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How to Declutter Your Email Inbox and Take Control of Your Time

Skip the extra fees beyond free storage. Lose the outdated and unread messages


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Nipitphon Na Chiangmai / EyeEm / Getty Images

Free email programs from AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and others have storage limits — some more generous than others.

If you don’t monitor the size of your email accounts, Google’s Gmail, the most used email program ahead of Microsoft’s Outlook.com and Yahoo Mail, could add another expense to your carefully balanced budget. And you’ll spend your time slogging through a mass of online clutter to find what you really want.

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In June 2021, Google discontinued its policy of free photo uploads to the Google Photos app beyond the 15 gigabytes (GB) of storage it automatically allots to Google account holders. But that 15 GB is for storage across Gmail; Google Drive, which includes word processing Docs, spreadsheet system Sheets and presentation-maker Slides; and Google Photos, where you’ll need to stash large files if you want to have big prints for framing.

But go over 15 GB, and you’ll have to pay. AOL Mail limits your number of emails and size of attachments, and Outlook.com also limits its free storage to 15 GB. With Gmail, you could wake up to this error message from Google:

If you run out of space in Gmail, you won’t be able to send or receive messages. Messages sent to you will be returned to the sender.

Houston photographer Rob Greer doesn’t mind paying Google for the extra storage space. He doesn’t have time to go through his inbox and delete emails to make room.

“I pay $1.99 a month now,” says Greer, 53. Gmail is “really inexpensive when you think about it. They could charge me $9.99 a month and I’d still pay it.”

Google charges $1.99 a month, $19.99 annually for 100 GB of storage; $2.99 a month, $29.99 annually for 200 GB of storage; or $9.99 a month, $99.99 annually for 2 terabytes (TB) of storage.

Other services also levy fees

Email service storage limits

Free has its limits for email providers:

AOL Mail, 5,000 emails — 1,000 in new mail, 4,000 in old mail — of up to 25 megabytes (MB), including attachments.

Apple iCloud, 5 gigabytes (GB).

Google’s Gmail, 15 GB.

Microsoft’s Outlook.com, 15 GB.

Yahoo Mail, 1 terabyte (TB).

Because inboxes are stuffed with endless sales, newsletters, notifications, updates and all those personal emails with big photo and PDF attachments, your inbox will continue to balloon unless you tame it.

Google isn’t alone in enforcing storage rules. An iCloud email account on your Apple phone hits its free ceiling even more quickly. The company offers 5 GB of storage and charges if you go over: 99 cents monthly for 50 GB; $2.99 for 200 GB; or $9.99 for 2 TB, the equivalent of 2,000 GB.

On Android phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy series or the Google Pixel, most email defaults to Gmail since Google makes Android software.

Microsoft’s Outlook.com, at one time called Hotmail, lets you keep 15 GB of free storage but urges you to upgrade to 1 TB of storage for $6.99 a month, or $69.99 annually. The subscription includes online backup; access to a more secure, ad-free email program; and use of Excel spreadsheets, OneNote note taking, PowerPoint presentation and Word writing software.

Yahoo and AOL’s mail programs, while still free, are littered with ads. AOL users, who can have up to 5,000 emails but attachment sizes of 25 megabytes (MB) or less, can skip the ads with an upgrade to a paid version for $4.99 a month.

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Yahoo, which like AOL has been owned by private equity firm Apollo Global Management since September 2021, has had the most generous free storage since late last year, 1 TB.

Be aware: If you’ve had a Yahoo email account for a long time, your data could have been compromised. Though the new owners have not mentioned recent problems, two data breaches reported in 2016 affected more than 500 million and then 200 million accounts. In 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission fined Yahoo! $35 million after the then-public company failed to disclose one of the world’s largest data breaches, a 2014 hack not disclosed until 2016.

Use an app or delete manually

Meanwhile, what can you do if your inbox has gotten out of hand but you don’t want to pay a recurring subscription fee for more storage? You could do it the hard way and delete like crazy. Or you could pay to have an app do it for you.

The app Mailstrom starts with a free two-week trial, no credit card required, to delete up to 1,250 emails for you. After that it’s $9 a month, $59.95 a year, to keep the deleting going. In other words, Mailstrom does the deleting so you don’t have to.

The app finds the emails that show up most frequently — Google alerts, offers from local stores and the like. Once rounded up, you get to approve their bulk deletion.

Or you could try it the free way, searching for your most frequent emailers such as Google alerts and stores that nag you about their latest sale. Your laptop, with its larger display than a smartphone, is better suited for the cleanup.

Once displayed, click select all and delete them all. You might consider contacting those businesses to move all of the promotional emails to a separate account.

What makes it hard is that Google lets you look at only 100 emails at a time, Greer says. Many people have way more emails in their inbox.

4 ways to trim your Gmail or any email box

1. Find out how much you’re using. Log in to your Google account, then visit the Google One site. Under the Storage heading, you’ll see how much you have stowed.

2. Tackle the biggest items first. Google suggests typing “has:attachment larger:10M” into the search bar to find the emails with the largest attachments. Emails with videos, PDFs and large photos should show up. Download any attachments you want to keep onto your computer’s hard drive. Then select and delete the emails. If you have thousands of emails, you’ll have to do this several times. On a personal computer, you’ll also need to go to the left side of the page, click Menu | Trash | Empty Trash Now.

3. Sort to see the oldest. Your Gmail inbox shows the newest emails by default. In the upper right of your email list, you’ll see a designation of 1-50 of 45,757 or whatever your number is. Click on that phrase and choose Oldest. That LinkedIn alert from 2009 probably isn’t pressing now.

4. Search by sender or more than two dozen other specifics with tips from Google’s Gmail support page. Don’t forget to click Select All in the spam folder, promotions and social tabs to get rid of those.

This article, originally published Jan. 25, 2021, has been updated to reflect new information.

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