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How to Clean Up Your Messy Car (And Keep it That Way)

woman cleaning her car with a vacuum cleaner

If you spend a lot of time in your car, be it commuting for work, shuttling the kids around, or both, you know how messy things can get. Here’s how to get things tidy and keep it that way to avoid your car turning into an embarrassing dumpster.

Messy cars happen easily, even if you’re the only person who is ever in your vehicle. You get fast food and drop a fry or two. You toss a tissue or napkin to the side to pick up later, only later never comes. The change falls out of your pockets. Sand and gravel come in off your shoes.

Just like cleaning your house or maintaining your yard, keeping your car clean is an ongoing project, but there are some things you can do to keep your car more organized and make cleaning less of a chore.

Let’s start with cleaning the car so that you have a fresh slate to work with and then look at tips and habits to use to keep it clean going forward.

Cleaning Your Messy Car

There’s a big difference between getting your car detailed to the point that it looks showroom fresh and just getting things tidy. There’s something to be said for cleaning a car to the point where you’re using q-tips in tiny crevices, but if that’s not your style, all that really matters if you give the car a decent cleaning to get rid of garbage, debris, and dust.

Empty Your Car

The first step in cleaning your messy car is to pull everything out of it, whether it’s trash, clutter, or your favorite CDs. Pull out floor mats while you’re at it. You may as well get a nice deep clean while you’re in there.

Toss the stuff that’s trash in the trash and set the things that need to go back in the car to the side. Anything that’s left should get put wherever it belongs inside your home or garage.


Grab a hand vac and vacuum all the nooks and crannies in your car. You’d be surprised what’s hiding under your seats (and in the seats as well). If you don’t have a vacuum at home, take your car to a car wash and use the ones there.

Vacuum the floor mats as well. If you have plastic mats, you can use the hose to clean them off and then let them air dry while you’re reorganizing your car. Some bay-style self-wash car washes will have clips on the wall of the bay where you can clip your mats and use the spray wand to really deep clean them. If so, you can give them a good spray down and then take them home to dry in the sun.

Wipe Down the Surfaces

The final step is to grab some paper towels or microfiber rags and clean the surfaces in your car. If you want to stick strictly to the pragmatic things, the only thing you really need to do is use a little window cleaner and a rag to clean the inside of your windshield and the interior windows. Over time grime builds up on the glass, and it makes it very hard to see clearly in the sun or while driving at night.

If you have more time, wipe down the dashboard and other surfaces to get the dust and road grime off.

Keeping Your Car Clean

Now that the dirt and clutter are out of the way, it’s time to make a plan to keep your vehicle better organized, so you don’t have as much of a mess to clean up next time. It’s also time to put all the stuff that belongs in your car back in there, including your floor mats.

The key is to have a place for everything and a plan for moving the things that don’t belong (like that empty coffee cup from your commute) back to where it belongs or into the trash.

Use Your Trunk and Glove Box

There are some things you need to keep in your vehicle that are best stored in the trunk or the glovebox, but they also need their own organizers. Keep your proof of insurance and registration in a baggie in your glove box, with your vehicle manual. This makes it easy to grab these papers when needed.

Keep a vehicle emergency kit with jumper cables, a flashlight, and tools in your trunk. You can buy them in zipper cases as kits, which allow everything to stay together and out of the way of groceries and other things that travel in your trunk.

Get Organized

Hang organizers (like the ones that hang on closet doors to hold jewelry) on the backs of your front car seats for kids to store their toys, books, and other car “junk.” This way they aren’t losing stuff in the seats, leaving the car a mess, and they’re making it easier for you to clean up when it’s time to vacuum the car again. There are tons of models on Amazon in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes.

Organizers can come in handy in the trunk as well. You can use a smaller tote box to keep items in, which will keep them from rolling around in the trunk.

Get a Trash Can

Invest in a small trash can to keep in your car. You can put it on the floorboards in the backseat or even get small collapsible ones that can be attached to the back of the console or other places in the car. Keep a plastic bag in it and change it out anytime it’s full, or anytime you’ve tossed some leftover fast food in there. It’ll help keep your car clean and help keep it from getting stinky in there.

Find a Home for CDs

If you’re still listening to CDs in your car and you have CD cases floating all over your car, get them out of there with a visor organizer. You’ll have space for a few CDs, and they’ll be up off the seats and where you can get at them when it’s time to change the music!

Line Your Cupholders

Cup holders are one of those spots in cars where the grossest things happen. Drinks spill, crumbs fall in, and it gets sticky and gross in there. You can avoid this grosses by investing in some silicone cupcake liners. These liners clean easily, and won’t impede your cupholder from doing its job. Of course, if you have removable cupholders, then just pull them out to wash them once a week (or when a spill happens).

Take It in With You

One more great way to keep your car from getting cluttered is to take the clutter in with you. When you get to the office, take your commute coffee cup into the office with you. When you get home from that long drive, bring your fast food bag in and your mail so you can toss the trash or pay your bills.

If you clean your vehicle out when you get out of it, you’ll have less work to do when you clean it weekly or monthly!

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow is a professional writer with two decades of experience. She has written and edited for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and more. Yvonne is a published poet and short story writer, and she is a life coach. Read Full Bio »
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