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. Diane says

    My best advice would be, if you don’t wear it, let it go. Donate it if it’s in good shape, toss if not.

    And I helped a friend organize her closet once. After she was done purging the old clothes, etc, we measured everything to figure out how many inches of hanging space she needed, how many shelves, boxes, drawers, etc.

    Then we measured the closet and went to the Container Store and bought a closet organizing system. It was amazing how much that dinky closet could actually hold, in a tidy way, with the space being used to maximum efficiency to hold only the items she really uses.

  2. Sarah says

    Sherry, I identify with you, I am a major purger! Every time school would be out for both Christmas and Summer Break I would plan the first week to go through my closet, bookshelf, desk, etc… and get rid of things I don’t need from the past 6 months. I have a medium size closet/dresser so I am able to store a lot more clothes than you can. I guess a big question on my mind and I am sure other women think this too (and it may be too personal) but how often do you wear the same thing/need to do laundry?

    • says

      Hey Sarah,

      We usually do adult laundry about once every two weeks or so (Clara’s dipes and clothes get laundered a bit more frequently since she goes through many of them a day) and I’m totally not ashamed to admit that I definitely wear jeans and tees and tanks a cardigans a few times each before tossing them in the hamper (layering is my thing lately, and I find a get more looks from fewer items of clothing that way). Hope it helps!


  3. says

    I love the quotes! I must admit that I have too much stuff in my closets. Being a single homeowner, I have the privilege of having free reign over both closets in my bedroom. I turned one into an accessory closet housing dresser and all of my handbags, shoes, jewelry, perfumes etc. With that said I have recently been on a purging spree. I’m just really sick of having a lot of stuff around me. I do sell some things on ebay and most of it I donate to a womens shelter. I have 4 bags of things to donate and I feel lighter already. Purging really does make you feel good.

  4. Amy in PA says

    I only purchase items that I have to talk myself out of buying – not things that I have to talk myself in to buying.

    Makes everything so much easier and I end up feeling great with everything I own!!

  5. says

    I am a total freak about organization living with a husband who is oblivious to untidiness…talk about a recipe for disaster! Luckily I can breathe in and out a time or two and just ask him to tidy up and he obliges. I have found that cutting down on things we don’t need makes it much easier for us to not kill each other. I like to put some kind of marker on the rod in the closet in each of our sections. Then, when I hang up our laundry, I always hang it on the other side of the marker and every 3-6 months or so I go through the clothes on the “old” side of the marker and determine why they weren’t worn in that time period. If it is because they are for special occasions like formal weddings or dinners, I may keep it if I haven’t had occasion to wear it. If the reason is because it’s a seasonal piece, I’ll keep it. If I just don’t like it anymore, or it doesn’t fit or isn’t comfortable I take it out and put it in a bag and it either goes to Goodwill, Latin American Missions at my church or a family in need if I know of one. Same goes for jewelry, shoes, clothes in dresser drawers, etc.

  6. says

    YES! Purging feels so, so good.

    Can’t read through all the comments right now, so sorry if these are repeats:

    1. A favorite quote in our family: “You can still go broke saving money.” (Referring of course to buying a bunch of stuff on sale, not putting money in a savings account.)

    2. If you have a hard time donating clothes, organize a clothing swap among your girlfriends first. You get the satisfaction of knowing that your cute pieces that just don’t work for YOU anymore will work for someone you love. Then send all of the remainders to Goodwill/your thrift store of choice. The event will motivate you AND your friends to purge; you might get something cool out of it; and you never have to feel pressured to trade evenly. I usually go just to get rid of stuff; only occasionally do I bring anything home.

    3. And for hanging space: I try to pair cardigans (my personal favorite item of clothing) with something they are worn on top of, either a dress or a shirt. That way I’m only taking up one hanger. It makes a difference if you’re big on layering.

  7. Casey says

    Thanks for the post. Coming from a Texas-sized walk-in closet to sharing a small closet with the hubs in our Boston nest, I can totally relate to keeping things simple and organized. But I have to admit, I am a bin freak. An easy way for me to get rid of clothes/shoes is by storing the ones I don’t wear but can’t yet part with in a small bin and stashing it under the bed for a few months. If I don’t miss the clothes (which I usually never do) by the start of the next season, I can easy carry the bin to a consignment shop or donate to charity.

  8. Katie says

    Thank you for this post! Honestly, I have thought this way forever, but never actually initiate it. I have a serious overflowing closet problem. If I showed you a picture of my closet your jaw would literally drop to the floor. It’s horrible. I am going to purge as soon as I have the next free minute!!!

  9. Christin says

    GREAT POST! I’ve been getting better at purging stuff over the years, but I can still improve. This is a huge help and motivator – thanks!

  10. says

    I hear you Sherry on the organization issue. I too love a “everything in it’s place” home.
    However I have an issue when being “minimal” with my clothing.

    See not only do I have a wardrobe for “work” and “play” but I also have to keep around clothes for barnwork on the family farm and getting down and dirty so to speak. Basically I wear two sets of clothes everyday. Work, then farm.
    so when my “nicer” clothes get a stain, or a rip, or I don’t LOVE it – they get relegated to barn wear (because who cares what’s flattering when your knee deep in mucking a horse stall).
    It’s hard to justify donating/etc. when I know I can wear it to the farm. Things only seem to get tossed from my wardrobe when they are so threadbare I can barely get them on.
    I think I might just need to get tougher on myself and not save every item for the “barn pile”….it’s oh so hard though!

  11. says

    Sherry, I’m a minimialist purge freak too!!! I love purging out my closet and then secretly purging out my husband’s side of the closet. In my area there are big clothes and shoes donation bins outside of Home Depot and Walmart stores, so convienent! I love to fill up a big gargage bag of clothes and drop them off on my way in to Homie-D’s. Easy peasy!

  12. says

    I used to go through our closet about once a month. These days I do it seasonally. So twice a year..when I switch to my spring/summer clothes and then fall/winter clothes (because for clothes I only have 2 seasons, LOL).

  13. says

    Ok, so I’m a bit weird myself. I admit that I can name a half dozen items hanging in my closet right now that I could get rid of but I hold on to them so my closet looks fuller! Weird I know but especially since I’ve been a SAHM, I just don’t need all the dresser stuff I wore to work. All my clothes are “paint” clothes now and I wouldn’t have it any other way! :)

  14. Alicia says

    They had something on the Today show this morning about people who only wear 6 pieces of clothing. Jean Chatzsky did this for a whole month and you could not tell that she didn’t have on something different every time they showed her! She did a lot of layering and accessorizing. It really got me thinking about what I could do with my maternity wardrobe because I really don’t want to buy a whole lot. My husband and I clean out our closets regularly. We get rid of stuff that we haven’t worn in the last year. We enjoy not having the clutter too. Great post, Sherry!

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