Clutter vs. Hoarding: What's the Difference?

Medically Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on February 20, 2014
3 min read

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.

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 they never do. 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.

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.

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.

  • Watch what you do: When you bring in mail, where does it go? When you see exactly how your clutter snowballs, you can get a better idea of how to stop it, Lark says. Could you stop at a recycle bin on your way from the mailbox to get rid of junk mail?
  • Name the problem. People often tell Lark, "I cleaned my desk, but it all came back." This language distances you from the real issue of what's going on in that space. "It" isn't the problem -- your habits are.
  • Set concrete limits. Saying "I'll buy less" is too vague. Better to say, "I'll limit my mess to these two rooms," Novack says.
  • Accept neatness as a lifelong issue for you. "It's a constant struggle, like losing 50 pounds and needing help to maintain it," Novack says. "You might gain 5 back and have to work hard not to gain 10 or 15."
  • Try formal help. Self-help groups like Clutterers Anonymous and Messies Anonymous give ongoing support. A pro organizer can help you get on top of things and learn ways to improve. Also useful are cognitive behavioral therapy and treatment of underlying issues, such as ADHD or depression.