Apr 052012

This is not an impossible dream, though it does seem that way sometimes, doesn’t it?

After I wrote my “Typical Day” post, I received several emails (which I will respond to individually – I promise). They all had one question in common, regarding the pictures I posted of my house:  “How do you keep your house so clean with 3 little kids around?”

First of all, my house is not always clean. In fact, it’s sometimes such an unholy mess that I panic and pray for deliverance. Also, I hate cleaning. I honestly hate it, and you’ll never hear me pretend otherwise. BUT, I do always clean up my house when it’s messy – if not every day, then at least every week – because my personality is such that I require neatness in order to remain calm and productive. When everything’s messy, I have a tendency to freak out a little bit.

I refer to myself as a minimalist, though having 3 children is certainly not considered minimalistic behavior. However, it’s fun and rewarding, so even though I long for a life with less (stuff – not children), I’ve let go of that dream and embraced the necessary and inevitable clutter that comes with the kid package – to a point. I believe that if I lived alone, I would purposely have very few material possessions – probably just basic necessities, and a few treasures –  because I’m just not a person who derives great pleasure from shopping, and acquiring, and owning, and caring for stuff. Most of the time it feels like a giant pain in my butt, but frugally maintaining a family of 5 does require minor stockpiling of some types of sale-purchased items, such as shoes and boots, clothing, food, and school supplies. It’s unavoidable.

Even so, organized packrattery is just that – organized. And there are limits. I carefully consider what we might need, and I don’t stockpile more than that. For example, I just printed the K-5 school supply lists from the school website, and went through my supply inventory (which is contained in one Rubbermaid bin – that is all). I labeled two large paper bags with each of the girls’ names, and filled them with the supplies they’ll need for next year. I made a note of the few items they’ll need that I don’t already have, and also the items they’ll need in future years, which I’m running low on. When school supplies go on sale in the fall, I’ll stockpile only what’s necessary to replenish my supply – and nothing more.

If I could give you two tips – and only two – for maintaining a clean, simple, organized home, it would be these:

1. Get rid of as much stuff as you possibly can.
2. Quit buying stuff you don’t need.

I realize that this sounds very obvious and simplistic, but it’s true. It’s extremely difficult – if not impossible – to keep a clean home when you’re buried in stuff. If you really want a simpler, easier-to-manage household, you have to start with a major purge, especially if you have a lot of kid-type clutter (toys, books, clothes). Kids today have far more than they actually need, or can manage on their own, and if you take the time to sit down with them and go through their things, you might be surprised at what they’re willing to let go of.  If you help them identify what’s really special, important, and useful to them, and keep only those things, it will be much easier for your children to take responsibility for the care and maintenance of their own space and belongings.

Even more importantly, once you tame the clutter beast, you have to quit feeding it. Believe me, it will be sufficiently maintained by well-meaning people on birthdays and holidays – it doesn’t need anything from you. If the idea of asking people to restrain their gift-giving is off-putting to you, then it’s even more important to exercise restraint yourself, or before you know it, you’ll be right back to square one.

Here are a few more tips to help you get, and stay on track:

3. Just because you have space, that doesn’t mean you need to fill it. Remember when I posted the tour of my kitchen? Several people asked, “How do you keep all of the space in your cabinets from being crammed with stuff?” I make a conscientious effort to always leave space around the stuff, not only because it’s pleasing to the eye, but also because when you pack a drawer full to bursting, it’s impossible to find anything, and the drawer is more likely to get stuck when you try to open it (which has been known to induce minor fits of rage when I’m already running late, and I can’t find the stinkin’ checkbook, or something).

4. Contain and Conquer. That’s what the two baskets on the fireplace hearth in the living room are for, and it’s my cleaning and organizing philosophy, too. Toys scattered all over the floor = mess. Toys contained in a basket or bin = neat.  You can also limit toys to one room only. We have a designated playroom in the basement where most toys are kept (though they do migrate upstairs), and aside from stuffed animals, and DJ’s train set, we don’t allow the kids to keep many toys in their bedrooms. In the playroom, we have the toy library – a system that works well for us – with labeled bins, but no lids (they’re too hard for kids to get on and off). This makes clean-up simple and quick. In the same vein, we also have labeled hooks for their coats and backpacks, and even their dresser drawers are labeled, so they can put their own laundry away (except for DJ, obviously).

5. Teach your children to be organized. For tips on how to do this, see 10 Tips to Help Kids Get, and STAY Organized.

6. Group similar items together. Like with like is the most effective way to organize. In their bedrooms, the kids have a drawer for socks and underwear, a drawer for shirts, a drawer for PJs. In the toy room we have a bin for puzzles, a bin for Barbie stuff, and a bin for dolls and doll clothes. We have a box for each child, to store their artwork, and I use a garage-sale purchased 4-drawer dresser (only $8!) to organize school papers and special memorabilia for their scrapbooks – one drawer for each kid, and one for me.  This system makes it easy to find what I need, when I need it.

7. Keep ahead of it. I joke about how I spend my whole life decluttering, and this is an exaggeration, but I do purge stuff regularly – especially at Christmas and birthdays. At these times, there’s a massive influx of new things into the house, so it’s a perfect time to go through and get rid of stuff. Out with the old – in with the new. I actually declutter about once every 2-3 months, and I find that it really helps me keep the clutter in check, and the house in order. I also earn money by making regular trips to the consignment store (see Avoiding Stuffocation).

(Did you know stuffocation is now in the “New Words and Slang” Category of the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary?)

8. Give them an experience. Instead of buying children cheap junk, give them zoo passes, or a membership to a children’s museum, aquarium, or science center. Better yet, take a vacation as a family. The memories created will far outlast any flimsy plastic toy – and they’re easy to store 🙂 When you do buy toys, forgo quantity for quality. For example, classic toys, like Legos and Lincoln Logs, have been popular for generations for a reason – they’re durable, fun, and encourage kids to use their imaginations.

9. A little each day goes a long way. My girls do “room chores” almost every night. They pick up their laundry and put it in the hamper, pick up and put stuff away, and straighten up their desk and bookshelf. Because they do it every day, it takes them only about 15 minutes, and I spend less time being annoyed with them because their room is a pigsty. The same applies to the rest of the house. I try to never go to bed unless my kitchen is clean, and the living room is picked up. I especially hate to wake up to a messy kitchen, and I’ve found that if I go for a few days without picking up and putting away, the mess snowballs and overwhelms me. Then I get depressed, and even more overwhelmed. For more on this topic, see The Basic Home Maintenance Plan.

10. Clean surfaces make for quick work. I keep very little on my kitchen counters because I don’t want to move stuff around in order to find space to prepare food, and I don’t like wiping food spatters and stains off small appliances. So, I put as much stuff inside cabinets as I can. For this same reason, I confine framed photographs, and the few knick-knacks I own (very few) to one bookcase, and the china cabinet. The coffee table and end table remain clear, because these are the most frequently used surfaces in the living room, and I don’t want to move tschotskes around in order to clean them. Remember – the more you have, the more you have to take care of. This is also why I don’t have houseplants, though I do like them. But they drop leaves, Pumpkin digs in them, they require dusting and watering, and to be frank, I have my hands full just trying to keep three kids and a cat alive. Which brings me to my next point…

11. It’s not just a purchase – it’s a lifestyle choice. You will buy far less if you take the time to really think about the life you want to lead, and how each purchase will help or hinder you in reaching that goal. If you want to lead a simpler life, buying more stuff will not help you, nor will adopting a pet, or signing your kids up for another after-school commitment. Everything you bring home will require care and maintenance, and you’ll need to give up more of something precious – your time. There are trade-offs for everything, so make your choices wisely.

12. Experiment with less. This is something I do pretty routinely, especially when I’m trying to decide whether or not I should get rid of something. For example, I once did a really massive purge of dishes, pots and pans, and other kitchen supplies, but I was uncertain about what I could and couldn’t do without. I decided to temporarily pack away the stuff I wasn’t sure about, and do a trial run, so to speak. After 6 months – which included the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays – I retrieved only one pan from my temporary storage boxes, so I knew that I could let everything else go (and I honestly have never missed any of it). Experimenting with less can also be an effective way to save money (see Use Less to Save More).

13. Teach contentment. Ideally, by example. It’s important for children – and adults – to learn that material possessions do not lead to lasting happiness, and too much stuff can actually be a hindrance – not a help. If you need proof, sit down and watch any episode of Hoarders. I sometimes joke to my husband that this show has scared our children straight because, after watching, they often feel compelled to clean their room, which I find enormously entertaining. For more on this topic, see Teaching Kids to Want What They Have.

You might also like:
20 Tips to Help You Be More Organized and
11 Tips to Help You Get Motivated to Clean