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You've Cleaned Out Your Closet — Now Where Should All That Unwanted Stuff Go?

How to sell, donate, or junk your old stuff.

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I promised you at the beginning of the year that I was going to devote a month's worth of columns to getting your beautiful clothes, gorgeous shoes, and admirable collection of makeup, lotions, and potions organized. The thing about a discrete organizing project like rethinking shoe storage is that, in not terribly too much time, you can make a big difference in the ease of your day-to-day routines.

I can say that with confidence not just because I've been doing this job for a long time and hear from people about the impact of their successful decluttering projects, but also because I undertook a shoe reorg of my own recently and the results are well worth the six hours of work I put in to get there. (I also want to make sure you know that I take my own advice!)

But with almost any kind of cleanout project comes castoffs that need to go… somewhere. But where? To round out this little New Year's microseries, I've put together a guide to what to do with unwanted clothing, shoes, and accessories. I've deliberately left out makeup and beauty products, because those are a separate beast, donation-wise.

Here's the most important takeaway when it comes to selling or donating unwanted goods: Regardless of what you plan to donate or sell, before you leave your house with discarded items, be 100 percent sure that the donation or resale outlet wants them. Call ahead. Check the website. Don't just show up with your arms full of stuff and assume it's wanted. Not only will it be a hassle to you if you're turned away still in possession of things you don't want, you'll be creating work for volunteers if you just dump garbage bags of old, holey underpants that then need to be picked through.

A few years ago, a reader sent me an email that perfectly captured the problem with the "just donate a big bag of all your crap" phenomenon, so I'm sharing a portion of it with you:

"There are all sorts of great organizations out there that will be happy to take one’s cast-off clothes, books, kitchen items, electronics, etc.  —  but it is critically important to make sure that what is donated matches what is sought. For several years I worked at a church as the director of their outreach ministry; we had wonderful volunteers and generous donors. Unfortunately, we also had people (oftentimes very well-meaning) who saw us as a clearinghouse for whatever they didn’t want but felt guilty about just throwing out. From long-expired food to broken radios to filthy undergarments, all sorts of unusable items were dropped off at our church. Sorting through these materials wasted the time and taxed the patience of our volunteers, who had to pick through everything and then throw out what wasn’t usable. What had been someone else’s problem became our problem."

With that, there are almost always options for donating just about every single thing under the sun. You just need to know the right places for different kinds of stuff.

What to Do With Good Clothing, Shoes, and Accessories You No Longer Want

It can be hard to part with dresses, suits, and separates that are high quality and in good condition but that are no longer of use to you. But if you're not wearing them, they're just taking up space that you could be better using. And the longer you hang onto them, the less value they have (many places won't take clothing that was purchased more than two to five years ago), so rip the Band-Aid off quickly and consider casting off your high-end or barely-worn clothing and accessories.

When it comes to high-end business attire or formal wear that is clean and shows no signs of damage from regular wear (i.e. shiny patches, pilling, warping), consider donating to an outfit such as Dress for Success, or local organizations, like Project G.L.A.M., that collect dresses and shoes for teenagers to wear to prom and other formal occasions.

If you want to make a few extra bucks and would prefer to sell clothing rather than donate, look into local consignment shops or consider direct selling options like rummage sales, Craigslist, or apps like LetGo.

Maybe you're more of a social butterfly? Great! Host a clothing swap and invite a group of friends over to rifle through your collection of Betsey Johnson dresses from college.

General Used Clothing Donation Options

Of course, it's likely that most of the items you'll be getting rid of when you clean out your closet will be in not-so-hot shape: worn out, damaged, woefully out of style. But those garments may still have life left in them, and you should consider donating them to places like Goodwill that don't have as high a donation bar as does an organization like Dress for Success. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Local Government Resources: Here in New York, nyc.gov hosts a Stuff Exchange, where it lists places that will take your unwanted, well, stuff. Other city and state governments are likely to offer similar online resources and you should take advantage of them.

Local Shelters, Group Homes, and Senior Centers: Women’s and family shelters are especially great places to donate gently used baby and children's clothing, as well as items like towels, sheets, and blankets that are clean and serviceable.

Houses of Worship: Even if you're not religious and/or don't belong to a church, synagogue, mosque, or coven, don't forget about them as donation options — many religious institutions collect unwanted goods that they either sell to raise funds for charitable works or donate directly to those in need.

National Charitable Organizations: National organizations like Goodwill, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, etc. can and will take your unwanted clothes. They will often also take things like electronics, furniture, and even cars, making them one-stop-shops for people who are doing a major cleanout and have all manner of discarded belongings.

What to Do With Unwearable Clothing

While a five-year-old pair of jeans may be serviceable enough to go to St. Vincent de Paul, that pile of pit-stained and stretched-out Old Navy camisoles is not. Nor are your used underpants. But items like clothing, bedding, towels, etc. that are no longer fit for human use still have value and don't need to end up in the trash.

Start by checking out the Council for Textile Recycling's donation/recycling location finder to search for options in your area. Because donation standards and rules are forever changing, it's still a good idea to call ahead to ensure that a donation drop site can still take whatever it is that you're discarding.

Animal shelters are another great option for donating textiles that aren't fit for humans, as everything from flannel shirts to old bath mats can be used as padding in cages or turned into cleaning rags.

Goodwill is a great resource for donating items that may strike you as a lost cause, like a single shoe without a mate (seriously, they'll take 'em!). The Goodwill website has a helpful list of all the weird and seemingly useless things they actually have a use for, from eyeglasses to broken Christmas lights, which they strip for the copper.

This final suggestion comes with a BIG WARNING (you know it's a big warning because I put it in all caps): You can certainly hang onto old T-shirts and suchlike to cut them up and turn them into rags. However, be realistic about how many rags you actually need in your life. If you've got a dozen service day and corporate challenge T-shirts, please don't toss them in a heap and call them rags. You do not need that many rags, unless you're running a black market car wash out of your driveway, in which case, I salute your entrepreneurial spirit.

Setting Yourself Up for Donation Success

Before you begin an organization, decluttering, and/or purging project, it's a good idea to do two things. The first is to look into a few donation options so you have a sense of where discarded items will go. YMMV, but I personally find it much easier to part with clothes or accessories that I'm on the fence about if I have a clear idea of where they'll end up. It makes me much more likely to think "I haven't worn that belt in two years and I still like it, but someone else will get more use out of it" and toss it in the donate bin.

Speaking of that donate bin! It's also helpful to have receptacles at the ready to corral items as you decide to part with them. Shopping or paper grocery bags are great for this purpose, but if you've got a more involved purge ahead of you, consider creating a donation station of sorts using baskets or bins, so that you can keep the pile of pants you intend to bring to the tailor to be taken in separate from the pile of old T-shirts you plan to turn into cleaning rags.

Okay! That was A LOT of information, but we really only managed to scratch the surface of donation options. If you have a favorite organization that accepts used goods, or a direct sales app that you've loved using, we'd love to hear about it! Email me at joliekerr@gmail.com; we'll round up the best and share your tips with our readers.

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