The Great Mystery of Household Accumulation

Have you ever noticed that no matter the size of your apartment, condominium, house, garage, drawers, closets, hard drive, handbag or briefcase—it mysteriously fills to capacity?

Our first apartment was 300 square feet. We were newlyweds and still in that “cozy stage,” so it wasn’t a problem. Three years later we were packed to the gills and longed for a little breathing room, so we moved into a 1,200 square foot house. Wow, so much extra space. In what seemed like the time it took to unpack, the place mysteriously filled to capacity.

A display in a store

Some rights reserved by Robert S. Donovan

Three years later we moved into an 1,800 square foot house with a big family room addition and double-car garage. Again, whatever that filling thing is, it kicked in and soon we were full to the rafters.

Twelve years later we moved into a house twice the size where we still reside and—you guessed it—we’re full. Paring down, cleaning out and simplifying has become an unrelenting challenge. 

Recently, I did a lot of that paring down and cleaning out. Today I have mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I have that wonderful “clean” feeling because I just got back control of several closets and rooms in our house. But on the other hand, I’m hanging my head in shame.

How on earth did we accumulate so much stuff? And it was not pleasant. I gave away and threw away more stuff than I could believe and not without pain. Oh, how I struggled!

After a couple of trips to the charitable collection center and sadly, the city dump … I’m a new woman. I love this “cleaned-out” feeling.

I’ve renewed my determination to ask myself these questions before I bring anything of significance into this house in the future:

• Can I afford it?

• Do I really need it?

• Do I need it now?

• Do I have something like it already?

• Can I find a cheaper substitute?

• Is this the best deal?

Then I’m going to go home and think about it for 24 hours. If I decide to go back and buy it in the morning, I’ll know without a doubt this object can come into this house.

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24 replies
  1. Elizabeth Sheehy says:

    This one pushed my buttons. I’m the adult child of a compulsive hoarder. Denial of the problem is one of the traits of this horrid mental illness. All of the suggestions given are great for mentally healthy people. If it’s a hoarder you’re dealing with, see help from the pros. If, like me, you’re the child of a hoarder, we have an online community – do a Yahoo search for Children of Hoarders.

  2. Janee says:

    It’s one thing to get rid of your own things yourself. Then it’s another thing for my daughter to come into my home whle I am at work and take whatever she wants & put them into her garage sale. This has been happening for several years and she doesn’t think there is anything wrong with it. She can’t understand why I get upset with her. She had a garage sale a couple weeks ago and her dad & I stopped by her house not realizing she was having a sale. I walked into her garage and low & behold about 1/3 of the things she had for sale were mine. Some of them I had been looking for for awhile. What is your opinion of this?

    • Birgit Nicolaisen says:

      That’s crazy! I think you need to change your locks. I don’t mean to sound flippant, but am having a hard time understanding how someone (even if it is your daughter) thinks it’s ok to just take stuff from your home and sell it. Good luck in changing that pattern.

  3. Gaye McKim says:

    I like to shop way out of control I seriously need help to stop. Any suggestions in which directions I need to go plus there is student loan debt too. Please help Mary!!

    • Jacque says:

      READ MARY HUNT! She truly helped me get a handle on this, Gaye. I love my home so much that I can really get into trouble with all the nice stuff out there. Mary’s Rapid Debt Repayment Plan will get that student loan off your back. (It’s in Mary’s book, “Debt-Proof Living.”) You might ask yourself what shopping represents to you. If it’s a replacement for something else in your life, then you can honestly look into that and work hard on changing the parts that aren’t working. If shopping is a healthy hobby that you enjoy, you could budget for it. Buy a VISA debit card, which you load according to your budget, just for shopping. I know I have to watch my step all the time with spending. It’s just something I’m here to work on.

      • Gaye McKim says:

        Thank you Jacque for your advise. Shopping is filling a couple of holes in my life that I need to get myself together and balance things and get back to my spiritual side.

  4. Debra says:

    I have set up a monthly reminder in my e-mail to “get rid of 10 things”
    It forces me to look around, go thru closets, open a junk drawer and get a bag of 10 things to Goodwill or the trash. That makes 120 things per year and every little bit of effort helps.

  5. Jacque Taylor says:

    I TRY to live by The Four “L’s”. They are: Lighten your load, Lessen your footprint, Live within your means and Leave a little (savings) for tomorrow. Have you seen the wooden placque in the store that says, “Simplify,” only to realize that by buying it one could be causing complication … albeit cute, clutter? It might be just the right reminder, however, like the bumper sticker, “Live simply, so others may simply live.” My daughter thought of the best one for us, called “the dog feeling.” It’s the feeling we got when at last, we found the right puppy. When we first started our search, she would say, “No, it’s just not the dog feeling, Ma.”. We don’t even buy a pair of shoes, now, without asking if that is how RIGHT it feels. I’m also learning to take things back, if it turns out to not be the dog feeling after all. That helps me to buy right to begin with, because I despise having to go through the return process. We are not taking that dog back, though. She is a fit for life!

    • Guest says:

      Four Ls. Excellent! And what a great analogy—the right puppy. For me (brace all you dog lovers) is no puppy. Yep. No puppies for me. I’m saving that for when they ship me to The Home where due to a shortage of caregivers—and the fact that I’ve outlived every single one of my friends and family and have no visitors—every wheelchair comes with a puppy to cuddle. Don’t sue me.

      • Jacque says:

        I totally get that, Mary! Funny how we all have our favorite creature comforts for getting through life! How many zillions of us will find more comfort now and at The Home because of what you have taught us? May we all live in physical, emotional and financial health today, so our tomorrows will be happy and healthy, too. May your eventual pup come with “the dog feeling!” Many smiles and thanks to you, Mary.

  6. LaceAngel says:

    Having trouble with “clutter” (excess “stuff”), give FlyLady a look see. It’s free and the routines will help you. (

      • Donna R. says:

        Do indeed know what you mean by kitchen sink. 😉 The morning tip about making the bed and getting dressed to shoes is powerful, too; I just can’t do the discomfort of shoes at home. My payoff? My daughter came to visit in the house I had just moved into, and upon entering the bedroom, completely missed some dust that had crept in, and exclaimed,”It’s so clean!” just because there there was no clutter and the bed was made.

  7. Jaybirdie says:

    There for a while, I was terrible about buying these little serving dishes. My thinking was, oh, this would be a great dish to serve cranberry sauce in for Thanksgiving, or this little dish would be great for whatever at breakfast in the mornings. Trouble was, we usually go somewhere else for Thanksgiving and I never cook breakfast, plus I had ten other cute little dishes that I’d bought at thrift stores, yard sales or Goodwill that would do the job just as well should the occasion arise. Here in a week or two, we are going on vacation and are having hardwood foors installed in our living room and master bedroom while we’re gone. Everything in those rooms will be packed away and I have vowed that when we come back, only select pieces will make it back into the rooms. Everything else will go into yard sale totes. We’ll see how that goes!

    • Guest says:

      Please don’t tell me the address of your Yard Sale. I do not want to be hopeless drawn to it where I will have no choice but to buy up all your stuff. I have to really work hard at not doing things like that. I am impulsive beyond the legal limit. Is there an app for that?

  8. Catholiceducator says:

    Because I have chronic health conditions, I tend to be home most of the time, so I likely have more ‘stuff’ than other people. Also, being a home school mom and former preschool teacher, we try to weed out whatever is no longer needed, as time goes on. The less clutter, the better! I do have lots of books and craft supplies, but even they have to be somewhat cleared out occasionally. I take things to my local thrift shop or our yearly church clothing sale.

    • Guest says:

      Idea: Donate your craft supplies to your local schools. Art departments are being horrible under-funded, or funding is being cut altogether. They just might invite you to come teach a fun craft project.

  9. Sandra at Thistle Cove Farm says:

    My husband, his mother and I shared a 6,000 square foot farm house that is filled with the accumulation of 100 years. I’m in process of downsizing and that means giving away and selling so I can sell and move. It’s hard because everything has a story and every story has meaning…but it has to be done. I’m hoping other people will love “my” stuff as much as I’ve loved it but it’s time to move on.

    • Jacque says:

      That is a tough one, Sandra. I send you go-power. Perhaps you are photographing the treasures you part with — for a very special keepsake album? Your new home and life will surely be filled with the “best of,” plus the memories. Plus, the recipients of the beloved items will give them a new home and many more years of life and admiration. It’s a bit like seeding a garden — think of all the beauty you are sending out into the world.

      • Donna R. says:

        Y’know…when my husband died and I was faced with what to do with ALL the things that held so many memories, a dear friend gently taught me that even so many good memories take energy and emotion to revisit and carry. She wisely showed me that I could keep some mementos of cherished memories, but really would do better to part with most of them. The love and the life we shared will never change, but I still have some life to live and need to have room in my house and my heart to live it. The photography idea is brilliant!

    • Guest says:

      Idea: Take a photo of each item that holds so many memories and meaning. Then write up the history of it. Put all of this into a beautiful album (or 12), or burn to DVD that you can duplicate for generations to come. Then sell them before they lose their monetary value.


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