Why Do People Hoard Stuff?

Are we clutterers or are we hoarders?

Fans of A&E TVs reality show “Hoarders” watch in horrified fascination as marriages fall apart, families are evicted and health deteriorates – all the result of hoarding, the inability of some people to let go of their belongings, even when those objects have outlived their usefulness.

For Benjamin Franklin and other founders of this country, thrift was a virtue. But when does being thrifty and saving potentially useful objects become the very serious obsessive-compulsive disorder of hoarding?

My parents grew up during the Great Depression. Dad was born in 1930; mom in 1932. No doubt that influenced their behavior, albeit in totally opposite directions. Dad was thrifty and saved random nails, pieces of foil and plastic bread bag ties. Mom, on the other hand, was just a spendthrift.

A pile of junk I pulled from my dad's garage and attic after he passed away.
A pile of junk I pulled from my dad's garage and attic after he passed away. | Source

35 years of "stuff"

When my parents moved from Michigan to North Carolina when they were in their 50s, they must have moved 35 years of “stuff” with them. My dad survived my mother’s 2003 death by 5 years. After his passing, one of my siblings went down to start cleaning out the house and ended up filling a small dumpster full of junk. A year later, I went out to spruce up the house for sale and could have filled a small dumpster myself.

I cleaned out 2 sheds and a garage, lugging old screens, pieces of a metal fireplace insert and part of an old sliding door frame that must have been at least 10 years old. The most challenging item to dispose of was paint: 30 gallons, 50 pints and about 2 dozen spray cans, all in varying stages of fullness.

I had to wonder what he was thinking of, keeping a dozen empty rusty paint cans. Didn’t he know anything about feng shui?

The same propensity to save too much stuff seems to be a part of my and my husband’s genetic make-up as well but one I can manage easier than he can. Fortunately for us, we lived a military life for 20 years and could only move a certain number of pounds of household goods. So every two years or so, items were tossed, given away or sold.

I no longer have the luxury of a military move to use as a means to get my husband to purge junk from the house. But if I had my way, I would pitch at least half of what’s in my house.

Our emotional connection to “stuff”

Most people tend to let clutter build up. We get busy with work or other obligations and let the mail pile up for a couple days or maybe throw the clean clothes on the end of the bed until we get time to fold them.

But we walk the edge when we keep clocks that no longer keep time, just because they once belonged to a grandparent. Or we save unopened model kits because “someday” we’ll start that project. In those circumstances, there is an element of emotion involved.

If we throw out that clock, does that diminish the relationship we had with our beloved grandparent? If we get rid of that model kit, maybe it means we are no longer the same person who was interested in that hobby. And then who would we be?

Step over the edge and hoarding comes into the picture.

According to Mike Nelson, author of Stop Clutter from Stealing Your Life and originator of Clutterless Recovery Groups, less than 1% of the population is a true hoarder. True hoarders, he says, can’t make rational decisions about what is useful and what is not; obsesses about their stuff and are compelled to collect it; and are unaware that their behavior is negatively impacting their lives.

Becoming a hoarder doesn’t happen overnight but it will take professional help to overcome it, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication.

Where do you fall on the clutter-to-hoarding continuum?

Concerned about the amount of clutter in your home? Take this quiz to help you determine if you're a hoarder or just have clutter.

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Comments 29 comments

Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 6 years ago from North Carolina

Wow! I sure would hate to deal with that problem! LOL

This is another great hub, sister. I had to laugh about the memories. I'm learning to let go more and more. And, yes, it is a disorder in some people, sad but true. Well written.

cardelean profile image

cardelean 6 years ago from Michigan

Great article. I have had a couple of experiences with cleaning out other people's "stuff" after they have moved or passed on. It becomes a huge task for the person left to tackle it. Quite a timely article since I was just in my basement last night cleaning some things out and reorganizing, the garbage pick up won't like me this week!

Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 6 years ago from North Carolina

Oh Cardelean, you poor thing...that must have been quite unpleasant!

Palmer Pullen profile image

Palmer Pullen 6 years ago

Fantastic and informative article.

JSParker profile image

JSParker 5 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

Really excellent article. The Clutter-Hoarding Scale was a terrific closer. Nice to know I'm not anywhere near to being a real clutter bug (I go nuts when the dining room table gets two days worth of junk mail piled on it.) I do know at least one person who might be a Level III, though.

Good work.

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois Author

Thanks JS for stopping by to read my hub. I just finished clearing out a bunch of junk from my attic for a community yard sale -- it feels so good to "declutter!"

Eloise Hope profile image

Eloise Hope 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon, USA

Great hub! I was looking for the response button that said 'frightening', but couldn't find it. My rule, yet to be employed, is to only save that which I have used in the last two years. If finding it is a surprise, that's a big hint in favor of letting it go. I did find a new (better) home for the eight or ten cubic feet of Studebaker parts, for cars now long gone...space is truly a wonderful luxury, but must be continually fought for!

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois Author

Hi Eloise, I can go with the dust on the furniture but I can't stand to live with a lot of clutter. So I insist on a purge about every 2 years. Your two-year rule is a good one. Thanks for reading.

Chasing Riley profile image

Chasing Riley 5 years ago from Los Angeles

Great hub! It's interesting how people have different connections to "stuff." It's also kind of crazy that our generation is living in such a time of consumerism. Can you imagine what our kids will have to throw away when we pass on! Recently I realized that I like getting rid of stuff as much, if not more than I like buying it so I really limit the things I bring into my house.

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois Author

Chasing Riley, I agree about what our kids will have to toss out. I have never been much of a consumer and since this experience with my parents' house (and my husband's and his brothers with their parents' stuff) I'm determined not to make my kids deal with all my crap after I'm gone. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 5 years ago from USA

It is a continuim, and that most people have hoarding tendencies, although some people go the other extreme and throw everything away. I think that other people's stuff is always going to seem more useless than your own stuff.

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois Author

Millionaire tips - I agree, we don't know the value others place on certain items, whether that's sentimental value or a monetary value we're not aware of. Thanks for reading

debbie roberts profile image

debbie roberts 5 years ago from Greece

I'm laughed at by the family for being a bit of a hoarder, luckily it's not that bad, I tend to hold onto the things that 'may' come in handy as 'you never know'....As space is limited, I will have a good clear out every now and a again.

I don't think I'd ever take it to the extreme, but who knows?...

An interesting hub I think many people could relate to to some degree....

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois Author

Hi Debbie, I haven't seen you in the forums lately.

It's hard to let go of items sometimes. Those anxious feelings of "what if" and "you never know" do crop up. That's when they have to be explored. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

debbie roberts profile image

debbie roberts 5 years ago from Greece

Hi Danette, I'm still around and still pop into the forums to see what's going on, although it's not often that I feel I have anything of any significance to contribute to a thread. Thank you for noticing though!!

barbergirl28 profile image

barbergirl28 4 years ago from Hemet, Ca

I have a small hoarding problem... my husband complains about some of the stuff I keep and it is all an emotional attachment. For instance, I have boxes of old letters from friends in high school. Some of these letters - really should be thrown away. I can't even read the handwritting. But, I keep them around because I think when it is my time to go, my kids might get a kick out of reading this little piece of history of their mom. Oh - and I hoard other things too! :)

That Grrl profile image

That Grrl 4 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

I think people hoard because they can't let go.

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois Author

Hi Barbergirl28 - sounds like your husband and I are in agreement about keeping saved stuff to a minimum. On the other hand, I have all the letters my husband sent me when we were apart via the military and I'm sure the kids will get a kick out of reading some of the racy stuff we wrote back then!

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois Author

Hi That Grrl - I totally agree! I know that's a bit of my problem. When I want to throw something away, I sometimes hesitate because it's like letting go of that person but we always have them in our memories. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment.

tobey100 profile image

tobey100 4 years ago from Whites Creek, Tennessee

Some of it has to do with age. My father-in-law (93) keeps every scrap of anything he gets his hands on. Born in the 'teens' right after the first world war and before the depression he learned very young to hold on to 'stuff' 'cause you never knew when you might need it. He's never lost that feeling of insecurity. When he passes on (may he live forever) we're just gonna burn his house down. Accidently of course.

CR Rookwood profile image

CR Rookwood 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

Some of the people who hoard (like on those extreme hoarders tv shows) have a form of OCD. Sometimes it is treatable with medication and therapy, but often they don't believe they have a problem and the very idea of treatment terrifies them. The 'stuff' helps them feel safe, so it's hard to treat. Thumbs up on your hub, thanks!

Happyboomernurse profile image

Happyboomernurse 4 years ago from South Carolina

I hate clutter and my husband says he hates it but he tends to save a lot of stuff and fights an ongoing battle with clearing out the shed and garage.

He gives me free reign to keep the house clean and I leave him alone about what's in the garage.

I do have to say that in the past few years we've managed to completely clean out the attic and have enough room to park a car in the garage because he has things organized along the walls- a great improvement from years ago.

When I did homecare the first thing I had to learn was that everyone has different levels of cleanliness and "stuff" in their homes and as long as it wasn't a health hazard such as the types of issues you see on the "Hoarders" show, I learned to just ask clients to clear an area big enough for me to leave homecare supplies.

Enjoyed this hub and voted it up, useful and interesting.

MarleneB profile image

MarleneB 4 years ago from Northern California, USA

I do have a tendency to keep things for a long time. For instance, I just threw away a hair dryer that my mom bought for me when I was in high school way back in 1970. I carted that thing around for 42 years! Why? I had a newer one. But, when I saw that my husband had thrown it in the trash can a few days ago before asking me, I was a little bit taken aback. When he saw that I saw it in the trash can, he did a courtesy ask and at first I wanted to say no. I did have to do some "letting go" before I answered yes and away it went - my cute little pink hair dryer... all gone. I'm not going to cry.

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois Author

tobey100 - I agree about the age thing. My parents also grew up during the Depression and my dad would save every nail, screw, piece of string, etc. I can understand that though, I probably would also. In fact, I save pieces of foil, plastic wrap and plastic bags to be reused if they are still clean.

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois Author

Hi CR Rookwood. The mind is amazing and fascinating, isn't it? How we process the world around us, why we do the things we do to make us feel safe. I think we all have our little neuroses, some just more so than others!

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois Author

Hi Gail, I would have to learn that lesson too and really learn to bite my tongue sometimes.

Sounds like you and your husband have finally gotten a system you can live with. My husband has a habit of not putting things away (ditto our younger son) so even if we had places to hang things, bins to put stuff in, etc, eventually we'd just have extra hangers and bins sitting around!

Hope all's well, haven't "seen" you around much.

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois Author

Hi MarleneB, thanks for sharing your story. Letting go is hard sometimes, whether it's to a thing, person or relationship. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Jewels profile image

Jewels 4 years ago from Australia

I've attended a workshop by Karen Kingston on clutter clearing and creating sacred spaces. It's a fascinating subject when it comes to freeing up your life.

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois Author

Hi Jewels, I agree, getting rid of stuff is so freeing. We can't create sacred spaces if its full of junk! Thanks for reading.

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