The Differences Between Collecting and Hoarding

There may appear to be many obvious similarities between collectors and hoarders. The truth is, collectors and hoarders actually lie on opposite sides of a single prism. For those outside the orbit of professional organization, the differences might be confusing, but the difference between the two is a distinction well worth noting.


The Hoarder vs. The Collector

Once shopping behaviors evolve to the gathering and maintenance of countless objects that carry no value to others, and the mounting bric-a-brac begins to creep across all available space to cover beds, countertops, couches or staircases AND any attempt at discarding the detritus causes pain, that gatherer has likely crossed the threshold of the collector and marched right into the realm of the hoarder.

Hoarders tend to have great difficulty when making decisions about where to keep their profusion of artifacts. As a result, they tend to keep almost all their stuff “out” where it won’t be forgotten. This results in masses of ‘things’ being strewn about from floor to ceiling; used paper coffee cups laying forgotten next to an expired refund check and a pile of unopened boxes amassed over weeks of tuning into a favorite TV-shopping site. The reverse is true for the collector who, by nature, has a place for everything in their collection, and most everything in its place.

The Primary Differences Between Hoarders and Collectors

Collectors value and categorize their belongings, often showcasing them in display cases or archives. Hoarders often lump things together without the benefit of system or sequence.

Collectors often carry great pride in their treasures, and delight in exhibiting them to any interested party. Hoarders are often embarrassed and hide their belongings (home, car, etc.) from co-workers, neighbors and even repairmen.

Collectors are usually able to classify, quantify and articulate their exact knowledge of the various items in their collection. Hoarders will assign inflated values to arbitrary things based primarily on sentiment.

Collectors house their collectibles in specific environments, and often find joy or contentment in the company of their treasure. Hoarders harbor little rhyme or reason within the muddle of their mess. Exquisite jewels might be kept with worn socks, rare books in a dirty dog kennel, or cherished photographs among old and slowly decaying magazines.

The Decisive Difference Between Hoarders and Collectors

Most often, there is little logic to the manner in which things are heaped together within a hoarder’s home. In lieu of surrounding themselves with friends and family, hoarders will often confine themselves behind a fence of stuff instead. Most hoarders do not appear to suffer (though many admit to feelings of shame and isolation), but there are irrefutable health and environmental side effects.

Despite the accumulation of things, collectors are able to lead engaging, social lives.

Do you have a hoarder or collector in your life? Are you able to tell the difference?

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  1. Frankie H says

    Love Hoarders on A&E! Being a clean-freak I can’t imagine living like that. Do you know if Ron and Jennifer are still clutter-free?

  2. Anonymous says

    Differences yeh.
    However, I’ve been with both a hoader and a collector…there is no real difference. One has organized mess, the other has disorganized mess. You can’t organize mess…so a collector is just leaving in another level of denial.

  3. Margo says

    I was absolutely mesmerized by the show on Jeniffer and Ron. Being somewhat of a neat freak, it was difficult for me to understand how people could become shopaholics to the point where it gets out of control. As a grandmother of 3, I found it difficult to imagine any family not eating their meals at a table. It made me rather sad to see Jeniffer and Ron’s little boy watching his little playhouse being destroyed…again, this is a grandmother thing. As the show ended, I had a good feeling that Jeniffer appeared to have gained much needed enthusiasm and support from you and that she will definitely be able to meet the challenge. In closing, I would like Jeniffer to know she and her beautiful family will be remember in my daily prayers.

  4. says

    As Geralin mentions, collectors have specific environments in which to preserve and enjoy their treasures. In the book, Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions, authors Don Williams (Senior Conservator of the Smithsonian Institution) and Louisa Jaggar state, “Saving Stuff is about preserving and maintaining ‘the museum of you.’ This museum is made up of the objects that have special value for you….Museums have limted space, money, and staff. They cannot save everything, and neither should you feel obligated to save all the stuff that comes your way.”

    I like this analogy because it gives people permission to limit their number of items to those that are truly most treasured and valuable. There is no guilt associated with “deleting” part of the collection. Collectors understand this but hoarders have difficulty with the distinction.

    For the hoarder everything is of great value and it is difficult to convince them otherwise. Asking why a hoarder keeps an item or arguing with them is of little value. This is why treating hoarders is complex and time-consuming.

    Great job on letting people know the differences between these two populations!

  5. Geralin says

    I wish I could respond with a dazzling answer, but, unfortunately I don’t have one.
    One of the things that I keep thinking about, especially as it relates to hoarding vs. collecting is, at what point is a collection(s) “over the top?”

    Is it when the collector can’t part with anything?
    When they go into debt or put things before relationships?
    Is it when no one else values the items being collected?
    Is it when the acquirer doesn’t even enjoy their acquisitions?

    I agree, based on my experience, that the changes, from collector to hoarder, are very gradual.

  6. jhz says

    I’m going to ask this because I know “collectors” who get so much stuff they can no longer just display it. They have rooms that are full of boxes of their collection, piles start collecting on the floor. Or their collection is in every single room, on every wall, even in the bathroom. It overwhelms. Some are obsessed with having every single one of whatever they collect, or two or three.

    So what is the dividing line? Is it the value society puts on the items? Or is the ability to control the desire to have? I wonder because I know people who collect and do it as you state in your article, and people who go way beyond. Is it the ability to take care of stuff? Because that is dependent on a lot of things, not just psychological factors, but time, money and physical health.

    I’m curious because I know people who claim to collect, do have things that have value, but it overwhelms their living space and they are obsessed with getting more. Often these are people that had it under control. Did they flip from one side to the other? To me it always seems more of a gradual change.

    Wondering what you think.

  7. Vivian says

    I am 24 years old and I can no longer stand my parents “house.” I’ve realized now my mother is a hoarder and has been for several years oblivious to myself until realizing how I lived was not “normal”. I always called her a pack-rat and explained to my friends why I never invite them over. I’ve been sick mostly my entire life (now knowing it was the dusty unclean house that was hazardous). Once I moved away to college, I was healthier. I visited the doctors less often until it was the holidays when I visited my parents and got sick. She would clean and organize and relapse. How can I get help for her? Her excuse is too much work and prefers downtime rather than cleaning. I can understand with the stress of taking care of my ill-health father and working hard all day. I cleaned the house and went back to college. I returned for another visit and found another mess. Rinse and repeat. Wouldn’t you want some sanity at home? Working toilets? Mold-free closets? I am also scared to be a hoarder. After visiting one of my mom’s brothers, he is a definition of a collector pridefully displaying his souvenirs nailed onto the walls of his home to the point there is no wall. But at least it is all organized on their walls. I really do wonder if it is genetic and will this condition pronounce itself as I get older. I fear I will pass it on if I choose to have kids. But why do I want to have kids when I do not know how to raise a kid in a normal, healthy, safe, and clean environment?

  8. V says

    But you’ve left out one of the critical elements of “collecting”. As an example, if you have cats & like them, people will often give you a cat-themed item. It doesn’t take long before you have more cat statuettes, pot holders, candles, etc., than you can handle, but there is a level of guilt when you get rid of something that was a gift. If the person who gave it to you was meaningful it is that much harder. And there are always the people who come to your home and want to see the objects that they’ve given being displayed. Where is the tipping point on the hoarding then? It seems like it would be easy to slide over.

  9. Geralin says

    It certainly sounds like hoarding behavior based on what you are describing but before all else, may I suggest he schedule an appointment with a licensed therapist and permit you to show photos of your new apartment? Getting a professional opinion is the first step in my opinion.

    Unfortunately, the day may never come when he goes through his stuff. Another possibility is that if he does go through the his stuff, he thinks/believes everything is worth keeping instead of selling.

    For now, perhaps you could place things in clear storage tubs so things aren’t stuffed in every nook and cranny making it nearly impossible to vacuum, dust, clean. Using clear tubs allows him to see everything he has. The tubs stack and while they take up a lot of space, things will be contained.

    Have you decided how you will proceed if he does chose his stuff over you?

  10. Anonymous says

    My b/f’s collecting has gone as described in another reply. There are cardboard boxes full of his acquisitions, which he continues to tell me he is “going through” to sell. None of it has moved in 9 months and more is coming in when I’m not looking. We recently moved into a new apartment and every available shelf, closet and under every bed is stuffed full of some “thing”. There is no specific collection, no theme, just a variety of old stuff. (I know never to call it “junk.”)

    The issue that really bothers me is he is ultra-sensitive to my mentioning anything about being overwhelmed by it all. He gets incredibly defensive, yells and gives me ultimatums in leaving our home if I don’t like his “collections.” He had problems with his “collecting” in previous relationships and even though it’s affecting this one, he feels that his eccentricities are not a problem. I know that if I told him today, “Me or your stuff…” it would be the stuff.


  11. Anonymous says

    At what point does it stop? My husband collects comic books, drum kits, woodworking magazines and tools, old computer games, trains, cds, etc, and now we have started a “small” beer can collection of only 200 or so. This is a disease. How do I get help for him?

  12. Anonymous says

    I am going to be anonymous for this. But after seeing several episodes of Hoarders, I believe I was a border line hoarder. My old mobile home had one room that had a pile of useless crap in it, and just crap in the rooms, the closets, etc… It was terrible. I was probably a level 2 hoarder, my appliances still worked, and all that, but I never cleaned up after my cat at the time, and just let crap accumulate. At one point, I decided to go through and just clean everything up. 2 years afterwards, I started seeing a counsellor( not necessarily about hoarding) I have moved since then, and am trying not to go back to that. Watching this show helps keep me motivated to keep things clean. It is shocking to see how bad this problem can become. I would not say my house is 100% spotless with those little sparkle effects and all, but I would not hesitate to have friends or family in my house either.

    I look back and I think, I do not want junk to ruin my life again.

  13. Geralin says

    Thanks for your note and congratulations on making progress. It’s always nice to hear comments like yours, “Watching this show helps keep me motivated to keep things clean. It is shocking to see how bad this problem can become.” The show has ignited a lot of conversations from viewers and it’s nice to be part of something that helps people change their lives. Keep me posted on your progress, please.

  14. Jesse says

    I don’t see the problem, those all sound like legitimate items to collect, I collect a lot of those myself. I am in no way a hoarder and it doesn’t sound like your husband is either, merely a collector. He certainly doesn’t have a ‘ disease’ as you ignorantly put it. I recommend relaxing and not harassing your husband about his innocent collections or you will ruinyour marriage. Be a supportive wife, there are a lot worse things he could be doing.

  15. Bobi Becker says

    I have to agree with you – I have a friend whom is a organized hoarder. Her apartment is ceiling to floor, wall to wall stuff. Her collections are huge and displayed every where yet organized. Stuffed Apes, Monkeys, Gorilla’s, DVD’s and VHS’s in the thousands. She also is a shopaholic….going to thrift stores daily, buying things she does not need and then will turn around and return them, as well as goods from retail stores. She also has a compulsion for eating and gorges herself, is quite obese and goes to food banks weekly. Her sister handles her money and bills,and she gets a $80.00 allowance weekly. She sees her mental health worker twice a month and is on many psych meds which she has no clue as to what the contraindications are… She is extremely sensitive, has no self esteem and is very greedy. Oh, and her car is loaded with stuffed animals on the dash board, and by the back window and has bumper stickers everywhere on her car plus two american flags flying from her car. and stuffed apes hanging in her back seat windows….. Really sad in a way as her only social life is volunteering at a thrift store and at the American Red Cross blood drives handing out cookies and juice to the donors…. She has a problem remembering the routes to take to go to places we go to every week. And I am backing off going with her as she is not a careful driver and takes too many chances…. Always looking for something free and does have massive coupons for everything….

  16. says

    Sometimes it’s really hard to remember that someone who has a hoarding disorder has a mental health challenge. And, that challenge most likely is co-existing with another disorder. Because of this, it can be extremely difficult to have healthy friendships. Most people with the disorder find it very isolating. I appreciate you sharing your story.