I Was Afraid to Let Go of Things Until I Learned the Costs of My Clutter

published Aug 8, 2023
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Credit: Kadna Anda

When I was a 21-year-old newlywed, money was tight. My husband and I were flush with wedding presents, but we couldn’t buy anything new beyond necessities like groceries. Our apartment was small, but since we couldn’t afford to replace anything, I kept everything, just in case. Decluttering was for people who can buy replacements, I decided, but not us. 

My pragmatic frugality was misguided, though. I wasn’t considering the other costs of clutter. Take our gravy boat, for example. It was small, expensive, and beautiful, so why wouldn’t I keep it?

Costs of Clutter

Here are the five things my clutter was costing me.

Replacement cost: I can’t afford to replace it. 

I genuinely believed that because I couldn’t buy a new gravy boat, I had to keep mine. Read on for what the “gravy boat mindset” was costing me.

Physical cost: It takes up precious space.

Even at its diminutive size, that gravy boat took up valuable real estate in our small kitchen, making it tricky to get to things we actually used. 

Storage and moving costs: We spent money to keep clutter.

Dividing our rent by our meager square footage would have shown me just how much we were paying for every inch of storage space. Plus, each of the *five* times we moved, we had to buy bubble wrap and boxes for our clutter, plus pay for gas to transport those boxes to our new apartment. (For people paying movers, the cost is even greater.) 

Time cost: Hours spent cleaning clutter are hours wasted. 

We spent twice as much time cleaning because we had to move our stuff around so we could access the space under it. It was overwhelming, and unnecessarily so. We don’t even make gravy except at Thanksgiving, which we never hosted in any of our tiny apartments anyway.

Emotional Cost: It’s the priciest of them all. 

Looking back, I would say the heaviest cost of clutter, for me, is emotional. Inefficiency seriously annoys my husband, and I cannot relax in a cluttered environment, so keeping our home packed to the gills with wedding gifts was making us less happy.

Why Is It So Hard to Let Go of Clutter? 

I reached out to Deacon Joseph R. Ferrari, Ph.D., who, with Catherine A. Roster, Ph.D., researched the effects of clutter. I wanted to get his take on why I held onto unneeded items so tenaciously in my early adulthood, despite what clutter was costing me. 

Ferrari told me that there are many reasons it’s hard to declutter. “Picking up something from your past can be an emotional trigger,” he says, or perhaps there are multiple users of an item and it’s hard to donate them, because “you’re not in complete control.” In some cases, there’s a “lack of time, resources, or ability.” For my behavior, he offers a simple explanation — “fear of the future, fear of the unknown.” 

It’s important to push past that fear, though. In a recent study, Ferrari and Roster found that regardless of whether participants were “disengaged, enthusiastic, [or] challenged” declutterers, “all orientations experienced relatively high positive emotions after decluttering.” So even if it’s hard to let go of the gravy boat, it’s worth it. 

This tracks with my own experience. I eventually discovered the dopamine rush of giving away objects and the peace of clutter-free living space, placing me firmly in the “enthusiastic” declutterer orientation. I gave away that beautiful gravy boat to a delighted neighbor, and I have never once missed it. 

If I could chat with my younger self, I would tell her to abandon the scarcity mindset. There are so many gravy boats to be borrowed! Travel lightly, clean less, and enjoy those pre-kid years with your partner. 

What makes it hard for you to declutter? Let us know in the comments.