Updated on 09.16.09

Addition by Subtraction: The Benefits of a “Fall Cleaning”

Trent Hamm

One of my favorite activities during a year is spring cleaning.

After a long winter of being stuck inside and intimate with our possessions, the arrival of warm spring weather makes me throw open the windows to let the breeze blow through and just start tossing accumulated junk. I usually wind up with enough stuff for a yard sale, along with boxes of items to give to Goodwill and to mail out via PaperBackSwap and other such online trading services.

When I’m done, the house usually looks empty – much more spartan than it once did.

This has several interesting effects.

With less stuff in my home, I’m happier. I find that, time and time again, I don’t miss the stuff that I toss. At the same time, I enjoy the cleanliness and orderliness of what remains.

I also have more free time. I spend less time on regular cleaning and maintenance of the things I have and I spend less time trying to find things when I need them.

Even better – it saves – and earns – me money. Cleaning out the vents and moving the furniture away from the vents reduces home energy costs, as does unplugging any items that we rarely use. At the same time, I usually earn a fair amount – directly and indirectly – from selling off the extra accumulated stuff that we’re no longer using.

Truly, it’s addition by subtraction – by removing things, I make my life better.

Over time, I’ve come to love that “spring cleaning feeling” so much that I try to do a big cleaning every few months. For example, as soon as I hit my upcoming book deadline and turn in a manuscript, I intend to spend a few days doing a “big clean” at our home. Here’s what the plan looks like.

Empty out all of the closets and storage spaces and evaluate the things that are there. Sure, some seasonal items need to stay, but many of the items that get stuffed into closets are simply items that aren’t used any more. If that’s the case, sell them, swap them, or give them to Goodwill. Then, re-pack the closets and storage areas so that it’s easy to find things.

Go through all clutter collectors – and toss as much of the clutter as I can. The built-up magazines have to go, as do the junk envelopes and other materials in the clutter collectors in your home. Go through each area where clutter builds up and deal with every item. If you’re thinking, “Well, I might someday…”, trash it, because, quite honestly, you won’t.

Clear all vents – and make sure none are obstructed. Obstructed vents are a sure way to reduce the efficiency of your home’s heating and cooling efforts, increasing your energy bills. I check each vent in our home during a cleaning, moving any obstructions and cleaning inside the vent.

Thoroughly clean everything. This usually takes multiple days, as I go from room to room and scrub everything down carefully. I shampoo the carpets, mop the floors, and wash the walls (in some rooms). At the end, the house smells great.

Invite some friends over. Once everything’s clean and more spartan, have a small party. It’s the perfect time to show off your living quarters – everything’s clean and uncluttered and smells good, too!

This weekend (or next, or the one after that), consider doing a fall cleaning. Empty out your closets, sell off the things you’re not using, and freshen up your home. Not only will you earn some pocket money from the things you sell off, but you’ll save a bit of money on your energy bill and make your home a lot less cluttered and more inviting to guests.

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  1. Maureen says:

    Good for you, Trent! You will be all set for decorating for the Thanksgiving/Christmas season.

  2. Craig says:

    I like fall cleaning, it’s nice to do a full clean of the apt and get rid of things and papers that are not needed anymore. Feels good to be clean and organized and puts a positive outlook onto the rest of the fall. It does add because you are more organized.

  3. Laurie says:

    As I get older I find my father’s advice on buying/keeping/owning stuff more and more apt:

    “Everything you own owns a little piece of you.”

    Really makes you think about what you want to spend your time and energy maintaining!

  4. Kathy says:

    I’m in the process of doing this now. My boyfriend and I are talking about him moving into my 1-bedroom apartment when his lease is up in March 2010, and this has become a great motivation for me to finish those little projects around my apartment that I haven’t prioritized before – and purge those things that I know I don’t need/want/use.

    One of the biggest struggles is that several of my projects require money to finish.. I’ve been wanting to organize my medicine cabinet better by buying a tackle box to store all those little bottles in… I’ve got a box of race t-shirts from running a marathon that I wanted to send off to turn into a quilt… and I just cut my DVD collection in about half – but in order to post them on swapadvd.com, I need to be prepared to spend the money on shipping to send them off. I also have a chair I love but rarely use because it’s pretty beat up – and I need to either throw it away or get it reupholstered, but of course it’s one more thing to prioritize funds towards. The good news is Oct 7th I’ll pay the last payment on my car and I’m DEBT FREE!

  5. BreeInVT says:

    I already started this! I was amazed at how much “clutter stuff” I actually had in storage. The first few magazines into the trash make me cringe, but eventually it gets a little bit easier.

  6. Chelsea says:

    I really enjoy doing this, but I have a problem: I can’t get my husband to participate. I can cull through most of the household stuff, but I just can’t get rid of his things without his permission. I don’t mind taking care of the selling, giving, whatever, but it’s like pulling teeth to get him to look through his own belongings (especially clothes) to tell me what should stay and go. I don’t want to nag him, but it’s kind of a road block. Should I just proceed with what I feel comfortable dealing with on my own and hope that he thinks having less clutter is so great he wants to get rid of some of his own? I hate the idea of having to have two garage sales… one for my stuff and one for his. Any suggestions?

  7. KC says:

    I always do cleaning in the fall. It’s the only time I can get in the attic or garage without suffocating. We’ve had a pretty mild summer so the garage isn’t too bad and I’m getting ready to clean it out in a few days. The attic will need to wait til late October or November before it cools off.

    But you are right. Less clutter equals a clearer mind. I also find it equals more money. For one thing I sell of the stuff I don’t want or give it to charity for a deduction. I also have a better idea of what I have and I don’t buy more of the same thing.

  8. fairydust says:

    OMG, we have so much CRAP. Every time I look at all of it, I just back off because of feeling too overwhelmed. I know that never accomplishes anything. We just sold a couple things on Craigslist, which was nice, and I have a stack of stuff to take over to Goodwill, which will help some. But mostly my husband’s a certified pack rat, and I’m not a whole lot better (except that I’d rather be totally spartan and he actually likes being a pack rat). We never have company over anymore, it’s too embarrassing… :P

  9. Stephan F- says:

    We just started this same project this week. One of the big problems sometimes is realizing some stuff that you need doesn’t have a place for it to be so you need to create one, but that means moving something else and so on. So something I am trying is to open up some space to be slack space for things that need to be somewhere but aren’t yet.

  10. All great advice, as you usually publish, Trent. Thank You!

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  11. Lilly says:

    Any advice on getting a husband to prune his collection of Magic: the Gathering cards during this fall cleaning? ;-) Given the choice between owning a piece of paper that says “Berserk” on it and having $60 in my pocket, *I* tend to choose the $60…

  12. Sally says:

    I like to spring and fall clean, too. The best thing for me is that I have gotten better at (1.) not buying needless things to begin with and (2.) getting rid of worn, useless, broken, things more quickly. So, the end result is more time spent cleaning vs. clutter reduction.

  13. Ellen says:

    ‘If you’re thinking, “Well, I might someday…”, trash it, because, quite honestly, you won’t.’

    That’s what always holds me back. Usually when this thought pops into my head, it’s accompanied by a string of memories from past halloweens when I really wished I had kept that pink feather boa or goofy pirate hat. (things that I REALLY don’t need to hang on to)

    Thanks for putting down in writing what so many of us have a hard time admitting.

  14. chacha1 says:

    I am with Lilly, fairydust, and Chelsea … a packrat for a DH. Oh! the junk! Could some of you guys comment on how us suffering wives could best approach this subject?

  15. Amy says:

    @ Ellen (#13)

    I’m the same way about stuff that could be used for a Halloween costume (a goofy skirt, sparkly tights, bright red pants, etc.). I allow myself ONE storage tub in the basement marked “Halloween” and that’s where I keep all of those items. So they are not taking up space in your regular closet but you still have them for potential costumes. I love dressing up for Halloween so it’s important to me to keep some of that stuff.

  16. MKL says:

    Honestly, if you have husbands or wives that do not want to get on board, you have to wait until they actually want to get on board for anything meaningful to happen. Me, I go in waves. Sometimes the accumulation of stuff just becomes so overwhelming that I can’t stand it any longer and I just go into full blown purge mode. Other times, I find things that I enjoy or feel like I just can’t get rid of.

    If you are not familiar with the site unclutterer.com, head over there and read some of their archives. I’ve found that site to be a wonderful place to go whenever I need a pick-me-up in the purging department. Another thing to do is to see if there are ways tath you can get said stuff into hands taht can actually use it. Much of my outdoor gear was trimmed down considerably when I donated it to my son’s Boy Scout Troop. Now I only keep the items that are truly and personally mine, everything else is not part of the Troop’s inventory at our church. I have a number of tools that I honestly do not use or have a high lielihood that I will never seriously use, so I have them slated to be donated to Habitat for Humanity (I just need to bring them down to them, but they are on a shelving unit waiting for the drop off… and the shelving unit will be going, too :) ).

    If you have a guy (or gal) that really can make a compelling case as to why they want to keep something, let them keep it, but encourage them to follow through on items that really aren’t being addressed or there isn’t a compelling reason.

    My personal goal, to clear away the 2nd perimeter that has made its way into my garage. I don’t mind the stuff that’s actually against the wall and going vertical, because there are shelves and cabinets for those. It’s all the stuff that’s in front of the shelves and cabinets that are the bigger problem (LOL!).

  17. Andi says:

    I would have to argue that this is not a great approach. I’m all for getting rid of the clutter – I’ve given away and thrown away more in the last two months than I have in a long time. However, those few days of really deep cleaning and throwing stuff out are exhausting and if we’re honest, how many of us have those kind of days to devote to decluttering. And for me, the thought of having to clean out an entire room or house is overwhelming to me – I don’t know where to start. I think I saw flylady.net first mentioned here (or was it another blog). She argues that a little each day is better than a lot once every few months. I was a bit skeptical but my house is in better order than it has been for years.

  18. Kevin M says:

    Are obstructed vents really an issue? I see so many websites on energy savings telling people to close vents to rooms that aren’t used. It seems you’re advocating the opposite.

  19. sewingirl says:

    I always do my big cleaning in the Fall. In the Spring, I’ve been IN the house all winter, it might need a little airing out, but it should be pretty clean. In the Fall, the windows have been open all Summer, and I have been doing yard and garden work, not housework, so thats my BIG clean.

  20. Nicki says:

    “I usually wind up with enough stuff for a yard sale, along with boxes of items to give to Goodwill and to mail out via PaperBackSwap and other such online trading services.”

    I’m really curious – what other online trading services do you use?

  21. Susan says:

    Flylady talks about getting rid of (either throwing out or giving away) 27 things per day until your house is manageable. It is a good system. Personnally I find it harder to declutter when my kids are around. They were away for the day (6 hours) not long ago and it was amazing how much garbage I threw out or recycled.

  22. Steffie says:

    About opening all of your vents even if you don’t use the room, an unheated room will make the other rooms/walls around it cold too. Open the vent a little bit to keep out the chill but not heat it to the same temperature as the rest of the house.

  23. Brian says:

    If you feel overwhelmed or don’t know where to start, just rent a U-Haul and load it up. Salvation Army will take almost anything at their donation centers, and you just unload the truck right there and you’re done.

  24. @ Chelsea #7- If you can’t get your husband onboard the “minimalist train” it is best to lead by example & show him the benefits. Harping & complaining will do little more than make him resist even more. Eventually he will come around as he is able to understand the benefits and how they can be applied to his own situation.

    Always remember this bit of advice: It is easier to pull a rope than to push a rope.

  25. Rosa Rugosa says:

    @Chelsea – my husband isn’t really a packrat, but he’s certainly not going to go through most of our stuff twice a year like I do. I gather together the things I think he might want to toss, then bring him into the room for a brief “session” of thumbs up or down. He’s fine with that, and I think he appreciates the fact that I would not presume to dispose of his belongings without his approval.
    As far as magazines go, we subscribe to a lot of really nice magazines, about 13, that we do read and enjoy. But every single one has a next destination. One of my employees loves getting all my garden magazines, my sister-in-law and moyher-in-law enjoy several others. They get them as soon as we’ve read them for the most part, so they don’t build up and they get pretty current free magazines.
    I’m pretty good at keeping clutter under control. I think our very small house helps keep me honest. The frugality and decluttering complement each other nicely – I think carefully before bringing more stuff into my life. Of course, we still have too much crap like just about every other household in the country!

  26. Rosa says:

    @Chelsea – I’m with Rosa Rugosa (even though we’re not the same person) and with the people who say you need to do your stuff first.

    My partner isn’t in for the big purge parties I like, but he’ll give me 5 minutes for thumbs up/thumbs down on a specific amount of stuff – one drawer, one box.

    Having a defined space helps with defining how much we’re doing and with giving an objective reason that’s not just “because she says so” – all of the clothes have to fit in the bureau, all of the Christmas junk has to fit in the Christmas box, all of the books have to fit into the bookshelf.

  27. Shevy says:

    See, I don’t *want* an empty, spartan house. Clean and organized is great but you don’t have to toss all your possessions to have that.

    I want a cozy, comfortable place, filled with visible mementos that remind me of events in my life (like the huge woven palm mat on the floor of my daughter’s room that I got in Fiji when I was 8 or 12, the glass animal they made right in front of me in Venice when I was 4, or the leaf ashtray I made my dad in Brownies when I was 5).

    Clean things and organize them by all means and toss things that have no meaning to you (like junk mail, the peeler that doesn’t work well, or the two phones you used back when you had a landline and a 2 story house). Just don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    When I read Flylady and see something from someone who went all gung ho and tossed their old love letters, their photos and the ticket stubs from their first date I’m so sad. They’re riding on endorphins right now. What about later when they really realize what they’ve done?

    Just because Flylady says you can’t organize clutter doesn’t make it true. Think about your sneakers and dress shoes. They’re clutter if they’re blocking your front door. But they aren’t if they’re on a shelf in your front closet.

  28. Caroline says:

    So is it free stuff that creeps back in or is it kids’ stuff that multiplies out of nowhere (as it is prone to do)? I figured you had gotten pretty good at not buying “stuff” anymore, so I’m curious about where the clutter you find comes from…other than junk mail of course.

  29. Sandy says:

    Generally, I’m not very good at getting rid of stuff. That’s my husband’s forte. But what I’ve developed over the years with my girls is the semi-annual closet cleanout.
    Every spring (usually over spring break) and late summer (a few weeks before school starts), I have both my girls go through their closets, and take out items that either don’t fit, they decide they don’t like, or that they have not worn (by buying lots of items at thrift stores, that doesn’t sting as badly had I paid retail!). The older sister sends her outgrown items to the younger sister’s room. The younger sister throws all of her castoffs items in a pile. We neatly fold older sister’s castoffs, and put away in younger sister’s closet for future possible wardrobe (there are 4 years between them). The pile in the younger sister’s room gets sorted by either Consignment shop, Goodwill or trash if it’s really too bad to even donate.
    This method ensures 1) that they have needed items that fit and that they like in their closet 2) For the upcoming season (summer/fall) we can determine what their wardrobe needs are..(OH! you only have one pair of shorts that fit?!!)(Wow…didn’t know you outgrew your underwear!)and make sure that everything they need is there.
    One daughter hates doing this…the other daughter could do this activity every week and not get tired of it! We also keep seasonal things that still fit in a tote in their closet…when the next season rolls around, we can see what still fits and can go another season, or what needs to move on because she’s grown faster than I thought she would.

  30. Joyful Abode says:

    I’m going through this right now, because we’re moving again. This will be our fourth move in just over 2 years (military) and I do love the opportunity it gives us to go through EVERYthing and purge. You’d think after 3 moves, we’d have everything pared down pretty well, but we seem to acquire more “stuff” everywhere we go, and we always find more to get rid of when we look.

  31. Beth says:

    See? I knew I wasn’t the only one doing this ;) My friends have been laughing at me because I’ve been cleaning out my apartment again.

    Great advice, Trent (and much-needed motivation!).

  32. Jane says:

    How timely this article is. I just started doing this for the first time in many years. I’m fortunate that my parents are retired and have a booth they maintain at a local flea market. My castoffs provide them with new items (weekly at the moment) and they keep a small percent of the sell price and keep an envelope to put the rest of the money in until I come to drop off more.
    I find that having a goal for the money keeps me more motivated. Right now I’m saving to put a new patio in next summer complete with shrubs and patio furniture. I won’t plan my project until late summer when everything is discounted so I have some time.

  33. Rob says:

    No matter how much they love you, no relative is ever going to build a Museum of You after you die.

  34. Missy says:

    I get caught between frugal and cluttered. Frugal says save everything, reuse everything, etc., but that causes clutter. A bit thing helping me declutter was having to have an auction after my parents passed away. So much STUFF! How could they possibly have enjoyed it all there was so much of it. And in the end, nobody in the family really wants the majority of it. I don’t want to do that to my family when I die.

  35. Arthi says:

    My two cents:

    I follow these principles:

    1. Other than perishables and clothes, whenever we buy one item, I make sure that we throw another out.

    2. The one-month-wait rule works well to resist impulse buys

    3. We use up things like toothpaste, incense sticks etc totally before going for a new brand or a different type. Else I throw them out.
    E.g. I’d love to buy scented reed diffusers, but I’m going to use up our supply of incense sticks and throw out our scented candle before I buy them.

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