By Malia Russell


Several years ago I realized I was outnumbered. There were more people bringing clutter into my home than I could control. With five children in the house, several sets of grandparents, and lots of generous friends who would give us their hand-me-downs, my children rarely saw a day where they were truly in need of something. For that, I am truly grateful. What that also means is that everything brought into our home needed a place, or we would quickly drown in utter chaos. Add to that the fact that my husband and I both have things we love to collect. For me, it is books. He has what we affectionately call “The Cord Hoard.” He loves electronics, and sometimes decades after an electronic device is no longer functioning, we will still find its cord tucked away someplace unexpected. By themselves, cords do not take up much space, but after twenty-one years of marriage, we have lots of them. I secretly think that some other families have been leaving cords here too.

In any case, when I had only one or two children, I simply went through their rooms each month or so and would make sure things were back in their proper places. A little excess never really bothered me because it was tucked away in the privacy of their rooms, which I needed to see only in the morning and at bedtime. However, once children started sharing rooms, the excess began to spill out of the closet and onto the floor, under the beds, into my room, and into the main part of the house. Before long, I felt like I could never get the house clean. There was too much stuff to move around, organize, and dust before I could begin to vacuum, scrub, and polish.

Now that many of my children are older, I have found that having frequent de-cluttering days with challenges and prizes has been a fabulous tool.

Here is how we do it:   

We choose a day with no other plans. We get up at a reasonable hour, and everyone gathers in the kitchen to see the goals, the challenges, and the fabulous prizes for the day.

In addition, I make sure we have plenty of black garbage bags, boxes, regular trash bags, black markers (for labeling the boxes), and an empty truck or trunk of the van. We set goals for the number of donated items, and along with each goal, we establish a prize or award. We do not typically set individual goals but rather family goals. This helps keep everyone working together and encouraging one another.

Here is what our day looked like the first time we did this:

At 8:30 we made sure everyone was up and dressed, and as they ate breakfast, I told them the plan: “Today is de-cluttering day! Today we are going to all work together to get rid of the things we do not need.” Then I outlined the rules for them, and with great excitement and enthusiasm, I put the incentives on our white board:

• If (as a family) we get rid of 100 items, we would get dessert with lunch.

• If we gave away 200 items, we could go out for ice cream one night that week.

• If we gave away 300 items, the family could go out to eat for dinner.

• If we gave away 400 items, we could have dinner out—with dessert!

• Items that were thrown away did not count toward the tally.

• Every item had to go through the dining room for Mom to make sure it was suitable to give away.

• Every item was to be tallied on a note pad kept in the dining room.

Everyone got to work immediately. My oldest daughter emptied her truck and turned down the seats to hold the loot. My middle daughter got the trash bags and boxes ready. My youngest daughter grabbed the laundry baskets to use to transport stuff from the rooms to the dining room.

It did not take long for the excitement to build as the kids discussed the “poor children” who would love to get their toys that they no longer cherished but which were still in terrific shape. They joyfully brought out some little dolls that were always underfoot but rarely appreciated. They brought out clothes that were outgrown and made room in their dresser drawers for the things they needed in there. Around lunchtime the truck was full, and our item count was very close to 300.

Over lunch the kids discussed the progress so far and were excitedly planning when we would go out for ice cream. Then this question came up: “What if we hit 500 items?” That got the excitement growing again, and after lunch everyone got back in gear. We were all getting pretty tired by then, but we kept saying: “Look for one more thing; keep going! Almost to 400!”

Soon, we were all in the garage and the number approached 500. Anne Mary declared that 500 items should be a family movie night with popcorn! “YES!” everyone shouted!

The excitement built as the 499th item was placed in the box. Then they started talking about donating their winter coats, shoes, umbrellas, and one another’s clothes . . .

Now that we have had several de-cluttering days (usually two large ones per year), I have also learned to appreciate small de-cluttering days. I will often ask each of the children to eliminate five or ten items they are no longer using. Now that they are in the habit of letting go of things, at times they will surprise me by simply showing up with a small box or bag of items from their rooms and tell me they would like to donate those items.

I am ashamed to say we could probably do this over and over again and still have too much stuff, but I was excited to see the family pull together with a common goal and a lot of fun. We know others will be blessed by what we gave away. The children do take care of their things and they are usually in very good shape when they have outgrown them.

If you are planning a de-cluttering day of your own, here are some additional suggestions to help you prepare:

• Go through younger children’s rooms a day early to cull all the outgrown clothes and unwanted/unneeded toys and books. This prevents a loss of momentum because of a napping baby.

• Start making a mental list of problem areas.

• Get some empty boxes to hold things to take to charity and some big black garbage bags for things that need to leave. Getting these items ahead of time means you will not have to scramble to find suitable boxes or bags on de-cluttering day.

• Decide on rewards you can offer the family for goals met so that they share the excitement.

• Invite a friend. Having a friend along helps you get rid of things more easily.

• Let the kids and your husband know ahead of time what you are doing so that no one makes any other big plans that are going to cause problems during your de-cluttering day.

• Empty the vacuum bag and get your cleaners ready. You will find dust and dirt when sorting and organizing, so be sure you are stocked up on cleaning supplies before you begin.

Think about how your family could be a blessing to others today. Perhaps you could set a goal for each person to give away five things or ten things. Make it a fun challenge and celebrate each act of generosity. Your family will be blessed!

“O Lord, help us to be content, Whatever we possess; Protect us from the foolish lie That ‘more’ brings happiness.”—David Sper

Malia Russell is the blessed wife to Duncan, thankful mother to five children (newborn to 21), and an author, conference speaker and director of and

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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