Tempted to puncture your own car tire to avoid unexpected carpooling? Is cleaning out your car always an overwhelming chore because you let it get completely out of control between cleanings? If you have no idea how to keep your car interior clean, check out this list of real life ideas for keeping a car interior clean all the time (even if you have kids!)
How I Keep My Car Interior Clean (and You Can Too)
One day, years ago, I was leaving the mall with my husband.
As we approached my red car parked beside a red dumpster, he asked:
How do you know which one’s yours?
But accurate. My car really was a four-wheeled-dumpster.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to clean the inside of my car. At the time, I just didn’t know how to keep my car clean inside after rescuing it from disaster yet again.
Psst – Check out this post if your car’s really gross and you need help getting it clean in the first place.
Amazingly, I’ve now managed to keep my car interior consistently clean for years. Even when it’s not perfect, it’s not shameful, and I’m never embarrassed to offer someone a ride.
Even my mother-in-law. (I love you, Memaw – you just set a really high bar!)
Read on for a list of ideas for keeping your car interior neat and clean all the time.
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You Can’t Clean Through a Mountain of Stuff
De-junking is the first step to keeping your car clean inside. A neater car takes much less effort to clean. This requires:
- Getting your car organized
- Making a plan to deal with everyday trash and clutter
1. Organize Your Car Interior
I wrote another post to share how I organize what I haul around with me every day in my car. You can read the details here.
Basically, organizing your car means finding a home for everything that lives in your car all the time. Especially if you treat your car like a pack mule.
It helps to separate the stuff that needs to stay in the car from the stuff that comes and goes. For example:
Things that Stay In the Car
- Extra jackets
- First aid stuff
- Car toys
Stuff That Comes and Goes
- Soccer bags
- School backpacks
- Your kids (don’t forget the baby)
Dividing everything into those two categories makes it simpler to keep neat.
Basic Car Interior Organizing Tips
While this post goes into detail about getting your messy mom car organized, some basic organizing tips for keeping your car interior clean include:
- Using plastic bins with lids or trunk boxes like this one for toys, extra jackets, picnic blankets, etc.
- Storing smaller things like aux cords, napkins, chapstick and hand sanitizer in small, accessible bags like these, and
- Employing totes and other organizers to contain transient clutter that’s just hitching a ride from one place to another. That way it doesn’t get too comfortable and spread its messy self all over.
2. Deal with Trash and Clutter Regularly
Once you’ve organized your car and made trash and clutter more obvious, deal with it regularly using mini habits and short routines.
I don’t know why it’s so hard for some of us to get a handle on the trash cluttering up our cars, but it is. I get it – I really struggled with it for a long time.
I’d blame it on the kids but that doesn’t explain my single years…
To minimize the amount of trash in your car:
- Put a tiny trash can like this one in every door within easy reach of passengers. Because even when you’re not actively eating a meal in the car, there’s bound to be fruit-roll up wrappers, straw papers, and receipts on the floor. God forbid anyone should have to make any real effort at all to throw them away.
I freaking love these things. Because a straw paper doesn’t seem worth leaning over to find a trash bag and, before you know it, your floor is littered with little bits of paper. But to just stuff it in the little can in the door – no problem.
- Stash a supply of plastic grocery bags in a Kleenex box or Ziploc bag. Then pass one around during car meals. The French fry boxes will never even get a chance to hit the floor.
- The best habit is to bring in the trash bags every time you get home.
But if your arms are usually full of baby/toddler/briefcase/whatever, you can also toss the bags each time you get gas. Or every time you go into Walmart. Or any other regular event you can use as a memory trigger.
Picking a trigger makes it become automatic to look around for the trash bag.
- Put a note on your dashboard or your gas card to remind yourself. Because you know you’ll forget until you’ve made it a habit.
- Keep a regular, lined trash can in the garage just for garage and car trash. Even if your outside cans are in there, use a different one that’s easy to put trash in.
If your family’s anything like mine (me included), nobody’s going to make the effort to pry the lid off a big can to put stuff in. Again, God forbid…
And what about the non-trash that overstays its welcome in your car?
For all the non-trash junk that goes into the house, try this:
Keep a canvas bag on one seat or in the foot well. Tuck anything that needs to leave the car in there so you can just grab the bag when you get out.
And if you forget, it’s right there on the front seat. Next time you get in, you’ll remember and you can take it in then.
Store an extra bag or two under the seat for when you inevitably forget to bring the bag back. Use a specific color solely for the car, so you’ll know where it goes when you find it floating around the house.
Once again, put a post-it note on your dashboard or near where you usually walk into the house.
I’m sure your kids are used to dumping their backpacks or dragging lots of stuff into the car. To get control of the back seat junk pit, put one child in charge of the back seat. Captain Clutter is in charge of picking up school papers and toys whenever you get home from somewhere.
Alternate captains on odds and even days if you need to – gotta be fair, right? More about that later in this post…
3. Prevent Messes and Protect Your Car Interior
Who doesn’t love cleaning that happens on its own? Keeping your car interior clean without any extra work for you is the best! To passively prevent messes in the first place:
- I know you think I’m going to tell you to outlaw car eating. I’m not. But at least avoid eating messy stuff while driving. A taco is a message to the universe just asking for trouble.
- Keep these little caddies in the car to prevent spills and leaking – not just for the kids, but for yourself, Ketchup Girl.
- Replace floor mats with rubber alternatives you can quickly hose off. (Yet another place where rubber is your best friend.)
- Or spread towels in the passenger foot wells. Shake them out once a week and wash as necessary. They’re easy enough to toss in the trunk whenever you have guests in the car.
- Cover the back seat with a sheet or car seat protector (here’s one that covers the backseat completely) so you can shake it out or wash it when it gets gross.
- Or use a more long-term solution – vinyl car seat covers. I covered my front seats with these vinyl protectors by FH Group (they don’t get the best reviews on Amazon but mine are great. You can also find them at Home Depot. Just make sure they’re returnable if they don’t fit correctly). I’ve had mine two years – everything wipes right off.
- Install seat guards to prevent crumbs and hair from falling between the seats.
- Train everyone to knock their shoes on the side of the door frame before getting in to keep mud and road salt out. If you have little boys, you won’t even have to ask them twice. Permission to kick Mom’s stuff? Yes, please!
- Protect your seat backs from kids’ sneakers (did I mention little boys like to kick?) with scuff protectors on the backs of the seats.
- Line your cupholders. You can try silicone cupcake liners or buy cupholder liners on Amazon (these have bling!).
- Never, ever allow crayons in the car!
No thank you, Olive Garden. You can just peddle your evil car-destroying-cartoon-olive-coloring-kid-distracting-Crayolas elsewhere.
- Store a blanket in the trunk to protect the interior when hauling anything dirty like straw, mulch bags, or dead bodies.
- Provide back seat passengers with baby wipes and napkins and remind (or threaten – your choice) your kids to put them in the little door trashcans, not on the floor!
4. Fight Perfectionism
This is a big one.
Back when my car was at its worst, I was a perfectionist about car cleaning. Ironic, I know, since the result was a perfect dumpster.
But I think a lot of us have that “go big or go home” car cleaning mentality.
Since I had to do it “right,” I’d put it off.
By the time I’d get to cleaning the inside of my car, it was overwhelming and took hours. So then the cycle would repeat.
If your car cleaning perfectionism cycle is anything like mine used to be, it goes like this:
- Feel shame every time you get into the car. Avoid any and all calls regarding carpooling.
- Finally get completely fed up with your disgusting car.
- Spend 4 hours cleaning your car interior like a maniac until it’s absolutely sparkling.
- Pledge to never mess it up again.
- Make no plan to achieve that goal, other than issuing stern warnings to your kids.
- Stay vigilant for two days. Possibly even outlaw eating in the car.
- On day 3, decide that “it won’t hurt to leave [insert mess you don’t feel like dealing with, case of soda you have no energy to bring in, sleeping child’s kicked-off shoes you can’t easily reach] in the car this one time.
- Witness the beginning of the end.
- Avert your eyes from trash building up on the car floor and seats.
- Vow to “do something” about your car the next time you have half a day to deal with it.
As Flylady says, “housework done imperfectly still blesses your family.”
My interior car-cleaning version of that is “a half ass car cleaning still blesses your car so you don’t have to look at it and want to crawl under a rock.”
Quickly brushing out your car with a whisk broom today is better than waiting until next week when you have time to vacuum. Next week may never come.
And if you do get time and energy next week to do a bang-up job, you’ve only wasted one minute of your time and enjoyed nicer-looking floor mats for a week.
Basically, if you ride the clean car roller coaster like I used to, you can choose between:
- Having a show room vision of a car a few times a year and a snake pit the rest of the year.
- A presentable vehicle most of the time.
You can still indulge your perfectionism in a deep clean if you want to. You just won’t need to deep clean to have a presentable car.
It’s easy for me to say embrace imperfection but what does that look like when you’re trying to figure out how to keep your car interior clean?
Using Car-Cleaning Habits and Routines
For me, this means cleaning my car the way I’ve learned to clean my house.
- Minimal effort and attention here and there
- Small, frequent routines
- Much less frequent, slightly more intense routines
- Only occasional fantasies of burning everything down and starting over.
5. Make Consistent Minimal Effort a Habit
By minimal effort here and there, I mean:
- If your hands aren’t full, take along a fast food cup or two whenever you leave your car.
Even if there are 6 in there, removing one or two will make a difference.
- Deal with messes when they happen.
If the baby spills her cup of dry cheerios all over the seat, brush them up when you see them. Not perfectly, but at least the bulk of them.
To make it easier to clean a little at a time, stow some basic cleaning supplies in the trunk or under a seat:
- A whisk broom or lint roller
- A couple of microfiber cloths
- A bottle of water and
- Possibly some glass cleaning wipes
Use waiting-for-kids-at-practice time to tackle one or two of these:
- Neaten up the interior, even if it’s just the space around you
- Run the Swiffer around the dashboard
- Wipe out the cupholders
- Clean fingerprints off the electronic screen
- Wipe off window smudges
- Brush crumbs off the seats and/or sweep out the footwells
I know it’s tempting to use that time to just enjoy being kid-free for 30 minutes, but maybe you can spare 5 of those for cleaner surroundings?
6. Establish Mini-Routines to Keep Your Car Interior Clean
Use a weekly event trigger or set a specific day to spend 15 minutes “re-setting” your car interior.
During this time you can:
- Neaten it up and pull out anything that fell under the seats
- Empty the little trashcans
- Wipe the vinyl and dashboard down a little more thoroughly
- Clean greasy smiley-faces off the back windows
- Shake off the floor mats or the towels in the foot wells
- Pull out and shake off the seat guards I mentioned above
- Quickly brush out all those crevices around the gear shift with a makeup brush or swiffer
- Lint roll the seats or shake out the seat protectors
- Use a cordless vacuum or whisk broom to sweep out the foot wells
If you think you can’t do all that in 15 minutes, time yourself. I bet you can, especially if you’ve been using the passive preventative measures I mentioned above and taking care of little messes throughout the week.
And if you need to stop after 15 minutes and haven’t finished, then next week start where you left off. Your car will still thank you for 15 minutes of undivided attention and be the better for it.
7. Schedule an Occasional Deeper Clean
In the summer after a winter of slush and a spring of muddy boots, spend 30 minutes with a corded vacuum or in a vacuum bay at a car wash doing a more thorough carpet and car seat cleaning.
- Clean the inside of your car windshield thoroughly
- Remove embedded pet and human hair
- Bring vinyl back to its cleanest self
- Clean out crevices and hard-to-reach areas such as vents
- And restore winter-worn floor mats
So check it out if you don’t know how to deep clean your car.
8. Draft Your Family
The final piece of keeping your car interior clean, especially if you have kids, is enlisting your family’s help.
I imagine this is your weak link, but it’s worth a shot, right?
Try a few simple rules:
- How about “no opening of school backpacks in the car after school?” That will take care of a lot of mess.
- Or “anything you bring into the car goes into this bin/tote/bag immediately.” This nips the backpack/jacket/school paper sprawl in the bud. Bonus: art projects won’t get ruined, permission slips won’t get lost, and homework won’t get stomped.
- Another suggestion: “Bring in your stuff after any activity.” Because I’m sure if you have kids, Scout neckerchiefs, sports bottles, shin guards, and jackets are all part of the car scenery.
- If trying to enforce picking up after themselves is driving you crazy, try the Backseat Clutter Captain idea from above.
My Best Tip to Get Your Kids On Board
My favorite tip to get kids on board with helping was one I found in Family Fun magazine called “Kid of the Day.”
Each day, one of my kids was “Kid of the Day.” That meant he got special privileges (choosing TV shows or after-school snack) while also getting the extra kid chores (bringing stuff in). Since I only used it with my younger two boys, one kid was always KOTD (not NKOTB – remember them?? Child of the ’80s here…) on odd days and one on even.
If you make sure privileges usually outweigh the drawbacks, your kids will probably get behind this one.
Recap: How to Keep Your Car Interior Clean (Even with Kids)
Are you ready to get off the shame/pride roller coaster of spotlessly-clean-car to disgustingly-messy-embarrassment and keep your car consistently clean enough to welcome unexpected passengers?
To recap, here’s how to keep your car interior clean (even if you have kids):
- Organize your car’s interior so stuff that stays in the car has a place where it belongs.
- Deal with trash and clutter regularly
- Be proactive and use passive ways to protect your car’s interior and prevent messes in the first place
- Fight perfectionism and be willing to spend the time you have right now to keep your car cleaner instead of putting it off until you can “do it correctly.”
- Make consistent minimal effort a habit, addressing smaller messes when they happen
- Spend 15 minutes a week keeping your car interior clean by neatening it, quickly wiping it down, and shaking out the mats.
- A few times a year, address deeper cleaning like restoring vinyl and cleaning carpet and upholstery stains.
Like I said, my car used to be trashed most of the time.
- Partially because I’m a proud over-packer.
- Also because I’m a slob by nature.
- But mostly because I didn’t have any plan whatsoever to keep my car neat and clean.
I’m still an over-packer.
I’m still a slob at heart.
But my car interior is always clean because now I take advantage of easy ways to keep it clean and follow a regular, painless car-cleaning schedule. I love driving a car that doesn’t make me cringe inside and pray that nobody else will see it.
I know you will too.