Photo via "Hoarders" © A&E

“I paid a dollar for a silk skirt, 25 cents for that cut-crystal dish and 50 cents for this hardcover book with gilded-edge pages.”

No, that's not my great-grandmother talking about what things cost during the Great Depression. That's me circa 2014, bragging about various awesome and super-cheap thrift shop, library sale or flea market finds I've made recently.

Not that I deserve any special credit for this — spend enough time roaming around the right rummage sales, charity bazaars and other secondhand-item emporiums, and of course you'll find various wonderful things selling for ridiculous-cheap prices. That's the whole point!

But a couple years ago it led to a problem for my household, a problem shared by so many of my fellow Americans, they've helped to make self-storage rentals a $24 billion per year business in this country: we had so much stuff, and kept acquiring so much more, eventually we plain ran out of room to keep it all.

Books especially – my husband and I love to haunt library sales and other secondhand-book bazaars, and when prices usually range from a dime to a dollar or two, even thrifty and frugal book-lovers (especially thrifty-n-frugal book-lovers) can soon find ourselves in possession of vastly more books than shelf and even basement space to store them. And more clothing than closet space, plus enough knickknacks to overwhelm the display areas they're supposed to decorate, all in addition to the stuff we've received as gifts over the years …. my household never quite crossed that fine line separating “cluttered abode” from “outright hoarders' den,” but another two library-sale visits or three flea-market scores probably would've shoved us over the limit.

No extra space

But we never went so far as to rent extra storage space. After all: the whole point of bargain-hunting is to be thrifty and save money, whereas committing to pay additional monthly bills to rent extra space is the exact opposite. Rather than rent space to store our ever-growing cache of stuff, we thankfully came to our senses and implemented two immediate and obvious changes: stop acquiring new things (at least until we have room for them), and start discarding some of the things we already have.

There's a popular genre of “reality” TV show starring outright hoarders who start with a house infinitely more cluttered than mine ever was, then they hire a bunch of haulers and clear everything out in a single day or two. That makes for dramatic television, but it's not how I de-cluttered my home and basement: no outside help, but instead of rushing to fix everything in a single day or a weekend I took a more relaxed pace, ultimately taking about three weeks (and two weekends) in all.

Technically speaking, I never did set out to “declutter the whole apartment”: that task was too dauntingly huge to contemplate. Instead, each day I dedicated a small block of time to meeting a couple of small, easy goals: here's one empty kitchen garbage bag and one empty box — we'll fill the bag with clothes and the box with books to donate to the thrift store near my workplace.

De-cluttering the whole apartment might be too much to manage, but filling a box and a bag's easy enough. I didn't even mind repeating that simple task a couple more times, enough to fill my car's backseat and trunk with donation bags and boxes. And then I had to stop for the evening, or until I unloaded my car at the thrift store.

A sense of liberation

I don't usually enjoy cleaning or housekeeping tasks (and have never met anyone who does), but I did feel a genuine sense of satisfaction – even liberation, if that makes sense – when I'd remove those items from my home, and see piles of clutter slowly melt away and eventually vanish. I imagined it like spring thaw after an unusually brutal winter: yeah, our apartment's still buried in snow, but I can see the drifts are a little smaller today than they were yesterday, and tomorrow they'll shrink smaller still.

The one problem with de-cluttering – especially for frugal types – is overcoming maxims like “waste not, want not” and other ideas which work well in moderation, but are counterproductive when taken to extremes: habits like thriftiness and bargain-hunting are supposed to make your life better, not worse.

Gathering garbage in bags and throwing them away would've been easy for my husband and me – if we'd had any garbage cluttering our place. But we didn't. Our problem wasn't garbage; our problem was wonderful, useful, good-condition stuff, only far too much of it. Too many books, too much clothing, too many glass or porcelain items. And, of course, for every book and item we gave away or threw away, we could easily imagine multiple reasons why we ought to keep it, just in case it one day proved useful.

There's no fast-and-easy trick to help overcome that attitude. But remember: your stuff is supposed to enhance your life, not make it annoying. Like all those books in my old place: I love reading books, but I didn't like seeing piles (or stacked boxes) of them in every direction I looked. An attractive or interesting knickknack or tchotchke loses its charm if it becomes just one more clump in a pile of clutter, and you can own the most gorgeously flattering outfit in the world and it won't benefit you if it's hanging forgotten at the back of your clutter-crammed closet.

If your place is always a mess, not even because you can't bother putting things in their places but because you have no places to put them — yeah, seriously, you need to clean your place out. But you don't have to do it all at once, and it's probably better if you don't even try that. Just start with one bag, one box, or one basket, and fill that with things to discard. Then do it again tomorrow — or today, if you still feel the momentum.

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