We’ve got enough clutter to fill five houses!’ is the age-old refrain of mums desperate to get their children to tidy up. Yet still we never really think we have that much stuff.
So imagine what it would be like if every single item in your home was laid out in front of you. Thousands of toys and books, hundreds of items of clothing, dozens (and dozens) of toiletries and gadgets, all stretching out before you over 9,000 sq ft.
Then imagine you were forced to ditch at least half of it. Could you do it — or would it end in tears?
That was the challenge given to six families in BBC series Sort Your Life Out. The show sees TV presenter Stacey Solomon and her crack team — organiser Dilly Carter, carpenter Rob Bent and cleaner Iwan Carrington — transform a family’s home in every episode.
Over eight hours they strip out every item, before taking it to a warehouse where the family has two days to sort through it all, deciding what to keep, donate and throw away.
Meanwhile, the team give the house a budget-friendly makeover, by ‘upcycling’ (transforming an old item to make it useful again), creating extra storage and generally transforming a messy, cluttered home into a tranquil space, using some of the techniques fans may recognise from Stacey’s ‘Tap to Tidy’ tips, which she shares with her 4.9 million followers on Instagram.
The chaotic kitchen in the Paine household was heavily cluttered before it was given a makeover
The difference between the homes before and after is incredible — as these pictures show. And let’s just say it’s something of an emotional roller coaster for the participants and those watching at home. Who knew we’d all be crying over other people’s clutter?
‘It sounds cliched, but it completely changed our lives,’ says Steph Paine, a 47-year-old teaching assistant who lives in Gloucester with her three daughters, Sydnie, 17, Laela, 14, and Aeveri, 11.
After divorcing their father seven years ago, Steph found their three-bedroom family home becoming more and more cluttered.
‘When there were two of us, I kept everything tidy and everything had its place. But now I’m a single parent and working full-time, it’s hard.’
The kitchen in the Paine house, visibly much neater and more spacious after some decluttering
She decided to go on the show after realising her eldest daughter, who suffers from anxiety and OCD, was struggling with the clutter.
‘Over time it just accumulates, and you stop seeing it. It’s only when you have people round you think ‘look at the state of this place’.
‘It was having a real impact on my eldest, and that would stress us all out. The girls even stopped wanting to have their friends round.’
Steph had thought the process would be time-consuming but straightforward. Then she was confronted with her belongings, which included more than 200 pairs of shoes, 111 bottles of nail varnish, 80 packs of out-of-date medicine and over 1,000 books.
Plus there were all her emotionally-laden belongings from before her divorce, such as her wedding dress, bouquet and old Valentine’s cards.
‘I had no idea how much stuff we had. Getting rid of it was a lot more emotionally difficult than you can imagine. I had all this stuff from my life with my ex in the loft, and uncovering it all stirred up a lot,’ she says.
Standing in the warehouse on the first of two days of decluttering, having eased themselves in by tackling toiletries first, the family moved on to harder items.
Sydnie admitted she found it hard to get rid of items dating from her primary school days, partly because they pre-dated her parents’ divorce, but also because she was bullied at secondary school, meaning all her happiest memories were before her 11th birthday.
Surveying all the books — 300 of which were for nursery-age children — she admitted: ‘I think I’ve kept every book I’ve ever owned.’
Makeover queen: TV presenter Stacey Solomon
Steph proved similarly reticent over footwear. Of the family’s 260 pairs of shoes, 70 per cent were hers.
No-nonsense Aeveri started things off by picking up a pair of her mum’s sparkly biker boots.
‘Didn’t you say these ones are uncomfortable?’
After kissing the shoes goodbye, Steph agreed they could go. But it was a different story when the youngster turned to a pair of Dr. Marten boots. It prompted a strangled ‘No!’ from her mum.
‘When I finally took on the mortgage myself [after my divorce], these shoes were a present to myself to say “Well done me”,’ says Steph.
‘I’ve finally paid that all off, and now the house is all mine, which is really exciting and it felt really empowering.’
Eventually, the family managed to get rid of more than half of the shoes, but sorting through the mementoes from Steph’s wedding was harder still.
Stacey, 32, advised that Steph should decide what she might want to keep, and then get the girls’ opinions on whether they were items they would like to ‘revisit’.
But calling Sydnie over to help reduced the teenager to tears.
Eventually, mother and daughter reduced the table’s worth of sentimental items down to two boxes, but the thought of getting rid of her mum’s wedding dress proved a step too far for Sydnie, and they agreed to keep it.
Home help: Stacey with (from left) Aeveri, mum Steph, Laela and Sydnie
Having successfully let go of half their belongings, Steph said the results were transformative.
‘I feel so much lighter and love being in the house now,’ she adds.
‘Tidying up now is quick and easy. I know where everything goes. And when the girls are at their dad’s, I don’t need to clean all day. I get to have space and time for myself. It’s literally life-changing.’
Dilly, 41, the show’s professional organiser, knows only too well the beneficial effects of a good decluttering session.
‘The whole process can be really emotional and healing,’ she says.
‘It’s not just physical. Cluttering affects relationships without us even realising, between couples and between parents and children.
‘We can get immersed in our surroundings and not realise until someone points out we’re not sleeping properly, our children are struggling, and getting ready each morning is chaotic. It can cause a lot of stress.’
Though most of us aren’t in a position to decant the entire contents of our homes into a warehouse, Dilly advises all families to declutter their homes — be it one room, or one cupboard at a time — starting with the room that’s affecting you the most.
Her biggest tip is to empty a room completely, so you have a blank space. Then spread all the items across the floor, looking at what you want to keep — and what you don’t.
‘Create three piles — donate, recycle, sell. And have the mantra we use on the show: do you love it, or do you need it, or is it purposeful?’
Though she knows it can be hard to get rid of things we have ‘financial attachments’ to, she urges you to push on.
‘When you’ve spent money on something, you don’t want to get rid of it because it seems wasteful.
‘But when you see the value of having less, that’s when you realise you need less stuff and feel lighter.
All smiles now: Some of the Lespeare family in the warehouse with Stacey
‘We’re not giving £200,000 makeovers. We’re just getting rid of stuff and changing space.
‘A clearer home is a clearer mind. It’s like how we love hotel rooms. Those rooms always feel so amazing because there’s so much space. We crave space, not clutter.’
When it comes to sorting through sentimental items, she recommends revisiting them regularly.
‘Your emotions change so go through it and see if it still has value for you. The memories that do mean something will be the quickest decisions as to what you keep because you’ll know it matters to you.’
On the show, Steph had to confront the boxes she had saved of her children’s artwork. In a clever solution, rather than keeping them all, the team scanned them and shrunk the pictures then collated them in one print — meaning they all remained on show but took up far less space.
Like Steph and her daughters, the Lespeare family all sobbed when they saw their decluttered home.
The family of six from Nottingham had grown used to living with clutter since mum Kirsty, 37, had an accident three years ago that left her with chronic pain and needing to use a leg brace and walking stick.
‘With four children at home and my health deteriorating, stuff just piled up, especially during the pandemic,’ she said.
‘Taurean [my partner] did as much as he could, but it was just too much.’
During the show, the family realised they had accumulated huge amounts of stuff, from 84 condiments to 18 gaming controllers and four toastie makers.
‘Because I couldn’t find things, I used to just buy new ones when I needed them,’ says Kirsty.
She broke down when she saw her transformed home, with pull-out shelves in the kitchen cupboards to create extra worktop space, and a revamped bedroom.
‘I don’t feel trapped being at home any more,’ she says. ‘I actually have a space for myself I love being in.
‘The clutter can make you feel chaotic. I was constantly worrying about where to put things and couldn’t find things.
‘It was taking a battering on my mental health, trying to get the kids ready for school. But now they have more independence.
They know where everything is, it’s all labelled, and we have a system.
‘And they’re so much happier too; the older ones are no longer worrying I’m going to trip in the house. It’s like someone’s lifted a big black cloud.’
Watch Sort Your Life Out on BBC iPlayer.