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Rule to Donate When Buying New Things to Keep Home Clean

I'm a Working Mom of 2, and My Home Is Always Clutter-Free; Here's the 1 Rule I Follow

Photographer: Levi MandelRestrictions: Editorial and internal use only. No advertising or print allowed.

I don't do "Spring cleaning." I never devote a weekend to cleaning out some closet that culminates in schlepping three trash bags of junk to Goodwill. When the KonMari craze hit a cultural fever pitch that had every other millennial debating which coffee mugs sparked joy, I carried on living my life.

And although these facts might make you assume I'm an in-denial hoarder surrounded by mountainous piles of garbage, I'm actually what most people would consider annoyingly tidy. I'm a married working mom with two kids and a dog living in a small apartment that doesn't have a basement, attic, or storage locker, and my home is clutter-free all the time. What's more annoying? It's generally very easy for me to maintain.

A few missteps in my decade-long run with this rule have proven that it only truly works with 100 percent dedication.
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Those who know me might say that a few obvious factors helped me achieve this streak of clear countertops and under-stuffed closets. I am an organization junkie and love finding ways to maximize storage space — think under-sink drawers and a pretty penny spent on Container Store shelving for the back of my pantry door. But that's not it. Even the most organized homes with the most expensive bins often get cluttered over time.

What has really kept all this stuff in check is my "one-in, one-out" rule.

Here's how it works:

If I buy a new dress, when I come home and go to put it in my closet, I have to select a dress I already own to donate. If I get a lovely necklace as a birthday gift, I have to say goodbye to another necklace from my jewelry box. If I pick up a five-pack of underwear from Target, guess what: I'm tossing five pairs of panties. Same rules apply in every other room of the house. New living room throw pillows mean the ones currently on the couch will be thrown out. If I purchase a new spatula, a similar kitchen utensil is getting tossed.

It seems simple enough, but the only way it works is by strictly adhering to that one-to-one ratio exclusively with corresponding items. (I learned the hard way that I can't just chuck a candlestick every time I buy a new pair of shoes.)

And, of course, there can be no exceptions. The minute I begin to slip is when my once-orderly existence starts to burst at the seams. A few missteps in my decade-long run with this rule have proven that it only truly works with 100 percent dedication. Because self-restraint isn't one of my natural skills, I've employed a few tricks to keep myself honest.

  • I don't own extra hangers. They are just asking to have some new garment hung on them!
  • I keep most of my drawers and storage spaces filled — as if every nook of my home has a "No Vacancy" sign. This might go against other tidying philosophies (hey there, Marie Kondo!), but for me, I've found that a full shelf leaves no room for interpretation that anything else can be squeezed in there.
  • To that end, I don't turn everything into a storage opportunity. I used to not see the point in buying a piece of furniture unless you could screw the top off to discover a hidden storage compartment within. But now, I try to resist that urge. Instead, I make my kid's bed serve as simply a bed — without fancy cubbies behind the headboard.
  • I don't maintain a "storage room." I will admit that this is all made easier by not having ample space in the form of a spare room or a garage or one of those pay-by-the-month climate-controlled lockers down the block. Having an entire room that can be filled with stuff you don't really need is the biggest crutch toward a clutter-free existence, so I'm thankful that my city-dwelling life.
  • I consider perishables and wall decor exempt. Although I follow the rule with tchotchkes and tabletop decor, if it's going on the wall, it is obviously not taking up previously occupied space. This same deviation from the rule can be applied to things that get used up, like candles and beauty products. If I want to try a new face mask, I'm not going to chuck a perfectly good one that will be gone in a month anyway. Still, if I rapidly became a face mask collector and the jars began littering my vanity, I'd have to set some stricter parameters.

Photographer: Levi MandelRestrictions: Editorial and internal use only. No advertising or print allowed.

Having been following this rule for most of my adult life, I can say that it makes me so much happier. I never feel overwhelmed by clutter, and I live in a home that isn't necessarily a minimalist's fantasy but that most definitely has a place for everything, with everything serving a purpose.

Plus, it's made me far less of an impulse shopper. Now, before I bring a new Lego set or some pretty vase to the cash register, I have to internally commit to getting rid of a similar item. Often, it'll take me being able to visualize the forgotten tub of Duplos or the old, etched-glass vase in my kitchen cabinet that I'd be swapping before I'm able to get out my credit card at all.

It's also made me ruthless with gifts — as gracious as I am to receive them and always appreciate the sentiment, if that tea towel set isn't worthy of uprooting the ones already in my linen closet, it's out.

This isn't to say there haven't been challenges. New hobbies or interests have presented some clutter tension. My husband recently took up camping, which comes with a lot of gear. We've had to make some tough decisions and let go of things I'd otherwise have kept because we'd simply had the space for it — like workout equipment that was just collecting dust. Meanwhile, I'm eager to finally get an InstantPot, but because my kitchen cabinets are at capacity, I'm first having to decide which appliances I can part with — perhaps my fondue pot or the extralarge slow cooker I only use once a year?

The biggest obstacles to this rule, though, have been major life changes — a new pet, a new baby, another new baby. A lot more space is needed for these additions, so a "one-in, 200-out" rule has come into play, as I've had to carve out entire rooms for them. Still, once those new additions arrive, the "one in, one out" rule continues to do its job. My daughter now knows that every birthday party comes with a day of choosing a dozen-odd toys to donate, including some of the gifts she'd just received. And when her dresser drawer begins bursting because of a new pile of hand-me-downs, she's quick to show me the shirts and pants she won't wear. And if she sees a dress in a store window that she really, really wants, she will actually tell me that "we can donate my pink sparkle dress" in exchange.

And if my 4-year-old can follow this rule and lead a clutter-free existence while sharing a room — and closet — with a toddler, anyone can.

Image Source: Levi Mandel / POPSUGAR Photography
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