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Spring Cleaning Means Learning To Let Go

Marie Kondo
Marie Kondo. Photo courtesy RISE.

Based on the state of social media, it seems likely that you or someone you know has attempted to “tidy up” their life in 2019.

Marie Kondo published “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” in Japan in 2011, with an English translation of the book following in 2014. But it was the Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” that seems to have really triggered a spike in American enthusiasm for seriously paring down your belongings. This year, January resolutions to declutter seem to have bled right into spring cleaning season.

If you somehow missed the Kondo revolution, here’s the quick version: Kondo’s “KonMari” method involves going through all of your belongings by category (rather than by location in your home). You consider whether each individual item “sparks joy” for you. Joy: Keep the item. No joy: Thank the item for its service and let it go. The basics are straightforward, though as the Netflix show illustrates, the execution involves a lot of work. Kondo is not an advocate of minimalism per se – if your home is filled with tons of joy-sparking items arranged neatly, carry on – but her popularity in America has coincided with a movement toward owning fewer things overall.

The idea of letting go of possessions you no longer want or need is sensible. But it is worth pausing to consider the wider implications when large numbers of people undertake a process that can often generate dozens of bags of unwanted item per house. Once you thank an item for its former service, as Kondo suggests … what next?

Papers can be recycled or shredded. And sometimes things you choose to let go are clearly trash because of their condition. Yet many people are moved to donate a large proportion of their unwanted items as they tidy.

In the first flush of post-Netflix KonMari enthusiasm, many secondhand stores were delighted with a bump in donations. Some thrift stores and secondhand book shops told CNN in January that they were seeing strong donations, despite the fact that the beginning of the year was usually slow. Their tone at the time was largely positive.

A few months later, however, some consignment shop workers are less enthusiastic. Some employees have noted recently that the fad has created two related problems: high volume and low-quality donations.

Thrift stores have always faced the occasional large donation. People may be cleaning out deceased loved ones’ homes, downsizing or simply ready for a fresh start. But the Netflix show triggered huge numbers of sizable donations at once. Brian Edwards, who works at a Goodwill location in South Florida, told NPR in late January, “We can hardly keep up with it.” The segment noted similar situations in Indianapolis and Brooklyn; thrift stores and auction houses in the Washington, D.C. metro area reported the same effect, with some employees suggesting the partial government shutdown gave many people extra time for tidying early in the year. Some San Francisco stores went so far as to institute restrictions on how much they would accept at once to deal with the volume. By March, some locations were still nearly overwhelmed, and the problem extended beyond the United States. The Wall Street Journal reported that volunteers in the Sydney metro area were sorting through about 265,000 pounds of donated clothing per week (in the intense Australian summer heat).

In addition to the problem of quantity, some stores are navigating problems with donations’ quality. As some consignment workers told The Wall Street Journal, many people simply hand over their discards wholesale, without thinking about whether anyone would actually want to purchase them. David Braddon, a senior district sales manager for Goodwill in Houston, told the Journal that they had received a variety of donations that were in bad condition or that were “the kind of items that can’t be written about in a family newspaper.” Thrift stores across the country have reported donations of clothes that are soiled or worn out; appliances that no longer work; or knick-knacks that no one other than the original owner could love.

Most donations come from a place of true generosity. But it is still important to think critically about the organization receiving your secondhand items. Thrift-store workers in Australia offered a handy reminder: “Don’t donate if you wouldn’t give it to a mate.” In general, anything you donate should be in good enough condition that you wouldn’t feel bad giving it to a friend – and it definitely should not be anything personal enough that giving it to a friend would be embarrassing. Before you get ready to haul your discards to a donation center, take the time to check carefully and see what a shop or charity will accept, so you don’t create extra work for volunteers or employees who have to sort through your items. (And resist the urge to send clothes to an area in need of disaster relief, a generous impulse that is often counterproductive.)

For items that cannot be donated, either due to their nature or their poor condition, consider recycling. If you are willing to do some research and make a bit of extra effort, you can recycle many items beyond the traditional paper, plastic and glass. Also bear in mind that some items can’t be disposed of in regular trash, so be sure to check rules in your state or city for possessions like old electronics.

As the popularity of Kondo’s Netflix series demonstrates, a lot of people feel overwhelmed by their possessions. And many people find a set of rules for getting their stuff under control helpful. By all accounts, Kondo herself sincerely wants to help people lead happier and more peaceful lives. But while the show focuses on tidying what you already have, Kondo has said in other forums that it is also good to be more mindful when you purchase items. Your wallet, as well as your home, will thank you if you pay attention not only when it’s time for something to leave your possession, but when you decide to acquire something in the first place.

In several of the episodes of the Kondo’s Netflix show, people express shock at seeing how many clothes, shoes or other items they own when all of it is piled in one place. Those clothes represent not only lost closet space, but dollars that could have been directed elsewhere. Consider asking whether a potential purchase sparks joy before you bring it home, rather than after. If you find that clear-cut rules like the KonMari method work well for you, implementing other rules can help to break careless shopping habits. For example, pledge to wait at least 24 hours to see if you still want to purchase an item you’re considering.

How you approach shopping is up to you, but your budget and your space will both be easier to manage if you create a system that lets you make thoughtful choices. You might even consider shopping secondhand; after all, there’s a lot of stuff out there these days that didn’t spark joy for the original owner but might be perfect for you.

Administrative Manager Amy Laburda, who is based in our Stamford, Connecticut office, is the co-editor of our firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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