08/18/2015 11:33 EDT | Updated 08/18/2015 11:59 EDT

5 Steps To Living Clutter Free

The rule of thumb: once it's in the door, it's much harder to get rid of.

Can you nicely refuse unwanted things others might try to foist on you? What can you say when relatives do not see the gifts they have given you proudly displayed on the mantel? And how can you win the battle with your own mind as you try to shove yet another item from the Target decor section into your shopping cart?

These five tips can help you navigate these sticky situations, leaving your home unburdened by things you don’t use — and your friendships intact.

1. Just say, “No, thank you” to free stuff. Do you really, honestly want that free T-shirt, corporate mug, plastic sippy cup, fill-in-the-blank?

If not, just smile, say, “No, thank you” and move on.

Do not fool yourself into thinking it’s not a big deal to take it — once it makes it through your front door, it becomes much harder to get rid of.

2. Give yourself a shopping mantra. What to do when you are the one causing most of the clutter build-up in your home?

Know where your weak spots are (Target decor aisle, I’m looking at you) and prepare yourself to be strong when you face them.

It can help to come up with a brief but powerful word or phrase that gets to the heart of how you want your home to feel, such as “clean and spacious,” and repeat these words to yourself while you are shopping.

Is that metallic gold horse sculpture you just plunked in your cart going to help your home be clean and spacious? If not, put it back.

3. Politely discourage gift giving. If your home is small or you are trying to pare back and simplify your life, share this information with your family and friends. When they know more about the goals you are striving for, and how important they are to you, they are far more likely to keep them in mind when choosing gifts for you.

4. Set a good example. You set the tone for the type and amount of gifts that others give you. If you are always giving tons of presents, your friends and family members may feel that’s what you expect from them too! If you want to receive fewer gifts, scale back your own giving first. Start a tradition of giving experiences, consumables and donations to charitable organizations close to your heart. These options can be fully enjoyed without having to be or displayed in the house. Here are some examples:

  • Instead of kitchen gear, homemade preserves or cooking lessons.
  • Instead of toys, a membership to a local children’s museum
  • Instead of clothes or jewelry, a gift certificate to a salon or an appointment with a stylist
  • Instead of artwork, a trip to the city to go gallery hopping
  • Instead of decor, a donation to Habitat for Humanity

For children, things are trickier — but it is possible to limit gifts and make the experience of birthdays and holidays more meaningful. Try scaling back your child’s expectations a bit, focusing on the few things they really, really want to get, instead of thinking of birthdays as a massive gift extravaganza.

One option is to welcome gifts from close family members but write, “No gifts please!” on the party invites that go out to the class.

5. Always express your heartfelt thanks for the sentiment behind a gift — but don’t beat yourself up about giving it away. When someone gives you a gift, the appropriate response is a heartfelt “Thank you.” What you are really thanking the giver for is thinking of you and taking the time to shop for, select and wrap a present just for you.

The confusion comes in when we start thinking we must always love the item itself. That’s simply not the case. If you have warmly received the gift, your end of the deal is complete. It is not your responsibility to store, display and care for the item forever. If this sounds a bit harsh, remember that the person who gave you the gift cares about you and wants only to bring you happiness. If the gift is causing feelings of guilt and resentment, it can be far better to donate the item to a charity, so someone will be able to appreciate it.

Caution: There are times when it may be more important to keep the gift: Family heirlooms, art, hand-knitted items and quilts come immediately to mind. I know a few knitters who would rather have an item returned to them than hear it had been given away.

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