There’s a section in The Wal-Mart Effect about the increase in T-shirt sales that’s taken place in America over the past couple decades. Marketing specialists wonder: what are consumers actually doing with the higher volume of T-shirts they own (compared to T-shirt owners of former generations)? Wearing more shirts each week? Storing extra shirts? Giving them as gifts? What’s happening with those shirts? They don’t know. All they know is T-shirt sales are up.

This snippet rang in my mind more than once during The Purge that preceded the move into our new, littler house. And I’ll tell you what the the extra T-shirts are doing (or were): sitting stuffed into my drawers. And my husband’s drawers. And my kids’ drawers. T-shirts and dozens of other items like them, all in the category of We Had Way Too Many. Some other examples? Kitchen utensils. Hair elastics. Toiletries of all types. Shoes. Bags. Tupperware. Books. Toys. Need I go on? The things in our shelves and drawers were more than we needed, regularly used, or maintained especially well.

I know I’m not alone on this one. The houses are bigger these days than they used to be – average 2350 feet now, up from around 1500 square feet in the 1970′s – but discipline in housekeeping isn’t bigger. In fact, it’s often smaller. And yet the stuff comes in like a flood.

I was surprised, I admit it, by how many toys and kid items we amassed in our four years in that 2200 square foot house. See we aren’t big buyers, my husband and me. We’re pretty frugal and try to keep things simple. Our children’s birthday parties are no-gift gatherings with the next-door-neighbor family. We limit Christmas presents to five-ish per kid. No “noisy toys” or technology-related kids’ gadgets. Our quantity of kid stuff seemed pretty average, maybe even a little below. Most of it was hand-me-down from other families, thrift store purchases, or gifts.

Turned out we had a lot of stuff. A lot. I know this because I was fortunate enough to stumble onto a local resale Facebook group for moms of young kids, and I started selling off items one by one. And selling them. And selling them. It was an endless flow of shape sorters, Mr. Potato Heads, Playmobil, stuffed animals, puzzles, cash register, etc. The kids helped me – and surprised me with their overall willingness to part with items we were selling (about which I generally asked them first). They knew – with a bit of variation by personality- what they played with and what they didn’t, what to keep and what could go. The process was disorienting: I was thrilled to benefit financially from our downsizing… and alarmed to consciously take stock of how many (largely unnecessary) items there really were in the house. Egad.

Before I started The Purge, I made a list of the child-related items I wanted to bring with us, items that were a) frequently used, b) creative/highly enjoyed (ie, the kids notice if when they’re not around, and c) easy to store. Here’s what made the cut for play items:

  1. Dress-up clothes (we pared down by nearly half… Photo “demo”)
  2. Lego: duplo and small size
  3. Dolls and accessories (shoebox-size bin)
  4. Snap-it-dolls (shoebox-size bin)
  5. Ponies and princesses (shoebox-size bin)
  6. K’nex (shoebox-size bin)
  7. Wooden blocks
  8. Play food and tea party/eating set
  9. Matchbox cars (shoebox-size bin)
  10. Bristle blocks
  11. Little people (shoebox-size bin of people, farm, dollhouse, and bus)
  12. Train tracks, Thomas trains, and station

Coloring supplies are also readily available in our new house, but other supplies – paint and craft supplies, a few puzzles and games – are stored out of sight for infrequent, “ask Mom” use. I worked hard to pare our book collection down to about 50 books, probably about one-third of where we started. I kept the classics, ones by excellent authors, and books the kids really love. [In paring down books, the best suggestion I got to figure out what merited saving was to ask, "If my house burned down in a fire, would I replace this book?" It really helped me and worked for adult and children's books alike.]

Read it over and see if you agree: we’ve hardly gone Spartan. Our kids still have plenty of things to play with. And the things we have are basically all the things our kids most enjoy and use. As we have simplified, they haven’t felt any sense of loss.

Instead there has been gain. Gain for the kids in being able to quickly and simply put away their toys at clean-up time. And in not being hounded by their frustrated parents for their messes. Gain for my husband and me in not stepping on toys in every room. And in being able to get the house tidied up quickly and thoroughly. Gain for us all in time and sanity.

“(God’s servants) are to be committed to their spouses, attentive to their own children, and diligent in looking after their own affairs.” 1 Tim 3:12, The Message 

The biggest gain for me has been in focus. There’s clarity and purpose related to the contents of our house – starting with the kids’ stuff, but really everything. I used to read the advice to “have nothing in your house you don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and roll my eyes. Seemed unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky. Now I get how worthwhile, how calming it is to live that way. You don’t have to wade through the extraneous stuff to get to what you’re really after. And you get to enjoy the good stuff more.

Instead of ‘downsizing,’ I like the term ‘reduction’ – because it reminds me of the cooking process of thickening liquid mixtures. (I know this because my husband’s an avid cook, not because I am.) You boil off the liquid and intensify the flavor of the good stuff that’s left behind. Why have a watery, diluted sauce when you could have a thicker, tastier one?

And that’s like our lives. It takes some heat, some time, some stirring things up… but what emerges is so worth it. Tastier, more satisfying.  In a way, The Purge is a mirror of the sanctification process, the “refiner’s fire” thing Jesus does with our hearts and character. Letting the less important things, the extraneous and the negative, fall away so that what remains is better, purer, more fulfilling. More like Jesus, and more pleasing to Him.


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7 Responses to “Simplifying and the reduction process”

  1. Jean


  2. Michelle

    Hello Susan – it is me again. What about stuffed animals? I noticed they were not on your list of “keepers” and I ask because just like real animals, the stuffed variety seems to multiply rapidly. Our problem here? I have two words – garage sales. My kids are addicted to them. It is like Christmas every Friday. We don’t watch TV or use electronic entertainment and I justified having all the toys because the kids seem to get so much joy from them. The garage sale toys seem almost disposable. When the kids lose interest, I donate the toys a box at a time. We live in a generous home with a playroom (yep, an entire room devoted to toys and playing) with a closet to “rotate” the toys. When I organize, it takes a whole day (shocking, I know and it used to take less time hmmmm…) and fills the floor of the playroom plus the foyer and down the hall. Thanks for the motivation. Would you like me to send you a box of toys?? Just kidding. kisses – michelle

  3. Susan

    Hi Michelle,
    Love your comments! Thanks for them. I hear ya on the stuffed animals. It’s like they breed… and they drive me beserk. The space suck has always irked me, even when we had more room. The kids each brought their favorite one with them, and the rest we scrapped. No one has asked for any of the ones that didn’t make it…

    I have heard of people rotating out toys like you do, and it’s what Kim John Payne recommends in Simplicity Parenting (if you’re going to keep more than a few toys). I never had the discipline or initiative (or extra storage) to do it myself, but it seems like a good idea, and like it would work.

    Our toy accumulation came largely with thrift store purchases, much like your garage sale ones. And picking up a $0.99 puzzle while you’re there browsing for other stuff makes a lot of sense! Again, I think it comes down to whether or not you regularly whittle down the toy pile or rotate some out (like you do) or not (like we didn’t). I’m here to testify that twenty $0.99 toys still add up to a lot of space and clutter as they amass throughout the months.

    Also like you, we do no electronic toys and very little TV (generally 30 mins/day or less). And my thought process has often mirrored yours with toys. They’re constructive, time-engaging, and bring joy to the kids. So you think, “what’s the downside?”

    Lately I’m thinking about toy-swapping with other families with same age kids. 2 floor puzzles for 2 floor puzzles. 8 books for 8 books. Little People dollhouse for Little People zoo. A week later, switch back. Wouldn’t that be cool?

  4. Cari

    Great post Susan.
    I love the idea of reduction – and also the question of what you’d actually replace if your house burned down. Those two concepts alone have the potential to transform all of our homes. You’ve inspired me to take another look around our own space – thank you.

  5. Valerie

    I think this is the best, most thought-provoking, practical post I’ve ever read in the whole decluttering/simplicity realm. Excellent ideas! I too used to roll my eyes at the concept of parting with things so easily. The thought of what books you would actually replace if your house burned down is amazing – now I actually do want to part with some of our kids books. I never could before.

    I agree with Michelle on the stuffed animals (but am amazed that your kids could part with all but one each!), as a homeschooling family that is very choosy about entertainment, I tolerate the stuffed animals. You know what works to get them off the floor? Over the door shoe holders. Just pop one little animal into each pouch.

    And toy rotation always sounded like an unattainable dream to me (or another thing to remember) until I experienced its benefits. It does work for us. BUT after reading this post, and rereading the thoughts in the last few paragraphs again this week, I am going to reconsider. You describe the simplicity so well I can almost taste it!

    This is great stuff. Thanks for the inspiration…In incredibly practical terms, as always!

  6. Emily

    Excellent! Good kick in the pants. I try to keep a box or two or three going and frequently toss in toys or clothes or kitchen stuff that just aren’t used enough. It is amazing how those boxes can fill up, be donated and ready to start the process all over again. Look forward to hearing more about what your new house is teaching you. ;-)

  7. Susan

    Valerie, if the post was one of the best you’ve read, then your comment was one of the best I’ve ever received on a post. Thanks so much for the affirmation and the confirmation that the matters of simplicity we’re learning are translatable into someone else’s mindset. So encouraging! Blessings to you.
    And Emily, to you too of course. Your home always has the best of simplicity, hospitality, and organization (in my estimation)

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