The Best Way to Clear Clutter (Plus 12 Steps to a Successful Spending Freeze)

A friend asked me to help her clear her clutter, and as I walked into her house I thought of that statistic which says that the average American home contains 300,000 items.

That number seems impossible, but this house made me a believer.

There are a lot of ways to begin decluttering, but the tower of delivery boxes and shopping bags in my friend's entryway gave me a clue about what might be most important for her.

Maybe it's the most important step for you too.

the first step

The essential first step

You aren't going to succeed at decluttering unless you take a hard look at your consumption habits.  That's because decluttering is as much about what comes in as what goes out.

The best way to clear clutter is to reduce what you bring in.

Decluttering takes commitment and discipline, and a good way to begin developing both of those qualities is with a spending fast.  You need to stop buying everything except necessities:  food, gas, personal care items, and things you need for cleaning or repair.

Stop bringing in 

  • clothes
  • makeup
  • toys
  • hobby supplies
  • d├ęcor items
  • kitchen gadgets
  • additional technology
or whatever you love to buy at retail stores, thrift shops, yard sales, or anywhere else.  Get your consumption habits under control or you'll just find yourself right back in the same spot, over-cluttered and weighed down.

Your goal is not just to get rid of more, but to buy much less.

Figure out why

Why are you so tempted by all of the gadgets and gewgaws you don't really need?

Most of us have one or two (or three or four) unhealthy ways of hiding from our feelings.  We eat, drink, binge-watch TV, escape online, or shop so we don't have to deal with whatever is stressing, upsetting, or boring us.  We crave the dopamine hit we get from eating something sweet or buying something new.

As a person of size who used to shop constantly for my home and my kids, I know all about that situation.

This behavior has a tendency to multiply our problems, because now we have to deal with an overcrowded home, a larger waistline, a hangover, or some other less-than-optimal result in addition to whatever feelings we were trying to avoid in the first place.

Masking our negative feelings might sound better than experiencing them.  But real freedom and resilience comes when we begin to practice acknowledging and feeling our feelings rather than running from them.

Eating, drinking, watching, or buying a bunch of things we don't need won't make us feel better.  We might experience a few moments of joy, but they will always be followed by 

  • guilt
  • regret
  • debt
  • clutter
  • stress
  • weight 
  • weakened relationships

A new way of life

A fast can jumpstart new habits and a different direction, but be aware that it's going to force you to confront your addiction.  You're going to be tempted to eat, drink, shop, game – whatever it is you're fasting from – and you need to be ready for that.

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12 steps to a successful spending freeze

I advised my friend to begin with a 30 day shopping fast.  I've just started a Buy Nothing Year, so both of us need to do several things to help ourselves succeed.

1.  Set clear boundaries.

Decide how long your freeze will last (I recommend at least 30 days) and exactly what you can and cannot purchase during that time.  You might decide that groceries, Netflix, and replacement clothing are fine, while restaurant meals, movie theater tickets, and those cute shoes on sale aren't. 

2.  Plan for the unexpected.

Something as simple as an invitation to a wedding or baby shower could derail your spending freeze.  How will you avoid shopping if an event occurs?  Or will you make an exception?  Think about possible scenarios and plan firm guidelines.

3.  Find a sponsor.

Buying much more than you need is a habit – maybe even an addiction.  You need an accountability partner.  Tell a friend what you want to accomplish and why, and check in with that person every day or two to talk about how you're doing.

4.  Say no to ads.

Immediately recycle marketing mail and unsubscribe from marketing email.  Those coupons and sales alerts are designed to make you shop, even if you don't need anything.  You don't want them.

uncluttered room
5.  Shop for real.

It's much easier to add something you don't need to your virtual shopping cart, so strongly reconsider purchasing groceries, personal care items, paper products, diapers, pet food, etc. through an online service.  Instead, get in your car and go to a brick-and-mortar store when you need those things so you can spend less time browsing online.  No more shopping in your pajamas!

6.  Quit Amazon Prime.

The only things you need overnight are available in your local grocery, hardware, or drugstore (chemist).

7.  Freeze the card.

Don't carry a credit card, and delete your card details from online shopping sites.  If you want to purchase something, you'll have to pay with cash or a debit card in the store, and online shopping will require you to get the card out and enter all of the numbers.  That extra step gives you time to come to your senses before you buy something you don't need.

8.  Make a wish list.

In real life or online, make a wish list of items that catch your eye.  What tempts you?  

Once an item is saved on the list, don't consider it again until the end of your spending freeze.  After a month, do you even remember the items you added?  If not, that's a good sign your interest was merely a passing flirtation.  

Congratulations!  By waiting, you avoided buying something you didn't really need or want – clutter in disguise.

9.  Get an allowance.

I've used this strategy for several years.  After the spending freeze, create a new line item in your budget for discretionary spending.  Keep using a wish list, and if an item stays on it for a specified amount of time (say a week), go ahead and buy it if you still want it and you have the money.  This places a limit on shopping for extras, and makes the purchase intentional rather than impulsive.

10.  Do something else.

If you're tempted to shop because you "need a break," "deserve a treat," or feel bored, sad, or under stress, the impulse will be hard to resist.  But there are plenty of excellent ways to make yourself feel better, no purchase necessary:

  • listen to your favorite music
  • get some exercise
  • make a cup of tea
  • talk to a friend
  • give yourself a manicure
  • soak in a bubble bath
  • take a nap
  • watch a funny movie
  • savor a small piece of dark (at least 70%) chocolate
  • read an inspiring book
  • browse through some old photos of happy times and loved ones
  • work on a favorite hobby
  • spend time in nature

11.  Give thanks.

A focus on gratitude is really important when you decide to stop spending unnecessarily.  

When we become aware of how much we already have, and give thanks for the fact that our needs are met, our whole outlook changes.  We start to savor all of the good things we already possess, and our sense of abundance increases.  Instead of feeling deprived of our treats and indulgences, we feel satisfied.

12.  Imagine.

Dream about a different life:

  • How would it feel to walk into your home and see belongings you use and love – and nothing more?  
  • How would it feel to fix meals more easily because your kitchen is more spacious and accessible? 
  • How would it feel to have more time and energy because you spend so much less of it managing all of your stuff?
  • How would it feel to nag your children less because they have a fraction of the toys that now clutter your living space?  

It feels good to imagine life in your clutter-free home, doesn't it?

It feels even better to live it.


  1. I loved this article! Thanks do much.

  2. You told us to cancel our Amazon account. Isn’t that where you are telling us to buy your book?

    1. I suggested that you quit Amazon Prime (#6). I'm not saying you should never order anything from Amazon (or from any online source), just that you shouldn't make it easy to order one little thing overnight just because you suddenly decide you "need it." Amazon Prime makes it too easy to order almost every day, just as the whim of the moment takes us. I think it's smarter to be more thoughtful and deliberate about purchases. You can still get free shipping from Amazon when you order over $25 and if you're willing to wait a day or two longer for delivery. Everything comes together (saving the waste of packaging), it puts lets stress on the people who work in the warehouses and drive the delivery trucks, and it gives you a chance to be intentional about purchasing. Win win win. Don't cancel Amazon if you use it - just quit Prime.

  3. Good reading. I will use a few of your ideas. Thanks

  4. I had already started a decluttering mission but didn't know any of the necessary steps it takes to keep going until I read your article.
    I'm excited to have this extra info and confidence to keep the junk out
    Thanks sweet lady !

  5. I totally loved this article. It really gave me a starting point in helping me to get things together to complete a job that I had already started.These points hit right to home! Thank you so much!!!


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