I don’t know about you, but sometimes it feels like I live in my car.

Okay, not literally of course—but you might think so if you looked in there! Between backpacks and schoolwork, snacks, games, shopping bags, sports bags, paperwork, extra jackets, and who knows what else, my car is always far messier than I wish it would be.

I guess it’s not that surprising, if you think about it.  For so many of us, including me, our cars aren’t JUST a car.  They’re our home away from home, our office, our extra closet, entertainment center, and so much more.  Not to mention all that STUFF we keep in there so that we can be prepared for any scenario, “just in case.”

Is it any wonder things fall out when we open the door?

And is there really any hope for those of us who suffer from the dreaded Messy Car Syndrome?  (Why don’t we just call it MCS for short?)

Actually, YES.  Believe it or not, you CAN develop a system for getting–and keeping–your car clean, hence curing yourself of MCS forever.  And I promise that it’s not as impossible as you think!  Here’s how:

A content woman smiles while sitting at the edge of her car.

Ruthlessly Purge and Clean Out Your Car

First up, set aside an hour or two and do a deep clean of your car. With some garbage bags on hand, divide everything up into the following categories: goes into the house to be put away, goes into the garbage, or stays in the car (which should be a very small pile).

Ruthlessly purge your car. Tackle the backseat, the trunk, the glove compartment, and that space under the seat where empty cups and change collect. Pull out car seats and remove any organizers on seat backs. Don’t forget to check the center console.

Throw away all garbage. Take items like change, extra clothes, paperwork and toys into the house to be dealt with and put away. Any remaining items you’d like to keep in the car should be removed as well.

Take everything (everything!) out of your car.

Once the car is completely empty, vacuum and wipe down all surfaces. Take out all floor mats and shake them. Hose down rubber mats and vacuum off upholstered ones. Spot treat any stains or spots on the seats of your car.

Vacuum the dashboard and console of your car. Using a butter knife or another thin object wrapped in a damp cloth, clean cracks in the console and in your dashboard. Use window cleaner to clean all glass surfaces from the inside of your car. Watch especially for fingerprints in the back windows.

Wipe down each door and check for any lingering wrappers, bottles or little pieces of paper that made their way into the door’s cup holders and pockets. Wipe off window buttons and all handles and touchpoints with a damp cloth.

Vacuum the glove compartment and the console. Clean out the little change holder and wipe it out completely. Really get down in the cracks of the seats and be sure all seatbelts are pulled out and in good working order.

An emergency kit including a first aid kit, fire extinguisher and other materials.

Prioritize Your In-the-Car Needs

After your car is all cleaned out, it’s time to go back through the pile of items you’d like to put back in the car. Ask yourself if you really, truly need each item you’ve determined “belongs” in your car.

Again, I get the mom-need to be prepared, so don’t feel like you have to skimp on preparedness—just be reasonable. We keep two canvas bucket tote bags stocked for the car: one for winter and one for summer. In our winter tote, we keep items like an extra set of mini gloves, an ice scraper, a sweater, and a small fleece blanket. In our summer bag, I’ve packed sunscreen, an extra pair of flip-flops, an umbrella, and a spare t-shirt. Both tote bags also include an extra garbage bag (which can serve as a poncho, a seat protector, or a myriad of other things), a small pack of hand wipes and a $10 bill.

In the trunk, I keep a car emergency kit, which contains jumper cables and an old towel. In the winter (especially in cold climates), you may also want to include deicer, a small shovel, and a heavy-duty blanket.

In our glove compartment, we keep the paperwork for the car, including our AAA information, insurance information and registration. There’s also the car manual, a tire gauge, and a roll of quarters for emergencies. I’ve also packed a small flashlight and a phone-charger cord (our car has a USB port).

In the center console, I keep a pocket pack of tissues, and a small first aid kit with rubber gloves, bandages, pain relievers and alcohol prep pads. In the first aid kit there’s also a small pocketknife and matches. I keep a couple of chocolate-free (no melt) granola bars in there as well and a reusable shopping bag that folds up into a tiny pocket.

An athlete's bag with ballet shoes and a water bottle.

Plan to Stop Using Your Car as Storage

As a family, we’ve made a commitment to bring in everything from the car whenever we go to and from the house. This means backpacks, purses, sweatshirts, shopping bags, lunches, water bottles—EVERYTHING. This rule is a concerted effort to fight the flow of stuff and end the “car as storage” mentality.

When we go to dance lessons or a craft activity, we bring the bag of supplies we need with us. If we’re heading to the gym, to church or to a work meeting, I have various bags that go with me, each containing everything I’ll need. Each of these bags leaves the car with me when I exit.

In my purse, I try to carry items we may need that don’t store or hold up very well in a hot car, like lip balm, gum, lotion, and sunscreen.

A woman driving a car and eating a banana.

Consider a “No Eating in the Car” Rule

One of the biggest car mess-busters I’ve found? I know this won’t be a popular answer, but we’ve simply stopped eating in the car. I swear, when we eat in the car, no matter how careful we try to be, we always end up with crumbs and spills. It’s inevitable and nearly impossible to avoid in a moving vehicle!

In this day and age, with fast food joints on nearly every corner, it’s tempting to go through the drive-thru and munch along on your road trip. We’ve actually found it slows us down and helps us appreciate the experience more when we sit together as a family and eat. We’ll find a picnic table, spread a blanket out on the grass at a park, or pull over at a rest stop and get out to enjoy our snack and our time together. It helps us avoid a stressful “mad rush” feeling when we’re trying to get to a destination and it keeps our car clean.

If you absolutely MUST eat in the car for whatever reason, try sticking to dry, non-sticky snacks like pretzels or carrot sticks. Enjoy water rather than sticky soda or juice, and keep coffee in a spill-proof travel mug. These little precautions really help us keep our car crumb and sticky-spill free!

A woman vacuuming her car seats.

When Your Passenger Has an Emergency…

With kids, life happens. Someone will have an accident, a spill, get wet, get muddy or end up with gum in their hair—it just happens. Your best preparation is to keep the old towel in your “car emergency kit” and the fleece blanket in your “seasonal car bag.” Both of these items can be quickly spread out on a seat or used to soak up accidents and spills.

When something happens in your car, clean it up right away or as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, cars get very warm and spills tend to set quickly. If there is a smelly spill (or someone gets sick in the car), clean it up as thoroughly as possible, and then sprinkle baking soda over the area of the smell. Allow it to set for a few hours or overnight, then vacuum up.

If you travel with pets, always keep them in a carrier for their safety, as well as yours. Not only will this dramatically cut down on pet hair, but pets can be very distracting in the car, potentially causing accidents. If your pet isn’t secured, they might be injured during a sudden stop. Never leave a pet (or anyone for that matter) in a car, even for a short time. The temperature in your car can climb quickly. In just ten minutes, an 80-degree car can climb to over 100. Keep everyone safe by never ever leaving anyone parked, even for just a minute.

Implement a “Grab All Your Stuff” Rule

Every single time you pull in the driveway, remind your kids (and yourself) of the “Grab All Your Stuff” Rule which says that every person must grab all their stuff, every single time.  Period.  Creating this habit for your kids and yourself will literally transform your life.  And if you have a hard time remembering?  Put a sign up IN YOUR CAR to remind all of you of the rule.

Set reminders to maintain your system

It’s easy to slip backwards, so don’t let yourself do that!  Set a recurring weekly reminder for yourself–maybe on a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon–to keep things tidy.  Then take 10-15 minutes to remove any clutter or garbage, shake out or vacuum the carpets, and wipe up any spills.  (And if you’re really feeling motivated, you might even consider a quick pass through the car wash!

Final thoughts….

In the end, a clean and organized car is just one of those things that makes your whole life feel a little bit more in control.  Instead of stepping into chaos every time you get in the car, you’ll feel lighter, more relaxed, more organized, and more prepared for everything else you do. And that, I’d say, is time well spent!

Ever feel like you LIVE in your car? As busy moms, our cars become our traveling office, closet, and medicine cabinet. You never know what you’re going to need while on the go. Unfortunately sometimes all that on-the-go-living sometimes comes with a mess! Here's how to clean out your car, make the most of this small space, and keep your car clean all year long!