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Reader Q&A: How to Get Your Spouse to Let Go of Stuff

I recently received a letter from a reader who has a problem that is common to a lot of my readers: she can’t convince her husband to let go of anything. She may have caught the organizing bug but the rest of her family is less than thrilled about the idea.  Although I had about a billion suggestions for her, I wanted to take the opportunity to give some sage advice to all my readers on this subject.

Here’s the reader’s letter:

Dear Decluttering Queen: I am a huge fan and every blog you post is an inspiration! I have a question I would love for you to answer – and I wonder if anyone can relate: While I am on board with minimizing and decluttering, my husband is not! He thinks it’s fun for the kids to have lots and lots of toys and he’s a collector (CD’s, paintings, guitars and so much more). So much stuff stresses me out, but he enjoys it. Any words of advice? I’ve relegated most of the excess to the basement, but am open to other ideas. I don’t want to be controlling, but I do want our home to feel organized and peaceful. Help!

Signed, Over“stuff”ed

Have you ever felt this way too?  If so, here are some of my most popular tips on how to handle this “overstuffed” situation:

Don’t be afraid to do your own thing, decluttering is contagious

No matter how much you may want to grab their stack of yellowed t-shirts and toss them in the garbage, resist the urge.  Much like dieting, I have found little success with “forcing” others to play along with my decluttering efforts. What I do find that works is concentrating on what I do have control over – my own stuff.  By all means, clean out your side of the closet, sell your Precious Moments collection, get all your extra crap out of the house.  It is amazing how contagious the decluttering bug can be.  When others see your success and how happy you are, they often want to join in.  And be patient!  It may not happen right away.  In fact, it could take months but never give up on your own personal goals and the hope that your loved ones will want to follow along.

Appeal to their Clutter Personality

We each have our own way of looking at things.  And even more importantly we each have own type of “stuff” we like to keep around.  Some like the sentimental stuff – old records, school yearbooks, love notes.  Some have the personal stash of clutter gold mines worth “millions” – old newspapers, collectible dolls, vintage milk jugs.  And then they are those practical folks who wouldn’t dare let anything useful leave their house.  What if they need it one day?  I believe we all fall into one category and sometimes even more than one.  For me, I am an “everything has value, I will sell it someday” personality.

What type are you?  And, more importantly, what type is your spouse? Why is it important to know what type of personality your spouse is?  Because it can help you  find the best ways to appeal to their sensibility while still accomplishing moving at least some of their things out of the home.  Here are a few tips for each type of clutter personality:

The Sentimental Clutterbug

  1. This group works best by letting a little go at a time.  Suggest they try to let go of a handful of any certain item.  If they have 200 cd’s, see if they can let go of just 10.  They may notice a boost from the purge and decide to dive even deeper on their next go-around.

  2. Establish a “Maybe” box.  One of the hardest things from this group to do is let go of that which pulls at their heartstrings.  They may be on the fence about a lot of things.  For those they are unsure of, set them aside in a “maybe” box.  Label the box for six months from now.  When the six months is up, have them revisit the box to see if their feelings have changed.

  3. Set spacial boundaries.  No matter how precious something is, it is still taking up physical space in the home.  I believe it to be unfair for a spouse to allow their “items” to consume the living space a whole family is sharing.  Discuss with your spouse a reasonable amount of square footage to set aside for their items.  For example you have this corner only for your guitars. Whatever fits in that space, they can keep.  What cannot, must go.  Now is also a good time to talk about others ways you could utilize the space to better fit your family’s needs, interests and hobbies.

  4. Have them reflect on how they are honoring their treasures.  For things like collectibles, paintings and artwork, we should also ask our loved ones to reflect on how they are honoring their cherished pieces.  Are they stuffed in boxes where no one can see them?  Are they covered under thick layers of dust?  Are they hardly ever used and enjoyed?  While we may believe something to be very important to us, how to treat it speaks volumes more.

The Dollar Signs Clutterbug

  1. This is an easy one for me to offer advice on since this is my personality to a “t”.  The Dollar Signs Clutterbugs work best by finding a system that allows them to make a couple bucks but also learn when it’s best to cut their losses.

  2. One of the best ways to work with this type of clutterbug is to show them what their item is really worth.  They often have an exaggerated value they have attached to each thing. Many times, the item is worth much less than they think but not always.  In this case, eBay can be your best friend.  Simply do a search for that item to see what it is selling at….. but also go one step further.  You must also see what that item has sold for recently.  People can put whatever price they want on their eBay auction; they doesn’t mean they will sell it for that amount.  Only what the market is willing to pay determines what you can expect to get from it.

  3. Discuss with them how they feel about the item.  Many people feel guilty letting go of something that could make them money, especially if funds are tight.  They promise that next week or next month they will get that tea set sold.  But then they push off the date and more guilt sets in.  Let them know that by letting go of the item can also help them let go of some of their guilt.

  4. Find a few items that can have a “win” with.  Highlight a few pieces they could sell successfully and quickly.  Items that are highly desirable or easy to post to a buy, sell, trade site.  Let them enjoy the couple extra bucks as well as the extra breathing room in the home.

The Practical Clutterbug

  1. This type of clutterbug can often be the hardest to convince.  They are typically very rational and have many good points.  They can debate their way to keeping anything.  For them, you need to appeal to their heightened sensibility.

  2. Try working on duplicates.  How many spatulas and funnels and electrical cords do your really need?

  3. Also try using the “What’s the Worst that can Happen?” game.   If they are unsure on an item, challenge them to think of the worst case scenario if they would let it go.  Operation manuals are often a hot topic.  Many husbands love to keep them “just in case”.  Fortunately, many manuals are now online.  If they would let that document go, the worst case scenario would be that their item would break down and they wouldn’t know how to fix it.  First, they need to ask themselves if they actually have the ability to “fix” it.  Second, they could turn to the internet to find the answers.  YouTube is often all you need when it comes to repair manuals.

Set an Exciting Family Goal

Another way to prompt a clutterbug to let go is to set an exciting family goal.  When spouses have valuable items like china sets, guitars and antiques collecting dust, they are letting money just sit around the home.  Why not use it to benefit everyone in the family?  Using the funds to pay for a trip or buy a pool or get a new tv can all be huge motivators for cleaning out the crap. Plus it helps promote the “team” spirit versus the you against me conflict.

Kids & Clutter

I am very passionate about the positive benefits of children having less toys rather than more.  They thrive when they have fewer options.  They also learn to appreciate and take care of the ones they do have.  Everywhere you turn children are encouraged to “collect them all”.  Buy more, collect more, enjoy more.  Sorry to say, but the toy manufacturers are taking both you and your kids for a ride (and clearing out your wallet at the same time).  There is a great read that brought so much clarity to this subject for me.  I would highly suggest reading it.  It is called: Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, & More Secure Children by Kim John Payne.  It is only $8.70 from Amazon and you can order it by clicking on the link below.   It is by far the best book I have read on the subject.  But what about your spouse? You may or may not be able to get them to read the whole book.  I know my husband wouldn’t.  I would suggest highlighting a few key points and having them browse those.

Never Give Up Hope

By far, my biggest suggestion for my “overstuffed” reader is to never give up hope.  It is amazing how planting small seeds can lead to bountiful harvests.  Keep on keeping on your minimalism journey.  I guarantee you will be happier and more content then if you had never started.  Also change your perspective on how you view your spouse’s clutter.  Rather than feeling the “stress” when you see his million and one cd’s, choose to see his love of music and sentimental personality.  Never threaten but rather encourage him to take one small step no matter how tiny it may seem.  Those tiny steps are something to be cherished and fostered.  What starts out as a snowflake soon turns into a giant rolling snowball.

I hope this post gives my reader (and you) some comfort, practical advice and, most importantly, hope that things won’t always be this way.  Believe in the ability for your spouse to change.  They may not become overnight minimalists but they may finally learn the art of letting go!

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