CLUTTER and HOARDING... What’s The Difference?

Hoarder, pack-rat, collector; these are the words often used to describe people who have an excess of material things, whether joking or seriously.

Many of us have a relative, friend, neighbor or acquaintance who is challenged with maintaining clean and clear living spaces. Is it just clutter or is it hoarding? How can you tell the difference?

The authors have close to a total of 40 years of organizing, de-cluttering and de-hoarding experience between them. Because of these years of experience we see and recognize the differences between clutter and hoarding situations.


People with serious clutter problems DON’T discard things. Perhaps they grew up in a hoarding household, an untidy one or where saving was encouraged. Perhaps they are over-scheduled, get distracted or are impulsive shoppers.

People who have hoarding issues CAN’T discard things. There are proven differences in brain activity. Hoarders assign too much value to an item, become overwhelmed and are unable to make decisions. In their brain, conflicting information and uncertainty make it impossible to decide to discard something. Hoarders may become frustrated, angry, resentful and defensive when they are pushed to make decisions about letting go of their possessions. Because Hoarding Disorder is not generally understood, people call hoarders lazy and sloppy and want to “take a match” to the home.


People who clutter often dispose of things relatively easily. With emotional support, insight and coaching they are readily able to form new habits that eliminate clutter. These new habits include things like structured, regular clean up, use of specific organizing tools or coaching to build new habits. There is often back-sliding but rarely does the clutter become as bad as it originally was and there is an openness to try again.

Too much stuff can cause: depression, anxiety, stress, stigma, health and safety problems, eviction, isolation and damage to relationships. People who clutter and people who hoard often report feeling overwhelmed and a loss of control.

A person who clutters is able to face these feelings more easily than a person who has a hoarding disorder. Their stress can be relieved more quickly and their understanding of the reasons for their cluttering is greater.


Hoarding is the compulsive acquisition of a great number of possessions and the inability to discard them even though they may be of no value. Even thinking about throwing away an empty box causes anxiety or distress. Hoarding is a recognized Mental Health Disorder and can be diagnosed by a Mental Health practitioner.

Friends and family may be worried about the health and safety of a hoarder. They often lose patience, get angry and even clear the home thinking they are helping. This is harmful and often sets the hoarder back emotionally and even physically. The hoarder then acquires more things and fills up the space, sometimes worse than before.

With a lack of motivation, poor insight and the distress of deciding what to keep or what to discard, a hoarder will live in piles of junk and may not seem to be aware of or bothered by the condition. Learning new organizing habits comes after the stressful work of gaining personal insight into the reasons for hoarding.



Both cluttering and hoarding can have similar consequences in that social interactions can become limited due to the shame and embarrassment people feel about their homes. A hoarder or clutterer may stop inviting people to visit and then become isolated. Poor health is often an issue. Dust, mold, poor air quality and more are caused by the inability to clean thoroughly. Feelings of being overwhelmed or hopeless or inadequate are common.



Our goal as Professional Organizers is to simplify, declutter and organize so that your home or office is safe and useable. How this is done depends on an individual’s situation and capabilities. Approaches for a clutterer are different than for a hoarder.

Professional Organizers are a fantastic resource! Suspending judgement, patiently listening and skilled coaching are parts of our tool kit. We have many resources to share with you. Contact a member of NBOC to ask questions and let us know how we can help!

This post was created by the following NBOC members:
Margo Hansen of HansenResource Organizing
Timothy J. Blevins of Get Organized, LLC
Ruth Hansell of Clutter Demolition