Inside: Marie Kondo’s “Does it spark joy?” is far from the best question to use for decluttering. Try these decluttering questions instead, for a better decluttering experience.
The popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was my first encounter with decluttering and minimalism. When I heard about it from another blogger, I bought it the same day and read it cover to cover by the end of the next day.
I spent the next week picking up every single object in my house asking the now well-known question, “Does it spark joy?” And I thought that question was helpful…at first.
Bags and bags of donations made the commute from my house to the local thrift store. We gave away other items away to family and friends.
I felt so much better – a huge weight lifted off my chest, until a month later when I realized I had gone a bit overboard in my decluttering purge.
Decluttering regret quickly set in.
The Best Decluttering Questions to Use Instead of, “Does It Spark Joy?”
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My first clue that Marie Kondo might not have been the best source of decluttering wisdom for a young family (although some of Kondo’s tips are genius) on a low income was during our yearly encounter with the stomach bug.
The stomach bug with kids is just about one of the worst parenting experiences ever. It’s messy, and you need a heck of a lot of extra sheets and towels to deal with the mess when you have more than one kid.
Except we didn’t have as many extra sheets and towels as we used to. Why? Many of our extra sheets and towels were not only deemed “excess” in the Kondo world, but they sure didn’t “spark joy”.
Old and ratty from years of use, the excess linens were put promptly into the donate box. I threw away the worst ones and donated the rest (animal shelters always need more towels).
Those old and ratty linens would have been perfect for the kinds of messes the stomach bug brings. We ended up having to use nice quilts and blankets, instead.
Fast forward a couple weeks late, four days after laundry day, and I was out of clothes.
In an effort to get rid of anything that didn’t spark joy, I forgot that I would need to fill my capsule wardrobe in over time. We couldn’t afford for me to go on a shopping spree to find clothes that did.
Let’s just say things were a little lean in the wardrobe department for a few months, and I wasn’t thrilled.
These are only two of many frustrations with decluttering I experienced after using, “Does it spark joy?” as my go-to decluttering question.
In order to spare you the same negative decluttering experiences, I suggest using these decluttering questions, instead.
1. Have I/we used this in the past six months?
With the exception of seasonal decorations, hand-me-downs, and items being saved for another baby, if you haven’t used the item in the past six months, it is definitely time to consider getting rid of it or putting it in a box for the next six months to see if you ever go looking for it.
When you’re decluttering on a low income, it is so much harder to get rid of stuff. If you can’t afford to replace it if you end up needing it later, I usually encourage people to wait a year to give away items they are unsure about.
Decluttering regret may be next to non-existent for the upper class, but I have a strong hunch (and a few personal testimonies) that it is much more common among those decluttering on a low income.
2. Is this something I will actually use? Or is it something I want to want to use?
Have you ever bought something because you want to be the kind of person that does hobby X or uses item Y? Yeah, me too.
Sometimes, we make purchases based on the ideal version of ourselves, the person we want to be or think we should be.
It wastes both money and time. You clutter your house with things that you are never actually going to use.
It’s time to be honest with yourself about who you are right now. I think you’ll be happier, and at the very least, you will save money and your sanity (clutter is a huge source of stress).
I am still grappling with this problem, three years after my initial decluttering overhaul.
I just went through my kitchen again and found things that I’ve hung onto over the years because I want to be the mom who loves to cook and bake.
The reality? I borderline hate baking (though I love eating the baked goods!), and I am far from a fantastic cook. I do the bare minimum to cook food my family will actually eat.
Maybe one day when I have more time, I will take cooking lessons because there is something fulfilling to being able to make really good food. But that time is not for another 5-10 years at least.
For now, I hope someone else will be able to put those kitchen items to better use, and I now have more cabinet space in my small kitchen.
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3. Can I replace this item easily and inexpensively?
When you’re decluttering on a low income, it is SO tempting to hang onto everything “just-in-case” we need it one day. Too often, however, the “just-in-case” items pile up for months and months, and you have a serious, ongoing clutter problem on your hands.
When you get stuck on the “just-in-case” items, it can be difficult to let go them because replacing them if you do need them will be too expensive. I get that! Take it from someone who had to replace a LOT of things given away in haste during a night of forced decluttering: it adds up.
Let’s say you decide to only let go of things you don’t think you need that would cost $20 or less to replace. Even that can be expensive.
If you needed to replace just ten items in the next six months, all of a sudden you’re out $200! Personally, I can think of a hundred things I’d rather do with $200 than replacing things I spent my hard-earned money on once already.
You also need to factor in the cost of your time to replace the item. How much is your time worth?
I recommend considering the following factors before getting rid of your “just-in-case” items:
- Can I find this item easily, either at a thrift store or the local Target?
- Is this item $10 or less on a consistent basis?
- If you will possible need the item one day (cribs, maternity clothes, etc.), can you lend the item to a friend or family member for a period of time? That way they get use from the item and it’s not taking up room in your basement. Just make sure you understand the wear and tear it will inevitably show once you get it back.
4. Is the time I spend maintaining this item worth the value/joy it gives me?
Sometimes it’s not so much about whether we love something or not, but about whether it’s worth keeping.
You might love fixing up old furniture, for example. But that kind of hobby comes with a LOT of tools that take up a lot of room, cost a lot of money, and take time to maintain and care for.
After thinking about it, you might realize that you’d rather spend that time (and money!) traveling or having experiences with your kids.
Time is your most valuable resource. We all get the same amount.
Decide what your time is worth, and if you are spending that time the way you want to. Then, declutter accordingly.
5. Does this item propel me towards my goals?
She and her husband decided to downsize to an 860 ft. duplex after spending a year traveling the world. They spent $4,000 storing their things while away, and having done without it for an entire year, realized they could live without most of it!
Because she hated decluttering, but was clear on her and her family’s life goals, this question helped her immensely to sort through all of their stuff and let go of most of it.
In Emma’s words:
My life goals are to be happy, healthy and well-travelled. My family and writing make me happy. As does walking in nature, feeling the sun shining on my face and a good book. Other than the books, none of those things are things!! (And I have a library card, so that’s covered). What a revelation!”
Before you start decluttering, you may need to do some soul-searching, together with your spouse if you’re married.
What are your personal goals?
What are you goals as a family?
If you have young kids, imagine twenty years from now, when they have left the house. What will you regret not doing?
Use the answers to those questions to fuel your decluttering process. Don’t let you stuff hold you back from doing what really matters to you.
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6. Is the item irreplaceable?
I recently came across this question and had to add it to the list!
Is the thing you’re thinking of decluttering an heirloom or one-of-a-kind item?
A hope chest, a painting handed down for the past four generations, a t-shirt from a parent who has passed away? Consider keeping it.
Now if you have an entire bedroom taken up by these things (and they’ve been there for years) OR you honestly have no desire to keep them whatsoever, but you’re keeping them out of guilt, that’s a different story.
You should never keep something out of guilt.
But if you’re getting rid of them just because some minimalist somewhere told you to only own X number of items, or if you’re in a temporary home where they don’t fit but you plan on buying a home in the near future and you want to keep them, consider keeping it.
7. Would I buy this item again if I had to pay full price today?
If you don’t use it and you don’t love it, would you buy it again?
If the answer is no, you probably can safely pass it on to someone else who can actually use it.
Decluttering is a Process, not an Event
If you, too, started your decluttering journey using, “Does it spark joy?”, you might be *slightly* disillusioned by minimalism. I hope these questions lead to a more positive, regret-free decluttering experience in the future.
If these decluttering questions are your first introduction to minimalism, then, yay! I know that you will be able to declutter with confidence. It might take you a little longer than others, but I think you will be more pleased will your end result.
At the end of the day, decluttering is a process, not an event. Think about how long it took you to accumulate all of that clutter in the first place! It took years.
Using these decluttering questions might mean it takes you longer. That’s o.k.!
When you take your time, instead of racing through it, the outcome will not only be a clutter-free home right now, but also wiser buying decisions and a clutter-free home years from now.
If you’ve had a negative decluttering experience in the past, don’t let it stop you from embracing all that minimalism has to offer!
The benefits far outweigh the challenges.