[Note: This post contains a table that might be easier to read on a desktop than on a mobile device.]
Recently I was chatting with a group of young moms. We were talking about the “mixed blessing” of handed down/donated clothing and toys. There was a general appreciation for receiving pieces free of charge, and a good feeling about the environmentally friendly aspect of reusing items. At the same time, there was also discussion about having to figure out what to do with belongings they hadn’t selected. They were often not quite right, didn’t fit, were not particularly needed, or were not desired by their children.
This conversation got me reflecting on how much of the pileup in our homes consists of items we did not buy or intentionally acquire. One way or another, stuff just shows up in our space. I would estimate that items like these represent somewhere between 20-30% of household clutter.
Figuring out how to proceed with “free” belongings can be tricky. One the one hand, we can (and should!) apply the same criteria that we would use when evaluating any possessions:
- Do I (or does my family) like it?
- Will we use it?
- Does it work?
- Does it fit?
- Do we have space to store it?
Unfortunately, items that have been given to us can come with a layer of conflicting feelings and/or guilt that can make them especially hard to process. In addition, unlike planned purchases, these items arrive unexpectedly, frequently at moments when we lack the bandwidth and mindset to sort, review, and organize them.
Below are common sources of “free stuff,” as well as thoughts they can trigger and some tips for how to move forward when we are feeling stuck.
|Source of “Free” Stuff||Immobilizing|
• Tile & Building Materials
• Carpet Remnants
“I should probably keep all of this
in case I need to
“Can I identify what each of these is for in this home? If this broke or got stained, would I use these supplies or would I replace with a new item?”
Don’t hold onto anything you wouldn’t use.
(Donations & Gifts)
• Hostess gifts
“My kids won’t wear or play with this,
but I don’t want
to offend my friend
by not keeping it.”
Remind yourself that along with a gift comes the right for YOU get to decide what to do with it next.
If you don’t have time to review a bag of items, or if no one in your family wants them, feel free to donate them.
Also, you have the right to let someone know that, although you appreciate their thoughtfulness, you would rather they pass their items on to someone else.
Friends & Family
(Items for “temporary” storage)
• Furniture, household goods for people in transition
• Belongings for adult children who are not yet settled
“I need my space back,
but I don’t want to be unkind
or create tension by asking
them to take their
things when I know
it is hard for them
Ideally, set a deadline in advance for how long you will store another person’s items.
If this wasn’t done, call to discuss this topic and find a mutually agreeable “end date.”
• Family “heirlooms”
• “Family” memorabilia
“The family will be
angry with me
if I don’t hold on
to these items.”
No one should be tasked with being the family historian against his/her will (even if you do have the largest home!).
Keep what you want, offer the rest to other family members.
If no one wants to take what is left, it can go.
• China, Crystal, Silver
• Decorative items
“I will be dishonoring
my relative if
I don’t keep this.”
Inherited items are basically gifts, so the same rules apply as for any gift (see above).
If you like it and want to keep it, then by all means do so. If you don’t, pass it along.
Keep in mind that simply keeping items packed away in boxes isn’t honoring anyone anyway.
• Decorative items
• Duplicate household supplies
“I don’t want to rock the boat
with my new spouse
by telling him/her
that I don’t like
and don’t want to keep
Married life is a negotiation. Talk about any belongings which are causing distress or friction.
Negotiate what stays and what goes, letting each spouse have some “wins.”
(Items left behind)
• Platters, serving utensils
• Coats, mittens, hats, scarves
“I’m afraid to give these away
in case someone
comes looking for
Timing is everything. If an item suddenly appears after guests have been in your space, reach out to ask if they want them back.
If more than a month has passed with no response, or if you have no idea who may have left an item behind, do what you wish.
• Free samples
• Giveaways, swag
• Hotel toiletries
“These were free,
so I should keep them.
I don’t want
to waste them.”
Everything in your space is costing you. Physical belongings require money and energy to store, clean, and maintain.
Your home isn’t a storage unit.
Keep what you are using and what you like. Donate the rest.
Odd as it may seem, it can be hard to let go of things you didn’t buy and never wanted. Remember that your space is your own, and you have the right to keep it the way you wish.
Is there anything in your space that you didn’t buy and would like to let go of?