March 2012

Spring Cleaning & De-Cluttering: Prune Your Stuff So Your Life Will BLOOM

Author: Debbie Szpanka

When it comes to stuff, what a difference a decade makes. Just a few years ago, many lived by the motto, “Whoever dies with the most stuff wins.” Now, our once prized possessions are stressing us out, suffocating our energy and overstuffing our closets, garages and homes.

As the pollen starts to cover our cars and homes in March, we are aware that spring is around the corner, and a good seasonal cleaning may be in order for our lives to bloom again.

According to Lynn Geiger, a Hilton Head Island licensed clinical psychologist, de-cluttering is very similar to losing weight. “What our stuff and our bodies look like represents how much or little control we have over our body and our environment,” Geiger said. “It’s a part of how we define who we are and also reflects how much ease we have as we walk through our life experiences. When you walk through a cluttered, disorganized and overly full space, you stop looking at what’s there. It’s its own type of denial and avoidance, and that’s why it’s so helpful to make an adjustment.”

Adele Mahan, a professional organizer and owner of Fresh Start Transitions, said, “A de-cluttered home is like going to an upscale department store, such as Nordstrom’s, where items are properly displayed and well-lit, versus going to a discount store where you may feel overwhelmed by the time and energy it takes to dig for that sought-after shoe or piece of clothing.”

Geiger added, “If you identify yourself with your possessions, be selective.”

Mahan provides a great example of how one’s passion is lost in a pile: One of her clients has a passion for shoes, yet she couldn’t enjoy them because they were stuffed in closets, under the bed and other unreachable places.

“The first thing I tell the client is to gather all of the same type of items and put them in one big pile,” Mahan said. “That process made her realize she had 20 pairs of brown shoes. She didn’t know she had that many. We got her to pick out her favorite five and donate the rest.”

Local thrift stores are a wonderful way to re-home your beloved collection of shoes or other items. You can feel good because your collection of stuff will live on in a good home, and the money it generates will go to a good cause.

In the case of too many shoes, three Hilton Head Island thrift stores, The Litter Box, The Bargain Box and St. Francis Thrift Shop collect shoes for recycling. If your shoes or clothes are too worn to be sold in the stores, just bring in a bag marked “recyclables,” and your former favorite footwear and threads will find a home outfitting those in third-world countries. The clothes that don’t make that cut are recycled as industrial rags and the shoes are burned down to generate gravel.

“We partner with Carolina Textiles from Walterboro, and we will fill up a trailer of disposed clothes and shoes; they come pick up the trailer and leave us a new one,” explained Bobbi Helton, recently retired manager of the Litter Box. “People need to know we are doing this so they don’t throw their old clothes and shoes into the landfill.”

For nice clothes or furniture, which still have a lot of life to give, consignment stores are an option to reap some cash from your clutter. There are about 10 consignment stores on Hilton Head Island and three in the greater Bluffton area. Depending on how long the item stays on the floor, the consignee can make up to 50 percent of the sale price.

While de-cluttering should be a regular activity, many times, the breaking point comes when a person is under duress or just transitioned in life. “When life hits us hard, that’s when things spiral out of control and, many times, your house falls apart,” Mahan said. “After a while, the shame and guilt gives you a one-two punch, because your house is in disarray, and then many get paralyzed or literally trapped in their own house and don’t know how or where to start.”

The recession and its aftermath are forcing a lot of people to transition to smaller homes, new cities and alternative jobs. “Most of our tenants are those who may be down on their luck or people in transition and they have to store their furniture and belongings here while they are in smaller house or apartment,” said Don Clish, property manager of Bluffton’s Stockade Storage.

If you know a transition is coming, it’s best to start purging before you are forced to move so you don’t spend money on storage of needless items.

Don King, one of the managers of Sheridan Park Self Storage, said, “I have seen people store newspapers and their kids’ clothes from 10 years ago because they had to get out of a house or move at the last minute. Sometimes when we auction the items from a storage unit, I wonder why people paid $80 or $100 a month to store this. It has no apparent value unless, of course, it’s sentimental.”

Often the physical clutter comes from those who are literally cluttered with emotions. Many times people don’t know what to do with their feelings of grief after losing a loved one, Mahan explained, relating her own story of letting the bills from her father’s estate pile up. Every time she saw his name on a document, a wave of grief would overcome her, and that’s when her house got out of control. Her personal experience inspired her to start an organizing business focused on helping people going through a stressful period in their lives.

Hilton Head Island resident Chuck Dimmock used a professional organizer, when he moved to a different home on the island and realized how much space was needed to store 31 years of record keeping from owning a company. “I’m old school and don’t use a computer, so I had more than three decades of paperwork to sift through to get a sense of organization,” he said. The founder and owner of Fibergard, an upholstery and carpet protection company, hired a professional organizer to help him figure out what paperwork was really important to store. While the process was difficult at times, Dimmock is happy he did it. “It meant everything to me to get organized and simplified so I could move on with my business and life,” he said.

Besides those who are going through major life transitions, some types of people are more prone to clutter. They include very detail-oriented people such as architects and engineers, creative people who think they will make something with every scrap of material, busy people who are just out of their house too much, and controlling personalities.

“Some of the hardest items to get rid of are those filled with memories,” Mahan said. “I ask each client to ‘read their heart’ when they are downsizing. Sometimes taking a picture of a large piece of furniture is a way to keep the memory without keeping the item.”

Other items with which people have difficulties parting are those given to them by family members. This may be called “guilt clutter.”

“I tell them that when I give a coffee maker to someone, I don’t expect them to keep it for 20 years. People give gifts for the moment, not necessarily a lifetime,” Mahan said.

Geiger recommends creating a vision board for your room or your house. “Imagine what you want your house and your life to look like. A life filled with clutter and possessions is a very different vision than a life that is clean, crisp and uncluttered,” she said.

- Use a vision board; write down what you want your life and/or house to look like.

- Start with a small project such as a bathroom counter: Similar to weight loss, start slowly with one corrective action and then add another. Don’t try to tackle the whole project at once.

- Mark on your calendar a three- to four-hour window to complete one project.

- Get help if needed. Like hiring a trainer at the gym, you may work more effectively with someone. Professional organizers’ fees range from $30-60 an hour.

- Don’t buy organizing supplies such as decorative boxes or plastic bins until after you purge. Many people buy these items first and then have to store empty boxes.

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