I Overhauled My Family’s Messy Closet—With a $0 Budget

And learned some valuable lessons along the way.

January  7, 2022
Photo by Laura Fenton

No Space Too Small is a brand new column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small—from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions because I rarely manage to stick with them, but I do love a fresh start after the holidays, especially in my home. To kick off the New Year, I decided it was time to tackle my family’s messy main closet. My husband, son, and I live in a 690-square-foot apartment, and we share one clothing closet. Lest you think we are storage wizards, we also have a small coat closet where our outerwear, vacuum, and tools live—and one in which my husband stores his equipment for work. However, because we don’t have a garage, attic, basement, or off-site storage space, our primary clothes closet works extra hard: It’s our only clothing closet, partial linen closet (the rest is in an under-the-bed drawer), and the winter home for our window AC (hello, glamourous New York City living!).

It had been a long time since I’d dug in for a deep closet organization, so I set aside a day while my son was at school to get things back in order. My goal was to deal with the mess without spending a small fortune at the organizing store. Here’s what I did, and what I learned along the way.

You need to take it all out.

Whenever I interview professional organizers, they tell me that you need to take everything out of the closet when you’re organizing. I will confess that in the nearly seven years I have lived in my apartment, I have never emptied our main closet. This time I did, and it really helped me reorganize for our needs right now–not our needs from 6+ years ago when we moved in before our son was born. An empty closet let me rethink how we store everything.

Your closet needs to be cleaned!

Another reason the full empty-out was valuable was that I was able to vacuum, dust, and wipe down every surface. I am embarrassed to admit how much grit had gathered on the baseboard molding and how many dust bunnies lurked behind our shoe rack.

You don’t have to do a deep purge

When people talk about closet organization, they’re often really talking about a wardrobe edit, but I didn’t do much purging. I didn’t have time to ruminate on what to keep and what to donate, and since the closet was not overflowing, I felt it was enough to organize and tidy. I’ll spend more time whittling down the rarely-used items some other day. I also made mental notes of donations to research like my wedding dress (something I am inspired to do after reading about why one of the founders of New Minimalism donated hers).

But even a little editing goes a long way.

I did declutter some low-hanging clutter–items that I could instantly say, “I’m ready to part with that,” like a stack of baby blankets and infant towels that we no longer use. My collection of chunky necklaces got trimmed in half and a summer skirt I never feel cute in was easy to let go on a 29-degree day. I may have also tossed a few unloved toys in the donation bags, but shhhhh, don’t tell my kid–every extra bit of free space helps!

The Before Photo by Laura Fenton
The After Photo by Laura Fenton

Be a diplomat about shared space.

My husband’s clothes take up two-thirds of our hanging space and he swears he’s going to do a big edit soon. In the meantime, I tidied up everything else and rehung his clothes that were crooked on their hangers. The closet feels so much better with everything tidied–even if there’s still a lot that could go away. This is an important lesson for anyone who shares a closet: It’s easy to delay action because we feel like our partner’s stuff is the problem, but as organizer Shira Gill writes in her book Minimalista, “If you’re the one yearning for a clutter-free home, take full ownership over the process and do your own work first. Before you even broach the topic with your partner or kids, get busy editing and organizing all of your personal items.” (This advice applies to kids, too!)

Most of my clutter was delayed decisions

As I worked through my closet, I realized a lot of what was cluttering things up were items I’d been waiting to deal with. A pile of curtains we hadn’t used since we moved in, a sack full of clothes to consign, a Halloween costume we needed to return, and a handful of items that needed repair were among the unfinished projects taking up space. Getting these items out of my closet made me realize we actually have plenty of room for the things we need to store.

Proper folding is key.

On the importance of folding, Marie Kondo was 100 percent correct. The towels and blankets in our closet were frankly a mess. But once I took them all out and refolded them, they magically took up half the space they’d been occupying in sloppy piles. I know it’ll be hard to maintain my perfect stack of towels, but seeing everything neatly stored is a great reminder to take the extra time when I am putting away laundry.

Organizing is really just shuffling things around.

Most of my “organizing” was a process of moving things from one place to a better one. I gathered similar items together and relocated less-frequently used items to higher shelves. When I discovered that a bin of medications that were mostly expired (some by ten years!) I realized I could fit the remaining items in the medicine cabinet. With some clutter removed, I realized my son’s bin of dress-up clothes could actually fit in the closet–win-win! I also strategically relocated a few things to other corners of our home.

Use what you’ve got

With my goal to not spend any money on my makeover, I used what I had on hand to organize. After tossing expired medications and taking our travel cubes out of a bin and stashing them inside our luggage I suddenly had two empty bins to use for something else. A bungee cord from our toolbox now holds my always-in-the-way ironing board in place. Upcycled shoe boxes work just as well as store-bought ones in our hidden-away closet. That said, if you use all your resources and still need bins, by all means, buy one!

Labels help, but don’t go bananas.

I’ve never been much of a label-er because it always seemed unnecessarily fussy, but when I moved so many items around, I figured a few strategically placed labels would help us navigate our newly organized closet. It worked!

Photo by Laura Fenton

It’ll take less time than you think.

I thought my closet project would consume a full day, but it ended up taking just four hours (and that included snapping some before-and-after photos for this article!). If I had known that my closet could be totally transformed for zero dollars and four hours of my time, I would have done it months ago.

Try documenting your work.

A funny thing happened producing this article: Documenting the process made my real-life makeover more satisfying. I can see the transformation in my newly tidied closet, but looking at the before-and-after photos side by side somehow made it somehow more tangible and rewarding. I’m not saying you have to share your messy closet on the Internet like I did, but maybe try snapping a shot of your mess before you begin. It might be just the motivation you need to get (and stay!) organized.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“The large closet in our older son's room is a mash of saved items from family treasure to way too many Christmas ornaments. The hall closet under the stars.... let's just say there is no space for a coat. The attic is mostly emptied, and my husband recently culled his gathering of empty cardboard boxes. (Yes, I know. Good grief.) My husband and I have decided we will start with the linen closet. Friday. ”
— jpriddy

Do you share a closet? What are your best tips for keeping it tidy? Tell us in the comments.

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Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton or subscribe to her newsletter Living Small.


FrugalCat October 28, 2022
We did our bedroom closet during lockdown and washed all the plastic hangers in the dishwasher!
Daenerys January 16, 2022
Sadly the expanding advertisement at the bottom made this article unreadable. Also, 74 trackers blocked - yikes! Do better Food 52.
jpriddy January 11, 2022
Thank you for this! I see the truth of each of your points. We have four closets in our large 4-bedroom home, 5 if we count the two sides of our walk-through closet, which we are inclined to do. Our sons are grown and gone. The linen closet has been emptied and tidied before, but my husband blames himself for turning it into a cluttered mess. The large closet in our older son's room is a mash of saved items from family treasure to way too many Christmas ornaments. The hall closet under the stars.... let's just say there is no space for a coat. The attic is mostly emptied, and my husband recently culled his gathering of empty cardboard boxes. (Yes, I know. Good grief.)

My husband and I have decided we will start with the linen closet. Friday.
jpriddy January 11, 2022
"under the stairs"
Winifred R. January 10, 2022
Nicely done! To be honest you had the basics to get pulled together, and you did it well.
Laura F. January 10, 2022
Thanks! I bought those little baskets for my first apartment in NYC back in 1999 and they've been so useful!