Is the ‘One In, One Out’ Rule a Must for Minimalist Living?

The one in one out rule is an extremely popular decluttering rule that many minimalists swear by.

The Minimalists, use and advocate for 1 in 10 out and Marissa from A to Zen Life argues that it’s the “secret to a clutter free home.” Apartment Therapy even promotes this rule as a maintenance tool to have a clean and tidy home.

I’m, however, not a fan, and in this post I’ll share why.

What is the one in one out rule?

At its core, the one in one out rule is simple. For every item you bring in, you remove or declutter a similar item from your home. It’s a guideline that’s intended to promote mindfulness and  helps you to achieve equilibrium, or a balance of stuff in your home.  If you’re an avid user of the rule the thought is that you’ll never again bring it too many thing, especially because you can apply it to any aspect of your life: clothing, kitchen gadgets, beauty products, or home goods.

Why is the one in one out rule used?

Beyond the reduction of clutter there are two central benefits: mindful consumption and increased organization.

Mindful consumption: The one in one out rule does encourage thoughtful purchasing decisions. When you buy something, you have to weigh that new thing against what you already have, because bringing in something new will have a cost. By considering the cost you’re ultimately asking yourself: is this new thing better than what I already have? When you know you have to declutter or sacrifice something you already own you’ll (hopefully) think twice and be more thoughtful about your choice.

It’s supposed to discourages impulsive shopping and prompt you to consider the value and necessity of each item before bringing it to your home.

Organization and order: The rule is also supposed to help you maintaining a balance of items. If you never increase the quantity of stuff that you own your living space should remain clutter-free. And, it should be easier to clean and organize your home too. The rule is supposed to act like a “failsafe” against overconsumption and therefore organization and clutter too.

So, what’s wrong with the rule?

One of my main gripes with minimalism is that it’s a stuff-centered philosophy or approach to living– it’s an obsession with stuff.

The one in one out rule can help you achieve balance in how much you own, but this rule ultimately makes you think about stuff and the value of your stuff a lot. It’s just another way that minimalism brings stuff to the forefront of our minds.

At its core, minimalism is supposed to help people live happier and more content live. However, the rule keeps you thinking about quantity more than any other factor of living. Minimalists tend to say that there is no firm number for being a true minimalist because “it’s not about how much you own.” If you’re living with less, and more minimally than you were before, you’re a minimalist. This rule seems to imply otherwise. Even with that aside, minimalists argue for freeing yourself of stuff. You know, stuff and material possessions aren’t what make us happy. But, you’re not “freeing” yourself of stuff if you’re thinking about stuff all the time.

At the end of the day does it matter if you own 500 things vs 577 things? Will those 77 things truly make you unhappy and impede your ability to live the life you desire and bring you contentment? I think not.

Following the rule becomes the most important metric and you can end up decluttering stuff for the sake of it simply because it’s the rule.

Life isn’t split into hoarders and minimalists. There’s a whole lot of middle ground for people to live happily and thrive.

If you’re already doing your research on the item up for consideration, you’re thinking about factors like cost, value for money, aesthetics, functionality and probably more. Do you really need to spend more time on this? And, with that, when does consideration turn into obsession? Does every purchase need to be considered for days or weeks?

This method also seem disingenuous  because your hand is being ‘forced.’ Do you actually want to get rid of something? Do you need to get rid of something? Do you want to keep everything you already have? Since when is quantity more important than quality, contentment, or joy with your stuff?

Decluttering isn’t always the answer. When we buy something we take ownership over that thing whether we like it or not. If you declutter that item do you know what’s going to happen to it? Handing an item to a friend or selling it on Poshmark gives some assurances that your item is going to be used. If not, you have no idea where that thing will end up. Sometimes the best place for an item to be is in your home where you know you’ll get use out of the thing.

The rule’s biggest problem

If you’re truly struggling with stuff, and by that I mean you’re constantly bringing in new stuff, you might have a shopping problem and not a clutter problem. If you do live by the rule it will add a layer of intentionally (as discussed above). But, if you currently have a shopping problem adding the rule won’t automatically change how you shop.

How you shop is a habit, well, more like a constellation of habits. Scrolling at night, scrolling in bed, emotional shopping, retail therapy. There are so many factors that contribute to how you shop.

The habit loop (cue, craving, response, reward) is responsible for how you shop. To change how you shop you need to work on cues more than anything. Ex. If your emotions are the cue, a bad day at the office can trigger the habit loop. The one in one out rule won’t stop you from shopping. It might once or twice, but overtime you will revert to your old habits because this minimalist rule doesn’t address any part of the habit loop.

In my opinion, you already have to have decent habits in order for the rule to be effective at all. If you want to change the way you shop and be a more mindful consumer there are better ways.


The strict application of the one in one out rule might overlook situations where bringing in an additional item is genuinely necessary or desired. It’s important to recognize that the rule can be flexible and allow for exceptions to accommodate practical needs or personal preferences if you are going to follow it.

When my partner and I moved in together we wanted and needed a whole host of new items that my current place didn’t have. It didn’t have enough shoe storage for our combined shoes. I didn’t have a couch or a TV. We needed an extra dresser and a nightstand. Plus, we wanted to hang up some art to personalize the place. We got some extras too like a rainfall shower head, extra towels so we can change them out more often, and a mat to go by our sink for washing dishes.

If we chose to follow the rule in this circumstance we would have decluttered stuff simply for the sake of it. There was also quite a few items where there was no equivalent item to declutter. And, the new item was going to take up significantly more space. What do I declutter in lieu of a TV? A nightstand? Do I toss shoes? We decided to prioritize functionality and adding ease to our lives. There is no point in turning every purchase into an agonizing situation where you navel-gaze and consider purchases for hours. Shopping doesn’t have to be like that.


If you want an alternative to help you shop more mindfully, which in turn will help with clutter, there are some alternative questions you can consider when shopping. You don’t need to consider them all every time but hopefully one or two will stand out you can put in your arsenal.

  • would I rather have the thing or money?
  • how many hours did I have to work to afford this?
  • how many times a month do I think I would wear/use this item, and how many months (approximately) would it take me to use this item 100 times? Ex. Wearing a sweater 3 times a month = 34 months (almost 3 years)
  • will this item be useful or useable to me in one year?
  • If applicable, do I see myself using this item to completion? Am I willing to put in the time and effort to do that?
  • Where will this item live and do I have room for it?
  • Do I have something I can use already? Or, can I go without or borrow? I have personally borrowed and/or been given a number of weird items over the years from eggs (I needed 2 for a recipe and I don’t buy eggs), to drain cleaner, a vacuum, a wrench, a level, power cords, and much more.

The one in one out rule may offer a practical framework for managing possessions and cultivating a more intentional lifestyle. But, just because this rule works for other minimalists doesn’t mean it’s something you have to adopt. If your goal is to be a more conscious consumer and shop intentionally there are probably better ways to go about it than this rule. If minimalism is part of your journey, finding what works best for you is key to creating a space that reflects your values and promotes well-being. And, what works best, might not be the popular take.

2 thoughts on “Is the ‘One In, One Out’ Rule a Must for Minimalist Living?”

  1. Pingback: Home Organization Hacks - Decluttering and Streamlining Your Space - Modern Day Men

  2. Pingback: Order in the House: Organizing Techniques that Transform Your Home - ST Magazine

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