10 ways to let go of your stuff

Know what to keep amidst the clutter by knowing yourself.

Story highlights

  • Erin Rooney Doland has some tips for de-cluttering your space
  • The easiest clutter to set free for Doland were things she knew she didn't like
  • Doland scanned important documents as digital files to get rid of 300 pounds of paper

1. Tear down the museum.

In my youth, I was fearless. I forged strong friendships and created a history for myself that seemed worth remembering. So I held on to every trinket from my past. But I kept so many of these historical artifacts (see Hair, Matt's) that I didn't have any room for the present. I wanted to throw parties and have friends to visit in a home where they could actually sit down. So I photographed those hold things, then cleared them out to make space for the next chapters of my life.

2. Assess true value.

A hefty chuck of what I moved into our home was obsolete computer equipment. When I looked at it, I saw dollar signs. Then my economist friend, Stephen, reminded me of the fallacy of sunk costs. I was sizing up those old computers based on what I had spent rather than their present value: close to zero. I sold the lot to a used-electronics store for $60 (not bad, considering) and got a much needed haircut with the cash.

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3. Know thyself.

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I liked to think of myself as someone who exercised every day by running on a giant motorized treadmill, read all the literary classics, and baked cookies for every special occasion. The reality? I am not a runner, I like to read pop fiction, and cookies aren't really my thing. The treadmill, the boxes of books, and some kitchen gadgets all found new homes.

4. Trust me: You won't fix it.

Most of the broken things I had brought with me were shoes. Heels or straps had come off, and I was convinced I would someday have them repaired. My husband held the shoes up in front of me, pair by pair, and asked two questions: "If you saw these shoes in a store today, would you buy them?" and "If you say yes, how much would you pay for them?" In all but one case, I admitted that I wouldn't buy the shoes again. And those red kitten heels with the broken sole? The amount I was wiling to pay was less than the cost of having them fixed.

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5. Do look a gift horse in the mouth.

My decorating tastes may change over time, but I am fairly certain I will never enjoy a home filled with a series of rhinestone-accented paintings of scary clowns. Yet I had hoarded these and other unattractive presents because I thought that was the decent thing to do. I also wasn't sure what I would say if someone noticed his gift missing and asked why. Well, you know what? No one has. Not even the bestower of scary clowns.

6. Adapt to your surroundings.

I had a used Volvo 740 GLE that was the first car I had purchased after college. Before I moved Washington, I lived in the Midwest, where it was tough to get around without a car. In D.C., however, we lived next to a metro station, and there was a grocery store two blocks away. The price of parking -- $150 a month -- sealed it: The GLE was G-O-N-E.

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7. Just admit that you don't like it.

As I sorted through my stuff, I became aware of the fact that I didn't even want some of it. There were things I didn't exactly like but didn't exactly hate -- and so lived with them out of pure apathy. This was the easiest clutter to set free. All it took was a little motivation to pack up a few boxes and drop them off at a local charity.

8. Know what you really need.

Often what we need is only related to the thing we have. For instance, I had a huge popcorn maker but could easily pop the modest amount of corn we consumed in a small pot on the stove. Out it went. I also had thousands of documents in bulky filing cabinets. But I needed the information on the pages, not the paper itself. I kept just the documents I had to have in their original form, scanned and saved others as digital files, and tossed the rest-eliminating 300 pounds of paper.

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9. Let go of the guilt.

When my grandparents passed away, I inherited a collection of 27 rusty knives, a warped cookie sheet, and a copper bracelet my grandmother had loved to wear. I kept all these items for more than a decade. Eventually I realized that if my grandparents were alive, they would have replaced the cookie sheet and knife set (and been mortified that my aunts had passed on such dangerous accoutrements). I recycled the kitchen implements, but I kept the bracelet, which I wear and enjoy as much as my grandmother did.

10. Face it: "One day" almost never comes.

I justified keeping half my wardrobe on the basis that I would use it one day. The hot pink bridesmaid dress from my cousin's first wedding took up space in my closet for four times the length of her marriage. I hate throwing out potentially useful things. But we couldn't afford a larger apartment; storing all those "one day" items would cost more than they were worth; and, an even simpler truth, I have yet to be invited to an event at which a fuchsia dress with taffeta bows might seem appropriate.

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