Stuff Wars: Tidying Up

The Stuff Series: Since being in America, I’ve been thinking a lot more about possessions and the amount of stuff I own, and how I interact with this stuff. Here’s the first bit.

I finally read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. This is coupled with a new obsession about tiny houses (aka emailing David every other day with a new link to some cool design). This has led to purging stuff. My sister, who is also currently “tidying up”, has run into a similar problem that I’ve been facing in all this purging, “What is a responsible way of getting rid of this stuff? I don’t want to just dump it all at Goodwill.”

This is a valid point. As Elizabeth L Cline in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion points out:

“Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, “They never could.” (read more of the excerpt here)

So, your clothes you give to Goodwill probably get recycled at a textile recycling plant. Which isn’t terrible, but maybe not what you had in mind. So here are the options I’ve mentally run through for getting rid of stuff (especially clothes) in the past few days:

  • Asking friends if they want any first: You can always offer free clothes on facebook and see who responds. Pros: People are reusing the clothes, and something you hate, someone else might love. Cons: If you hate it, they might also hate it. If it’s kind of worn out, they won’t like it. If they live in America, they probably have enough clothes already and you’re just adding to their consumerism. Also, if you’re impatient, you have to wait around for friends to come and get it all.
  •  Garage sale:  Pros: It will go directly to the consumer, and you might even get some cash out of it. That’s what I’m doing with all my stuff– giving it to friends who are having a garage sale to raise money for a campus ministry. Cons: Waiting around for it to be “garage sale” season. You still might be left with random junk at the end.
  • Repurposing: It seems sacrilegious to cut up a perfectly good T-shirt, but since it will probably just go to a textile recycling plant at Goodwill, it’s probably better to use it yourself. So I’ve turned a T-shirt into a drawstring bag for David’s disc golf discs, and cut up several T-shirts for reusable face wipes and cleaning rags. Pros: You’re actually reusing things. Cons: There’s a limit to how much you can repurpose/reuse.
  • Throw it in the trash:  Pro: Super easy. Cons: Bad. Landfills. Bad.Bad. Bad. No more needs to be said.
  • Amazon trade-in program, E-bay, Varagesale, Craigslist: For large scale furniture items, you could probably ask around and see if your church or friends need them. That’s how we got our bed, and we’re SUPER thankful! Big items like that are not usually trash. But if you don’t know anyone you directly want to help out, or you need money, Varagesale and Craigslist are two options. For smaller things like electronics, there’s always Ebay (or even easier, Amazon’s trade-in program). Pros: You’re getting money/helping someone out Cons: Waiting to see if people bid/buy, communicating with strangers, Amazon trade-in only takes specific items etc.
  • Back to Goodwill: Okay, so you don’t want to bog-down Goodwill with junk. But, Goodwill employs people, many of whom find it difficult to get jobs elsewhere (like people with criminal backgrounds who are discriminated against, or those with mental illness). Even if these people are just going to recycle your clothes and they won’t be sold, you’re still providing meaningful work for people.

So far, I have found no elegant solution that’s quick and easy. Why is it so easy to get stuff in America, and so hard to get rid of it?

Marie Kondo points out that a lot of times we pass on stuff to other people, it’s because we can’t fully deal with it ourselves. Rather than admitting we made a poor purchase, or we’ve gained weight, or our taste has changed, or we really don’t like that weird gift, we pass the stuff on to some unsuspecting person to ease our guilt. Like a little sister. Or maybe Goodwill. Or some charity we know. We don’t want to admit we own crap, or we made a poor decision about how to spend our money. We want to think we’d only ever own useful, beautiful things. We want to justify to ourselves that we needed that stuff. So rather than facing our possessions, sorting through them and disposing of them, we avoid them until our homes are bogged down with stuff, or we hand them off for someone else to deal with. 

I think our relationship with stuff is pretty similar to our relationship with food. We’re at that weird point where our plates are piled high with food, and we can’t eat any more. Some well-meaning person says, “Now, now, finish your plate. There are children starving in Africa, you know.”


So we should all be overweight because children are starving in Africa? That’s not very logical. Oh, so let’s ship them our half-eaten food. Uh, no. What would have been better would be to have taken smaller portions in the first place. Ah, but we didn’t do that, did we?


When I run into these problems, I revert to community development mode. I ask myself what the root problem is, and what it would take to fix that root problem- even if there are short-term costs in the moment.

Quick-fix-mode asks, “What will give me the short-term relief from both the amount of stuff I own, and my guilt at having so much stuff? Answer: Giving it to charity.” So we give things to charity in dribs and drabs, but we never change our life-style, because hey, if we buy too much of something in the future, we can just give it to someone in need. In other words, just like with lots of quick-fix relief measures: the thing we think is a solution is just feeding the problem. We never have to limit our stuff intake, because there’s always going to be “someone” who will take our junk when we don’t want it anymore. So we can be junk-free and guilt-free.

Development-mode says, “What is the best long-term solution for getting relief from having too much stuff, and my guilt about having too much stuff? Answer: A dramatic life-style change. It’s got to be dramatic so you see the results and like it enough to maintain it over the long-term. Which means you can’t donate something to charity every time you buy something new. You’ve got to dramatically change both the quantity and quality of the stuff you own so you

  • Are happier with yourself and stop buying stuff to make you feel better
  • Love the stuff you have so you don’t need more
  • Love how tidy and functional and beautiful your house is
  • Have a better internal sense of what would be clutter for you, and what is necessary/beautiful
  • Basically just stop buying stuff.

In this case, maybe it doesn’t matter as much what you do with the stuff you get rid of, (even if you, gasp, dump some in a landfill) because this is one huge purge that is going to dramatically change the way you interact with possessions forever.

Okay, so over to you: What do you do with the stuff you get rid of?

*note on The Magic of Tidying Up – highly recommend this book, as does like every other life-style blogger in the universe for the past two years. There’s a little bit of weird balancing the energy in your home and talking to your possessions thrown in there. But, it’s still a great book.  


4 thoughts on “Stuff Wars: Tidying Up

  1. Steph, this is great and it fits in with a lot of what I’ve been thinking about during our furlough. I have been reflecting on and appreciating the simplicity of our wee SA home. Coming back to all our ‘stuff’ in Scotland was a bit of a shock to the system! Thanks for these thoughts!


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