Skip to content

The truth about decluttering — it's risky business

Who knows better what your spouse or partner needs to get rid of than you? Wrong, don’t even think about it, writes columnist

Get ahead of the curve, prepare yourself for when you have to downsize, get rid of the stuff you don’t need and your kids don’t want, while you still have your wits and muscles, blah-blah, goes the expert advice.

None of those 52 million search results mention that decades of marriage — one that survived COVID-19, mid-life crises, in-laws, menopause, a plant-based diet, and raising those same kids we’re trying not to burden with our junk — will be tested to its limits when the decluttering process begins.

Decluttering is risky business — pitfalls abound. Who knows better what your spouse or partner needs to get rid of than you? Wrong, don’t even think about it. At five decades in, you still won’t have a clue. Begin with your stuff, stay out of hers, and eventually shift to ours.

First, each piece has to be categorized: keep, sell, donate, or trash. Selling is a minefield.

Garage sales are so predictably passé. Within the first two metres of walking up the driveway you spot the 65-plus-year-old homeowners. A smiling white-haired woman, carpenter’s apron full of loonies and toonies and small bills will greet you. A baseball-capped guy will be sitting on a lawn chair, coffee in hand, wanting to be anywhere but where he is. You know there’ll be a table with costume jewelry and out-of-style purses, another with dizzyingly-ornate china serving platters, crystal wineglasses and butter dishes only 1962 could love, photo-less gold picture frames, worn out hand tools, and decomposing paperbacks of the Tom Clancy-Stephen King-Danielle Steel ilk. To the side will be a fake walnut shelving unit displaying 20 pairs of well-worn shoes and slippers from the ‘70s. Most of this is their parents’ stuff, the meaningful mementos they couldn’t bear to discard 30 years ago when they helped downsize their own folks en route to a care home.

Now we’ve got Facebook Marketplace instead. Once you post something for sale, our best buddy Mark Z makes sure you “meet” every perspective buyer. When you click on their inquiry, you’re greeted with a full-screen photo and the opportunity to view their profile.

I don’t want to see a wedding photo of someone, or their dogs or kids or car, or a woman tattooed from chin to as far south as her deeply v-necked sweater can reveal, posing with a come-hither look, just so I can sell a bloody $25 vintage magazine rack.

I opened Mike’s (?) Facebook profile: a moody black-and-white photo of a bare-chested guy, all spiky gelled hair, oily bulging muscles and popping veins, whose face is discreetly shadowed. He’s a pure Dwayne Johnson wannabee standing beside a men’s room urinal. The sign on the bathroom wall above the hand dryer looks to be in Russian.

I just want to sell this stuff, I don’t need a date

“Is this still available?” was the pre-packaged Facebook inquiry he had sent.

Should I reply, “Sure, my mother’s Wedgewood teapot is still available Mike. I have to go out tonight but my wife will be here. Come on over after dinner to check it out.”

Before I can delete this ridiculous “chat” opportunity, Facebook asks if I’d like to “friend” the guy? Are they nuts? I just want to sell this stuff, I don’t need a date.

We, I mean mostly guys, need a self-help book and some legislation from the Ford government to understand the rules of decluttering. But that’s the thing. If I have to find a book to tell me how to declutter, it will be a sad day in my life. There was never a problem when I had my pickup truck. Just randomly pitch surplus stuff into its box when the urge struck, then do a dump run when it was full.

And that’s another problem. You can’t just declutter when the urge strikes. Maybe you’ve got a couple hours free, you’re feeling nostalgic, maybe have some extra energy, so you throw it out there to your wife, “Hey, wanna declutter for a while?” and she replies, “No, can’t declutter right now, I’ve got a headache.”

How do couples that have lived together for almost five decades agree on what’s nostalgic, or even what’s worth keeping? Anyone knows that somewhere in those 16 boxes of used nails and woodscrews is just the exact one you’ll need some late Sunday night when the hardware store is closed. But an antique Indonesian hand-carved mahogany sewing cabinet full of bent needles and old buttons? Why keep that?

Christmas decorations can be treacherous territory. Yes, we should save the hand-painted Christmas tree ornament with “Baby’s 1st Christmas,” but what about the 2nd to 16th?

High school yearbooks are fun, so they stay. Grandma in a miniskirt and Grampa with hair to his shoulders, or any hair, might give the grandkids a laugh 15 years down the road.

Getting at the stuff can be next to impossible, too. When we dragged the boxes into the crawl space above the garage 20 or 30 years ago we could touch our toes and twist our torsos. Now we should really hire Houdini to retrieve them, but I try.

My knees hurt so I buy those fancy foam knee pads roofers and senior gardeners use. They make me taller when I’m crawling, so I’m repeatedly banging my head on the roof joists. If I accidentally raise my head between the trusses I puncture my skull on shingling nails protruding through the plywood.

Even throwing stuff out is stressful. You put the garbage at curb, then go to sleep for the night. At 4 a.m. you wake up, and remember an Antiques Roadshow program from two years ago where someone got $2500 for an item similar to the one you just pitched. As you’re picking and poking curbside through your own garbage, dressed in a housecoat or your underwear, lights begin to flicker on throughout the neighbourhood. How are you going to explain this tomorrow?

Those rare times you do agree on which items have to be kept — the ones the kids will just have to sort through whenever — make all the difficult decisions worth it. The 37 Pelham Art Festival posters, one for each year the festival has been held, aren’t going anywhere. Nor are the 21 indispensable bicycles hanging in the basement.

At least not this time around.

Reader Feedback

John Swart

About the Author: John Swart

After three decades co-owning various southern Ontario small businesses with his wife, Els, John Swart has enjoyed 15 years in retirement volunteering, bicycling the world, and feature writing.
Read more