"I splurged on a home treadmill and even though I'm never on it, I'd feel guilty getting rid of it."— Marilyn Carr, Montvale, New Jersey
We've all dropped big bucks on something — an elliptical machine or an espresso maker — only to see the item sit idle for months, or years, on end. "By keeping it around, what you're really saying is 'I'm going to torture myself, indefinitely, for making a bad expensive purchase," says Sara Bereika, a professional organizer in Richmond, Virginia. If you've made a good faith effort to use the treadmill yet the machine continues to serve as a clothes-drying rack, cut your losses and move on. You can recoup some of your costs by selling on Craigslist.org or through a consignment store. For fitness equipment, try Play It Again Sports (playitagainsports.com for locations), a nationwide company that buys used goods. And on the bright side, you can learn from such mistakes. For instance, perhaps you prefer exercising outdoors.
"I can't part with anything that has sentimental value, especially my kids' art and schoolwork."— Kelly Furr Kerley, Oakboro, North Carolina
Paring down your children's drawings and papers can feel like erasing a chunk of their childhood. But you don't have to save everything to preserve the memories. Let the kids help you pick out a handful of their standout pieces from each year, suggests professional organizer Dorothy Breininger, author of the upcoming Stuff Your Face or Face Your Stuff (HCI Books). "Kids can quickly zero in on their favorites," says Breininger. Display a few in frames and keep the rest in underbed boxes labeled by name and age. Or try an app like Artkive (artkiveapp.com) to photograph, tag and digitally store the works, then turn them into a printed book.
"I can't just give away nice clothes — I want to know they're going to a good home."— Sharon Wheeler, Richmond, Virginia
Your daughter's prom dress or the suit you loved from a former career — those are highly personal. It's natural to want to find a strong connection with whoever you're giving them to, says Jill Pollack, a professional organizer in Hartford, Connecticut. Instead of endless searching for the right recipient every time you need to unload something, keep a list of potential takers. Identify a friend's child who can wear your kids' outgrown clothes or a family member who wants first dibs on your castoffs. Or choose a favorite charity.
For business attire: dressforsuccess.org
For prom frocks: donatemydress.org
For shoes: shoe4africa.org or soles4souls.org
"I'm overwhelmed by all the paper that accumulates on my counter daily."— Katrina Farmer, Ila, Georgia
The more you let papers pile up the worse it gets, says Pollack. She recommends stopping the junk mail before it arrives at your doorstep. Sign up at catalogchoice.org and dmachoice.org to get taken off mailing lists. Clutter is often a result of procrastination, so commit to spending a few minutes each day purging. "After you've recycled junk mail and noted dates on the calendar, there's very little left you should save," says Pollack. Stash these few essentials by general category in a sorter to keep out on the counter or other visible place. Every month, weed out irrelevant papers and move what you want to keep long term into a file drawer or box labeled by year.
"I'm holding onto a silver tea service I never use because it might be worth something."— Holly Griffith, Moore, Oklahoma
"Many people have an Antiques Roadshow mentality," says Bereika. You see someone's cameo necklace appraised at $1,000 on TV and wonder if you, too, might be sitting on a pile of cash. "The problem is, not everyone is willing to do the legwork to price and sell stuff," she says. If you fall into that camp, give the object away. Otherwise, search sites like eBay, Etsy and Ruby Lane to see how similar items are priced. Depending on craftsmanship and condition, a sterling silver tea set, for example, might garner a few thousand dollars, but a silver-plated one may only fetch $50. If you believe the item is truly valuable, Breininger recommends bringing it to an auction house or antiques shop for an expert appraisal. Once you've determined what it's worth, sell or donate your possession right away, while you have the momentum, says Bereika. If you're convinced the price will significantly appreciate in a few years, store the item in a box marked "Reassess value in January 2015" (or whenever you choose). Resolve to take action — sell or donate — soon after that date.
"I can't ditch my scrapbooking supplies because I might need them again someday."— Teena Wilson Batten, Clearwater, Florida
We all fear tossing something out only to regret it later on, says Bereika. But if that's your one reason for hanging on to something, it isn't enough. Ask yourself why you're not using it now. The answer can offer clues about whether your possession is worth saving. Take scrapbooking. If you see yourself turning to the hobby in the near future — not 10 years from now when you think you might have more free time — store the supplies. But if you never really enjoyed the activity, or it's been eclipsed by knitting or painting, donate the materials — especially if they're eating up valuable closet space or making you feel guilty. As for the money you spent on them, think of it as a worthy gift to a local Girl Scouts troop, Boys & Girls Club or school art department.
"I don't have the time to declutter. If you saw my calendar, you'd understand."— Heather Miller, Chattanooga, Tennessee
If you compare the number of messy areas in your home with the number of free hours in your day, organizing can seem overwhelming, making it harder to get started. Instead of focusing on the big picture, ask yourself what you can do right now to get one step closer to creating order, says Bereika. Then take 15 minutes to clear the mail off the dining room table or weed out the shoes you never wear from your closet. You'll instantly feel more in control. "If you start small, it's easy to get into a groove," says Bereika. For large projects — a major closet overhaul, say, or basement cleanout — schedule blocks of time on your calendar. For a bigger push Breininger suggests getting a purging partner — a friend or family member — to "hold you accountable."
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.