The New Things That Haven't Been Used

Do you buy things because they're on sale? If you didn't need them, they weren't a bargain. Here are the three questions to ask before you buy anything:

1. Where would this live? A very practical consideration, especially if you're trying to declutter.

2. What am I going to do with it? If it has a purpose or fills a need, fine. If you already have four of them, not fine.

3. What is it replacing? When something is broken or you don't like the old version as much as the new one, then by all means, charge away. But be prepared to get rid of the old item when you get home.

The Inherited Items and Mementos

Your home is not a museum. Many people subscribe to the unwritten rule that you're obligated to keep your great-aunt's dishes, even if you don't like them, just because she used them. But maybe your great-aunt never liked them either and also felt too guilty to let them go. Things don't have to become yours simply because they belonged to a relative. You're not living her life, and you're not a bad person for giving inherited items away.

If the acquired stuff is worth money, you may feel bound to it financially: "It's real silver—I can't give it away." Yes, you can. Donate it, document what it's worth, and take it off your taxes. Or give it to another family member who would really like it. Or sell it on eBay. And if you like something enough to keep it, consider it a replacement, not an addition—keep Grandma's reading lamp, but donate the one you already have.

Mementos from your own life are harder to part with because when you see them, you relive the story: To you, it's the cashmere V-neck you wore on your first date with the man who would become your husband; to anyone else, it's just an old sweater full of holes. The key to parting with items suspended in time is not to replay that story. Leave the room, come back in, and see what you're really holding on to—a sweater that's seen better days. Rule of thumb: If it serves no purpose, let it go.

The Car (Or, "The Storage Space on Wheels")

If you have to clear off the backseat for company, there's a problem.

What shouldn't be in the car: old food wrappers, toys, the dry cleaning or recycling you've been meaning to drop off for a week (just take it out of the car until you're ready to make the trip), out-of-season tools (if it's June, you can remove the ice scraper from the trunk).

What should be in the car: registration, insurance certificate, owner's manual, maps and/or GPS, extra pair of sunglasses in case of glare, small folding umbrella, headset for your cell phone (preferably you're not talking while driving, but if you are, please be hands-free), envelope with supermarket and drive-through restaurant coupons and any gift certificates you've received (it's pointless for them to be in the drawer at home).

What should be in the trunk: tool kit, flashlight, working spare tire. In winter, add ice scraper, bag of kitty litter (for traction in snow), a small blanket.


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