Two years ago, my husband and I moved across the Atlantic Ocean. All in all, we probably brought about half of our belongings. The remainder we gave away, recycled or threw away as appropriate.

Two years later, the clutter’s been creeping back into our lives. It’s not as bad as it once was, but then perhaps that’s just because our new flat has more kitchen storage and a walk-in closet. Our home is certainly more cluttered now than it was when we moved in.

I’ve been reflecting on why this has happened, when we were so adamant when we moved that we were taking this opportunity to be more intentional about our belongings, and I’ve come up with a few answers. I’m sharing them here for everyone else who, like me, thought they’d decluttered for good, only to find themselves in much the same place a few years later.

And, let’s be real, a lot of this is me, not us, so from now on I’ll be using the singular pronoun 🙂

I didn’t truly learn to discard

A lot of what I discarded were the ‘easy wins’. Tops that were too tight in the shoulders, books I’d read once and didn’t imagine I’d read again, electronics that were incompatible with 110V wiring.

And, honestly, I don’t think this is a bad way to start. You can make a big impact in your level of clutter just by getting rid of these kinds of items.

The problem is that it’s not enough. Looking at how much less we suddenly had, I felt like I’d gotten the hang of this ‘spark joy’ thing, but by the time we started unpacking the boxes we’d shipped four months later I found myself wondering why on earth we’d kept some things.

The harder part, and the part I still struggle with, is letting go of things.

Often, this is a feeling of guilt. Clothes I spent too much money on, gifts I’d never used, all things I felt like I should use more often instead of discarding.

The worst, though, is anything that might come in useful one day. I’ve always been like this. I can hear my mum even now, exasperated at asking me to tidy my room only to find that I’d simply reorganised all the clutter, saying, ‘When was the last time you used it?’ A shrug, then a murmured, ‘But it might come in handy later.’

Broken calculators, scraps of leather, empty jam jars – anything that feels more like a thing than like rubbish is hard to throw out. I recently decluttered my toiletry drawer and finally threw out some eyeshadow I’ve had for the last eight years. I hadn’t touched it since our move, and managed to convince myself that, even if I did get the sudden urge to perfect a smoky eye, I’d never use that stuff, not when it’s been open so long. All the eyeshadow was doing at this point was lurking at the back of the drawer, digging a pit of guilt in my stomach.

I didn’t change my spending habits

I think this is partly because of the circumstances in which I decluttered. Because we had to replace things like the kettle and other electrical items, as well as buy furniture, it became very easy to get back into a BUY BUY BUY mindset.

I talked about this a little bit in my post on why capsule wardrobes aren’t my thing, but there were also situations where I discarded enough that what I was left with wasn’t enough. I rushed to replace the items I’d decluttered, only to end up overdoing it because I got into the habit of buying clothes again.

Because I started buying things – in many cases necessary things – so soon after I decluttered, I didn’t get into the habit of approaching shopping with more intention.

Interestingly, I never used to have this problem. I’ve always had a problem with discarding, to be certain, but I was always a chronic underbuyer. It wasn’t until I graduated from uni into unemployment, time in which I had no choice but to question my every purchase, that I changed. When I got a job and had disposable income, I started buying much more frequently, simply because, for the first time, I really could. If I wanted something, I could have it, without agonising over it for weeks and carefully counting out my money.

I don’t want to go back to stressing over every penny. The whole point of minimalism, for me, is to stress less and know that I’m spending my time and energy on the things I care about.

In the spirit of that, something I’ve been trying to do is restrict my spending days. Groceries and other essentials can be bought at any time, but for non-essential items I’m restricting myself to a couple of days a month. I can search on Amazon or Etsy and bookmark things I want to buy in advance, but I’m giving myself some time to think on these things before I buy them.

I can’t tell you how many times I absolutely NEEDED something, scoured the internet for it, and awaited the parcel with a knot in my stomach, only for it to gather dust at the back of a closet six months later. By putting some time between the desire and the purchase, I’m hoping to limit how often this happens.

The imaginary self versus the actual self

What both these things – the struggle to discard and the urge to shop – have in common is that they reflect my imaginary self instead of my actual self. My imaginary self is stylish, wearing pretty skirts and flawless make up. My actual self prefers the comfort of jeans and can’t stand the feel of anything on my face.

Many of my impulse buys in particular are the fault of my imaginary self. She rears her head from time to time and I have the sudden, overwhelming urge to be more like her. Then, when I start tripping over skirts and trying to learn to do eyeliner without looking like a teenage goth kid, she settles into hibernation, only to awaken again when it crosses my mind to discard her clothes and make up.

Recognising my imaginary self has been remarkably helpful in terms of decluttering more effectively. As I mentioned, I finally got rid of her eyeshadow a couple of weeks ago. I don’t miss it at all. I certainly don’t miss wrestling with that overstuffed drawer every morning trying to find a hair elastic to tie off my plait.

Dealing with the imaginary self when it comes to new purchases is a bit more challenging. It can be difficult at times to tell who’s really driving when I’m looking for something like new clothes. It could be that the heeled boots are a new bend in the road that is my own personal style, or perhaps they’re on my imaginary self’s road, running parallel to my own by separated by the verge.

This is where I’m finding it helpful to give myself specific spending days. My imaginary self can run rampant over Etsy looking for new clothes, but by the time I’m allowed to start clicking ‘Buy’, my actual self is back in control. This makes me far less likely to buy things on impulse, and allows me to be more intentional; if I’ve been thinking about that cardigan for the past month, then I probably really do want it.

A final note

Marie Kondo claims that once you tidy up for good, you’ll never have to do it again. In my experience, that hasn’t been the case. Learning to discard things I never use is a different skill than learning not to buy them, which is a different skill from learning how to handle things that have no use but simply seem too much like ‘proper things’ to be discarded.

It’s all these skills together that are helping me to slowly, but surely, create a tidy, clutter-free home for good.

Do you struggle with buying too much or discarding too little? What are your tips to help with the clutter?

Photo by Renate Solhaug on Unsplash

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When decluttering isn't enough