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Decluttering When You Live With a Pack-Rat

My life would be so simple if I didn’t have kids. Or a husband.

I mean, I wouldn’t have a PlayStation4 in the living room.  I could garden for hours, uninterrupted. There wouldn’t be a Barbie doll and her dinosaur minions staring at me as I brush my teeth. I wouldn’t feel the stabbing pain of a rogue Lego block piercing my foot as I make my way to bed.

However, my life would not be my life without my family. And considering I love them all dearly, living without them is not an option. This does mean that parts of life can be problematic when we don’t share the same definitions of certain things, such as clutter, mess, tidy, enough, prepared or relaxed.

I’m fortunate that my husband isn’t a pack-rat. And, at 5 and 7, our kids are still at an age where I can help guide their keep-or-toss decisions (this is changing though). Plus, if I’m being honest, out-grown toys and party favours sometimes quietly disappear, along with the reams of artwork that come home from school and no-one has noticed yet.

So often though, I receive emails from readers whose situations are different. Their partner is a pack-rat, or their children have a really hard time letting go and they feel like this is holding them back.

Desperate to create a simple life

They are desperate to create a simpler life for themselves, only to face constant opposition from their partner, family, older kids or housemates. But the truth is, there is only so much you can do in this situation, aside from tossing their belongings without permission – which I really don’t advocate.

Start the Conversation

You don’t need anyone else’s permission to simplify your own life or your stuff. Undoubtedly though, it’s helpful to have support.

So start the conversation:

Bring up your desire to simplify.

Make it about you and your desires, and avoid accusations or judgement. The quickest way to get people off-side is to start a conversation with an accusation. Their defenses will go up and they won’t be receptive to anything else you have to say.

Talk about what you need and want from life.

Tell them that you want to start simplifying your life and will begin with your belongings. Tell them that you feel frustrated, stuck, overwhelmed or depressed and that the clutter in your home is adding to the problem. Tell them how you plan on going about simplifying and then ask if it’s something they are interested in. You could be surprised at the answer!

If you live with others – kids, housemates, relatives – talk to them too.

You’re not asking for permission, you’re just telling them what will be happening and why. (Bonus: you may just inspire them to action too.)

Decluttering when you live with a pack-rat

Now…Walk the Walk.

It’s time to show the conviction behind your words.

Do the decluttering, cut out unnecessary commitments, create a simpler life for yourself and enjoy the benefits. You will have more space, more time, more room to pursue passions and more clarity about what makes life better.

But please, don’t:

  • brag about it
  • constantly talk about it
  • toss other people’s stuff – no matter how tempting

Just by living it you are demonstrating the benefits of a simpler life. Let your partner, kids or housemate see simplicity in action. Let them see how it’s impacting your life. Let them see how you are benefiting.

Then, after a month, or three, or six, you can talk about it. Ask them how they feel about simplifying some of their stuff. Even just some of your shared belongings. If they’ve been inspired by your efforts, they may be keen to get on board. Then again, they may not.

But like I said at the beginning of this post – there isn’t much you can do about that. Just keep living your life as simply as possible and presenting them with a viable alternative.

One day, your influence will make an impact.

[They] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are. -Jim Henson

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  1. Seana Turner

    This situation is more common than not! I also suggest, along the same lines, simplifying in “zones” where you have control. Don’t start in the playroom, but maybe with your purse or bathroom drawer. This way, the changes you make can be sustained, instead of immediately undermined.

  2. Angie

    Great tips! My kids are 5, 9 and 11 and I definitely hit a wall with them right away when I tried to simplify their lives for them. 😉 I have started “talking the talk” with them and I think we are making progress. Your tips are great reminders that it won’t happen overnight but if they watch me live my life simply, it will have an impact on them.

  3. Mo

    Great insight. I like that you focus on what the desired end result is: a happier life. It’s always gone better for me when I have raised the issue in terms of quality of life and not just “we need to get rid of all this junk!” The most important point: just take care of your stuff and hopefully others follow.

  4. joanna

    All your points are perfect. I started decluttering my stuff and my schedule and my husband is suddenly very onboard. And making his own changes. Its easy to point out all the reasons why you can’t declutter/ simplify and blame everything in your path but as you have taught me, Brooke you have to start with yourself!

  5. Jennifer Fagge

    I am reading the book, 5 Days to a Clutter Free House. It gave me lots of great talking points to explain to my family members the value in simplicity. For example, messy people are often creative (they have plans for that!!) and so cerebral that they can’t see how something so simple or ordinary as a clean environment could affect them, but it DOES.

  6. Maryalene

    I love that this article is all about being respectful of the other people in your house. Minimalism doesn’t appeal to everyone and unfortunately, we can’t always bring others over to our way of thinking. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is accept that certain parts of your house/life will be cluttered and the best you can do is carve out some simplified space for yourself.

  7. Beth A Moore

    Such wise words, and I love how they are really good life advice fit pretty much anything we take on!

  8. Dee

    I feel as though I have been decluttering for years without ever getting anywhere. A few things play into this. 1. I work full-time at a stressful job. No matter how I try, Monday through Friday is always a little frenetic. I not only don’t get rid of more clutter, I – we all – often contribute more. On weekends, I try to declutter but there always seems to be something vying for that time. Kid activities, festivals (which we love), the occasional work function, or just fatigue! 2. We lost nearly everything we own in 2005 to flooding. You would think that would help, right? It did for a while, but I think the memory of losing everything has turned my son into a major packrat. He has a hard time letting go of ANYTHING. 3. Related to that flood, I have a need/tendency to keep papers too long. We needed a lot of papers after the flooding and did for a long time after to prove this or that. It’s hard to break that habit because “what if”….

  9. Diana

    How about decluttering when YOU are the pack rat?! 🙂 I know, I know, there are already lots of resources out there for that! Probably like most people, I like clean and uncluttered space, but I still have a tendency to hold on to stuff. One step at a time, and things are so much better than they were even a year ago. Thanks for the reminders!

    • Anna

      One thing that I’ve found that helps me is making it a choice between keeping different things. If I just look at an object, of course, I’m likely to think I want to keep it. But if I have to pick out my favorite shirts (with an item limit), I’m going to be more likely to let go of some of the less loved things.

  10. Mary Grace

    I’ve realized that as much as I say I want to get rid of all the junk, I have a really hard time actually doing it. After living overseas for many years and now finally being in one place for a while, I’m realizing how easy it is to accumulate. And, I hate it. At the same time, I’m trying to give myself grace for this season, when having three boys in a row means holding on to the clothes, shoes, ski boots, bikes, helmets, etc. etc. for several years in all different sizes, just to avoid having to buy them all again. Trying to simplify what we do purchase has helped, but I still have plastic tubs in the basement full of clothes from newborn to size 6. Learning to “walk the walk” is a challenge, but its something I long for, and something that IS helping me to pick and choose carefully what we buy for the boys, or what we get, because I know I will have it in my basement until the last child outgrows it!

    • Anna

      Moving often is helpful, isn’t it. It’s when we have to pack things up that we realize how much we have. It’s even more helpful if you have to fit things into 2 suitcases/person. (Done that, too!)

  11. Anna

    Great tips! One thing that I’ve found helpful for keeping sanity with kids who are NOT into minimalism or uncluttered life- set limits. They have their own space for things- mostly their rooms, and a few designated spaces. Shared spaces we try to keep tidy. Their rooms can be fairly messy, as long as they are picked up enough for the floors to be cleaned once/week. We do periodic decluttering in their rooms. This usually works better right before they are going to get something new, like Christmas or a trip where they will be bringing back some souvenirs. It is less painful if they are making space for something new than if they are just getting rid of things.

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