The 40 Trash Bag Challenge
2012 – updates – 40 bags in 40 days
Back in 2008 I took a box of trash bags and a bit of inspiration and got rid of 40 bags of stuff from my home. In 2009 Fr. Kyle Schnippel asked if he could grab that idea as a Lenten sacrifice and then over the last two years the idea has been picked up by various mail lists and people who are looking for a way to “Let Go” as part of Lent – or a way to declutter their homes. I love that so many people have found this useful. To help those who find their way here make the most of their “Trash Bag Challenge” I am republishing and reworking some of those ideas that have been the best and most useful.The two ways I have approached the 40 Trash bag challenge are as a decluttering exercise and as a part of a Lenten sacrifice. Both serve a purpose but they are radically different in the approach I use.
40 Trash Bags – Decluttering
The first way is just focusing on getting rid of stuff. Basically the 40 trash bag challenge is a very simple idea. Take a bag, one each day, and fill it with things you don’t need. You do this for five days a week for eight weeks. The stuff is throw away, given away or donated. A large item (sofa, computer, TV, chair) can count as a bag. A box of books can count as a bag. The only thing that doesn’t count is your typical everyday trash. If you have a small apartment or less stuff use a smaller bag. If you have a lot to lose use a bigger bag. Don’t let the bags sit around your house. At the very least take them to the car so you can drop them off at your local charity the next time you drive by. The most important thing in this exercise is to let go of the extra stuff. Though we try to make sure that we do the best we can by giving away what we can and recycling what we can and not mindlessly adding to the landfill this is not the primary objective.
40 Trash Bags – For Lent
The goal when doing a 40 trash bags for Lent is a little different. The goal here is to let go but in a more mindful way. Sure, you are decluttering, but you are also praying your way through it. In my home clutter comes in different types and each is rather symbolic for some of the spiritual sicknesses so many people suffer from. Fear, vanity, covetousness, pride, sloth and envy all help us become fearsome consumers. We have too many possessions, too many aspirations, too little time. We have so many good intentions and so many fears and we are all drowning in excess of everything, we freeze in the face of so much to do then we do not do those things we should. We become victims, buried in our stuff and slaves to our desires.
A good priest once told me that he believed most sin was born of a desire for something good that ended up twisted, disordered and gone awry. While I am certainly not equating have too much stuff or being hopelessly cluttered with mortal sin, there is a parallel and a peril. If our possessions consume the time and talents that we should be spending on relationships with our God, our loved ones and our community then they are a problem. If we devote so much of our efforts to acquiring, managing, storing, cleaning and ultimately disposing of our stuff then we miss out on chances to love. Stuff will never replace what is missing in our hearts, it will never keep us safe from uncertainty, it will not make us more beautiful, healthy, faithful or immune to aging. Clutter will not protect us from the outside world. When we couple the 40 Trash Bag Challenge with Lent sometimes it hurts. Sometimes the letting go hurts. Sometimes it is frightening, sometimes is brings up painful memories, sometimes it forces us to confront fears – and that is a good thing. This isn’t just stuff we are de-junking from our home – this is a load we are setting down. Depending on how attached you are to your stuff, how much emotion you put into it those things can be hard. Even if you don’t attach a lot of emotion to stuff the letting go can be hard. That is what makes it a Lenten Sacrifice.
The second year I did this I heard one very solid complaint. Lenten Sacrifices shouldn’t be just about giving up something, especially if it is something we shouldn’t be doing in the first place, they should be about giving up something we enjoy to draw closer to God and it certainly shouldn’t be about cleaning your house. After a good deal of thought I have to respectfully disagree. Lenten sacrifices shouldn’t be about giving up sins – we should be trying to give sin always. But having an excess of worldly goods isn’t quite a sin it is more like being overweight. Letting go of stuff is very akin to fasting which resembles dieting. We might statistically be an obese nation and individually might be overweight and out-of-shape, but that doesn’t mean that fasting during Lent isn’t a good idea because limiting our caloric intake is something we should do anyway. If we are just dejunking and getting rid of the excess then no, it won’t be a good Lenten Sacrifice, but if we make it something that helps us see what we don’t need is stuff and what we do need is Christ then it is worthwhile, especially if we bless others along the way.
Getting Started an Keeping Going
The first year it seemed a rather crazy thing. I ditched 40 kitchen trash bags (or the equivalent) of stuff out of our house. Yes, really. It is amazing how much stuff was lurking in the backs of cupboards and closets and how many “extra” things I had. Too many towels, sheets, coats, shoes, books, small kitchen appliances… the list goes on and on.
This was started as a housekeeping exercise. Something I did because my home needed a good dejunking. It had been years since I had really decluttered and letting go was so liberating.
40 bags. One thing I know caused some people pause was the picture of the big overstuffed black bag. “No way could I fill forty of those bags.” There was a little attitude in some of the comments. “No, WAY I could fill forty bags… You would have to be like one of those horder folks to do that, no way my house has that much stuff.” At this point I don’t know that I could fill 40 lawn and yard bags. My home is under 3000 sq feet and even with 6 kids in the house there is only so much stuff that can fit.
But then again I could. When I look at what others have, what my ancestors considered wealth. I consider the homeless woman with all her worldly possessions in a grocery cart. Then I compare it to my modest house and yes, I could fill up 40 huge bags. But if I was single and living in a dorm, no – I couldn’t. But the size of “bag” is really immaterial. It is the consistency of everyday shedding off some of our material goods. A grocery bag would be a better measure for some – I suppose if I was very wealthy and had multiple homes maybe something more on the lines of a truck bed full a day would work better. The point is not the size of the bag, box or bundle, it is the act of letting go of the “stuff” a bit each day.
It should hurt a little – not a lot, but a bit. There should be some small sense of having to sacrifice or maybe some small bit of contrition at how much we hold onto things when we could give that time and energy to God. If you struggle as I do with organization then I am sure you have read about the theories of hording and attachment to the “stuff”. Our environments began to posses us instead of serving us. If you don’t deal with that particular mental vice then there is still the beauty of the words of Christ ”
24 “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat (or drink), or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
26 Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?
27 Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
28 Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin.
29 But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.
30 If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
31 So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’
32 All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
33 But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.
34 Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.
These words were said to people, many of whom could probably put everything they personally owned in one of my closets.
How it works:
- Grab a bag – Pick what size of trash bag you want to use. I used tall kitchen bags (use what works for you, paper sack, grocery bag – whatever).
- Fill the bag – Each week day for eight weeks fill one bag (or equivalent). It can be a bag of toys, clothes, papers, collected junk mail, 1992 tax forms — whatever you have too much of. Equivalents count: anything about the size of a trash bag counts: a box of books, an old TV, a computer system. Anything that you can count as clutter or excess is fair game.
- Make it go away – Donate as much as you can, sell something if it has real value (but don’t count it until it is gone) don’t be afraid to trash things.
- Toot your own horn – You deserve this. Post a update on your blog, Twitter #40TBC, @, leave a comment here, or join the Facebook Group. Let someone know how it goes – it is motivating to you and to others.
- Have fun. This means feel free to rewrite the rules to fit your life. Letting go of stuff is liberating — yes, it is a chore, but it is a good thing.
If you find you are having trouble
If find you have trouble starting or the first few days things seem to be going well but then you start to flounder there might be a couple things that you can tweak.
- If you found the first few days you were pulling stuff out of your house like gang-busters but now you have basically stopped because you can’t figure out what to get rid of – you are using too big a bag. Scale back to something smaller.
- Your house is cluttered and you fill a bag a day but no one (not even you) can tell. If you have the energy use a bigger bag (or do two a day). If you find filling a bag saps your energy keep with your one bag a day – just keep going. Fill your bags from one room day after day until you notice a difference.
- You can’t seem to fill a bag even though you have a ton of stuff. If you find you are sitting with say boxes of baby clothes and can’t let anything go even though your youngest is taller than you are you are probably dealing with attachment issues. If you pick up something and it brings back a flood of memories and you are worried that tossing the item is somehow going to diminish the memory you definitely have attachment issues. This is hard and tricky and can be emotionally raw. Try to find a good place for those things you feel attached to but know intellectually you don’t need. Give them to a crisis pregnancy center, a women’s shelter, the Goodwill. Let someone else be blessed by your abundance. If it helps take a picture of the item and post it to flicker or a blog and write the memory down. Then you have a visual memory and the story, you can even share it with others if you are so inclined. But let the thing go.
- If you can’t put anything in your bags because you might need it later. You are living in a fear mindset. Ask yourself what the absolute worst thing that will happen if you toss the item in question and then you will almost always find it will be ok.
- If you can’t put anything in your bag because you are planning to use it latter stop yourself. You HAVEN’T used this yet. I have this problem with craft supplies and books. I am just sure that I will use it later or my children will want it. Sometimes this is valid most the time it isn’t. I found it helpful to put these items aside and do a Use it or lose it exercise.
- Your children or husband are complaining because stuff is vanishing. You need to sit down and talk with them – it is possible you are being too enthusiastic it is also possible that they have “stuff” issues or “change” issues.
- Your children or husband are complaining because they are tripping over bags in the garage or foyer. You need to review rule #3 Make the bags Go Away. At least weekly drop them off at your favorite charity. Volunteers of America and other organizations will often pick up stuff if you call them.
- You can’t figure out where to start. Your closet. No, don’t argue – if you have a better idea you wouldn’t have asked. Yes, there has to be at least a few things you can give away. Now go get your bag and start. If you just did your closet and your bag isn’t full do your linen closet – anything that hasn’t been used in a year goes in the bag – if your bag isn’t full after that switch to an smaller size bag. Have fun.