This is part of my series: American Zombie: How To Stop Being A Mindless Consumer.
Does the thought of going through your clothes feel overwhelming? Does the prospect of getting rid of unwanted things fill you with dread? Do you procrastinate and say, “I’ll do it next weekend after I’ve had a good night’s sleep”?
If you said Yes to any of these questions, this guide is for you!
I’ll show you how to declutter clothing and feel good about it. You’ll learn how to eliminate junk, keep items you love, and keep clutter to a minimum going forward. Best yet, there’s no need to hold each pair of underwear in your hands and ask, “Does this spark joy?”
Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
- Baby steps to declutter clothes
- How to declutter clothes fast
- How to discard unwanted clothes
- How to handle sentimental items
- Frequently asked questions
- Thought experiments to adopt a decluttering mindset
Baby steps to declutter clothes
When you first start decluttering your clothes, it can feel overwhelming. You may feel unsure of where to start. The best place to start is to slow the number of new items coming into your house. And at the same time, gradually get rid of unwanted items.
Now it’s hard to give advice that will resonate with all readers, but here are some ideas, and hopefully, a couple of them resonate with you.
Be deliberate with your buying
- Before you buy something, add it to a “wish list” and wait seven days. You’ll probably lose interest in it.
- Only buy things you absolutely love. Be ultra picky about fit, textures, and colors. If it’s not a “Hell yes,” then it’s a “Hell no.”
- For each thing you buy, get rid of two others. You’ll purchase fewer frivolous things.
- Remember the true cost of an item includes the time/money to launder it, maintain it, and store it. (I don’t iron things, so I never buy clothes that need ironing.)
- Stick to a budget, like $30/month for clothes.
- Watch minimalist documentaries and listen to minimalist podcasts. They’ll help you want to consume less.
- Ask, “Will this match the rest of my wardrobe?”
Simplify your wardrobe
- Look into capsule wardrobes here and here. They can reduce how many clothes you need.
- Make a pile of clothes that you absolutely love. Things that are 10/10 for you. Notice their colors, fabrics, cuts, and styles. Use these articles as the basis for your capsule wardrobe.
- Only buy things that coordinate with your existing wardrobe.
Get rid of stuff
- Every day, pick one thing to discard. Start with items that are stained, damaged, out of style, or don’t fit.
- Remember that everything has a lifecycle. Every new thing eventually gets worn out and discarded.
- Put all your clothes in boxes. When you do laundry, hang stuff in your closets and put things in drawers. In 30 days, your closets and drawers will only contain essential items for that season. After six months, get rid of everything (for that season) that’s still in the boxes.
- Take a photo of sentimental items before you discard them.
- Ask, “Would I buy this right now if I saw it in a store?”
- Ask, “When is the last time I wore this item?”
- When you feel like you have nothing to wear, look in your closet and open your drawers. Notice all the clean clothes that are in season and ready to wear. If you won’t wear them now, why keep them?
- For things that need mending, give yourself 30 days to do so. If you don’t mend them in 30 days, you’re probably never going to, and you should get rid of them.
I also recommend joining Reddit’s decluttering group. It has tons of good ideas and helpful advice.
How to declutter clothes fast
Let me show you how to go through your clothes fast! And let’s be honest, this is a huge undertaking, and you might be tempted not to start at all.
I’ve broken this process down into four steps.
Fast Decluttering Step 1: Identify what you need
Figuring out what you need can feel overwhelming. So here are a few questions to get you started: What clothes do you need for your day-to-day life? What clothing do you need for special events, exercising, camping, etc.? Also, consider what you need for different seasons and how often you do laundry.
Here’s my list of essentials:
- For everyday wear: 10 pairs of white socks, 10 pairs of underwear, 10 undershirts, 7 button-down short sleeve shirts, 4 pairs of jeans, 1 black belt, 1 pair of sneakers, and 1 flat cap
- For spring/fall: 7 button-down long sleeve shirts, 1 jacket, and 1 hoodie
- For winter: 3 long-sleeve shirts, 1 winter coat, 1 warm jacket, 1 scarf, 1 knit hat, 1 pair of gloves, thermal underwear, and 1 pair of snow pants
- For summer: 1 broad-brimmed hat
- For dressing up: 1 dress shirt, 2 ties, 1 navy blazer, 1 pair of slacks, 1 black belt, 2 pairs of black socks, and 1 pair of black dress shoes
Now, my career as a software developer doesn’t have any clothing requirements beyond “No naked Zoom calls.” I never need to dress up for work and rarely vary what I wear. In addition, I don’t participate in many outdoorsy hobbies requiring specialized clothing.
But that’s just me. Your needs may be wildly different. For example, my father-in-law wore a suit to work every day for 40 years. (He even wore stained dress shirts while gardening!) And my snowboarding friends own way more winterwear than I do.
Regardless of your situation, list out your needs. Write down the essential items that you need for your day-to-day existence.
Also, look into capsule wardrobes as they can reduce how many clothes you need.
Fast Decluttering Step 2: Choose your containers
Dressers and closets and bins come in a variety of shapes and sizes. But they have one thing in common: they’re containers for your clothes.
At this stage in the process, you need to identify what containers will hold your clothes. For example, most of my clothes are split between a large dresser (shared with my wife) and a small walk-in closet (also shared with my wife). I also have two pegs by the garage door where I hang a jacket and winter coat. The dresser, closet, and pegs are the containers for my clothes.
Now your containers might be different. You might need a dresser, an armoire, and four plastic storage bins.
I recommend estimating how much room you need for your essential clothing and then doubling that amount of space. So if you need half a dresser and half a closet for essential items, then double that amount, which gives you a full dresser and a full closet. These are the containers for your clothes. And you only keep items that fit into your containers.
This doubling means you have extra space for clothes that you don’t need but aren’t ready to give up. For example, I don’t wear T-shirts anymore, but I keep a handful of them that I still like in the bottom drawer of my dresser.
This may seem like the anti-decluttering thing to do. But it’s important that you keep some meaningful things even though you don’t need them. You don’t have to live like a Spartan or a monk. You just need reasonable limits on what you keep.
Fast Decluttering Step 3: Go through your clothes
Everything up to this point has been thinking and planning. Now it’s time to go through your clothes.
I recommend putting all of your clothes on your bed. Empty every container, which includes every closet, every drawer, and every bin. Make a giant pile! If you’re like most people, you’ll wonder how you accumulated so many clothes.
Next, go through your list of essential items and put only those things in your containers. Put underwear and socks in drawers, hang up essential shirts, etc. Once you’re done, your containers should be 50% full.
Next, sift through what remains in your heap of clothes and put favorite items in your containers. You might put a favorite skirt in the closet or put a beloved T-shirt in a bottom drawer.
Once your containers are full, you’re done putting stuff away. Whatever remains on the bed is unessential stuff that you don’t love. Whatever remains will be discarded. (You have a lot of options on how to discard clothes.)
This approach has four important benefits:
- You keep only essential things and things you love.
- You don’t weigh the merit and value of each article of clothing.
- You know when you’re done: when your containers are full.
- You know what to get rid of: what’s left on your bed.
If you feel heartburn about getting rid of stuff, review the three thought experiments. These will help you feel OK with things.
Fast Decluttering Step 4: Ongoing maintenance
Your core strategy going forward shouldn’t be a surprise: All of your clothing must fit in its containers. So if you buy something, you’ll need to discard something else to make room.
But you might be tempted to buy clothes you don’t need. Here are six strategies for handling temptations:
- Follow the “1 in 1 out” rule. If you buy a T-shirt, you have to get rid of a T-shirt.
- Only shop on specific days, like, the first Saturday of the month.
- Add desired items to a “wish list” and wait seven days. You’ll usually forget about them.
- Unsubscribe from junk mail and promotional emails. Don’t give your phone number or email address to stores.
- Give yourself a monthly budget for clothes.
- Use loss aversion. Before buying a $50 shirt, ask, “What else could I buy with this $50? Is this shirt really worth it?”
- Watch minimalist documentaries and listen to minimalist podcasts. They’ll help you to keep consuming less.
Also, review the three thought experiments. They will inoculate you against future temptation.
I have one more suggestion that may sound counterintuitive: Spend more money on high-quality things you get a lot of use out of. For example, I wear my winter coat 120 days a year and will keep it for 15 years. My coat will last 1,800 days, and it’s OK that I spent extra money on a high-quality one. Having a coat I really like means I’m less tempted to buy a new one.
How to discard unwanted clothes
You have a few options for discarding unwanted clothes. Each option has pros and cons.
Give them away
I regularly give my kids’ old clothes to my nieces and nephews. (Note: I don’t hold on to things for people for long periods. My home is not a storage unit for stuff that other people might not even want in the future.)
I’ve also given stuff away using freecycle.org, the free section on craigslist, and Facebook’s marketplace. We can list individual items or list a bag of stuff, e.g., “bag of 4T boy clothes.”
Pros: It feels good to help others. In most cases, people will come to our house to pick up free stuff.
Cons: There are some things that no one wants.
We can donate to charity shops, homeless shelters, pregnancy centers, and refugee programs. Check Earth 911 for nearby donation stations.
Pros: It feels good to know that someone else will be able to use our unwanted clothes. We can get rid of 100 items in a single car trip.
Cons: We have to put stuff in garbage bags, and sometimes these bags clutter up the house until we make a trip to a charity shop.
There are many options for textile reuse, including giving them to local: seamstresses, sewing classes/instructors, quilting groups, and Buy Nothing groups. We can also post them on freecycle.org, send them to Knickey, or contact nearby animal shelters which need clothes to make cages more comfortable. And our local department of sanitation might have more suggestions for recycling.
Pros: Recycling feels really good, and we’re not dumping things in landfills.
Cons: It takes time and effort to find a new home for things. Stuff clutters up our home until we recycle it.
Throw them away
Pros: Stuff is instantly gone. There’s no putting anything in bags and having bags cluttering our home.
Cons: It feels uncomfortable to put clothes in the garbage. Others may benefit from these old clothes, and we’re adding stuff to landfills.
Sell individual items online
Pros: We can recoup some of the original purchase costs.
Cons: It’s time-intensive to list, sell, and ship 1 thing at a time. We end up organizing stuff we want to get rid of. Worse yet, we buy containers and bins to hold all the things we want to discard. And we’re stuck with a bunch of stuff that never sells.
Alternatively, you can take clothes to a consignment store or sell them to a second-hand shop. These types of stores are not available in all areas and have their own pros and cons.
Have a yard sale
Pros: We can get rid of a lot of stuff in a single day. We might even make a decent amount of money.
Cons: We hold on to stuff we don’t want for weeks or months. And when the day finally comes, we spend hours pricing things, putting signs out, and having the sale. In addition, we haggle with strangers who think 25 cents is too much for a shirt. Afterward, we’re stuck with heaps of stuff that didn’t sell.
Nowadays, I always give away items, donate them, or put them in the trash. Unwanted items need to exit my home as quickly as possible.
I recommend following the 7-day principle: You can hold on to things to sell, donate, or give away for seven days. After that, drop them in the trash. (And if you sell things because you need the money, then disregard everything I just said!)
How to handle sentimental items
The hardest part about decluttering clothes is handling sentimental items. A ratty T-shirt might hold strong memories and powerful emotions. Same story with wedding dresses, baby clothes, and sweaters from grandma. So what should we do when we want to declutter but also want to hang on to these things?
I have a bunch of ideas and strategies for handling sentimental items. But first, you need to know that you can keep anything you want. No one has any business telling you what you may keep. These are your items. Your memories. And you don’t need anyone’s permission to keep them, just as other people don’t need your permission to keep stuff.
With that in mind, I recommend using the container strategy for sentimental items. Everything must fit in their designated containers, whether that’s a few boxes in your closet or some bins in your basement. This way, you only keep the most important stuff.
I also recommend going through your containers each year and touching each item. Ask yourself, “Do I still want to hold onto this?” Get rid of items that you’re ready to let go of.
Sometimes we hold onto clothes because it feels wrong to discard them. Sometimes we feel like we’d dishonor someone, or a memory, by throwing things away. Finding a suitable home for sentimental items can help. Consider donating things to good causes or recycling them.
There are also a variety of ways to repurpose clothing:
- T-shirts — Turn them into quilts, throw pillows, or wall hangings. Convert them into cleaning rags, reusable napkins, or blankets/beds for pets. Put a favorite T-shirt in a shadow box and hang it in your home.
- Wedding dresses — Turn them into skirts, blouses, or camisoles. Convert them into table runners, Christmas tree skirts, or burial outfits for infants. Take a piece of your dress and put it in a shadow box along with a photo and written memory.
Note: There are companies that will make a quilt from your T-shirts. However, I haven’t used any of these companies and therefore can’t recommend any specific ones. Also, r/quilting is a quilting community and can answer your quilting questions.
Frequently asked questions
Q: My weight fluctuates a lot. Should I get rid of clothes and re-buy them later?
A: This is a common struggle, and it really depends on how much your weight fluctuates, your financial situation, and how much you love the clothes you’re keeping. With that said, you should set some reasonable limits. Maybe that’s three plastic bins or the closet in the spare bedroom. Decide in advance the containers for these extra clothes. This will force you to only hold on to items you really like.
I also recommend that you look through all of these clothes once a year. Ask yourself which items you still want to keep.
Q: I plan to get pregnant again in a couple of years. Is it OK to keep maternity wear?
A: It’s fine to keep maternity wear. You just need to set some reasonable limits. Choose your containers for your maternity wear and only keep what fits in those containers. This could be a couple of plastic bins that you store in your basement. And if money is tight, you may consider keeping more containers.
Q: Can I keep my wedding dress and a zillion doilies from Meemaw (Grandma)?
A: Yup, that’s OK. Find a suitable spot to store your wedding dress and limit the containers for Mema’s doilies.
Q: What about formal clothes for working in an office building? I don’t need them right now because I work from home. But I might need them in the future if I work in an office building.
A: Great question. It really depends on a few factors. Can you afford to buy clothes in the future? How much do you love your formal office clothes? Could you get rid of pieces you don’t love? Or some stained or need repair? Which pieces will still be in style in a year?
Whatever you decide, I recommend limiting your containers for storing these clothes. Maybe that’s a 1/2 of your closet or two bins in the basement. This way, you only keep the stuff you like.
Q: Is it OK to keep clothes to pass on to my brother’s kids as they grow up?
A: My initial reaction is to say, “Sure, but limit your containers.”
But before you do, ask yourself a few questions. Are you keeping quality stuff? Or is it stained, torn, or out of style? Will your brother want these things? And if so, why not give them to him now and let him store them?
Personally, I love giving clothes and toys in good condition to family members. But I don’t hold on to things for them. My home is not a storage unit for stuff that other people might not even want in the future.
Thought experiments to adopt a decluttering mindset
OK, I’ll admit it: every self-help book talks about “adopting the right mindset.” They act as if it’s as simple as flipping on a light switch. But most don’t tell you how to do this.
So let me walk you through three thought experiments that put me in the right mindset. These thought experiments help me clarify what I materially need and what I can live without.
Thought experiment 1: You’re charged $1 for each item
Imagine someone charged you $1/month for each piece of clothing you own. How many shirts and shoes and ugly sweaters would you toss? Would you keep things that no longer fit? Would you hold on to things that are stained or need repair?
After you got rid of your unwanted clothes, would you feel less happy with less stuff? Would you grieve? Or feel relieved?
Would you wonder why you held on to so much stuff in the first place?
Thought experiment 2: Who’ll clean out your house?
Imagine that you died today. It’s not a pleasant thought but humor me. If you were no longer with us, who would clean out your house? What would they do with all of your clothes? Which things would they keep? Or donate? Which items would they drop in a dumpster?
Now think of the items that would end up in a landfill, surrounded by dirty diapers and rotting food. Why hold on to these if they don’t bring you any value? Why wait for someone else to discard them?
Thought experiment 3: Your house burned down
Imagine your house burned down and you lost everything. You had to start all over, but insurance gave you a new house and $25,000 to replace your stuff.
What clothing would you buy in the first week? The first month? And the first year? Which items would you never replace?
Which clothes would you secretly be glad are gone? Think about them. Why wait for a fire to have them disappear?