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Atwater, Minn., family seeks professional help to simplify their home, lives

Rhonda and Kevin Christoffers of Atwater decided this spring that they needed help in cleaning out all the extra "stuff" in their home. The storage shelves in the garage, along with the shelves and racks in their bedroom closet were over-flowing with "stuff." For years, the Christoffers have done what many over-extended Americans do: Buy stuff and stash it away. It was time to de-clutter their home and to simply their lives. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
(Submitted photo)2 / 2

Walking past a spick-and-span kitchen to a beautifully decorated living room, it's hard to imagine that Rhonda and Kevin Christoffers have a problem that needs fixing.

"It's in closets. It's behind closed doors," said Rhonda, frankly.

The problem is too much stuff that's taking up too much space in the family's lovely Atwater home.

Since building the spacious two-story house in 2003, where they are raising two sons, the Christoffers have done what many over-extended Americans do: Buy stuff and stash it away.

As a result, storage spaces were bursting at the seams and so was the Christoffers' tolerance for managing their clutter.

"It's stressful," said Rhonda.

The stark truth about the family's buy-and-stash routine was delivered by foreign exchange students they'd hosted in recent years.

These students -- one from Turkey and the other from Brazil -- told the Christoffers they worked too hard and had too many possessions.

With a new foreign exchange student coming from Sweden this fall, the Christoffers decided to do the un-American thing and give away many of their possessions. They've also reduced their shopping excursions so fewer new items come in the door.

The goal was to de-clutter their home so their student guest would feel comfortable, and to spend more time with the student rather than spend time moving, cleaning and managing objects in their home. They also wanted to get rid of the things that were causing them stress.

They did it with the help of professional organizer Cindy Haugland, who operates her business, Tidy Tightwads, from her home in Hutchinson.

"Most people are at their wits end by the time they call me," said Haugland. "After a two- to three-hour session they tell me they feel like a new person."

It's not that the Christoffers couldn't do this by themselves.

"We know how to clean a closet," said Kevin, who at first wondered why they were paying someone to help them get organized. Haugland charges $25 an hour plus mileage.

But after Haugland's first visit in April, his response was, "Wow. This was really good. When are you coming back again?"

Rhonda, a nurse, had been researching home organizing for years and had purchased stacks of books and magazines on the topic.

"Oh my goodness, we have so many organizing magazines," said Kevin.

"You get overwhelmed and you just don't know where to start," said Rhonda.

What the family lacked was the kick in the backside -- motivation.

"You can read all the books and all the magazine articles that you want. But she's just that push that we needed," Rhonda said of Haugland.

Life is busy and not many people put closet cleaning on the calendar, said Haugland, who approaches home organization from a holistic perspective.

"Mentally, you feel cleaner in your head and physically you can actually see the clutter gone. So it's a good feeling of letting go," said Haugland.

Getting started

Haugland has learned that people need to be ready to purge and organize before it can be effective.

It doesn't work for an outsider to tell someone that their house is a mess and they need to de-clutter, she said.

Many people, she said, are ready to simplify their lives.

"A lot of people call and say: 'Just help me simplify my life. I don't care what you do; I just need to get it simple.'"

Haugland has, however, also been hired to help families who were court-ordered to clean their homes or risk losing their children.

One client, who had narrow paths through mountains of merchandise in her house, hadn't had company for 10 years because she was embarrassed about her situation.

Rhonda, citing a quip from one her many organizing magazines, called it CHAOS, which she said stands for "Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome."

While Haugland encounters the extreme cases in her work, most of her clients are like the Christoffers -- those who need help to organize targeted areas like a storage room and closets.

Haugland started the process by making a quick survey of their home to see where things are stored and what containers or shelves could be "re-purposed."

They began working in a downstairs storage room that was overflowing.

Haugland took something off the shelf and handed it to Rhonda or Kevin, who had to decide if the item went into the keep, donate or throw away container.

On occasion an item was set aside for a later decision.

The items that were kept were organized into groups and put back on the shelves.

The end result is a neat, easy-to-access storage room.

After that came the closets packed with Rhonda's and Kevin's clothes from frequent shopping trips.

Most people wear about 80 percent of what's in their closets, said Haugland.

What her clients keep is up to them, but she's not afraid to be blunt and ask them if they really need 15 purple shirts when they could keep a couple and give the rest to somebody who doesn't have any purple shirts.

Kevin admits he's kept clothes because he might wear them someday. "Why have all these 'some days' in our house?" he said.

After Kevin went through his closet the first time and the keepers were hanging on the rod, Haugland asked him to look through the collection again. More shirts went into the donate box.

Haugland took the remaining shirts, buttoned them up and then hung the hanger backwards on the rod.

If he wants to wear a certain shirt he'll have to work at it," said Haugland.

In another six months she'll ask Kevin to consider getting rid of the shirts that are still hanging backwards.

Letting go

While most stuff is just that -- stuff -- some things have emotional value.

Sifting through your own emotions, or the perceived emotions of someone else regarding an item can complicate a purging procedure.

Haugland recommends keeping the most precious items and finding a way to use or display them. They're not worth much sitting in a box, she said.

Communication is also key.

Kevin had been hanging onto his high school football jersey, thinking his sons would find it meaningful.

They didn't, and Kevin eliminated the jersey from his closet.

On the other side, Kevin's mother recently died and his family was left to divvy up her belongings, including 15 family Bibles. He wishes his mother had talked to him about those Bibles so he and his siblings knew the family history and emotional value of them.

Haugland encourages elders to ask their children what things they want and to give it to them before there's a death in the family. When it's too late, kids have a choice of "taking it home and it's clutter in their house, or they pitch it."

Sometimes a professional organizer can say things that a family member can't.

"It's easier for me to say, 'Let's get rid of grandpa's gallstones. He's been dead for 25 years,'" said Haugland.

No regrets

The Christoffers are thoroughly enjoying their purging process.

They're practically giddy.

They love the empty spaces in their closets and that it's easier to find things. They like the fact that Haugland immediately takes the give-away items and delivers them to a non-profit organization and they feel good that others are using their excess clothes.

They have absolutely no regrets about anything that's left the house.

They've adopted Haugland's motto that "less is more." Having less stuff to clean and move and stumble around means having more time to enjoy life, said Rhonda.

They've also reduced their shopping sprees and look for usefulness and versatility in something before they make a purchase.

Haugland advises that for every new item that comes into the house, a similar item must leave.

When she leaves a house, "I leave with a van full of stuff" that's donated and her clients are saying "thank you," said Haugland.

"And I'm cheaper than a psychologist, she added with a smile.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750