Deciding whether or not we truly need something can be one of our greatest clutter-clearing challenges. When it comes to making those important keep-or-toss decisions, "need" can be discouragingly difficult to define.
Be realistic about how soon you can reasonably expect to use or use up what you've got. Having a little extra on hand is not a bad thing, especially if you live where bad weather might make getting out to do errands difficult or even dangerous for a few days from time to time. There's a huge difference, however, between having a few days' worth of bottled water, paper goods, and canned food on hand should a major storm strike, and filling the garage with enough cases of stuff to survive a nuclear winter.
Don't get me wrong; I'm a huge fan of warehouse stores, and love the great deals I get at Costco. Do weigh the cost savings against your available storage space; if bringing home all those bargains is cramping your lifestyle in other ways, the money you're save may not be worth it. Put a value on your quality of life, and pay attention to what effect your bulk buying habit is having on it.
Re-using something is the purest form of recycling, but holding on to things just because they might come in handy "someday" is a direct route to clutterdom. Sure, all those old mayonnaise jars and margarine tubs are handy for storing leftovers, organizing crafts supplies, and probably a thousand and one other household uses. That doesn't mean you need to keep 1,001 of them in your pantry. Chances are pretty good that the ones that you'll find useful are already in use, so the empty ones can be recycled. There will always be more.
It can be very enlightening to actually do an inventory of your suspected worst forms of "just in case" clutter. Pick one type of excess: canned goods, or potentially useful items like margarine tubs, grocery bags, or rubber bands, or whatever it is that you keep sticking a few more of in the drawer or cupboard because they're potentially useful. Go take a good hard look at what you've got. Get a piece of paper and a pencil and count them all and then write it down. You'll probably be surprised at how much is in there. You think you've got four or five days of food in the cupboard (a reasonable supply), but when you count up all those boxes and cans, you realize you and your hubby could live on that stuff for weeks without letting a fresh fruit or vegetable past your lips. "Let's see," you think, "I've probably got five or six grocery bags under the kitchen sink," only to count them up and discover that there are 25 of them lurking down there.
The question to ask yourself is, "Do I have a use for this now?," not "Might I possibly find a use for this someday?"
Preparedness is not the only reason we keep too much stuff. Life is short, and most of us have a lengthy list of things we'd love to do if we ever have the time, which we probably won't -- at least not for more than a small number of items on that list. Are you really ever going to use that set of miniature tart pans to bake individual quiches for a garden party, or do you just like thinking that maybe someday you'll have the time and inclination to play Martha Stewart for a day? And if you haven't used your waffle iron in so long you've forgotten how it works, perhaps you don't really need it.
It's okay to have a few things around that support your "someday when I have the time" list. The key is to realize that your interests and priorities are probably going to shift between the time you put something on that mental list and the day finally comes that you might actually be able to do it. How much of your "someday" stuff is related to hobbies that you have outgrown or simply lost interest in pursuing? Sure, those first few quilts you made were a blast, but maybe now you find yourself thinking, "been there, done that," and realize that if you ever have time to be creative again you'd rather take a painting class. Box up your collection of fabric and give it to a friend, or see if a local women's shelter would like to have it.
Stuff that's no longer new but not entirely worn out can be very tempting to a clutterbug. But how many old T-shirts do you really need to keep for washing the car? Keep two or three and dump the rest.
Don't be shy about asking, "Do I really need to keep this?" about larger things as well; we decided to sell one of our cars after we took a serious look at how often we used it and how much it would cost to inspect, register, and insure it.
© 2003 Stephanie Roberts [excerpted from "Clutter-Free Forever!", Lotus Pond Press, 2003]