this stuff at the time is beyond me although I distinctly recall singing to Babywoods who was nursing in a carrier on my chest as I madly threw stuff into my second-hand moving boxes. So uh yeah, I guess that’s how it happened… Needless to say, I needed to sift through every single item to separate the wheat from the chaff. And most of it turned out to be chaff.
The Cost Of Owning Too Much
There’s also a financial angle to decluttering. In addition to the time we spend rifling around a disorganized home in search of car keys or a screwdriver, there’s an entire industry devoted to selling us organizational equipment: boxes, bins, shelving, and storage units to be rented. I’m first in line to admit that I bought a fair number of shelves and storage boxes in order to get our house into shape. Tallying the monetary outlay for these items prodded me to be even more militant in my quest to get rid of things. The less I own, the less I need to pay to organize.
I also recognize that we paid movers to move a bunch of stuff into this house that we did not need and that we’ve now given away. Total waste of money. Had I been able to do this massive decluttering before moving here, this extra expense could’ve been avoided. So there’s a very real cost to owning too much and to owning things we don’t need.
Perhaps even more profound than the financial cost is the cost of time. I’m fond of saying that time and money are our most precious resources and that we should fiercely guard how we use both of these. Owning too much stuff in a disorganized home is an easy way to expend way too much time and way too much money. Recognizing these drains motivates me to be ruthless about what I choose to own.
How often are we overwhelmed by our stuff? How much time do we waste looking for things that are lost amid disorderly piles? How often do we bemoan cleaning and dusting and sorting and storing all of our stuff???? If you’re me, it used to be quite a lot. But as I simplify every area of my life, I find I’m wasting much less time in service of material possessions. Frugality encouraged me to streamline and create efficiencies in everything I do and this cleansing process of re-organizing our house helped me to understand all the ways in which I was allowing stuff to dictate my use of time.
A Note On Children And Stuff
Things have a way of accumulating when you have children and we certainly own a lot more stuff now that we have a child (and another on the way). A few practices help us keep the deluge of kid-related possessions at bay:
1) We don’t buy things. For the most part, we use hand-me-downs for Babywoods and when we do buy things, we buy them used. Without a trigger-happy finger on the Amazon order list, we’ve dramatically reduced the amount of stuff we own. It’s tempting, as a parent, to buy anything and everything that you think might possibly help your kid eat/sleep/play/learn better. But since we wait at least 72-hours before buying anything and also hate buying stuff, the influx of kid stuff is a trickle as opposed to a deluge. Often, whatever problem you’re trying to solve by buying something will resolve itself in due time, whether you buy the thing or not.
2) I read the book Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. This had a profound impact on how we parent and especially how we think about stuff in relation to our child(ren). The author posits that when children have too many toys and too much stuff in their home environment, they have trouble focusing and playing earnestly with any given toy. They’ll flit from thing to thing without engaging in deep, concentrated play.
This book encouraged me to clear out Babywoods’ toys and streamline the things she has access to. Overwhelm is real for toddlers too and I find that she engages much more deeply with the decreased number of toys she has access to. I rotate out the toys she plays with in order to provide her with new challenges. We’ve found that she’s incredibly imaginative and inventive in her play when less stuff is out. This book also underscores my philosophy that children don’t need you to buy them a lot of stuff and that, as with many things in life, less is more.
3) No noisy or electronic toys. Mr. FW and I cannot abide toys that make noise. Nope. We have zero electronic and/or noise-generating toys, which leads to a more peaceful, quiet home. Babywoods makes up her own stories, songs, and games with her non-electronic panoply of toys, which is perfectly fine with me. This is largely a personal decision based on our hatred of incessant background noise and a belief that electronic toys zap creativity, but it was an important thing for us to realize in our parenting journey. You have to do what you are happy with!
4) Constant vigilance. I clear out our toy boxes with regularity and have realized I need to stay on top of the tide of kid stuff that could otherwise threaten to overtake our home.
I don’t have a perfect system, but I’m working to figure out practices and philosophies that align with our vision of a frugal, simplified life and a rich childhood of experiences, the outdoors, and quality family time for our kids.
It’s an ongoing process and one that I’ve become comfortable embracing in this constant evolution that is childhood. Having kids does not mean surrendering your simplified, clean home. It’s an adjustment, for sure, and we absolutely have a mini trampoline in the middle of our dining room, but we’re not inundated with kid stuff and I still consider our home to be organized and on the minimalist side.
The Sheer Bliss Of An Organized Home
It’s amazing. I can’t lie. Knowing where everything is, knowing that we only own what we need–or choose to have–and feeling in control of our environment has made me a distinctly happier person. My physical surroundings have the ability to stress me out if they’re in disarray or the ability to calm me if they’re organized and tidy. And people, I need calm in my life. I hadn’t fully internalized how frustrating a disorganized house was until I went through this process. I now understand that being in control of my stuff is almost as empowering as being in control of my money. I also let go of a lot of things during this process and donated box after box of stuff.
By acknowledging that I no longer need things, I’m able to pass them along to someone else as opposed to letting them sit untouched in my basement. And every box that left the house represents just that much less stuff that I’m beholden to. That much less stuff that I have to care for and manage. That much less stuff to hold me back from efficiency and organization. I know–I absolutely know–that this organization won’t last forever and that I’ll have to do it again someday. I did the same thing to our previous house before Babywoods was born, so I’m well aware of the eroding power of time.
I have to stay on top of these streamlined systems I’ve created for us and I also need to be more careful about what I allow to enter our lives. It’s tempting when people offer us free hand-me-downs, or I see a good deal at a garage sale, or a fabulous roadside trash find to grab it and hoard it. I’m trying to only take things that I truly need and that I have a place for. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean that I need it!!
Over the years of practicing frugality, it became our default, auto-pilot mode and my hope is that organization and a decluttered home can become a similarly effortless undertaking. I’ll let you know how it goes.
How To Get Started
If this feeling of being overwhelmed by your stuff resonates with you and you’re compelled to take action in your own home, here are the steps I took in case you find them useful.
Written by my real life friend, Cait Flanders, I read an advance copy of this book a few months ago and was inspired to adopt Cait’s minimalist approach to not just stuff, but life in general. An inspiring read sure to motivate you to pursue simplicity in all things and reap the tremendous rewards. It gave me a newfound understanding of why embracing the philosophy of “less” will set you free.
2) Make a plan.
Know what you’re hoping to accomplish in the process of your whole-house reorganization. I wanted to have everything streamlined, organized, and easier to find. It was also important to me to get rid of things we don’t use. On the practical level, I took three boxes with me to every room: one for items to donate, one for items to keep but that needed to move to another part of the house, and one for recycling (relevant mostly for paper cleared out of our offices). This meant that everything I picked up had a home to go to and couldn’t be simply cast aside.
3) Start with the worst area.
Starting with our basement made the most sense to me because it was the biggest disaster zone and definitely the toughest area to organize. I’d say 60% of my time over this whole project was spent solely on our basement. Once the basement was in hand, the rest of the house seemed easy to tackle by comparison.
Additionally, organizing the basement first meant that I had a tidy place for items from the upstairs to migrate down to. I found a lot of unused items on the main floors of our house that I wanted to store in the basement and, if the basement weren’t so organized, I likely would’ve just tossed things down into the pit of despair and never gotten around to organizing the whole thing. By beginning with the worst zone, I was empowered to continue on. Our kitchen pantry, for example, was so much less overwhelming after I had the achievement of THE ENTIRE BASEMENT under my organizational belt.
4) Actually remove everything from drawers and shelves.
Glancing at a drawer or shelf will not cut it. I had to physically remove everything from each drawer or shelf in order to see what all was in there. This also gave me the opportunity to clean the drawer/shelf in question, so really a win win! I know that Marie Kondo and other organizational gurus advise you to bring all of your fill-in-the-blank (shirts, plates, hairdryers) into the middle of your living room floor to sort, but uh, these people CLEARLY do not have kids.
No way in heck was I going to cart a bunch of stuff into the middle of the floor for my child to rifle around in. Yeah, no. I organized in place. When doing our kitchen, for example, I shut the baby gate that closes off the kitchen and put plates and bowls on the countertop or kitchen floor. This way, I was in the physical space of the kitchen with the objects of the kitchen and I could figure out the best system for storing everything.
5) Decide what you want easily accessible.
Another element of this organizational marathon was my goal of only having out what we use on a regular–by which I mean daily or weekly–basis. No longterm storage items in the living room. No once-a-year pans in the kitchen cabinets. The things that are easily accessible in our home are used all the freaking time. Your application of this practice will vary based on your available storage space in your home. Back in our days of living in apartments in the city, we didn’t have any distinction between current use or once-a-year-use stuff because we didn’t have any storage space. Now, however, we are beyond fortunate to have a basement and so I’ve availed myself of this new organizational methodology.
6) Get creative in how you organize.
Yes, you can buy expensive little sorting boxes and bins for every single drawer in your home and yes, I do in fact own plenty of these. However, I also repurpose old cardboard boxes to great effect. I typically tear the lids off of these boxes and–voila–perfect little containers for holding things like pens, paper clips, and baby socks. No need to buy custom-made boxes for every single situation: get creative with what you have on hand. I also went all out on repurposing things we already own for new and novel uses. For example, I needed a downstairs changing table for our soon-to-be-born second daughter and so I commissioned a previously decorative table and topped it with a travel changing pad for the purpose. Before assuming you need to buy even more stuff to organize the stuff you have, take a look around and see what clever reinventions you can preform.
7) Commit to following through.
I found this project to be very much a chain effect because invariably, items got redistricted from one part of the house to another and so it was only by committing to doing the entire house that I was able to legitimately complete the project. Plus, by doing every single room, I eliminated the temptation to have a hidden closet of shameful disorganization. I also now know exactly what we own (and how much of it), which is a huge factor in ensuring I don’t buy things we do not need or that we already own.
8) Give things away.
Another important aspect of bringing this to fruition was the understanding that I needed to let go of some of our stuff. In order to achieve maximum organization–and actually have empty shelves and drawers in some rooms–I needed to give stuff away. Knowing ahead of time that you’ll be downsizing your possessions makes it easier to tackle each disorderly space. You know that you can let go of anything you don’t need and that’s only serving to complicate, frustrate, and clutter your life. And please, please, please donate your stuff, don’t put it in the trash. Buy Nothing Groups, friends, thrift stores, Craigslist, Freecycle, the free table at your office/school/church, and online swap groups are all excellent venues for donating and passing along the things you no longer need.
9) Approach the task with joy and gratitude.
Don’t laugh! I’m serious! I will be honest that I do have a deep-seated love of organization, which is turned up to 11 when I’m pregnant, so it wasn’t too hard for me to get to a place of enjoying this process. However, I had plenty of frustration points where I wanted to give up and/or burn the house down. What I kept reminding myself of was how tremendously fortunate I am to have the time, the ability, the mental clarity, and the desire to get this project done. Additionally, I was able to reflect on my immense privilege and the gratitude I have for living in a safe, comfortable, spacious home with my family. We have everything we need and are blessed beyond belief. Organizing our stuff, while challenging at times, is decidedly a first world problem and truly, more of an opportunity for reflection on gratitude than a moment for complaint.