If there was a way to describe a ‘budget’ of any kind without actually calling it a budget, I’d use it. Any kind of structure or boundary can be perceived as a limitation. A budget, a diet, a schedule, whatever. Really, these things are types of policy, ways to make life easier without having to make tons of decisions all the time. With enough structure in place, we can spend the majority of our time doing whatever the heck we want. The necessities start to feel like they are running on autopilot. A space budget is a way of defining how much room we have for ourselves versus how much of our living space we are going to allow to be swallowed up by our material belongings.
Ten gallons in a five gallon bucket. I’ll leave the contents to your imagination. Ten gallons of what? Gold coins? Laundry? Kitty litter? Rum punch? The point is that without opening some kind of wormhole into an alternate universe, a given volume of stuff will only fit into a certain amount of physical space. This includes a house, an apartment, a room, a sink, or a purse. It also includes parking spaces for compact cars, even when someone insists on parking an SUV in one.
As an organizer, I can walk through a door and see at a glance how much the room is over capacity. Double, triple, quadruple, quintuple the amount of stuff that belongs in a room of that size. I’ve talked to professional movers who say it’s not uncommon for them to remove one hundred boxes of stuff from a standard bedroom. It’s our job. People like us have been in so many homes and packed so many boxes of stuff that we have the skill of eyeballing it and estimating how much is there.
My chronically disorganized clients, my compulsive accumulators, my squalor survivors... they don’t have this skill.
Beyond that, my people reject any kind of limitations. In their world, what could be perceived as helpful guidelines (how often to go to the grocery store or do laundry) come down as tyrannical edicts or impossible fantasies. There is no such thing as a space budget. There’s no such thing, because they’ll find a way to cram stuff into places that were not designed to store anything. Inspirational! Creative! Clever!
Maybe not organized, or beautiful, or easy to live with, but clever, sure.
Nobody really cares how you live or what you do with your stuff. Your landlord, maybe; other people you live with, probably. Your neighbors will care if you leave a bunch of stuff out where it’s visible from the street. Other than that, if people nag you, you can stop inviting them over. The idea of a space budget is to help you. It helps when you’re looking for stuff, it helps when it’s time to shop or not shop, it helps when it’s time to clean, and it definitely helps when it’s time to move.
A refrigerator and a freezer can only hold so much before the door will no longer close. This is a hard limit. Trying to fit more would result in the door cracking open and the food no longer staying cold. We can accept this. The question is how close to this limit we are comfortable getting. If the fridge or freezer is less than completely full, do we feel uneasy? How often do we clean out the contents and throw out spoiled and expired food? How much are we throwing away? What’s the trigger?
It took me a long time to learn this, but it’s possible to eat well with only a week’s worth of groceries at a time. We clean out the fridge every week, in tandem with grocery shopping. That’s how we know what to buy. It’s also fine to have only one bottle of salad dressing, one jar of jam, etc. Just get a different flavor when the current one is empty.
Just as the fridge can only hold so much, each cabinet and drawer can only hold so much. We had to have a piece of drawer hardware replaced a few weeks ago because we had overloaded that drawer with all the metal serving utensils we own. It all fit, but it was too heavy. After the repair, I took out all the dinner party stuff and moved it into a lidded container in a cupboard. It’s not what we OWN that triggers what goes where; it’s what the infrastructure of the building will hold.
Even the tiniest studio apartment with an efficiency kitchen will hold enough pots, pans, dishes, and utensils to cook regular meals. If anything won’t fit in the available cupboards and drawers, if the countertops or dining table are being used for extra storage, then there’s probably too much stuff for the available space budget.
Closets are another area of defined space budget. My current apartment has one closet. It has to hold two people’s complete wardrobes, exercise gear, luggage, extra blankets, and anything else we don’t want to look at every day. That’s the limit. If it doesn’t fit in the closet, either we get rid of it or it’s in the way. Our place is too small to have stuff lined against the walls; we’d trip over it.
My husband and I now live in about a quarter of the square footage that we had when we were newlyweds. We’ve been able to do this because we have steadily downsized, year after year. Every time we relocate, we choose a new place to live based on the neighborhood and how much we like the place. Each time except for once, this has meant a smaller home with less storage. First we move in, then we figure out what will fit, and then we get rid of everything that’s left over with no permanent spot of its own.
Square footage is the utmost boundary of a space budget. People often start hoarding when they find that the space is available for the first time. The appearance of a garage, guest bedroom, bonus room, or extra closet just seems to invite stacks and piles. These are places of indecision. After a while, piles and stacks start to look normal. We’re able to blur them out of our situational awareness. We stop seeing them, and we forget they’re there.
These are some ways I’ve set a space budget:
When the bookshelves are full, either I get rid of some books or I can’t have any more.
When my hangers are all in use, either I get rid of some clothes or I can’t have any more.
When the kitchen cupboard is full, either we eat some of the food or we don’t buy any more.
Countertops are not storage.
Tabletops are not storage.
Windowsills are not storage.
The floor is not storage.
My work bag needs to be small enough not to hurt my shoulder when it’s full.
Our homes and possessions should be in our service. They should make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more beautiful. Anything that gets in the way, anything that causes a distraction, anything that makes life unpleasant should be up for review. Why do we put up with stuff that creates obstacles? Why do we allow our stuff to be so high maintenance? A space budget is a way of saying, “I make the rules around here, not some random pile of inanimate objects.”
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.