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Clutter has taken over our lives. What we can do about it?
When Dan Weitzman and his wife, Randi, moved into their newly constructed South Land Park home 14 years ago, he imagined what life would look like there: a spacious kitchen, enough bedrooms for future children, a large backyard with a pool. Today, the busy household (he is a political fundraiser; she is a vice president at a large staffing firm) includes two children, ages 11 and 6—and a whole lot of stuff.
“My house just started becoming a mess,” says Weitzman. “We have a four-car garage and still don’t have enough room. I mean, we’ve got plenty of space. It’s just that we’ve got a lot of stuff. We are not minimalists.”
Weitzman laments that there are piles of stuff everywhere: on the mantel, in the kids’ rooms, in the corners of his bedroom. “I have a hard time getting rid of stuff because I collect things like awards, certificates, trophies,” he says. “I like to surround myself with things that make me feel good.” But at some point, those prized possessions, along with an abundance of items that the family has accumulated over the years, have turned into clutter.
Weitzman’s biggest weakness is his expansive wardrobe. “I love nice clothing, nice shoes,” he says, explaining that he keeps racks of apparel in his garage because his bedroom closet cannot accommodate everything he owns. His children, meanwhile, are bogged down with toys.
“The biggest thing we have to work on with the kids is to just stop buying them shit,” admits Weitzman. “They want it for that minute and then they never look at it again. My goal for everyone in the family is to live a lifestyle that is clean, not cluttered. I don’t know if it will happen.”
Like the Weitzmans’, many American households are drowning in stuff. It’s the jumble of sports gear, untouched for years, collecting dust in the garage. It’s the heaps of baby clothes belonging to the child who’s now a teenager, crammed into tubs in the bedroom closet. It’s the stacks of unopened mail and outdated documents littering the desk. It’s the storage unit filled with a hodgepodge of old furniture and tchotchkes that no one can manage to part with.
Researchers for years have documented the astounding number of items in the typical American household. According to a team of social scientists at UCLA who study the material culture of middle-class families, contemporary Americans have more possessions per household than any society in global history. The researchers point out that the United States is home to about 3 percent of the world’s children, yet they consume a startling 40 percent of the world’s toys.
As the UCLA team notes, families have many mechanisms for accumulating possessions—birthdays, holidays, work, school, inheritance—but few rituals around letting them go. That may be one reason that approximately 1 in 10 American households rents a self-storage unit.
This reliance on supplemental storage comes at the same time that we are building bigger homes than ever. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that over the past four decades, the average size of a new single-family house in America increased by about 1,000 square feet, from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,687 square feet in 2015. Because homes are larger and families are smaller, the average amount of living space per person in a new house has nearly doubled during that same period.
It seems inevitable that larger homes mean more stuff, but it doesn’t explain why so many people—even those living in modest-size homes—feel so burdened by their material possessions, unable to organize everyday items or discard objects that are sitting unused. Many people are simply paralyzed by the prospect of paring down.
Experts say the explanation lies in our emotional attachment to our possessions. “I think people hang onto stuff because of memories,” says Kim Salisbury, a Sacramento-based professional organizer who has helped dozens of households tackle their clutter. “They feel because they got an item on a trip or from a loved one who has passed on that they have to keep it.”
There may also be chemical aspects to the struggle with clutter, according to Dr. Robin Zasio, a Sacramento-based psychologist and the author of “The Hoarder in You: How To Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life.” “There are actually endorphins that kick in and can cause us to feel good in the moment” of purchasing stuff, explains Zasio. “It’s the thrill of the acquisition.”
Unfortunately, that thrill can dissipate quickly. Buying and holding on to unnecessary stuff is not only a burden on household space but also exacts an emotional toll. “I’m of the belief that physical clutter creates emotional clutter,” says Zasio. There is even evidence that living amid too much stuff can lead to a physiological stress response. The UCLA researchers found high cortisol levels among those individuals—typically women—responsible for managing the clutter in their homes.
A disorderly home is a source of shame for some individuals. “People have told me that they haven’t entertained in years because they are embarrassed to have people over,” says Salisbury. “I can’t tell you how many times a client will meet me out in front of their home because they are embarrassed about showing me around. Sometimes people will apologize to me the entire day. But I truly have no judgment. I just want to get in there and help create a more peaceful environment for them to live in.&rdquo
Relationships can take a hit Because of clutter, too. “Clutter can be a big bone of contention in a lot of marriages,” says Salisbury, adding that about a quarter of the client calls she receives are from husbands who can’t stand the stuff piling up everywhere. “I have sometimes had to leave the room when a husband and wife can’t agree on how to move forward. Couples will fight about this to the point that they won’t speak with each other. It can be tough sometimes.”
Indeed, the process of whittling down a clutter-filled home to a manageable inventory is fraught with emotional land mines. As Zasio explains, “Everybody has fear when it comes to decisionmaking about their stuff. If I don’t keep this, will I regret it? Will I be able to buy it again? These are what we call negative thinking patterns.&rdquo
Salisbury says that she spends a substantial part of her time walking her clients through the process of letting go, reminding them delicately that “it’s just stuff,” even if that stuff is an antique chair where you used to read stories with your favorite aunt.
Judy Mikacich, who, in the midst of a major home remodel, hired Salisbury to help sift through the jumble of objects that her family of five had amassed over the years, describes how she still feels an emotional tug from a Dutch oven that once belonged to her Grandma Rosie. “It was really grubby and beat up, so I got rid of it. But I still think about that stupid thing, and I don’t know why,” says Mikacich. “I guess it’s because of the memories.”
Some of the most difficult possessions to part with are ones that parents have held onto for their children, especially things like heirloom furniture. “A lot of people keep things that they think their kids are going to want,” says Salisbury, “but I can tell you now, your kids don’t want it. I see this all the time. They’re not going to want to bring your 500-pound dresser off to college.”
Salisbury asserts that families would be better off talking through these decisions with aging parents while they’re still able. “To have to open up a storage unit or a garage or an attic and see all of this stuff after a parent dies, it becomes so overwhelming and it’s so difficult,” she says. “If you can, go through it with your parents while they are still alive and lucid. Have them tell you the story behind it. They might not consider it as valuable as you think, which gives you permission to let that stuff go.”
Amina Cordano knows the feeling of being weighed down by stuff—and also the freedom that comes with letting it all go. When she and her family moved from Natomas to Land Park in 2016, the business owner and mother of three (two of whom live at home) committed to a dramatic downsizing.
“When my husband and I moved in together, it was like we had three households’ worth of stuff,” says Cordano. “I had enough crafts to have my own Michaels store in the garage.” But a cancer diagnosis served as a catalyst for thinking differently about her possessions.
“We had this brand-new, beautiful house and I thought, why do I need all this crap?” recalls Cordano. So she committed to bringing just six boxes of belongings to her new home, along with one suitcase of clothing per family member, and starting fresh with all new furniture and household items. “It was so liberating. I was going through so much with the cancer treatment that I just didn’t want to deal with anything. And the kids were fine with it. They weren’t traumatized.”
Cordano moved everything else they owned to a storage unit, which she and Salisbury are in the process of sorting through. She visits it on occasion to collect a few seasonal items but is otherwise content to let it all go.
Now when Cordano purchases something new, she carefully considers where it’s going to live in her house. And she puts regular appointments on her calendar reminding her to clear the house of surplus clothing and other items. “That has helped tremendously,” she says.
“It’s all about living in the moment instead of living in the past,” says Cordano. “We use our good china every day because why have it if you’re not going to use it? It’s about making memories. I’m so attached to traveling now. I’d rather spend the money on experiences versus accumulation of things.”
Although extreme home makeovers like Cordano’s aren’t realistic for most families, practically everyone can benefit from some degree of purging. When Weitzman worked with Salisbury to get a handle on the clutter plaguing his household last year, he ended up donating an estimated 100 dress shirts, 15 to 20 suits and a dozen pairs of shoes. “With the clothing, unless I feel fantastic in it, why not let someone else enjoy it?” he says. He hasn’t purchased any new garments in months.
But in the period since the onetime cleanup, Weitzman says the family has struggled to develop a system for keeping the household organized. “Kim taught me how to be more organized, but you have to live that life. You can’t just pretend like you’re going to do it. If you don’t tend to it once a week, it will be overgrown. It’s like a gardener: You’ve got to do it every week.”
Many families find that getting kids onboard with clutter control is helpful. But the expectations have to be realistic—and parents have to model the habits. It isn’t enough to label and organize everything if their bedroom is jam-packed; kids simply need to part with a lot of their possessions. “I tell parents all the time that your kid can’t clean his room if there’s no place for it to go,” says Salisbury. “He doesn’t stand a chance.”
Sometimes a moratorium on acquiring more stuff is in order. For example, “It’s OK to say to people that they don’t need to bring a gift to your child’s party,” says Salisbury. And regularly paring down a child’s belongings is essential. “Kids get very overwhelmed. If every single surface in the room is covered with stuff, then there’s no room for creativity. I think that’s a really important thing for parents to remember: Kids need a clear space.”
Indeed, adults need a clear space in the home, too. “If you come home from work and you look around your house and it’s just full of clutter, there’s no time for your mind to be at peace,” contends Salisbury. On the flip side, “if we are less bogged down by our stuff, then we have more time to be outside, more time to enjoy our families and our friends. We don’t need to be surrounded by all our stuff. And we don’t miss it once it’s gone.”
A number of reputable charities accept donations of gently used clothing, furniture and household items. (See “The Biggies” sidebar.) Be sure to call in advance before dropping off items at an organization to confirm that they can accept your donation. Donations should be in good condition; if an item is stained or in need of repair, throw it out.
For items that charities are unable to accept, online networks like Freecycle.org or Nextdoor.com can help connect you with people who can make use of the stuff you no longer need. Or you can post your items on the Free section of Craigslist. Finding a taker for your junk may take some time, but it’s cheaper than hauling it to the dump.
If you’re tempted to give your stuff away to a friend who you think could use it, professional organizer Kim Salisbury has some advice: “The next time you feel the need to donate 16 bags of hand-me-downs, ask your friend first. They may not want it. Let’s be kind to each other and not add more stuff to your friend’s life.”
Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services
3333 Third Ave.
Accepts clothing, household goods, school materials and baby supplies. Furniture pickup is available by appointment.
2401 Arden Way
Accepts clothing, jewelry, handbags and accessories for men, women and children. Pickup is available by appointment.
Adoptable Goods SPCA Thrift Store
1517 E St.
Accepts clothing, jewelry and household items. Cannot accept baby or toddler items.
World Relief Sacramento
4616 Roseville Road, #107, North Highlands
Accepts a variety of furnishings but is in particular need of couches, dining tables and chairs, dressers (no armoires), coffee tables, floor lamps and twin or queen bedding. Pickup is available within a limited radius of the office.
Many municipalities offer free annual bulky-waste pickup. Residential customers in the city of Sacramento are eligible for two household junk pickups from February through October. Eligible items include furniture, mattresses, carpet and toys. In addition, residential customers can schedule up to two appointments for appliances and e-waste per calendar year. Call 311 or visit cityofsacramento.org for an appointment.
Sacramento County utility customers are eligible for one free bulky-waste collection per calendar year. Additional pickups may be scheduled for $25. Schedule an appointment by calling 311 or (916) 875-5555 or visiting saccounty.net.
If you’ve got more junk than your utility service can accept, try a private company like 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. They offer free in-person estimates and will do all the lifting and loading from anywhere on your property. Pricing is based on volume and starts around $100.
Craigslist is the obvious choice for selling everything under the sun, but if you’re not comfortable broadcasting your ad to strangers far and wide, a private online social network like Nextdoor is a great alternative. You can list items on Nextdoor’s classified section to reach people in your neighborhood or adjacent neighborhoods. “That kid who is four doors down might think whatever you’re selling is the best thing ever,” says Salisbury.
Be realistic about pricing your items, though. In Salisbury’s experience, many people think their stuff is worth more than it is, especially old furniture. “I have found that people don’t want to pay a lot of money for antiques,” says Salisbury. “Maybe someday it will circle back, but right now most of it isn’t worth much.
Who will take your stuff?
BY ZOE JUANITAS
Looking to get rid of an old sofa or those golf clubs you never got around to using? From home pickups to beneficiaries close to your heart, there’s a donation center that fi ts your needs.
Yes: Bedding, books, apparel and housewares.
No: Filing cabinets, copy machines, cribs, playpens and large exercise equipment (leave your rowing machine at home).
Who Benefits: Approximately 83 percent of Goodwill’s revenue goes directly into a job training program, which educates and hires those with disabilities and other barriers to employment.
St. Vincent de Paul
Yes: Antiques, luggage, furniture, linens, clothes and especially Halloween costumes.
No: Pianos, organs and anything broken or unsanitary.
Who Benefits: Vincentian programs.
Tips: For pickup, call (916)972-1212
What’s More: SVDP takes cars, trucks, boats, RVs, motorcycles and golf carts, whether they run or not.
Yes: Appliances, clothing, household goods and miscellaneous (finally, a place that will take your old ice skates and typewriter!).
No: Mattresses and box springs.
Who Benefits: Proceeds from selling your donated items help fund Salvation Army’s adult rehabilitation centers, which assist those struggling with addiction by providing therapy, guidance and support.
Tip: Type in your address to find the nearest store to drop off your items or arrange for pickup.
Yes: Almost anything you bring to the thrift shop, 3000 Auburn Blvd., including glassware, toys, sports equipment, computers, flat-screen TVs, photos and seasonal decor.
No: Large appliances, some electronics, anything mildewed.
Who Benefits: Deseret Industries funds a job training program, which partners with local community colleges, applied technology centers and businesses to offer jobs to previously unemployed people in the areas of accounting, technology, health care and more. Also, items that do not sell in Deseret Industries stores are sent off for humanitarian relief.
Tip: No pickup services, but employees can unload anything brought to the store.
How to Get Rid of...
Call your local sheriff or police department and they will send a deputy by to pick up the weapon(s), advises administrative legal clerk tom shotwell of the Placer County sheriff’s office. “We would prefer that people not walk into the lobby with a gun. that could cause a lot of excitement,” he says. “you’d be surprised how often that happens, but we really like to avoid those situations.” If you choose to drop off firearms at the station, leave them locked safely in your car (without ammunition) and a deputy can get them from there.
J. Crawford’s Books accepts trades of hardcover, softcover and audio books. They'll give a store credit worth 50 percent of their selling price.
Beers Books will buy or trade your used books, DVDs and CD audiobooks. Call ahead before bringing in your items. If they are accepted, they’ll offer you a quarter of their selling price in cash, or one-third of their selling price in the form of store credit. 915 S St.; (916) 442-9476; beersbooks.com
Book donations are accepted at all Sacramento Public Library locations, space permitting. While some books may be added to the library collection, most are given to the Friends of the library and sold at used-book sales that benefit the library. books should be in good condition (no broken binding or torn pages) and arrive in bags or boxes small enough for staff to carry easily.
The Sacramento performing arts conservatory accepts donations of working instruments in good condition. The organization cannot pay to transport the items, but it will include delivery costs on the receipt documenting your tax-deductible donation. (916) 308-2307; sacramentoconservatory.com
The Beethoven foundation and pianos for education are two national organizations that accept piano donations. If your instrument is accepted, they will arrange for free pickup from your home. beethovenfoundation.com; pianosforeducation.org