Exorcise Your Clutter Ghosts

We all have some clutter skeletons in our closets—purchases and behaviors that have junked up our homes, emptied our bank accounts, and perhaps even chained us to an unsatisfying work-spend treadmill.

And despite our best intentions, some of these demons continue to haunt us, sucking the space from our homes, the money from our wallets, and the joy from our lives.

In the spirit of Halloween, I propose an exorcism: let’s call out each of these clutter ghosts in turn, and banish them once and for all!

Novelty. If you find yourself idly browsing retail websites, paging through catalogs, stopping by the mall every weekend, or otherwise looking for things “to want,” the ghost of novelty may be haunting you. We all know, however, that the rush from acquiring a shiny new item is usually short-lived—and often followed by buyer’s remorse. Instead of shopping for entertainment, read a good book, go to the park, or have coffee with a friend.

Excess. Blame this demon for your overflowing closets, shelves, and kitchen drawers. Sometimes we go overboard in acquiring certain items—as if one more pair of shoes, or electronic gadget, will make our lives complete. The best way to exorcise this one is to consolidate and make an inventory of your “problem” categories; discovering just how many t-shirts or DVDs you own can be downright scary, and inspire a major decluttering session!

Sentiment. This ghost keeps us holding on to things we don’t want in the name of “memories.” We feel that if we let go of the object in question, the person, place, or occasion associated with it will vanish forever from our thoughts. We have to remember that our memories don’t reside in that thing, but in our minds—which is a much better place for them, as they can never be tarnished, stolen, or taken away.

Guilt. The ghost of guilt sure is a scary one! It keeps our attics stuffed with unloved heirlooms, our closets with unworn clothes, and our drawers with unwanted gifts. This monster can take several forms: guilt over failing to preserve our family history, wasting money on an impulse purchase, or getting rid of presents from loved ones. How to exorcise it? Realize that letting these things out into the world, where they’ll be loved and appreciated, can do more good than hoarding them away.

Laziness. Does the thought of your clutter keep you glued to the couch? Ignore this ghoul, and your problem will become all the more terrifying. The solution: don’t feel you have to tackle everything at once. Start small—a One-a-Day Declutter takes little effort, but can be incredibly effective.

Fear. Ah, the ghost of just-in-case and might-need-it! Think about all those things you’re squirreling away because you’re afraid they’ll be useful someday (even though you haven’t used, looked at, or even thought about them for years). Ponder what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t have that item on hand. You’ll likely conclude that it’s far from the end of the world, and hardly worth hoarding a hundred items in the slim chance you might need one of them.

Insecurity. If you’re buying stuff to show your “status,” or in an effort to keep up with the Joneses, you may be possessed by the ghost of insecurity. Always ask “why?” before you buy something—is it because you really need it? Or because you think it’s a symbol of your success, or similar to what your peers or neighbors have? Foil this demon, and free yourself of conspicuous consumption.

So while the kids are trick-or-treating this weekend, keep an eye out for ghouls and goblins of the clutter kind. The sooner you recognize them, the sooner you can dispel them—and the less frightening it’ll be to open your drawers, your closets, and your bank statement!

Is a particular clutter ghoul haunting you? Let’s do some ghost-busting in the Comments!

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

64 comments to Exorcise Your Clutter Ghosts

  • Anja

    Novelty, definitely. I’ve come quite far with my mindset, but I still automatically turn to acquiring to satisfy boredom. I usually stop myself before buying, but not always and when it happens I regret it instantaneously. But by then I’ve already bought the thing, whatever it is :/

  • mrs Brady Old Lady

    Interesting post, and thank goodness not about cats ;-)
    Look forward to reading comments about minimalism!!!

  • Carolyn

    Just got you book delivered in the mail. I decluttered most everything except the basement. I got rid of 20 things and I do believe they popped back up like little ghosts. Even though I sent them packing and knew they were gone.LOL :) Mornings are much easier after I read your book with four kids. Thank you.

  • This is yet another thought provoking post. I promise to try all the spooky suggstions.

  • Library Lady

    I’m not sure which “ghost” this is, maybe guilt, maybe just laziness. I struggle with just a few items of value. I can’t make myself donate these three items which I know I could eBay or sell, but getting around to listing these, or taking photos to an antique store to sell seems like too much work! I don’t want to waste my leisure time taking care of it, so these things stay in my house, an intermittent nagging presence…

  • Ann

    Definitely novelty! And sort of Sentiment. All the other ones clutter ghosts don’t scare me too much!

  • Mike

    Nice post. I did succumb to novelty, but it was just a few gourds and pumpkins that will soon rot after halloween ;)


    I’m proud and humble to say NONE! :)Thanks for yet another inspiring post!

  • ElizMcK

    I would love to say none, but I struggle a bit with nostalgia: children’s items mostly. I got rid of some old Halloween decorations this month, the kinds of things that you have around when you have children at home. I have not had children at home for many years.

    I’m not lazy. I have a plan for how I am constantly decluttering, but I thought sorting through all of the Halloween stuff would be daunting; it wasn’t. There was some really good stuff in there, (far too much of it though, which surprised me), but nothing I would ever use again. So, out it went.

    My next task is the Christmas box. My husband and I have been travelling over the holidays, so there has not been any practical need for decorations. Nor, as a minimalist, do I find any particular need to decorate or save decorations. I’d rather have an incredible experience and perhaps cook a good meal.

  • Henny

    Great suggestions, I love your ‘spooky’ theme :)

    I’m not so much a lazy declutterer, but very time-poor. I do find ‘one-a-day’ really works.

  • Leslie

    I think I’ll start with the skeleton….not in my closet, but on my sewing table. Picked it up to look at it in a shop and it’s leg cracked, so I felt obliged to buy it. Since I have no need for a plastic skeleton it’s going out the door today. I’ll see how much else can go out along with it!

  • Lydia

    I’m just sitting at my computer as this post came into my inbox, comtemplating setting up an ebay account to sell a few more valuable items. I’m not sure I would come that much further ahead money wise and the cost of mailing things aren’t cheap! I think I’ll look around town for a consignment shop or something of that nature.

    This morning I also sat in my yard contemplating how to simplify and reduce there, in both time and cost of maintenance. Any suggestions or a post on that would be appreciated! Everywhere I turn these days I’m analyzing how to switch things up and give me and my family more time and freedom!

    • eema

      newspaper(to keep weeds at bay) and mulch(gives a finished look), less lawn. ground covers.

      • Old woolen carpet is good, too – as a weed blocker. Breaks down more slowly than newspaper. Some carpet shops will give old stuff away for free, because otherwise they have to pay to send it to a landfill. (Just avoid nylon/synthetic carpet!)

  • Grace

    How about the ghost of perfectionism? I know a few people that are in a state of inertia when it comes to their clutter because of ghost.

    • Miami

      Yes indeed! This ghost has entered my life alongside with minimalism. When I had clutter everywhere I was stressed and it was difficult even have some basic order or find important things. But now, when I have so much less stuff, I require that they all are neatly in their places.

      I am single and I’ve started to worry how on earth will I find a person tidy enough to share my life with. ;)

      I’d definitely like to read a psychologically wise post about this ghost.

  • Grace

    oops! “this ghost”.

  • Kate

    The ghost of novelty, definately. The ghost tends to hang out at Target too much. I often have to go back around the store emptying some things from my cart. Buyer’s remorse hits me a lot too, so I often do return items… I get a sick pleasure from buying and returning, and though it’s great that I came to the right conclusion that I didn’t need the excess item, it’s definately still a clutter-experience, as I wasted the time to shop and to make a return trip, and all the buzz through my head while contemplating whether to buy and eventually return the item.
    I really need to stick to a list. Anything else I see will have to wait for the next shopping list, if it survives that long.

  • Judy

    Then there’s the ghost of decluttering by thinking. It soon wears one out just knowing what all must go out. Why the very idea of all that entails, can wear one out, without lifting a finger. I know I’m guilty of declutter dreaming until I find myself in a stupor!! I guess this is procrastination also. I guess one just has to bite the bullet so to speak and take a single step toward moving. Thanks for a great blog..I look forward to it and really do take some needed action every so often, thanks to you, Goodwill, consignments and Freecycle.

  • Mary

    I suffer from sentiment, guilt, and laziness, but this blog has helped me alot. Thank you!

  • Darlena

    For me: Guilt and Fear

    I also have this weird romantic notion that my stuff needs to go to a “good home.” I would gladly give away most of my items as long as I knew they were going to someone that could get full use out of it. I don’t like donating to a charity because I’m afraid that the stuff will get lost in a sea of other stuff, and it will never find a good home.

  • Olivia

    The “guilt” problem. I have long been a minimalist but the one thing that defeats me are the boxes of stuff – papers, photographs, letters, etc. – from long dead relatives – most of whom, clearly, were packrats.

    Because these boxes live in the basement I don’t see them. I am hoping they all get mouldy and I can just throw them out . . .

  • Melissa

    Darlena, I feel the EXACT same way about my stuff finding its way to a good home! I simply don’t have it in me to throw everything into great big garbage bags and haul them off to thrift shops. I hate seeing my stuff added to piles of other stuff, wondering if it will be used or end up getting thrown out. (I despise waste.) For that reason, I absolutely love Freecycle. I can rest assured that I am passing things along to someone who wants and needs them. To me, that makes all the difference in the world…and helps to keep up the momentum of my “aspiring minimalism.”

    • Darlena

      I love Freecycle, too! I’ll also take pictures of my stuff and post them on facebook to see if any of my friends want it. I’ve actually gone to Salvation Army and tried looking for things that I’ve donated, and since I haven’t found a single thing, I’m convinced they throw it straight into the trash.

      • Mayfair

        I read an article last year about what salaries the CEOs of charities earn and the CEO for the Salvation Army was the lowest one, with something outrageously low like $14,000/year or something like that. This shows that they have their priorities in order, not taking on the job for the money, unlike most CEOs.

        I have no particular ties to the Salvation Army, but I have researched various charities here in the U.S. and The Salvation Army does the very best job of giving the most money back to those people they aim to serve/help. Other charities may be good, but S.A. gives back the greatest percentage of what they make from their thrift shop sales. All of my donations go to my local S.A. and they are always very kind and courteous to everyone in their shop. They are also very appreciative of my donations and tell me so. Occasionally when I drop off a few bags of things, I look for things I have donated before and if I don’t see any, I assume that they have sold. Why would anyone assume they throw it away? If its something “bad” enough to throw away, then why would someone even donate it to begin with? I believe they benefit from selling things, making money to help others, so they have no incentive to throw donations away.

        After watching some of those “Hoarder” shows, I guess that charities may receive donations that are unfit to sell, but mostly, I think they try to make the most of what they are given:)

        • Darlena

          I know I said I’m “convinced” they throw it in the trash, but I will admit that this is irrational. Unless I give them something in poor condition, which I don’t do, it would not be wise for them to trash anything since that’s how they make money. I’m not saying anything against Salvation Army as a charity, and without working there, I don’t have a concept of the turnover rate of items.

          So I guess I should feel good about dropping things off at S.A., knowing that someone will find them there and get good use out of them.

          • Dylan

            I’m pretty sure these large charities trash as little as possible. Whatever clothing they can’t sell in their stores they sell to recyclers or sell to places overseas that distribute clothing in the exploited countries. So even tattered and stained clothing can be donated to them, and they can still make $$ off it.

            Where I live, when I take large trash bags full of donations to S.A., they are literally loading the stuff onto a large truck the minute they take it out of my hands. That means it’s probably going somewhere to be sorted at which point it may be distributed to other stores out of the area (and unusable stuff sent overseas or trashed).

            That is why you can donate old tattered or stained clothing to them, in addition to decent items. They will sell to recyclers what they can’t sell in their stores or on Ebay.

            I personally have never understood the hesitation to donate items because “it might get trashed” or “someone else might sell it on ebay” or whatever. If you don’t want it, does it matter what anybody else does with it?

  • Judy

    I also love Freecycle. I put items on the porch and they get carried off by an appreciative person. It is a win-win situation. The person has need of it. I have some more space and it solves the problem of having someone really need and appreciate my “stuff”. Today it was a blanket and a bedspread I no longer needed..

  • My would be green guilt! I hate throwing things away to just sit in a landfill, so try to rehome as much as humanly possible…even down to rubber bands & twisty ties!

  • Shoshana

    Mine is the “ghost of a good deal”. Just today I bought stuff because of the great price, when I probably didn’t need it. What makes it worse is I mostly buy from consignment shops so I feel I can rationalize it away- my good deal was truly awesome, but do I really need a pair of cowboy boots that are a bit too small?

  • Mine is information. I love research and am curious about so many different things, so I collect information in the form of books, magazines, brochures, web sites, anything in written format basically. I can’t sit down without reading something! Which means that I am regularly decluttering bookcases and files because there is no way I could ever read it all!

  • I am guilty of keeping things “just in case”. I have to talk myself through this one each time I want to get rid of something but I do agree Freecycle is great and I have met some really interesting people through it. Having just got rid of my sofa and replaced it with a small chair I am now worried about “what people will think”! I am sure most visitors will think the room is too empty. I do feel cross with myself and tell myself to have the courage of my convictions. It is, after all, my home.

    • The Graduate

      I can relate to this! Initially I was nervous of what my friends and family would think of my home after I donated much of what I had to those that were more than happy to receive it. What I found? My friends and family are still more than willing to visit for a weekend (and now tend to invite themselves). It has been my observation that they remark about what I do not own for a moment, and then enjoy the space they have all weekend! If anything, it gives them more space to spread out the stuff they brought with them! Once they return, they always thank me for a RELAXING visit..and I gently tell them that it was the people and experiences that made the weekend special, not the things we had. Stay strong…and realize that it is your home, and you can focus on the people in it, instead of things. It truly gives you more space for the people you love to be in your life.

  • Bonglecat

    I think for me the ghost of Novelty was a big problem, but “The Joy of Less” really helped me. I started to consciously look at these things like items in a museum or art gallery and say “Hey, that looks great really cool” but then move on.

  • Haloween can be a good season for big cleanup. In Japan we have Big clean up end of the year for welcoming new year, but to clean up whole house at once is a heavy duty. Autum is a season which house bugs are going to die and their dead body will flying into house as a dust and cause alergy.
    So Holoween can be a good chance to banich deamons and welcome angels to my house.
    Today I wash biggest carpet in my house at batth room.:))

    • The Graduate

      Wow Yuki, thanks for teaching me something new. A big clean up is certainly a great way to start fresh and welcome new good experiences into our lives. Good job on washing the biggest carpet in the house! Washing the floor/carpets before a change of season really helps you breathe easier!

  • runi

    Sorry, mrs Brady Old Lady–but this post is about cats, sort of, but fortunately not like the recent controversy. Actually, it’s about cats (and others) and the photograph ghoul.

    I was well along on the path to minimalism–except for photos. I was an only child, and my mother was an only child. This resulted in photos, amassed even from decades before I was born, coming to me. Most were in old unannotated albums, and I had no idea who these people were.

    Then there were pictures of the cats. In the mid-1960s, my husband and I started taking in homeless cats. Not a lot of them at a time, and after they “came in”, many lived to be in their 20s–so more photos built up. (Now, imagine an old woman happy with very few possessions–except for all these pictures and albums stacked in a closet.)

    But it is possible to win over the photo ghoul. My daughter, now middle-aged, took up scrapbooking and I gave her the cat photos. (I know that when I’m in a nursing home, she will bring me a cat scrapbook that I will love to look at.) My granddaughter, away at college, has started taking classes in photography. (She has begun taking the old albums–full of unidentifiable people–to use in presentations.)

    Meanwhile, the closet that I stored all these photos in is becoming beautifully bare. Oh, and about the cats–don’t worry, we never had to “get rid” of any. We started phasing down admissions a long time ago. Now there is “Tar”, but there are only a few pictures of her.

    • Mrs Brady Old Lady

      Hey Runi,

      I’ve seen your posts before and was especially interested in the one where you said you slept on the floor on a blanket. That is soooo cool. And you don’t get backaches?

      • libby

        I used to sleep on the floor, but developed back problems after a few years. I miss it. It’s so wonderful to be able to put your bed away when you aren’t using it!

        • Mrs Brady Old Lady

          I have back problems already so sleeping on blankets on floor is out, but oh how I long for the simplicity of it…

          • Sleep on the floor should think about your weight.If your weight is less than 60kgs I think it is not cause back pain even if you sleep on the floor without matless,,if you are over 70kgs it is better to use somekind of matless . For example japanese futon is thick cotton is basic but other type is made of wool and polyestel and use two futon mattless as one set.

            • Mrs Brady Old Lady

              Thanks for that Yuki, I’ve always wanted to hear from experts about this.
              I weigh considerably more than 70 kilos, so I’ll stick to a mattress!!!

  • Heather

    Oh man. I suffer from every. single. one. except the last one – at least not as much. I have a problem.

  • Shirls

    Mine is the ghost of ‘fear of hurting spouse’s feelings’ together with the ghost of being manipulated. Thirty years ago my husband bought me ceramic frogs because I collected them. We had a sort of glassed in porch where I kept all my plants and they looked okay sitting among them. We no longer have that house, we have no porch and the plants are long gone. But those wretched frogs are indestructible. Whenever I mention donating them to the next jumble sale my husband goes all hurt on me. I’ll probably be buried with them.

    • Karen (scotland)

      lol! This reminds me of my mother-in-law’s collection of ceramic ducks. Whenever my husband and I went anywhere, he would buy her a wee duck. After a year or so, when I knew her better, I asked her why she collected ducks. She smiled slightly and looked me straight in the eye when she replied “Because my son buys them for me…”
      Karen (Scotland)

  • Haha, I loved the way you wrote this, Francine. A very funny and festive take on minimalism. The ghost of Excess was always the one that troubled me! My own exorcism is going quite well :D

  • Heathear

    I am happy to report, after years of putting minimalist and simple living ideas into practice, I suffer no more!!! I enjoy my life but it is a hard path to sometimes come down to face your reality. I know y’all are doing great!!!! As a matter of fact, this weekend, where I live, they are having a community wide yard sale. I am going to be sitting on my front porch, watching my son play and drinking my coffee and enjoying the beautiful Texas weather. : )

  • […] Exorcise your Clutter Ghosts. – Perfect  post for the season! Miss Minimalist, Francine Jay, tackles our cluttering ghosts and teaches us how to get rid of them . She says, ”In the spirit of Halloween, I propose an exorcism: let’s call out each of these clutter ghosts in turn, and banish them once and for all!” […]

  • Heather P-K

    Def. the ghost of novelty. There is no end to cute and colorful things in this society, and I’m a bit attention-challeng… oh look, a butterfly!

  • kathleen

    What about the ghost of self expression and rapidly shifting moods? Sometimes I’m in the mood to acquire different coloured objects, decorate the house and myself more garishly, etc. Then I go through austere minimalist moods where I want to get rid of everything! Over and over again. Giving stuff away is so wasteful when I’m only going to buy stuff back when my mood changes…. any advice?

    • Mrs Brady Old Lady

      Mindfulness. Whenever you feel the need for colour, sit/lie down and meditate on having lots and lots of colour. Think about what the colour means for you. Hopefully the yearning will go away once you know what it means to you. Perhaps it means you need to go to a museum or art gallery? Perhaps you need more adventure in life – go somewhere you haven’t been before and soak up the colours and smells.

    • Ohhh, I definitely suffer from this one!

  • Loulou

    Novelty, Sentiment and Guilt, definitely! But before I started on the minimalist path I would have ticked all the boxes, so, progress! I agree that the One-A-Day rule of thumb is really very helpful and, Shirls, I hear you on the Guilt thing – I have an agreement with some members of my family that giving away a gift they gave you does not mean you don’t love them or that you didn’t appreciate the gift at the time…but not everyone is on board…

  • […] 7. My biggest issue is getting rid of things that where given as a present by people I care about. Free yourself of this guilt. Your loved ones gave you the gifts to make you happy, not to burden you for life, not to make you feel guilty. Allow yourself to be happy, and only keep things if they’re making you happy. Read more from Discardia and Miss Minimalist. […]

  • […] 7. My biggest issue is getting rid of things that where given as a present by people I care about. Free yourself of this guilt. Your loved ones gave you the gifts to make you happy, not to burden you for life, not to make you feel guilty. Allow yourself to be happy, and only keep things if they’re making you happy. Read more from Discardia and Miss Minimalist. […]

  • […] Free yourself of this guilt. Your loved ones gave you the gifts to make you happy, not to burden you for life, not to make you feel guilty. Allow yourself to be happy, and only keep things if they’re making you happy. Read more from Discardia and Miss Minimalist. […]

  • Tina

    Reading more and ridding more. I want to get rid of 2 large pieces of furniture that I’ve emptied but my husband of 41 years wants to buy more.

  • Tina

    Wanted to give away a little TV. Goodwill says they only take the new kind now. More electronics and DVD’s are leaving. And another pile of books to the library. No longer have so many art supplies, either.

  • Tina

    Even after giving away at least one big bag every week for a year, there is still more that can go. I still have plenty of gift wrap and ribbon from years ago to use up. The only thing I needed was more scotch tape. It’s funny how little we use of the things we have.

  • Rach

    I suffered from Novelty but my husband and I have created a new budget spreadsheet and knowing that I’d have to let him see the entries puts a stop to all but justifiable purchases :)

  • Tina

    I had quite a collection of costume jewelry. There were several pieces I knew a sick relative would like so I gave them to her. She was thrilled. The other day, I gave a few earth toned pieces to a friend who will look much better in them than I will. I also asked a number of people not to buy so much gift wrap and ribbon. Just use plain paper or the comics, maybe yarn, and a little second hand gift wrap. I have made some donations to the local food banks and I plan to make more. When my kids were little they had a few small toys, made some “playsets” out of cartons and read a lot. Crayons, colored pencils, and good drawing paper are some of my favorite gifts.

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