The Difference between a Hoarder and a Packrat

by Sandy L on April 25, 2012

Babci regularly pulls things out of people’s trash.  As I try to make room for a chicken coop at the back of her garage, I regularly curse her hoarding tendencies.  Where did all this stuff come from? How do I keep all her empty spaces from filling up with junk?  It’s been a struggle for years.  For a while I just stopped all non-essential spending. I declared, “We have everything we need….there is no reason to go to tag sales and just accumulate more stuff.”   That move however, doesn’t stop her from going shopping on trash day, so I did end up adding tag sales back into the mix because she enjoys it so much.

But then I learned something  incredible when Babci moved to town with our family. She had lived in the same place for over 30 years.  I thought that it would be hell on earth trying to  move her. I expected to fight her over moving every stick and rusty garden tool.  Although we did end  up moving over 20 garbage bags of fabric to her new home, she was surprisingly unattached to most of her other belongings.

The home we bought for her was an estate, so it came almost fully furnished and most of the furnishings in her new home were nicer than the ones she had in her apartment.  So, when it came to deciding what to do with her pea green couch with the broken leg, Babci decided it was time to do a “Russian Job” of the moving process. (Russian Job, is Babci’s way of saying, half assed.  I guess the Russian Tractors would always break down in Poland, so anything shoddy in nature was proclaimed to be a “Russian Job.”  Now those tractors were probably 50 years old and long obsolete by the time they made their way to rural Poland, but the moniker has stuck and it’s been part of her vocabulary for as long as I can remember.)  Okay, so back to the couch.

Moving day at Babci’s was one of the funnest and most memorable days ever.  Unfortunately for me, I was 40 weeks pregnant with my first child and we literally moved her on my due date, but for all my other friends, they had an absolute blast because of the fun that ensued.  My mom lived on the second story of a 3 story apartment building.  What she meant by  “Russian Jobbing” the move was that anything that wasn’t fit to be moved to her new home was to be tossed  off the back porch and smashed into smithereens.

For the next 4 hours, every bit of falling apart particle board furniture and every rusty bit of junk we could find got heaved off the porch into a big heap in the driveway.  Everyone had a grand time taking turns smashing my mom’s junk Gallagher style off the porch.  To this day, the only thing she regrets tossing is some old glass mayonnaise jars that she used for canning.  I moved all her regular masons, but she kept the jars in a plastic garbage bag and a few got  broken because of it. When I tried moving the 3rd bag of jars, I cut my already swollen water retaining shin with the jars. In a fit of rage, I tossed them in the pile. She didn’t protest at the time because I was very hugely pregnant, mad and bleeding but she made it known later on that she still missed those useful jars (even though I moved at least 50 other masons just like them).

Babci is not a hoarder. I know hoarders and the behavior is much much different. When Babci no longer has a use for something or someone else needs  an item of hers, she freely parts with it.  A hoarder has a deep rooted connection to their stuff. No matter how useless the stuff is, even if it’s just garbage or papers, it pains them to get rid of things. It’s as if this stuff is an extension of themselves and by rejecting their stuff  you are also rejecting them somehow.  This psychological connection to their belongings is what cripples them.  Every possession has special meaning and by holding onto the possession, they are keeping themselves whole and intact.  They don’t want to be buried in stuff, but they also don’t know how to let go without extreme discomfort and stress.

I have a friend in the psych field who helps hoarders and here are some tips that I’ve learned from her in my efforts to help someone I know in need:

  • Start Slow – the worst thing you an do is come into someone’s house with a BJ’s sized bag of trash bags and start tossing stuff (This would totally be my approach btw). Instead you need to let the person know you care and that they will not be forced to do anything that they don’t want to do.
  • Understand their stuff has meaning to them and acknowledge that – this may mean picking up every slip of paper and asking..does this have special meaning to you?  Is it okay to toss it? If the answer is no and you really think it should be tossed, keep asking why they need to keep it and offer alternative solutions.
  • Make Small Goals – start with something easy, a small space, like an end table or a bathroom, and make that space livable again.
  • Provide moral support – most people in these extreme situations can’t go it alone.  They need someone there them get through this painful process.
  • Don’t be Demeaning or Disgusted – hoarders are embarrassed by their situation and don’t want to live the way they do. If you are close enough to a person that they allow you to see the state that they live in, be empathetic and try not to be shocked.
  • Seek Professional Help – Even if someone has achieved a goal of living in a space that is not packed to the gills with stuff, it won’t stay that way until that person gets to the root of the issues that are causing that behavior.

Growing up poor, it was pretty hard to purge stuff after I no longer had a use for it, but happily I think I’ve outgrown that phase. Now, I try to get rid of something as soon as possible before an item becomes unusable or obsolete.  If I get rid of something soon enough, I can even recoup some of the costs by reselling the item. I swear Craigslist is the best thing ever. I don’t ever have to feel bad about selling something because if I really need it again, I can just re-buy it at close to the same price as I sold it for the first time around. To date I haven’t had the need to re-purchase an item that I sold.

Do you know any hoarders, pack rats or both?  Can you tell the difference between the two?


{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicoleandmaggie April 25, 2012 at 7:08 AM

Very interesting. I had never thought about it that way.

The way you feel about Craigslist I feel about Amazon and ebay. Technology has really helped me feel like I don’t have to hang on to things that I “might” find useful someday. That may change as we move into the home craft period of elementary school (but maybe we’ll avoid that by being at an academic prep private school that has separate art classes!)


Sandy L April 26, 2012 at 7:59 AM

Nicole – yes, it’s really freeing to know that you can pick something up for the same price you parted with it. The internet has made saving things not as necessary.


Daisy @ Add Vodka April 25, 2012 at 9:28 AM

I think my dad is a mix between both – he definitely has a hard time getting rid of his stuff and will keep even dead batteries around for a really long time. With him, we just do a big clean up of his shop every once in awhile and don’t give him the option to be there. Tough love!


Sandy L April 26, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Daisy – I’m glad he’s open to the tough love approach and that you help him purge once in a while.


sassy April 25, 2012 at 11:15 AM

My grandparents definitely fall into both categories. If you go to their house, the yard is full of things! Half of it is junk that they find at yard sales and trash (when I say junk I mean a scooter or bike that is completely broken and they don’t take the time to fix it so it just sits there unused, rusted items that sit there for years on end, etc.). My dad has always said he doesn’t even want to think of when they die because our families will have to rent out so many dumpsters. Their whole house is full of stuff, but more in an organized mess kind of way. I guess they have things in the back yard from when my dad was young still. I am sure there must be some things back there that might bring in some money if American Pickers dropped by, but who knows. lol


Sandy L April 26, 2012 at 8:01 AM

sassy – if nothing else, you could probably make some money at the scrap yard.


Linda April 25, 2012 at 5:17 PM

My mom is a pack rat and I am, too. But I gladly part with stuff when I need the space or get the urge to purge. I just hate waste and immediately tossing out (or even recycling) packaging really bugs me.


Jacq April 25, 2012 at 8:30 PM

I’m getting tired of saying that I agree with Linda but… 😛

I have environmental guilt that runs very deep. I have no problem getting rid of things, but I have to feel they are going to a good home. Sometimes that’s the fireplace…


Sandy L April 26, 2012 at 8:03 AM

Jacq – Like you and Linda, that’s more than 1/2 the reason I resell stuff, because I know it’s going to be used. I had a tag sale this weekend and I only made $200 because I charged like $1 or less for most of the items, but at least I knew they would be reused, at least for a little while. I even sold those toys from happy meals for 3 for $1, just so they wouldn’t go into the landfill just yet.


Jacq April 27, 2012 at 7:43 PM

I give everything away and always have. I think I have an aversion to selling stuff – and will deliberately not buy anything or not haggle in countries where that’s sort of a given just to not have to haggle. I don’t have the patience for it. 🙂


Molly (Mike and Molly's House) April 26, 2012 at 9:04 AM

Mike and I debate this one ALL the time! I watch Horders for marathon sessions and you see this in the people they help; there are two camps (both have tons of stuff): 1) those who throw everything away without any real issue; 2) those who cannot throw away a dirty tissue because it reminds them of their dead mother.
The former I don’t see as horders. They have gotten stuck somehow, somewhere but they are more paralyzed by the amount of stuff that has accumulated and not what the stuff means to them.
Of the two of us I have the more pronounced hording tendencies. Both my parents share this and I figured I picked up a few things from them growing up. Mike is preparing for the day something triggers me into full blown hordingness (no joke!) but in the meantime I do work on myself letting go of things that I no longer use or need.
My mom regularly sends me collections of things from my childhood. I ask/tell/plead with her to just get rid of it…don’t send it to me. She sends it and I look at it and what I realized recently my problem was this- She’s held on to these items that I let go of a long time ago. If she’s held on to them for over 30 yrs I feel compelled that they are too precious to just let go of after all of this time. It’s like I’m disrespecting her! So yes, if she sent me a dirty tissue saved from my childhood I would feel guilty for tossing it. Oh mothers!


Sandy L May 8, 2012 at 7:57 AM

Molly – it sounds like you are well aware of your tendencies and fighting not to become crippled by your stuff. Also, your home is smaller so there is just less room for stuff too…oh yeah, I forgot about the outbuildings.


Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter April 26, 2012 at 4:01 PM

My mother is an extremely sentimental person which I think causes issues. She has a real hard time getting rid of things. And like everyone she acquires more stuff each year. It’s a bad cycle.


Sandy L May 8, 2012 at 7:59 AM

Miss T – I am trying to buy less stuff at birthdays and holidays, or better yet, have it be consumable or an experience. I have a relative who I just buy experiences for because she has lots of stuff.


laura April 28, 2012 at 2:48 AM

I don’t have hoarding tendencies at all! I don’t like to through anything away though, it either gets donated or sold. My mum shops constantly and hoards stuff – it’s hard to stop her.


Sandy L May 8, 2012 at 7:58 AM

Laura – You’re the posterchild for simplicity. Maybe you’re just rebelling from your cluttered childhood.


Sheryl April 30, 2012 at 12:22 PM

I’ve always called my parents pack rats. Their defense has always been that they grew up in WWII in England and learned not to throw anything away that might have another purpose down the road.
Recently, I’ve realized that my father is more of a pack rat (he’ll dispose of things as he gets to it, taking things apart to sell the wire inside etc), but I’m starting to think my mother is more of a hoarder ( seems like everything has an emotional attachment).
I seem to be drawn to the same behaviors, but seeing how much stress it has caused them over the years (moving, always feeling like things have to be sorted out) I’m trying to find a balance that works for me, enough stuff that I have what I need or want, but not so much that I start feeling smothered or owned by it.

First time I’ve visited your blog, I’ll be back for sure!!


Sandy L May 8, 2012 at 8:01 AM

Sheryl – thanks for coming by. My mom grew up in WW2 as well, so many things were in short supply, so I understand how it is to save wood, screws and other odd “supplies”.


Sandy May 4, 2012 at 3:02 PM

I laughed when you mentioned the mason jars. I’m big on cleaning out stuff all the time. It seems to reproduce over the winter. And one year I tossed all the mason jars into the recycle bin. And it’s probably the only thing I want to use. I guess I could buy another box–they aren’t expensive, but I’d probably toss them out the following year. I come from a family of pack rats–my dad and two sisters. I have thought of them as Hoarders but if push came to shove, they would be like your mom and actually get rid of stuff. But collect they do. My third sister is helping second sister downsize to a condo and finds it really frustrating. I’ve talked her into doing that as a business, to help people part with their stuff. Not the mentally ill ones that your friend deals with. Just the ones who don’t know where to start so they freeze. I am just glad that I got over my feelings of wanted to constantly collect stuff–and I’m the richer for it! Now I really should go buy some mason jars.


Sandy L May 8, 2012 at 8:03 AM

Sandy – for the record, I didn’t toss the mason jars…just the old mayonnaise jars back when they used to be made of glass. Yes, go get yourself some mason jars for sure. Sometimes tag sales have them too. We picked up a few cases that way as well.


Julie @ Freedom 48 May 5, 2012 at 5:57 PM

I can understand the hoarding mentality… because I’m exactly the opposite. I have an urge to purge – I chuck/donate things all the time. Problem is, I’ll get rid of something… only to discover that I need it a while later. I do hold on to family photographs and my scrapbook albums, but otherwise, it’s all fair game.


Sandy L May 8, 2012 at 8:04 AM

Julie – that urge for simplifying your life makes purging a lot easier. I hate when I have so much stuff I can’t find something.


Squirrelers May 5, 2012 at 7:55 PM

On some level, I can relate to your post. I saw this as it’s interesting timing for me to read this.

I just helped my parents move out of their home of 34 years. It was tough on multiple levels. One aspect was the sheer volume of things that were saved over the years that needed to be sorted though and discarded. It was mind-boggling. Probably a future post and maybe more, on my site, to talk about the experience.

There are life lessons involved in helping older parents move, especially ones who liked to keep things and lived in the same place for a long time. By the way, I like the “moral support” recommendation you gave. That’s actually helpful for people in that situation, it seems.


Sandy L May 8, 2012 at 8:05 AM

Squirreler – I would love for you to do a post or several on that whole experience. I can’t wait to read more.


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