If I can’t wear it, spend it or eat it, I don’t want it. 

Learning to live with less. 

My birthday is this week and I LOVE birthdays. If you know me in real life, you know I get a glimmer in my eye when I talk about an upcoming birthday. I favor my birthday, but I also like celebrating the birthdays of my friends.

As my birthday approaches, I am asking my friends to remember that I absolutely want to celebrate with them, but I don’t want them to feel like they need to buy me anything.

A few years ago a close friend’s mother unexpectedly died. She received a diagnosis and four months later she was gone. In addition to the grief my friend felt, he was left sifting through all her possessions; the things she meant to throw away or give to someone or sell at her next yard sale. She had a mountain of belongings and my friend was left cleaning everything up without knowing what she would have wanted him to do. It was extremely painful for him.

As I helped him clean out his mother’s house, I realized I had many things I wasn’t using, I probably wasn’t going to ever complete my half-started projects and I better tell the people I loved why I saved the things I saved. I realized I wanted things I didn’t need and had too many things I didn’t use. As we cleaned her house, I made a commitment to pare down.

I am sentimental so reducing my belongings has been a difficult task. I have been actively paring down for two years and have picked up a few tips along the way.

Use it. Then give it to someone else.

It started with books. I’d find myself buying books at airports, gas stations or random bookstores while on a trip. I had piles of books that I was never going to read again. I had overflowing bookshelves and piles of started, but not finished, books. It wasn’t practical to keep them all around the house so I started giving books to friends. When they finished reading them, I suggested they give the book to someone else to read or donate it.

I now use a tablet for reading and rarely buy books, but my policy of using something then giving it to someone else remains.

Not used in a year? Get rid of it.

This applies to clothes, shoes, books, hobbies, projects, entertaining supplies, collections, gifts for others, electronics and cooking supplies (really anything in your home). If you donate it, you give someone else the opportunity to use, and love, something that was clutter in your home.

If everything is special, then nothing is special.

I keep a handful of notes and letters from family members. Not all of them. I take photos of things I like and then get rid of the object. When cleaning out something I’ll read all the notes and letters I find. Perhaps this is the moment I was saving it for? Once I’ve re-read it, it is time to let go.

Why is this special?

If your loved ones don’t know why something is special, you need to tell them why. If you don’t, they have every right to throw it away. One day you’re not going to be there to tell the significance of an item. If your loved ones don’t know the backstory, they are going to dump it, give it away or sell it. If something is important to you, say something — and keep it organized. Don’t burden the people you love with your mess.

Move often.

When you move you get the opportunity to evaluate how much you really like your stuff. I pare down before *and* after each move. The old towels and blankets used during a move can be given to an animal shelter for bedding and your leftover moving supplies will be helpful to a friend who is planning a move. Unless you are going to move again in a year, don’t hold on to the moving supplies (you can always rent boxes next time).

Help someone else deal with a mess.

I guarantee you will want to dump, give away or sell stuff after you help someone else deal with a mess. And as an added bonus, if you help them they’ll likely help you the next time you have to clean out something. ☺

Talk about it.

In your annual meeting with your family talk about what you plan to give away (and then give it away). Ask people to help you clean out a space.

Buy and release.

When you bring in something new to your home, find something in your home to give away. If you buy a shirt pick another one to donate or throw away. I got some awesome wine glasses from friends for my birthday this year. I can’t wait to get rid of my old ones!

Buy fewer things.

You don’t have to buy everything you love.

Don’t get discouraged.

Though I’ve been actively paring down I still find I need to work to make more progress every year.

Bonus tip

When buying gifts.

If I can’t wear it, spend it or eat it, I probably don’t want it. If I give a gift that can’t be worn, spent or eaten, I anticipate it might be re-gifted. And promise me, if you re-gift something from me it won’t hurt my feelings at all.

Do you have a similar mantra? How do you deal with clutter in your home? How do you keep yourself from wanting impractical things? Tell me about it.

Thanks for reading and conversing. I write about culture, designing for disabilities, business, science and health and the intersection of all of these things. Explore more on Medium and my website or contact me.

(An earlier draft of this article appeared on VirginiaIngram.com.)

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