Home » Blog » [Listener Question] How to Declutter When You Struggle With Waste [Episode 32]

[Listener Question] How to Declutter When You Struggle With Waste [Episode 32]

In this episode of the Simply + Fiercely show, I’m answering a listener question: how to declutter when you hate waste? From wasted time and money to the considerable environmental impact, I’m sharing practical tips that will help you let go, and a mindful approach to reducing future waste.

In This Episode:

  • Practical tips for responsible decluttering
  • How to take imperfect action
  • My #1 tip for avoiding future waste

Featured In This Episode:

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Note: this is not an exact transcript and has been edited for clarity.

[Listener Question] How to Declutter When You Struggle With Waste

Hey everybody, it’s Jen here, and welcome back to The Simply + Fiercely Show. Today, we’re talking about decluttering, or more specifically, how to tackle clutter when you are either concerned about or just struggling with the topic of waste.

Let me just say that this episode was inspired by a listener question. They sent me quite an in-depth email about decluttering in general. I’m only tackling one half of it now, talking about this topic of scarcity and waste.

The second question was about how to declutter when you’re struggling to let go of the past. And honestly, that is such a big topic that I’m probably going to have to cover in a later episode, maybe a two-parter somewhere down the line.

So today we are on the topic of how to declutter when you’re struggling with waste.

I just want to start by saying that waste, when we’re talking about decluttering, can manifest in several different ways.

In the email that I received from a listener, their focus when they talked about waste was really on the environment. They included some specific examples, and they were all centered around items that have a lot of potential, but they’re broken and the person who sent the email doesn’t feel that they’re capable of fixing it.

For example, one of the things they said was an air mattress that had a pretty big hole in it, or a toy that was broken. These are things where they didn’t feel like they were capable of making the repairs, so the item was no longer useful to them. But at the same time, they’re very aware that there’s somebody out there in the world who could probably repair these items and give them a second life.

The relation between scarcity and waste to decluttering

This is a very valid question, something that I’m going to come back to in a moment. But I also want to point out that when we talk about scarcity or waste when it comes to decluttering, it’s not always so literal.

Sometimes the struggle with waste is more of a feeling, like guilt or just that anxious feeling when you know that you have wasted time, money, energy, or a combination of these things. Because owning stuff comes with a cost.

There’s the money that you spent shopping, there is the time that you spent shopping, the time that you have spent caring for the item, and potentially the ongoing cost of caring for something. You’re giving up space in your home. And so, it feels like a waste that you’ve invested so much of yourself into this item, and then just getting rid of it feels really uncomfortable.

That’s another example of how waste can be related to decluttering and why it makes it hard to declutter.

Just on a side note, I want to mention that in my experience when people are struggling to declutter, the reason for the struggles is often very layered. There are so many reasons why people feel attached to clutter.

The way I always describe it when I’m working with my clients is that it’s sort of like a spider web where you’ve got these threads. I always imagine them as golden threads that are kind of woven between you and your item. All these different strings represent different attachments.

When you want to declutter, it’s almost like unraveling the threads. You have to untangle each of these threads individually to get to a place where you feel comfortable and confident with letting go.

Some of the threads that we’re dealing with today are where you might feel guilty about the environment or you might feel upset about time and money that you’ve wasted,

Or it might not have anything to do with the environment, but you might just hate the idea of being wasteful. I think that feeling often comes when people have an upbringing or just a lived experience, something from their past where they have had to deal with times of scarcity.

Some of my clients’ parents lived through the world wars or the Depression and they’ve experienced real scarcity and they’ve drilled into their children that, “You need to never be wasteful. You need to make the most out of everything.”

Or maybe you’ve personally gone through an experience where you have had financial insecurity, so you need to be a little bit more careful with your goods. You don’t want to declutter something and then need it later because you have a genuine need due to financial insecurity.

Those are other examples of when people struggle with waste.

Or maybe it’s out of alignment with your values. I know a lot of people where it goes against what they believe.

Whatever the circumstances, I think waste is a huge challenge for so many people and that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. I’m going to give you some practical tips that will help you navigate these decisions.

One thing I want to be really clear about is that there is no one best or one right solution for everyone, which might surprise some people.

I know that, as a minimalist, as someone who teaches and also preaches about the benefits of decluttering, you might expect me to say, “You should never keep things just in case.” But I’m also a realist. And in reality, we all have very different experiences.

So, for example, if you live in a very rural area where it’s difficult for you to get in the shops, or maybe your body size is outside of standard sizing, maybe it’s very difficult for you to replace clothing, maybe you are currently dealing with financial insecurity.

I know that where I live in Australia right now, there are massive issues with inflation, interest rates, and the cost of living. It’s just wild. Things have gotten so expensive, and I’m pretty sure this is happening in many places around the world.

So, yes, I believe in decluttering, I believe in minimalism, but I’m also a realist.

So, how much is enough? What is the right balance? It’s not one size fits all. You have to consider your circumstances, and some people need more stuff, just in case, than others, and that’s okay.

But the point is that it’s a fine line. There is this mix of practical and emotional challenges, and that’s what I want to help you navigate in this episode. All right. So, let’s dive in.

The value proposition or the pros and cons of decluttering

First and foremost, in almost any decluttering situation, there is a value proposition.

It’s pretty much like a pros and cons list. You’ve got to think, “What are the reasons why I want to declutter?” Do you want to declutter because you want more space in your home, you want less to clean, less to trip over?

But on the other hand, you’ve got to weigh up what if you genuinely need this someday? And there’s also the cost of replacing something if you might need it someday.

So, as I said, sorry if I’m repeating myself, but I think this is really important, there is no one right answer. I can’t say what’s best for you.

But what I can say from my own experience and my experience working with many clients, is that most people don’t have their accounting right. They’re not fully looking at the pros and cons of decluttering.

We are very good at looking at the cons.

If you’ve ever gone to declutter and all your brain can think about is like, “Oh, look, I spent so much money on this. I feel so bad wasting this.” What we’re envisioning is the pain of, “Oh, what if I get rid of this sweater and then in two years I’m invited to a party and that sweater would go perfectly with the dress? How annoying would it be to not have the exact right outfit?”

We’re really, really good at imagining and envisioning that type of pain when it comes to getting rid of something.

What I’ve found is that most people massively downplay the cost of keeping their clutter. So, they can vividly imagine what it’s like to get rid of it, but they’re downplaying the ongoing cost of hanging on to their clutter.

Thinking about a sweater again, I know how easy it is to think, “Oh, it’s just a sweater. I’ve got room in my closet. I’ll just keep this sweater because I don’t want to have that experience of needing it someday and not having it, and I don’t want to feel the guilt of wasting money, and I don’t want to feel the guilt of contributing to the environment.”

Decluttering and its impact on mental health

Like I said, those are real, valid concerns but what we downplay are things like the link between clutter and our mental health.

We all know that conceptually, but because one item doesn’t feel like it’s significant, we downplay it.

But in my experience, it’s like that saying – death by 1,000 cuts.

One sweater might not matter, but multiply that by all of the clutter in your home, and now you’ve got a situation where it feels like you can’t breathe. You are suffocating in your own home, and you have nowhere to go, nowhere to escape, nowhere where you can truly feel at peace.

Maybe I’m projecting. That’s how I felt when my life was really cluttered.

And so, when you are doing this calculation about whether you should get rid of something, yes, it’s valid to be concerned about wasted time and wasted money, but don’t downplay the impact on your well-being.

That is very valid as well. When you hang on to stuff, you’re probably wasting time and energy every day. Money too. You’ve got to maintain your stuff, store your stuff.

Also, I’ve heard so many people tell me, and again, I’ve experienced this too, you end up buying duplicates of things because you don’t even know what you own. You can’t find those garden shears when you need them, so you just pick up another pair next time you’re in the shops. And next thing you know, you’ve got six pairs of garden shears.

So, there’s that kind of ongoing cost. And there’s also the fact that that ongoing cost, especially the energy and the way that it feels in your home, is something that keeps compounding because it’s like you spent $30 on that sweater and you spent $30 on that once.

But if you are paying the price of living in a cluttered home, you pay that every day, every day, every day, every day. And that’s where it comes back to the whole idea of death of 1,000 cuts.

So, again, I am a realist. I accept that there are real situations where you want to hang on to things, but it’s just also important that when you are doing that mental calculation in your head you are really making sure that you fully understand the cost of keeping your items. All right?

Hopefully, that gives you some perspective on the one type of waste, which is a mental sort of game dealing with the wasted time, wasted money kind of angle.

There are other aspects of waste.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

As I said, the initial question from the listener was about the environment, where we’re also struggling with our values. It feels wrong to throw away things when they could still have a purpose.

Plus, we don’t want to be filling up the landfill. I think we all know over-consumption is a massive issue. I have a podcast planned, maybe the next episode or in the next few, where I want to talk about overconsumption. But we’re just all aware we’re using too many resources, we’re filling up landfills, we’re shipping our rubbish overseas. It’s a bad situation.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Reduce, reuse, and recycle” and I’m all here for it.

I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I just need to remind people that when you’re talking about decluttering and trying to be mindful of waste, in the vast majority of situations there are no perfect solutions.

This is why you always hear so much emphasis put on that first step, reduce. You reduce first before you reuse and recycle.

This is why for those of you who have been following me for a long time, not just on the podcast, but perhaps on social media or my blog, you’ll know that, yes, I’ve created a lot of content about decluttering, but I also talk all the time about how to buy less in the first place. Because that’s how we really break the cycle.

I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing to recycle something that you’re getting rid of now. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to do that, of course you could.

But the real impact on the environment is going to be, how can I buy 10 fewer items in the future?

We need to be constantly reducing, reducing, reducing.

On a side note, if you work with me in any of my programs, I have two major decluttering programs. There is Clear Your Clutter, which is my signature program. It’s an eight-week group program that I teach twice a year, launching in January and July.

Or I have a closet decluttering program, the One-Day Closet Cleanse, which you can join anytime.

In both of those programs, if you do want to work with me and learn from me, I focus on teaching you how to declutter in a way that breaks that cycle.

I believe that when done right, decluttering is a learning opportunity.

Every single thing that you get rid of is a lesson. It teaches you something about what you don’t need, about what you shouldn’t buy. And if you are paying close attention, you can apply what you learn and consume less in the future.

So, that’s actually one of my tips for when you’re dealing with waste and decluttering in general. You can’t change the past. Yes, there are some things that you can do to be more responsible for your decluttering, but it is never going to be perfect.

First Tip- Learn as much as you can from your clutter and not repeat the mistake over and over again

The first step is always to make sure you learn as much as you can from your clutter.

Look for clues, look for patterns. Anytime you’re getting rid of something, ask yourself, “What is it about this item that is causing me to get rid of it?”

So, if it’s something that’s broken, maybe you can learn something about the quality. Maybe you say, “Okay, I don’t buy this brand anymore. I don’t buy this type of material,” or “I need to care for it in a better way.”

Or if you’re decluttering something you don’t wear, you can say, “Okay. Well, I’ve realized I don’t like that color on me,” or “That style is something that I admire in other people, but I don’t genuinely like to wear.”

There’s so much valuable information in what we declutter.

Of course, as I said, again, there are no perfect solutions, but learning a lesson once instead of repeating a mistake over and over and over has the potential to reduce so much waste in the future.

So, taking on that mindset shift of this is a learning experience that’s going to reduce waste in the future and help me deal with creating that small amount of waste in the present time.

And also, acknowledging that as unpleasant as it is to think about, you created the waste the minute that you bought something. Now, it’s more about how you can delay it going into a landfill, but the real goal is to create that reduction in the first place.

Second Tip – Decluttering and giving away items for free

Having said that, I do want to share some practical tips, and some things that I do that helped me be more responsible with my decluttering.

These aren’t mindset things. These are some practical tips, what to do with things that still have value.

It’s quite funny when I was planning this episode out because one of these things, probably my top tip is something that I did myself about three hours ago.

So, let’s dive in.

When you have something that would still have value to someone else. So, as I said, it could be something that’s broken and just you don’t know how to fix it, or it’s just something that you don’t use anymore, so you can see it’s still valuable to someone else, but it no longer has value in your life.

Yeah, you can try to sell these things. It’s a lot harder if it’s broken but not impossible. Selling things takes a lot of time and energy.

So, if you have the capacity to try to sell things, go for it. But if not, my absolute favorite way of decluttering things, or should I say getting rid of the things that I declutter, is by listing them for free online.

 I know this is going to depend a bit on what you are personally comfortable with and perhaps the size of the town or the community where you live. But I have had such amazing success by listing things for free on Facebook.

Sometimes it’s on Facebook Marketplace or in various Facebook groups that I’m in, there’s one for my local community. There are buy-nothing groups online. Any of these kinds of communities are a great way to pass your stuff on to other people.

For example, my kids are three and six, so we’re growing out of a lot of baby stuff. I had a ton of things that I really wanted to get rid of. And again, just to prove that I’m human and I’m just like you in many ways, these were items that were too good to get rid of.

I didn’t want to just dump them at the op shop. That’s what we call secondhand shops, like Goodwill in America, because I know that so many items that are good items, just get lost in secondhand shops.

Clothes are a little bit better because everybody’s looking for clothes. I had a swim nappy or a reusable swim nappy that’s from a really expensive brand, it’s in great condition, but I know if I give it to the charity shop, it’s probably not going to be found by someone who’s going to use it.

So, I’ve been hanging onto these things for some time trying to find a good way to get rid of them, thinking that I was going to sell them. In fact, my husband listed some of them online, but they just weren’t moving.

So, anyway, they were sitting as clutter in my house. As some of you may know, I live in a really small place. If you’re new here, it’s around 660 square feet, two-bedroom apartment, which is small. And as I said, I’ve got two kids and my husband.

I had tucked these things out of the way and was waiting for the perfect situation to get rid of them. But then, we went away for a couple of days and came home last night. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve been away on a trip and we are unpacking and there’s clutter in the house, it’s just one thing on top of another.

My husband and I were just like, “We can’t take this anymore. We need to get rid of this stuff. We’re not going to try and sell it. We just need to get rid of it as soon as possible.”

So, I took pictures, and I listed it on Facebook last night. I kind of grouped the boys’ stuff, some toys and clothes together, and the girls’ stuff together and just listed it like a bulk lot of free stuff on Facebook Marketplace. And within hours, I had people contacting me for both items. By 9:30 this morning, I’d already gotten rid of the boys’ stuff, and this afternoon I have somebody who’s pregnant who’s coming to get the girls’ stuff. It was a win-win.

Some of this stuff is in great condition, and maybe I could have sold it. Some of the stuff is a bit more beat up. They’re more like play clothes, things you might wear to daycare. They’ve got some stains, but still have life in them.

So, that’s addressing that whole ‘it’s still got use, I don’t want it to go to waste’. By grouping it together and giving it away for free, I know it’s going to someone who’s going to use it. It’s not the thing you’d go out to the shop and buy, but if you had it, if you receive hand-me-downs, it’s something that somebody’s going to use.

It was so simple, I didn’t have to drag things out of the house, and I got that good feeling of knowing somebody was going to use these items. I definitely recommend that as a practical tip.

If you are comfortable using Facebook Marketplace or any other kind of online community, just list your stuff for free. You would be surprised. I had a bed that was broken, one sort of beam was broken, and it was missing some screws. We listed it and we got a million people wanting to come get it. Because again, just because I’m not able to fix it doesn’t mean that somebody else isn’t.

Another way is that you can use the internet to get rid of your things. In Australia, there’s this cool organization called GIVIT, and they’re almost like a middleman, like a matchmaker. They get requests from charities who need specific items.

For example, an animal shelter might be like, “We need dog bowls,” or, “We need towels,” or whatever. Then, when you are browsing, you could be like, “Oh, that’s what I have to get rid of.” So, instead of just dumping something at a charity shop, you are giving it to a charity that is specifically asking for those items.

I’ve had a really good experience with them. They also have vice versa, where you can list the things that you have available and then charities can claim them. So, yeah, those are great.

Third Tip – Find the perfect balance between good intentions and action and take that imperfect action

But as I said, I know this is an Australian charity.

I don’t know what’s near you, but this does bring me to my third and final point about decluttering and waste.

A lot of people keep clutter because they have good intentions. I had good intentions. This stuff was sitting in my house for longer than I’d like to admit. You want to wait until you find the perfect way to recycle or the perfect place to donate.

And that’s great, but at the same time, you need to be realistic about what you are willing to do. If you’re someone right now who is actively researching ways to recycle and the best way to donate things, then keep at it. You know what I mean? Keep your stuff until you find a great solution.

But if that’s not you, here’s what I recommend.

Take imperfect action instead. Think realistically about the resources that you have available. Time, money, space, energy. If you have health problems and you don’t have a lot of support to do the physical lifting, you might have to accept that maybe you cannot declutter as perfectly as you would like.

Or if you are a new mom and you just never have any time for yourself, or you’re juggling two young kids, and maybe you’re working as well. Sure, you would love to do the best that you can for the environment, but you’ve got to be realistic.

You’re keeping these things in your house for years and years and years until some imaginary spot in the future where you’re going to have time to do this research. That’s not the best option either.

So, what I think you should do is, again, thinking realistically about your situation, block out some time. That might be half an hour, it might be four hours, it might be a weekend. You have to think about what works for you.

Whatever amount of time that you pick, make sure that there is a deadline. This is not an infinite amount of time. You are setting yourself a set amount of time where you are going to research.

During that time, you’re going to research locally, you’re going to come up with what resources are available to you for recycling, or donating. You’re going to dig around on the internet and find everything that you can.

I get so many people who come to me and say, “Well, what’s the best way?” But that’s really a local question.

Depending on where you live, there’s going to be a way that’s best for you that may not even be available to the person who lives 100 miles down the road or in the next state. You need to do that research yourself.

But then, when your time is up, whether that’s a half hour, two hours, four hours, whatever it is when your time is up, you’re going to write out a plan where you’re saying, “This is the best I can do. I’ve done this research, this is the time available, this is the resources I have available.”

Make that plan, and then you’re going to follow through. You’re going to take that imperfect action.

Because here’s a little tough love, as I said, I get asked all the time about what to do with your stuff, but most people are not even actively trying to do it. There’s a disconnect in our heads between what we ideally would like and what we’re willing to do.

So, it doesn’t mean give up. It doesn’t mean try not to care and just dump everything in the bin, but you’ve got to find a middle place where there’s a balance between good intentions and action.

Because if you just rely on good intentions, who knows, maybe 10, 20, 30, 40 years, you don’t know what’s going to happen, something might happen to you, and then all that stuff that you want to dispose of perfectly is going to end up in a bin when somebody else throws it away.

So, do what you can to make the best possible decision, and then take that imperfect action.


So, just to sum this up, when you are struggling with waste, I suggest that you make sure that you’re looking at the situation fully.

Make sure that you’re weighing up all the pros and cons and that you are not downplaying your well-being, your own time, and energy.

People do that, especially women. You’re like, “Oh, I can do it. Who cares if I don’t get any sleep? Who cares if I just work a little harder?”

No, those things matter. So, make sure you take that into account. Learn from your clutter, learn it. Take that time.

That’s another thing people don’t do, you’re in such a rush to get it out the door.

Just pause for a minute and be intentional. Think, “What can I learn about this item that I’m getting rid of?” so that you can do better in the future. Then take that imperfect action.

Imperfect action is the way forward. I hope you found this helpful. I’ll be back next week to talk more about decluttering and simple living.

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