Trying to Throw Out Fifty Things

My attempt at decluttering my house and my life.


Confession--my house can be pretty messy. Not pizza-crust-under-the-couch and sandwiches-in-the-corner messy, but stacks-of-papers, piles-of-folded-laundry and sixteen-pairs-of-shoes-near-the-door messy. We’ve lived here for over twelve years and we are absolutely inundated by clutter.

I go through moments of swearing I’m going to do something about it and we’ve had a few periods of construction where the presence of a dumpster on my driveway has driven me to get rid of things. Unfortunately, these efforts are never house-wide and only last for a brief time.

Recently, my daughter Lissie’s friend, Zoe, decided Lissie’s room needed a makeover. Not the paint and new bedspread kind, but the get rid of everything you’ve been collecting kind. Sick of looking at old binders stuffed with papers from middle school, clothing that hasn’t fit since elementary school and even an old Halloween costume with jeans covered in Smarties candies (She was a “Smartie pants”), Zoe decided it was time for Lissie to take care of things.

Armed with garbage bags, they stayed up until 4:30 in the morning. When I peeked into Lissie’s room the next morning, I didn’t recognize it.

I don’t have a Zoe who would stay with me till 4:30 in the morning and strongly encourage me to get rid of things. When Lissie wavered, gazing at something fondly, Zoe calmly explained that she didn’t need it and it had to go. I’m extremely sentimental, hence so many of the things I can’t bear to throw out.

Wandering around the internet one day, I came across a recommendation for the book, Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life, by Gail Blanke. It was as if that book title was talking to me.  I went right to the Barnes and Noble website and ordered a copy. A few days later, the book arrived and I was on my way.

Gail Blanke’s argument is that if you throw out fifty material things, you will not only clear the physical clutter, but also the mental clutter. She cautions you that each of the fifty things has to be a separate item. You can’t just throw out fifty sweaters and call it done. The sweaters count as one thing.

One quiet Saturday morning, with my husband, Mat, working and the kids busy, I printed a list from her website, grabbed the garbage bags and started.

She advises you to have three different garbage bags—labeled “Trash,” “Donate,” and “Sell.” I’d also argue you could label another one, “Recycle” and Ms. Blanke even gives you ideas and outlets for recycling everything from half-used makeup containers to old sneakers.

Mat gave me permission to start on his closet (One of Ms. Blanke’s big rules is “Don’t throw out anybody else’s things.”) and I spent several hours going through his closet and starting on mine. His was easy, but I was getting very emotional about my stuff.

After I while I realized that since I hadn’t worked in an office since 1996, anything from that era should go. Ditto anything with shoulder pads. And I needed to get over the illusion that some of the items in the closet might fit again one day, I’ve had three kids since I wore some of them and they are never going to fit. I put those things in the donation bags, too.

“Buns of Steel” video? We don’t even have a VCR. Trash. The gorgeous pair of high heels with the really pointy toes that crippled me when I wore them to my niece’s Bat Mitzvah? Donate. That really expensive skin cream I won from a charity auction in 2007? It’s expired. And it made me break out. Trash.

Seven bags of clothing and three bags of garbage later, I took a break. I had fourteen things on my list. It felt great.

Then came the unmatched socks.  I have an overflowing thirteen gallon trash bag filled with them. Every once in a while I spread them out on the floor, turn on an old episode of Gilmore Girls and sort. More often than not, I wind up with thirty or more pairs of socks, but still have half a garbage bag of lonely, pairless ones. I should throw them out. I know that. But something stops me. What if the match is currently in the laundry or stuck behind the bed? Maybe it will turn up.

After reading Gail Blanke’s book, I knew I needed to be strong. I did one more attempt at a match, garnering about fifteen pairs. I bundled the stragglers in a bag, throwing them into the garbage cans outside and piling some smelly, leaky garbage on top of them so I’m not tempted to grab them out in a moment of weakness.

It’s still early and I haven’t nearly reached the fifty things. Chunks of weekends are rare, but if I set small goals and attack one thing at a time, maybe I have a shot at this.

Dzeldaz February 02, 2012 at 12:27 PM
Good idea and good for you! I may attempt is myself. However, PLEASE reconsider what you are throwing out! Join Rockland Freecycle - many would love the VCR tapes you are trashing. Freecycle saves the environment by allowing others the pleasure of discovering what you no longer need. I have benefited greatly from contributed greatly to Freecycle (and met wonderful people). Check out Hi-Tor's wish list. They need old towels. Check with Rockland Family Shelter as sometimes they are in need of specific clothing. The Vietnam Veterans will come to your house and pick up bags of clothing and bric-a-brac and leave you a receipt! Try one of the many consignment shops in the area if that is your thing. Local schools need gently used clothes in case young children have accidents. There are at least two schools running drives as we speak (North is one of them.) There is a synagogue asking for clothing to make Birthday Bags for less fortunate children. Can you take the expensive cream out of the container (or someone else if you react to it) and recycle the container? There are so many options. Please - think hard before you throw out anything! I have more ideas if you need them. I want the best environment possible for our children, so I try to keep waste down. Good luck on your continued quest!
Dzeldaz February 02, 2012 at 12:47 PM
My other thought is that perhaps Zoe isn't exactly correct. It is okay to be sentimental and to hold on to some of the precious items in your life. I will never give up my grandfather's shirt or sweater as it is all I have of him and the memory of him wearing those items is precious. Do I need them in terms of practicality? No. Clutter? I don't think so. I'm tactile. Zoe probably isn't. My memory isn't always great. Zoe may have a great memory. Maybe Lissie can teach Zoe something about the worth of sentimentality. Life has to have balance.
Shari Maurer February 02, 2012 at 02:35 PM
Thanks for all of these resources--they're terrific and I hope to share them. Besides the 7 bags of clothing from this go-round, I recently gave away over 10 boxes of books and lots of baby things. It's wonderful having books in my library, but felt they would be better served being read by others, so I totally agree with your suggestions.
Dzeldaz February 02, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Glad you liked the ideas - and read through the multiple typographical errors and assumptions on my part! Hi-Tor = the animal shelter. I should not answer posts when I am rushing.
William Demarest (Editor) February 02, 2012 at 08:43 PM
Don't look in my closet at home! I need to get that book by Gail Blanke!


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