Exceptions to Decluttering Rules?

There are two “rules” frequently cited to help with decluttering as well as to avoid re-cluttering. The first helps us decide what to get rid of by suggesting that if something hasn’t been used in X length of time (one year is the most common, but I’ve seen recommendations range from three months to two years) then you don’t need it. The other rule helps us avoid accumulation, and it is usually called the “one in, one out” rule. Let’s look at each of these rules and see if there are times we might not want to simply follow them blindly.

If You Haven’t Used It…

This rule is designed to help us decide what we don’t need. If something is stashed away in the bottom of a closet or the back of a drawer and we have not even seen it, let alone used it in months or years, what makes us think we’ll suddenly need it one day? The truth is that we probably won’t. There are exceptions, however.


If you drive a car, you probably carry a spare tire, a jack, and a lug wrench. If you regularly ride a bicycle any significant distance, you probably carry a patch kit or spare tube, a tool kit, and a pump. These are things we may not have used or even looked at in months or years, but we continue to carry them around because we don’t want to be stranded by the side of the road should we experience the misfortune of a flat tire. Along the same lines, we might keep first aid kits in our homes or vehicles, but hope we never need them. Ditto for fire extinguishers. Perhaps we can call this the emergency equipment exception. You can probably think of more examples, and they will vary depending on your individual situation. Just make sure you aren’t using this exception as an excuse to keep all kinds of “just in case” stuff that you probably won’t ever use and could easily re-acquire if needed.

Got Plans?

Another exception might be “I plan to use it.” This works if you have something that is already earmarked for a specific time or occasion in the future, when you know that you will use it. Don’t confuse this with “I might use it,” “I hope to use it,” or “I want to use it,” which are all excuses for keeping what we really don’t need. A variation on that exception, which I am experiencing right now, is “I plan to use it once I’ve decluttered enough room for it.” While I have to be careful that I’m not using this as a blanket excuse for keeping stuff I should be getting rid of, I think that if I have something that I honestly feel I will use and get function or pleasure from once I have the space to enjoy it, then I can at least leave it for last. Once I’ve decluttered to the point where I can comfortably accommodate the item, if I find that I am still not using it or have lost interest, then it becomes subject to expulsion.

One In, One Out

This one is very popular in the RV and Tiny House communities, where space is at a premium. It can even be expanded to “one in, two out” during active decluttering. This rule aims to maintain a static quantity of items if strictly followed. It isn’t so much subject to legitimate exceptions as it is to “creative interpretation.” We need to be sure we are following the true spirit of this rule. Getting rid of a worn out pair of socks shouldn’t justify bringing in a new TV and a game console. Yes, that’s two items in for two items out (a pair of socks), but using that kind of logic will only get you deeper into consumerist clutter. Ideally, an item goes out to make room for an equivalent but better, smaller or simpler item. Replacing several items with a single multi-function item could result in a two, three, or more-for-one trade! In any case, the items going out should be the same size or bigger than those coming in, the goal being to maintain balance or reduce clutter, not to increase it.

More Examples?

Can you think of other decluttering rules with legitimate exceptions? How about ways you or other household members try to “cheat” on the anti-clutter rules you’ve laid out?

65 responses to “Exceptions to Decluttering Rules?

  1. hi mike
    i think you’ve nailed it! and speaking of the very thing… i have a little jar of assorted sized nails. i may not touch it for many months. then i need to fix the fence. i get out my little jar from my very neat drawer and i use a nail. …smile.
    at some point, all this has to relate to common sense. the danger is when every little thing is a “uh oh, can’t let it go. may need it” item. that’s simply not true. i tend to de-clutter the knicky-knacks of life. i haven’t had them for years. finally everyone knows to gift me (if they have to gift at all, i’d rather break bread together!) not with dust catchers, but with some kind of food i love, or can’t afford to buy myself.
    there is beauty in function. 3 beautifuly made screw drivers in different sizes are not the same as having a drawer full of duplicates. it’s mostly being ever aware, and just common sense, i think!
    you know that old quote by wm morris….. have nothing in your homes that is not functional nor that you think is not beautiful. (of course…there’ll always be the person that thinks every little trinket is “so beautiful! i couldn’t possibly get rid of that!”
    so….. boils down to what’s right for you i guess, and your lovely little rv.
    cheers! (now my next goal in life is to try and write minimalist comments. aaaggghhh!)

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      The thing about small parts and hardware (like your nails) is they usually come in larger quantities than we actually need. It seems wasteful to buy a whole box each time you need only a few, and then discard the rest, so they get saved. I have my own stash of nails, screws, and the like.

      Thanks for the reminder that I probably need to declutter my tool boxes and eliminate inferior duplicates, broken tools, and stray parts that have found their way in among the tools.

  2. My biggest pet peeve is the so-called “professional organizers” who tell people that if they haven’t looked in a box in over a year, the box can safely be chucked.

    If you’re dealing with a disorganized person, many boxes that haven’t been looked at in over a year are incredibly likely to contain items that are necessary to keep for archival purposes.

    I’m thinking about birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, titles to cars, deeds to property, etc.

    It’s one thing if you load the boxes with stuff that’s arguably clutter, with the intent of throwing it out after a year.

    It’s another thing if you’re pitching a dozen boxes of stuff you haven’t unpacked from your last move!

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      You’re spot-on there, Robert. In the past I’ve done some hurried moves where I literally just stuffed boxes while paying no attention to what went into them, fully expecting to have to sort through them later. That’s not so much the case right now, but still, I go through my boxes and plastic bins carefully, including looking at each piece of paper.

      And not just the papers, but other things, too. Parts and accessories for gadgets and the like. I’ve found long-lost semi-important stuff, and then I’m proud of myself not only for finding the item, but for having known I had it somewhere and opting to wait till I found it rather than replacing it.

  3. i promise this one will be short & sweet. i don’t have an office, or file. but i keep every single important document, in one black vinyl box with a handle for easy carrying. it’s a must when you live in the tornado belt of the country. it’s amazing how restful it is to know you can put your hands immediately on any important paper you might need!

  4. My air pump that plugs into the car outlet has come in handy three times for the car and a dozen times for the riding lawnmower. And it stops me having to deal with public air hoses that cost money to use and never work right.

    I’ve often wondered if these 100-things bloggers own any bandages or hydrocortizone ointment.


    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Yeah, I have a 12-volt compressor in my trunk too. And a couple jugs of water. Whatever happened to free air and water? I remember when gas stations offered that as a “thank you” for doing business with them.

  5. That reminds me; I need to move my air tank out into my car. Rather than owning a compressor, I own an air tank. Yes, I have to refill it if I use it – but it’s cheap, non-electronic, and reliable. 🙂

    If you asked Dave Bruno (the original 100-thing guy), or one of the more reasonable 100-thing people, they’d say that bandages and hydrocortizone ointment weren’t part of the 100 things because they’re “shared items”.

    If you asked some of the “everything fits in a backpack” ones, I think it’s a safe bet that they don’t own any.

    Myself, I have a small case in the house that has band-aids, some misc. over-the-counter pills and cough drops (that I should go check the expiration date on), and a few other misc. supplies that would be useful in case Something Bad happened.

    My auto insurance agent actually gave me a little case with band-aids and such for out in my car. Slick freebie, that – something that’s actually useful!

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      I’ve seen some of the “100 (or fewer) Things” people do some creative counting. First Aid Kit? One item. Never mind that it contains dozens of individual bits. Likewise with other “kits” – tool kit, toiletries or makeup, spice rack – each counted as one item, rather than counting the individual contents.

      • If I had to do a count, I’d be okay with a first aid kit being one item. First aid kits generally stay put together on a day-to-day basis, even if there are sixty or seventy items in the little box.

        Put another way, how many times have you had to tidy up your first aid kit because guests were coming for dinner? 😀

        It’s when people start counting their laptop, laptop bag, multiple chargers, usb hard drive, and a dozen cables as one thing that I get disgusted with it!

  6. I think that ‘toss it if you haven’t used it in a year rule’ must have been developed by someone who was very young and/or liked to buy new things!

    • I actually think the underlying concept makes some sense – but it needs to be tempered with sanity!

      Not having used something in a year should be a major red flag that it might not be that important to you – but it’s not a reason, by itself, to get rid of anything.

  7. This one’s a prickly subject for me Mike. I definitely fell in the camp of, “But I might need it someday” folks in the past. Getting rid of my tools and “practical” items was one of the toughest things ever. Just yesterday I was lusting after my contractors compound miter saw and missing mine terribly. You never know when you’re gonna need to cut just one board. 🙂

    Of course now that we’re with Cora there’s a battalion of handy items in her garage. She has the inevitable tubs of screws and nails, along with an air compressor, tool kit, etc.

    I’m still really into the idea of shared resources. When one member of a community (or friends group) has a tool, does everyone need one? I donated all my tools to my good friend William who’s a handy type. I knew that if/when I went back to Arkansas he’d loan me my old nail gun if I needed it!

  8. Mike | HomelessOnWheels

    I find it difficult bordering on impossible to get rid of practical items like tools, Tanja. If your living situation allows, and you have well-equipped neighbors, the shared resources idea can work very well. Also if you have an intentional community of like minded people this concept can go as far as sharing of vehicles and other major resources, too.

    I tend to be on my own much of the time, dependent upon myself for my own repair and maintenance tasks. Since I have the skills, knowledge, and tools, I can save myself much inconvenience and expense, and I usually enjoy doing the work, too.

    • Lifestyle definitely makes a difference Mike. Especially since like you said, you’re on your own a lot without neighbors or a sharing network.

      The tools were extremely tough for me, but I had to make a decision. They were big and took up a lot of space!

      p.s. Congrats on being freshly pressed. Very exciting Mike!

  9. Unfortunatly, our household has no anti-clutter rules, and it’s obvious. I wish we did have rules, we’d be better off for it.

  10. I’ve minimized to 700 square feet for two people, and the one thing I found is that I didn’t want all of my “practical” stuff. I wanted the stuff I love, like the carvings my friend brought me from Bali, and lots of framed photos. If it’s beautiful or sentimental, it’s much more important than an extra set of tupperware (Hello, Ziplocs!) or the cookbooks that no one really needs anymore (The internet is for more than porn).

    Thanks for a though-provoking post, and congrats on FP!

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      It sounds like you have room to keep plenty of the sentimental stuff. And very smart to dispense with the stuff that is really not needed or used. As for cookbooks, I’ve used food.com for years, since back when it was recipezaar.

  11. Uh-oh. If these are the rules, I’m seriously remiss in following them!

    Fun post — can’t wait to see how others cheat…


  12. De-cluttering is overrated 🙂
    Who cares that I have probably 200 pencils around the house?! I am not an artist and do not need them professionally. They have accumulated from my son’s school supply list and parades and visits to the dentist and…
    Should I toss them? No-o-o-o 🙂

    • It’s not the 200 pencils that bother me. It’s the 200 pen that don’t write and the 200 markers that are all dried up. Why is it that people take a pen from the drawer, discover it doesn’t work, and then toss it back in the drawer? Sorry, I could rant on for a long time … comes from having four kids and hosting a dozen exchange students (not all at the same time).

      • Tom, that’s how I feel too.

        Unless the pen happens to be a really nice one that takes refills (in which case it should either get a refill immediately, or refills should be put on your shopping list), an empty pen is junk. Same with little nubs of pencils that can’t be sharpened anymore.

  13. My partner and I had lived abroad for the past two years–first in Vietnam, then in Haiti. Expats couple have issues with stuff–especially when one of the two in a pack-rat like me. Now that we are home in Kentucky again we are redefining our place on the space/stuff continuum.

    Great post. And congrats on being freshly pressed!


  14. I think I need to do a declutter… at the moment, though, the most I can manage is not adding to the quantity of stuff. Great exceptions to the rules, though! They’ll come in handy when I gain the motivation to purge 🙂

  15. As a homeless lady on wheels I have discovered a way to declutter that makes me feel really good and at the same time brings enjoyment to others. I take my stuff and divvy it up among the thrift shops where I happen to be staying. It feels great and I am more inclined to part with those unused items when there’s someone at the other end smiling and saying, “thank you, we can sure use this.”

  16. This is great! I agree…just because you haven’t used something in a while doesn’t mean it loses its value/use! Great, fun read you posted here.

  17. I cou;dnt live in a motor home. Where would I keep all my bonsai? LOL

  18. I couldn’t imagine a person being told to take the ‘rules’ so seriously that they’d stick to them perfectly. They aren’t so much rules as just guidelines.

    We may not physically use an emergency kit very often (thankfully) but we do use the piece of mind it gives us – and it would be good to check every few months anyways to see if supplies are running low or things are expiring.

    Same with family photos/mementos. They may not all be on display but there will be times when we go back to them to strengthen a fading memory or to visually share the stories with others.

    Thanks for your post.

  19. Your last tip could also work well for packing for a long trip! The scarf-skirt is a great example, as are smartphones that are part computer, part phone, part MP3 player, and part camera (if you’re not interested in taking knock-out shots.)

  20. “Simple” and “Practical” are more important than “Minimal” in my organizing philosophy. So is “Joyful”. Tools and anti-itch cream (which I just used for a spider bite!) are important, and so is a small item I gave my husband before we were married, although I haven’t seen it it ages.
    On the other hand, I am currently unpacking and organizing a client’s new apartment, which is much smaller than her old apartment, and she will need to let go of some things because they simply will not fit! The cost of long term storage is often more than the value of the items stored. We must alter our homes to fit our lifestyles, or else alter our lifestyles to fit our homes. They cannot be separated.
    It sounds like you have your home and your lifestyle well matched. I call that a success, no matter how many items you own.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Good point about storing things. I learned years ago that it is rarely worth it to pay for off-site storage, and eventually end up getting rid of things anyway – easier just to make the deciscion of what I am able to keep and let the rest go.

  21. Oh this is much in my mind Mike. Having remarried we have combined two homes, then my mother in law moved in and we now have too much. It is so difficult to set boundaries and priorities for this – even harder to stick to them. Thanks for the ‘rules’ they will come in mighty handy in our household!

  22. Buttons?
    Whenever I’ve finished with something with buttons, I usually keep the buttons and they go into a little tub. Then, on the rare occasion that I come across something that needs a button (a shirt, a duvet cover, even crafty thing that I’ve up-cycled from something else), I have a ready stash of mixed size/colour buttons that I can chose from. I have gone years without sewing a button back onto something – but have had to sew 6 buttons onto various items over the last few months.

  23. Mike – I’m really new to blogging and not quite sure what the etiquette is but having discovered your blog and enjoyed reading some of your posts I’ve added your link to my blog as I think some of the people who read mine would also enjoy yours – I hope that’s OK?

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      You are always welcome to link to my blog. It’s here to be read – the more the merrier. Thanks for commenting and linking!

  24. Mike, I love this post! “Don’t confuse this with “I might use it,” “I hope to use it,” or “I want to use it,” which are all excuses for keeping what we really don’t need.” I definitely fall into this category and I feel like such a pack rat!!! I just went through some summer cleaning and threw out a bunch of stuff and didn’t bother looking at what it was because I knew I would want to keep it. Thanks for the decluttering advice 🙂

  25. I might use it and I plan to use it is sometimes a tricky distinction! Thanks for posting the exceptions and congrats on being FP!

  26. I hate clutter so these rules are always followed in my household. If we haven’t worn it in over a year…out it goes! 🙂

  27. Great post! Most of us have so many more “things” around than we need. We are consumer addicts! Recently, I’ve used the category of “need” instead of “want” when deciding whether or not to purchase an item. I was surprised how often this criteria stopped me in the headlong pursuit of purchasing.

  28. Some times rules are like clutter. We ignore them for long periods of time and then when something goes amiss we go quoting them. I love how you have left an opening to save face and justify at least “a little” clutter. Love the post.

  29. I keep a box full of memorabilia (concert tickets, cards and etc.) from past relationships. If I ever think I might make the same mistake twice with another man I go to my stash and remind myself of the horrid past. The junk’s good for something.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      That has to be the most original argument I’ve heard for keeping memorabilia. I love it. Thanks for commenting!

  30. Great post. I began seriously decluttering one year ago when we moved out of a 2600 square foot 4 bedroom/4 bathroom house to a 2 bedroom/2 bath 1235 square foot house. Getting rid of so much stuff was LIBERATING!
    I constantly go through closets, drawers, and the garage and find even more stuff to get rid of. Amazing to be free!!

  31. Loved the rules especially 1-in-2-out!
    Basically, unless it’s first aid kit or spare tires, whatever you don’t need to use / read everyday is usually redundant.

  32. Keep ’em rolling, Mike – thanks for your thoughts. I’m constantly ‘editing.’

  33. I have lived in almost 100 addresses in my life (not many compared to some genuine travellers) and never had the courage, or shamelessness, to just leave all my clutter and run. I carry the usable stuff in bags to the charity shops so THEY can throw it out. Excellent idea for a Post and meticulously executed so no wonder WP made it Freshly Pressed. Good show.

  34. Ha. In my drawers I have many many objects I have never bothered with. CDs, possibly containing data or not. Bunch of wires for who knows what. Its true that if I dump them out it will be for the better as I’ll have more space but I’m going to go off your post and keep them for an emergency. Hehe excuses for me.

  35. Thanks for the great thoughts on de-cluttering! I agree that these rules should be taken more as guidelines. I’ve been hiring myself out to do some organizing for people, and I suggest them more as things to think about than rigid rules.

  36. I follow another blogger called getclutterfree. You may enjoy that as well!

  37. You make it all sound so easy!
    You can pretty much put every darn thing in our garage in the “plan to use it” category. (but at this rate, my hubby doesn’t plan to use it in this lifetime…)
    Great post!

  38. Oh well, Ive been watching “Hoarders”on Discovery Channel for some time and I’ve recongnized some of my own lines and thoughts in what people were saying lol
    However, I think clutter cannot be labeled universal. Each individual knows what his household and person needs or resorts to on occasion. That’s why we feel so happy to get rid of it as soon as we find another recipient instead of the trashbin…
    The problem is the emotional attachment we feel for these objects ( for example old letters mean something to the recipient but may be wrapping paper to another) and how much we value them. It is easier to get attached to things than to people, as they are never disappointing.
    I am no expert in de-cluttering more like in cluttering as I have a fair amount of loose items in my place hahaha – I am so vain as to believe I will have such a long life and might use them someday : )

  39. And now that I think of it, my last blog post illustrates my very need to transform rather than to trash…

  40. Freedom from Location. I like that concept. Congratulations on Freshly Pressed.

  41. I’ve been trying to de-clutter my home for months, now. My boyfriend, however, continues to clutter away, bringing more & more junk in that most people would normally throw away. In fact, that’s where most of it comes from. As his “I might use that” room grows, my patience wears thin, LOL. I love your “One in, One out” rule. I think I may have to implement that one in my household along with a few more boundaries.

    • An easy way to do this (if you have the space) is to just set a single boundary – he gets one room to do whatever he wants with. Everything else (kitchen, living room, etc.) follows the “one in, one out” rule.

      Just a thought. 🙂

  42. Pingback: Exceptions to Decluttering Rules? (via Homeless On Wheels) « Going Green Mom

  43. Pingback: Swamp Cooling In The Desert | Homeless On Wheels

  44. I happen to live in an apartment the size of a box, but everywhere I look, I’ve got stuff laid out. For a gadget freak like me, most of them are gadgets. I’m also a bookworm, and I don’t like giving away books, I like to hoard them. So every space in the house I look at, it’s either a gadget or a book. If not any one of them, it’s usually BOTH.
    Funnily enough, I also just so happen to be a minimalist. I don’t like clutter much, however, these two things are the exceptions to my minimalist obsession.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Gadgets are one of my weaknesses too. I don’t have a problem with books anymore, though. I’m only interested in the content… not the physical book. I’m quite content to read on my Kindle. You might consider moving your reading to an e-bok reader, tablet, or computer to save the space all those books are occupying. Thanks for commenting!

  45. realanonymousgirl2011

    I try to follow these rules as well. And I have things packed away that should probably be gotten rid of, but I think some momentos fall into this category. Like school year books, old photo albums, things your grandparents left you. I may not look at them for years but the day you do, you’ll be glad you saved them.

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      You might consider scanning those old yearbooks and photos and saving them electronically. Not only will you be able to reduce them all to a single DVD, but you’ll be able to share them as well as back them up (perhaps to the cloud?) so that you’ll not worry about loss or damage.

  46. Mike | HomelessOnWheels

    This sure has turned out to be a popular post. Thanks to all who have commented so far, and thanks for all the congratulations, too. I wish I could take time to reply to each comment individually, but please know that I read and appreciate every comment, even if I don’t always reply.

    – Mike

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