For New York City mom Kumiko McKay, reaching into her shoulder bag could, at any given time, yield a toddler's swimsuit, paperwork from the course she teaches on Shiatsu therapy, a dirty tissue, and, as she discovered at a bookstore yesterday, a palm-sized rock.
"My bag is too big,'' she said. "I put everything in it and I don't know where to find anything…and then my baby starts to scream and I get more upset."
"Our external environment is a reflection of our internal chaos," said Wendy Walsh, a Beverly Hills therapist who specializes in relationships, including what is, for some, the messy and complicated relationship with possessions.
Purses were not meant to become portable storage sheds, camouflage for those extra pounds, or designer Linus blankets.
They are, Walsh said, an important vestige of thousands of years of biological training, "We're hunter-gatherers. Women are the gatherers…The carriers for all things for a village."
In today's terms, that can add up to a lot of baggage.
With two daughters, one tween and one teenager, Lisa Caines, 50, says keeping her bag free and clear of clutter is an ongoing battle. As a single mom living in Manhattan, she says she has little control over the apartment she shares with her daughters, no matter how often she straightens up.
"The only thing I can really control is my bag," she said, but yesterday even that got out of control, filled with dozens of unused napkins, multiple lip balms and water bottles belonging to one daughter or another.
"It is the bane of women's existence,'' said organizational guru Julie Morgenstern.
"Your purse, she said, is "a portable microcosm of your either feeling organized and light on your feet, or weighed down and chaotic."
Morgenstern, who wrote the bestseller "Organizing from the Inside Out,'' said, "That's what I love about organizing the purse. It's a small space that represents so much. "You will experience the benefits every single day, it's like your springboard of confidence that you're organized and ready to tackle the world."
Organizing Your Handbag
There's no need to feel badly about all that that junk in your portable trunk.
But if your system doesn't work -- or you never had one -- here are seven simple steps from our experts on how to banish the trash, climb out of the clutter and put your bag back in business for good.
ONE: Start by dumping the contents of your purse on the counter, wiping the inside down with a damp cloth, and ditching all the garbage.
TWO: If your purse has a dark interior, consider investing in a new one with a light-colored lining, said Peter Walsh, a Los Angeles-based professional organizer (and no relation to Wendy Walsh). "It'll really help you find and identify things much quicker than a purse with dark interior lining."
THREE: Compartmentalize. Buy those cheap clear plastic or mesh cosmetic bags from the drugstore, Ziploc bags, or small satchels, and break up your belongings into three categories of the everyday essentials: money, personal care, and communication tools.
A final category covers wild card items for specific, irregular needs. "You shouldn't have anything in your bag unless you know exactly when you're going to use it," said Morgenstern. Those "just in case" clothes for the gym? A folly, she said. "You have to plan for it. There's no such thing as spare time anymore."
FOUR: Morgenstern preaches a system she calls S.P.A.C.E., for Sort similar items, Purge duplicates and things that are stained and obsolete, Assign a home for keys, phone, coupons and other essentials, Containerize with appropriately-sized satchels, and Equalize for end-of-day tidying and maintenance.
FIVE: Park what you can at the office. If you have a desk to call your home-away-from-home, stash your on-the-go makeup, an extra cell charger, and a pair of pumps there.
SIX: File your receipts. They add up in a flash. Keep them organized as you go along and tax time will be a breeze.
SEVEN: Make it a ritual: Organize and re-pack your bag every Sunday night, right after you finish packing those school and camp bags. "Just like you are going on a trip," said Wendy Walsh.
And when you are done, she said, the payoff will be big. "Our thoughts will be more clear because our environment is more organized."