Four years ago, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying shook a never-ending cycle of consumption to its core. All of a sudden, it seemed like everyone was taking to their closets to suss out the joy sparked by every T-shirt and pair of shoes, mercilessly culling items that weren’t up to snuff.
While the internet is overflowing with advice from people who were apparently able to effortlessly part with half of their worldly possessions, there’s surprisingly less discussion about what happens next. Even though finally getting rid of old jeans and ill-fitting sweaters can feel incredibly liberating, the days and weeks right after a major clean-out can also be a vulnerable time, both financially and emotionally.
More specifically, this can be a time of regret and rebounding. Caught up in the desire to simplify, many people find themselves throwing out things they later miss — or feeling compelled to toss items they still like in order to make room for new ones. We may have a cultural obsession with decluttering, but in practice, it hasn’t replaced the obsession with buying more. Instead, it’s quietly enabled it, creating more opportunities for us to chase the psychological reward that comes with buying new stuff.
“It’s not like we can wave our magic wands and all of a sudden we become these wonderful, mindful consumers.”
“The first response after a closet clean-out is usually, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how much stuff I’ve gotten rid of — I feel lighter already!’” says Rachel Rosenthal, a professional organizer based in Washington, D.C., who’s spent more than a decade helping clients declutter their homes. “Then, there’s the second response: ‘Oh my gosh, I have, like, three things left to wear in here.’”
There are several reasons why the desire to pare things down rarely sticks. For one, we’re naturally wired to chase the high that comes with purchasing new things. “New items release a tiny hit of dopamine in the brain because they are novel,” says Mike Dow, a clinical psychologist and the author of several books on mental health. “For a fleeting moment, they help us feel good.”
Given how much our sense of self is tied up in our physical possessions, it can be difficult to view an empty closet as an accomplishment, even when that was the goal. When faced with newly freed-up space, a shopping spree to restock can seem like the inevitable next step to keep those good feelings going. Some brands have even begun to capitalize on this desire by offering a discount on a new garment when you donate an older one.
One round of getting rid of things typically isn’t enough to undo years of ingrained consumption habits. Getting comfortable with owning less is “a major behavioral change,” explains Amanda Jefferson, a KonMari consultant from Philadelphia. It’s unreasonable, she says, to expect her clients to get rid of things without experiencing any impulses to shop immediately afterwards. “It’s not like we can wave our magic wands and all of a sudden we become these wonderful, mindful consumers.”
In fact, the opposite is true: Breaking the cycle of purge-and-purchase is a slow, effortful process, one that requires you to rethink the way you approach shopping in general.
For one thing, there’s a strategy to the timing of sorting through your existing possessions: Regularly evaluating and tossing things as needed, as opposed to big yearly clean-outs, can make it easier to keep track of new purchases and avoid the pressure to rebound shop. “With gradually cleaning things out, you can compartmentalize the different areas to weed through,” Rosenthal says, giving you a better sense of what you need and avoiding the panicky feeling that you’re suddenly left with too little.
If you’d prefer to do a major overhaul, though, the first step is to become more mindful about any purchases made immediately after parting with old possessions. To help prevent unnecessary clothing spending, for example, both Jefferson and Rosenthal help clients in those vulnerable post-cleanout days to make a specific inventory of gaps that have opened up in their wardrobe — for example, “white button-down shirt” rather than just “shirts.” And Jefferson likes to give her clients a card they can keep in their wallets (ideally, right in front of their credit cards) that encourages them to think carefully about their motivations for making a purchase, with questions like, “If I had to wait in line for 30 minutes to buy this, would I abandon it and just walk out of the store?”
It also helps to take a critical eye to the aspirational power we ascribe to our possessions, and often to our wardrobe specifically. One big reason people tend to buy new clothing after a closet clean-out — or accumulate tons of clothing in the first place — is because they want their clothing to reflect who they want to be.
“When I hear people talk about the need for shiny, fresh new things,” Rosenthal says, “I’ll ask them, ‘Why do you think a new pair of jeans is going to do something for you that the old ones aren’t? What’s the difference?’”
Devoting real time to unpacking the underlying reasons behind the desire to purchase unnecessary items — whether it’s a big life event like a divorce, or something like dissatisfaction with physical changes after childbirth — can go a long way towards preventing shopping from becoming a cyclical Band-Aid, or a rebound mechanism. A closet-clean out is meant to feel and do good in our lives, but it won’t erase underlying issues that are causing the desire to shop.
Nor will it be as lucrative as some may think. When items that were expensive, or still have the tags attached, get relegated to the toss pile, consignment or resale apps like Poshmark and Depop can be an alluring option to recoup some of the cost (and, of course, contribute to a fund for new items). The problem is that they can also lower the stakes on potential purchases: If I don’t like it, I can always resell it later.
“When they try to consign, I try to remind my clients about the rule of thirds,” Jefferson says. “If something cost $300 to purchase, a consignment store is likely going to sell the item for a third of that price, and give you a third of that price, [so] you’ll get about $30 back.”
Considering how much rhetoric around decluttering focuses on trading up — one new high-quality piece of clothing, the thinking goes, will be of more use than all those junky T-shirts you have lying around — it’s math worth remembering. Getting rid of cheaper things with the express purpose of buying something nicer to replace them is fine, if you’re really over the cheaper things and really into the nicer one. But it couldn’t hurt to pause and take stock of your motivations before doing so.
“Waste,” Jefferson says, “happens at the moment of purchase.”
So, get rid of as much as you’d like, and stop there — and if you’re going to buy more, make it an entirely separate process.