Vantage Point

How Not to Declutter


With extra time on their hands because of the Covid-19 pandemic, some people have decided to declutter their homes and discard what they no longer need. This often means tossing items that have accumulated through the years and appear to be too worn to use but too good to throw away. Many of those items—some in really bad shape—have been donated to charities and thrift stores that don’t want them and can’t use them.

According to a news story I read recently, Goodwill stores are asking people to stop donating items that are broken, damaged, hazardous or otherwise not fit for use. Unusable donations are not just a nuisance. They are a strain on operating budgets because the stores have to spend money and staff hours to sort and dispose of the junk. That’s a waste of time and funds that could otherwise be spent processing usable donations and serving people in need more effectively.

Why would anyone donate junk? The poor don’t need it, and the people who shop in thrift stores for the fun of it (and the thrill of a bargain) don’t want it. I shop sometimes at a wonderful local thrift store—not part of a chain—that accepts donations and gives the proceeds of its sales to needy persons. On display inside is a sign that asks donors not to bring in clothing that is torn, soiled, stained, missing buttons, or otherwise in poor condition. If you don’t want to wear it, the sign says, neither will anyone else.

Wise words and good guidance.

The question of what to donate set me thinking about two topics that are different yet related: How we help the poor, and how we deal with what we accumulate.

The first thing poor people need from anyone who aims to help them is respect. People who cannot afford to buy clothing at full price in retail stores are not less dignified than people with deeper pockets. Nor do they necessarily care less about their appearance. To offer them clothing that is fit only for disposal is an insult. To assume that they would rather have shoddy goods than nothing at all is at best a mistake and at worse a proof of the donor’s disdain. Poor people take pride in how they look, and they are as aware as anyone else of the importance of dressing appropriately for a job interview or a meeting with their child’s teacher.

That’s one reason I cannot stomach the trend—popular for more than a few years now—of wearing badly ripped clothing and calling it high fashion. Denim jeans that have been deliberately torn and shredded in the manufacturing process carry prestigious labels and high price tags. I wonder how many millions of people throughout the world wear clothing like that not because it uses shabby chic to mock conventional standards of appearance, but simply because they cannot afford anything better.

It’s not always easy, however, to determine what is worth donating. Those of us whose parents or grandparents remembered the Great Depression might have learned not to throw anything away for two reasons: you might need it someday, and if you let it go you might not be able to afford another. Even items in questionable shape were deemed “good enough” to keep and use. That might be one reason some people donate junk: guilt made them keep things that should have been tossed long ago.

I’ve struggled for years with clutter and with making decisions about what to keep, what to donate and what to discard. The answer isn’t always obvious, but I’ve learned a few things along the way. Here’s my short list: Rarely, if ever, have I regretted giving something away. When you discard, you create more space for your present and your future. I have felt the greatest joy and satisfaction from giving away items (for example, a full set of dishes) that were in excellent condition and went to people who really needed them.

In a nutshell: Give decisively, relish the extra space and respect the recipient.


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