The holidays have passed and stuff is overflowing everywhere. This year, my family accomplished an amazing feat: we filled eight laundry baskets with give-away items in one afternoon, filling an additional four laundry baskets of toys to sell. Equally impressive: all the toys sold in one afternoon.
Our family has been working in baby steps for several years to get to this point, ever since I decided that we needed a "stuff management" plan. It's a tricky territory to navigate when everything from toys to appliances is designed to be disposable or replaced with upgraded technology within a few years. Not to mention that the children outgrow their toys, develop new interests, and bring home buckets of stuff from schools, camps and birthday parties. It's a wonder that our homes aren't regularly inspected by the fire department and declared hazardous!
January is a time of renewal and new beginnings, so wrestle control of your floor and closet space away from your belongings, and enjoy the release from clutter. Try these tips:
Designate regular times of year to sort and organize, and write them on your calendar. Natural timings might be: prior to your child's birthday, before (and after!) the holidays, after school starts in the fall, and, of course, at the first sign of spring.
Give everyone in the family a basket or box and ask them to fill it. If you do this before a birthday or holiday, you can explain it to your children as "making space for new presents."
Have options for your stuff. Once the basket is filled, encourage the children to think about where each item should go: trash/recycling, donation, hand-me-down (maybe even to a specific friend), or sell.
Set clear rules for your children on selling toys. For example, in our house, toys that we bought for the children as family toys cannot be sold by the children. However, toys that the children received as gifts (specific to them) can be sold and the money kept by the children. We allow our children to sell toys to each other, but we set the price to keep it fair for our younger child.
Keep a "maybe" box in your garage or basement for items that you think your household is ready to part with, but you aren't completely certain. Place the items in the box for a month, and if no one has asked for them in that time, make them disappear.
Rotate toys instead of giving in to the temptation to buy new toys for the children. We have a tub in our guest room where toys go to "rest." I circulate toys through that tub. After a month or two of "resting," the toys are novelties once more. This reduces our temptation to continually purchase new toys.
Getting Kids Involved
In order to really get a handle on the amount of "stuff" that flows through our home, I've involved all of our family members, even the smallest. By implementing purchasing guidelines and helping the children think about how they are spending their money (including what they are asking for as birthday and holiday gifts), we've made a lot of progress in our quest to reduce the quantity of useless stuff taking up space on our floors and in our closets. As a bonus, we are all thinking about how we spend our money and using our living space differently (less clutter!), which benefits both our wallets and our sense of peacefulness at home.
Avoid impulse buying. In order to do this, we first had to explain to the children what impulse buying is. Our rule of thumb: It's anything that you want just because you saw it right then. We've adopted a couple of family behaviors that help us all avoid impulse buying. The first is that we shop with a list, and we try really hard to only buy what is on the list when we go to the store. The second is that we don't buy anything that's on the racks in the check-out lane (well, except for the occasional pack of gum or bag of M&Ms).
Make a list, and check it twice. After being cajoled into impulse purchases several times, only to have the children completely lose interest in them 10 minutes later, we decided to try a new tactic. Before the children can spend their money, they must make a list of things they are saving up for. An item must have been on their list for a month before they purchase it. This list is sometimes referred to as their "Christmas List," but in actuality, it is a running list that they update all year long. They max out at 10 items, so if they see something new that they must have, then they have to cross something else off their list to make room for it. It's a great tool for helping them to determine what an impulse is!
Reduce your children's exposure to ads. When your children do view an ad that causes them to want something new, deconstruct the ad with them. Help them to learn that they are being targeted by those clever marketers, and to resist! Reducing screen time or watching videos (without ads) can help you avoid this problem altogether. Of course, when the new LEGO catalog arrives in the mail, there's only so much you can do!
Find your "toy equilibrium." You can make a rule as simple as, "when something new comes in, something old must go out." Or, tell your children that there needs to be space on the shelf (or in the closet or toy bin) before they can bring in a new toy. Help them identify and get rid of something that they don't play with anymore to make space for whatever super-exciting toy they are planning to purchase.
Quality items or cheap stuff? Help your children learn to tell the difference between quality toys that will last and cheap stuff that will break in five minutes. Sometimes you need to let them buy the cheap stuff so that they can experience the difference firsthand. Rather than just throwing away a cheap toy once it breaks, examine it with your child. This way, they will learn to evaluate future toys based on durability, place of manufacture, materials and other criteria that might mean a longer lifespan for their toy. If you want to help your child resell their toys, these conversations can include resale value as well.
Bonus: Apply these lessons to your own purchasing! Keep a running list of things you would like to purchase that you don't buy the minute they strike your fancy. Check your list periodically – it's pretty amazing how many of those objects of temptation are no longer so desirable once you leave the store. Similarly, spend your money on goods that will last. Consider durability, craftsmanship and expected longevity of items. Try to avoid buying something that will be obsolete in a year, or that can't be repaired if it breaks.