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How to Keep Your Car Clean and Organized No Matter How Hectic Life Gets

How to keep your car clean and organized no matter how hectic life gets header

By Melissa Hart on April 5, 2021 in Life Hacks

Maybe this is familiar: A friend climbs into your car and looks down at her feet. “Is that a bagel?” she asks, pointing to the cream-cheese-smeared bread covered in dirt and lint residing on the floor mat — a leftover from your tween’s pre-soccer snack. Water bottles, snack wrappers, toys, stray socks, and dog fur litter the back seats. Your friend bears witness to the chaos, which smells faintly of someone’s spilled chocolate milk. You’re mortified. If you can’t quite relate to this exact scenario, you can likely admit that you’ve experienced some level of car disarray at one time or another.

On average, drivers in the U.S. spend almost an hour in their cars every day commuting to work and school and extracurricular activities. We cart around kids and dogs, which means by the end of the week, both the interior and exterior of our vehicles need some major TLC. However, just a few simple hacks and habits can keep your car looking — and smelling — its best. Below, we share some of our favorites.

Protect Surfaces

Purchase all-weather floor mats to catch everything from spills and sand to mud and leaves (and then periodically pull out the mats to scrub and spray clean). To cut down on accidents and dropped food, invest in lidded drink and snack cups. Place silicone baking cups in car cup-holders to easily catch and dispose of spills. If you have younger passengers, consider machine-washable fitted seat-protectors. Got dogs? Purchase a canine-friendly seat cover to keep hair off the upholstery.


First, sleuth out all the storage spaces your car has to offer. Look for compartments and under-seat areas — places that can function as permanent homes for items you need during the week. Paperclip and store drive-thru coffee punch cards in the compartment meant for sunglasses, and tuck grocery bags into a cubbyhole in your trunk.

As you organize and clean your car, think about it in sections. For instance, a small plastic pocket organizer in your glove compartment can hold your vehicle registration, service records, insurance cards, and other important documents. Repurpose a makeup bag as a first aid kit, and include bandages, disinfectant wipes, masks, hand sanitizer, aspirin and/or ibuprofen, gauze, and scissors.

If you have a console between the front seats — which can easily serve as a receptacle for clutter and trash — consider turning an ice pop holder into an organizer to hold loose change, phone cords neatly rolled and twist-tied, small bottles of lotion and hand sanitizer, and lip balm.

The back seat of your car offers numerous organizational opportunities. Keep purses and backpacks off the ground by clipping them to the driver’s seat headrest with carabineers. Hang a shoe-organizer or travel toiletry bag on the back of the passenger seat to store crayons, coloring books, favorite toys, water bottles, and granola bars.

Alternatively, purchase a catch-all tote for the middle back seat so young passengers can easily access books, tablets, and earbuds. Eating on the run? A shower caddy makes an excellent meal and drink holder; tuck in utensils and a napkin or wet wipes to cut down on messes.

Got rubbish? Line a plastic food storage container with a plastic bag (recycled grocery bags work well!) to create a sturdy receptacle for trash. Don’t throw away that empty tissue box, either. Instead, use it to collect plastic bags. Then each time you fill up your tank, use one of the bags to collect any car trash and then dispose of it at the gas station.

Make the most of your trunk space — both in terms of organization and preparedness. It’s a perfect location for your emergency roadside kit, extra water bottles, umbrellas, towels, and a waterproof picnic blanket. A portable cooler with various compartments can come in handy for grocery runs. Same goes for a laundry basket — it will allow you to transport several bags of groceries easily from your car to the house.

Declutter and Refresh

Get into the habit of decluttering your car once a week and clean the interior with a few simple tools. Dab a little olive oil on a coffee filter and rub it over the dashboard to remove debris. Clean dusty vents with a foam craft brush. Use a portable vacuum with a nozzle attachment to suck up dirt and stray goldfish crackers from crevices.

If you have stains on your upholstery, squeeze a few drops of dishwashing detergent into a gallon of water and blot the stain with the solution and a towel until it lifts. Stubborn spots? Spray seats and carpets with a foaming aerosol cleaner, let dry, and then vacuum it up. To rid inside windows of smudges, use an alcohol-based cleaner instead of ammonia, which erodes tinting. Gently polish with a microfiber cloth.

Dislike the scent (and chemicals) in traditional air fresheners? Consider making your own! Tuck coffee beans or lavender into a mesh bag and place under one of the seats (you may want to keep the driver’s side seat clear so nothing rolls under the gas or brake pedals). Or make this DIY air freshener with a mason jar, baking soda, and essential oils. You can store it in one of the cup holders.

Scrub and Polish

Weekly or monthly, wash the outside of your car with water and a few drops of automotive soap (dishwashing detergent can strip your car’s paint of its wax finish). Rinse your car and don’t forget the undercarriage — especially if you drive on salted roads which can corrode metal. If you’re shooting for an especially polished look, apply a wheel cleaner to the rims of your tires so that they sparkle. Last but not least, to make dull headlights shine, toothpaste on a soft cloth works wonders!

Incorporate car organization and cleaning into your weekly or biweekly chores and ride with confidence knowing you can always expect a clean, well-organized journey void of funky smells!

Melissa Hart is a consultant for Say Insurance. She's the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens and the award-winning middle grade novel Avenging the Owl. She's contributing editor at The Writer Magazine and a Creative Writing instructor for the MFA in Creative Writing program at Southern New Hampshire University.