Packrat conundrum
December 12, 2006 3:08 PM   Subscribe

Moving in together: how do you deal with a packrat (and not much storage space)?

My girlfriend and I are gradually approaching the single-apartment concept and the issue of how to combine our worldly possessions looms. Any advice?

other factors:
- i hate having extra crap cluttering up my apartment while she likes to hold onto things
- she has at least 3 - 4 times as much stuff as me (clothing, then books, toys, misc)
- we are both strong willed
- our apartment (nyc) will have limited storage space

My first idea was "we have to have same levels of stuff" which made her laugh. I know that moving in together is all about compromise and learning to accept things, but how do we (or at least, I) approach this?

Thanks, AskMeFi!
posted by cgs to Human Relations (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Promote it as generating money when selling stuff on eBay? I also live with a PackRat and I found that he is okay if he is given space to be a PR in. For example, closets are 50/50, and he has to choose what to keep.
posted by k8t at 3:11 PM on December 12, 2006

If you are keeping things because you don't want to forget the events associated with them, why not just take a picture of it and store on your computer? This won't work with everything, but you'd be surprised how much stuff a packrat can get rid of by taking a few pictures and then throwing the useless item out.
posted by maxpower at 3:22 PM on December 12, 2006

You'll never have equal levels of stuff.

Seconding the ebay idea. Offer to help her weed through the clothes, toys and books she might be able to sell through ebay. Whatever she can't sell, but still wants to get rid of, maybe consider donating (especially the clothing). The stuff she can't part with or actively uses, consider some of those alternative storage solutions as far as maximizing under furniture space, etc. Your local Bed Bath and Beyond type of store should be of some help in the right direction.
posted by jerseygirl at 3:24 PM on December 12, 2006

rent a storage unit?
posted by Sassyfras at 3:36 PM on December 12, 2006

If you make her get rid of her stuff she'll only find more stuff. I tell you this from bitter experience, my bf is hopeless. A half empty shelf or closet is just an invitation to get something to fill it up. A six bottle wine rack with only 4 bottles? Run to the store!

My suggestion to you is to invest in some good closet organiser things and a lot of shelves and dressers. Hopefully your SO will at least be fairly neat about putting things away but if not several years of patiently reminding him/her will help. A bit.
posted by fshgrl at 3:41 PM on December 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

On the bright side come the Apocalypse we are SET. We have enough alcohol and food for months and should the end of the world require the use of surfboards, snowshoes, 12 year old undergraduate college papers or 14 extra pillows we've got them!

And no we don't live in a huge house with a basement. Thank God or we'd have even more stuff.
posted by fshgrl at 3:43 PM on December 12, 2006

You need to buy more stuff so that you can be "even."

I'm kidding, of course, but I think it's important to point out that just because you're more spartan about your stuff-keeping habits, that doesn't mean that your habits are right and that hers should change. She likes her stuff. That's why she keeps it. And your desire for an uncluttered space, great as that looks in design magazines, is not better or more important than her desire to be surrounded by objects she loves. This is not a flaw in her that you need to fix; it's a potential dispute in your relationship that you both need to learn to live with.

That being said, I think that the way to approach this is for you both to choose objects or design elements that are most important to you to incorporate into your decor. Yes, that may mean more clutter than you'd like, but it will probably also mean more whitespace than she'd like. I also think that it would be ideal if you could find an apartment in which you can each have your own space to fill--or not--as you see fit. Separate offices, perhaps?

Finally, you can get really nice bookcases that will allow her to keep her book collection and display knicknacks without having her stuff underfoot all the time. Maybe make a compromise that she gets to keep all of her books, but you get to arrange them on the shelves in a way that seems aesthetically pleasing to you. Ikea has some good stuff, or you may want to go with built-ins, depending on your budget.

Do not pressure her into giving away or selling objects she likes. I still hold a grudge against an ex-boyfriend who made me discard 6 boxes of books and assorted knicknacks when we moved in together, because I miss those books and want them back. Think of her stuff as a part of her quirky personality that you love, and put up with the parts you don't like, just as I'm sure she puts up with the things that annoy her about you.
posted by decathecting at 3:49 PM on December 12, 2006 [6 favorites]

Oh, and you can always fit more storage furniture into an NYC apartment than you think you can. Look for shallow bookcases that can be put behind the couch, the TV, etc. Set aside space for a wardrobe or some other large, closed storage piece for clothing. Be prepared to rotate your wardrobe by season, storing out of season clothes under the bed (you can get risers to make the bed higher to give you more space underneath). I lived in a 10x13 studio for two years, and when I moved out, I packed 30 boxes of books and a coffin sized duffel bag full of clothes. And the apartment was darned pretty, if I do say so myself. The more clutter you can get off of surfaces and onto vertical wallspace, the less cramped it will feel.
posted by decathecting at 4:19 PM on December 12, 2006

This MIGHT be a dealbreaker, after all somethings just don't mix, especially if you're both strong willed (i.e. stubborn)

But hopefully not.

Give each other certain spaces that the person can do anything with. For instance, she can have that side of the bedroom, to clutter as she pleases and you can have your side to do as you please. But you'll both have to agree to this obviously. And this won't work for all the sace, some, if not most, will have to common, but it'll help if you each have some of your own space.

She might also need a storage unit.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:23 PM on December 12, 2006

Put small (tasteful) signs that are about 1/2" x 2" that say something like "Clutter is a choice." This is a reminder, for the both of you, that, well, all the stuff in our lives is a choice, not a state of the world that can't be altered. My wife and I did this about four months ago. The signs are inconspicuous and aren't noticed by casual guests. They just remind us to toss stuff that isn't helping make our lives better. Is it broken? Is it worn out? Is it hopelessly out of style? Will it never be hung up? Will I only need this item in the weirdest of circumstances (i.e., do you really need two crockpots? Sure, but only in a zany world where I need to make chili for 20 people... OUT)?

This is not immediate, but instead a long term thing. It's fun to drop something you've had for years in the trash and be able to say "Clutter is a choice," and smile knowlingly that your life will be better for it and not worse.

NOTE: This only works for some people. I am not responsible for you breaking up with your GF over something so silly as stuff. You should marry her first perhaps befoere starting on this.
posted by zpousman at 4:23 PM on December 12, 2006

Another policy that me and my wife try to have (but only I do it... she only laughs in my face about it) is: If you buy something, you must get rid of something. This works best for clothes. If you buy a new pair of pants, you need to get rid of a pair of pants. If you buy shoes, you need to get rid of some.

This is a good rule, but it's very hard to implement.

This would ensure that your pile of stuff does not grow, even if it changes (i.e., you grow up / your style changes).

Oh, and you can never throw away books, or even give them away or donate them. That's just silly
posted by zpousman at 4:33 PM on December 12, 2006

My ex- drove me nuts. Never got better. She'd throw out a box's worth of stuff (out of 30 or so) and be very proud of herself. The best thing to do is to just shove it all somewhere out of the way. It's not like she really needs it.
posted by callmejay at 4:35 PM on December 12, 2006

For her, some articles from Digs Magazine: For you:
I am more of a packrat than my boyfriend. He is rather minimalist. However, I think this might have something to do with our respective hobbies. He plays pool, does geeky computer stuff, and enjoys photography. So, he has a pool cue, a computer, and a camera. I crochet, sew, and read. So I have a large assortment of wool, needles, material, a sewing machine, pattern books, a whole library of fiction and non-fiction and reference books, etc. My hobbies just require more stuff.

And I'm a packrat. I'm trying to change, but it's a lifelong family-ingrained way of doing things.

Anyways, I would consider the hobby thing, because it might be a factor, and then it's not so much an issue that she's a slob and you're fabulous, you're just into different things.

Oh, and if you can get a mischievous cat who believes that every object is a toy that must be KILLED, you won't even need to remind her to put her stuff away. This guy is slowly reforming me.
posted by heatherann at 4:56 PM on December 12, 2006

I'm very minimalist as well, but you really can't control another person's packrat mentality. If they're happy, and not going into debt to buy this stuff, you need to be okay with it. I would negotiate a space, your work area, which she can't put anything into - that you get to keep as minimal as you like.

If money's a problem, though, it's a whole different story.
posted by fcain at 5:13 PM on December 12, 2006

This is a constant problem with us — I am a neat freak and my husband hoards. He also leaves things out all over the place, which is an issue too because I'm forgetful, so things have to go in their proper spot or else they get lost forever.

When I moved into his house, I had to tell him that if he wanted me there, he had to make room for me. this meant throwing out hundreds of old magazines he'd saved because "he might need them someday" but he hadn't opened in decades, literally.

Now, I find it works best for me to simply organize his things for him. I don't ever throw anything out, and I always put it away in such a way that he can find it again when he needs it. I'm not too please about picking up after him all the time but it's the system that works best for both of us and keeps us both happy.
posted by Brittanie at 6:21 PM on December 12, 2006

OK, here's the packrat's perspective:

You can take away my stuff, but you can't take away my freedom!

Give me a place to be pack-ratty, I'm going to do it whether you like it or not, so give me boundaries to work with. Give me a designated place to pile up crap and no more. Once that space is full, I must sort and clear or cease and decist. In return I will promise not to pile up crap elsewhere. Give me a room or a closet a tabletop or some other mutually acceptable space with which to let myself be me.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:14 PM on December 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Seconding the digital camera.

The amount of crap I've been able to let go of by taking its picture would fill several closets.

Example: Stuffed animals. I had a friend that would give me every random bear he saw in a supermarket, 7-11, freeway offramp... very sweet but...
I picked the ones that meant the most to me, took pictures of the rest, and donated them.
posted by ApathyGirl at 7:16 PM on December 12, 2006

You're not going to educate or change her. There is some evidence that pack rats' brains are wired differently, and you are just not going to be successful in getting her to change. So, if you move in with her, you are volunteering to spend your life drowning in an ocean of detritus she'll insist is vital, as long as you are together.

Some pack rats even become hoarders, particularly at the ends of their lives. I think the elderly frequently become hoarders, not because of the OCD links explored by some psychologists as indicated on the linked Web site above, but because their lifelong habits as pack rats continue to operate as their sensibility and activity as reasoning adults declines, and this is sometimes described as senile squalor syndrome. My parents, both pack rats and "savers" began to do this in the last 5 years of their lives. Their home slowly became a near warren of paths around various piles of papers and other materials they considered important, and I spent at least 3 or 4 weeks every year with them, weeding things out, and carrying pickup truck loads of trash to the local dump, after talking them out of it, just to keep their home reasonably navigable for visiting nurses and friends. And even as they acknowledged my efforts were necessary, they were very uncomfortable when I did this, and we had to work hard to remain civil to one another. After their deaths, I wound up discarding over 4 dumpster loads of junk mail, and other completely worthless paper, clothing, and broken household goods, that they simply would not have allowed me to throw away, while they were alive.

You might think about this, as you contemplate a future with this woman. Because try as you might, there is a small chance you'll lose her anyway. Under a pile of junk mail she just can't throw away...
posted by paulsc at 7:34 PM on December 12, 2006

Okay, I think we need to differentiate here between people who like to have a lot of stuff in their lives and people who have pathological hoarding tendencies. Because some people seem to be conflating the two.

If your girlfriend keeps a large library of books because she thinks she might read them again or because she wants them to reference later or because she likes the way a house looks with books in it, she's a normal person with an affinity for books. If she subscribes to twenty magazines, doesn't read any of them, and stores them all in giant teetering piles in the living room, she may have a hoarding problem.

If your girlfriend has a large wardrobe, including several pairs of shoes that all look the same to you but she insists are different and necessary, she's a normal, fashion conscious person. If she has several closets full of clothes with the tags still on them that she's never worn, but still goes shopping every weekend and blows her budget, she may have a compulsive shopping issue.

If she collects knicknacks and little toys that people give her or that she buys because she likes them, and displays them in her apartment, she's a sentimental person who likes to look at things that make her happy. If she has a collection of 500 stuffed animals, can't tell you where any of them came from, but cries at the thought of giving any of them up, she may have an unhealthy attachment to her collectibles.

The bottom line is that, assuming she doesn't have any obvious symptoms of compulsive hoarding, you two just have different attitudes towards stuff. You see it as something that gets in the way of your peace and happiness. She sees it (in the right context) as something that will contribute to her peace and happiness. Neither of you is wrong, neither of you is mentally ill. You just need to find ways to make her stuff fit into your life and to make your empty space fit into her life.
posted by decathecting at 8:00 PM on December 12, 2006

I run into this with my girlfriend. All of my clothing fits inside one small closet (not a walk-in or anything like that), I don't even have a dresser. The only extra space I have is a container with seriously off-season stuff.

My girlfriend has 2 closets, a dresser, storage under the bed, stuff piled on random furniture and a TON of clothing in storage. It drives me NUTS.

But, I've convinced her to sell things, and as she gets rid of stuff, she's started to acknowledge how useless most of it was, and admits she feels *better* when she gets rid of it. The first thing I had to point out to her was how rarely most of it was used. If you never use something, and it's just been sitting in a box for 2 years, it's definitely safe to go.
posted by KirTakat at 9:36 PM on December 12, 2006

I agree with those who say that each of you should have your own space to do with whatever you want. Our son will often mention "Daddy's neat side" and "Mommy's messy side" of our bedroom.

For the stuff that we'll eventually get rid of, our school district does a big "next-to-new" sale every year - you can either donate stuff and have all the proceeds go to the district, or you can buy a pricing kit ($25 refundable deposit) where you price things, put an assigned number on it, and you get 50% of those profits. We weren't organized enough to do it this year, but we have an attic full of kid toys and I can probably find a garbage bag or two of stuff I can bear to part with.

(and if I saw "clutter is a choice" notes in my house, I'd probably say something like "damn skippy, and I choose to have clutter" and put something in front of it.)

Also to consider - would you be moving into her place, she into yours, or would you both just get a new place together? That could affect the dynamics as well.
posted by Lucinda at 10:10 PM on December 12, 2006

Make her throw it out. Or store it at her parent's place. Or get a stroage unit. You do not need all of this crap in your crammed living space - it will make you hate both her and the appartment.
posted by ye#ara at 11:18 PM on December 12, 2006

I'm exactly like you and I'm married to a packrat (although I'm not sure she'd like that term). First off, you need to accept that you will probably never have equal amounts of stuff and it's unreasonable to expect that you will. I agree with the people who say you need some space of your own that can't be cluttered with stuff, and try to agree some rules about "creeping clutter" - there's nothing more likely to create friction than stuff that piles up in what you think of as deliberately clear space.

One thing I've found that's worked quite well is to actually sit down with your girlfriend ahead of time and work through how much storage you will really need and what the implications will be (ie how many shelves, cupboards etc). She may be fine with it, or it may make her realise that she needs to have a bit of a cull. If you're like me, you may find it easier to ignore a lot of stuff if it all has a home. If you can afford it, a storage unit is a good way to put stuff out of sight. After it's been inert for a while, there's more chance she will lose the attachment to it.

Finally, although I think my wife will always have more stuff than me (heatherann makes a good point here), she has started to divest herself of some things that she was holding onto because they gave her a feeling of security in difficult times. Moving in together is probably not the time when your girlfriend will tackle this if it's a reason why she keeps stuff. Don't force it, there's a lot of emotion tied up in those things.
posted by crocomancer at 12:59 AM on December 13, 2006

Have you considered segregating your space...

public space = no clutter.

shared private space = minimal transient clutter.

personal private space... all the clutter either one of you want, free from criticism.

That orders the chaos.... You need a large enough apartment or house to make it work, but it might be an alternative. Works for me, anyway.
posted by FauxScot at 7:10 AM on December 13, 2006

just because you're more spartan about your stuff-keeping habits, that doesn't mean that your habits are right and that hers should change

And everything else that decathecting said. I'm a packrat, and you'll pry my mess out of my cold dead hands. My study is a disaster area, but as long as I don't turn the rest of the house into a pigsty my wife is tolerant. I realize you don't have a whole house to spread out in, and compromises will need to be made, but if you approach it with a sense of self-righteousness and demand that she adapt to you, it's not going to work. Make yourself accept that she has as much right to her ways as you do to yours. If you don't think you can do that, best not to move in together.
posted by languagehat at 7:42 AM on December 13, 2006

I Nth the notion of giving her a designated area where she can let her packratting rule, and I also think that you are likely to create a HUGE fight by suggesting she get rid of her stuff. Languagehat is right: you can't change her, and if you think you can, or if you think she must change to your way when you two are together, you've just signed up for a world of disappointment.

- Be up-front with her that you like a sleek look to the living spaces of an apartment. Tell her that while you aren't going to force her to trash her worldly goods, it's important to you that they aren't on constant display all over the apartment.
- When you are making the decision about the place where you two move in together, make certain that part of that discussion is about where all the stuff will go. This is the kind of thing to figure out BEFORE you two combine households, not after.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 8:50 AM on December 13, 2006

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