The Real Cost of Financial Clutter on the Road to a Remarkable Life

This guest post comes from Trent Hamm, the author of The Simple Dollar: How One Man Wiped Out His Debts and Achieved the Life of His Dreams. Be sure to check out his blog, The Simple Dollar after reading this truly inspiring piece.

Every time you spend a dollar, you sacrifice a bit of your future.

Five years ago, I believed the above sentence was foolishness. I was 24 years old, working at a high paying job, and about to get married to a wonderful woman. I had just spent almost ten thousand dollars on a wedding ring and an exorbitant honeymoon in Europe, and I was actively shopping for a new vehicle because, well, my current ride just wasn’t quite good enough.

Roll forward three years. I had $17,000 in credit card debt and literally not enough money to pay my bills. A good chunk of the debt incurred for that honeymoon still sat on the credit cards. My wife, son, and I lived together in a tiny apartment, trying to figure out what we were going to do next.

Everywhere I looked around me in that apartment, I saw stuff I didn’t need. Video game consoles piled high under the television, along with a small mountain of games for the consoles. Over a thousand DVDs. A gigantic television set that dwarfed our living room, looking almost comically out of place. A huge collection of Magic: the Gathering cards. So many books that half of our child’s bedroom consisted of bookshelves. Two nearly-new cars sitting outside.

And yet I felt empty inside. I held my child close, thinking about all of the things I wanted to give to him, but instead I had chosen to spend all of my money on stuff

Every time you spend a dollar, you sacrifice a bit of your future.

Today, not only do I believe deeply in that sentence, it underlines every choice I make in life. I turned that disastrous ship around, realized that all of that stuff was standing in the way of my passions and dreams, and in just two short years, I found enough financial freedom to do what I’ve always wanted to do: quit my nine to five job, stay at home, and focus entirely on my family and on my passion for writing.

The name of this blog, Unclutterer, really underlines the entire idea. Clutter exists in all aspects of our life, not only in the way we arrange items in our office and in our home, but in how we manage our time and manage our money. Clutter is distraction from the big picture, in every way, shape, and form. Clutter can even blind you and choke you if it grows out of control.

Financial clutter is a particularly insidious form of clutter, because it winds through so many aspects of our life. Much of the clutter in our office and home has a financial cost to it, meaning that we actually spent some money to create that clutter. The cluttering of our time is also financial clutter – if we waste our time on things that drain our money or don’t earn as much as we potentially can, we’re draining our financial plans of a great deal of vitality.

Here are six great steps that you can do immediately to reduce the financial clutter in your life – and begin to open the path to a truly remarkable life.

Calculate the true value of your time. Figure up how much you earn in a year. Now, subtract from that the cost of transporting yourself to and from work, the cost of work clothes, the cost of income taxes, and any other costs that your job foists upon you (like entertaining coworkers, for example). Now, figure up how many hours you actually work in a year, and add to that the time spent transporting yourself to and from work, the “extra” time spent working when at home, the time spent buying work-related materials, the time spent schmoozing with coworkers, the time spent on business trips, the time you “need” to spend unwinding after work, and any other time investments you make at work. Then divide the calculated amount you make by the number of hours you work for the year. That’s how much you really value an hour of your life. Know that number. Remember that number. It’s important.

Physically unclutter your living space. Go through all of your possessions and ask yourself whether you actually use it or not. Is it something that has honestly provided value for your life? Look for books you’ve not read, DVDs you’ve only watched a time or two, unplayed games, unlistened music, collections of things that you no longer feel passionate about, and so on. Gather up all of this stuff and estimate how much you’ve spent on it. Then divide it by the value of your time that you calculated above, and if you want to, divide that by 40 (so you can see this in terms of weeks). That’s how much of your life you spent working so you could have this stuff. When I first did this, I estimated that I had spent two years of work accumulating stuff I barely use.

The next step is to get rid of all of this stuff and make a clean break. Eliminate the stuff that you’re not using, haven’t used, and likely won’t use again. Get some degree of financial return out of this stuff in any way you can. Don’t worry about maximizing your return – you rarely will be able to make back the value of your time by seeking out a slightly higher return for the stuff. Then take that money and put it into the bank – it’s now your emergency fund so you don’t have to turn to credit cards when something bad happens.

Set some big goals – and remind yourself of them all the time. This is an effective way to unclutter your mind. Sit down and figure out what your true big goals are. My goals were to spend more time with my children and write for a living – that’s what I really wanted to do more than anything else. Your goals may differ, but spend some time really searching within yourself to know what they are. Focus in on just one, two, or perhaps three goals that really speak to the core of your life.

Once you’ve figured out what you’re really shooting for, let most of the other stuff in your life melt away. If you’re focused on becoming a full-time writer, don’t burden yourself with chasing promotions at work. If you’re focused on being a great parent, don’t spend your mental energy worrying about social obligations in the neighborhood. Focus in on your goal and use all of your energy to reach that goal.

The best way I’ve found of keeping on focus with the goal is to put visual reminders of the goal all over the place. My desktop wallpaper is a picture of my children, and I keep pictures of them everywhere. I also keep notepads everywhere to make it easy for me to jot down thoughts – and also to remind myself of my writing dreams.

Use the true value of your time – and those visual reminders of your big dreams – every time you consider making a purchase. Let’s say the true value of your time came out to be $5 an hour (it can easily be this low, even at a “good” job). You’re at the store and you’re lusting after buying a Nintendo Wii — it’s $270 after taxes. That’s 54 hours of your life spent working for someone else so you can buy something else to clutter up your home. Even better, that’s $270 (or 54 hours) taken away from your big dream.

This works well for small purchases, too. Is that latte worth an actual hour of your life spent working? Is one latte a week for a year worth 52 hours of your life — more than an entire work week? Might that $270 not go better helping you save to make that dream come true, perhaps by helping you build up the financial cushion you need to quit your job and follow that crazy dream?

Go through every. single. monthly. bill. Many of the bills you receive every month have some sort of extra fee in it. Look at your cell phone bill, for instance. Are all of those features something you really need to pay for, every single month? Figure out what you don’t need – what’s just cluttering up your bill – then ring up your cell phone company and get those “features” dropped. Look at your credit card bill. Is that finance charge ridiculously high? Call up your credit card company and request a rate reduction. If the first person you talk to says no, ask to talk to a supervisor.

Even better are bills you can eliminate entirely. We used to subscribe to Netflix, but we were scarcely watching two movies a month, so we cancelled the service. Now, if we get the itch to watch a movie, we just go rent one or download one — it’s far cheaper than the Netflix grind. We used to be members at a gym, but now we get most of our exercise at home or by jogging around the block, so there goes another substantial chunk of financial clutter.

Unclutter your debt. Make a list of every single debt you have — credit cards, student loans, car loans, mortgages, and anything else you have. Write down the total amount you owe and the interest rate you’re paying on that debt. Order them by interest rate. Then, each month, make the minimum payment on each of them, then make a substantial extra payment on the highest interest debt. When that debt disappears, move on to the next one on the list until they’re all gone.

The best way to do this is to create a “virtual bill” for you to pay each month. Figure out an amount that you can afford without too much hassle – say, $200 – and then each month give yourself a bill for that amount. That bill is payable to whichever debt is on top of the list.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Functional furniture: Sobro coffee and side tables

We’ve talked about multi-purpose functional furniture in several other posts. The most recent piece I’ve seen is the Sobro Coffee Table. It has a refrigerated drawer perfect for keeping cool beverages handy. It has built-in Bluetooth speakers, LED lighting, and outlets to charge your devices. It has two other drawers where you can stash all of your charging cables and the remote controls for your television. Plus, it’s sleek modern design will make you think you’re on a live-action movie set for The Jetsons!

The Sobro Side Table is currently in development. It has many of the same features as the coffee table — fridge drawer, charging station, and built-in Bluetooth speakers. However, the LED light can be set to automatically turn on when you walk past so you can use it as a nightlight. The non-refrigerated drawer is lockable which is ideal for dorm rooms or shared living spaces.

Both of these pieces are rather expensive but in urban centres like Vancouver and New York City where living space is at a premium, multi-functional furniture is more a necessity than a luxury.

Overwhelm yourself

My wife and I have accumulated quite a collection of glassware over the years. It is quite ridiculous, to tell you the truth. We entertain on occasion, but we have no need for the amount of glassware currently in our possession. Even when we do have a party we only use a small fraction of the glassware.

As I have mentioned in the past, we are downsizing our living space and we must reduce the amount of stuff that we have. The kitchen was the room we tackled last. I came up with the idea of removing every last item from the cupboards to assess what we had on our hands. The end result was quite overwhelming.

You don’t really get a grasp of what you have stored away in those cupboards until you have it lying out for display. I got the same feeling when we had our yard sale. I asked myself, “Where did all this stuff come from?” The accumulation of stuff is gradual, and it tends to sneak up on you. My wife and I have been married for almost nine years now and we have just recently become more conscious of all of the things we have brought into our home.

It is much easier to prepare a plan of attack when you can see the whole of your problem. The final result was a successful paring down of our kitchen inventory. If you’re having trouble uncluttering, try overwhelming yourself. It might be the incentive you need to let things go.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Reader question: Keeping track of vendors

Reader Jean wrote to us with this question:

How do you keep track of your vendor information? If you are a home owner, it is necessary to keep track of who you bought products and services from. It is important to keep information about the performance of the vendor and service contractors. What is the best way to keep this information?

That’s a great question. It’s always a good idea to keep track of who you do business with and not only if you’re a home owner. Renters may need to have their own appliances serviced and they may wish to report to the owners detailed information about the quality of the work provided by repair persons. You certainly want to continue hiring good contractors and purchasing from the best vendors. There are several ways to keep track of this information. I’ll provide a few examples below.

Paper based methods

Some people may think paper-based methods are old fashioned but they are effective. If you already have your user manuals and bills of sales filed in your filing cabinet, you can store your service contracts in the same files. For example, if the documentation for your large appliances is stored in one file folder, store any bills for repairs or servicing there as well. You can note the quality of service on the back of the bill or on another paper stapled to the bill or service contract. This method is great because when you phone for repairs, you’ll also have the make, model, and serial number of your appliance in the same file.

You could also create a binder with all of the information. Copy useful information (make, model, serial number, etc.) of each item onto a sheet of paper to keep in the binder. Note where you store the instruction/guarantee booklet so it is easy to find if you need it (then you don’t have to store the bulky booklets in the binder itself). If you wish, attach bills of sale to 3-hole paper and add them to the binder too. It gives you space to write details about the quality of the store/salesperson where you bought the item. Add repair bills or service contracts to the binder as they occur. You can also staple business cards of sales/service personnel to the pages so their contact information is at your fingertips.

Electronic Methods

Electronic methods work better for some people — especially if much of the information to be stored is already in digital format. A basic spreadsheet can list contact information, dates items were purchased or work was done, as well as the quality of the vendor or service provider. Spreadsheets are nice because you can sort the information by date, appliance name, or by vendor service quality. If your user manuals are in digital format, you can link to them directly. If not, you can note the place where they are stored (e.g. filing cabinet).

You can also track this information in home inventory software. This is a type of database that will allow you to store information such as make, model, serial number, purchase price, etc. You can also store a picture of the item as well as receipts and other documents. You can even keep this information in the cloud so that should you ever need to make an insurance claim, you can access it from anywhere. The Balance has a great summary of home inventory software that is available for both Mac and Windows.

Thanks again for your great question Jean. We hope this post gives you the answers you were looking for. Our fellow unclutterers are also a great source of ideas so keep checking the comments for more tips.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject as “Ask Unclutterer.”

Is ‘trading up’ your space worth it?

Are you in constant pursuit of a bigger, better home? Do you think that more space will solve your problems or alleviate the stress of storing all your stuff? Are your eyes set on the biggest house you can afford?

If you answered affirmatively to any of the above questions, you may want to take a few minutes to read Daniel McGinn’s article originally published in Newsweek in 2008, “Extreme Downsizing: How moving from a 6,000-square-foot custom home to a 370-square-foot recreational vehicle helped quell one family’s ‘House Lust.’

The family featured in the article was getting ready to buy a home on land and give up their RV after two years on the road. They learned a number of valuable lessons over the two years, but this one stuck out to me:

“Debbie makes it clear that their next home, while smaller, will still be nicely appointed. It’s not as if she’s forsaken the American dream altogether; she has just realized that the endless cycle of ‘trading up’ to nicer homes isn’t very fulfilling. ‘It was this constant “This will be the answer.” Then you’d come up empty at the end,’ she says. ‘It was this searching thing, and I think I’m done with the search.'”

This article has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Weekend Project: Clear clutter from under furniture

I read an organizing book many years ago that suggested hiding random possessions like magazines and children’s toys under the couch. It was such a bizarre suggestion to me. How is cramming something under a couch an organized solution? Yes, it may get it out of the pathway and out of sight, but is that the best place for those items? Magazines belong in a magazine caddy or on bookshelves, and children’s toys belong in toy chests or bins. I read the suggestion as a way to create clutter, not curb it.

This weekend, tackle the spaces under furniture in your home. Are you hiding things under dressers or beds? Under table skirts? Under your couch? Pull out items and find them a better home that shows that you honor and respect your belongings. If under furniture is the only place you have for storage, then use storage bags or bins. Dust mites and other yucky things don’t belong on your possessions.

If the areas under your furniture are clear of clutter, check the spaces behind your furniture. Have books, pens, or other items fallen out of sight? Has a water cup rolled back behind your headboard?

Good luck unearthing the clutter from under your furniture!


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Folder Marker

One of the things I love about working with Mac is that I can use colour-coded tags to identify specific folders and files. For example, I have various income streams and I prefer to keep all documents related to each income stream together in their own folder. However, I use a grey tag to identify all of the receipts and documents I need to complete my income taxes. When it’s time to gather all of those items, I simply search for all of the files with the grey tag and upload them to my accountant’s secure server.

I like colour-coding. It helps keeps me organized. This is why I find it frustrating to work on a Windows computer because I do not have the ability to colour-code or tag files and folders.

However, a software program called Folder Marker was recently brought to my attention. It easily integrates into Windows Explorer allowing users to right-click on any folder to change its colour. Folder Marker also allows users to mark files (and folders) by priority (high, normal, low), by degree of work complete (done, half-done, planned), by work status (approved, rejected, pending). You can also integrate your own icons to assign to folders and files.

Folder Marker has a free version that is likely all basic computer users would ever need. Families and home business users could upgrade to the Home Version which provides more options. for would need. Small businesses sharing a common hard drive or server should upgrade to the Pro Version to have access to all the options. Compare the options here.

Would you benefit from colour-coding your digital files folders? Do you do it now? Are there any pros and cons you would like to share with other readers? Chime in with a comment below.

Pump up the volume

Are you someone who can sit in the middle of your living room with the television on, kids running in and out of the room, and still concentrate fully on the book you’re reading? Are you unlike most people and actually find it difficult to focus when it’s completely silent?

If so, you may be one of the few who will be more successful with your organization efforts if you work with noise.

Borrow a white noise machine from a friend or run an old, clanging fan while organizing. There are also apps for your phone that will generate brown, pink, white, blue, and violet noise. Consider playing music with a quick beat, somewhere around 120 to 140 beats-per-minute, while you work.

If you have a stack of papers that need to be organized, toss them in a box with pad of sticky notes and head to your local coffee shop. The sounds of the customers, cash register, and milk steamer will provide background noise to keep you on track. If you don’t feel like going out, visit Coffitivity, a website that reproduces sounds from various types of coffee shops. They also have an offline version you can install on your phone.

Now, if you’re someone who has to have complete silence when you focus, please read the above advice as a list of things not to do. As long as you know your strengths, you can use them to your advantage while organizing.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Reader question: What about old pantyhose?

Reader Joan wrote in with this question:

What does one do with old pantyhose that is no longer wearable because of holes, etc.? Is there a way to recycle this material?

That’s a great question. The short answer is no. Most pantyhose is made from nylon and it is a difficult material to recycle — and it can take up to 30 to 40 years for it to decompose in a landfill. A few years ago, an American pantyhose manufacturer had a recycling program but it is now discontinued.

Since a recycling program is not available, let’s take a look at the other two Rs, reduce and reuse.


Deciding not to wear pantyhose ever again is an option but it might not be possible to change the dress code at your office or that of a specific event. So, let’s look at some ways to reduce the amount of pantyhose used.

It might seem obvious, but buy higher quality pantyhose. The cheap ones might seem like a deal but if you tear them when putting them on for the first time, you’ve wasted money.

Take some time to find a brand that fits you properly. Some brands are more generous in the seat and thigh area, other brands are great for people with longer legs. Once you find a brand that you like, stick with it.

Look at your wardrobe and see if you can reduce the types and colours of hosiery you need. You may find that you only need black to coordinate with your winter wardrobe and sheer to coordinate with your summer wardrobe. Also, the colour of “sheer” varies drastically so find a brand that makes a colour that matches your skin tone.

Careful treatment of pantyhose helps them last longer. Before putting them on, ensure your finger and toenails have no snags and do not wear jewellery. Hand wash your hosiery in cold water or put it in a mesh bag and wash it in the machine on the delicate cycle. Lay them flat to dry, preferably on a towel (hanging causes them to stretch out of shape). Do not use detergent with bleach as that breaks down the fibres.

Store your pantyhose so it won’t get snagged on any other clothing. You can store it in your drawer in a mesh bag. Some people prefer to store their panty hose in their closet in a hanging pocket organizer.


My grandmother was raised in the Great Depression and was frugal her whole life. If one leg of her pantyhose was damaged, she cut it off. If she had two of the same pair with one leg each, she wore both pairs at the same time — both of her legs were covered and she had extra tummy control.

Besides wearing two half-pairs at a time, there are many other ways to reuse pantyhose. Bright Life Direct has one of the best list of ideas. It includes:

  • Deodorize up to three or four months. Chop a handful of any pleasant-smelling herb from your garden then add a box of baking soda. Mix and tie up in fresh smelling sachet balls of nylon. Place under sinks, in cabinets, drawers or storage areas.
  • Hold gauze or bandaging in place. Cut a circular strip from the part of the leg with similar size, like the ankle circumference used for the mid arm to keep bandages from sliding. Plus, it allows “breathing”.
  • Store onions or flower bulbs in a stocking leg.
  • Store rolls of gift wrap, wallpaper, posters in a stocking leg to help protect them from damage.
  • Place pantyhose over growing vegetables such as squash to reduce damage from bugs. You can also hang some vine vegetables in this way to keep them off the ground.

Pantyhose can also be used to tie bundles of clothes, blankets, or fabric together. It also great for straining paint.

There are so many craft projects that use pantyhose. You can stretch them over a coat hanger to make angel or fairy wings or braid them together to create a rug. An internet search will generate over a million websites with great ideas.

Thanks again for your great question Joan. We hope this post gives you the answers you were looking for. Our fellow unclutterers are also a great source of ideas so keep checking the comments for more tips.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject as “Ask Unclutterer.”

A place for everything. Seriously.

Once you unclutter, the next step in getting organized is, well, getting organized. The key to personal organization, in my experience, is developing processes that take the thinking out of organization and sticking to those processes. What this means is that getting organized once — tidying up everything — won’t do unless you can keep it organized.

We’ve all had the experience of letting our spaces get so cluttered and messy that we had to stop and put everything away, throw out useless items, and make the space clean. This tells us a couple of things. For one, the mind can only take so much messiness in its environment before it rebels and says, “I can’t think until this place is cleaned up!”

Without organization, you can’t be productive. Suppose you’re working on a project that requires certain tools, such as paper, pens, a ruler, scissors. If you have to stop every minute to think were the scissors or pens are in your mess, several things happen. First, and most obvious, you’ll waste time (as the scientific management school showed us). Second, you’ll never get into a productive flow that will allow for creativity.

Organization is having a place for everything and making sure everything is in its place. I know that cliche sounds trite, but think about it. When you cleaned up, where did you put things? You put them in their place, right? That means most things have “their place” (not an objective universal place, just a place you’ve decided is where they belong). Why did you put them in their place? Because you want to be able to — unthinkingly — find them when you need them without interrupting your flow or creativity.

The other thing that has to be unthinking is putting things back in their place after you’ve used them. First, you have to have a place for everything. If you don’t have a drawer or shelf for DVDs, then when you finish watching one, you’re likely to leave it on the coffee table. Some places are better than others, and I hope to get into this in future posts, but for now just make sure you have a place. Also, remember we’re talking about things after you’ve uncluttered, so hopefully all that is left are things that are useful or enjoyable. Second, you need a process for staying organized. Having a place for everything does no good unless you regularly put everything in its place.

Processes can be as simple as a commitment to throw out clutter and put everything in its place in your work area before you leave for the day. When you come in the next day, everything will be calm and you’ll be ready to start the day smoothly without a jarring messy desk looking at you first thing in the morning. What makes this a process, however, is making it a habit and doing it regularly. In the posts to come I hope to look at good places and good processes.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Clutter in the comics

Cartoonist Lynn Johnston tackled the issue of inherited clutter in her comic For Better or For Worse.

In addition to it not creating clutter, one of my favorite things about reading this strip online is that some of the characters blink. Don’t believe me? Click through to Wednesday’s strip and watch the third frame for about fifteen seconds. A “thank you” to reader Katie for bringing this one to our attention.

Reader Alex also let us know about clutter being discussed in the cartoon Opus. Cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, in a full-color Sunday strip, shows the political pressures Opus the penguin feels to spend, spend, spend! Maybe simple living is “trendy” after all


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

One person’s cool tech tool is another person’s clutter

Watching Olympic figure skating on the NBC Olympics website, I saw a huge number of ads for Amazon’s Echo Dot at a discounted price. But the ads didn’t convince me that I wanted to buy one — and if someone gave me one as a gift, I’d give it away. For me it would be clutter.

I know that devices like the Dot can be very useful to those with disabilities, but I’m fortunate enough to not have any such disabilities at the moment. I also know people with small children who say devices like the Dot provide their kids with endless entertainment, but I don’t have children.

And much of the other functionality that comes from the Dot (and its connectivity to other “smart home” devices) is simply not an issue to me as it is to many other people:

  • I have a small home, so I don’t need the Dot to control smart lightbulbs — I can get up and turn on any light in the house with just a few steps. Similarly, I can easily get up and adjust my thermostats, so I don’t need to use the Dot to adjust a smart thermostat like the Nest.
  • I order very few things from Amazon and I don’t even have Amazon Prime, so being able to say, “Alexa, re-order paper towels” isn’t a benefit to me as it would be to other people.
  • I don’t play music when I’m home, and I don’t subscribe to any streaming music services, so voice control of my music — a big deal to some other people — is irrelevant to me. Similarly, I don’t listen to audiobooks, so I wouldn’t use an Echo for them. And I read the news rather than listen to the news, so the Echo wouldn’t be useful to me for that purpose, either.
  • All Alexa accounts come with a shopping list, so you can tell the Echo to add something to your shopping list and then use the Alexa app on your smart phone to see the list when you’re in the store. I can see how this could really be helpful for some people, including couples — one person could add to the list that the other person would be using to shop later in the day. But for me, the Notes app on my iPhone is really all I need.
  • I’m perfectly happy using my smart phone as my alarm clock and my timer. I don’t need another device to provide those functions for me.

I’m not at all trying to disparage anyone who has an Echo (or a Google Home device or an Apple HomePod). If these make your life easier or bring you joy, that’s great! And I very much appreciate many new tech tools. I’m just suggesting that we all consider our own circumstances before we decide to buy the latest tech gadget, whatever that might be.