Episode 73: Get Rid of Something Useless, What to Do When Everything “Turns to Ashes”–and Something Beautiful for Free.

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update: We’ve heard from so many people about their signature colors, from episode 71; we’re going to do a Deep Dive soon. And despite her screaming, Elizabeth has now successfully ordered fabric for their banquette.

Try This at Home: Get rid of something as soon as it becomes useless. Harder than it sounds! Elizabeth mentions Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Happiness Stumbling Block: How to cope when everything “turns to ashes” (as it did, for Elizabeth).

Listener Question: Whitney asked about what to do about the fact that her very loving mother-in-law has given her a diaper bag that she doesn’t want.

Elizabeth’s Demerit: Elizabeth has delayed going to the doctor for too long. We talk about the Four Tendencies framework — if you want to read more about it, look here.

 Gretchen’s Gold Star: I give a gold star to the New York Public Library’s collection of digital images that are in the public domain. Free to share and reuse. Beautiful, amazing! What a treasure trove! The beautiful collection I mention — Plante et Ses Applications Ornamentales — is here.

Remember,  I’m doing weekly live videos on my Facebook Page about the podcast. To join the conversation, tune in Tuesdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

If you want to take the Four Tendencies quiz, it’s here.

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #73

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  • mcf

    I so disagree with your (normally sound) advice! How is Whitney supposed to grow and be closer with her mother in law if she is to lie, say “thank you,” and wear a bag she has no use for? Behavior like that will only encourage the unneeded gifts to keep coming. I feel she is doing her mother in law, and her relationship with her mother in law, a great disservice by pretending. Not to mention, keeping the bag goes against the theme of this exact episode–to get rid of something when it is no longer useful.

    • If she saw her mother in law weekly and she was going to be getting gifts all the time, that may be true. But her MIL lives far, far away and this gift is likely a one-off. It’s better to take it and not cause offense. Relationships are more important than things. The way she responds to this could also affect her marriage. It’s just a diaper bag. She can dispose of it after she uses it during the visit.

      • Julina S

        I like the idea of using it as the “suitcase” for the visit with the mother in law, or an “activity bag” for the older sibling on the trip – just because it’s marketed as a “diaper bag” doesn’t mean it can only be used for that. It gets used for the stuff you *don’t* want to lug around on short outings, but still need for “happiness” when traveling with small children.

        Just a thought that maybe bridges the gap between tact and honesty…

        • Maggie Penton

          I think that is a great suggestion!

    • MaggieRose59

      I agree one hundred percent! So called “being polite” and pretending to like or need something that you don’t does not do anything to build a good relationship. She should tactfully tell the truth and then ask her MIL if she would like her to return the item or if she could perhaps donate it somewhere for a more needy mother. I have trouble with my own new daughter in law enthusiastically receiving gifts and then I never see them again! I would rather she tell me if she really likes it or not so that I can adjust my gifting according to her taste and needs. It actually hurts me a little that she doesn’t seem to trust me enough to be honest with me. But I do hope to build that trust as we go forward. I will start by openly encouraging her, in future, to let me know if something is not to her taste.

    • Le Genou de Claire

      Molly, I so can relate to your sentiment. And I can also see Maggie Rose’s point of view and if I were in the mother-in-law situation, I can see how I’d be hurt/feel that my daughter in law doesn’t trust me enough if my gifts were received enthusiastically and then disappeared.

      I feel we as a society attach too much “baggage” on things: we feel slighted when our gifts are not appreciated/hoping that our gift would be used and useful, we feel we need to tip-toe when we receive a gift we don’t need, etc. One thing I have learned from my experience with my mom (see my post below) is to realize that I can sincerely appreciate the person’s gesture (as cliche as it sounds) and free myself of the obligation to please them in return. If you are the gift giver, give the gift freely, regardless of the receiver’s attitude. Likewise, a receiver should thank the giver for the gesture, the intent, the thought, and honor the purpose of the item by either : 1. using them or 2. passing them on to someone who would best use them.

      With regards to this matter, if it feels true for one to tell the gift giver tactfully, then find a way to do so. If not, then simply acknowledging the gift would suffice. The gift is freely given, trust that the giver has given with her best intention and as such there is no obligation to use it if you don’t want it. If there is the nagging feeling similar to Whitney’s, then it is a sign to conversations that need to happen, that may lead to more vulnerability & intimate way of sharing preferences, that even can lead to building trust! There are so many ways to do this without pretending (I shared what I did below on my original post — for my mom, just an acknowledgement of the gift sufficed, this takes knowledge of self and the giver as well), or diminishing the relationship. Each should evaluate what’s the priority and go forward by that value.

      • MaggieRose59

        I didn’t mean that I feel slighted. It doesn’t matter about the gift, outside of wasting the money if she feels she needs to accept something she doesn’t want. I just want to have an honest and open relationship with her and to really know what she likes.

  • Stacy Mott

    I always have a hard time getting rid of the TV remote control which becomes obsolete when you have a cable service provider and need to use their remote. Do I save it for when we get rid of the TV someday? Won’t television technology change so much in just a few years that the TV will then be obsolete, therefore not needing the remote that came with it? Such a quandary…so I end up keeping them in a drawer just in case!! I wish I was brave enough to just toss them.

    • MaggieRose59

      Use packing tape to tape them to the back of the tv. It’s out of your way, but you still have it if you get rid of the tv.

      • Stacy Mott

        Thanks, great idea! Then you’re not trying to match the remote to the tv years later.

  • Felicity

    As a died in the wool Obliger, I always love to hear more about this baffling tendency! My main problem: I know that I need accountability, but I never want any. Hmm.

  • Travel mugs aren’t just for driving. They keep your coffee hotter, don’t spill as easily (when walking), usually get you a small discount at coffee houses, and are more environmentally friendly. But yes, without the mug, they’re no good (unless you drink out of them at home).

    A blender without a lid? Call the manufacturer’s 1-800 # or contact them via their website. They’ll probably send you a lid for free or you can order one for far cheaper than buying a new blender.

    I am both a minimalist AND a frugal lady so I can’t throw away something that can be salvaged, but I have to place strict limits on what I keep. There are no drawers full of soy sauce around here, LOL

  • Mimi Gregor

    Our previous flat screen TV was still good and worked well for us for a number of years. But we do not have cable or satellite hookup, as we don’t watch broadcast television — we totally do the Netflix thing, both dvds and streaming. Then Netflix upgraded their signal, and our old TV couldn’t get the streaming signal anymore. It was a perfectly good TV… but didn’t suit our needs. So we got a “smart TV” that can not only get the signal, but so much more. And we gave our old TV to my husband’s elderly aunt. Her previous TV was quite small, and she can’t see as well as she used to. She loves watching her beloved Phillies games. And now she loves watching them on a bigger TV that she can actually see from across the room. Initially, I had felt bad about getting a new TV when our old one still worked. But seeing how much joy Aunt Marie gets from a larger, high definition TV makes me feel good enough that it outweighs the feeling of being profligate for buying a new TV.

  • Imogen_Jericho

    A thought for Whitney: online wish lists. I had the same issue with my MIL, and it turned out she was just as stressed about choosing a gift for me as I was about whether to hold onto the gifts that missed the mark. I thought she really prided herself on coming up with her own gift ideas (and honestly I am grateful for any gift, and don’t need to receive anything) but once I started an Amazon wish list for birthdays and stuff, her relief was palpable.

    On another subject, it isn’t hooked up, but I still have my VCR. Although I rarely do it, I like knowing I can watch the clutch of VHS tapes I’ve held onto if I really want to. I have a box of old mix tapes and a cassette player, too! They add to my happiness.

    • Maggie Penton

      Love online wish lists!

  • Le Genou de Claire

    This is one of the best episode, but in a very unassuming way!! Bravo to you both.

    It started out with the “Try this at home” which I thought right away was so wasteful, then I found a key in my dressing box (I don’t have dressing table, I have a box where I hold my makeup, etc. to get ready for the day) that was the key to a lock-and-key toy that my son used to have (he used to LOVE locks and keys of any kinds as a toddler) and I kept the spare key there knowing that he’d lost the other key (which it did, and along with it, also the lock). Anyhow, I found the key and that was one thing I got rid of. Then I kept finding things that is past their usefulness date such as dried up eye shadow cream, eyeliner pencil that kept on breaking apart when sharpened, a makeup brush whose bristle falls apart (one hair at a time but enough to annoy me), etc. etc. WOW! I thought I kept my house pretty un-cluttered and edited, but I love the feeling of releasing these items from my life. I will continue to do the same in the next few days.

    Then on the “Stumbling Block” section, I really could use the phrase, “I’m in between opportunities.” That is so.. optimistic without being pollyanna, it is just what I needed to hear.

    About the diaper bag story, it reminded me about my parents (especially mom) who would bought me things like they don’t really know me. My mom passed away last year, and I knew growing up she didn’t have many material goods, so giving material goods (especially cheap things that were on sale, and in abundance) was her gesture of love (no matter how hideous the items were). When I was younger, being given something by mom used to feel like an insult (e.g. she once gave me 7 pairs of jeans in college when I was a freshman, shipped overnight via DHL, that was when Fedex/UPS weren’t as big, just because she heard rumors from another mom of my dorm-mate that I had to launder one pair of jeans over and over again. Of course the rumor wasn’t true, and she gave the jeans 1. to assure herself that even when I have left the nest already, she could still take care of me and 2. that I should be never without any lack of material goods, which was her currency of love). At that time, I didn’t even know what to do with all 7 pairs, I donated almost all of them. But as I grew older and wiser, I accepted her gifts simply with thanks, and I knew that I never will be defined by the things she gave me (or ANY things for that matter). I was glad that I was able to extend that generosity to her while she was alive. She even gave me a diaper bag (that was on sale, opposite of Whitney’s designer brand), and I kept that in the trunk of my car as “emergency” supply diaper bag when my son was a baby (you know, just in case for when you ran out diapers, or baby puked out all the clothes, etc). It worked out great!! So thank you for the reminder that you can be generous by accepting. It is indeed the most kind gesture that one can extend, especially to those whose whole life were struggling for material goods (like my mom).

    Elizabeth’s demerit remind me to book an appointment w/ my dentist (won’t kill me, but I need to get it done) #fellowobliger.

    Then, the clincher is the beautiful public domain picture collection that I got to re-discover. I first learned about this in a design course that I took a long time ago (online, for free!), and have forgotten about it. It is such a treasure throve. Thank you again for making this podcast!

  • P.

    I adored this episode! One of your best so far, with so much useful advice. I especially liked Gretchen’s insight on how, even when you can’t be happy, you can be as happy as possible under the circumstances — that’s so true, and so important to remember. I also really loved the Fawkes clip from Harry Potter, which actually made me tear up a little bit (is it weird that I find Harry Potter so profound?).

  • Felicity

    Re: signature colours, my official favourite colour (from childhood) is yellow. But my ACTUAL signature colour appears to be cherry red; car, purse, phone case, handbag, notepad. I love the name of Elizabeth’s favourite colour! She’s right about specifically naming the colour, it makes it more fun. Cherry red sounds much more personal and glam than ‘red’. My sister loves eau de nil.

    • Felicity

      I meant to put a colon, not a semi-colon… darn shift key!

  • theshubox

    I’m a pediatric endocrinologist (see a lot of type 1 patients – kids and teens, though!) and I wanted to comment on Elizabeth’s demerit. I wish it were feasible for us to do regular phone check-ins with all of our diabetes patients, but it just isn’t. Unfortunately there is no way to get compensated for those phone calls, and if those are minutes where we would normally be seeing patients it’s really hard – the time has to come out of somewhere. However, a lot of practices have nurses who are certified diabetes educators on call during the day to review numbers, or you could perhaps find an accountability partner in another type 1 patient where you could trade downloads every week (easy with Dexcom which I assume she is using, right?). I know there are also a ton of type 1 Facebook groups and perhaps there is a subgroup related to accountability.

    Anyway just wanted to throw that in there! Also I am very impressed you were seeing him every 6 weeks before – the most frequently that I see anyone is every 2 months (though many patients alternate seeing me vs a certified diabetes educator every 6 wks).

  • If you cannot get rid of the mystery keys because you don’t want to dump them, I would check with your local artists’ association. I’ve gotten rid of lots of things by giving them to artists — and then I have the pleasure of seeing them reused.

  • Julia Rogers

    I think the idea of understanding the life of a material is crucially important when discarding things– to detach from the “idea” (sentiment) of a thing and think tangibly about how “the thing” benefits your day-to-day life (spark joy as Marie Kondo would say). That said– sure, everyone says,… “just get rid of your stuff!”– But perhaps we should be pairing that with… “Will this spark joy? Will you just be getting rid of this thing?” before you buy it! “Think about the future life of this [article of clothing], [crappy shoes from Target], [free shirt from a race you’ll never wear], and ask… will this just take up space? Does this spark true joy in one week or one month? Or am I just [bored], [hungry], [procrastinating something], and feel like shopping/consuming would make me feel better in this one instant?” Just a thought! Loved this episode as usual. Maybe Marie Kondo should be a guest!

  • Lisa Kinderman

    Oh my goodness!! How am I supposed to get anything done when the NYPL public domain images are there to explore?!?!

  • Julina S

    I was a little concerned about the “get rid of something useless” try this at home until you redeemed it by pointing out that they may be useful to someone else and to look for those opportunities before entirely tossing it out.
    For example, an amputee may just need 1 shoe, an artist, as noted below, (or early childhood educator) may want keys for their projects, and I have seen SEVERAL families (usually less well off) in my work with home visits that still use VHS precisely because the movies can be gotten for so cheap/free (and upgrades to DVD can be expensive, between the machine and replacing all the movies…)
    So get it out of your house, certainly, but maybe not directly to the trash (or the water/cliff/etc.)

  • Lauren

    Laughed out loud with the car door story! I was driving a car that I loved that was headed in the same direction before we moved and downsized to just one car (fine by me, because I don’t like driving very much).
    As far as getting rid of “stuff,” we’re trying to sell the useful-to-others things on eBay, which has been moderately successful so far.

  • Sarah Forsyth

    Re: doctor’s appointment. Can you schedule your next appointment when you ” check out” at the end of the current appointment?. That really helps me go regularly to doctors, getting my hair cut, etc.

  • I’m learning to throw out pens as soon as they become useless which is generally before all the ink is gone. But if I can’t write a full sentence with the pen than what is the point of keeping it.

    • Gillian

      Bethany – You could buy a pen that can take a refill and buy a couple of refills at the same time so that you have them on hand when you need them. Staples has some excellent inexpensive choices and they are actually nicer to write with than most of the disposable pens. Then you have to throw out only the empty refill, not the whole pen. Much less waste of resources, less consumption. A small way you can be kinder to our planet.

  • Maggie Penton

    I love your podcast, and you always make me think of what will help me “Be Maggie” even if I am not exactly prepared to go with you.

    I was really interested in Whitney’s mother-in-law gift question because I also have a very sweet mother-in-law who often gives me gifts that…miss the mark, AND I recently had my second baby. I think you were right to notice that she seemed to be making a bigger deal than it necessarily had to be, but I guess, when I had my 2nd daughter last year, I was SO overwhelmed by all I had to do to take care of me, my first child, my job, and everything else that having to be concerned about my mother-in-law’s (or basically anybody else’s) feelings was a little more than I could handle. I know for me, I did several things right after the birth of my baby that I really resented at the time that have kind of damaged my relationship with my in-laws, and I know it’s “just a diaper bag” but I feel like while it doesn’t seem like a big deal to just “use the bag” it’s SO hard to travel with a baby. So hard. Everything is hard about traveling with a baby. And lugging along a diaper bag that you don’t like while you’re trying to keep two children from crying is a pain. If it were me, I would want to use my backpack diaper bag (that is actually what I have) the MOST when I was traveling to meet family with a new baby.

    I really like Julina’s suggestion below to use it as a play bag for her older child. I know my older daughter really likes a lot of things that were mine and might really like that this bag came from grandma.

    I think the best thing for Whitney to do is be honest with her mother-in-law that this just isn’t a diaper bag she’s going to use, and ask her if she would rather have the bag back and return for something else (maybe they can go shopping together on this trip that’s coming up!) or if she would mind if they used the bag as a play bag for the older child or something like that.

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s a tricky situation!

  • Abby

    Thanks for a wonderful podcast, I so appreciated your thoughtful and kind answer to Whitney’s question. Now that both my mother and MIL are gone, I wish I’d been more gracious when they gave me unwanted or unappreciated gifts. For ‘Try this at home’ I gathered all my single earrings and finally let them go, together with the false hope that I would find their long lost mate one of these days (same thing for socks!).

    • gretchenrubin

      A very good reminder about how to keep things in perspective.

      And I have the same trouble letting go of mateless earrings….

  • I have to laugh: as I was listening to this, I heard a strange thud in the house. My daughter did, too, and when we searched, we found the source of the thud to be a ceramic dinosaur that our new kitten had managed to push off a high bookshelf onto the floor. The dino (which was a Stegosaurus) survived the fall, but lost a foot, a back plate and the tail in the process.

    I thought, ‘I can glue this back together’ and then I thought, “Why?” It was given to me by my sister’s ex-husband, and it’s not really precious to me anymore. And, even if I repaired it, what would I do with it?

    I threw it away, because it was useless! And I felt really good about it.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Kristy Bellerby

    i’ve started throwing out all those electrical type cords i’ve kept in a box over the years that I don’t know what they are for or no longer have a use for. It feels great and I want to continue going through my apartment for more useless things I can get rid of. I find it cathartic!

  • Jessie

    Elizabeth could use the strategy of pairing to help her with her doctor’s appointments and make the most of the long drive. Go window shopping at some favorite stores after, meet a friend for lunch who you don’t see often, eat at a special restaurant, go for a walk at a special park or beach nearby.
    When I was pregnant with my second daughter, I had a high risk pregnancy and had to drive 1.5 hours once or twice a month for a doctor’s appointment (and bring along my 3 year old!). To make it fun for both of us, we went to Trader Joe’s beforehand (not available nearby where we lived) and then had a picnic. 2 years later, my daughter still talks about our “doctor’s office picnics” and it made an otherwise difficult chore into a fun treat!

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a great idea but I fear that because of Elizabeth’s work, it’s already tough to take the time to get to the appointment and back – she can’t pair it with an activity that would take more time. But maybe she could save a Real Housewives podcast for doctors’ visits!

      • Mary Martin

        I am hoping she can look into doing some of the remote services re the doc – once it is “set” I think it will be a huge life improvement.

  • Kirstin

    When I first heard the try this at home, I thought I didn’t have anything useless to get rid of. Then I remembered a punching bag that I’ve kept for over 10 years. The bottom of it that filled with water cracked way back then and the top part is pretty much useless on its own. Can’t see a way to hang it by itself, but don’t know who I can give it to either. So there it sits in my garage 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Sounds like a perfect candidate!

  • Julie Muenster

    #73 New York library collections. I am currently working on a website for the Peshtigo Fire Museum (the most catastrophic fire in US history), and found pre-fire images in the collections! I am, as Gretchen would say, super excited!

    • gretchenrubin


  • Gretchen, even if you give away the Shirley Temple VHS tape, consider saving the cover sleeve and framing that sweet photo for your office, especially since the blue bird is your spirit animal and a favorite collectible.

  • Meghan Mathieson

    Take your “Bluebird” VHS to Costco and have them put it onto a DVD for you. Then you can get rid of the useless VHS and still enjoy the movie.

  • Marie-Claire Ording

    What useless things I got rid of: single earrings that I’ve hopelessly been hoping to reunite with their lost mates! Put them all in a small Ziplock baggie together with broken necklaces and bracelets, and gave the lot to a friend who loves to bead.

  • Kate Ostrem

    Great episode, as always! I was particularly interested in hearing Elizabeth talking about how to cope when everything turns to ashes as I recently went through a difficult time when my position of ten years was suddenly eliminated. I felt it was really important to sit with all the feelings that came up – the embarrassment, the sadness, the anger, the shame (I could go on and on) before switching to the mode of cheering myself up, figuring out my next steps, etc. If we turn away from those difficult experiences too quickly and deny how we really feel about them, it will all come back to haunt us later. After taking some time to wallow, hanging out in my yoga clothes with no intention of doing yoga and binge reading, I was then ready to move on, but only because I first honored my feelings about the whole situation. Congrats, Elizabeth, on surviving your own difficult time and I wish you all the best.

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s great to hear that the episode resonated with you. the “all turns to ashes” time is so rough.

  • Re: Missy not wanting to watch too much TV. We have TVs in our great room, playroom and workout room, but my husband and I rarely watch any of them. He’s not a big TV watcher to start with (prefers online articles/arguments) and I only watch TV when I’m doing one of two things: running on the treadmill or folding laundry. Perhaps the pairing/if-this-then-that strategy could help her as well.

  • Melissa

    We have a few diaper bags and use the one we like the best as our everyday use one and have the other ones as “baby bug out bags” with a change of clothes for the baby and us parents, extra diapers, blankets and burp rags in our cars. This way they’re all being used and we get our way! 🙂

  • Carrie Bull

    Regarding the Whitney discussion…I don’t think she should keep going on without being honest with her MIL. I think it’s only fair to people who will be giving you things, that you give them an idea as to what you want. For instance, why do we have registries if we don’t get to have likes/dislikes/needs? People should want to know what you would like…..and maybe her MIL “thinks” she knows what she likes and has it all wrong. Wouldn’t you feel terrible if you found out years later that someone was not authentically grateful for your gifts? Just playing grateful? I think there’s is depth of relationship that is needed in every relationship we have, that comes from addressing difficult topics, with true love and understanding and a desire to simply clear the air.

  • Evelyn Pegg Bai

    While listening to this podcast (I hope it was this one!), the part about tossing old keys immediately made me think of The Giving Keys [https://www.thegivingkeys.com]. They make jewelry out of old keys, but more than that, they exist to serve the community and provide a way for people to support and care for each other by paying it forward. Pretty cool! I hate waste, so I’m sending a bag of my old keys to recycle today. 🙂

  • soupd

    I, also, feel the advice to Whitney is way off and in direct opposition to this episodes theme. She has a perfectly good bag and doesn’t need a new one to use once to appease her MIL. It is a waste of a gift and money. This advice sounds like something people with extra money can indulge in. I don’t think deceit is a go to answer either. I sound like a crab ass here but both of your answers on this really bugged me. Thank you for all your work on the podcasts.

  • MarilynnRae

    Hi Gretchen and Elizabeth! I am a late adopter of podcast listening, and yours is my first! About six weeks ago I started from Episode 1 and have been listening in order and loving every minute! Just had to share that today I was listening to Episode 73 about getting rid of something that is no longer useful. Right at that very moment, I had found a spray bottle in the basement that I wanted to use but the spray nozzle was broken. It was a nice bottle, but we weren’t likely to be able to replace just the sprayer. I was literally listening to the discussion about getting rid of things no longer useful as I happily tossed that bottle in the recycle bin!

    Also, the segment about “everything turning to ashes” resonated with me because my workplace is currently in upheaval due to a state budget crisis. While my job is most likely not in immediate danger, many of my colleagues have been laid off or are worried about being laid off, and it seems like every week there is a new piece of shocking and upsetting news. It helped to be reminded to keep perspective and the quote that is my mom’s favorite “This too will pass.”

    Thank you so much for the podcast – I love it and I can’t wait to listen to more! In fact, I will probably be a little disappointed when I get all caught up and can no longer binge at will.

  • LS Thomas

    Not sure if this matters at this point. But I am gradually binge listening to all of the episodes from the beginning to the most recent and there is a marked increase in the number of ‘uhmms’ and ‘likes’ and ‘ahhhs’ since Henry M left. The content is still great through, it is just a little tedious getting to the meat of it. Onward and upwards!