How to unclutter your handbag or purse

Amazon: Baggallini Baby Milano BagI think I've used up a week of my life (and the patience of various grocery store personnel) rummaging in my purse and/or wallet for the right key/card/pen/gum. I've tried various purse organizers, but they just end up as clogged with old receipts and gum wrappers as everything else.

I stumbled onto this hack because of a new purse Rael got me for Hanukkah. He's a bit of a bag fiend, and is also extremely organized, so he has pockets and locations for his stuff in his various (masculine! manly!) backpacks and messenger bags. For example, if I were to ask to borrow his keys (because mine are lost in the depths of my purse), he'd say "they're in the top left pocket with the black zip." I hate love him.

He insisted that the right purse would help solve my handbag chaos. And this, he said, was the right purse.

So I gave it a shot, and he was right — a good purse with enough pockets for your tools (whatever they are) is the first step. The next is how to use those pockets. A few little tweaks have made a huge difference to my daily sanity, and to my level of efficiency as I move through my day (and can be applied to any handbag, backpack or messenger bag):

Amazon: Baggallini Baby Milano Bag (Coinpurse)Use two wallets. This bag comes with a coinpurse attached to an internal strap. Unable to resist this little pouch (even though it seemed useless at the time), I stashed my cash and put my driver's license and most-used credit card in the clear front pocket. My old wallet now carries backup credit cards, reward cards, membership cards, insurance cards, and all the other trappings of adult life which get in the way of my simply paying for my groceries (or whatever).

Identify one pocket (preferably an external one) for your cell phone. Handbags + cell phones create two problems: you can't find it, or you can't hear it. This purse has an external pocket you can't really see in the picture, but it's the perfect size and shape for my iPhone. That is the ONLY place I put my phone, and NOTHING else goes in the pocket. Bonus: because my cell phone now has a specific storage location, I misplace it at home less often.

Amazon: Inkology Carabiner Band Clips, 6 Clips per PackAdd a caribiner to your keychain. There are a million uses for carabiners, those spring-hinged metal loopy hooks. But the most useful for me has been adding one to my keychain and hooking it inside a loop in my purse (or to the purse strap).

Embrace the "shove zone." One thing will never change: I will always mindlessly shove stuff in my purse. Gum wrappers, receipts, stuff my kids ask me to hold. Rather than fight it, I've accepted it and identified the main pocket as the "shove zone." Now that I know where my wallets, keys, and phone are, the clutter isn't so much of a problem. And when I find myself with 2-3 idle minutes (often at gas stations), I clear out the crap and throw it away. I love that gas stations have trash cans right next to the pump.

I still need to do a full dump-and-clear every so often, but not as often as before. More importantly, the constant desperate rifling through my purse is mostly a thing of the past. And I don't feel like such a hypocrite when I ask my kids to declutter their school backpacks.

What's your hack for maintaining a usable handbag?

RelatedAvoid locking your keys in the car

Get updates from Asha.

I'll email you when I have new writing, events, or news to share. This isn't an automated newsletter -- it's a personal note from me. Low-frequency (I respect your attention & inbox), privacy always, unsubscribe any time.

*indicates required


  1. says

    Well articulated, Asha! I finally developed a system over this past summer that is working for me, and it puts all of these principles to work and at least one more: clean it out. For ten minutes at least one evening a week (more if you’re “shoving” tons of stuff in all day long), dig out those receipts and gum wrappers and put them where they *actually* belong. Not only will you open up space but you’ll lighten the load on your back and you may find that paperback that went missing last Thursday. :-)

  2. Lisa says

    Baggallini bags are amazing for their pockets – a place for everything.

    I love my sydney bag for day trips with the kids.

    But I can’t live without my hobo lauren wallet for organizing my life. Luckily, my iphone fits in the front.

  3. says

    I have a Baggalini bag that I love for its pockets and its style, but which is a little too narrow — if I had my druthers the main “shove zone” would be a little larger/wider. Anyway, the one thing that’s really helped me is the old trick of using little internal cases, so you can easily transfer all your stuff from one purse to another. If I have too many pockets, I forget which one is for which – but makeup cases and bags are easier. I do put some essentials (phone, compact, lipstick and lip balm, pen) in the pockets, but everything else goes in the little bags; that way when I change purses it’s a lot more streamlined. That said, I still have a lot of bags lying around that still have pennies, gum wrappers, receipts, old business cards and other detritus in the bottom…

  4. says

    Organization really is key.

    My favorite purse is a Butler with a built in tray in the bottom.
    Something like these pictures:


    (sorry, horribly long links)
    Since I use multiple purses and (unfortunately) not all of them are Butler brand, I use multiple bags and cases in bags for easy switch over.
    I have a pencil case with pencils, pens, crayons from restaurants, stickers from cereal boxes. All good at a slow restaurant or extended wait in the car.
    Another bag holds a mini pack of kleenex, polysporin first aid kit, small sew kit like you’d find in a hotel, hand sanitizer, mini soap bar, women’s sanitary items and wet wipes.
    A third for makeup/lotion/lip balm.
    A card holder for all my cards and a wallet for cash.
    A change compartment/purse
    When I change from one bag to another or to a backpack for the day, I can grab the bags I’ll need and switch them over.
    They do not match identically!! It’s easier to find one when they don’t all have the same pattern and color.

    It sounds like a lot but when I go out with an evening bag its toned down severely to just my card case and maybe lipcolor of w/e im using.

  5. Janet says

    I use a toiletry bag, actually a freebie from Clinique, and keep it in my purse. It holds my checkbook, pens, crayons, lip gloss, extra hair ties, and emergency lollipops. Once I had all the little things in one place, it was easier to find the important stuff,keys, wallet, phone, etc.

  6. says

    I have a couple of clear vinyl makeup bags that I use for all the little things that I carry but don’t really use on a daily basis. Asprin, bandaids, hairbands, cough drops, pens, etc. It keeps them grouped together, easy to see, easy to locate and minimizes the amount of items I’m digging through. It has the benefit of working with any handbag. It’s really a removable pocket. I also am in love with having a caribiner on my keys.

    And I use a Baggalini tote for my mommy/weekend bag because it has two outside pockets that are perfect for sippy cups. And it weighs next to nothing when empty.

  7. Jen. says

    I love Tom Bihn bags. They come with little o-rings sewn into the bags and have straps that allow you to attach smaller zip pockets to the straps, in addition to the oodles of other pockets included. Truly, they are my go-to bag (and I own 3, plus a knitting bag). Don’t let your husband see it; he might get addicted!

  8. Jennifer R says

    Just like Penny, I use a few smaller zip-pouches in my purse instead of finding a purse with built-in pockets. The effluvia that gets shoved in the purse floats outside of those pouches, and it’s easy to switch to a different purse. Pouches of different colors/shapes/textures makes it easy to discern which one I am looking for.
    1. Mini-purse: wallet, phone, lipgloss, keys. This bag can be pulled out of my purse to use as a small purse on a quick errand.
    2. Toiletry pouch: tissues, Advil, tampons, band-aids, Neosporin
    3. Make-up pouch: lipstick, mascara, cover-up, moisturizer
    4. Card pouch: gift cards, reward cards, coupons
    5. Big Stuff pouch: umbrella, gum, notepad, purse hanger

  9. says

    LOVE THESE COMMENTS. I’ll have to check out the bags you’ve mentioned (although I must resist my husband’s bag-mania). I especially love the suggestion of mini interior pouches. Makes so much sense.

  10. says

    This could be considered blasphemy, but what about just not carrying the purse? Cash, 1 debit or credit card, 1 piece of identification, phone and keys will get you through most situations. The bigger the bag the more you carry for yourself and others.

  11. says

    brillient. I loathe my purses sometimes, even more so since becoming a mom!

    I hope you don’t mind me spamming my new blogging adventure, I hope you’ll check it out! I blog with the Mothers & More organization and we just started our adventure in the blogging world with Mothers Voices! We’d love a follow! Thank you! -Heather S. (Mothers & More is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the
    lives of mothers through support, education and advocacy. We address
    mothers’ needs as individuals and members of society, and promote the
    value of all the work mothers do.)

  12. Kim says

    I was amazed how many of these things I already employ, but I still feel constantly disorganized. But I have found the right purse: I just need to get used to it! I have a black Nine West purse (that they sold to me as a tote bag at Goodwill for $.50). It has a zippered portion in the middle that I use for medicine, bandaids, infant toothbrush, etc. There’s a loop on the end of the zipper I use to attach my keys to. Then to either side of it is a large pocket. One side holds pre-packed diaper kits (take one of the powder-scented diaper bags and tuck in a single diaper and an individual Wet Ones wipe for a really on-the-go kit that takes up less room and less time) and a sippy cup, a baby spoon or two, and a few containers of snacks. The other side holds my wallet (I hardly ever carry cash, so I grab all of my often-used cards and stick them in this zippered part where I can easily leaf through them. If it doesn’t get used at least once a week, it goes to the main parts of my wallet.), pens, a book, and any other odds and ends I’m carrying around. There are additionally two pockets on the outside, one on each side. I use one for gum, and one for my cell phone. I may have to search a little for the gum/phone, but if it isn’t in one spot, it’s in the other.

  13. says

    The kids got me a key-finder and remote (from Brookstone) for the holidays. I lose my keys EVERY DAY…somewhere in my purse. I aim the darned thing into a certain purse pocket and generally miss. The biggest decision: where to keep the remote so I don’t lose that, too! [answer: in my car]