How to Organize Your Stuff (Without Spending any Money)

I'm proudest of all when I find cheap or no-cost organizing solutions for my home.
Publish date:
August 14, 2012
cleaning, organization, folding

Craaaaap! This is $83 worth of storage, and it needs to stop.

When it comes to cleaning and organizing, I’ve had to step up my game. Since I’m married to the nicest guy in the world, our place has become a crash pad for all of our friends, and no amount of emphatic winking will stop him from inviting people over. And ever since a family friend decided that our home would be a great place to stage a video shoot , I’ve had complete strangers come traipsing through the apartment once or twice a week, with less than day’s notice.

That would be a nightmare to most people, but I’ve learned to face up to the challenge. Since I live in New York where space is at a premium, I can be proud of the fact that there’s no clutter to vacuum around, and nothing to stop me from sweeping the dust bunnies out from under my bed. I’m always on the prowl for organizing ideas, and while some are purchased from the Container Store, I find that I'm proudest of all when I find cheap or no-cost solutions, such as these.

Tip #1: File Your Clothes

My husband is not only nice, he's messy. And here is a familiar scenario from before I took charge of doing laundry and folding our clothes. Every single time the man got dressed, he would rifle through all the clothes in the dresser, throw half of them onto the floor, and yell, “Honey, where’s my red shirt?”

Damn. I needed a way to mess-proof our life, and pronto. I turned to YouTube, where I got down to basics and learned how to fold clothes from professional organizer Linda Koopersmith. Her quick and easy videos taught me how to fold my T shirts, camisoles, even socks and thongs into perfect little squares and “file” them like books on a bookshelf.

This isn’t staged. My drawer always looks this way.

Let me explain why you need to do this. For one thing, I’ve regained about one half to two thirds of the space in my dresser. At the time of this posting, one drawer in my Ikea Malm holds 45 shirts, 8 dresses and 7 pairs of shorts. And since my husband and I are able to find our favorite shirt or shorts without having to rummage through the entire contents of the dresser, we both save time in the mornings and the drawers stay perfect with zero effort after laundry day.

It took me seconds to fake-pack my bag for this photo. And yes, my thongs are folded.

This folding method is great for travel, as well. My Heys luggage is almost as deep as my drawers, so I can transfer the clothes from my dresser straight to the suitcase without having to refold anything. When I get to the hotel, I’ll place my Heys on the luggage rack and keep it open for the duration of my stay. Hotel dressers could be dirty and bug-infested, anyway.

Tip #2: Showcase Your Collections

To a designer, the word “collection” brings to mind elegant groupings of hand-painted vases, antique or found objects, perhaps a wooden horse or two. I wish I had some, because my living room has some open shelving that’s screaming for this kind of treatment. But since I’m a person with zero artistic talent and no money or inclination to buy decorative objects, the space stayed empty for the longest time before filling up with junk.

Then came a pivotal event in my life. It was a trip to Costco, a magical place where it’s easy to buy lots of stuff, then delude yourself into thinking that it’s such an amazing bargain. It’s also a place where soup cans, pasta sauce and laundry detergent are lined up, by the hundreds, in neat rows. To me, it just looked so... organized.

As soon as I got home, I started displaying whatever I had in bulk, and I didn’t care whether it was Gatorade, TP or whatever. I tell everybody that I’m showcasing my collections, but perhaps I’m addicted to Costco and this just proves it. You be the judge.

My entertainment center holds water cooler bottles, Gatorade, coconut water and sunblock, among other things. But it looks organized, no?

I won’t get my own design show on HGTV, but this stuff would otherwise be spilling out of plastic bags and boxes in one corner of my living room. Plus, I won’t be using any of it, since part of my brain would be willing it to be invisible. So, the moral of the story is if you have a lot of like items, call it a collection and display it somewhere. It will look good (probably).

Anything can be a collection. That’s a homemade shelf, by the way.

Tip #3: Categorize your stuff

What if you could prevent junk drawers, boxes and bins from happening? The best way to create order, I think, is pour some of your mess onto the floor, then start sorting and categorizing your possessions.

That’s how I organized my huge stockpile of makeup and jewelry. After gathering them from all over the apartment, I found it a lot easier to part with duplicates and find expired products. Since I only use stuff that’s actually on my vanity, I decided that should be the designated spot. The hardest part of the job came next, which was to toss, purge and bargain with myself until I made my stuff fit into what I had previously thought of as not enough space.

My jewelry, makeup and nail polish are all in one spot.

It’s worth mentioning that I got creative in order to save some of my stuff. I used scrap wood to create a homemade ledge for my nail polish. And I pulled out some sticky back velcro to attach little rows of eyeshadow, blush and eyeliner pots to the wall next to my vanity. As for the jewelry, I simply laid them flat, so the chains wouldn’t tangle, on an old serving tray.

Tip #4: Imitate store displays

I imagine there are teams of design experts going into stores, figuring out how to take mass quantities of stuff and make it look pretty. This makes store displays a great resource to tap into when I face organizing challenges at home.

When Linda Koopersmith failed to convince me that a great way to store my bras was by inverting the cups, I decided to look elsewhere for an organizing solution. I found it at Victoria’s Secret. There, the merchandise is kept one inside the other, left cups in the left and right cups in the right. There’s no twisting or inverting, and the bra cups get to keep their nice, round, shape.

Bras, bras and sports bras

Another time I needed help was when I received a small mountain of blankets as a wedding gift. The only space big enough was on the top shelf of my closet. My first instinct was to fold the blankets but whenever I needed to pull one out, it would cause an avalanche. Storage bags were also out, since it makes stuff look ugly and shriveled. The solution was at Anthropologie. There, the blankets are rolled up in neat, compact bundles. I’ve started to do the same, and it’s so easy now to take blanket rolls in and out of my closet. I don’t even need to tie them up, since the rolls keep their shape fairly well.

All of my blankets are neatly tucked away.

Here’s an idea for storing towels. I’ve always kept them on a shelf, but they have a tendency to topple whether I roll them up, fold or file them sideways. A recent trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond has inspired me to layer my towels, and now, whether I have one or twenty, the stack stays put -- as long as I’m not picky about which towel I use.

Some of my lovely, fluffy towels

The next challenge I see for my future is getting rid of $83 worth of empty bins, boxes and space bags I freed up once I started folding, categorizing and making better use of my storage space. If you have any advice on this, or genius ideas on how to organize almost anything else, please let me know in the comments.