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Posted on Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 8 a.m.

Ask Betty: Having too much stuff means there's too little space for life's happy intangibles

By Judy DiForte

At a recent consultation, we met a woman whose home was the epitome of organization. The rooms were impeccably decorated, with not an iota of clutter. She called us in because she was too busy to pack up and move all her kitchen items prior to a kitchen renovation.

When we mentioned the expense of purchasing packing materials, the client chastised herself for having gotten rid of moving boxes.  “If there is such a thing as the opposite of a hoarder, that’s what I am,” she said.   


There's a necessary balance to be found between organization and clutter.

It got me thinking about the two extremes and the price that each extreme must pay. In this blog are some musings about the cost of too much stuff. I’ll do another one soon on the cost of keeping too little. And yes, there are costs, no matter which path you choose.

The question is, how much are you willing to pay for the benefits of the method you choose?

People who hoard, or at least who keep things “just in case” they might need them someday, pay what most would call a heavy price. Items creep in from the walls and begin to pile up until they interfere with living space.

Because of the quantity, it becomes impossible to organize things, so the person loses track of where possessions are and even what’s there. Ironically, if the time comes when s/he needs something in the chaos, it’s often impossible to find it, and the item must be re-purchased.

It may sound simplistic, but the most profound cost of having too much stuff is having too little space. Space is highly misunderstood. Americans tend to perceive space as nothingness; as the absence of things.

In our relatively rich country, we’ve defined wealth and success as “nice stuff.” To many of us, the absence of stuff equals the absence of wealth. So, by default, space has come to mean the opposite of success. Or, at best, it means the opportunity to put something there instead.

But space is far from nothingness. Space is where life happens. It’s the opportunity for memories to be made. It is a field of potential.

Families interact there. Friends can drop by. The homeowner can sit in a chair and read, glancing across a room now and then. Space is the “across” part.

Windows allow us to look outside. If we have a shrub growing right against the window, it blocks our view. What is a view? It’s what we can see in the distance. Without distance, there’s no view. There’s only a wall made of glass and shrubbery.  

Sometimes I go thrift-shopping and antiquing with my mother-in-law, but she can’t stand it for very long. “There’s too much to look at,” she’ll say, and “It’s too confusing in there.” She doesn’t mind shopping in a regular store, though — even a crowded one.

I think it’s because in many antique stores, there’s only one of each thing, and they’re all jam-packed together, often with no perceivable categories. A vintage cup and saucer, a buttonhook, a copper kettle, a thimble, an old lithograph — all squeezed together on a shelf.

It makes no sense. I love that. I could spend hours in such shops. But I wouldn’t want things that way in my own home.

In higher end antique stores, items are more celebrated. How? With space and order. The cup and saucer sit on an antique side table with a vintage linen napkin. The lithograph hangs on the wall behind. It’s a vignette. It makes sense.

Take away space and you take away distinction. The thing that defines something is the space around it. No space means no definition. Items merge together and become one big thing.

Most people use the word “clutter” when that happens. There are so many things, each item loses its identity in the confusion of compression. You might love everything in there, but you can’t enjoy any of it, because there’s no space around it.

You can’t find it, and even if you did, where would you put it? Back in the pile it goes. You find yourself treating even your most valued possessions like junk because there’s no space available to celebrate it.

How do people get to that saturation point? How do they have so much stuff that they can’t live comfortably in their own homes? I think it’s like having five pounds creep up on you. You take in more calories than you’re burning off. The result is predictable: weight gain.

Same goes for clutter. Unless you expand your home, you have a finite, unchangeable amount of space. If more items continue to come in than are going out, and nothing stops or reverses this process, you'll run out of space. It will pack in, with less and less space between the items, until everything becomes a solid mass of undefined stuff. 

To lose five pounds, we have to burn more calories than we take in.  But if we concentrate on the cookie we can't have, we'll feel deprived.  If we focus on the absence of the thing we want, we won't stay on the diet long.  But if we focus on what we're getting when we diet -- health and a more attractive body -- instead of deprivation, it feels like a trade.   

If we can redefine space as a valuable commodity, instead of the absence of stuff, we can more easily part with our overabundance of possessions. We're trading them in on something else -- something better: space. 

“Let’s go to Mom’s” doesn’t mean, “Let’s stand amid bric-a-brac.”  It means let’s be together and enjoy each other. Maybe we’ll have a meal, play a game, talk about our lives. We could have a party; we could just hang out.

None of that could happen without the space for it to happen in. Space offers options and possibilities that keep the potential of family life alive in our minds, whether we’re actually using the space or not.

All the stuff -- those things that have merged together -- is the alternative to space. The clutter intrudes into the family, forming barriers and preventing family members from being together. Ironically, the items that have lost their own distinctions are now separating family members, keeping them distinct and unable to become the whole entity they need to be for their well being.

Space is not only a gift you give your family, it offers them the opportunity to be a family. It’s the final frontier. We should protect it!

Judy DiForte is a professional organizer for The Betty Brigade, a full-service personal assistance and concierge company based in Ann Arbor. Email her at



Tue, Mar 22, 2011 : 10:19 p.m.

Very interesting article. I find clutter oppressive probably because my mother was messy and a "collector".