Decluttering Decisions – The “Lost Or Stolen” Test

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I’ve always been a thorough researcher when it comes to major purchases, and have read my share of online product reviews. While trying to come up with a relatively easy rule to help me decide what to keep and what to eliminate in my decluttering efforts, I remembered a question I’ve seen asked by at least one review site, and is frequently volunteered by reviewers on other sites, especially musician’s gear sites: “Would you buy it again if it was lost or stolen?” In the context of a product review, it’s an excellent question. If something is so useful or desirable that you couldn’t be without it, that’s about as good as a personal recommendation can get.

Not Just For Reviews

It turns out that the “lost or stolen” question makes a really good test during decluttering. What we would do in the event of the sudden disappearance of an item is a good gauge of that item’s actual necessity and value to us. The low hanging fruit (or maybe the fruit that’s already fallen from the tree?) is quickly eliminated by asking ourselves “If this was lost or stolen, would I even notice?”

What Would You Do?

Where “lost or stolen” really shines, though, is after the first few rounds, after the obvious fluff has already been eliminated. Now the decision process is more challenging. We need to separate the “that’s really nice” stuff from the “I really need that” stuff. As you look at an item, ask yourself “If this were lost or stolen (or broken beyond repair) would I immediately run out and buy another one just like it?” If you can honestly answer “yes” to that question, then the item is probably a keeper. If, on the other hand, you answered that you’d figure out how to get on without it, then you probably don’t need it. If your answer is “I’d have to replace it, but probably not with one like it,” that’s a sign that it serves a needed purpose, but is probably not a good match for your current lifestyle. In that case it might be worth considering replacing the less-than-ideal item with something more suitable. No hurry, though — you can wait until it needs replacing anyway.

Terrific Test

While this isn’t the answer to all decluttering dilemmas, such as what to do with sentimental and decorative things, the “lost or stolen” test is a great tool for making decisions regarding practical things. Can you think of any other  simple tests to help with decluttering decisions? What have you found that helps you separate the wheat from the chaff? Comments are open — don’t be shy!


13 responses to “Decluttering Decisions – The “Lost Or Stolen” Test

  1. I ask myself it an item is useful or loved. It has to be one or the other or out it goes.
    Also, I’m in the process of eliminating duplicates. Why did I ever have 3 staplers, 6 scissors, 2 tape dispensers, 2 hole punches (does anyone ever use these?), enough mugs for an army and the list goes on and on! Crazy!

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Hi Betty! Yeah, those duplicates sure add up, don’t they? Especially, as you’ve noticed, with office supplies.

  2. Great test idea, Mike. I use something similar. I also typically won’t buy something unless I have a specific use that will be paid for by a specific project. When I go through places like Costco with all their great sales or when I get great offers from and such I always ask myself, “Can I live without this?” The answer is almost always Yes!

    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      That’s a good test, too, Ed. Of course if it’s just for one-time use, maybe it can be rented or borrowed? Or at least sold or otherwise recycled once the project you needid it for is done.

  3. Enjoyed your post Mike – clearly I have a way to go on this LONG journey of de-cluttering though. At the moment I’m stuck on the ‘do you really need two of these question’. In my defence I know the answer to this question, alas the same can’t be said for everyone in my household. Onwards and upwards.


    • Mike | HomelessOnWheels

      Yes, it can be pretty hard to get out of the habit of keeping multiples of the same item “just in case” — I habit I’ll admit I haven’t completely broken myself.

  4. I like it. My twist on that is “If I really decide that I want to learn to… (play the guitar, tile a tabletop,etc) I can always buy another one. I guess it’s the ‘it’s replaceable’ test, even if I have no intention of ever replacing it.

  5. Mike | HomelessOnWheels

    Hi Julia! Yes, that’s an excellent approach. Most things can easily be replaced at a later date if it turns out you need it again.

    I took a look at your blog, and I love the concept. Just a short daily list of what you’ve gotten rid of that day. Hopefully you’ll eventually finish decluttering, but then you might have to find something different to write about 🙂

  6. in the back of my mind is a tiny house somewhere (hopefully somewhere cooler than here in climate).
    is that a dream at 66 yrs of age?
    if it is… it’s a grand one and one i can see happening.
    so… if it ALL got stolen tomorrow… i would just go buy some lawn chairs,
    a little table and a lamp. have always been able to sleep well on the floor… so even that would be okay!
    just sayin…
    tiny house with only useful, beautiful things… i’m coming after you!
    (it may take awhile. but once it’s in your head. it’s in your future.)
    and stay cool mike!
    tammy j

  7. Pingback: thinking about my “stuff” « Enough Is Enough Already

  8. Mike | HomelessOnWheels

    You could do it, Tammy! I suppose someone stealing everything would force it on you and maybe make the decision easier, but don’t hope for that to happen. THey’ll just take the good stuff and you’ll still have to figure out what to do with the rest. You could have a big “everything goes” yard sale (after safely stashing your few must-keep treasures) or hire an estate sale company to do it for you. Heck, if you’re looking to disappear, you could just let people think you died, and the bogus “edtate sale” would reinforce the illusion 🙂

  9. I like the concept and use it myself. When looking at purchasing something new, I ask myself, “Is it a one trick pony?” If I can’t use it for multiple things, I don’t buy it. The exception to this is the apple slicer/coreer that my wife made me repurchase when I donated the old one to the church’s rummage sale. SHE is not a one trick pony and I have to keep HER! (Grin) I see a lot of kitchen appliances and gadgets that I’d LIKE to have. However, usually they can be replaced with a good set of knives and some whisks and spoons.
    Keep up the good articles.

  10. I cleared out the excess in 2006 …….my house burned down and I had no renters insurance. At first glance a major setback but it quickly became a different thing altogether.

    I caught myself looking at stuff in stores and realizing I really didn’t need all of that crap that seems to invade our living space over time. That’s a great test,Mike. I also do the one year test,did I use this item or wear this sweater in the past year?

    Nope…….out it goes and the clutter stays minimal.

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