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Inexpensive (or free!) ways to create a more organized closet

January 27, 2023 at 10:00 p.m.
Clothes hung neatly in organized closet at home. (AdobeStock)

Unless you're a "Real Housewife" or Cher Horowitz from "Clueless," your closet could probably use a little help. And though it's certainly possible (even easy) to spend thousands of dollars on custom shelving and professional decluttering, we interviewed expert organizers who say a few simpler techniques can also go a long way toward creating a tidier, more manageable environment.

Herewith, seven organizing tips that work just as well in modest apartment closets as they do in luxe walk-ins - and some of them won't cost you anything.

1. Purge

Even the biggest closets get overstuffed at some point - clear out the excess before you do anything else. Ashley Coleman, founder and CEO of Done Neatly, says you should "perform an edit two times per year - before spring and summer and then again before fall and winter." Ask the hard questions. Did you even wear that bodysuit last season? Do those pants still fit you? If the answer is no, it may be time to donate or sell those items.

One word of caution, though, from Jamie Hord, co-founder of New York City organizing business Horderly: She notes that even the best intentions to turn giveaways into cash can end with your clothes in a "sell pile" that never leaves your closet. If you think you could wind up in that scenario, she advises just donating.

Or she suggests avoiding the need to do a big purge altogether, using the one-in, one-out method. "Get rid of something old when you bring in something new," Hord says. "This way, your closet is always staying pared down and maintained." This practice also forces you to stay on top of what you already have, meaning you're less likely to spend money on clothes you don't need.

2. Start small

Every expert we spoke to had the same advice: When you're ready to begin organizing, start small. Annie Schmidt, owner of SOS Home Organizing and Design in Dallas, suggests targeting one drawer or category of items, such as shoes, then building from there. "Once you tackle that [drawer] and gain momentum, it gets addicting," says Schmidt. And resist rushing to buy new organizational products - you need to know exactly what you're keeping and where additional storage may be needed before bringing in more things.

Once that first drawer evolves into tackling your whole wardrobe, mentally prepare for the process to take some time - days, even. "Try to break organization overhaul into stages," Schmidt suggests. "It is less overwhelming, and you will stay motivated if you don't wear yourself out in the beginning."

3. Use luggage (and other clever spots)

In especially small closets, purging sometimes isn't enough. To free up space, rotate items in and out seasonally. One trick Schmidt suggests is nesting smaller pieces of luggage and other items you won't need for a while inside larger suitcases. The space beneath your bed is also valuable real estate. You can find inexpensive rolling bins specially designed to fit there at big box retailers such as Walmart, Amazon and the Container Store. Schmidt prefers bins that are climate-controlled, with "lids to protect from dust and moths."

Take stock of high-up shelves in your home and secondary closets (such as in a guest room, hallway or office) that may be underused. Those spots could be perfect for storing bulky, cold-weather items in warm months, says Schmidt. If you hang up winter sweaters, Coleman suggests using padded hangers that won't stretch their shoulders.

4. Hang up shoes

When kept on the floor, shoes can spread around a closet like a plague, consuming premium space. One of the easiest solutions: Hang them up. Most types of shoes will fit in a hanging organizer. Easy to find and very affordable, they can fit behind most standard-sized closet doors. Boots are trickier, but if you have free space on your closet rod, Hord suggests hanging them up, too, using hanging shapers.

For boots that have to stay on the floor, Coleman recommends regular shapers, sometimes made of Styrofoam or plastic. They ensure your favorite pair will maintain their integrity and keep from flopping over (and taking up even more space). Schmidt also suggests taking advantage of the unused space under your bed once again, storing boots and shoes in skinny bins designed specifically for them.

5. Maximize closet rods

If you have lots of clothes and limited hanging space, invest in slim hangers that allow you to fit more onto rods. From there, Hord suggests "organizing tops by sleeve length, and then color within sleeve length." That way, your clothes are situated in what she calls "silhouette order" and your silk tank top won't get lost among your button-downs. She also suggests using rod dividers that you can label yourself.

Coleman says any closet can benefit from cedar or lavender hanging blocks. Hang them among your clothes to keep everything fresh and to repel moths.

6. Treat drawers like filing cabinets

We all know this story: You sleep through your alarm and rip through your drawers in a desperate search for that shirt. To avoid this scenario, every organizer we spoke to offered two words: file folding. This method, made famous by the messiah of organization, Marie Kondo, is very easy and comes with multiple benefits - not only does it make each item of clothing easier to see, it allows you to fit more items into the drawer.

Instead of folding your clothes and stacking them like sheets of printer paper on top of each other, fold them in half once more and stack them side-by-side like files in a filing cabinet (hence the name). You can do this with jeans just as easily as T-shirts. Schmidt also suggests using spring-loaded drawer dividers to separate items (such as shorts, T-shirts and socks). They provide the effect of customized drawers for much less money.

7. Corral handbags

Sort of like shoes, handbags tend to sprawl out in the absence of an organizing strategy - and there are several to try. Hord suggests hanging them up with hangers designed to maintain the shape of leather handles. You can also take advantage of the nesting tactic and store smaller bags inside larger ones, or group formal clutches and wallet-sized bags inside acrylic holders. Schmidt suggests putting out-of-season bags on the top shelf of your closet in bins or boxes and "attaching a Polaroid photo of the bag on the front so you know exactly which bags are stored."

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