How to Let Go of Things: One Essential Tip To Make Minimizing Easy and Sustainable

by Grace Bonney

When Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, was released in 2014, an intense new wave of minimalism swept the country. People were getting rid of things left and right while espousing the joys of living with less. Communities like The Minimalists had been building steam for a while and there seemed to be a new movement within the interiors community that decided less is most definitely more. But with that movement came criticism. Lots of it. Mainly around the the idea that these new ideals were steeped in classism and elitism. And while I agree with a lot of those critiques, I think there’s always a grey area between both extremes were the truth seems to lie.

Thinking about minimalism has been a healthy way for me to better examine the reasons I buy and hold on to things

When Roshanda Cummings and Erin Johnson (below) shared their 10 Tips for Living Minimally Longterm with us last month, one of their ideas really stuck with me. They said to remember that you will always, “Begin Again.” Meaning, you’ll inevitably buy something new and end up doing another round of tossing/donating/giving to edit things down. Their long-term approach really clicked with my changing worldview, which is more about small, sustainable commitments rather than grand gestures. Their advice made me think about why finding more meaning in — and appreciation for — the things I do have is so important to maintain over time.

Over the past three years of living in a home that has space to expand into (which is a huge privilege), I’ve struggled with how to resist the urge to fill everything around me. That urge was informed by so many deeper issues that deserved more examination, and in that process, I found myself embracing minimalism in a way that worked for me: mainly, a version of minimalism that existed somewhere in the middle, in that grey area. I wanted to own fewer things, appreciate them more and support my community with that effort.

Like Roshanda and Erin, the process is ongoing for me. I’m often tempted to pick up a little thing here or there, or take in something my family offers to bring to me, because well, why not? It’s not like another plate is going to hurt anyone, so what’s the harm? But since figuring out how to make this commitment work for me, I’ve found ONE main tip that helps me stay committed to this change and makes those temptations easier to avoid.

Find someone who needs, wants, or appreciates that object MORE.

Whether it’s a pair of shoes or a gently-used coffee machine, there’s almost always someone near you that could use that object and would get greater pleasure and joy (or aid more in their day-to-day survival) than you.

I didn’t fully realize this until I started volunteering more in my community and getting to know what sorts of basic needs (books, clothing, food, transportation) were life-changing for people in my community. Here’s how I break it down:

  • Old clothing and shoes: Most people think of great international organizations like Dress for Success (which is awesome!) when they think of donating clothes and accessories. But you can often find wonderful local groups and have a chance to learn more about the actual people in your community who will be using those donations.
    • Those moments often lead to discovering new groups doing good work locally that you can support. When I donated old dresses to our local family crisis center I learned how many local teenagers needed help with dress-up clothes for church, school dances, etc. Those moments can be so formative in young people’s lives, so when I thought about how much those pieces might mean to them, it not only made it easier to get rid of some of the nice dresses I’ve owned, it made me excited to pare down and think about someone else enjoying the sparkly, stripey dresses I owned.
  • Transportation (of any type): How we get around is something so many of us take for granted. I always knew it was hard to get around without a car where we live, but didn’t realize how unreliable and poorly timed most of the buses in our area were until I started working at our food pantry. So many clients weren’t able to pick up food packages because they didn’t have cars, bikes or a friend who could give them a ride. I’ve seen people pull donated furniture and boxes of food home on bikes and skateboards, so it really clicked how donating not-often-used bikes and other forms of transportation could make a huge difference in someone else’s life.
  • Makeup and beauty products: I don’t wear makeup often, but I am sometimes sent it in press kits and I definitely invest in my fair share of skincare products. While it’s always important to only donate things that are safe to share and use, it’s worth noting that so many beauty products are okay to be used if they’re cleaned and stored properly. After working with an amazing LSW here in our county, I heard about how frequent the requests for makeup and body care products were. Those small things make a huge difference in people’s lives when they are transitioning into new or temporary housing, applying for jobs or going to important meetings. It helps people feel good about themselves and build up self-confidence.
  • Homewares and Artwork: These can be the hardest for people in our community because we sometimes know the people who make these pieces or we’ve read about them online and feel invested in their work. But that doesn’t mean other people can’t or won’t appreciate them equally, if not more.
    • When I want to say, clean out a cabinet of tableware or redo a room that just doesn’t feel like my style anymore, I look at the type of objects and set out to find a local group that could really benefit from these donations. If it’s a cabinet of mugs, glassware and dishes, I seek out shelters that have living centers that need to be furnished. Often domestic violence shelters or family crisis centers are in need of gently used home goods because they’re helping people start over who weren’t able to bring much with them to this new location. I think about meals they’ll eat on those plates or how they’ll pour their kids juice into those cups and I feel hopeful for the next life these pieces will have with new owners.

Whether you’re committing to a long-term process of living with less or just want to do a fall cleaning and pare down on your belongings, getting rid of things can be a powerful way to connect with and support people in your community. While there’s of course the benefit of creating a space in your home that’s less cluttered and calmer, there’s an even bigger benefit when you can donate something that might make a difference in the life of one of your neighbors.

Beyond that initial donation, you may discover a great non-profit group that connects you to new people, new parts of your community and new opportunities that can bring even more meaning and understanding to your life. When you’re able to connect minimizing with supporting your community, the change is so meaningful and powerful. –Grace


*If traveling to donate goods and give things back in person isn’t an option, consider a yard sale or online sale where you donate the proceeds to a local group instead. Or you can use those funds to support friends and family in need or for a specific purchase (like bikes, personal goods or food) that a local charity could really use. 

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  • yay! I like minimalism for less cleaning/visual clutter/etc., and reusing things as much as possible is awesome. Reading this a few questions came to mind too:
    what will make minimizing sustainable for a community, and for the Earth as a whole?
    when does it become condescending to give things to community organizations?
    will people receiving donations only want them for as long as they can’t get “their own” (i.e. new) things?
    if/when more households find things to donate, what happens when organizations can’t take more; they won’t need it?

    • Hi Monica!

      I’m not the definitive source of answers for all charity groups by any means, but based on my experience with groups here, here are some thoughts :)

      “when does it become condescending to give things to community organizations?”
      I think it’s only unacceptable to gift if those items are in poor condition. Donating dirty clothes, broken furniture and electronics that don’t work definitely adds more work to the charity’s plate and can come across as thoughtless or offensive. So always be sure the things you’re donating are usable and in good condition and then call the group first to see if they, or another group they know, could use them.

      “will people receiving donations only want them for as long as they can’t get “their own” (i.e. new) things?”
      That depends on the people receiving them. It’s possible, but I don’t think the duration of the ownership matters so much as those people having access to things they need, even if they’re only for a short time.

      “if/when more households find things to donate, what happens when organizations can’t take more; they won’t need it?”
      -Most organizations I know have no problem telling people when they don’t need something. I always call or email first to see if they could use X,Y, Z from our house. Plenty have said “No.” But most say, “We can’t use that but, XYZ shelter could, so call them.”

  • Lovely article. Tangentially, I’d love a piece that looks at the idea of minimalism when you’re a maker with a lot of hobbies that require supplies. I garden, can, woodwork, paint, photograph, keep chickens, sew, distill hydrosols, make skincare/candles/etc etc etc. We have a very small house and recently added a kid to the mix. A lot of the supplies aren’t being touched at the moment, in addition to being stored as best we can but still in a way that takes up precious space. I vacillate between stress at the lack of space/visual openess, and immense comfort knowing the supplies are there waiting for me when I’m ready. When I see minimalists’ homes, I often wonder if they have any supply-requiring hobbies at all. I’d love to read a piece by someone who identifies as an all purpose maker that covers how they approached minimizing at a practical level.

    • I’m with you on this topic, Lindsey. With a lifetime career in several design/craft areas, I seem have spent my life dealing with how to keep and store the products required for inspiration and making things, while attempting to live without clutter and excess storage. The irony of a creative life for me is that it when I get rid of something, then for sure I’ll be needing it the following week.

      And Grace, I also give to people. Just today I found someone who seemed perfect for a small collection that I have, and she was thrilled when I offered it to her, so I might add that observing and listening to the people we meet might bring up someone to give special pieces to. (I also love to post free items to my neighbors using Nextdoor.com, we give each other all sorts of wonderful things, including fresh fruit, garden plants and other great things we can’t use)

  • Your post is a lovely ray of light.

    Readers of Design*Sponge, who enjoy design and decor, may go crazy for Humble Design http://www.humbledesign.org/
    They collect all manner of household furnishings and decorations and set up housing for families coming out of homeless shelters. Their website is inspiring, with before and after pictures and wonderful families smiling.

    In almost 40 cities in the USA (and some in Canada, Russia, Australia, and other places) there are “Really Really Free Markets.” They are also a great place to take baby clothes and books and lamps and computers and food and pretty much anything that is useful to someone, but not needed at your house.

    I have a suggestion for Lindsey: share your stuff, and put some of your stuff in foster care.
    If you garden, put up a couple of dozen 6-packs with a tomato plant, a zucchini, a couple of zinnias and the like, and give them to people at the Really Free Market or to your friends or neighborhood kids.
    Invite your friends over for a day of woodworking (e.g. repairing a wobbly chair, glueing up a broken picture frame.) You will likely do more woodworking since the stuff is out, and your friends will be super grateful.
    Make a bunch of Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanza/Diwali/Valentines’ Day presents and use up the supplies for soaps and skincare products, and do not buy more for a while.
    “Foster Care” is for the things you aren’t ready to give away quite yet. 5 years ago, I found that my friend from Finland, who is an experienced weaver, did not have her loom with her because it costs a whole lot to bring a loom from Finland, and her sister was using it. I gave her my Finnish countermarch loom, but asked that if she was going to move away and get rid of it, she would give it back to me. I would not have used it–I’m plenty busy making mosaics and sewing–and she has made a ton of rag rugs and dishtowels and other lovely things. By now I believe the loom is basically adopted, which is a good outcome for all.

  • Another option is posting things for free on Craigslist (or other such sites). You know the person who is taking the item wants/needs it, otherwise they wouldn’t be contacting you about it! I’ve “donated” a ton of things that way!

  • Yes! I’ve been doing a lot of decluttering and donating due to a big move, and have found this thought to be so comforting. Shopping at thrift stores was both a necessity and joy growing up, and I remember how delighted I was to find treasures. My best find was in the late-nineties when I came across someone’s collection of David Bowie records at a mere 50 cents a piece! Sure, that person could have sold them for much more elsewhere but I am so grateful they didn’t.

    Nowadays I have some nice stuff that could probably yield a decent profit, and many people have encouraged me to sell these items online, like a vintage Stratocaster. I’d like to have the extra cash but would love even more for a musically-inclined teen to truly enjoy these things, just like I did. One of the biggest takeaways from Marie Kondo’s books was the idea that we don’t have to hold on to things just because we spent a lot of money on them: the same goes for not feeling pressured to get a top-dollar value when we resell or donate them. Whom we choose to be around is important: my partner is so generous, and her example inspires me to do the same.

    Additionally, I am so glad you shared those articles critiquing the minimalist movement. I’m all about living with less and am so happy to downsize BUT also recognize the elitism and privilege behind so much of it. That’s certainly the feeling I got after watching the minimalism documentary, which makes me extra appreciative of mindful and self-aware essays like this and the amazing piece by Roshanda Cummings and Erin Johnson earlier this year.

  • I love this, thank you. This time of year becomes increasingly cluttered for so many of us–both physically in our homes, as well as emotionally and mentally. Intentional simplification can go a long way towards a more peaceful, joyful holiday season (IMO). In recent years we’ve developed a habit of having the kids go through all their toys prior to Christmas, pulling out items they no longer use or have outgrown, and donating them to a children’s shelter in town. We also periodically go through the house, pulling out clothing we no longer wear, items that aren’t being used, etc. and make a Goodwill pile. I find it easier and more satisfying to donate these things as opposed to sell them…although maybe that’s just me feeling too lazy to go to the trouble of pricing, posting, etc.

    A small group I’m a part of has been discussing minimalism and simplification during the holidays, and I thought I’d share one of our recent readings, as it seemed particularly apt: http://ase.tufts.edu/gdae/CS/Simplicity.pdf (Duane Elgin; “Voluntary Simplicity and the New Global Challenge”)

  • We owned a vacation rental for a couple of years and when we decided to transition it to a long-term unfurnished rental, we called a local non-profit organization that helps homeless folks secure housing. We donated every single thing in that 3 bedroom house to fully furnish two apartments for two families. It was honestly EASIER than trying to sell it off piecemeal and it felt great to help people that are trying to get back on their feet.

  • This is a fantastic post, so much love for your fellow humans. When I read Marie kondo’s book the garbage she fills with things always sat a bit uneasily with me. This is the addendum the book needed. What I love about your out is that you consider the particular charity to give certain items to with such care. I have heard a lot of volunteer time is wasted at op shops sorting the good items from the rubbish people just want to get rid, things that are dirty, damaged or broken. If only everyone had such a considerate heart as you!

  • I needed to read this as I struggle with letting things go.

    In years of trying to have a baby I bough all thing that one could ever want for a child, clothes books, toys in anticipation of getting pregnant.

    Unfortunately, pregnancy is not in the cards and adoption was not possible and so for 3 years I have kept these thing which every time I look at them my heart aches. I know that I need to part with them and should pass them on so that I can fully heal.

    How often we hang on to things that burden us and drag us down.

    Thanks very much for this post so many of us can use this advise.

    • I don’t know you, but your post made me want to give you a big hug, even if only a virtual one. I hope you will feel some lightness after you have given away some of the things to people in need of them and perhaps help you heal.

  • I read this post last week anticipating organizing a closet. I’ve thought about it many times since. It’s really helping me get a handle on letting some things go. Thank you.

  • I love this, too. It’s amazing how much easier it is to get rid of things when you know it is going to someone in need. I recently had the good fortune to donate household items and clothing to a young man transitioning out of foster care and to a young woman who left an abusive relationship. Also, the homeless shelter in my area appreciates everything from clothing, excess office supplies, lamps, sheets, etc. I often think, item xyz is sitting on a shelf or in my closet – what a waste for me to have this sitting unused, when there is someone out there who needs it.

  • I am currently getting certified to be a KonMari Consultant–a person who helps other people with tidying their home using the KonMari Method (KMM), as some people are overwhelmed by undertaking this task on their own, or do not feel that they have a firm enough understanding of the process having only read, or possibly not read, the books. I’d like to offer a clarification that Marie Kondo and the KMM does not advocate or encourage minimalism. IRather, the only criteria for keeping an item is whether it does or does not “spark joy.” [Also note that spark joy can be interpreted in many ways.] A person who “tidies” their home using the KMM may be a minimalist, but many are not. I currently have three clients none of which are minimalist. I would say less than half or more of my class of trainees were minimalist in the pure sense of the word (recognizing there is a spectrum) however we all enjoy a neatly organized space containing only things we love. Minimalist or not, I think it is good to think about how and where we donate items we may be discarding, and taking into account the volume we consume and discard as we make future purchases.

  • Maybe I haven’t read as much about the minimalist movements out there but most people that I know that are interested in KonMari Method are just looking to decrease clutter and to consume less. I don’t see it as an elitist thing and it’s not something these folks are broadcasting. I also don’t think anyone is advocating for people with limited incomes to partake on this either or getting judgy on what people do have. It’s all about assessing your individual needs and happiness. If you are happy surrounded by stuff – great. Some of us would just like to open a closet without things falling on us or having to remove everything to find one item.

  • Utterly love this post, I watched the minimalism programme on Netflix a while ago and it really encouraged me to strip back my possessions. I must admit I had always done it for more selfish reasons but thinking about how much those items might help others is an even bigger motivation.