Email Answer: How To Pare Down & Organize Your Closet

Q: My dilemma is closets! I have two very small closets in my bedroom and I can’t seem to get a handle on keeping them organized and easy to use since they feel like they’re stuffed within an inch of their life! I know you guys are great at living with less, simplifying, and organizing in general- so I thought maybe you could share some encouragement when it comes to paring things down and choosing what to keep? Deep down I know there’s a lot of extra stuff that I don’t need that’s taking up some much needed space, but I have a hard time letting things go for fear that I’ll want them again once they’re gone. Any tips for scaling back and keeping only what I need so I can regain control of my closets again? – Leslie

A: Wouldn’t you just love one of those boutique closets? I admit it, I totally have closet envy. I look at all those magazine spreads with celebrities who have a whole wall of shelves dedicated to bags and a spare 50 square feet for an ottoman in the middle of the room and I melt. And it’s not because of the primo logos on their plethora of purses or the luxe labels on their bevy of ball gowns. I’m just a freak for organization, and the idea that all of their insanely abundant items have a distinct spot to sit (or hang) gets me all hot and bothered.

It’s no secret we’re big subscribers to the “a place for everything and everything in it’s place” school of organization. Which is probably why I do my best to keep my closet super edited and pared down in the interest of easily being able to a) see everything that I own and b) toss on an effortless ensemble that I know and love (instead of stuffing the ol’ Ikea wardrobe to the gills with crap that I never wear).

But when people write to me to ask how the heck I only have a few pairs of jeans and a small collection of clothes (read more about our closets here) it’s actually really hard to explain my minimalist ways. I just don’t buy a lot of stuff. And when I notice that I don’t wear something anymore (because it’s damaged, unflattering, or just too worn) I either repair it, consign it, or donate it so I can free up that space for something truly deserving of the square footage. Here’s what the bed looks like when John and I are in the middle of a pairing down spree:

I just go through everything and remove anything that I don’t love (whether it has just gotten too worn, doesn’t quite fit anymore, has a stain, is something I never actually wear, etc). It’s probably rooted in the fact that I lived in NYC in one of those closet-sized studios and literally didn’t have any room to amass even one extraneous item of clothing. Coupled with the fact that I’m a cheap-o (and proud of it) that probably explains how I can easily walk away from things that might look nice but aren’t necessary. But I can easily see how that’s hard to swallow for someone who doesn’t find it quite as easy to let things go (or pass up clearance clothing in the first place). So when I came across this quote in The Lucky Shopping Manual (I’ve had a copy for over five years and I love to flip through it) I realized it perfectly explained my philosophy in a way that I couldn’t:

If a piece doesn’t work, look at it this way: You paid for it once in cash, and now you’re paying for it in valuable closet space. If it’s not right for you, bite the bullet and let it go.

Doesn’t that make perfect sense? If an item of clothing doesn’t fit, is out of date, never makes it out of your closet, looks shaggy or worn, or isn’t flattering just ask yourself if it’s worth paying for again and again in square footage. Or if you’d rather free up the space to be able to better see the items of clothing that you love to wear (and make room for a few more things that will give you more of a return when it comes to sacrificing that closet space).

And as for a tip to keep from amassing too many items that you’ll later regret (or just never wear) this quote (also from The Lucky Shopping Manual) might help:

Don’t buy anything on sale that you wouldn’t consider at full price.

It’s easy to get caught up in how much you’re saving when you find something that’s marked down. But if you don’t need it or it doesn’t fit you well then you’re not saving anything. You’re spending hard earned money on something that will just sit in your closet and take up space. Inspiring right? Maybe just to me.

Anyway, here are some other gems from the book that I thought I’d pass along:

  • “If you’re unsure about a big ticket item, put it on hold for 24 hours and think it over.”
  • “Don’t buy anything that doesn’t flatter you or isn’t comfortable, no matter how of-the-moment it is.”
  • “If you have to talk yourself into a purchase in the dressing room, pass on it.”
  • “If there’s nothing in your closet to wear with it, skip it.”
  • “Never purchase something just because it looks good on someone else.”
  • “Don’t save a pair of jeans for that anticipated five-pound weight loss. Owning them is bad for your psyche. If the time comes when you drop a size, chances are you won’t hesitate to run out and buy a new pair”
  • “If a stain didn’t come out at the cleaners or when you toiled over it in the sink it’s permanent. Time to let it go.” <- or turn it into painting clothing like we’ve been known to do
  • “If we kept every item of clothing with a memory attached , we’d be buried in clothes.”
  • “Ask yourself if each item of clothing in your closet: 1) flatters your shape, 2) fits perfectly or is fixable, 3) is the right color for you, 4) has been worn in the last two years – only things that get four yesses should stay.”

I might be a sick individual but I actually love going through my clothing (and even jewelry and shoes) to see what I can skim down and consign or donate.

Try not to think about paring down & simplifying as actions that result in losing things. Instead, focus on everything that you’re gaining! More space. A no-brainer wardrobe that’s simplified, flattering, and easy to toss on. Money (for everything that you consign, eBay, or sell in a garage sale). And time (no more rooting through piles of stuff to find that elusive tank top). I seriously get a rush when I can look into my closet and proclaim “every single thing in there is something I love.”

But enough about me, what do you guys do about closet upkeep? Do you pare things down once a year? Never get rid of a stitch of clothing? Ebay things and buy new stuff? Wear the same outfit every day? Feel free to share any and all tips for Leslie and anyone else who may find themselves in a similar predicament!

Psst- Looking for more info about our closets? Check out this post and this post. And here’s a general post about keeping things simple. Oh and if you’re looking to learn how we modified two inexpensive Ikea wardrobes to create bedside built ins, check out this post for the deets.


  1. Becky says

    This post is great, I love it! I really enjoy going through my closet and taking out the things I don’t wear or like anymore. I heard a quote in a movie once that when buying clothes, you will love it most when you are in the store. If you don’t absolutely love it in the store, you will love it even less when you bring it home! This is my motto when shopping, and it really helps prevent having a closet full of clothes that I don’t want to wear!

  2. Cassidy says

    Thanks for sharing all those quotes! Definitely empowering, especially for someone (like me) inclined to accrue “stuff.”

    Here’s another quip I read on an ING billboard a few months ago: “There’s no such thing as saver’s remorse.” That one has saved me a couple bones, for sure.

    Love your blog — just bought my first home and I reference your archives daily!

  3. Caitlin says

    My newest trick to help me decided if I want to “let it go” or not is to take the clothes I haven’t worn (a year or more is a pretty good mark) and put them in a bag. Next time I clean my closet, it’s easier to see that I don’t wear those clothes — they’re not hanging in my closet, just waiting for an opportunity.

  4. Kristi says

    I love this post! I am a HUGE organization freak and I love your idea of having less “un-used” clothes and more closet space for the “used” clothes. One way I organize my closet is by ROY G BIV color coordinating. It makes it easier for me to decide what to wear as some days I don’t feel like wearing a certain color! I also purge things every season…. If I haven’t worn it in 2 seasons, then it’s time to let that piece go and make room for something I will wear.

  5. says

    Oh man! My closet was my nemesis!! I actually just posted our big closet makeover a few days ago on my blog….it was my dirty little secret. It is amazing how an organized closet can make me so happy! I have three huge bags of clothes to donate and that makes me even happier!

  6. Jules says

    My high school math teacher taught me a great philosophy for what to buy and what to pass on. For things like clothes and purses- don’t buy it the first time you see it. If you still remember it and like it after a week, go back and buy it. If it slipped your mind as soon as you left the store, then you didn’t like it enough to spend a dime. For larger purchases, you can take up to 3 months thinking about something! Of course, there are the times, like buying a house, that you know it has that “it” factor for you, and you have to leap. Right Sherry?

  7. Natalie says

    City living definitely helps! The fact that we’ve moved three times in 4 years, has helped me pare down my wardrobe big time (every move comes with a loaded down trip to Goodwill!).

    I also really like organizing my closet my type and color (pants, dresses and skirts, tops). It makes finding an outfit easier, and it also helps me take inventory of what I have. For example: I have a HUGE red/pink section of tops, but not many greens or yellows. It helps to prioritize those “gotta have it!” items while shopping!

  8. says

    We are slowly paring down the *entire house* – and although my closet is probably last, it’s going to be the sweet reward at the end! I can’t wait to pare down and fill it with only the things that I love!
    I really appreciate the ‘4 questions’ approach – I’ll be coming back to this post!

  9. Kathy Z says

    I used to hang everything in my closet because I could see everything so easily.
    When I watched this video on how to organize drawers and it changed my life. Well, that might be a slight exageration, but it is awesome.
    Part of me loves folding and putting away laundry now. And I can always easily see what’s in the drawers. :)

  10. says

    Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been meaning to go through my closet, clean behind everything, and par it down for quite a while. You just inspired me to get started like NOW. I’m excited about how it’s going to look afterwards already.

  11. says

    My husband and I are getting ready for Baby #1, due in early 2011, and finding space in our little (but so comfortable and cute!) apartment is tough – especially because we only have ONE closet (we don’t count the under-stairs storage or the closet in the bathroom filled with a washer and dryer). Our project this month? Take out EVERYTHING from our closet that we haven’t worn in a while, go through our under stairs storage and remove stuff we haven’t even remembered we had there, and place it all in some plastic totes with a “removal date” (approx 1 – 2 months in the future) on them. If we don’t go back and dig through to find something in that holding period, we are taking everything to GoodWill! No ifs, ands, or buts! And Baby will actually have some space for all their stuff!!!

  12. Tori says

    I love love love getting rid of “stuff” and decluttering. A great shopping tip I’ve heard (on Oprah maybe?) is to only buy something if you love it more than everything currently in your closet.

    Also, realize that being a keeper of things is a mental issue. Do you love the item or the memories attached to it? Keep your memories; lose the stuff. It’s freeing.

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