What I Learned About Clutter and Stress While Living With In-Laws

Ahhh I said we had trouble throwing things away! Look at our living room! (Just kidding, we actually found a free table and picked it up…although the living room is a mess.)

We’re still away in California, good children. I wanted to throw a quick lesson out there that’s been plaguing me for a few days. I try to not judge what people do with their money as long as they are on good financial standing. I’ve written about my in-laws before. They’re doing great in retirement and are very comfortable. They were pretty frugal and responsible with their finances on a sole provider/breadwinner’s salary. Even now, they’re retired and comfortable, but they’re still frugal when they don’t have to be.)

But if this was anyone else, I would feel very much shocked at the amount of stuff. You guys didn’t have to go through the amount of clutter Mr. Hippo (hubby) and I had to go through this Christmas. It was stress inducing that we actually had a fight about it. What to take back with us, what should be saved vs dumped etc. He had sentimental feelings towards old college papers and…well, I’m the type of person that dumps the past any chance I get.

The Clutter

A common trait that I noticed about our entire family (mine AND his) is our inability to throw away things. My parents, Hippo’s parents, all of us – we all hoard doodads since decluttering is not part of our natural vocabulary. One of our chores for the 8 day Christmas vacation (including a free room at Casa Mom & Dad, bless them) was to declutter the garage for Mom in exchange for their creature comforts.

Our job was to ransack and decide what childhood “stuff” should be kept versus trashed.

There are 30+ boxes sitting in the garage waiting for us to go through them. That’s essentially what they accumulated after 30 years of middle-class living and 4 children from birth to adulthood.

I totally see us heading down the same road too if my millennial generation and fellow personal finance bloggers weren’t so into minimalism (advance thank yous for that.)

Before entering this community (our Pre-FIRE days as newlyweds), Hippo and I had a large electronic piano keyboard, 2 deep fryers and a cotton machine for whatever reason. We used the piano for a week and one of the fryers once. The second fryer and the cotton candy machine are both still in their original packaging.

We got them on sale. Not great sales; just discounted enough for my mind to go “oh yes I should buy that, it’s on sale.”

When we went through the garage boxes, we found things like 20-year-old keys that no one knows who or what it belongs to.

We found a tonnnn of kids meal toy ranging between 1979 to 1999 because Hippo and his siblings went to McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King every Sunday after church for decades. There was also an absurd amount of board games/puzzles and 100 duplicate pots and pans in the cupboard (enough to service a small army.)

Oh, not to mention the cases of Beanie Babies with original tags that were purchased on the fly. By the way, those Beanie Babies are not worth much. Who thought these stuffed toy things could be good investments? What marketing gimmick did Ty (the toy company) use and how can I get in on that scheme? My family was poor so we didn’t have a ton of stuff…I actually think they’re pretty normal by Baby Boomer/American standards.

Hippo’s family is normative and I’m the odd one out when it comes to my fear of stuff. It still made me a bit crazy, all the clutter. Layers and layers of stuff!

Everything was kept in really neat storage boxes. BUT all I saw was stale $ when I looked through the clutter that has been in the garage all these decades. They were worth something once when they purchased it decades ago.

Now I hear this a lot…“I don’t know what to do with this stuff.”

We went through about 15 boxes (more to go tomorrow) this week. I did check online for the resale value of these kinds of stuff since I don’t think any of the kids want it. I used eBay and I toggled on items actually SOLD to gauge the real demand.

Sadly….99% of the stuff isn’t worth half the shipping fees that it cost to ship – IF they even sold.

If anything IS worth past $20, shipping fees would make up 75% of that because it’s bulky so it’s not even worth the effort. I figured they would be worth something for their age and condition but unfortunately it’s…dare I say it…junk 🙁 Even the Atari game system!

Everything goes to the landfills. Goodwill won’t be able to sell them nor are they likely willing to sell them.

I know it’s normal to have clutter (especially after 4 kids!) but from now on I will be more conscious of every single purchase and what to keep vs give away/sell (before it loses all of its value).

Small Things

The $1 and $10 that slips away every trip out of the house to buy a little something adds up. The saddest part is that it’s instantly forgotten when it comes back home with them. Then it follows the trend of things: it ends up in the garage, or if unopened they end up in the attic. In my eyes, all I saw were uninvested dollar bills pouring out of the stuff that came out of those boxes.

Related: 9 ‘Nails In The Coffin’ To Avoid For The Living

The grown-up kids don’t want anything to do with them. They’re adults now and they don’t remember which toy belonged to who and they certainly don’t care about them now. The grown kids like spiked Kahlua pork recipes and going out for sushi; not 10-year-old fire trucks with siren and real hose action.

My working theory is the millennials love minimalism because it’s partly a reaction from their parents (Boomers) who gravitated to a big yard, bigger homes, and 3 car garages capable of storing boxes after boxes of stuff.

My in-laws are very frugal and financially capable so I’m certain this isn’t a particularly bad case of de-cluttering. I can’t help imagining what would have happened if they or anyone else with a garage and decades of stuff invested that money instead.

Imagine how much money could have been made if they invested it over the 70s, 80s, and 90s – the shining era of 20-30% portfolio returns as norm.

Related: Will You Survive The Great Depression?

There are thousands of dollars in stuff purchased and quickly forgotten. It’s been stored in the dark of the garage for all these years! But now it’s dolla-dollar bills of worthless “Made in China” plastic and cheap stuff animals. They didn’t increase in resale value, barely 5% of the stuff paced with inflation. Plus, don’t forget however much it cost to store toys for 30 years when they could have converted the space into an additional bedroom, office, or bar.

4 Decluttering Christmas Lessons

Avoid Stuff

It doesn’t sound like a big lesson because the frugal living mantra is naturally to void the addiction to “stuff” but I’m staring at the end result of a live 3-decade experiment!

There is so much stuff in this house and no one knows what to do with it now.

The fastest way is if all of us organized a good long afternoon to get together and go through the boxes since no one recalls who and what other people want or don’t want to keep.

The problem?

Kids have flown the coop, started their own nest, you want all of us to get back into the same nest to pick the scraps?

Not going to happen. Has not happened for the 4 Christmases I’ve been here.

It’s always put off because no one wants to dig through 30 years of junk. It was this way this year, and it’s going to be this way next year if Hippo and I don’t do our part now. And right now, I’m the one dragging Hippo’s feet.

Update: We actually got into a fight over the stuff in the garage. He was overwhelmed by stuff and I wanted to junk the clutter (or according to him – being insensitive to his childhood memories). The in-laws felt bad so they stopped making us clean up.

Avoid Repetitions of Stuff

What I dislike the most is how they have multiple items of the same thing. It just builds and builds. There’s a strainer that can double for a fry basket yet they have two of each. There are many spatulas that can double as a meat press yet they have a cast iron meat press. You know, for that one time that you need a cast iron meat press instead of just using a spatula.

Related: 8 Frugal Reasons to Have 2 Phones

Declutter Often

Anything more than once every 30 years I imagine should do it. Do it before the kids move away for college, they don’t have to take it with them. But it would have saved the adults less hollering if she just had the kids make the final judgment on what to keep vs thrash, label it, before they leave the house (possibly forever).

Store & Shop Smarter

When we were house shopping, our agent told us our current townhouse didn’t have much storage space and Hippo agreed. I didn’t understand the big deal about storage so it didn’t make me hesitant to put in an offer. I think the lack of storage (and Airbnb) made us forcibly conscience on what should go into our house. We don’t have a 3 car garage to smush things in for 30 years.


If we ever start a family I’m going to force myself to be super mindful about every purchase. I don’t believe you need a billion toys to keep a child active and occupied. There are still 7 bikes rusting in the backyard for the past 20 years (OK that’s actually kind of cute, from small bike to big). Sadly no one can ever use them again. They could have been donated or sold when the kids outgrew them. I don’t want to hoard purchases like this. I want to spend it on experiences and make sure that our children (biological or otherwise) become worldly and balanced citizens. It’s a very big lesson that Hippo’s parents taught me. Since I have a natural tendency to not throw away things either, I have to be extra careful.

This has been an eye-opening experience, even simply to compare and contrast what is the norm of stuff back then vs culturally what is going on now with the minimalist movement. Very very interesting times.

Readers: pray tell, how did your parents handle clutter? Did you get stuff out of moms basement or are they still there too?

43 thoughts on “What I Learned About Clutter and Stress While Living With In-Laws”

  • Haha, I can so relate to this with my grandparents. My dad came back from overseas when I was a baby and got my grandpa on my mother’s side a very nice winter coat. It was too big so instead my grandparents stored it for 20+ years. This year my mom brought it back since she thought my boyfriend might fit. He’s too small for it too. What do we do now, it’s basically an heirloom that I can’t throw away haha (I don’t think there’s anything in my family older than a few decades really).

    Also, I think millennials move around a lot more, especially if they move into cities. I also had to move every year for college dorms when we left for the summer. Since I’m frugal (and like pretending I’m strong) I moved my own stuff. It was way to heavy and since I dread moving things, every time I want to buy something I think really hard if I want to move it. Minimalism for sure.

  • Wow that sounds like a lot of stuff to go through! WOW. I didn’t know you were sorting through 30 boxes of stuff over Christmas. It’s almost New Year’s now.

    One good thing I can think of this whole situation is that Jared will be reminded of a lot of his childhood memories associated with those presents (maybe?). Also, your in-laws’ garage will have much more space than before hehe.

    • We had some absences this Christmas so we hosted 3 separate Christmases so everyone can get a chunk of Xmas. It’s a big deal in his household. Jared and I actually got into a fight over me being insensitive to his childhood “junk.” I’m not the type to hold onto memories in things but he is and we were mad at each other for a good few hours!

  • One big piece of guilt that I have after reading Marie Konro was that my parents had to eventually clean up my room and declutter it all after I left for college. That’s because the whole house was a hoarder wreck, and my room was not different.

    The problem with kids is not what you buy for them–we buy our kids very thoughtful gifts/experiences–it’s stopping grandparents and others from giving your kids things. That’s how it accumulates. Heck, a random stranger gave our daughter a stuffed animal at Wal-Mart the other day.
    Ms. Steward recently posted…Net Worth Update Q4 2017: 140,172.73 (+23,744.94)

    • Oh great point! A lot of things I noticed were from camp or a prize won at the school carnival. They had a giant cow stuff animal won from a carnival that took up half a box!

  • Stuff really does expand to fill all available space. Having a garage is sooo handy at first, but then feels like a graveyard of forgotten things (for us at least). Sound like a productive trip sorting through things though! Probably feels better now that it’s out of the way.

  • Now that we have some basement storage, I feel like we’re headed to just hoarding more stuff. Agree with Adam that stuff seems to expand to fill spaces.

    When I was younger I never understood why my mom never threw anything away. Particularly, she kept all these clothes from the 70s. I couldn’t open her closet without that stuff nearly falling on my head. What I didn’t know was that she had this master plan all along–she was going to bring all those clothes back with her to her home country to give to all the people in the village. After years of saving up money, she did finally go back home, with suitcases and suitcases full of clothes. And all those clothes were immediately snatched up by men and women alike. I also think part of why she holds on to stuff is because she has a scarcity mindset a little. She doesn’t buy much stuff, but there are things, like a hundred hotel toiletries that she’ll never use. I think she does this because it makes her feel richer in a way. Minimalism isn’t something that many immigrants think about.

    I do wish my mom kept the papers, stories and projects I worked on as a kid. Not everything, but the standouts. Like when I submitted my own recipe to the class recipe book, and mine was clearly different from everyone else’s. Your brain is so funny when you’re little–I’d pay big money for that stuff now.

    • “She doesn’t buy much stuff, but there are things, like a hundred hotel toiletries that she’ll never use. I think she does this because it makes her feel richer in a way. Minimalism isn’t something that many immigrants think about.”

      Awwh you just described me as well as your mom. I have a hardcore scarcity mindset even today!!! I still collect napkins and toothpicks.

      My mom never kept any schoolwork, drawing or awards I’ve won but I’m glad she didn’t hehe. I have the memories in my brain and that’s more than good enough.

  • My parents were never the kind of people to buy something and not use it – that may be the rural farmer in them. But, my mom is keeping a bunch of stuff from her mom and my childhood that I might want someday. I can guarantee I do not want them.

    I actually just brought back two baby blankets from when I was little. But, I know I’ll use them. I definitely don’t need some old art project that I don’t even remember making.

    When my parents divorced, we went through and divided up their stuff. That was hard but only in an emotional sense. I never thought ‘let’s keep this tricket from 10 years ago when we were happy’.

    Mr. TA has a legitimate hoarder in the family (like the kind you see on TV). And it’s terrifying. It makes me nauseous to think what we’re going to have to sort through when they move into assisted living or passes away. It’s because of them that Mr.TA is a minimalist- which is a silver lining to the whole situation.

    • Fascinating Brit! I can see why minimalism is so sacred to you. It’s rough to deal with splits.

      I had the same thought as well. I thought OK who is going through this if they pass away… because it’s everywhere…that’s why we’re doing our part now to declutter. Anything left is out of our control.

  • Our family had a storage unit full of things kept from the younger years – going through it took DAYs, and after throwing most of it out and being sad during the time we “lost” stuff we barely remembered having, it felt pretty good.

    The same issue for us was the cost of selling wasn’t worth actually selling a lot of it. We gave it all to thrift stores to help them!

    Happy New Year!
    Chris @ Duke of Dollars recently posted…New Year, New Design, New Goals! A Quick Reflection on Our First Year Blogging

  • Both of our parents kept all of our stuff. We ended up taking it all home, going through and keeping some but getting rid of most. We’re going to keep some of the clothes our kids had and making them into tshirt blankets for them. As far as toys we will keep a few to pass on but sell most too.

    PS thanks, now I want cotton candy…
    Budget on a Stick recently posted…2017 Roundup

  • Ditto Ms Steward – we rarely buy JB toys but stopping the family from getting zir tons and tons of toys is nigh on impossible. I literally had to write NO TOYS on zir Christmas list this year and gave a short list of acceptable alternatives. It’s the first time that’s ever worked. I don’t miss any of the stuff I worked on when I was a kid but in case JB ever feels the way Luxe did and wants to see a few examples, I’m keeping one small notebook where I paste in pictures and a few art projects as keepsakes so ze will have that to look at when ze is older, and the rest is getting recycled. I had to clear out my old room at the old house this Christmas and it was shocking how much stuff I had in one room, and that’s after I went through and decluttered, but I’m going to figure out how to get rid of most of it over the next year. (What on earth do you do with yearbooks anyway? MAYBE JB will want to see what I looked like in HS but do I really want to keep a stack of books around for that?) But I’m going to be tackling decluttering at least two weekends a month this year. Resolved!
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life recently posted…Just a little (link) love: hakuna matata edition

    • Telling family no toys is a straight forward, effective idea. We’ll likely implement the same but I don’t think that’s possible in our case. The toys they will gift us are all second hands, decades old (my in laws hoard a bit but they’re still very frugal). I guess reusing is better than landing things in a landfill!

  • I’m trying to help my mom clear out stuff from an empty space she wants to rent out (she usually complains that she has so much stuff she can’t get rid in order to rent it out), and she has a wardrobe (our old closet) in there. In it, I find my brother’s clothing and some of our old clothing when we were like.. 2. I asked my mom if she wanted me to donate them and clear them out and she said she will go through them herself.

    I cleared away two bags of garbage (pure GARBAGE, one of which was my dad’s old after shave, some 2001 heart burn medication) and told my mom (thinking she would be proud of me and well, thankful).

    Instead she was like “I hope you didn’t throw away anything that wasn’t garbage!!”


    Maybe it’s a boomer thing?? My friend’s mom also made her swear she would not go through her stuff to throw away while she was away in England.
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  • “All I saw were uninvested dollar bills pouring out of the stuff that came out of those boxes.”

    Haha! And this is what anyone would see if he or she managed to remove his or her consumer goggles. Thank you, Lily, for this sterling reminder of the need to practice mindful spending. Failure to heed this message will leave you with a forlorn 401(k) and a forlorn garage stuffed with forlorn stuff. Sigh.
    Mr. Groovy recently posted…See You in 2018

    • I’m not attached to much either Joe! My family moved a lot too!! Hippo’s like Mrs. RB40, he’s emotionally attached to things. I swear we have so much in common Joe!

  • Great article! You hit all the right notes on this! As a child that grew up in a hoarding household. There was literally a path through the house. Yes ,I realize that’s a more serious mental health issue but it still shapes your life! Everything has a place, no double anything and you declutter every 6 months! It really does keep your mind at ease and keeps your wallet big! Oh, you can buy lots of dog toys though! Throw them in the washer and they think there new again!!

    • Ha. I don’t know…my dog destroys them and I throw away my money! Just kidding 🙂 I did notice a path in the garage!! Man…you know you have a problem when there’s a PATH!

  • I don’t think I’ll ever truly be a minimalist (I’ve got way too much shit of my own and don’t see myself getting rid of all of it), but things like this make me shudder. My parents have way, way too much stuff at their house. Mom keeps saying she’s going to take a week off of work and go through a lot of it, which I’d love to have happen. It would be nicer to visit home, plus I wouldn’t have a worry very far in the back of my mind of “omg my siblings and I are going to have to go through all of this if something happens to our parents in the near future.”

    Brb, off to go find some more things in my room that I can stand to get rid of. Decluttering more thoroughly is definitely something I want to do this year.

  • I always thought I was odd when it came to ‘stuff’. It stresses me when there’s too much of it for a given space. Most others seemed quite happy to buy big houses and fill it. Then I found my tribe in FI, frugal, and minimalist communities!

    I find no matter what, time is great at disguising changes that happen slowly, including clutter! The best way is to shake things up and declutter a few times a year.

  • I shudder to think of all the stuff my parents have of mine lying around the house. They finally upgraded to a 3 car garage and 1/3 of the garage is actually just racks of bins…I wonder what’s in there. My sisters still have 3 years in the house, so soon their stuff will be packed neatly away in there too! I do feel like the big house with the attic/basement/garage is the past American dream. I think it’s really interesting how millennials all seem to be riding a trend, but really everything we do is a reaction to something we don’t think our parents generation did well.
    Jing recently posted…What I Learned From 6 Months Writing Money Diaries

    • My daughter’s family recently moved into a smaller house. Their habit of overconsumption and lack of space made them realize the kids didn’t need more junk. For gifts we have given them water park season passes and contributed to their YMCA membership, with just a new outfit and a fun item . Loved that.

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