Q&A: Organizing expert Tracy McCubbin on getting the house ready for the holidays

Dec 19, 2019

Tracy McCubbin founded dclutterfly.com in 2006 to help people declutter their lives and keep only things that matter. Her expertise lies in home organization, closet help, downsizing and moving consulting. Tracy's new book "Making Space, Clutter-Free: The Last Book on Decluttering You'll Ever Need" offers realistic ways to deal with your stuff. Ask her about how to get your house in shape for the holidays which are on our doorstep.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Tracy McCubbin is a professional home organizer whose business is dclutterfly.com.  Her recent book "Making Space, Clutter-Free: The Last Book on Decluttering You'll Ever Need" illustrates the tips she has learned from working with hundreds of clients. Let's chat with her about cleaning it up before the holidays are here.

Good morning.  It's Tracy McCubbin, author of Making Space, Clutter Free here! Looking forward to answering all your decluttering and organizing questions this morning.

Hi, we just moved into a new home at the end of November, and we have houseguests coming at Christmas. We've made some progress in unpacking (okay a lot), but there are still boxes of things that I haven't found places for, and I'm feeling stressed about being ready to host. Any advice? This stuff is mostly stuff that made sense to put in a certain location in our old home but don't fit in the same sort of location in the new home -- though overall we do have more storage space now.

As much as you want your home to be "perfect" for your guests, remember the most important thing about the holidays is spending time with friends and family.  Your guests would rather have you present and relaxed than stressed about where things go and how the house looks. 

I am a big fan of getting unpacked as soon as possible but sometimes setting up a new house takes some thought.  Especially if your stuff doesn't fit in the same way in the new home.   Maybe it's time to let go of the old stuff if it's not working in the new home.

I would suggest trying to tackle a couple boxes this weekend and then putting the unpacked boxes in a corner or closet somewhere out of the way of the guest. When everyone comes for Christmas, don a festive sweater, throw open the door and say "thanks for helping warm up our new but not quite unpacked home!"  With a belly full of food and surrounded by loved ones, no one will notice the unpacked boxes. 

Hi! How can I get organized without getting tons of those cheap clear boxes? It seems like most people advise buying lots of bins and baskets but I don't like that look and would prefer not to buy more things. How would you organize without buying a lot of extra containers?

The biggest organizing mistake I see is people buying a TON of boxes and bins for "organizing" before they even start the process.  The first step is to declutter and get rid of the stuff you don't use/want/love.  After you've done that, then you can see how much stuff REALLY needs to be put in the bin.

Often times as we are doing the decluttering, we come across containers that are perfect for organizing, without buying a thing.  My utility drawer in my kitchen is organized with the boxes my checks came in.  My sock drawer has shoe boxes.  You don't have to buy a ton of plastic bins to organize.  In fact, tis the season for boxes to keep showing up at our doorstep so maybe wrap the smaller ones in brown craft paper, reuse it for storage, write a label on it and BOOM ... organized.

I don't mind putting away and organizing clutter (I'm getting better at ditching stuff and making sure everything has a place to be) but the actual cleaning and scrubbing? UGH. Even if you normally do your own cleaning, consider springing for a professional once in awhile, especially before events like Christmas when you have a million other things to worry about. HUGE weight off the shoulders...I feel better already and she hasn't even come to clean yet. :)

I have to agree with you on this one.  Organizing, decluttering and even laundry, I love but the deep cleaning ... not so much.  So I outsource the task and am the happier for it.  And if it's not in your budget for bi-weekly, your suggestion of saving up and springing for before the holidays is a great gift to yourself.

What is the best way to store Christmas lights and ornaments?

Post Christmas is a very busy time of year for my company, dClutterfly, and we've organized many an ornament collection.

If you have very fragile ornaments and feel like spending a bit of money, The Container Store and Target both have fantastic divided ornament storage bins.  If not, just get 66 qt clear storage bins, wrap ornaments in clean newsprint, and store in those.  My mom stored our ornaments for YEARS in I.Magnin boxes and nothing got broken.  I prefer plastic storage bins as they are easier to stack and you can see what's inside.  And don't forget to label so you know what's in each bin.

As for lights, my team rolls them up and places all the lights in one bin, labeled "strings of lights."


Hi Tracy! Do you have ideas for any gifts that would be good for someone trying to get organized that they'd actually use?

If organizing is difficult for them, I would, of course, suggest a copy of my book "Making Space, Clutter Free."  It has a GREAT and workable plan to help people break through their emotion clutter blocks and then organize room by room.  It's also available in audiobook & kindle if they don't need anymore hardcopies.

Another GREAT gift for a person struggling to get organized is the gift of your time.  Decluttering and organizing can be a big job and often times, people are so overwhelmed that they don't know where to start.  Having an outside person lend a hand with not only the physical labor but also coming up with a game plan can be just the help they need. 

The thing you don't want to get them is MORE STUFF!

We have house guests coming to stay the weekend for the first time in years. I am completely out of practice for hosting overnight guests. What are a few things we can do to make staying at our house more comfortable for my niece and her husband?

Spend a few minutes and think of the things they'll need but might not want to bother you for.  Towels for a shower, an extra blanket and how to make coffee in the morning.  When they arrive give them a lay of the land; food, water and where they can charge their cellphone a night! I always hate to push the bed aside to try and find the plug.  So maybe an extension cord so it's easy to charge.

Last time I went to visit an great aunt of me, she had put a beloved photo of us in the guest room it made me feel so welcome!

Most importantly, enjoy each other's company and spend some time reconnecting.

Hi. My house is a disorganized mess. We periodically sort things and put them away, but it never sticks. I'd love to get organized, and stay organized, but my husband really isn't on board. The chaos doesn't seem to bother him the way it bothers me. How can we find a middle ground?

I joke with my dClutterfly clients that marriage counseling is included with the organizing.

When one partner is more cluttered than the other partner, this can be a really challenging scenario.  The first step is to have an honest conversation about why being less cluttered makes you happy.  Explain that the clutter makes you feel stressed, out of control, overwhelmed.  Often times the cluttered partner has heard their whole life about their clutter so when their partner brings it up, it takes them right back to getting in trouble for not cleaning their rooms. Instead make it about what you need, not what they have done wrong.  Explain the benefits of being less cluttered.

Then come to an understanding about what parts of the house are most important for you to stay uncluttered.  Kitchen, bedroom or living room.  Agree on some neutral spaces and then agree on some spaces that they can clutter up like crazy.  I have even created a "clutter cave" for some clients.  A downstairs basement that is off limits to the uncluttered person.

Start with a conversation and talk about your vision for your home and how all the clutter makes YOU feel.  They may not understand the stress it is causing you.

I recently cleared out my father's house and now have a storage locker full of boxes that I still need to go through (we ran out of time to sort through things before the house was sold). How can I create a plan to go through this stuff so that the temporary fix of the storage locker doesn't end up being a permanent solution? Thanks!

Clearing out after a parent has passed or downsized is the most difficult decluttering.  Sending you my love and support!  You are now in the middle of Emotional Clutter Block #6 Trapped with Other People's Stuff.  You have become the keeper of your father's things at great time and expense.  You may feel guilty letting it go or wondering if there is any value so you can't just donate it all. There are many factors at play for you.

The most important thing you can do is schedule time into your calendar to go through the storage locker so more time doesn't go by that you are paying storage fees.  Usually a storage locker can be cleaned out in 2 days with some prep work. Ask a friend or family member to help so you have an extra set of hands. Rent a truck so you can take donations away.  Schedule a trash hauler as most storage places don't let you use their trash bins.  Text photos of items you think family members might want and say if you want it come claim it by "X" date. 

My book "Making Space, Clutter Free" has a whole section on this kind of decluttering with a workable plan that will be very helpful.

Remember the most important step is to schedule in time to deal with it.  You have never going to wake up on a Saturday morning and say "today I feel like emptying that storage locker!"  It will get put off and put off and you'll keep paying those fees. 

Hope this helps and I'm cheering you on!

And a written or printed copy of the house's wifi password! Perhaps a spare house key too, if that's appropriate.

Oh fantastic suggestions!!!! I'm coming to your house.  ; )

What's the best way to hold onto gift wrapping supplies? I love giving gifts year-round and will pick up supplies when they're on sale after holidays, but I have no idea how to keep them. If it were up to me I would have a whole room of them, but sadly not possible. For now the rolls and bags are in a paper bag in my closet behind the door. Help!

When the dClutterfly team organizes gift wrapping, we either use the tall bins to stand the wrapping paper up in or the flat ones that go under the bed. Then it's a separate bin for ribbons and gift bags.  We also sort by holidays so client is going through Christmas paper when looking for Birthday paper.

And don't forget to PURGE the wrapping paper you'll never use. If you don't have any more baby showers to go to, then don't keep the rolls and rolls of paper with storks on it.  You get one roll.   One suggestion is the run the old paper through the shredder and use the colorful shreds for packing gifts.

Happy Wrapping!

I have a problem with severe clutter. I am not as bad as the hoarders shown on TV, but the piles are growing. I wouldn't welcome someone, even a repair person, into my home out of fear of being judged. A few years ago, I got into cosplay, which meant buying costumes, shoes, wigs, accessories, and other items. I also bought craft supplies to make my own costumes, accessories, and other items. My collection grew faster than I was able to find a place to put things. One part of my knows that the one solution is to just purge, anything I am not currently using could be tossed, sold, or donated. Another part of me says, I might still use that fabric. Or, I won't get nearly as much as I paid. I know that if it isn't being used, isn't organized, and maybe, I don't even remember buying it, that I wouldn't miss it. How do I get started. I am hoping that if I can see some progress being made, I will be motivated to do even more.

It seems as though you are dealing with a couple Emotional Clutter Blocks.  Block #1 "My Stuff Keeps Me Stuck in the Past," as in I used to make my own costumes but not so much any more.  Clutter Block #7 "The Stuff I Keep Paying For," as in I paid good money for this but I don't use it but I paid good money for it, how can I get rid of it?  It seems as though you hae turned the corner where your stuff is owning you, instead of you owning your stuff.  And that's an overwhelming place to be.

The first step is to understand the cost of your clutter.  Emotional as well as financial.  If repair folks aren't allowed in, then my guess is you're feeling a ton of shame and that's not how I want you to live.  I want your home to be restful, shareable and beautiful ... TO YOU!

Then think about the vision for your home.  Do you want to be able to invite friends over.  Do you want to be able to walk through the door and not feel stress and overwhelm.  Once you understand the real cost to your health and well being, then you will find the motivation to get your home where you want it to be. 

The clutter in your home has become so much more than stuff.  It's getting in the way of  the life you want to be living.  Once you identify the emotional reasons you are hanging on, decluttering will be a lot easier!

I know you can do this!! I've seen thousands of folks make this change.  New year, new decade seems like a great place to start!!

Is there a fast way to polish silver? Or is it ok to use it tarnished. No time left.

My grandmother's quick silver polish trick was her grandchildren.  LOL! 

I think you can use tarnished silver but may want to google that. 

I've never tried this trick but I have friends who swear by it.

"Tarnished silver is no match for this aluminum foil “recipe.” Bring one liter of water, one tablespoon of baking soda, and one piece of aluminum foil to a boil. Drop silverware in the pot for 10 seconds (longer if it's very tarnished), then remove using kitchen tongs. Magic!"

Let me know how it goes!!

Right now my spices are in a plastic organizer box in the lazy susan, but you have to pull out the whole box in order to actually see labels. Our cabinet shelves are too deep to hold spices in a way where they'll actually be visible. And we don't have enough drawers to devote one to spices. Is there a magic solution I'm missing here? I don't have to have them out all the time. There are a lot of them (a handful of which we use a couple times a week.)

In my kitchen I have a low cake plate next to the stove with olive oil, vinegar and the spices I use regularly on it.  That way I'm not going into the cabinet every time.  If you have the counter space, that's a great start.

There are those risers so that spices aren't all on one level.  You can't get as many spices on them but makes the labels easy to see.

And every once in a while, pull all the spices out, see what you have doubles of and if you can marry them and also if any have lost their zest  and can be tossed. 

Happy spicing!

Not even kidding, I use whatever wrapping paper I happen to have on hand to wrap gifts. July birthday? Only have Christmas paper? Someone is getting a birthday gift wrapped with elves and snowflakes. Nobody cares and it usually gets a laugh. I just don't have the space or money to constantly buy new rolls for a specific occasions and then keep the leftovers around hoping I'll need it again!

You are my kind of people!!!! I rarely attach a card to a present anymore, especially if it's for a kid.  I just write on the outside of the present with a sharpie. Ta-da, Happy Birthday!

It may seem an odd suggestion, but consider donating extra wrap, greeting cards, etc. to your local food pantry. In our community this started with one volunteer bringing in all the notes pads and cards she received in the mail from charities. She just left them on a table in the anteroom. We started donating extra Christmas cards and even wrap, bags, and bows. It gets used!

This is a GREAT suggestion!!!  We donate client's old wrapping paper to a few organizations that work with foster kids.  That way they don't have to spend precious resources on gift wrap. Thanks for this idea.

What's the best way to store/keep blankets? I have a lot of little throws and want to get a blanket basket to keep in my living room, but am afraid of them getting dusty and gross in there.

A blanket basket is good if you just have a couple but you have to make sure that you shake out all the blankets every few weeks or it will become carpet beetle heaven.  Those are the horrible little bugs that eat wool & cashmere.

At my house, my blankets live on the back of the couch.  Make neatening up a lot easier.

I've gotten a few vintage trunks for clients to store the throws then it become a cool piece of furniture.  Just be sure to throw lavender sachets in with the blankets, again for those carpet beetles!

Buy some empty decorative pillow covers and stuff them with the extra blankets!

Have the Wifi password written down on some paper on the bedside table!

I have a modest-size spice rack on my kitchen counter with bottles of the spices I use often. The rest are on a pull-out "stairstep" rack in the cabinet. I think I got the rack at Container Store, but BB&B should also have something.

Make sure there are tissues in the guest room, plenty of toilet paper in the bath, empty hangers in the closet. Just think of what you expect to find in a basic hotel room. I like to have some magazines in the guest room, and a good reading light by the bed. A clock is good, though everyone now seems to use their cell phone.

I always used ketchup. Smear it on, let it sit for a few minutes, and the tarnish comes right off with a little bit of elbow grease. You can use a paper towel and a cotton swab.

Thanks for all the great questions and hopefully they were helpful. Come visit me over at www.dclutterfly.com for lots more great info.  Wishing everyone happy and clutter free holiday.  *hugs* Tracy

Thanks so much to Tracy for joining us, and for all the wonderful advice. Thanks, too, to the chatters who chimed in with their own ideas! We'll take a break next week for the holiday and be back Jan. 2 with our own organizing columnist, Nicole Anzia, talking about decluttering in the new year. You can read Nicole's latest column, on organizing your car, here.

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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