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Clutter vs. Hoarding: What's the Difference?

By Paula Spencer Scott
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD

When is a mess more than just a mess? You may worry that your paper-piled desk or clothes-strewn rooms mean you're a hoarder bound for a TV reality show. But most people, even sloppy ones, fall somewhere closer to normal on the clutter scale. 

What's Hoarding?

Someone who hoards collects huge amounts of things, often items of little value like ketchup packets or papers. "They don't have one can opener, they have 40," says Regina Lark, PhD, of the National Association of Professional Organizers. She specializes in helping hoarders.

A hoarder finds it painful to let go of things, so she never does. Stuff piles up in ways that are unsafe or affect the person’s dealings with others.

"Their shower stalls have become storage units and you can't walk up the stairs." Falls and fires are two big dangers.

Marriages often strain when one spouse can't resist hauling more seemingly useless items into a house that’s already bursting.

In 2013, hoarding disorder was named a distinct mental illness. Only 2% to 5% of people have this diagnosis. Some researchers think that for some people, severe hoarding may be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  Other studies suggest hoarding may sometimes be related to ADHD or dementia

What's Clutter?

Many people live with a fair amount of mess, but the home is safe to move around in; they can straighten up enough to feel at ease having guests. Rooms are used the way they're meant to (no paper piles in the bathtub).

Some people collect lots of things, but unlike a hoarder's stuff, these items have value or personal meaning.  Displays of holiday décor or model trains bring pleasure and pride, not the shame or sadness that often comes with hoarding.

Where hoarding is a mental health concern, "clutter is largely in the eyes of the beholder," says Margit Novack, president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers. "Different people are comfortable with different degrees of clutter."

People with problem-level clutter, though, may have trouble keeping their home tidy, even after they get help with cleaning or organizing. The mess returns.

Signs of Trouble

A red flag is when clutter affects your daily life. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • Do you buy many of the same things over time, because you can't find what you already have?
  • Does your stuff prevent you from having people over or having enough money?
  • Are you late paying bills because you can’t find your bills?
  • Do you have trouble getting dinner ready on time?
  • Does someone complain about your stuff? Does it cause family fights?
  • Are there narrow "goat trails" in your house to walk through between tall mounds of stuff?
  • Do you ever feel "I'm out of control" or feel bad looking at your piles of clutter?

"Yes" answers mean your clutter might be a problem for you or others.

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