Try Decluttering This Spring Instead of Just Cleaning

It's time to clear out the surplus belongings we acquired during the pandemic.

toddler in a cluttered room

Matt Carr / Getty Images

It always happens at this time of year. Winter ends, spring arrives, and I start panicking about how much stuff there is in our house. "We've got to declutter!" I tell my husband, and then proceed to spend hours stuffing clothes and toys into boxes and delivering them to the thrift store. I don't know why it always hits me in spring, but perhaps it's the same reason why people like to spring-clean their homes. It's a way to banish the stale remnants of winter and let in the sunlight. It marks a fresh start.

This year, it seems like there's more stuff than usual, and I hadn't made a connection as to why until I read an article by Joshua Becker. He is a decluttering expert and minimalist coach who's written numerous books on the topic. He explained that people acquired many new belongings over the past two years. "By the middle of the pandemic, Americans were spending 38% more on consumer goods in the 'home category.'" While there were also anecdotes of thrift stores being overwhelmed by donations as Americans decluttered with all their spare time, they didn't hesitate to fill their homes right back up again.

Gym and fitness equipment, toys and games for kids, hobby materials to keep us entertained, adopted pets and their various add-ons, home decor and furnishings to improve the spaces we were suddenly inhabiting for so many hours each day—whether it was retail therapy or a legitimate need to replace a service we would've received elsewhere, Americans were happy to shop.

Now, as life gradually returns to normal and we can once again go to the gym, take our kids to a play date, and go out when we crave entertainment, the items in our homes may start to feel superfluous once again. We may also realize that we never needed those items in the first place, that we could've made do with what we already owned instead of panic-buying.

This is why Becker suggests that this year, perhaps more than ever, "we should consider the benefits of Spring Decluttering, not just Spring Cleaning." He writes: 

"Decluttering the unneeded possessions from our home frees up space in our home (and garage). It frees up time because there is less to clean and manage. It frees up money in the long run. And it is a better way to live for the environment and sets a better example for our kids. At almost every turn, Spring Decluttering is better than Spring Cleaning."

This is not an easy task, ever. There is no convenient time in which to engage in a deep and deliberate decluttering of your home. But now is better than later—and you might as well get started on it before the summer comes.

In doing so, you'll have to reckon with some difficult questions. These are things I've mulled over many times while tackling the ongoing clutter in my own home. These are not meant to depress or discourage you, but to help put the role of physical belongings into perspective.

You May Be Overvaluing Your Stuff

An item is only worth what a stranger will pay for it—and that might be far less than you paid because they have no emotional attachment to it. Accept the fact that you might make less cash when you sell it, but that you'll earn the freedom of not having to own or maintain that item anymore. That's worth a lot.

Most People Won't Want Your Stuff in the Long Run

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, especially after reading an article in the Globe and Mail about the overstuffed homes many elderly people leave for their children to dismantle after they die. It was described as "the great junk transfer." In a way, this transfer prolongs the grieving period, forcing children and grandchildren to spend months emptying a jam-packed home and exacerbating their sense of loss. Don't leave that cruel legacy to your friends or family. You may think you're decades away from death, but keep this question in the back of your mind: "What if I died tomorrow? Who would want this and who would deal with it?"

Change Your Approach

Know that the sense of having too much clutter will never truly go away unless you shift your relationship with stuff. You can purge to perfection this time round, but you'll have to stop bringing stuff in if you want it to stay that way—and that will be hard to resist when your home feels so beautifully airy and spacious again. Do some serious soul-searching next time a desire for retail therapy rears its expensive head. Remind yourself of the resources required to create every thing you buy. Some environmental perspective may make it seem less important.

Someone Can Use Your Stuff Today

Last but not least, if you're struggling to let go of something you think you might need someday, remind yourself of this: someone needs it today. There's someone out there in the world who could put this item to use right away. Is that not a better fate for the item than to store it indefinitely for a vague future purpose? We live in a world of abundance. You'll be able to find a replacement if you need it badly enough.

And if the condition of your item is too poor to donate or resell, that's not a reason to let it linger in your home; don't settle for being its final resting place just because you feel guilty about throwing it out. Give yourself permission to do so—and avoid filling that space with yet another purchase.

I'll never be a minimalist to the extent that Becker is. I even wrote an article during the pandemic called "In Praise of Maximalism" that expressed gratitude for all the surplus stuff in my home that was suddenly a source of entertainment to my family. But there is a balance to be struck between too much stuff and too little, and most of us—myself included—are erring on the side of too much these days. Make this spring your decluttering spring, and then the cleaning will happen automatically.