Living Below Our Means: Clutter-free Living

Of all my blog posts, surprisingly, I got a lot of visits on posts about living below our means. I am happy to learn that there are like-minded people out there who strive to live life more mindfully and while my musings in this topic are nothing to write home about, I hope to provoke thoughts and perhaps add to the discussion of mindful living.

There is something about winter and New Year that inspires that blank-slate mentality. While I am one who never believed in New Year resolution or such, a book has landed on my lap with a voice so true, it reverberates my very sentiment about life and things.

"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" (link is not affiliate, click away with abandon) is not your garden-variety organizational/clutter-buster book. If you are looking for tips on how to organize things, skip this one. If you are looking for how to throw things out, you'll be in or a disappointment. This book elevates de-cluttering to reverence of all things inanimate, something that is a thoroughly foreign concept to many "Westerner" yet the truth speaks and leaps from its pages.

Look at the number of holds at my local public library for this book!

In one sentence, Marie Kondo (the author -- pronounced marié マリエ) has summed up something that I know to be true in my heart but could not find the words to express before:

"I had been so focused on what to discard, on attacking the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep."

So many theories/techniques about clutter-busting is all about discarding or stash reduction, but truly, and perhaps more importantly, we need to decide what to keep. This tiny paradigm shift can bring about a huge change on how we look at de-cluttering. Not only that, this book compels me to try the method and see the result for myself.

First of all, what is clutter? Well, it is a slippery slope to discuss about clutter in a household with small children. But this is what I think: every thing in a house should have a purpose, and when a thing ceases to have a purpose but is not let go, the thing turns into clutter. For example, toys played once in a while, while cluttering the physical space the living room, is not clutter. The toys still have their purpose and will simply be stored back after use. A magazine, neatly stacked in a visually-pleasing magazine rack, but has been read and probably won't be read again, is a clutter. It has ceased to have its purpose.

Marie instructed the order of de-cluttering. She started with things that are easy to de-clutter: clothing, then books, etc. until you arrive at things that are the hardest to de-clutter, such as momento and pictures (or for me, that would be the Tod's art from school). The reason to this order is because de-cluttering (or as she said, tidying) is a moment-by-moment decision making, in that you decide which article of clothing "sparks joy." Each object presents you with a gift: a chance for you to hone your decision-making skill, to let go of the past attachment or fear of future needs. Each object presents you with a new opportunity to decide, an exercise to sharpen that intuition, until you arrive at the hardest object to let go, which by then, you are ready to make your decision.

I've mentioned before how I feel about my makeup collection. When I get a chance to open my makeup drawer, every items jumps with excitement, ready to be used and I am excited about thinking up looks to wear for the week. With clothing, well, I thought I did good, I mean really good. My clothing is always on rotation, my ten-item wardrobe hardly changes, all my items are of the best quality I can afford, and to start with, my closet was not at all looked cluttered. Still, I faithfully follow the instruction of the book. One sunny morning, I unloaded my entire clothing onto my bed. These were just the tops -- even I was surprised on how much I have.

These were just tops: t-shirts, shirts, sweaters, work-out tops, etc.

About an hour into de-cluttering, taking each article of clothing one by one on my hand and asking myself if this "sparks joy," I was mentally exhausted. With each clothing, my mind reasoned, "But I need this someday!" or "I just bought this one" or "No way I can let this go, this is still good!" or "Oh no, this is the sweater I wore when I ...X,Y,Z --insert your special occasion here--." I knew I was going nowhere. I needed some help, big time.

This was how much I've managed to let go in the first agonizing hour. Still just the tops. More to come: bottoms, dresses, underwear, accessories, coats and bags.

So, I stepped back, ate some snack, put on makeup (since I wasn't out that morning yet), and re-read the book. Marie suggested that we "talk" to our belongings. Yes, talk. Perhaps a bit weird to some of you, but I do talk a lot to my car, "Thanks for being so reliable today!" or to my orchids, "Please don't die on me!" or to my tea, "Goodness gracious, you are soooo delicious!" Talking to my belongings was actually the most logical-illogical thing to do: our belongings are here to share one common purpose of to be of use to us. When a thing cease to be of use, it needs to be freed. This, I know to be true, that when I give up a certain possession that I cling to, a space will open and a new opportunity will be able to come into life. If life is cluttered with things, there is no room for anything new to come in.

Round two, I came back and started talking to my clothes, "Please, let me know if you want out of this house. I'll gladly let you go." Just like magic, emotions started to flow. One by one, I was able to let go items that no longer spark joy: the trendy woolen short that I wore to celebrate my new job, the delicate angora fair-isle sweater that I wore to a cherished museum event, the stained blouse that I wore again and again because I love it so much, the pair of pants I hardly worn but kept it just in case, an out-of-date, 15-year-old merino twin set that still wears like iron, several of my navy/grey/black sweaters.

I ended up with four large garbage bag full of clothing to donate. That also included accessories, coats, socks, bags, other clothing items I put in my closet.

And now my closet looks like this. This is all of my clothing. Nothing is stored in off-season storage. Not shown are my coats, which I store downstairs in a coat closet (I keep a total of 6 coats: a pea coat, a puffer vest, a puffer jacket, a trench, a dress woolen coat, and a rain coat).

Storage from IKEA Antonius system.
The top two drawers contain all my underwear, socks, and hosiery. Scarves and winter things are in the two tubs right above. The dresses and hanging-things are hung where they are. There is about a foot recess toward the left-hand side of the closet where I hung my suits, blazers, special occasion dresses, and trousers.

The Tod's off-season clothing is next. Oy vey...
My sweaters are all laid out nicely in two drawers.

I keep 16 sweaters in total. I think I can let go some of these more, but they are in-season items, so I tend to use them in regular basis.
One drawer holds all my t-shirt, both for spring/summer and fall/winter.

Cotton tops all in one drawer.
Along the way, there are clothing that needs some TLC but I decided to keep rather than tossing them away (which was easier); one needs mending from a small tear, another needs de-staining, yet another (linen blouse) needs ironing. When I consider all the clothing I keep and the responsibility to maintain them: it takes a lot of time and energy, time and energy that, often, I don't have! This is the true cost of ownership: taking care of belonging mindfully. If it takes a lot of effort to maintain each items, the item might as well be something that one would like to wear daily with joy!

Clutter-free living is not all about minimalism or even deprivation. Marie mentioned that there will be a set point of the amount of belongings that feels comfortable to each person. Only you can decide how much is comfortable to you, because with this method, the yard stick is your own personal feelings toward your belonging, "does this item spark joy?" It is, above all, choosing mindfully the objects that surround our daily lives. The more I do this, the more I realize I really don't need much -- in terms of money, or amount -- to live a comfortable, meaningful life. I only need those objects that elevate the quality of my life, each one of them, everyday.

More tips to make your de-cluttering go more smoothly:
  • Burn a candle, your favorite one. Put on your favorite music. Get in your groove or do whatever necessary to achieve that "flow" state of mind.
  • De-clutter alone. Family members are not only distractions but can pose that guilty, the-need-to-editing feeling. They don't need to know what's in the bag (Marie said so, too).
  • Eat snacks, fuel yourself. This process is draining, mentally and physically. (Duh!). But, I noticed that I gained energy back after de-cluttering, it was almost like a breath of fresh air filling the entire room.
  • Go with your first gut feeling. If in limbo, pile the item in a stack, and go over each one again after you went through everything. The idea is to get down to that gut feeling level. Each clothing should take no longer than a few seconds to decide. When an item sparks joy, you know. You know it the way your heart flutter when you first saw an item that you so desired. 

No items sparks joy? No worries. Any gap only means opportunity for mindful-ahem shopping, or to see if you can live without. I ended up with just four long-sleeved t-shirt in my entire closet, the four that "sparked" the most joy (read: no holes, stains, stretching, stinks, etc). Only four. C'mon, how much "joy" can you get from looking at layering t-shirt? They are items of necessities, not a sparkling, LE Suqqu Quad! At first, I was panicked, what if I need more t-shirt, aargh??!! But truth to be told, I never need more than these four, and these four have been on rotation for two seasons. That panic feeling is the reason I hang on to so many others, and when I let them go, I also let the feeling go. 

Have you tried de-cluttering method? Did it work for you? Do you feel you are "swimming" in objects in your daily life (like having a closet-full of clothing but still nothing to wear)? What has worked for you in the past or what hasn't?


  1. Very inspiring, thanks for this post. Feels like something I always knew but never before was aware of. Amaltée

    1. Thank you! I'm glad to have inspired. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. wow nice job! I feel like i need to read that book. lol. I generally think I've really improved my wardrobe in recent years, but I do still have quite a lot of stuff. (a full closet almost at my parents house in my old room too!) This past year, i donated a garbage bag of stuff and packed up several boxes of stuff to sell, and even gave a number of things to a friend. What i liked doing was sending items to companies like twice/thredup/threadflip etc who sell items for you and/or donate what they don't take. (not a ton of money of course, but better than nothing!)

    1. I tried threadup with my son's stuff, too much work for too little incentive. Never again for us, but I can see how it may work for someone else.

  3. Ok, NOW I know how I missed this post - I was still in Poland! Anyway, Claire, you did AMAZINGLY well! I got rid of about five IKEA shopping bags of mine and Mr's clothing and accessories, but I guess I must have had much more than you, because I feel like my closet is still pretty full. And you're so right saying that in fact, we need very little; I had the same fears getting rid of some of my bottoms, but then I realized, I could probably own two pairs of jeans (to allow for laundering), and it would still be fine. I was also feeling exhausted after my decluttering sessions, but now that I've mostly completed everything, I sleep so much better at night and have a lot more energy!!!

    1. Hi Monika, like the book said, I think there is a "set point" where you are comfortable with your belongings. It may be that I'm comfortable with this much, and some other will be comfortable with more or less things than mine. That's I think the "magic" of this book, is that everyone lives in their own comfortable standard. The fact that you sleep better at night means that you are perhaps at your set point already.

      I've been meaning to make an update post about decluttering, I've got so many ideas to blog but not enough time.

  4. I love those bins! I didn't have anything, and she says not to go buying more storage options. so i improvised with some shoe boxes. now i need more shoe boxes... uh but not going to buy new shoes of course.

    1. Hi there, lol I know, Kondo almost sound anti-organizational things.. those bins were the ones I owned before, I got them from the Container Store. Shoeboxes are nice, but these bins are more practical. I think the main message is not to purchase superfluous organizing container BEFORE doing the decluttering. Good luck!