If December is the season of giving, January is typically about unloading.
Perhaps your coffee table has become the de facto staging area for the 25 Disney figurines that emerged from your child’s advent calendar. Or maybe your dining room now houses a Peloton bike because even though it looked so diminutive in that viral commercial, owning one means you actually now have a bike in your home.
Nothing like the dreary days of winter to force a reckoning with the clutter that has found its way into your life. Not unlike those who temporarily swear off booze in the name of a “dry January,” aspiring minimalists often spend this month atoning for their shopping sins by clearing out their closets and hauling the excess to Goodwill.
“We get a lot of calls on December 26,” said Lisa Ruff, director of business development for Neat Method, a home-organizing franchise based in San Francisco. “Our repeat clients know it’s going to be a disaster. The people who’ve never worked with us before will reach out the week after the holidays.”
Homeowners tend to underestimate the size of their new possessions. A karaoke machine sounded like a great idea, but now that it’s here, where does it go? Parents invariably have to contend with the well-intentioned but oversized gifts from doting relatives, like a four-foot tall dollhouse that looks adorable but belongs nowhere.
Come January, “you want a new start and that might include a more organized life or a cleaner house,” said Darby Saxbe, director of the University of Southern California Center for the Changing Family. Such a New Year’s resolution “directly counteracts the tide of new possessions that just came through your door.”
The solution, home organizers say, is to brace for the onslaught ahead of time. “We tell clients, you need to prep for the holidays. You need to be editing in November,” Ruff said.
“Edit” is a popular word in home-organizing parlance, a cheerful euphemism for what until recently was known as “throwing away.” Such positive language fits squarely with the tidiness mantra displayed on popular Instagram accounts like The Home Edit, A Bowl Full of Lemons and I Heart Organizing. Artful photos of impeccable pantries and closets convey a message that with a well-planned trip to the Container Store, your home could be as orderly as it is Instagrammable.
This time last year, the country embarked on a collective deep clean, with charities and thrift stores reporting a surge in donations in the wake of “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” the popular Netflix series about cleaning house. The streaming network has another organizing show in the works, “House Goals With the Home Edit,” to be released this summer, starring Nashville organizers Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin, whose organizing style leans more toward tasteful storage solutions than a reduction in stuff.
Americans might be cleaning house, but we still love to shop. Last October, the National Retail Federation estimated that the average American would spend about $1,050 during the holidays, up 4% from 2018. Even Kondo, the Japanese organizer who amassed a loyal following by calling on homeowners to keep only possessions that “sparked joy,” now sells a line of products on her website. What better way to display the beloved survivors than on a $161 wooden tray or in a $208 rattan basket?
“If you’re looking for minimalism at the donation door, you’re not seeing it — people are donating just as much stuff as before,” because they’re still buying new things that eventually end up in a donation bag, said Adam Minter, the author of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale,” a book about a vast global market of used items fueled by the stuff people no longer want. Minter described the American donation frenzy of 2019 as “a brief cultural phenomenon” with no lasting effect on the secondhand market.
Clutter is particularly stressful for women, who are often the ones tasked with keeping the home orderly, said Saxbe, of the University of Southern California, where she is an associate professor of psychology.
Yet, we go out and buy more stuff anyway. Saxbe sees two forces at play. Shopping satisfies a natural urge to forage — we feel good when we collect things for our family. But maintaining a calm, orderly household is extremely difficult in a culture that provides families with little support, and so we feel frazzled. “We satisfy our stress by going out and consuming, because it is something that makes us feel better,” she said. “And that’s very ironic because it can make us feel very overwhelmed.”
Resisting the urge to bring new things home is hard, even if you’ve made a conscious choice to live smaller. Last April, Gabriela Nuñez moved with her partner, Angel Orozco, and their young son from a three-bedroom condo in Orange County to a 677-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. They wanted to live closer to the coffee shop that Orozco, 45, co-owns. Downsizing meant reducing the family’s possessions by a third — a long, grueling process. But Nuñez, 43, was resolute, enlisting friends to help her open boxes and make hard choices.
Then came the holidays. Nuñez, an associate professor of Chicano and Chicana Studies at California State University at Fullerton, briefly forgot about her new slimmed-down lifestyle and indulged in new clothes for herself and gifts for her family. She struggled to convince friends and family that she simply did not have room for presents. “The holidays are really hard for me because I just get caught up in it all,” she said. “I get into buy mode.”
Now, with the holidays over, she’s facing the reality that she has to clear out her closets once again, this time to make room for all her new possessions. The process has brought up uncomfortable feelings about why she shops. “I have no problem getting rid of stuff, but I can think of five things that I want to buy today,” she said. “I’m trying to be honest about that and change that.”