Dear Penny: My In-Laws’ Hoarded Junk Is Suffocating Me. Can I Trash It All?

A woman looks overwhelmed with junk all around her.
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Dear Penny,

We moved into my in-laws' house about seven years ago. At the time we agreed for them to store some things here. Seven years later, it’s all still here and it wasn’t just a few things. 

The basement and garage are full of their stuff — old clothes and paperwork, some 100-plus new Christmas houses, old dolls in boxes, old china, tools. His mother is attached to items and would be upset if we got rid of things, but we just can’t live like this anymore. We're overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things in the house, and we don’t know what to sell and what to toss. 

We're at the point we'd just like to toss it all, but we don’t want to upset her. She's not fully mentally able to have a conversation about it, and we're not sure what she remembers is even here. His father is empathetic, but he just stays out of it mostly. I’m afraid if I start putting things up for sale on a social media site, she’ll find out. 

My question is, is it fair for us to start selling and pitching these items? Also, is it worth the stress and anxiety of going through everything? We can't even move down there or store our own things. 

-Suffocating Slowly

Dear Suffocating,

When you moved into your in-laws’ house, you implicitly agreed to be good stewards of their property. That includes the property you don’t like. But I don’t think that you need to hang onto every piece of junk they’ve left behind. Not if it’s been lying around for seven years. Not when we’re talking about 100 Christmas houses. Yikes.

I have zero psychological training, but from my non-clinical perspective, this sounds like a hoarding situation. Being surrounded by so much clutter isn’t just bad for your mental health, it’s a serious safety hazard. For example, if you’re not able to move in your basement or garage, that means firefighters would have trouble moving through these spaces in an emergency. By getting rid of some of this stuff, you’re making the property safer and also preserving its value.

Dear Penny

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Though I get the temptation to do a complete purge, I do think you need to proceed delicately, given that this is your in-laws’ home. I’d avoid posting things for sale on social media. This is just as much a practical matter as it is about being sensitive to your mother-in-law’s feelings. Do you really think dolls and clothing that have been stuffed in boxes for nearly a decade will find many eager buyers? If you do suspect that something has resale value, I’d err on the side of keeping it.

Try to decide how much space you’re willing to make for your in-laws’ belongings. Then comes the long slog of what’s making the cut. Since your mother-in-law finds the topic distressing, your husband should talk to his father. He can tell him that you’re planning to start throwing things out by a certain date and that the two of you would be happy to hang onto any specific items of importance. But in the absence of his guidance, you two will be forced to make these decisions on your own. Tell him that this is a life-safety issue.

If you and your husband have to make these decisions on your own, the clothing seems like an obvious candidate for the garbage bin. I don’t think your mother-in-law is suddenly going to miss the scarf that hasn’t seen daylight since 2002. Tools are another safe bet since they don’t typically carry strong emotional attachments.

Be a bit more cautious about paperwork. You’re usually safe shredding financial records like tax returns after seven years. But you should confirm with your father-in-law that those boxes of paperwork don’t contain important documents like wills.

If your husband or his father knows of certain items that have sentimental value, of course you shouldn’t toss them. I’m guessing, though, that your mother-in-law doesn’t know what she has stored, as you suspect. Since you’re probably not going to have much guidance on what’s important, maybe you could hold onto a few items in each category of things you’re storing. You could pick four or five of the Christmas houses that are in good condition and do the same with the dolls, the pieces of china, etc.

In the very unlikely event that your mother-in-law asks for a specific item that you’ve trashed, I think it’s permissible to tell a white lie. Maybe you could tell her that you can’t seem to find the lighted peppermint Christmas house, but you know exactly where the gingerbread cake house is. Use your discretion and tell her whatever would minimize her stress.

As things currently stand, the possessions you’re storing aren’t adding value to anyone’s life. The kindest thing to do is to start tossing.

Does your balance sheet need a reset? Try these smart ways to organize your finances.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].