It was 1994 when author Elaine St. James hit the bestseller list with her book “Simplify Your Life.” What a catchy word — simplify. It sure caught my eye, and it sounded so inviting.  

St. James and her husband had successful careers and a home overflowing with material goods when they adopted a “less is more” lifestyle. Their story inspired me to aim for a simple life, free of clutter.


When I had the time.

That’s the problem right there. Time. There was just no time for simple living.

What inspired me to make the time was, sadly, the death of my mother. After Daddy died, Mother lived another 30 years in the house where they raised us kids. In the days following her funeral, my siblings and I began the cleaning-out process, sorting through a lifetime of possessions. Drawers and closets and cabinets filled to capacity — and that was just the guest bathroom.

Room by room, we inventoried and categorized, each one more challenging than the last.

The kitchen cabinets, for example, were overflowing with different assortments of china: plates, bowls, cups and accessories. Mother had no need for all of those place settings in all of those different patterns, but she kept them anyway, because she inherited them from her mother, who inherited them from her mother.

It was possession based on nothing more than sentimental value — the same reason I have my mother’s crystal. Truth is, I don’t really like my mother’s crystal, but how could I possibly give it away? I force myself to use some and keep the rest stored in boxes in the attic, destined to one day become my daughter’s problem.

But my husband, Tim, and I don’t want to burden our daughter with all the rest of the stuff that has found its way into our closets and cabinets. We don’t want to burden ourselves with it, either. That is why we do a household purge each year: to get rid of all those things that are taking up space, things we never use and can do without. Or maybe I should rephrase that to say it’s why I (as in me, myself and I) do a household purge.

Tim will lend a hand throwing away stuff as long as it doesn’t involve his stuff. Computers, hard drives, peripherals, all those macgeeky possessions he treasures? Those aren’t going anywhere.

While preparing for my spring cleaning/de-cluttering process, I came across a new publication entitled “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter” by Margareta Magnusson.

Magnusson is up there in years — “somewhere between 80 and 100,” she says. After the death of her husband, she downsized into smaller living quarters and in so doing cleaned out her own home on behalf of her heirs.

She strongly advocates gathering items of value we no longer use and giving them away to friends and family while we’re still alive.

For sentimental items, such as letters and photographs, Magnusson keeps a “throw-it-away box” meant just for her. Her children know they can throw it away after her death.

She insists that the anti-cluttering, death-cleaning process is never really over. “You don’t know when you’re going to die,” she says. “So it goes on and on.”

Unfortunately, Magnusson has a tendency to spend more time philosophizing about the need to de-clutter rather than giving us solid advice on how to do it. That was a disappointment, because I’m always in the market for good anti-cluttering tips.

Here are two of the best I know:

1. Take all the clothes in your closet and turn the hangers around backwards. When you wear the garment, hang it correctly. Six months later (or nine months or one year — you pick the deadline) clothes still resting on backward hangers should be given away.

2. Put all your kitchenwares (utensils, pots, small appliances) in a box. Whenever you find yourself in need of a specific item, go get it. Anything still in the box by your deadline can be sealed up and given away. (This one is a hassle, but it really works.)

If you have any other good tips on de-cluttering a home, shoot them my way. Like Magnusson said, it’s a process that never really ends until — well, you know — it REALLY ends.

Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at