Q&A: Clutterbug creator Cassandra Aarssen on decluttering your home

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Cassandra Aarssen is the creator of Clutterbug, a home organizing business that provides education, inspiration and support through YouTube, podcasts and social media. She also stars in HGTV’s latest fully self-shot series “Hot Mess House.” She has written four books on the subject.

Aarssen joined staff writer Jura Koncius for The Washington Post’s Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

Q: I’ve pared down our photos and discarded poor shots and duplicates, but now I’m stuck on what to do next. Should I scan all the keepers and discard hard copies, or put hard copies into albums? Should I take photos out of existing albums to scan so they’re digitized?

A: It looks as if you have already done the hard part, which is paring down the photos. When it comes to organizing, I’d recommend not putting too much pressure on yourself to do it perfectly. If you love the idea of creating new photo albums, then do that. If you want them all scanned, I’d suggest finding a local company that can do this for you. If the idea of organizing or scanning these photos is stressing you out, and I get a sense that it may be, use photo boxes lined with acid-free paper and simply place your photos in the boxes. Label the outside with the year or special occasion and be done. Sometimes embracing “good enough” organization is the best approach.

Q: How do I get my spouse on board with decluttering? He has about eight boxes of stuff he hasn’t looked at in almost 30 years as well as old camping and exercise equipment covered in dust. He says we have plenty of room for the items in our basement, but it stops me from using the space because it bothers me so much.

A: It’s so hard to persuade our loved ones to let go. I’d recommend a different approach. Try saying to your spouse: “It would mean so much to me if I could use the basement more. Could you help me come up with some ideas for making this space less of a storage space?” Asking for help instead of demanding change will make the task seem less intimidating and like more of their idea.

Q: I’m a pack rat. How do I start decluttering? I can’t seem to make a dent.

A: I recommend starting with garbage. Expired medication and food, old bills and receipts, empty boxes, broken items, etc. This is the best way to get your decluttering motivation rolling, without any fear or anxiety of having to let go of something special.

Q: What’s an easy way to determine what you should get rid of? So many times I’ve pared down, only to have to buy something over again, which completely defeats the purpose. How do I avoid this?

A: I ask three questions: Have I used this in the past 12 months? Do I love this? Would I buy this again if I didn’t own it? If the answers to these three questions are no, the item has to go.

Q: I’m motivated to declutter our home as we are spending more time in the house and need to reclaim more space for working and doing schoolwork. My partner has a hard time getting on board with this. How can I get them to buy into getting rid of things without angering them?

A: Different people have different levels of attachment to their items. The best way to help your partner is to try to understand why they struggle. Is it a fear of forgetting about the memory associated with the item? Fear of financial instability? Perhaps your partner’s parents prided themselves on reusing and repurposing all of their items, which is putting pressure on your partner to do the same. Understanding the real reason for the anxiety is always the first step to overcoming it.

Q: My two children and I went through a very messy divorce and moved several times until we finally settled into our current home, where we have lived for about five years. It’s a super cute Cape Cod-style home, and we have plenty of space for the three of us, but my daughter hates to get rid of anything, and her room is usually very cluttered. I try to help her get rid of items such as old toys and clothes that are too small, but I have a feeling that holding onto all of her belongings is a kind of coping mechanism, because she fears we will have to move again some day. Can you help?

A: Your daughter’s fear is something that you can help her overcome in an easy and gentle way. I recommend the “pack up” method. Take a box, and have your daughter put things in her room that she hasn’t used or played with in the past 12 months in the box. This is the important part: The box isn’t leaving the home; it’s just leaving her room. Put a note with a date for six months in the future on the box, something such as this: “If I haven’t needed or missed anything in this box by December 2020, I can donate this box to someone in need.” This method really helps ease anxiety.

Q: This year, my wife and I had planned to start our great purge of more than 30 years of accumulated stuff before she retires and we downsize to a smaller residence. With many secondhand drop-off shops still closed and both of us at the age where we’re trying to minimize outside contact with others, we will probably remain in place for now and hope to purge and move soon. Do you have advice?

A: Have a free sale. So many of my clients are having free sales in their front yards or on Facebook Marketplace. Set up your yard or driveway like a yard sale, but place signs that say items are free. You can also take photos and post online in your community’s buy-and-sell groups. There’s no need for you to be outside during the sale; you can watch from your window or stay six feet away. In my experience, people have been very respectful and have stayed safe with distancing, and all of the items are gone quickly.

Q: How can I make the laundry area in my unfinished basement more appealing? I just have detergents all sitting on the dryer.

A: I would recommend a rolling laundry cart for all of your detergents and other laundry products. My laundry room is unfinished, too, but I added some pretty containers and baskets to bring some color to the space. Don’t be afraid to give your laundry area some love and decor, even if it isn’t perfect.

Q: How does one go about sorting things that have deep grief involved? My son’s stuff haunts me 15 years after his death at age 20. I want to let go of most of it, but it’s incredibly painful. Any tips?

A: Take photos, feel the grief and then give yourself permission to let go of the physical items. You will always have your son’s memories; you don’t need to keep his actual things. Your son would not want you holding on to his things when they are clearly causing you pain. You are ready. It’s time to let those items go.

Q: I have a small kitchen and not much storage space. What criteria can I use to decide what is stored in the kitchen and what ends up in the garage?

A: Your kitchen is the most valuable real estate in your home. Only items used all the time should be kept in there. If you only use something a few times a year, such as roasting pans, big soup pots or food processors, store them in another area of your home, such as the garage or basement.

Q: I retired at the end of last year. I can probably thin out what’s in my closet, but I’m stuck. I have a lot of items such as skirts, dresses and nice slacks that I will not have much use for. Is there a rule of thumb for deciding how many of a particular item to keep?

A: I don’t want you to worry about a hard number of things to keep. This is your perfectionist brain overthinking. Everyone has different stuff and different amounts of space in their home. A great rule for clothing is to ask yourself these two questions: “Does this look great on me?” and “Would I buy this again if I didn’t own it?” If the answer is no, it has to go. Be honest with yourself. Don’t hold on to clothing you don’t wear and love.

Q: I’m a college professor, and I have lots and lots of books, but many are outdated. Our local library’s book sale doesn’t accept old texts. Is there an alternative to just putting them in paper recycling?

A: As a book lover myself, the truth hurts: Outdated textbooks need to be recycled. There are people who use old books to create craft projects, but honestly, sometimes it’s OK to put things in the recycling or trash and move on.

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