“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Decluttering is tough. Period. But throw in the subjective nature of the process (i.e. what really qualifies as clutter?), and decluttering can seem downright impossible.
So how can we make this process simpler? Are there any universal rules to classify clutter? Of course, sentimental possessions muddy the waters, but what about the more practical items? Surely, there are some guidelines to help us wade through this messy and murky area.
These questions led me to compile a list of items that we can clearly label as clutter and toss without any qualms. I equate it to picking out your outfit before bed–no wasted brain energy because the decision has already been made. So, read on, and let the decluttering begin!
Makeup products and toiletries are not designed to last indefinitely. Old makeup/toiletries can be a breeding ground for bacteria, so don’t try to prolong their lives. Since many beauty products don’t have a listed expiration date, here’s a general guide to help you decide what to toss:
- Body wash: Up to three years
- Cream eye shadow/blush: One year
- Deodorant: Up to three years
- Facial cleanser, moisturizer: Six months
- Foundation: Up to a year (if you apply with a sponge, instead of your finger)
- Lip pencil: Two to three years
- Lipstick: One year
- Liquid eyeliner: Three to six months
- Lotion: Up to three years
- Mascara: Three months
- Makeup brush: One to five years (depending on quality and care)
- Tip: I clean my brushes once a week with Dawn soap and water. I fill a sink with warm water and soap, and soak my brushes for about an hour. Then, I rinse and lay the brushes flat to dry on a towel.
- Nail polish: One year
- Eye pencil: Several years (unless you wet the tip with saliva)
- Powder (including blush, bronzer, and eye shadow), concealer, lip balm: Up to two years
- Perfume: Up to two years
- Shampoo/Conditioner: One to two years, opened; three years, unopened
- Sunscreen: One year
Regardless of the above guidelines, throw away anything that has changed color/consistency or has a bad odor.
Contrary to popular belief, spices don’t last forever. After a while, spices will degrade and lose their potency and flavor. Most spices have a “best before” date rather than an expiration date. You can safely use spices after their “best before” date, but the flavor might be compromised.
Here are the suggested shelf lives according to the spice company McCormick:
- Dried, leafy herbs: One to three years
- Extracts: Four years (except for vanilla, which never goes bad)
- Ground spices: Two to three years
- Seasoning blends: One to two years
- Seeds: Four years (except for poppy and sesame seeds, which should be tossed after two years)
- Whole spices: Four years
*Tip: To extend the life of your spices, store in airtight containers away from heat and light.
So, what to do if you can’t find a date? If the spice has lost its rich color, strong scent, or potent taste, toss it. Also, throw away any spices that are clumped or sticky (moisture is usually to blame).
Chargers for cell phones you no longer use (or even own), clunky computer monitors that are older than your children, keyboards missing most of the vowels–these items undoubtedly qualify as clutter. Electronics don’t age well, so if you’re holding onto something in the hope of selling it, better do it sooner than later. You also might consider donating middle-aged electronics (make sure to wipe any phones or computer hard drives), but the real dinosaurs should be recycled.
Papers can be a gray area in the decluttering process. How long should one save receipts, pay stubs, or bills? When do piles/files/drawers of paperwork morph from a necessary evil to unnecessary clutter? Here are some guidelines to help draw that line:
- ATM, bank deposit, and credit card receipts: Keep until you can reconcile against your statement.
- Bank Statements: Keep for one to three years (check to see if you can get older statements online).
- Home documents (purchase, sale, or improvements): Keep at least six years after you sell the property.
- Loan documents: Keep until loan is paid off.
- Medical records and bills: Keep at least one year after payment.
- Owner’s manuals: Check the product’s website, and toss your manual if it’s available online. And of course, if you no longer own the item, throw away the manual!
- Paid bill stubs: Keep up to one year.
- Pay stubs: Keep up to one year.
- Store receipts: Check the store’s return policy. If your date of purchase is past the limit, then there’s no reason to hang on to the receipt (unless it’s for tax purposes, then see the next item below). However, if a receipt is required to validate a warranty, then keep it as long as needed.
- Tax returns and related documents: Typically, keep for seven years. (Store your personal returns in seven separate files, one for each year. When you add a new year, shred the contents of the oldest file folder.) Since each situation is unique, I suggest you consult your tax professional before throwing anything away.
Make sure you shred any documents containing personal information before throwing away.
For the most part, medications are safe to consume past their expiration dates if stored properly (though they may lose some of their potency). However, manufacturers cannot be held legally responsible for any damage caused by expired medications. To be safe, I recommend throwing away anything past its expiration date.
Even if the medication hasn’t expired, follow these guidelines:
- Get rid of any pills that have become discolored, sticky, or powdery.
- If liquid medications have turned cloudy or smell strongly, throw them away.
- Always toss antibiotics, insulin, and liquid medications past their expiration dates.
Check out the FDA’s recommendations on how to safely dispose of unused medications. If you have any doubts about a medication, you should talk to your pharmacist.
If you haven’t worn a garment in a year, then it’s just clutter on a hanger. I know this one may elicit a few groans of protest, but seriously…if you haven’t worn in the past 365 days, then it’s just taking up space in your closet! Saving it because “you’ll wear it one day soon” is like starting a diet on a Monday. Empty promises. Not gonna happen (at least not in my world).
Redundancy creates clutter. You don’t need two can openers or five hairbrushes. Pare down your possessions, and look for ways to consolidate. For example, instead of a dozen specialized pots and pans, stock your kitchen with three basic models that can serve multiple purposes: a two-quart saucepan, a 10-inch saute pan, and an eight-quart stockpot.
Anything that weighs you down
Unused wedding gifts, neglected collections, or keepsakes that hold negative associations for you–any item you’ve kept because of guilt or fear of regret creates both physical and emotional clutter. Consider this your official permission slip to get rid of it! The surroundings in your home impact your daily emotions, so fill the rooms with things that bring you joy. Let go of the negativity.
Once you start decluttering, I believe you’ll experience a domino effect. You get rid of one item and feel lighter, inspired to find something else to purge. The momentum builds, the process of “letting go” gets easier. Your definition of clutter expands, and you get rid of more and more. It really does get addictive…in the best way possible. But don’t take my word for it. Go on, try it for yourself.