THE BLOG
05/16/2014 03:47 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014

Breaking Free of Clutter

Siri Stafford via Getty Images

Is there a junk drawer or even a junk room at your house? I have to fess up: There's always been one in mine. Started at my childhood home. Definitely in the basement laundry room when I was very little. Then it graduated to a spacious room that my parents added on to the house when they put in a pool outside. We didn't think twice when mother christened that room as the "formal dining room" because from the time it was built, the floor remained in a raw concrete state (back when it definitely was not fashionable) with the room's first and only inhabitant being our dog in winter months. After that, all manner of boxes, odd bits of unused furniture and junk started piling up around the dog's space. A spacious addition bordered on three sides by windows, this room was never even connected to the outdoors, as you might imagine. So for all of the 33 years our family owned that house, the "formal dining room" was left much like a garage, stacked high with things our parents felt they just couldn't throw away, decided they needed to keep and eventually completely forgot.

Now, married with my own home, we live slightly the same way. My husband is much less of a pack rat than I. He has a few boxes of memories. For me, bits and pieces I can't bear to part with are stuffed into closets, in the garage or under the bed. My excuse is that I moved here from across the world and all 48 years of me are squeezing into this little house. The tiny office bears the brunt of my hoarding habits. An old dining table that once belonged to Dave's parents -- who are still alive and well, mind you -- sits with stacks of photos, papers and odd bits and pieces. I'm looking over and see some cassette tapes I used to love (with no method of playing them, of course), a high school trophy or two and boxes of stationery from when we were married, in case I'm moved to pen a few thousand handwritten notes to people. I tell myself I keep some of these things because I truly plan on using them someday.

I have a friend who actually took a week's vacation to sort through and organize her house. It was years ago, and I still remember thinking how insane it was to waste holiday time on a good clean out. But she's a pretty organized woman, and there's no junk room gathering dust in her house. As I sat surveying the scene in mine, I thought it high time for a chuck out.

Here's the deal: When you think about it, keepsakes on a huge scale don't make life better. In fact, they probably just weigh you down. I know it might feel like you're being a good parent keeping those thousands of finger paintings made by your little tykes until you can share them with your grandchildren someday. I'm sure everyone will love seeing them again in 20 years... probably for five minutes, tops. But what about the prom dress, your mother in-law's old sewing machine, your husband's stringless childhood guitar or shoeboxes full of photos? Time to get real about the value of that clutter vs. the cost of stuff taking up too much space in your home. Imagine how great it would feel give away or recycle things you just don't need any more... probably much like shedding unwanted pounds without much exercise or dieting. Hint: really damn good!

Here's the clutter buster recipe I'm working on:

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Crappé

With apologies to Georges Seurat, every Sunday afternoon we're hanging around at home, I'm making piles of all that "stuff" and categorizing each thing I'm clinging to in this order:

1. Be gone!
Is there another person who wants it? Make a list and email people you know who might enjoy it. If they don't, see number 2. Don't just create another get-around-to pile that sits waiting to be adopted by some unknown entity someday.

2. Be one with Shirley MacLaine
Your old stuff can be reborn at a recycling station, toy library, op shop or charity. The fun news is you can help more than one charity and spread the love. This is the kind of magic that can change someone else's life, just by your deciding to get rid of things you never use.

3. Be at peace with what's left... for now
Only a few things from the past you just can't do without should stay. The rest graduate to numbers 1 or 2. Schedule a reassessment at the same time each year for best results. And don't forget: In the end you can't take it with you!

Something's Gotta Give
Going shopping for anything besides food I have to cook is fun to me. If you're like me, you love looking at furniture, fabric and clothes. What I don't like is the look of my closet, very small and packed with clothes I haven't worn for decades but still hold onto for sentimental reasons. Have I got a deal for you: Don't buy anything new (when you can afford it) until you get rid of something you consider its equal. Have fun selling the old thing creatively -- at a market or online -- or give it away if you like. The point is to make room for the new, must-have item and surrender something else in return. You'll love the new, purposefully purchased item so much more this way! The same system can work for furniture or other knick-knacks you long to buy.

Buy Experiences Instead of Things
If you're taking up the idea of curbing that spending and find you're able to actually see those corners in the rooms of your house again, it'll be about time to think of creative ways to use your money. Challenge yourself to hold off on impulse buys like magazines and too many espressos or café lunches, and spend weekends enjoying the outdoors or take up a sport you never thought you could. You might even unpack those long forgotten daydreams of a safari in Africa or scuba diving trip to the Maldives. They could actually be more within reach than you'd ever imagined by making small, simple changes in your daily habits.

Putting it simply, you can keep living under piles of possessions, whether they're in plain sight or hidden away in closets and spare rooms, or you can choose to finally get free of them. Once you start the purge, you are likely to find yourself feeling lighter and less burdened.

Sound like a good plan for summer?

Then ready, set, throw!