How to Be Ruthless When Decluttering Clothes

I recently helped my mother move out of a home she had lived in for more than 35 years. She moved into that house right after getting married. She raised four kids in that house. She got divorced, and then continued to live in that house.

That house was full of old memories.

And her old stuff.

A big part of what was clogging her extra rooms (now filled with stuff that used to be full of children) was clothing. She had clothes stacked around her bed on shelves and on tables. Her closets were bursting and the drawers couldn’t shut.

Most of us have too many articles of clothes.

Most of us are not aggressive at all about getting rid of clothes.

My mom was certainly one of them. There were clothes in her closet that had been there since she moved into that house.

I, on the other hand, am very, very aggressive about decluttering my clothes and shoes spaces.

I have moved many times in my 20s and 30s, and I understand the burden in time as well as financially that having too much stuff that you don’t even use can bring to bear.

My mother learned it while we were getting ready to move. We decluttered her closets (and much of the rest of her house) over a period of several months.

folder shirts in a drawer

I found myself wishing over and over that she had just been more diligent about regularly going through her wardrobe to get rid of things that she didn’t need anymore.

In this article, I’ll explain how we got my mom’s clothing hoarding proceeds under control. After all, my mom didn’t want to give up any of her clothes. She liked having them. But by the end…she got it.

Step One: get all the clothes out and separate them into piles.

Seriously, you are going to go through your clothes while some of them are still in the closet? That is a recipe for leaving some stuff that you should really get rid of. If you do this regularly, then you might not need to do the total workout. But if this is the first time (or the first time in a long time) there is nothing that helps you decide to get rid of stuff when you can just see the total volume of what exists.

I make a neat pile of shirts (long and short sleeved, as well as fancy dress, button ups, etc). I make piles for pants, shorts, jackets, accessories, underwear, bathing suits, etc.

I will note that in doing this, I also identify some areas where I actually need to BUY clothes (or get some). Sometimes I realize that I don’t have any shorts, or the pants I do have are all too big/small.

If you have boxes of clothes stored elsewhere (spare rooms, garage, other closets), it is time to bust those boxes out and look into them. There’s almost no chance of you ever wearing anything that is in a box in the garage. So unless it is your high school Letterman’s jacket that you are saving as a keepsake….let’s get those clothes into piles.

There’s nothing like seeing all that clothing in all its glory. And if the piles are taller than you are…that might be the motivation you need to start downsizing on your t-shirts.

Step Two: look for worn out/items ready for the garbage.

An easy way to get rid of clothing is to look for items that need to go into the trash. Worn out underwear, socks with holes, ripped up shirts, stained clothing, anything in too terrible a shape to even be given away to friends or to a second hand shop….all this stuff goes straight into the garbage or the rag pile.

shirts hung on hangers

Look over your old sweaters carefully for example, you might realize that some old favorite pieces are now sporting holes from moths.

Yes, it is fine to save a few ratty items to lounge in or work in the garden in, but these should be minimal.

This is a pretty easy stage in the process, with very little emotional involvement.

Step Three: look for items that are obviously ready for a second hand store.

Once you have gotten rid of the obvious garbage, it is not time to dig out the clothing that we know for sure that we don’t like anymore, or don’t want to wear.

This is clothing that we know is out of style (belly shirts, low rise jeans), or clothing that our body is out of style for (belly shirts, low rise jeans).

This is also clothing that we don’t use anymore, such as career clothing for a now stay at home mom.

You will also throw out clothing at this stage that you don’t like at all, and can’t remember why on earth you bought it in the first place.

Mostly, this stage is still easy, as you have very little emotional attachment to this clothing and you know that it should go out of your house and closet.

Step Four: Picking what stays and what goes.

Step four is where the rubber meets the road in ruthlessly decluttering the closet. At this stage, you should be left with clothing that you like to wear, or want to wear, or wish you could wear.

Unfortunately for most people, this amount of clothing still substantially exceeds what is needed or necessary or even healthy to own.

For most people, there is still so much clothing left at this stage that they can’t even really get into their closet enough to choose some of it to wear.

It is time to come up with a standard, something to go by in determining what stays, and what goes. I think asking yes or no questions helps a lot.

mirror showing clothing for sale

Many people ask the question, “do I even like this?”

For me, I have to force myself to be honest as I ask and answer that question. I have a lot of expensive pieces in my closet that I only bought because I felt pressure from the salesperson or a helpful friend who came with me to buy clothing. Maybe it did look good…but I don’t ever really wear it because I don’t really like how it looks on me.

For whatever reason, many of us hang onto items that we don’t like, maybe because it feels like giving up to give it away. If you hate the idea of losing money, try and sell the item on Facebook or at a consignment shop. Or give it to a friend who can give it a new life.

If I honestly can’t answer “yes” to this question, the item goes on the OUT pile.

Many other people ask the question, “does this fit?”

Can you comfortably wear the clothing in your closet? Does it feel good on your body, or does it make you doubt yourself when you wearing it?

On the fence about a particular item? Try it on and see if you can see yourself wearing it in the next week or month. If you can’t, then you might want to nix it.

Again, be honest with yourself. This isn’t the time to think about whether or not it might fit tomorrow, in a month, or in a year. Does it fit now, and can I wear it now? If the answer is no, then it should go OUT.

Many other people ask the question, “have I worn this in the last year?”

You can make it one year, two years, three years, or more. But I find it to really help me decide whether to keep or toss certain things. I know many women yo-yo in their body shape and size, due to childbearing, nursing, dieting, aging.

We hate the idea of getting rid of perfectly good clothes that we will probably need when we lose weight again.

But for many of us…those clothes never get worn because we don’t get to that goal weight.

I find that those clothes I am hanging on to aren’t anything that I really want to wear when I finally get there, because the styles have moved on so much.

I am aggressive about getting rid of clothes, so I set my limit at one year. If I haven’t worn an item in the past year, I give it away.

I will say that I keep fancy dress clothes longer than one year, as they are SUPER expensive and I don’t have very many of them.

But other than that, I get rid of shorts, t-shirts, pants, and even shoes, if I have worn them in the past year.

This dramatically reduces the amount of clothing in my closet. And let’s face it….I wear my favorite clothing pieces over and over again because I love them, and I’ll probably continue to do so whether or not my closet is full or much, much emptier.

piles of clothes on tables for sale

Other ways to reduce closet clutter


I tend to look at how many I have of some thing overall. I wear lots of shirts, but the honest truth is that I could get by just fine if I had about half of the shirts I own. I rotate through them fairly frequently, but I really don’t wear any of them particularly much. If you just have a lot of a particular item, even if you have worn the items in the past year, you should consider reducing that pile to a more manageable size.

Is my closet full?

If you have a full closet already, this might be a sign that you need to keep working on getting rid of things. Make a reasonable amount of room available for your clothes, and then fill up that space as much as you can. Pick your favorite items, and then whatever doesn’t make it, doesn’t make it.

Do a log of what you wear

Still struggling to get rid of things? Try doing a log of what you actually wear in your closet. I probably only wear two pairs of jeans a week, and then I probably wear 10-12 pairs of leggings or yoga pants in that same week.

For that reason, I only have a few pairs of jeans, and I have a giant stack of leggings available to me.

It wouldn’t make any sense to have 20 pairs of jeans, since I would never wear them.

Writing down or cataloging what you are mostly wearing during a regular week can help you see the bulk of what you need in your closet, and help you jettison the rest.

Emotional attachments

Emotional attachments to items of clothing can make it difficult to get rid of them. Race shirts, souvenirs, wedding attire. I get it. You can save these things forever (and your family can donate them after your death) or you can take charge while you are living.

Instead of just throwing beloved items that are no longer needed away, try to find a good use or place for them. Give favorite t-shirts to the kids or to friends who will wear them, and make you smile when you see them. Maybe make a quilt, or other decor. Create a memory chest. Just do more with them than leave them in the closet, dusty and forgotten.

And that’s how we did it

I helped me mom get rid of 80% of her clothing by going through this method. It took us a couple of tries, to be honest, because she wasn’t honest with herself. About fit, about wanting it, about wearing it, about liking it.

But one thing she did love….the new clothes she could justify buying once her closet was mostly empty. And now she could look for up to date, fashionable clothes, instead of just wearing all of the same old stuff over and over again. And that made it easier to get rid of old clothes.

She is definitely more mindful of buying a lot of things (she’ll always be a clothes horse), but I doubt it will ever get that bad again.

Another thing she did also love, was finding a bunch of gems in her wardrobe that she had just plain forgotten about because she just had too much. She is wearing some clothes she hasn’t seen in months/years again, which have apparently gotten a new lease on life.

Do you have a problem with hoarding clothing? Let us know in the comments section below.

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