Organize and declutter to get a fresh start at home

Retirement is an ideal opportunity for a proverbial “spring cleaning” — to pare down, freshen up and declutter your house or apartment.

People often find the prospect daunting, says Susan Van Dyke, who started D’Clutter Bug, a Springfield, Ill.-based company that cleans and organizes for business and residential clients.

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed,” she says, “especially when everything is in disarray.”

To avoid becoming overwhelmed, Van Dyke recommends creating a plan. Prioritize the process and break it down into manageable pieces, she says. By choosing one room, or even one cabinet, you can make gradual progress and see encouraging results.

Part of the problem is the sheer volume of possessions amassed over the years, often for sentimental reasons.

“People have a hard time letting go,” she says.

For that reason, Van Dyke recommends having help as you clean — hire a professional or recruit a friend. You’ll accomplish twice as much working with another person, plus you’ll have a second opinion on what to keep and what to pitch.

The first step in decluttering your house is organizing its contents. Divide belongings into two categories: what to get rid of and what to keep. Ask yourself how often you use something when assigning a category.

If you use it regularly, find a convenient, easily accessible place to store it. If you rarely use it, put it away in a pantry or closet, Van Dyke says. If you never use it, get rid of it.

“Decluttering is a very freeing experience,” Van Dyke says. “It brings peace and tranquility to get your home in order.”

The liberation of having less can be amplified by giving to good causes. Charities welcome donations. While some charities give contributions straight to needy individuals, others, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, sell items and use the profits to support other causes.

If you feel strongly about a particular cause (domestic violence or homelessness, for example), call your favorite charity to find out how your donations can be put to good use.

Another option is to “freecycle” unwanted items. A growing Internet phenomenon, Freecycle is a collection of Yahoo groups (a list can be found at that connect members with others in their area who have “good, useful, unwanted items they are no longer using,” according to site moderator Tracy Owens.

Unlike charities where donations are dropped off and redistributed anonymously, the Freecycle member who offers an item chooses the person who receives it.

“You get to meet the end user and know that your donation is being put to good use,” Owens says.

After decluttering and donating or disposing of unwanted items, Van Dyke

suggests organizing what you keep. Whether you choose bins, shelving or cabinetry depends on your decorating style and available space.

Keepsakes and collectibles, as well as valuables you want to pass on, can be wrapped for protection and stored in labeled tubs, Van Dyke says. She also suggests taking photographs out of frames and storing them in picture boxes.

Important documents such as receipts, tax returns and other financial records should be sorted and stored for easy accessibility. Outdated information should be shredded for security.

Once the house is decluttered, a thorough cleaning is easier.

Some of Van Dyke’s preferred cleaning products are a good, inexpensive disinfectant, a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and a toothbrush for cleaning tight spots. One of her favorite tricks makes cleaning the microwave quick and easy. First, she wets a paper towel with disinfectant. She then micro-waves the damp towel for about 50 seconds and lets it sit for a few minutes. The steam from the cleaner “melts the grease and gunk,” which she wipes away with a paper towel.

The last hurdle is maintaining your newly cleaned and decluttered home. A change of habits is necessary to prevent future pile-ups, Van Dyke says.

“Be disciplined, even if you weren’t in the past. That’s the hardest part,” she says. “You have to live by the motto ‘a place for everything and everything in its place,’ or the clutter will eventually reappear.”