Inside: Decluttering on a low income has its challenges, but it CAN be done. You just need to do it differently.
Here’s the thing about decluttering on a low income: it’s just different. Every single decluttering post I’ve read is written from a place of excess, and nice excess at that (not the run-down excess that was our clutter).
No one is writing about how to declutter differently when you start from a place of less.
When you aren’t sure you will have enough money for groceries this month, you are going to approach decluttering differently.
I know because I’ve been there.
My Decluttering on a Low Income Journey
When I picked up a copy of the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up three years ago, we had three kids and lived on $45,000 a year.
Did we have clutter? We sure did. Bags and bags of it.
I got rid of a lot of stuff we didn’t need. But I also experienced major decluttering regret at different points along the way. I got rid of things that “didn’t bring me joy” without money to buy the things that did.
We also kept a lot of things our more well-off friends didn’t.
I have bins of hand-me-downs sitting in our storage room. I also have a box of maternity clothes for another baby we might have one day. And more things I don’t have time to list here.
I have (cue: horrified gasp) DUPLICATES.
We have four kids to support and one income to work with, it would be foolish of me to get rid of those things.
Minimalism Done Differently
When you live on a low income, you will feel the tension between frugality and minimalism. Minimalism can feel the very opposite of frugal.
And it is, if you do minimalism the same way as your higher income counterparts.
But decluttering on a low income? It’s still worth doing.
But you will need tips from someone who has done it from that place. I offer you my decluttering experience – the good and the bad – and everything I’ve learned along the way.
With a little guidance from someone who’s been there, I hope you will find decluttering on a low income much, much easier than I did.
I hope you will find the benefits of minimalism outweigh the challenges.
More on Minimalism on a Low Income:
- The Extraordinary Power of a Gift (when you can’t afford an experience)
- How Minimalism Can HURT Your Budget
How to Declutter on a Low Income: 8 Tips to Make it Easier
1) Start, even though it’s hard.
I don’t know where you’re coming from.
Life experiences like poverty, unemployment, great loss – all of these things shape your perspective on stuff.
I believe my house burning down as a child actually helped me in the decluttering process. I’m not sure if it was that exact experience that made me this way, but I am the extreme opposite of sentimental.
As opposed to my daughter who cries for twenty minutes about something we threw away a year ago, I willingly toss anything not tied down. I’ve actually had to rein in my purging tendencies with four little kids in the house.
More on Minimalism with Kids:
- How to Declutter with a Sentimental Child
- A Challenge to Minimalist Mamas (from the heart of a child)
- The Cost of Minimalism
That being said, if you’ve lived through multiple cycles of unemployment, you might view the stuff in your home as your only asset. It might be extremely hard to part with some of it.
I get that. So, start small.
It’s for this very reason that I recommend starting in the bathroom. It’s the easiest room to declutter and will give you the momentum you need to keep going.
2) Do not use the question, “Does it bring me joy?”
I read a post last month about getting out of debt on a low income.
The author made a confession that hit me hard:
We finally let go of the entitled belief that anyone who earned a college degree could get married, buy a house, have 2 kids, and otherwise afford a comfortable middle class lifestyle. -Shannon of Growing Slower
Were we living a lifestyle that didn’t match our income? At times, yes.
My husband and I both have college degrees (I have a master’s degree). In our culture of “you deserve this”, it’s easy to feel entitled to a lifestyle that doesn’t match our income level.
The question “Does it bring my joy?” is a middle to upper class question. I pray that one day, you will be able to use that question to make buying decisions.
It won’t help you right now, though.
When we decluttered, there was a lot left in our house that didn’t bring me joy. I’m thankful to not be in that place today. We’ve graduated to being able to afford some IKEA furniture we like (even that, we got on Craigslist, instead of brand new).
If you get rid of everything that doesn’t bring you joy, your house might be pretty darn empty by the time you’re finished. You will probably also have a serious case of decluttering regret.
More helpful questions for decluttering on a low income are:
- “Is it useful? Do I really need this?”
- “Can I afford to replace this next month if I actually need it?”
- “Do I have another tool or item in my house that serves the same purpose?”
3) Keep duplicates, in moderation.
“Get rid of all duplicates.” This is classic decluttering advice that you need to skip right past.
If you have fifty pens, you certainly don’t need fifty, especially in your main living space. But you might need thirty.
We recently gave away extra pyrex dishes, forgetting we have kids who accidentally break things.
Two of the four we had left broke last week.
Thrift store, here I come!
You need to evaluate how easy and affordable it is to replace an item if it does break:
- Do you have good thrift stores in your area ? (not everyone does)
- Is Freecycle alive and well where you live?
- Do you have a “Buy Nothing” group you can join on Facebook?
If you can easily replace it for very little, you can safely get rid of most duplicates. If not, store the duplicates in deep storage (more on this later).
4) Have a box for things you aren’t sure you’ll need (but you very well might).
You might be wary of decluttering, and understandably so.
Just like me, you may have gotten rid of “clutter” in the past, only to realize a month later that you actually needed what you gave away. Only you don’t really have money to replace it.
That’s why you are really going to need a box (or a couple of boxes) to store the things you aren’t sure about, the stuff you think you might need later.
Label the box with today’s date.
That date will help you know with certainty six months or even a year later that you really didn’t need those things.
I recommend a year because then you can fully cycle through all the seasonal items (holidays, weather changes, etc.). When those holidays and seasons come and go without needing anything from the box, you will be able to confidently drop those things off at your local thrift store.
5) Use the heck out of deep storage.
Deep storage is your friend. Deep storage keeps everything you only need seasonally or occasionally. It keeps the duplicates you will need if something breaks that you cannot afford to replace.
Related: What You’re Missing About Minimalism
6) Don’t feel pressure to throw things away.
I’ve read A LOT of decluttering posts and multiple books on minimalism. When you’re done reading them, you pretty much want to throw away/give away everything you own.
The pressure to get rid of stuff is tangible. It jumps off the page at you.
That felt pressure is part of why I got rid of things I regretted later. That pressure is probably helpful for someone on a higher income who can afford to replace something they get rid of and need later.
For someone who can’t? Not helpful.
Don’t feel pressured.
You know your stuff. You know your income. You know your situation.
Take decluttering advice (even mine!) with a grain of salt, and decide for yourself what to keep and what to get rid of. You will find a hundred posts on Pinterest titled, “100 things you can throw away right now.”
Not one of them is absolute.
That being said, I created this Declutter Your Home Checklist with lower income families in mind. Check it out – it may help you get started!
7) Take it slow.
It’s o.k. if it takes you longer to declutter. It’s not a race.
People recommend doing it in a shorter amount of time because you lose energy to finish.
Not finishing makes it harder to:
- Start again (Have you ever stalled out trying to lose weight and gained a few pounds back? It’s even harder to start, again).
- Experience the benefits of decluttering.
- Avoid accumulating more clutter.
Choose an end date. Post it where you will see it regularly. Stick to that date, and you’ll be just fine. Until then, go on a shopping ban. Only buy what you actually NEED (not what jumps out at you from the Dollar Store shelf as something you could use – “could use” is different than NEED).
Finally, find an accountability partner, a friend in a similar situation. Ask them to motivate you, to remind you of your end date and your goals.
8) Organize what remains.
If I hear one more time, “If you have to organize your stuff, you might have too much stuff,” I’m going to scream. Whoever wrote that obviously doesn’t have kids or a low income. I find it extremely condescending [end rant].
I don’t care how much stuff you have or don’t have, you still need organization.
Organization doesn’t need to be expensive. Clementine boxes, shoe boxes, and cheap dollar store bins work just as well as the pretty $20 baskets at Target.
(This book has other great ideas for pretty, cheap storage!)
If you like beautiful storage containers (I sure do!), try using a roll of wrapping paper to make your boxes beautiful, especially if they are out in the open.
Remember the Benefits of Decluttering (especially on a low income)
Decluttering on a low income can help you increase your income. Let me explain.
When you come from a higher income, you probably can earn quite a bit from selling your clutter. Very few items were worth the time it took to list them on Craigslist. We sold a small handful of things, netting less than $10 a piece.
When I say decluttering can help you increase your income, I am talking about time. Decluttering frees up your time and energy to invest in side hustles.
After decluttering, I found the time and energy to invest in this blog (which takes quite a bit of work). I also found the time and energy to homeschool.
And that is why, despite some decluttering regrets, I continue to pursue a minimalist lifestyle (as much as you can with non-minimalist husband and four small kids) and encourage other families on low incomes to do the same.
When you’re done decluttering, you will have less stuff to clean, less stuff to maintain, less stuff to lose.
Decluttering gives you back the most valuable and limited resource: time. And who doesn’t want that?
Don’t give up hope. Keep going – it’s worth it!
Decluttering on a low income has its challenges, but it also has great rewards.
P.S. Do me a favor? If this touched you or helped you in any way, would you share it on your favorite social media platform? That way more people can know that decluttering on a low income is possible. Thank you!