Suzette Smith, a professional home organization expert in the Washington, D.C., area, was helping a client go through her Christmas decorations last summer when she opened a bin and saw a crumbling papier-mâché decoration and cracked ornaments from Wal-Mart.
"You are really keeping this?" she asked the client.
Smith, who is executive director of White Space, a personalized home organizing business in Tysons Corner, Va., helped the woman reduce her Christmas decorations by half.
Too many decorations are just the beginning of Christmas clutter. The holiday season is also the time people receive and give presents.
"We are conditioned consumers," says James A. Roberts. "We are conditioned to think of Christmas as a time we give presents. And we spend and we celebrate despite whether we can afford it or not."
Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University and author of the book "Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy," looked at National Retail Federation predictions of $586.1 billion in holiday sales this year — including gifts and other holiday purchases. The U.S. Census estimates there are 115 million households in the U.S. This means, on average, households are spending about $5,100 during the holidays.
"That is hard to get my head around," he says.
With that kind of money being spent on everything from iPads to big-screen televisions, it shouldn't be a surprise people may feel more pinched by excess clutter this holiday season. There are, however, several things organizational experts say people can do to cut back on waste and clutter and enjoy a simpler, more stress-free Christmas.
Deck the halls
Smith says it doesn't bother her if her clients like to fill up the space in their home with decorations for the holidays — if they have the room to store them. For those who live in small spaces, she suggests keeping the few really sentimental items and buying temporary decorations that can be tossed, recycled or donated at the end of the season.
"Use natural materials to decorate," she says.
Take extra branches from evergreen trees (or a real Christmas tree) and hang them up with pinecones and berries, she suggests. She says natural and woodsy decorations are the latest look.
"You don't have to store them all year," Berry says. And people can throw them in the yard or garden when they are done.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Berry says the best time to begin cutting back on Christmas clutter is when you first pull out the decorations and open the bins.
"When you pull something out of the bin, keep only what you actually love," she says. "If you don't love it, get rid of it right now. Donate it or throw it away."
Berry says a little bit of organization at the end of the year makes for an easier decorating session the next year.
Cynthia Ewer, the editor of OrganizedChristmas.com and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Organized, Fast-Track," suggests concentrating on the essential "big three" areas when decorating: the front door, the Christmas tree and a focus point such as a fireplace or coffee table.
"Hang a wreath on the door, decorate a tree and create a pretty tablescape over the fireplace and you've hit the holiday high points without having the burden of a tree in every room," she says.
Ultimately, Berry says, it isn't about having a perfectly decorated home, but about just doing "good enough."
All I want for Christmas
With all the gifts being given, it is inevitable that some gifts will go unused. Berry has a mid-December tradition that helps offset the amount of stuff coming into a home.
Berry goes through the house with her children before Christmas and picks out toys they don't play with anymore, or clothes they no longer wear, and then donates the items to charity.
"With getting-getting-getting during the holidays, kids are watching television and every single commercial is telling them, 'You need this toy!' It is their mindset," Berry says. "We need to teach children what it is all about from the get-go."
Nuttin' for Christmas
Berry also recommends being specific with family members about what they want for Christmas.
"If you have that person in the family that is always buying you knick-knacks, you just need to be honest," Berry says. "Tell them, 'You know what, we are trying to cut down this year,' or 'I'm running out of room in the house' or 'I'm trying to simplify.' You don't need to say, 'I really can't stand your knick-knacks.'"
Roberts at Baylor University tells his wife, "I don't want anything, I don't need anything."
But she tells him, "If you don't get something, you will be disappointed at Christmas."
This happens in many families, he says. People won't believe people do not want anything.
Ewer says even if people get a gift they do not want, they need to be kind.
"Squeal over the purple Snuggie," she says. "Wear the ugly sweater, at least once, so your mother-in-law can see it. Make sure that the relationship is honored, before you deal with the items themselves."
Smith with White Space is blunt about what to do next. She says people have to disassociate the person they love from the gift that person gave.
"If you don't like the gift," Smith says, "don't keep it in your house at all."
But what if the gift is a piece of art they expect to see on a wall or a necklace they expect the recipient to wear?
"You don't have to tell them that you threw it away or that you hate the gift," Smith says. "If they bring it up you say, 'Thank you so much for that necklace. Your friendship means a lot to me.' And just leave it at that. You just reconfirm to them that you appreciate the gift and you appreciate them as a person."
You're all I want
If there is a danger of receiving gifts that later become clutter for Christmas, there is also the danger of giving those types of gifts.
Smith says giving small gifts is best. If the person keeps a small gift, such as earrings, it won't have as much clutter impact. She also says to write a really nice card to go with the gift.
Roberts takes it a step further and suggests handwriting a gratitude letter as a gift. "Say, 'This is the role you played in my life,'" he says. "'This is what you did for me.' Read that type of letter to someone and there won't be a dry eye in the house and it will be a present they will remember forever."
All the organization experts agree that experience gifts such as tickets to a play or taking a child to a sporting event are the best gifts not only for beating clutter, but for building relationships.
"The holidays are for being thankful that we've been given so much, that we can share with other people, that we can spend time with the people who mean the most for us, and we can really appreciate all the good things that life has to offer," Roberts says. "Bonding and spending time with our family is at the core of people's happiness."