Cleaning out your Gmail inbox is easier than you might think. It could save you money, too.
I refuse to let Google win.
Come May 10, the company had planned to charge me $30 to re-up my Google One subscription for the year, which grants me 200GB of cloud storage space.
Would this fee, which breaks down to $2.50 per month, break my budget? No, especially since I’ve been paying since 2018, when I signed up for Google One for the first time.
But earlier this year, I decided to push back against subscription overload: $10 per month for a music service I barely use, $36 per month for 2 pounds of “premium” coffee delivered to my door, $20 per year for a magazine that frequently goes straight to the trash.
With inflation so high, culling unnecessary subscriptions is a great way to save money. And so, I was determined not to pay a penny more for the items archived in my Google account.
As you may know, the company gives all users 15GB of free storage space to house those many keepsakes stowed in Google Photos, Google Docs, and, crucially in my case, Gmail. To be fair, 15GB is a huge amount of free space (three times what Apple offers, if you’re keeping score), so how could I possibly need more?
Well, I created my Gmail account in 2008 and . . . basically, never deleted anything. I mean that: I’m pretty sure I deleted fewer than 10 emails over the life of my account. Instead, I’d invariably “mark as read” and move on with my day.
As a result, my inbox was bursting at the seams with junk: Old Navy newsletters from a decade ago, Best Buy offers that expired while President Obama was still in office, happy birthday emails from websites that no longer exist. You name it, I had it.
Heck, I had so much email that Gmail couldn’t be bothered to even count anymore: “1-50 of many” was what it said in the top right corner of my inbox as opposed to “1-50 of 50,000” or whatever.
All told, I had a bit more than 20GB of email in my inbox, well past the 15GB limit for free account storage. If I wanted to avoid paying Google another $30 this year to maintain more than a decade’s worth of junk, I had to act fast.
So about a week ago, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
How to Free Up Gmail Space?
Google provides a few tools to help you free up storage space.
Storage manager is like a sledgehammer: It identifies photos and other large files tucked away across your account, making it easy to liberate gobs of space with just a few mouse clicks. Use it to find and delete, say, long-forgotten PDFs or pointless snapshots lurking in your account.
After deleting a few very large files, I was pleased with myself, but my account was still north of 20GB. What now?
Enter the Gmail Filter tool, which works more like a scalpel: It lets you find, with real granularity, emails that match certain parameters and then delete them in bulk.
Here’s how it works.
Come up with a search term likely to yield dozens of unwanted emails. To flush out shipment notifications and sales alerts, for instance, I used things like “ebay order update,” “grubhub delivery,” and “from your Steam wishlist is now on sale.” What’s the point of keeping emails advertising video game sales that expired several years ago?
For the sake of demonstration, let’s use “oldnavy.com.”
Type the term into the search box at the top of your Gmail inbox and hit Enter or click the little magnifying glass icon. You should now see every single email that contains the string “oldnavy.com,” whether that’s from an @oldnavy.com email address, a friend who shared a link to a pair of pants on oldnavy.com, whatever.
As you will see, companies use all sorts of email addresses to successfully reach your inbox. I don’t blame them, I guess, but it’s annoying. I found marketing emails along the lines of “firstname.lastname@example.org,” “email@example.com,” “firstname.lastname@example.org,” and so on, meaning that any search you may have targeting, say, “email@example.com” won’t catch everything.
It’s a slog, which is why I resorted to deleting all emails simply containing “company.com,” over and over again. See ya.
But when you take that approach, you often end up capturing far more emails than you’d like, including some you may want to keep. So, let’s move on to Step Three.
Click on Advanced Search on the top right of your screen. Here, you can narrow the search, using parameters such as date received, whether or not the email has an attachment, the size of the file (in megabytes). In my case, I was simply looking to delete every single Old Navy email, so I left all of those extra parameters blank, but this is a good way to delete only Old Navy emails that are three years old or more, if, say, you want to hold onto the more recent ones to preserve certain transaction histories.
Now click “Create Filter.” Another window will pop up with a series of check boxes where you can take action on all the emails caught by the filter. Most pertinent here are the checkboxes “Delete It” and “Apply filter to X-Number of matching conversations.” In my case, this tells Gmail to delete every single email containing the string “oldnavy.com.” Click “Create Filter” once again and then Gmail will churn through your inbox, deleting the chosen emails and sending them to the Trash.
This deletion process may take a while and you may experience some weirdness. In my case, I literally lost access to my account three separate times over the course of a day or two, with Gmail showing some sort of error message (#2008) about being temporarily unavailable. Each outage lasted about 15 to 30 minutes. So, not forever, but definitely scary in the moment.
Afterward, I reached out to Google to see if they might have any advice about this, and it turns out that the company recommends against so-called “bulk operations” in Gmail. In plain English that means you should avoid deleting more than 1,000 emails at the same time. I managed, but you’ve been warned.
Delete the filter you just created. If you leave it in place, any future emails that match the description in that filter (i.e., contain “oldnavy.com”) automatically get sent to the Trash. To find the filter, click the Settings cogwheel in your Gmail inbox, then Filters and Blocked Addresses. You can then click “Delete” next to the filter. Note that Google recommends having no more than 500 filters enabled at the same time.
So, how many emails are we talking here?
I’m pleased to report that I was able to delete more than 100,000 over the course of two days. You read that right: one hundred thousand. You end up with so much email by merely “marking as read” every single email that arrived.
As of right now, early on the morning of April 25, I’m down to 74,196 emails in my Gmail inbox. I intend to keep whittling away at this number as I think of new search terms to use.
More importantly, how much space was I able to save? Well, my account went from roughly 20GB in size to 13.12GB, well below the 15GB threshold. As it stands, I will safely avoid having to pay Google $30 per year for the privilege of storing, I don’t know, a decade’s worth of GrubHub emails.
I have definitely learned a few lessons over the course of this operation.
The first is that 15GB of free storage may sound vast, but it’s not infinite, especially if your account is more than a decade old. In a bit of trivia, Gmail debuted on April 1, 2004, with 1GB of free storage space. At the time, that was such a large amount of free storage some people thought it was an April Fool’s joke.
And, second, it helps to be a little choosy regarding which email newsletters you sign up for. Do you really need routine updates from every single online merchant you’ve used or every app you’ve ever tried? If so, prepare yourself, and your inbox, for mountains of emails you’ll likely never read, until it comes time to free up storage space.
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