'But Do I Love You?': Tips For Homebound Declutterers

Sep 6, 2020
Originally published on September 6, 2020 5:04 pm

With many of us confined to our homes during the coronavirus pandemic, we're spending a lot more time with our stuff these days — the piles of clothes that no longer fit, the ever-stubborn junk drawer or maybe it's those sentimental boxes of family heirlooms. You might be thinking about getting rid of some of that clutter, but you aren't exactly sure where to start.

Julie Hall, an estate appraiser and liquidator, has been confronting this problem for nearly three decades. But she's seeing the decluttering trend pop up a lot more in recent months.

"COVID has acted like a catalyst," Hall told NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. "We're seeing a huge increase in people wanting to purge their homes, downsize and start moving into a simpler environment," said Hall. "I think a lot of people are taking a step back, reflecting on their mental, physical, spiritual, even their financial lives."

Generational clutter

The kinds of stuff that people accumulate, as well as their emotional attachments to it, often vary between generations — an idea Hall explores in her new book, Inheriting Clutter: How to Calm the Chaos Your Parents Leave Behind.

The Depression-era generation, for example, has a paper-hoarding problem, said Hall.

"Having survived the Great Depression, I think there was just a general distrust in financial institutions, as well as people that they just dealt with on a daily basis," Hall said. "They kept all their receipts."

She's thinking of a 102-year-old client of hers who kept all her tax returns dating back to the World War II years. "I told her we can let these go now and shred them appropriately," Hall said. "And her response was, 'I don't trust this country.' "

Part of the baby-boom generation herself, Hall said her cohorts' pain point is the emotional ties wound up in the items their forebears valued.

But the millennials? They don't want your stuff.

"Our children have no emotional attachment to some of grandmother's possessions," she said. "In fact, they don't even have much attachment to some of their mother and father's possessions."

Hall's generation finds itself caught in the middle, with an obligation to hold onto those treasured objects.

"We feel a bit like a yo-yo," she said. "We live with the memory of our mothers saying, 'Now, don't you get rid of that. That's very valuable.' And we remember that long after they're gone, and then we try to pass that on to our children."

Where to start

The sheer volume of possessions accumulated through generations, compounded by any associated sentimental value, can create what might seem like an insurmountable task when it comes to the weeding-out process.

Overcoming those challenges, Hall said, starts with having the right mindset.

"You have to be really brutally honest with yourself. What do you want? If you want to thin out, if you want to downsize your home and get rid of some of this clutter, you have to want it," she said.

From there, she recommends recruiting friends or family members to help discard or donate items. Cabinets and closets are always a good place to begin chipping away at the mess, she said.

Hall's approach to tackling these heaps echoes the philosophy of tidying expert Marie Kondo, who asks her declutterers to dispose of items that don't "spark joy" for its owner.

"For me, the key has always been to make peace with the items I'm letting go of," Hall said. "I hold it, and I look at it and I say, 'Do I like you? Yes, I do, but do I love you? No, I don't.' And if I don't absolutely love it and cherish it, I take a picture of it and I let it go."

NPR's Michael Radcliffe and William Troop produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With so many people spending a lot more time at home during the pandemic, there's plenty of time to reconsider all the stuff we accumulate in our houses and apartments - you know, that closet that won't close, that pile of papers that needs filing, maybe even an elderly parent's house that you know needs some attention.

We called Julie Hall to get some tips on how to declutter. She is the director of the American Society of Estate Liquidators, and she's got a new book out called "Inheriting Clutter." Hall says the COVID-19-related lockdowns have been a catalyst for house cleanings.

JULIE HALL: And so one of the biggest problems with that is, what do you do with all the stuff? Because we've accumulated it not only for ourselves but from previous generations. So right now, we're definitely seeing an uptick in this particular trend.

MARTIN: And Hall says different generations tend to have trouble parting with different sorts of things.

HALL: For example, our Depression-era generation - their problem seems to be paper. They really didn't trust a lot of people, so they have receipts from, you know, the 1940s. And they've kept everything that you can imagine - catalogs, magazines. And it is time to let some of those things go and begin the thinning-out process.

For other generations - I'm a boomer, and I think the pain point for my generation is we have an emotional pull. We feel an obligation to our parents and these items that they cherish so much. But then our children - they don't want these items. So truly, we are the sandwich because we don't know what to do.

MARTIN: Hall says, in her experience, millennials tend to have a more straightforward relationship with clutter. They don't want any. Still, she has this advice for people of all ages. Start with the easy stuff, like getting rid of that pile of old magazines in the corner.

HALL: Or let's step into the kitchen for a moment, where under the sink is an ice cream maker from circa 1962 that hasn't worked since 1963. And, you know, we've got the Cool Whip containers and the pie tins and the mayonnaise jars. OK, I understand that that generation wanted to use those things. But they don't need to fill up the cabinets. I think in one kitchen, we counted 93 water glasses.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HALL: And you just don't need that. So that's a great place to start, too.

MARTIN: Can I ask you - again, like I said, you - it's a more complex topic than it - say, maybe it seems on the surface because stuff isn't just stuff to people, right? Their stuff isn't just stuff. How do you handle the emotions that people go through when it comes to parting with stuff?

HALL: Well, I've had to go through this personally. You know, I became a widow quite suddenly, so I - and I lost my parents suddenly. So I had to learn how to do this myself. And, you know, the emotional part - I think that sorting through items is very healing when someone's grieving.

And I think it's really important, whether you're not grieving - in a way, it's still grief because it's your life, and you're letting go of a lot of these things, and you're welcoming in a new chapter. So for me, the key has always been to make peace with the items I'm letting go of. And I hold it, and I look at it, and I say, do I like you? Yes, I do. But do I love you? No, I don't.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HALL: And if I don't absolutely love it and cherish it, I take a picture of it, and I let it go.

MARTIN: Decluttering tips from Julie Hall. She is the author of "Inheriting Clutter."

(SOUNDBITE OF MURA MASA'S "FIREFLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.