This is part of my Swift Decluttering For Clothes.

One reader asked:

Which clothes I should get rid of? Where do I start? Can someone give me a plan to follow?

This is a common question. And I’d like to invert this question. Instead of asking what you should get rid of, let’s think about what you need to keep in order to have a comfortable life.

This is a bit complicated so I broke this down into four steps.

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.

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.

(In some cases, you’ll need even more space for clothing, like when your weight fluctuates a lot or when you plan to be pregnant again.)

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 sold/donated/discarded.

This approach has four important benefits:

  1. You keep only essential things and things you love.
  2. You don’t weigh the merit and value of each article of clothing.
  3. You know when you’re done: when your containers are full.
  4. You know what to get rid of: what’s left on your bed.

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:

  1. Follow the “1 in 1 out” rule. If you buy a T-shirt, you have to get rid of a T-shirt.
  2. Only shop on specific days, like, the first Saturday of the month.
  3. Add desired items to a “wish list” and wait seven days. You’ll usually forget about them.
  4. Unsubscribe from junk mail and promotional emails. Don’t give your phone number or email address to stores.
  5. Give yourself a monthly budget for clothes.
  6. Use loss aversion. Before buying a $50 shirt, ask, “What else could I buy with this $50? Is this shirt really worth it?”
  7. Immerse yourself in decluttering podcasts, videos, & books.

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.

More Decluttering Questions:

I need a plan

Dealing with guilt

Which clothes to keep

Selling clothes