7 rolls of paper towels stacked on a table

Clutter math

Clutter isn’t always sentimental stuff you’re holding onto from the past. Sometimes it’s perfectly useful everyday items you unwittingly have way too many of.

Like eager Eagle Scouts, many of us are trying to win the world badge for preparedness. We stash away all sorts of unlikely things just waiting for the moment when someone idly says they need something and we can triumphantly produce it.

And we also store all kinds of very predictable things, so we never, ever don’t have them. Toilet paper, paper towels, enough napkins for a block party every week for the next year. Ten bottles of ketchup and thousands and thousands of rubber bands. Because you never know.

What if you did know? What if there was always going to be a way for you to get your hands on paper towels and bars of soap? What if it was okay to run out of something? Can you buy just enough regularly instead of branching out into your very own Costco?

It’ll take some organizing, of course. Let’s start small. Pick one item – paper towels – and find out how many rolls you have right now. It’ll be easier to see if you keep them all together but you may not be able to do that currently because there are so many.

So, count the rolls and a week from now, count them again. Every Saturday, count how many rolls of paper towels you have.

In a month’s time, compare the current number to the number you started with. How many rolls have you used this month?

Keep counting every Saturday and check in with the numbers at the end of another month.

Are you surprised by how many rolls you actually use? At your current rate, how long will it take to run out?

If you started with 39 rolls and you discover you use 3 a month, you don’t need to buy any more for a year. And you’ll have three extra just in case.

If you have 78 rolls, you’re good for two years.

Armed with this information, it’s time to make a commitment to yourself that you won’t buy any more paper towels for a year (or two) no matter how good the sale is.

Easier than it sounds, of course. We all love a bargain and a deal’s a deal. But it’s only a deal if the savings are so incredibly significant you deem them worth the inconvenience of storing dozens of rolls of paper towels somewhere they won’t get crushed or soaked for years.

If you have that many, odds are you’re storing them far from where you use them. Instead of a few rolls of paper towels in a spare cupboard in the laundry room, you have multiple packs of them in the basement or the garage. You have to schlep out there to get them, and so you often end up shoving random rolls in odd places throughout your house to save the trek to the garage. And then you forget where you hid them.

Sometimes it seems easier just to pick up another package when you’re at the store and so the stash of paper towels continues to grow and contribute to that closed in feeling we get when there’s just too much stuff in our space.

And all the while it feels like we’re frugal and smart, but the side effects are clutter and confusion.

If you stop buying and start using up your stores, you’re going to get some very useful information on how much feels like enough to you. Do you panic when you’re down to the last six rolls or does the uneasiness set in when there are only sixteen left? That tells you how often you need to put paper towels on the list. There’ll be no more anxious guessing about how much is enough because you’ve collected the data.

And if the unthinkable happens and you have to mop up huge amounts of water and you go through all the ones you have, the store’s right there. There’ll be a sale, there always is. We live in a land of plenty and we have the luxury of deciding we have enough because we know there’s more available to us. Take advantage of that fact to quit overbuying and stockpiling, to treat your home as a sanctuary not a warehouse.

READ MORE >>> How to declutter and organize

by Lucy Kelly


  1. When I lived alone in my own apartment for the first time I went to Costco and bought herbs. I got what I thought was an amazing deal — a huge (I think gallon size!) plastic jug of oregano and one of basil for some very low price.

    I kept it for years. I got married; we moved to England. We actually brought the herbs with us in a box that we shipped. In England we had a fresh basil plant that thrived in our window sill, and for some reason we still kept the jug of dry basil, as well as the rosemary. Two yrs later, we packed up to return to the states and finally, finally! let the herbs go.

    I guess if I had to explain why I bought it in the first place, I’d say that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

  2. I have stuck a sheet of paper on the door of my store, a list of all provisions etc. Every time I use up something I cross it out on the list. When I buy something I add it there. I just have to check that list before a trip to the market. Well, I still land up buying unnecessary stuff once in a while, but it’s now much rarer.


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