The De-Cluttering, Packing, & Unpacking Rules I Followed For Moving to NYC

As of this month, I no longer live in New Jersey. For the first time in my almost 28 years on this earth, I've moved out of the Garden State. I could get really sappy about this and wax poetic about what that all means, but this isn't the post for that.

This is a post about organizing.

Some key details you'll need to know:

1. I have lived in a studio apartment by myself for the last two and a half years, and like to consider myself minimalish.
2. I moved in with my boyfriend, and all of the stuff that comes with him.
3. New York City apartments are tiny, oddly shaped, notoriously low on closet space, and just quirky in lots of ways. Unless you're a millionaire, which we are not.
4. I enjoy organizing a really weird amount.

So in keeping with those four things, I had to make our new life and living arrangement work. It was hard. And it started looooong before moving day. Add in the fact that I only got to see the place once before moving in, because I live a state away and David had been traveling for work, and it was a cluster of outrageous proportions.

But the deed has been done, and as soon as I can get around to it I will be sharing posts of the new home, if you guys would like to see. But in the meantime, I wanted to share some of the thought processes and techniques that helped me tackle the challenge...
1. Decide what is functional and what is emotional, and sort/toss/store accordingly.
I try to avoid keeping things JUST for memory's sake as best I can, at least things that take up any significant space. I have a photo box of mementos I have no intention of ever tossing—concert tickets, a blanket square, little things like that—and a small collection of things that were once functional, and are now mementos. In this move, I decided I would allow myself one long underbed box of things to keep because it would break my heart to toss them, but that I know are not used in their intended function anymore. Items in that box include old running shoes (my first and second half marathon pair, and my first marathon pair), a few articles of clothing I don't wear but were gifted or made for me, my old ballet shoes, and books I read and wore out as a child. These things don't belong in my wardrobe, shoe rack, or bookcase, where they would take up important functional space.

Some people would advise that all these things be tossed, as they don't serve a practical function in my life anymore. But I think reminders of love and happiness ARE practical and functional in their own way. When I feel like the world is collapsing, looking around at a near-empty apartment won't feed my soul. Seeing, touching, feeling, sensing reminders of all the good things in life will. But I think it's important to not go overboard, and keep only what truly cannot be replaced or reminders that photos and journal entries won't do justice to.

2. The Rule of 20.
I believe I first found this rule via Cait Flanders who mentioned it came from The Minimalists, but I've lost track. The rule is basically this: If it's a "just in case" item that can be replaced for under $20 and in under 20 minutes, and you've been hanging onto it and not using it, it goes. Goodbye, random kitchen tools I don't actually need, or whose job can be done just as well with another tool or device. So long, extra ANYTHING.

3. Think about who you really, TRULY are, and not who you wish you could be.
This is the hardest one for most of us, isn't it? I mean, who among us wouldn't love to read more, cook healthier foods at home, dress like we have our lives together, and start wearing hair pieces (or whatever)? I've kept things in my apartment for YEARS because I thought I could will myself into becoming the person who utilizes them. And even when they're front and center, I find ways to justify letting cobwebs grow over them. If you're holding onto your yoga mat in hopes of one day walking into a studio, purchasing a monthly unlimited package, and becoming a different person in one fell swoop, it isn't going to happen until you decide and commit. That yoga mat has become a victim of the Rule of 20. Get rid of it, or give yourself 30 committed days with a plan to make it happen. If you don't use that mat in 30 days, it's time to toss it consider cycling or rock climbing instead.

4. Bring all organizing tools with, but free them of their previous jobs.
I have spent probably hundreds of dollars in my lifetime on organizing tools: acrylic and plastic drawers of all sizes, cloth bins, racks, shelving, separators, door organizers/hooks, you name it. I used to be a total idiot because I would throw out a bin or whatever when I was done using it (having found a different storage solution or no longer needing the item's contents), only to go ahead and replace it with an almost identical one somewhere down the road. I know this sounds like it contradicts rule #2, but I find these items to be the exception. Since I know these things will always eventually find a purpose, and most of them collapse/fold up to be unobstructive when not in use, I think it's safe to hold onto the things, even if they're being given a time-out. If you're like me, nothing stays where it is for too long as the sorting/rearranging bug takes hold every couple of months.

But there's a tag-along to this rule of non-trashing: When moving places, don't insist on the same organization as you had in your old place. The cloth bin I used to keep t-shirts in was made obsolete by the extra shelving I had in the new place, but that bin went to hold items I used to be able to keep on hooks. Bathrooms and kitchens are, I find, the most common rooms that need an organization system overhaul upon moving, because you just can't assume the layout, depth of cabinets, amount of shelves, and surface area will match from place to place. It almost always doesn't, especially when we're talking about apartments and older constructions. Let go of the perfectly-organized bathroom cabinet you had before and open your heart to new storage systems. (Dramatic? Not to me.)

5. Unpack first. Cull second. Organize last.
As I said, I tossed a TON of stuff in the weeks and months leading up to the move. And again, I go through this process pretty often as it is. There is always something that a little more time reveals you have no legitimate reason to keep. Despite this, the unpacking process should give way to, yes, another declutter. Even after my big pre-move purge, I was absolutely SHOCKED by how many boxes and bags there were left to move and items left to find a place for. And the fact that I couldn't think of everything filling each of those boxes and bags proved that I had too much stuff. I don't want my stuff to own me, cost me more than it has to, or dictate how I arrange and enjoy my home. And I enjoy having a small home. So in everything came, and then back out another 10-20% of it went.

Decluttering is hard. I know. And I know living with less (even though I hardly live with less, as compared to "real" minimalists) isn't for everyone. I happen to be a person who is happier with less stuff, because I'm very affected by my environment. Chaos and lack of order in my physical space gives me that same feeling in my mental and emotional space. So simplifying my belongings is an easy choice, but still not an easy process. In the end, it comes down to what you prefer to prioritize, and how you want to live. These five rules are some of the ways I make the process just a little easier.

Are you a "get rid of all the things" person, or a "one more couldn't hurt" type? If you have any favorite techniques for deciding what you keep and what you toss, I'd love to hear them!


  1. Well you know I love a good decluttering post :) congrats on the paring down you did, it really is a difficult and time consuming process, no matter how much stuff you had to begin with. I love all your tips, I totally agree. I don't keep any sentimental things but I know I'm a minority there. I'll take pictures of it and then let it go because the anxiety from the clutter of it outweighs any sentimental joy it brings me, if that makes sense. Can't wait to see your apartment!

  2. I am SO bad about holding on to things just in case. When I cleaned out my desk at my office, I found partially used plastic silverware packets (like I pulled out the fork but the spoon and knife were in plastic, unused). I kept them. For my husband's BBQ stuff, we always need tasting spoons and I didn't want to throw away literally .02. I have so many things in my house that I justify keeping. It is overwhelming because when I do have legitimate storage needs, there's no room to store things anymore. But like, what do you do with a wedding dress or your husband's guitars that he no longer plays? I have a closet that would love to know... And yes, I would love apartment pics when you're ready to share!

  3. i love that you kept old running shoes :) i definitely have things like that, and i agree. they are functional in their own way. the rule of 20 is brilliant! i am really looking forward to being able to organise properly in our new house (when we find one) and i want to buy all the things now but am holding off until i know exactly what i need. i know i will find uses for racks and bins and acrylic drawers and stuff, but still. i am craving a hardcore decluttering purge but most everything is currently in boxes. is it weird i want to take a day off and unpack everything, throw stuff out and reorganise? i like to do it alone, KC gets in the way haha. but i am half and half - get rid of all the things! but one more couldn't hurt. like, i have 30+ copies of pride and prejudice, what is wrong with me? but i can't get rid of a single one (can, but won't). but we have the bare minimum of all kitchen stuff, including appliances and utensils. but i have 15 or so of the exact same cami because i wear one every day to work... 5 days a week. that's 3 weeks worth of camis, but they wear out fast and i sometimes wear them for 'fun' so i like to have spares. i know i'll wear them and they don't take up a lot of space. so, yeah. i'm definitely not a minimalist, i've always thought of myself as minimalish as well - mainly because we had a 'small' house compared to other people, but compared to other other people it's probably huge. so i like the ish lol. for me with getting rid of things, clothes are the hardest - so i put things in boxes and bags, stick them in a corner and a few months later when i haven't gone looking for anything, i get rid of it all. i know some people don't like to hold on to things for that long, but for clothes it works for me.

  4. I love this post. I really want to do a big decluttering/spring cleaning here in a few weeks and I'm definitely going to be using a few of these tips!!

  5. This is helpful! Girl, I've had to move (whether it be to a different dorm or building, etc.) EVERY YEAR of my life since I was 18. UGH. Next year I'll be moving into a new apartment (AGAIN) and these tips will come in handy! xo

  6. I love Cait. She's so sweet. I met her through personal finance blogging YEARS ago and it makes me smile when I see non-PF people reference her.

    I used #1 extensively when we moved 3 years ago. We still have a boxes of crap but that's more from Erica outgrowing things we had to move with than anything else.

  7. I love the 20 rule and I am going to apply that while I go through our spare room/my office to get rid of things this weekend! I sometimes have a heard time letting go of things because I tell myself I may need it one day. I am the worst with clothes and that thought process. I think that moving in to a new space can be so fun and inspiring though, like a blank sheet! I hope you are settling well!

  8. I love that 20 rule!! I am like you when it comes to decluttering and prepping for moves, but I am known for trekking along random items I don't need every now and again. Whenever we move back to the US, I plan to toss/donate anything that is not imperative any longer. Great post, friend! xo

  9. I need to apply the rule of 20 to my kitchen. I have too many utensils I don't need.

  10. I love this post; there are some great tips here. I love the 20 rule!! I'd never heard of that but I think it would really help me to keep that in mind while decluttering my kitchen, so thank you!! I can't wait to see pictures of the new place sometime when you are all settled in :D

  11. Where has that 20 rule been all of my life? I'm usually pretty good at tossing stuff, but I definitely fall victim to the "but what if we need it?" question, and it's usually over stuff that could be easily replaced now that I think about it. My parents are moving so I've been getting a lot of questions over whether or not I want certain things and it's so hard for me to find a balance between keeping useful things vs things that have an emotional attachment. I can't wait to see more of your new space-- it sounds like you did an amazing job with the purging and organizing. Is David pretty similar to you in terms of what to keep vs what to toss?

  12. Well that's a throwback. I remember reading Cait Flanders back when I first got into blogging! Hers and a bunch of other personal finance blogs. Crazy! I've never heard of the Rule of 20 but I like it! I almost always try to find a way to repurpose organizing tools, but that's a great tip! My biggest issue is with holding on to paper. Like old notebooks from college. I'm not sure why but I don't want to toss them.


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