What the contents of your purse/handbag say about you

It’s called a purse if you’re American and a handbag if you’re English. But whatever name you call it, it probably contains far more items than you will ever need.

Handbag contents

Many people have commented on an account I gave in my book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui about the time I visited some friends and their two-year-old child decided it was guest-handbag inspection time. She took everything out of my handbag, item by item, while her mother and father looked fondly on. Apparently this little girl ransacked handbags regularly, leaving a trail of embarrassed women in her wake.

I can assure you it is a wonderful feeling to sit back and watch with enjoyment rather than concern. Her parents had been prepared to apologize to me, but instead they awarded me the prize for the tidiest handbag they had ever seen.

Of course, it’s not always so immaculate, but I really can’t see the point of carrying a bag of litter with me everywhere I go, so regular clear-outs are as fundamental to me as laundering my clothes.

What’s in your purse/handbag?

The first recorded purse in history belonged to Ötzi the Iceman, a Neolithic man who lived over 5,000 years ago and whose mummified corpse was found intact, preserved in ice. Around his waist he had a belt with a pouch attached that contained small tools and a dried fungus that was found to have healing properties.

Nowadays women have handbags and men have man-bags, but the principle is the same – they are used to carry personal items when travelling from place to place, and can be a fashion statement too.

The problems start if you’re the kind of person who has a home filled with things you are keeping “just in case” you need them, because you are likely to try to replicate this when you are out and about.

Items commonly found in a purse/handbag

Items commonly found in a woman’s purse/handbag are (take a deep breath if you’re reading this out loud):

Keys, phone, wallet, credit cards, store cards, other cards, cash, receipts, make-up, mirror, hairbrush, comb, hair accessories, nail file, tweezers, perfume, deodorant, lip balm, jewellery, glasses, sunglasses, sunscreen, medicines, band-aids, dental floss, hand sanitizer, safety pins, sewing kit, tissues, notebook, pen, water bottle, flashlight, USB flash drive, portable music player, headphones, pepper spray (legal in some countries), mints, and various kinds of munchies. Younger women often carry tampons, contraceptives, and perhaps a morning-after pill too.

Extra items may be included according to need, such as an umbrella, magazine, book, ebook reader, hat, scarf, gloves… you can add your own favourites to the list.

Enter “purse dump” into Google images to see many examples of the contents of women’s bags. And if you’re interested to see the male equivalent, take a peek at whatsinyourbag.com.

How to have a clear-out

“EVERYTHING in my bag is essential”, you may think. But if you actually turn out the contents and go through them, it’s a pretty sure bet you’ll find items you are needlessly carrying around. Here’s how to lighten your load…

First, create a place in your home where you can keep things you sometimes carry in your purse/handbag but don’t need to take every day. It can be a drawer, box, shelf, or whatever works for you, and preferably located near your front door. This makes it much easier to change what you take with you from day to day, according to your need, instead of taking everything “just in case”.

Rubbish – Tip everything out of your bag. Shake out any remaining debris over a bin or, for a deeper clean, use a vacuum on a gentle setting. Keep a bin near you as you sort through your pile so that you can toss any rubbish as you find it.

Coins – They weigh a lot and quickly mount up. Keep a few, and put the rest in a money box to cash in at the bank when you’ve accumulated enough.

Keys – Carry only the ones you need every day. Leave any others at home.

Receipts – Create a place in your bag where you put receipts whenever you make a purchase. Go through and discard any that you don’t need to keep. File the rest in monthly folders so that you can easily check them against your bank and credit card statements when they arrive.

Credit cards, store cards and other cards – Do you have too many? And do really need to carry them all with you?

Food – Discard anything that’s been in there so long you wouldn’t feel right about offering it to a friend!

Seasonal items – Take out any items you’re not using at the moment, such as gloves in summer, or sunscreen in winter.

Make-up – Remove any items you rarely use (you can always add them back in for the days when you’ll need them).

Hair accessories and jewellery – Carry essentials only. Keep the rest at home.

Notebook – Get the smallest one you can for the purpose you use it for, or toss it and use an app on your phone to take notes instead.

Multiples – One is enough. More is just stuff.

Things you never use – Take out anything you’ve been carrying around with you for over a year and haven’t used even once.

Put back in your bag the things you need for today, place other items you need sometimes in your designated drawer or box, and return the items you never or rarely need to where they belong in your home.

Does it really matter what’s in your bag?

Your purse/handbag is a microcosm that says so much about you. Consciously or unconsciously, you’ve selected every item that’s in there, and each one tells its own story.

The way your bag is organized reflects how you live your life. If you find you’re always rummaging to find things, use small pouches to keep items of each type together, get yourself a bag that has more compartments, or invest in a bag organizer that can be put inside the bag you already have. When the bag you carry with you everywhere is more organized, your life starts to become more organized too.

If you would be happy for anyone at any time to see what you are carrying in your bag, that’s fine. The most this article will help you with is organizing it better. But if you would feel shame if someone were to take a look inside, it means there’s some part of you that is hiding from the world, and this will reflect how open you can be in your relationships. Having regular clear-outs will boost your self-esteem and allow more of the real you to shine through.

The great thing about decluttering a purse/handbag is that it doesn’t take long to do. Get into the habit of a once-a-week clear-out and experience how much better it makes you feel. Not only that but if you have a clutter-free bag, a natural progression is to want to have a clutter-free home. It begins in small and there’s no telling where it could end!

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2016, updated 2022

First published at SixtyandMe.com on July 20, 2016

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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6 Responses to What the contents of your purse/handbag say about you

  1. The last real purse I used was a large, colorfully striped tote. I liked the fun colors and for a while I enjoyed its roomy freedom. Sometimes it was truly useful, like if I remembered to pack a lunch, or ran errands on my break. But it also had room for almost anything I could “possibly need one day” such as a little flashlight or tiny first aid kit or mini sewing box. Plus all the lady things and whatnots, and each item that disappeared into the tote also disappeared from my awareness. When clean-out day finally came, I discovered a moldy lemon at the bottom of my fun and useful tote. Whee!

    I now carry nothing but my phone with its little sticky pocket for cards. I still have two small bags and a backpack that come in handy now and then, like when I’m wearing something without good pockets, but mostly I’ve realized that I just don’t need to drag things around with me. It feels good to be free from all the stuff, so I’m grateful for that moldy lemon.

  2. Pockets or fabric sling purse: smartphone (with Kindle app), house keys, miniature book-type wallet of bank cards etc, purse (loose change).
    Backpack: earplugs (inner pocket, for bus travel), folded plastic carrier bags (outer pocket, for additional shopping).
    Across-the-body bag: diary / notebook, retractable ballpoint pen, folded lightweight backpack, embroidery scissors (pointed & super sharp).
    (Contents shifted as needed between pockets / purse / backpack / bag)
    Plus sometimes a paperback book / collapsible umbrella (sheathed in plastic bag).
    Now so easy to keep track, & seldom need anything else.

  3. I think it’s so interesting that clutter in my handbag could potentially mean that there’s some part of myself that I’m hiding from the world and that this will reflect how open I can be in my relationships!!!!??? Wow.

  4. I cannot abide handbags, but use a small rucksack. Sounds like a potential clutter disaster? Not at all! I carry only what I need (12 items, including my travel pass, work door pass and drawer keys) and there’s space to pop in a few food purchases on my way home. All I need now is a lighter weight e-reader since my current one is the heaviest thing I carry daily with me.

    My home is a work in progress – I’m married to a chronic clutterer – but my bag is my own and it’s sorted.

  5. I have virtually no clutter in my handbag. I used to carry a large handbag which was heavy on my shoulder. Since reading your book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, the story about the two year old giving guests a handbag inspection stuck in my mind and changed everything for me. A clear bag is a clear mind, and one more area that I don’t have to worry about. My bag is small, light, filled with just the right number of compartments. I know exactly what’s inside and that is so peaceful. I am now working on being junk drawer free. The process of being completely free of clutter takes a long time but is life changing and worth the work.

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