I bet you $5 the inside of my car is cleaner than yours. Meet me in the Target parking lot to compare. Then you can buy me a fancy coffee inside at Starbucks, and we’ll get our shopping done.
In reality, I don’t know anyone who would take up that bet — which I would not make in the first place. My car’s immaculate interior (to say nothing of the exterior) is not a particular source of pride. It’s just the result of habits learned years ago and somehow kept into motherhood.
This post aims to neither boast nor judge. Let me instead share some guidelines at the core of my habitual cleanliness. Maybe you can adopt them and adjust the way you treat your car. Or, maybe you can brush them aside like so many granola crumbs from the driver’s seat. To each, her own.
1. What goes in must come out.
When heading to the car, I only take with me what I need for the trip, usually confined to the diaper bag. Everything comes back out when the trip is over. Nothing left behind from day to day prevents the accumulation of junk. This is the hardest part of keeping a tidy car, only because it requires discipline.
Scraps of paper and receipts, water bottles, shoes and hair bows flung across the backseat mid-trip, books, beach towels and pool toys . . . these all come out when I return home. I stuff what I can into the diaper bag, knowing I can empty that of trash (and even toss it in the wash if necessary) once inside, and return for whatever I can’t carry in addition to my toddler. If I let this practice go for weeks or months, the inevitable cleanup would be formidable.
2. It’s a vehicle, not a mobile storage closet.
At any time, I can list on one hand everything in my car not factory-installed (outside of my child’s car seat): oversized umbrella, jogging stroller, a couple of CDs, and maybe a tube of sunscreen or bug spray for our regular walks in the park. My daughter has a designated in-car toy that stays in the back seat at all times for convenience. (We’ll take it into the store or doctor’s office for distraction, and routinely bring it inside the house for a trip through the washing machine’s “disinfect” cycle.)
I don’t store valuables, electronics (and/or chargers), or other household items in the trunk or anywhere else. If a girlfriend gives me a bag of hand-me-down clothes at church, I bring it in with me when we get home. Same for the bulk box of diapers I bought on my last shopping trip. They might not be perishable, but they’re coming in the house pronto.
3. Clean lightly, and keep dry.
A quick wipe-down of the steering wheel and console — focusing on those cup-holder nooks and loose change crannies — comprises a weekly ritual. It takes about 90 seconds in the comfort of my driveway with only the resources I brought in with me (thank you, oh versatile diaper wipe). I vacuum the floorboards and upholstery maybe once a year, around the same time I sanitize the hard components of the interior — including the dash, gear shift, door handles, and, yes, even the kick plates. This deep clean is a great chore to save for after a road trip. (I might even splurge on a car wash . . . .)
Only one thing warrants a break from this schedule for immediate cleanup, and that’s a wet mess. I might lose a slip of paper, a CD, or a stick of lip balm under my seat and not worry about it until the next detailed cleaning. But should my coffee tip and douse the floorboard, or my infant spit up all over the car seat, I will clean and dry a wet mess thoroughly at the first chance. Mildew-y stains and puddles of rotten milk do not belong on my upholstery. Think of it another way: At home, I would leave lip balm out on the counter on a busy morning, but I wouldn’t leave the house before mopping the coffee spill from the rug.
4. Meals are not consumed on wheels. Period.
This one’s close to my heart and so far hasn’t been compromised. Even if we grab drive-thru on a busy Saturday afternoon, we bring it home and eat it at the table. Off of plates. Facing each other. Road trip snacks (and maybe my post-workout protein bar if I’m ravenous) are the only exceptions.
5. If possible, have only one child under two years old.
Here’s where my tutorial unravels. With a young daughter and a baby on the way, the mess is manageable right now. But my routine is subject to radical change as my family grows. In a few years, when my children are older and we’re more active and on-the-go, you may find me bending these guidelines to better suit my schedule. And that’s fine.
My system is perfect for me where I am in life. The perfect system for you will look different. Your set of wheels — no matter how littered with lost toys and discarded sandwich crusts, no matter how lived-in or dirty (Petri dish cup-holders and all) — is just a tool for navigating life with your family. Use it however suits you best!