Does a “One In, One Out” Policy Work?

One way in which many women try to maintain a manageable wardrobe is to institute a “one in, one out” policy.  This means that each time they bring something new into their closets, they need to let go of an existing item.   In some cases, this item must come from the same category as the new piece (i.e. a dress for a dress or a long-sleeved top for a long-sleeved top), but it can also just be one for one from any wardrobe area.

one in, one out policy

When you buy something new, do you cull an existing item?

I have loosely tried to follow this policy since I started the blog, but I haven’t been very strict about it at all.  What usually ended up happening was that I noticed “closet creep” had occurred, so I spent some time going through everything and getting rid of enough items to level things out again.   But doing that doesn’t feel very deliberate, which is my theme for the year.

As I have mentioned previously, I did too much shopping during July and August and I am finding my closet too full once again.  In trying to figure out what to do about that, I came back to the “one in, one out” concept and have been considering taking it on and being stricter this time around.

Advice from the Facebook Group

Because my private Facebook group is such a wonderful resource, I decided to ask for their feedback on this issue. The following is a sampling of some of the responses I received:

  • “I keep aspiring to have this policy, but it’s not very strict. I think it’s because I’m still struggling to redefine my personal style, so there are more fluctuations for the time being. I definitely do it if I buy something that’s similar to what I already have. Then the old one has to go so I’m not ‘splitting my wears.’ Obviously, I must have thought the new one was better anyway….”
  • “I have never seriously intended to do that. I think I just do it when finding my ‘Moby Dick’ (highly elusive wardrobe item) and can purge the multiples I bought on the way. If I find THE denim jacket, then it will be ‘one in, three out.’ So I never really think about numbers.”
  • “I’ve mentioned this before, but I think a constant cycle of clothing in and clothing out can be just as unhealthy as buying and accumulating. I think this rule can be harmful because it makes us think the purchases are not a problem because the overall number of garments stays the same.”
  • “I follow this rule, but I’m not always strict. I think it works very well in cases like mine, where the problem is that I already own a lot of things I like, but keep on shopping. Because I love what I have, it’s not easy to eliminate an item – and this makes justifying another buy more difficult.”
  • “I tried this, but it didn’t work for me. I keep a count of all of the items I purge monthly. If I look back and I see where I haven’t done much purging, I will step it up. I keep telling myself, my closet didn’t get full overnight, and it’s not going to be reduced overnight, either. Like life, it is a journey!
  • “Yes, I do that all the time. But it’s usually to stylistically upgrade a version of something that has seen better days, or just to be more current. Then the older garment goes to consignment or donation.”
  • “I thought I liked and needed rules. I was very much governed by them and thought up complicated and intractable lists, but recently I’ve discovered that they’re very restrictive and they give me a stick with which to beat myself. Sometimes, just sometimes, I have to accept that I’ll fall below the standards I’ve set for myself and that’s okay. I’m just doing my best.”
  • “I tend to get rid of anything that isn’t working, so I don’t think I really follow this rule, either. I actually thought what you said last night about letting your wardrobe just ‘be’ for a little while was a better idea. I think it may be good to just be comfortable with what you have. I don’t know, so I’m just throwing it out there, but do you think that this new rule might have something to do with ‘punishing’ yourself for having bought too much?”
  • “I’m curious about the one in, one out strategy. It seems punishing to have to give up something that you might like to accommodate something you’ve just bought. I like everything I have, so for me that would mean to stop shopping. That’s not really going to happen, is it? So, how about if I only buy stuff I love and that will work in my current wardrobe? Think long and hard about everything you want to introduce into your wardrobe.”
  • “I think this rule could be a great one or an error, depending on how you use it. If everything is pared down and you love your entire wardrobe, it could be good to stop shopping for a while. At the same time, though, it could also be a rule that allows for too many purchases. I think if the rule works for you, by all means go for it. I know that up until this summer, I would have flopped, but I think at this stage, the rule would be a benefit to my personal shopping.”
  • “I don’t do well with self-imposed rules, so I don’t have any specific policies like this, although I do have to keep my limited storage in mind. Personally, I don’t like the idea of having to get rid of something just because I found something else I like. If the item was so great that I had to have it, I would find room for it. Otherwise, I would just not buy it. For me, personally, if I was getting rid of clothes just for the sake of maintaining numbers, that would mean I never really liked them that much in the first place. Having said that, I think there are merits to the one-in-one-out rule and the like if you’re the kind of person who does well with rules.”
  • “If you really love most of your clothes, a ‘one in, one out’ rule could help you slow down. But if you don’t love your clothes or aren’t sure of your style yet, you could be setting yourself up to be continually replacing so-so or bad purchases with more so-so or bad purchases.”

What Do You Think?

Lots of food for thought from that group, don’t you think?  Now I’d love to get your input and perhaps some good discussion here on the topic of “one in, one out.”  Do you have such a policy?  If so, how does it work for you?  Have you tried it and felt it didn’t work for you?  If it’s not something you want to try, why not?   What works for you in terms of keeping your closet to a manageable size?   Please share your feedback in the comments section.

My “modified break” is almost over and it feels like the time has zipped by without my getting nearly as much done as I had hoped.  But I’m going to be back with regular posts soon and keep going with my side projects on the side.   Stay tuned for a debrief on the packing for my Tahoe trip (see my May 2014 travel debrief here) and accountability and LIWI updates for the past two months.  Wishing you all a wonderful weekend!

40 thoughts on “Does a “One In, One Out” Policy Work?

  1. Hi Debbie – wonderful post as usual. No, I don’t do a one-in, one-out. Most of the time I do three-out, and then (im)patiently wait for my shopping calendar to do one-in. I don’t like rules like that – I don’t want to get rid of something that actually still works just because of a rule (arh, you know I like rules, why would I keep my calendar if I didn’t), I think I have gotten really good at purging when something is no longer working. They go to that secret hiding place and I forget they ever existed. Very rarely do I go get something back and every year or so (no strict rules on that either), they leave the building.

    • Good to see you commenting here, Mette. Your calendar is definitely admirable and I know it’s very helpful to you. I have had similar experience with the “secret hiding place” as what you mentioned.

  2. Hi. Debbie–please continue to take care of your precious self; we need your wonderful posts with their thoughtfulness and fairness to all.
    I borrow your term when I say that this one in/out policy does work if you have reached your set point, as I have. I have 39-42 total wardrobe items as per Project 333 rules (depends on if you count tanks as underwear or tops!) I am a rational person, but in this set point thing, I can just say it works–with laundry, variety, different scenarios– and it feels right. So it stays. If I wear an item out, it is replaced by one item. I feel free and settled since this point has been arrived at. It may change as my needs change, but I will find the new point if so.

    • I appreciate your kind thoughts and wishes, Helen, and I admire your small and workable wardrobe. Very good point about one in, one out working well when one has reached their closet “set point.”

  3. I doidn’t expect to have an “a-ha!” moment before I had even had coffee.

    Great article! and wow, there are some great points in here, and that just helped me sort out some thoughts…

    “One in, one out”, has two parallel goals or potential outcomes, and I think I have been matching the wrong idea or implementation, to the wrong goal. And I’ve lacked a certain specificity.

    The way I see it, there are two positive outcomes that can happen with this: keep or reduce the set number of items in your wardrobe… and shop less to save money.

    I’ve been doing one in, one out for a couple of months now, without ever really naming or owning it. I lacked specificity in my goals. So for 2+ months, there has been a steady trickle of items coming in, and replacing items that I already liked well enough, and were at least good enough for my intents and purposes. For example, there are always going to be cute little black short-sleeve tees out there, I don’t need to keep upgrading a tee.

    The time and effort I’ve spent on ‘upgrades’ has not improved my overall life, or brought me any greater satisfaction or happiness.

    I became so fixated on the number of items, I didn’t pay attention to the money I’ve spent. That amount has come down in recent months, but I know I can do a lot better with this.

    I am going to keep this in the forefront of my mind, and emphasize the SHOP LESS aspect.

    • Thank you SO much for sharing this, Mary Beth. This is a very powerful comment. My experience has been much like yours. Some items just don’t need to be upgraded. Like you, I also need to emphasize the shop less aspect of “one in, one out.” Not only do I want to save money, I also want to better use what I have and free up more time for other things in life.

  4. When I’ve tried to implement a rule like this I’ve found myself trying to “game the system,” i.e., keeping something in my closet that I wasn’t thrilled about so that it could be my “one out” if I found something that I wanted to buy. Not good!

    I agree that this sort of rule could lead to a constant drip-drip-drip of wardrobe churn and/or upgrading, where it seems like one is maintaining a reasonably sized wardrobe but actually still spending a lot of money and doing a lot of shopping.

    I am by no means perfect at this, but I think what might work best for me is just to satisfy my urge for novelty by spending a bit of time playing around with what’s already in my closet. That also helps me see what’s “missing” from my wardrobe, so when I do decide to bring something in I have a good sense of what role it is playing and what it is going to contribute to my closet — which matters more than absolute numbers, to me.

    • Very good points, Sarah. I have “gamed the system,” too, and have had lots of issues with “wardrobe churn.” I bought too much in recent months, but I agree that my best next step is to spend more time playing around with what’s in my closet. No need to purge just for purging’s sake.

  5. I am moderately strict about the 1 in/1 out policy. Sometimes I even do 1 in/2 out, as I am considering doing right now with fall/winter. I have a camel colored tunic with black leather pockets and a camel and black striped long cardigan that has to be fussed with a lot and has no pockets. I am considering ditching both of these for a camel colored long cardigan with pockets which I believe will be much more useful.

    • Love this, Deby. I think there are lots of instances in which two – or even more – items in our existing wardrobes could be replaced by just one really fabulous piece. Good luck with finding your new cardigan!

  6. I did a huge Kon-Mari purge in March so I am trying not to follow the 100 out, 100 in rule! ?

    I switched to shopping seasonally last spring. I feel really good about this change. It has forced me to evaluate each seasonal wardrobe and buy things to fill the gaps. I had a huge gap in spring as I transistioned from dress pants to more casual pants at work. I also was in serious need of lighter spring shoes. Summer purchases were more reasonable as my wardrobe was in pretty good shape. I am in the process of updating my fall wardrobe now. I am able to wear many of the casual spring pants now that cooler weather has begun to move in.

    I plan to do a mini-purge this weekend to get rid of items that are past their prime or that are hopelessly outdated. As I have gotten older, I find that outdated clothing items really age me. I’ve bought a few new accessories and some awesome leopard flats so I think I am in good shape for fall.

    While I like the idea of one in, one out, I don’t think it will work for me right now. I am happy with this seasonal approach because it gets my wardrobe updated rather quickly, I get sick of shopping during couple of weeks I am updating my wardrobe, and I feel relaxed when it’s over knowing that I have a couple of months with no need to shop.

    • Thanks for sharing about your seasonal shopping approach, Anne. I hope to move to that type of system, too, as I think it is very reasonable. I may even try the “Five Piece French Wardrobe” challenge next year. I hope your mini-purge went well. I agree that outdated clothing can really age us, especially when we are – gulp – middle-aged.

  7. I think that the ‘one-in one-out’ makes more sense when you buy only the one item after one has been moved out. I have moved out several weekend-only tops lately, but none has been replaced since there is still enough left in that section of my wardrobe to wear for the day and a half that I actually wear very casual clothes.

    • I agree that this is a good approach, Cornelia, but it’s important to be patient when buying the replacement items. Some of us get impatient and “settle” for less than, but if we are willing to take the time to buy the right things for us, this is a good way to go.

  8. This sometimes works for me if I am upgrading or replacing, then I get rid of the old worn/outdated one. I upgrade due to style/life changes, fashion or getting tired of items. More often though I buy to fill holes in my wardrobe. I have had a cognac boot hole for a couple of years, maybe this will be the year I find some — but I certainly won’t get rid of any of my other boots when I find them so the rule would not apply. Some of my other holes: brown or olive autumn/spring dress, brown cardigan, cozy but thin knit, interview/presentation suit. Since I do a lot of thrift shopping I am patient.

    • Very good point, Mary. Sometimes there is really no need to let go of an existing item when we buy something, especially if no redundancy is created.

  9. No, having a fixed number of items doesn’t appeal to me. Needs change, and it seems wasteful to get rid of something that fits, suits, is in reasonable condition which you may wear in a year or two when needs, fashions and circumstances change. I put things away. ‘Shopping’ my storage at a later date often saves me time and money. Even things I thought I’d probably not wear again can get a new lease of life in combination with a fresh purchase or fashion trend.

    • I agree that there is no need to get rid of items that still work. Using a storage area can be a good way to avoid closet clutter and have a sense of “newness” from time to time without buying. The key is to review the storage items periodically, I think.

  10. I’ve tried this, but it doesn’t work well for me. Too many times, I’ve shopped to fill a hole in my wardrobe, then forced myself to get rid of something to maintain a certain number. Then, of course, I sometimes find that I have created a new wardrobe hole. Maybe the problem is that I have arbitarily picked a wardrobe number that is too low for me. In any event, this has mostly become a way to beat myself up, which is not helpful.

    • Excellent point, Murphy. I agree that arbitrary wardrobe numbers aren’t really helpful. That’s why I haven’t selected an ideal number, but I have found that over time, I am wanting a smaller wardrobe. Yes, beating ourselves up is NOT helpful!

  11. Hi Debbie

    I don’t follow this rule at all. I do believe that if I can follow one in-one out, I wouldn’t get a handle on my shopping at all. I do something very different, because I’ve identified my shopping phases. Usually, I try a new silhouette. Like say for example – printed tshirts or floral dresses or bootcut jeans or patterned leggings. If I like it very much and think that silhouette is a good fit for my lifestyle, I’ll add a few pieces and then decide what it replaces. For example – sheer chiffon blouses or skinny jeans or boring leggings or pencil skirts. Then I collect everything I have from the silhouette I don’t love (barring 2 fabourites) and I pass them on. This way, I remove a silhouette to add another to my style. Since I’m in a building phase where I’m still learning to stop shopping for an imaginary lifestyle and shop for my real lifestyle, I feel that it’s justified to try simpler, more casual yet polished silhouettes. The old items go to a home where they will be very much appreciated. I did the same when I gave away all super high heel shoes and introduced comfortable sandals to my wardrobe.

    The only area I do follow the one in-one out rule is handbags. I’m very fond of handbags and have a rather large collection that fits neatly into a closet. To add any more, I have to discard an older bag. It works for me.

    Once my wardrobe is sufficiently built to cater to my new style preference, I suspect I’ll be more strict with the one in-one out rule.

    • This seems like a very sound approach, Maneera. I think it’s important not to buy too many new pieces in a new style or silhouette until we’re sure we really like it and it will work for us. I have done that far too often and have regretted it later. I would say one or two new pieces should be the limit for at least a month or two. Good plan to wait a little bit before letting go of the items in the alternate style or silhouette. I think people often purge too hastily and regret it later. This is part of why I like the “hidden holding zone” so much and use it often.

  12. If you shop to replace a worn item or an item you no longer want, and you have a reasonable, workable for you number of items, then the one in/seems right. No? It works for me this way.

    • I think it works well for some people and not others. When one has a good workable wardrobe, it can be a simple way to keep a consistent number. I’m glad it works for you, Helen.

  13. It`s a great idea…..I just become unstuck when I and my daughter and my daughter-in-law all swap clothes amongst each other and so I end up with 3 or 4 incomers but I don`t want to get rid of anything!! (apart from the pieces my girls have extracted from me 🙂 )

    • It’s great that you can swap clothes with your daughter and daughter-in-law, Fiona. One in, one out doesn’t work for everyone. Some people do better with doing regular “closet audits” (maybe twice a year) using the KonMari process or something similar. There are different methods that work for keeping closet size down.

  14. I do not follow the one in/ one out -rule. It simply does not make sense to get rid of an item I like just because I find another one I like. I am a picky shoper and struggle to find clothing I really like, so discharging of something I like (and that fits me and works with my lifestyle etc) just to keep a rule does not make sense to me. That being said, when something needs to be replaced (worn out, does not fit properly anymore…), I do get rid of the olde piece of clothing when I get the new one. But that is because I no longer need or use the old one, not to keep the size of my wardrobe at a certain number. I should probably mention I read your blog because I like to learn about wardrobe building (not reducing) and absolutely love the insights you offer on so many subjects, so this does not come from someone who is/ has been struggeling with overshopping – but I find the question interesting anyway. Thank you for using your time and energy on your blog, and please take care!

    • Your approach seems very sound, Hilda, and others have mentioned something similar above. The way you do it is a good way of employing “one in, one out.” I appreciate your thanks for my blog. It is nice to know that people are benefiting from my posts!

  15. I’ve been slowly pruning a too-large wardrobe over the last two years by a simple rule of throwing away 5 more than I purchase each season. I’ve know from the start that a single big purge would not work for me, it would simply create space to fill with a big burst of new purchases. I’ve also been trying to limit purchases to 5/season (i.e. 20/year). Haven’t quite stuck to this, but the rules have nevertheless forced me to think very carefully before each new purchase (the more I buy, the more I will need to throw away), so it’s worked well for me. I think it’s probably a good approach if you already have a reasonable number of clothes you really like, as it puts a brake on new purchases.

    • I really like the method you are using, Alice, as it is not too extreme and seems quite workable. It will take longer than more drastic approaches, but the effects will likely be more lasting. About limiting your purchases, I think it’s good to set goals for ourselves. Even if we don’t quite reach them, we will usually do better than if we haven’t set any goals at all.

  16. I’ve never done this in a strict item by item way, but organically come around to it when I find a newer item pushes an old one aside. After finding I prefer the newer version I pass on the older one. It can take some overlap of time before this happens or it can be almost instantaneous.
    The other side is when I purge a fave that’s worn out and then seek its replacement. This doesn’t always work as well. I get in to the ‘hunt it down’ mode to desperately fill the hole. Better to just let it be until I happen upon a great replacement.

    • I have had a similar experience, Mo. The “hunt it down” mode often leads to hasty decisions and sub-standard purchases, at least that is how it goes for me. I think that finding the replacement first is a better way to go, especially with wardrobe staples that we would miss if we didn’t have.

  17. I generally do one-out/one-in, whereby I get rid of something FIRST then replace it. The item I no longer want is gone and it might be replaced immediately or over a season or two. I did a seasonal purge recently and eliminated several items (6) from my wardrobe. I just replaced these items with a new blouse that has a small over-all print and goes with all of my pants, and I’m also looking for a new pair of black pants. While I don’t keep to an exact amount, my wardrobe, including outerwear, hovers around 125+/- pieces. So 6 out, 1 (maybe 2) in. Works for me.

    • I think this is a good approach for someone like you, Dottie, who has good self-discipline and patience. If you are willing to wait a season or two until you find a suitable replacement, that’s great, but many people are far more hasty and it makes sense for them to find the replacement first before purging. The key is “know thyself” and it may take some trial and error to find what will work best for each of us.

  18. Once upon a time many years ago I was a frequent shopper and my wardrobe was jam-packed. Back then I edited my closet each season releasing many items that were either worn out or dated and I bought and brought in new items on a regular basis. But I never kept count of how much came in and went out each year. Then when I decided to make a big change and downsize my wardrobe I gave up frequent shopping and continued to edit down. Slowly the size of my wardrobe began to shrink. Today I have a small wardrobe and I shop seasonally as much as possible and I do what Dottie does– I usually do one-out/one-in, and I get rid of something FIRST then replace it. The item I no longer want to keep is released. After it is gone I might replaced it immediately, but sometimes it takes a while to find what I want. And sometimes if it is not a wardrobe staple I decide not to replace it. I don’t keep track of the size of my wardrobe, yet I’m mindful that I want it to stay small and I am careful to only bring a small amount in each season, and continue to release items seasonally that are past their prime. I’ve found what works best for me. Though it’s good for me to be reminded regularly to stay alert and not to ever fall back into a mindless buying default mode.

    • I’m glad you have found an approach that works really well for you, Terra. Your commitment to having a small wardrobe and to finding the right item for you makes this system really workable for you. For those of us who are more impatient, I think it could be better to keep the original item around until a replacement has found unless it’s unwearable. I agree that it’s VERY important to stay alert and watch out for that mindless-buying default mode. I never want to go there again, either!

  19. I used to do the one in one out, but stopped. Debbie — some of the comments you have made when reflecting on outfits resonated with me and have helped me part with clothing I hung onto for years. Now I find I decide to part with items more when I put them on to wear or after I have worn them and found that I felt they were too fussy (e.g. spent my day tugging the top/skirt into place) or otherwise somehow felt self-conscious or unhappy in the clothing. My closet is now so small, I can see everything I have at once, and have nothing other every day clothing stored elsewhere (two business suits and heavy jackets are hung in another spot), so searching for items to cull or clothes I forgot that I owned is no longer necessary like it was when I had extra bins of clothes and things in my daughters’ closets. Thanks for sharing with us all!

    • Congrats on having a small and workable wardrobe, Sara! That is a goal that many of us want to reach. I’m glad some of my comments were helpful to you. I usually decide to part with items after wearing them for a while, too. There is nothing like real world experience to tell us if something works for us or not.

  20. Debbie, I hope you are well. Usually you publish 2x/week, and it’s been longer than usual. I enjoy your blog and look forward to the new postings. Irene

    • Thanks for your concern, Irene. I ended up extending my vacation and only had one scheduled post for while I was away (this one). I am back now and will be resuming regular posts this week. I plan to publish one tomorrow and will have another one or two later in the week.

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