Spring Cleaning: The Things We Carry

How living with less can help us get more out of life

Take a look around your home. How many items do you think you have? Go ahead. Take a guess. 

If your household is average, that number probably hovers somewhere around 300,000 items. That’s a lot of stuff. And yet it probably didn’t seem to take much effort or time to accumulate it. 

Getting rid of those items once we no longer need them – well, that can be another story. 

“There is a whole lot of emotion involved,” said Heidi Penchoff, owner of The Simple Solution, a consignment and resale shop and estate-sale services in Ephraim. “It’s amazing how emotionally attached people are to their things.”

Sort, Remove, Repeat

Part of Penchoff’s job involves helping clients filter what to keep and what to either sell, donate or recycle. One method she uses is the pyramid process.

“We talk about it as a pyramid,” she explained. “First, go through and hand-pick what you know you want to keep for sure.”
Then remove the rest – immediately. She said that’s where most people get stuck, but “there is a little bit of freedom that comes from starting to get rid of stuff,” Penchoff said. “Especially when you realize it didn’t really hurt that much to do.”

The next step: Go through everything you decided to keep and filter it again. This exercise, Penchoff said, not only makes her clients confront which belongings matter, but why they matter. 

“Defining this is the most important part,” she said. “Some people want to save things that have actual dollar value, and others save things that have sentimental value.”

Do you have really good memories of a certain item, and that’s why you want to keep it? If the answer is no, then let it go.

Acquiring a set of china or porcelain dinnerware used to be a rite of passage, and although some people still collect it or keep it for sentimental value, it’s not an item typically found on the modern wedding registry. For many people, Grandma’s fine china becomes one more thing they aren’t quite sure what to do with. They don’t use it, and it takes up space. But some aren’t ready to part with it either. 
One tip Penchoff offered is to ask yourself how the item makes you feel. “If it matters to you, keep it,” she said. “But if it doesn’t, nobody is going to know otherwise.”

‘Just Say No’ to ‘Just in Case’
Another place where people can get bogged down involves “just-in-case” items. According to bestselling authors and Netflix stars Joshua Fields-Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus – better known as The Minimalists – just-in-case items are rarely used, take up space and, if we’re honest, often aren’t needed at all. 

To combat the clutter these items can create, Fields-Millburn and Nicodemus suggest applying the 20/20 rule: Remove anything you rarely or no longer use that you can replace for less than $20 in about 20 minutes – especially those items that can easily be borrowed or purchased second hand. 

For example, do you really need 10 coffee mugs to replace one if it breaks? Are you really going to read the book that’s been sitting on the shelf unread for the last five years? Do you really need to store the supplies for that hobby you no longer do but might take up again someday?

“You hate to get rid of something you might need, but you get caught up in that cycle,” Penchoff said. 

Removing just-in-case items can eliminate quite a bit of excess from your space, yet if the item is absolutely needed, you can easily borrow it or inexpensively replace it. 

Consider Your New Lifestyle

One household item that Penchoff routinely observes tripping people up in their downsizing efforts is clothing, and especially career-related items. Often, when our life goes through a major transition – whether that’s a significant career shift, retirement or moving to a smaller home – the things you used and associated with your previous lifestyle no longer fit. 

“If there is a part of your life that changed, and your wardrobe changed with it, get rid of it,” Penchoff said. “People will move up here and out of a profession, but no one is wearing that suit coat or pant suit to the Sister Bay Bowl.”

Start Small

Whether you’re downsizing the just-in-case items in only one closet or your entire house, Penchoff offers this advice: Start somewhere. 

“You can’t let yourself become overwhelmed,” she said. “So even if it’s taking one box and saying, ‘I am going to fill this one box,’ or choosing one cupboard or drawer to go through, just pick something and start.”

And if you get stuck, ask for help. Sometimes a neutral party – a nonjudgmental friend or professionals such as Penchoff and her team – can help you sift through the emotion we all attach to the things we carry. 

“If you feel paralyzed, enlist some help,” Penchoff said. “Not everyone can let go easily, but I can tell you nobody is sorry that they did afterward.”

When it comes to deciding what to keep and what to let go of, there is no right or wrong answer. 

“It is so individual, and there are so many dynamics involved,” Penchoff said. 

The one constant? The emotion we connect to our things. “What matters, and why does it matter? You really need to figure that out first,” Penchoff said. “Because really, these things are really just things.”

The Stats on Our Stuff

• An article in the New York Times Magazine reported that one out of every 10 Americans rents off-site storage, making it the fastest-growing segment of the commercial real estate industry during the past four decades. In fact, the United States has approximately 50,000 storage facilities – more than five times the number of Starbucks.

• A Cluttered Life: Middle Class in Abundance, a University of California television series that followed a team of UCLA anthropologists, reported that just 3.1% of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40% of the toys consumed globally. 

• According to Forbes, the average American woman owns 30 outfits: one for every day of the month. In 1930, that figure was nine. The average American family spends $1,700 on clothes annually, but it also throws away 65 pounds of clothing in that same year.

• Twenty-five percent of people with two-car garages don’t have room to park cars inside them, and 32% have room for only one vehicle.

• The Daily Mail reported survey findings that revealed people spend a total of 3,680 hours (or 153 days) searching for misplaced items every year. The research found we lose up to nine items every day, or 198,743 in a lifetime. Phones, keys, glasses and paperwork top the list.• An article in the Wall Street Journal reported that Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on items they do not need.

Minimalism 101

Ready to start minimizing the amount of stuff in your space? Here are a few additional resources to get you started.

The Minimalists.

The Minimalists Podcast

Hosted by Joshua Fields-Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists Podcast is one of the most popular choices on Apple Podcasts. The bestselling authors also have written several books on the topics of minimalism and authentic living and have produced two documentaries (Less Is Now and Minimalism) that are available on Netflix.

Kon Kari Method
In 2011, the Kon Kari Method – an organizing method that encouraged tidying by category, not location, and that was made popular by the book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up – encouraged people to keep only those items that “spark joy.” 

In her Netflix reality series, Marie Kondo brings her tidying method to people who are struggling to balance work and home life surrounded by the “stuff” in their lives. 

Project 333

Created by author and blogger ( Courtney Carver, Project 333 is the fashion challenge that transforms closet clutter and helps you discover the essentials in your wardrobe and your life. Select 33 items and wear just those articles of clothing for 33 days. Check it out at

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

The concept of “essentialism” is more than learning how to better manage your time and increase your productivity. It’s about homing in on what matters most to you and filling your life with only the right things. In his book, author Greg McKeown helps readers learn how to discern what is absolutely essential in their lives, then how to eliminate the excess.