Q&A: Cassandra Aarssen on ideas for decluttering your house while stuck there

Jun 25, 2020

Cassandra Aarssen is the creator of Clutterbug, a home organizing business which provides education, inspiration and support through YouTube, podcasts and social media. As an organizational expert Cassandra Aarssen helps families tackle chaos and challenges of all that stuff. She also stars in HGTV’s latest fully self-shot series Hot Mess House. She has written four books on the subject.

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.


Many of us have been decluttering like mad during the pandemic. Others of us are paralyzed with fear of getting started. We have someone here today who can help you. Cassandra Aarssen is the creator of Clutterbug, a home organizing business which provides education, inspiration and support through a YouTube channel, podcast and other social media platforms. Cassandra is also the author of four organizing books and her new show Hot Mess House is HGTV’s latest fully self-shot series, Let's chat.

I'm thrilled to be here today answering your organizing and decluttering questions. I can't wait to help you understand your unique organizing style and make organization easy and fun. 

I have pared down our photos and discarded poor shots and duplicates. Now I'm stuck on what to do next. Should I scan all the keepers and discard the hard copies? Put hard copies in albums? What about existing albums - should I take the photos out to scan so those are also digitized? Thank you!

It looks like you have already done the hard part, which is paring down!

When it comes to organizing, I'd recommend not putting too much pressure on yourself to do it "perfectly". If you love the ideas of creating new photo albums, then do that! If you want them all scanned, I'd suggest finding a local company who can do this for you. If the idea of organizing or scanning these photos is stressing you out (which I get a sense that it may be), use photo boxes lined with acid free paper and simply place your photos in the boxes. Label the outsides with the year or special occasions inside and be done. Sometimes embracing "good enough" organization is the best approach. 

How do I get my spouse on board with decluttering? He has about eight boxes of stuff he hasn’t looked at in almost 30 years as well as old camping and exercise equipment covered in dust. He says we have plenty of room for it in our basement. But it stops me from utilizing the space because it bothers me so much.

It's so hard to "convince" our loved ones to let go. I'd recommend taking a different approach. Try saying to your spouse "It would mean so much to me if I could use the basement more. Could you help me come up with some ideas for making this space less of a storage space?".  Asking for help instead of demanding a change will make the task seem less intimidating, and more of "their idea". Praise any progress and watch your spouse's confidence in decluttering sore!

Hi! I've been doing a lot of decluttering during the pandemic. I'm so grateful Community Forklift, our local building materials reuse warehouse, has been open - I cleaned out my garage and basement and took them a TON of old tools, home improvement items, and gardening supplies. They even accepted some rolls of upholstery fabric! However, I don't know what to do with some old golf clubs and a snowboard that I inherited from a long-ago roommate. Any suggestions?

This is a great time to offer items for FREE on Facebook marketplace. Share your items with local people in your community. You can schedule a pick up time and still stay safe with social distancing. 

I am a pack rat, How do I get started decluttering. Cannot seem to make a dent.

I really recommend starting with garbage. Expired medication and food, old bills and receipts, empty boxes, broken items etc. This is the best way to get your decluttering motivation rolling, without any fear or anxiety of having to let go of something special. I call this "garbage bag therapy" and even the most tidy homes can always find things that can go. 

What's an easy way to determine what you should get rid of? So many times I've pared down, only to have to buy something over again, which completely defeats the purpose. How do I avoid this?

I love these THREE decluttering rules: 

1. Have I used this in the past 12 months? 

2. Do I love this? 

3. Would I buy this again if I didn't own it? 

If the answers to these three questions is no, the item has to go! 

I am supermotivated to declutter our home as we are spending more time in the house and need to reclaim more space for working/school work. My partner has a harder time getting on board (sentimentality, lots of projects to do someday, boarderline hoarding behavior). How can I get them to buy into getting rid of some things without angering them?

Different people have different levels of attachment to their items. The best way to help your partner is to try to understand "why" they struggle. Is it a fear of forgetting about the memory associated with the item? Fear of financial instability? Perhaps your partner's parents prided themselves on reusing and repurposing all of there items, which is putting pressure on your partner to do the same. 

Everyone has a different reason of why they struggle to let go. Understanding the real reason for the anxiety is always the first step to overcoming it. 

Hi Jura, I'm a longtime fan of your chat -- about 15 years! Can you please advise me on what to use to deep-clean my bathroom floor. I have 12-inch marble tiles and I'm so afraid of scratching or damaging them I use just a wet swiffer and it doesn't ever feel clean. My shower floor, which is marble stones, also never feels clean. I've scrubbed it with baking soda and then found out maybe I shouldn't do that. In the summer I leave the glass shower door open and the fan on for hours but there's still mildew in the corners. I'm so concerned about damaging or scratching everything -- can you suggest something that will get rid of the mildew and not hurt my marble? Thank you!

Thanks for your loyal chat following. I don't have any marble at home myself, but I do have mildew and I know that is so hard to get rid of. Here is some information from our columnist Jeanne Huber on marble floors.  I did some searching about marble and found this pretty informative list of do's and don'ts from Dave the Marble Guy in California. How about other chatters? Got any tips?

My two children and I went through a very messy divorce and moved several times until we finally settled into our current home, where we have lived for about five years. It’s a super cute Cape Cod style home and we have plenty of space for the three of us, but my daughter hates to get rid of anything and her room is usually very cluttered. I try to help her get rid of things like old toys and clothes that are too small, but I have a feeling that holding onto all of her belongings is a kind of coping mechanism because she fears we will have to move again someday. She’s very smart and does well in school. She’s also outgoing and has numerous friends from different schools and with varied interests. But this situation with her room seems like it can never be resolved. Can you help?

Your daughter's fear is something that you can help her overcome in an easy and gentle way. I recommend the "pack up" method. Take a box and have your daughter put things in her room she hasn't used or played with in the last 12 months in the box. This doesn't have to be special, sentimental items, just clothing, toys or other things she doesn't use. 

This is the important part: The box isn't leaving the home, it's just leaving her room. Put a date on the box for six months in the future, something like this: "If I haven't needed or missed anything in this box by December 2020, I can donate this box to someone in need". 

This "pack up" method really helps ease anxiety and help people realize that they don't need the items, without the stress of getting rid of things immediately. 

This was the year that my wife and I planned to start our great purge of 30+ years of accumulated "stuff" before she retires and we downsize to a smaller residence. With many second-hand dropoff shops still closed and both of us at the age where we are trying to minimize outside contact with others, we will likely just safely remain in place for now and hope we can purge and move "soon", while still tossing undesirable items one bin at a time every week on trash day.

A free sale! So many of my clients are having free sales in their front yards or on Facebook marketplace. Setup your yard or driveway like a yard sale, but place "free" signs. You can also take photos and post online in your community buy and sell groups. 

No need for you to be outside during the "sale", you can watch from your window or stay six feet away. In my experience, people have been very respectful, stayed safe with distancing AND all of the items are gone very quickly. 

A free sale is a great way to share with your community, while decluttering your home at the same time!

I am trying to keep all my Apple product chargers in my home office convenient and under control. Can you recommend and favorite products or systems that work well? Thanks!

I have a great charging station from Amazon for all of our phones and tablets to charge. It was under $40 and is perfect for my kitchen counter.

In my office, I drilled holes in the back of my desk drawer and fed the charging cables through the back. I can now charge all of my camera batteries out-of-sight in my drawer, which is perfect for my Ladybug organizing style.

Check out Pinterest for many amazing "charging station" ideas!

How can I make my unfinished basement laundry area more appealing? I just have detergents, etc. all sitting on the dryer.

I'd recommend a rolling laundry cart for all of your detergents and other laundry products.

My laundry room is unfinished too, but I added some pretty containers and baskets to bring some colour in the space. Don't be afraid to give your laundry area some love and decor, even if it isn't perfect.  

Just a tip - I hate to get rid of things that evoke memories, but I find that if I have a photo of them, it's much easier - I haven't erased them from my live completely, just the "hard copy".

Yes, this is a great tip!

How does one go about sorting things that have deep grief involved? My son's stuff haunts me 15 years after he died at age 20. That's the hardest stuff. I want to let go of most of it; but it's so incredibly painful. Any tips for those of us in this , or a similar situation?

Take photos, feel the grief and then give yourself permission to let go of the physical items. You will always have your son's memories, you don't need to keep his actual things. 

You said "My son's stuff still haunts me" and "I want to let most of it go". I can assure you that your son would not want you holding onto his things when they are clearly causing you pain. You are ready. It's time to let those items go. 

What is the safest way to discard old medication such as creams, liquids, and inhalers?

Old medications and inhalers can be taken to your pharmacy for disposal. As for creams, makeup etc., sometimes the garbage isn't ideal, but it's our best option. 

"What better time to de-clutter than during a stay-at-home order", I thought! But now, months later, only one closet has been organized and not even done well at that. How can I get motivated?

Borrow some motivation! I love watching Youtube videos of people decluttering and organizing or listening to organizing podcasts. Sometimes just seeing others getting motivated is all it takes to get me up and moving!

I have a small kitchen and not much storage space. What criteria can I use to decide what is stored in the kitchen and what ends up in the garage?

I LOVE this question! Your kitchen is the most valuable real estate in your home. Only items used all the time should be kept in there. If you only use something a few times a year (like roasting pans, big soup pots, food processors) store them in another area of your home, like the garage or basement. 

I retired at the end of last year (yay!). It seems to me I probably can thin out what’s in my closet, but I am stuck. The old advice about not keeping things you haven’t worn in six months or a year isn’t helpful because weather plays a huge role in that (mild winter means I didn’t wear many sweaters, for example, but that doesn’t mean I won’t need them next year). But I have a lot of things like skirts, dresses and nice slacks I will not have much use for as I’m a jeans girl. Is there a rule of thumb for deciding how many of a particular item to keep?

I don't want you to worry about a hard number of things to keep. This is your perfectionist brain overthinking. Everyone has different stuff and different abouts of space in their home. 

A great rule for clothing is to ask yourself these two questions: "Does this look great on me?" and "Would I buy this again if I didn't own it?". If the answer is no, it has to go. Be honest with yourself! Don't hold onto clothing you don't wear and love.   

This is exactly the level of organization I need and want. Would you recommend a few sources for these items? Sometimes when I search it turns out the boxes are merely decorative and not photo-safe. Thank you.

You can make ANY box photo safe by lining it with acid-free paper. You can find sheets of acid-free paper on Amazon and at Michaels. Be sure to place some on the top of the box before you close the lid as well. Your photos will be safe from yellowing and fading for years to come.

I gave myself a hard deadline to move before school starts. I am pretty good at not letting new stuff pile up, and I keep our financial records in order, but I inherited a lot from my late spouse that is sensitive (accountant) and more from our late parents. I hit the wall when I can't figure out how to securely dispose of old computer towers with client's tax returns on them. Reading of hackers being able to recover old hard drive information scares me. I don't want to be the source of someone's identity theft.

If you smash the circuit board and soak it in water, there is no recovering anything! There are also many companies out there who can help permanently delete the information and recycle the computer towers. Honestly though, a good old fashioned hammer to the circuit board inside is all you need. 

A friend spent the last few months decluttering, filling his garage with stuff to donate. When the Goodwill store recently reopened, he took two carloads of donations there. A Goodwill employee told him that they are so swamped, they might have to stop accepting donations for a while.

This is very common all over right now. My local thrift stores are not accepting donations either. A "free sale" or offering items for free on Facebook marketplace is a wonderful alternative. 

Hi there, I was hopeful about getting a lot of decluttering done during this time, but the organization that I usually donate clothing to is not accepting donations at this point. Do you have any suggestions about DC area groups that are accepting clothing and house ware donations?

I do not know of any, but many women's shelters are accepting donations of clothing at this time. I'd recommend calling your local women's shelter and asking if they need clothing. 

So I live in a one bedroom apartment. I need to rearrange things a lot. What goes under the sink? What in the linen closet? What in the kitchen cabinets and where? What in the entryway closet? And the bedroom closet too. So, if things need to be moved around, I need to empty stuff out. But where do I put it? It is still a ONE bedroom apartment. There isn't enough room to spread things out. Doing one drawer or shelf at a time is a useless strategy when you are trying to relocate things to their best position. Just figuring out how to deal with the extremely deep corner kitchen cabinet is difficult. It seems like you just load it up with food, right? But then I forget what I have because I can't see the back (doesn't help that I am short). So instead I should be loading up the back with the 2nd and 3rd back ups, right? But I have always put those in the linen closet because it doesn't seem right to use up kitchen space with those back ups, but at least in the linen closet I can access them because I can see them and my arms reach to the back. It isn't very easy to figure this out these days. Especially when I have at least one totally extraneous 18 pack of toilet paper in case I have to mail it to my parents if the supply chains in NJ collapse again. Help?

Honestly, organization is NEVER perfect, no matter how big of a space you have. I'd recommend using a box or laundry basket to hold your "I don't know where this should go right now" stuff as you organize your apartment. I'd also recommend giving yourself some grace. It isn't going to ever be perfect and organizing is a journey, not a destination. It sounds as though you are already a really organized person. Just take one day at a time, you go this. 

We have extremely old computers in our basement that I’d like to get rid of. I would do this in a heartbeat except I don’t know where to find software to securely wipe the hard drives. These are computers from the 1990s. Some were used for secure information like completing applications for high level government security clearances.

You can remove the hard drives and soak them in water (or smash them with a hammer, which is super fun). Any information of them will no longer be accessible. 

As a college professor, I have lots and lots of books. Many are outdated. And our local library's book sale doesn't except old texts. Is there an alternative to just putting them in the paper recycling.

This is a great question that I get asked ALL the time. As a book lover myself, the truth hurts: Outdated textbooks just need to be recycled. 

There are people who use old books to create craft projects and other DIY's, but honestly, sometimes it's ok to just put things in the recycling or trash and move on.  

Our masterbath has 18 by 18 marble tile that is NOT honed- so it is not polished shiny - I literally vacuum and use a damp mop. If you have ever traveled to Italy or France many of their public bathrooms are marble from the early 1900's and it just gets worn - scratches are part of the beauty of natural stone. I don't use any chemicals and the floor is 10 years old. Learn to love the scratches . And by all means - address the moisture/mold issue - possible a stronger bathroom fan- often the older ones are not effective. Good luck.

Thanks. This is very helpful. I wish I was going to Italy to see the marble again...

Please do not take away your daughter's coping mechanism unless/before she's healed from the anxiety she's coping with! The situation in her room is not resolved because the underlying anxiety is not resolved, and taking away her current coping mechanism will put her at risk of switching to a more harmful one. Please discuss your concerns with her therapist if she has one, and if not then with her school counselor (or find her a therapist, if that's possible what with the 'rona and all).

Her daughter could be dealing with anxiety from the divorce, but it could also be normal childhood anxiety about letting go of her things. It's human nature to want to collect and keep things and it can feel scary to give away our belongings. Children need to be shown that letting go of things we don't use isn't bad and that it creates room in our lives for tomorrow's memories. 

wow Cassandra- thank you for your practical answers - especially about photos. I am just downsizing after 17 years in our family home and I have 4 plastic tubs of photos /albums /tapes - which I will attack after we move. But I like your options and permission. Thanks.

What papers (bills, receipts, etc.) to keep? How long? Which to toss?

Great question! Any papers that you have used as part of your tax filings must be kept for 7 years. Contracts, warranties and policies should also be kept in "long-term" paper storage, like a filing cabinet or binders. 

Monthly bills and statements don't need to be kept at all (unless you use them for income tax purposes). I recommend having a "short-term" paper system for these types of papers (like a basket labeled 2020 paid bills) and shredding them once a year at tax time. 

For the person wanting to keep her son's things... make a quilt from the t-shirts..... I have one and i LOVE it. Several companies do this.....


Tips for decluttering email in boxes?

I really struggle with this! The most important thing is unsubscribing and marking emails as spam that you no longer want to receive. You can "sort" your inbox and do mass deletes by subject, sender etc. This is a fast way to remove those unwanted emails in just a few minutes. 

What is the difference between the 4 clutterbugs?

Bees: Visual and detail oriented thinkers
Crickets: Hidden and detail oriented thinkers
Ladybugs: Hidden and big picture thinkers
Butterflies: Visual and big picture thinkers

Hope this helps!!

Thank you so much for spending some time with me today talking about organizing and decluttering. I loved all of your questions. 

So grateful to Cassandra for these great ideas. You really know your stuff. Join me next week when my guest is Latifah Saafir, a noted sewer and quilter, as we talk about what happened in the sewing world during the pandemic. Until then, be safe.

In This Chat
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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Cassandra Aarssen
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