Saturday, October 24, 2015

What Island Life Taught Me About Keeping a Tidy House: Secrets to a Tidy (Enough) House Part I

To You:

Housekeeping is a necessary part of life.  Sometimes, especially with kids, it seems like an endless array of laundry, dishes, spills, and clutter.  Counteract that with the fact that it is enjoyable to live in a space that feels organized.  It is rewarding to see the floor after a full day of toys, and it is reassuring to know that toilet is clean when you sit on it.  I believe we function and feel better when we are in an appropriately tidy space.  (For an interesting discussion on some of the possible science behind this, check out this blog with its related article.)  The constancy of necessary cleaning and the benefits of being clean may lead to a lot of time spent cleaning!

However, I am here to tell us all that housekeeping doesn't need to take over our lives.  In my home, housekeeping is important, but not a priority...meaning it is not where I want to spend the majority of my time.  I am the first to admit that there are many homes much cleaner than ours.  When you come to my house,  you may find a messy corner or a dirty floor now and then, but you will also find a woman content in her station and spending time doing what she loves (things like being with my family, exercising, reading, and continuing to learn).  As with a majority of activities in life, housekeeping becomes a balancing act.   I love a clean and tidy home and there are some tips and ideas that I have learned to help me balance a clean home with a full life.  In other words, how can we keep a clean house in minimal time?  I've broken these tips into several posts, and here is the first.

I would briefly add here that I am grateful to be able to afford a home and "stuff" and to have kids and all that comes along with them.  There are so many who would love the "problem" of how to keep a home clean.  Thus, I guess the beginning of balance (or peace about tidiness) comes from "gratitude in all things."  :)  Now on with the story...

Secret #1 to a Tidy (Enough) House and How I Really Learned It

We had the opportunity to live on a Caribbean Island for a year and a half.  Yes, it was beautiful!  Magnificent snorkeling and kind, friendly people.  I would definitely recommend a vacation.  Our life there was life though, not just a vacation.  We were on a student budget with three kids rather than a tourist budget.  When we moved to the island, we took the equivalent of five suitcases and a few carry-ons.  What would you pack in your five suitcases for a year and a half in an unknown place, realizing you were going to spend as little money as possible once you got there?  No really, what would you pack?  Here is Secret #1:

SIMPLIFY by thinking VARIETY and limiting QUANTITY.   

I realized pretty quickly that the kids didn't need quite as many clothes as they had in their closets.  (Neither did I!)  I didn't need as many pots as I had, and they definitely didn't need as many toys.  I looked through my pictures to find one of our toy basket on the island...
Yep...That's It!  The white one back there.

This was the full extent of our toy storage for a year and a half and three children.  The kids each had a few special things in their bedroom, like a stuffed animal or book.  We also had one cupboard with puzzles, games, and craft supplies.  The cupboard right behind the white toy basket held books.  Guess how quickly we could pick-up the entire house?  :) 

Having lived this way, I realized we REALLY don't need as much "stuff" in life as we either think we do or accidentally accumulate.  Kids CAN play with the same toys over and over again.  How often has a birthday gift been enjoyed and then forgotten because a new toy came along?  When that new one doesn't come along, kids often get more creative with the old toys in finding new ways to use them.  Kids can imagine and create without any toys at all.  Kids can spend more time outside–yes, having lived in both Buffalo and Chicago–even in the winter there are some outdoor opportunities!  Kids can spend more time in books and conversation.  I can wear the same dress every three weeks.  I'm not suggesting that we all give away everything and go live in a van down by the river (although some days that's tempting), but if the stuff in our lives is making life harder rather than better, it's time to cut back.  Simplify.  The old adage, "Less is more," definitely applies here.  Not only is less stuff insanely easier to keep tidy, it also, in my experience, is better for the kids and us.

For our family, the island was a unique and wonderful period of life.  We enjoyed nature, people, creativity, and especially each other to a new extent.  A wonderful side-product of that life was a home that was easy and quick to keep tidy.

You Can Do It Too...Here's How

Here are some questions and tips to help you both limit and make the most of the "stuff" in your own home.


Think variety in your home.  When tidying (aka decluttering), eliminate your least favorites when multiple things serve the same purpose.  For example...

Do you have toy(s) or activities that encourage: 

-Pretend grown-up play like dress-up, kitchen sets, doctor bag, or dolls?  (Think other occupations: a box, a bag, and some paper can make for a great post-office.)
-Imaginative interaction like small dinosaurs, cars, or figurines?
-Creativity like a variety of craft supplies or a building set?
-Large muscle movement like bikes, jump ropes, or sports equipment?
-Small muscle movement like blocks or legos?
-Problem solving like games or puzzles?
-Team work like games or sports equipment?
-Musical interest like CDs or instruments?
-Reading readiness or knowledge acquisition like magnetic letters, foam bath letters, and books of all kinds?

*Choosing one or two quality toys or activities from each of these areas of growth is healthy and sufficient for kids.  

One way to add variety to play without having so much stuff available to make a mess is to use some kind of toy rotation.  I do this with my baby toys.  I have a small basket of baby toys out and available and a small box in the closet.  Periodically I rotate the toys, giving a sense of newness and variety without actually adding to the amount in the basket.  You could try this with craft supplies or by having some special toys that only come out periodically say at holidays.  However, beware of keeping too much stuff in storage that doesn't get used or enjoyed!

The same idea applies to our own closets and family spaces.  

Do you have a variety of clothes you really like, rather than just a lot of clothes?  Do you really need four ladles or would two in different sizes suffice?  Got three flathead screwdrivers?  Maybe one flathead and one Phillips would get the job done.


There is a Frugal Force inside me.  Usually she's my Friend, but I am learning that sometimes in my quest to limit quantity, she can be my Foe.  This frugality encourages getting cheap things because they are cheap and keeping things because I might need them someday, even if they don't bring me joy.  How can I overcome this Frugal Foe when necessary and keep life simple?

Realize it is harder to get rid of stuff once I already have it, so try to limit the accumulation.

1.)  I love your junk, but...
             Just because something is a good deal, or even free, it does not mean you need it!  Beware of Craigslist and friendly looking garage sales that easily heap upon us cheep things we don't really need!  :)  I was thinking about this post when I drove by the above sign.  It was so perfect I turned around, pulled over, and took a picture.  Let us learn how to say, "I love your junk, but no thank you!"  I have worn hand-me-down clothes my entire life and am thankful for those who have shared with me.  However, getting things free can also mean getting too many things!  I am now comfortable only keeping those things I really like or that fill a need.  I had a friend who would giggle at my "minimalist" ways.  She would offer me a stack of books her kids had grown out of and I would look through for 1-3 that I really liked.  She always knew that we really appreciated and enjoyed the things we accepted from them.  To this day, I recognize which books and toys came from this family and am grateful for them!

2.)  Make getting new things a special occasion rather than the norm.  
            This hit home again on the island when new things came very scarcely.  Kids appreciate toys more when they've had to wait for them (i.e. for a birthday or after saving some of their own money).  The same goes for clothes or kitchen items we may want for ourselves.  If you just can't pass up that great deal, go ahead and get it now but consider putting it up in your closet until the occasion comes along to pull it out.

3.)  Try "one in, one out."  
            This is especially helpful for clothes.  If you go shopping and buy new clothes, pull out a few old ones that the new ones can replace.  If you get a new toy, find one to pass on.  If you get a new vase you love, pull out your least favorite.

Once in a while, go through and find some things to pass on to others.

Returning to the States also meant returning to our storage stuff!

1.)  Involve the kids.
           There are always other people who would appreciate a toy rotation or addition to their collection.  There are school garage sales, Salvation Army, and other worthy donation centers.  Tell the kids about the need and let them choose some things to give away.  It is a good way to help kids not be too attached to "things" rather than people and also to allow them to help others.  

2.)  A Picture is Worth a Thousand...
           ...Shelves.  If you have something that is sentimental but never used or admired, take a picture of it.  Think about all those trophies on the shelf or the kids' old art work.  Taking a picture allows the memory to live on without taking up space or cluttering closets.  Pictures can be printed and slipped into picture protectors in binders, or in today's world, digital books are easy to make and enjoy.

3.)  Find a "Half-way House" for things.
          I am very frugal and tend to keep things because "I might need this someday, and I don't want to have to spend money again to get it!"  You never know, a fourth hammer might come in handy if someone wants to help with my DIY project!  That ginormous stack of old magazines might be perfect for a future art project!  So, I use a Half-way House.  Go through and pull out things you may be okay giving away.  Without the definite "this is gone" feeling, more items end up in this stack.  Put them in a box in an out of the way place like the garage, closet, or under the bed.  Add to the box as needed.  Periodically go through the box.  Anything you haven't missed or wanted is now much easier to give away.  (Turns out a third of those magazines was sufficient after all!)  I especially use this with my own clothes.  

Good luck with your clean-outs and clean-ups!  Let me know how it goes!  Do you have any other tips regarding thinking Variety and limiting Quantity?  How do you Simplify in your life?  As we simplify in our homes and closets, tidiness will be a natural reward.  I hope as you are able to spend less time cleaning up, you will be able to spend more quality time doing what you love with those you love.

Love, Marielle

Stay tuned for future Secrets to a Tidy (Enough) House!

Shared at some or all of these link parties.


  1. This is true, that the majority of our time is spent with THINGS rather than people and real situations. It is a sad unfortunate thing if we don't change! I have found this more and more of a problem in my life as I have tried to live more consciously. We went through our toys and gave 3/4 of them to a refugee home and a single parent family, it was helpful for me to have a meaningful place to pass on (even new) toys. If it was just goodwill, I think I would have passed on less. So thinking of a needy family or situation could help you feel more motivated to give! Thanks Mars for great thoughts!

  2. That is amazing that you gave away so much! It is liberating though isn't it?! Good insight too about being motivated by a need. How have the kids responded to fewer toys?