The holidays are a time for bringing family together and sharing gifts as an expression of love.
Alas, those same activities can produce stress, last-minute chaos and mountains of extraneous stuff.
For advice on how to spend less and enjoy the holidays more, we turned to two Bellingham people, Sam Drake and Julie Clarke, who make it their business to help people de-clutter their lives.
What can you do with an onslaught of gifts if you're already facing overstuffed closets and a garage that bulges with everything but the car?
First, cull what you own, then design smart storage, says Drake, the owner of Drake Closet Design. Though Drake builds custom storage professionally, he also offers ideas that homeowners can implement on their own.
He suggests that people put up a shed so they can move their lawnmowers, rakes, weed-eaters, leaf-blowers and other garden tools out of the garage. A ready-built outdoor shed can be cheaper than a garage storage system.
Then, measure your newfound space in the garage, and buy large, freestanding, wire-shelving units.
"Adjustable shelves are a must," Drake says. "You'll want to group similar items. You don't want to be an inch shy, so all your camping gear is in one area except for the one item that doesn't fit."
The shelves can hold clear plastic bins with snap-on lids and with labels listing what's inside. Now you have neat rows of easy-access dry storage for everything, including holiday décor, that used to clog your closets.
Another solution that doesn't require a professional is wire racks that hang from the garage ceiling, Drake says. The 4-foot-square racks adjust for different ceiling heights and can accommodate six clear plastic bins. That creates a storage loft for holiday decorations and memorabilia, which are safer in the garage than in a damp basement.
A storage loft requires a stepladder to access, but you only need holiday items once a year, and it frees up space lower in the garage for items you need everyday.
But remember, sort first.
"Too many clothes or toys are a distraction from what you really like," Drake says. "Make room for important things."
Julie Clarke, the owner of Organized at Last, says making a plan is the first step toward creating memorable holidays, because planning is the key to less stress and more fun.
A few examples: Use a notebook or smartphone to keep track of decorating and gift ideas. Establish a file for gift receipts. Ask family members to jot down what they enjoyed about past holidays; that's where you should concentrate your energy and time.
"Be deliberate and intentional," Clarke says. "What's meaningful for you and your family?"
Her holiday plan is driven by her mantra: Do less, spend less, enjoy more.
For young families, the plan includes sorting the kids' toys to eliminate what's outgrown and unloved.
"If you add new stuff to existing stuff, you're setting yourself up for chaos," Clarke says. "Teach kids to be mindful of others. It's a good life skill; teaching children to let go."
If you're having people over for the holidays, start early to prepare for houseguests. Think through who's coming and where they'll sleep. It's no fun facing chaotic rooms and crammed closets when guests are imminent.
Before you haul out bins of holiday décor, put away existing items. Don't decorate if a surface is already full.
Clarke's advice: "Edit. Eliminate. Remove a piece of furniture to create space for a tree."
Fundamental to organization, she says, is to step back from the idea that more is better.
"Life is too short to fill our lives with things, and then spend our time managing things."
To reduce the need for holiday storage, Clarke recommends that people:
Use fresh greens, which can be composted afterward.
Gather bare twigs into a floor vase. Include a purchased lit "twig" among them.
Don't own holly-themed china. Instead, use chic white dishes with a tablecloth, greenery and votives. Add stones or pinecones. A single, lush poinsettia can decorate the entire kitchen.
Resist the temptation to buy more. Where would you display a lighted china holiday village? Where would you store it?
CUTTING DOWN ON HOLIDAY STUFF
Give consumable, shelf-stable gifts, such as smoked salmon. Pack a mason jar with dry ingredients for homemade soup or cookies.
Give the gift of a repair, baby-sitting or a crafting session. Share a skill, or organize a day out.
"There are so many fun things to do together, versus buying stuff nobody needs," Clarke says.
Simplify your Christmas newsletter. Clarke prints one word on a half-sheet of paper, such as PEACE, with each letter linked to one sentence of family news: "E" for a son's new employment, "A" for anticipation of two graduations, "C" for starting college. It's brief, newsy, and inexpensive.
If you need to skip Christmas cards this year, do it. Or change them to New Year's, Valentines, or Groundhog Day greetings.
Each year, take a photo of your child and make it into an ornament. As years go by, these are the keepers.