Get organized to help in an emergency

As Florida and Houston deal with the aftermath of devastating storms, I’ve seen messages from good-hearted people on social media opening their homes to those who have been displaced. Countless people are affected by these disasters, and will be for weeks and months to come.

It’s a fantastic act of selfless generosity to open one’s home to someone in need. It also takes a lot of planning and organization. If you plan to have friends and/or family stay with you for an indeterminate amount of time — especially when they’ve lost so much — there are steps you can take to make the experience better for yourself and for them.

First, ensure how many people you can safely and comfortably accommodate. Everyone will need space to sleep, so count up bedrooms as well as couches, air mattresses, cots or sleeping bags. If using the latter, make sure that there’s an opportunity for privacy for all. Not everyone wants to sleep on the living room couch. Maybe you can make a rotating schedule. While you’re at it, make sure there is ample room for the belongings they will bring with them.

If you plan on accepting many people, you might even want to check with your municipality for advice on how many people can safely occupy your home.

Next, stock up on supplies. More people means more food, water, toiletries, etc. If you have time, buy these supplies before your guests’ arrival and designate a tidy an accessible place for storage.

Guests forget stuff at the best of times, and in this instance, they might not have the opportunity to grab essentials. Buy extra toothbrushes, disposable razors, extra towels and so forth and make them available.

Your guests will also have clothing to launder. Providing a few mini pop-up laundry baskets will allow guests to keep their dirty clothes out of their suitcases and transport them to and from the laundry area with ease.

Also make sure you’ve got a first-aid kit on hand, as well as some common over-the-counter medications, even pet food if your guests will be bringing a dog or cat with them.

Have phone chargers for various models available, as theirs may be gone, as well as a mini charging station. Make your Wi-Fi password available if you have one (you should). A crank-powered radio is also useful, especially if your own home is in or near a danger zone.

If you’re opening your home to people in need, our hat is off to you. If you don’t have that opportunity but still want to help, contact the Red Cross.

What would you do in a public emergency?

With the recent terrible attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona, we thought here at Unclutterer that it would be a good idea to review some basic things to consider when faced with a public emergency.

Be prepared. Familiarize yourself with the venue’s layout. Pay attention to the location of medical tents, first aid stations, washrooms, and escape routes. Also pay attention to dead-ends, you don’t want to become trapped in a space where there is no exit.

Be aware of your surroundings at all times. If you get the slightest feeling that something may be wrong, you need to listen to your instincts and act fast. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, such as a rapid increase in the crowds in your area or perhaps a suspicious loner that doesn’t seem to belong, it’s probably a good time to find the nearest exit.

If you’re caught in a crowd, think of it as a flowing river — swim with the current and slowly make your way to the edge.

Prior to the event, choose a meeting spot in case anyone gets separated from the group. Ensure everyone has each other’s phone number. It is helpful to have a contact outside the event that can be called to coordinate planning should something go wrong at the event. In large crowds, mobile phones get lost and damaged so being able to contact someone outside the event is helpful.

Take photos of your group or yourself if alone — share them with your friends at the event and your contact outside the event. If you get lost or separated, you can show a photo of your friend and say, “Have you seen this guy/gal?” Authorities will also want to know a detailed description of what your friend was wearing. Your memory may not work so well under stress so having a photo is helpful.

Now for what to do if something horrible does happen.

First off, stay calm. This is probably the hardest thing to do. With chaos around you, it’s human nature to panic and when we panic, we end up doing things that we normally wouldn’t ever consider doing (I knew someone that in an armed robbery started grabbing people and pulling them on top of her, something she was horrified for having done afterwards). As much as possible, try to keep your thoughts clear and practical.

Next, make sure you’re safe, and if as long as you don’t put yourself at risk, help others get safe too. In most cases, this means getting as far away from the situation as possible, but that may not be possible. For example, exits may be blocked or as happened in Charlottesville, there were so many people in the street and there was nowhere to go. After the Barcelona attack, my husband and I had a conversation about how we always know where we would go in case of emergency. We read evacuation plans in hotels and tend not to put ourselves in situations where there are limited exits. We also talked about how the intuitive way out might not be the best. For example, we live on the ocean. If something happened while we were on the beach, intuition would suggest heading inland, but it may be better to head out into the water where it’s less likely we’d be trampled.

Of course, once you are safe and away, let friends and family know that you’re fine. They’ll be worried about you. Facebook, for example, has a function that they turn on in such situations, allowing you to let all your contacts know that you’re safe and sound.

If you’ve had some sort of first aid training, or see something you can do without putting yourself in danger, do it. As I mentioned above about panic, in emergency situations it’s human nature to think of ourselves first and to maybe cause others harm inadvertently. Maybe the best way you can help is to get out of the way, but if you see someone suffering and it’s in your power to do something, take a deep breath and offer assistance.

When the worst of the situation has passed, find out what you can do to help. Whether it’s donating blood, clothing or food, or volunteering in whatever manner is being requested, it is actions that count. It’s all well and good to express your horror and support publicly via social networks and minutes of silence, but real assistance comes from doing something productive, not just making ourselves feel better with words and flowers.

In this age of social media, it’s important to remember to put your smartphone away and do not distribute images or videos of the tragedy unless asked to do so by authorities. Most of us are not reporters and it’s not our job to inform the world of what’s happening. When my father had a terrible swimming accident, I was shocked that I actually had to tell someone to get out of the way of the paramedics and stop gawking. And the man was hovering about with his phone, as if he wanted to take a picture or something. Watching the news about the Barcelona attack, I was horrified to see people taking selfies while the police were cordoning off the area. Remember that the person you’re filming is someone’s mother, brother, or child and imagine how you would feel if it was your loved one.

And finally, check your facts before spreading information. With news and rumors easily confused online, it’s important to take a moment and make sure that what you are about to share is real.

The Unclutterer site has quite a lot of information about emergency preparedness and I suggest taking a moment to check out our archives to make sure that you know what to do when life takes a tragic turn.

Organize emergency medical info on your phone

When emergencies strike, it’s important to have important medical information close at hand. It’s one of those things you usually don’t think about until you have to, but not thinking or doing anything about it ahead of time can cause you serious trouble. One way to keep this information organized and easily accessible is to securely store it on your smartphone.

If you have an iPhone or an Android device, the following information should help you:

iPhone

Apple has made organizing emergency information quite simple. To begin, open the Health app, which is part of the standard iPhone operating system. Next, follow these simple steps:

  1. Tap “Medical ID” in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
  2. Tap “Edit” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
  3. Enter pertinent information.

There’s a lot of info you can list here, including any medical conditions, special notes, allergies, potential reactions/interactions, as well as any medication(s) you currently take. There are also fields for adding an emergency contact, blood type, weight, height, and whether or not you’re an organ donor.

At the top of screen, there’s an option to have this information available from the lock screen. If selected, your emergency information is just a swipe way from your iPhone’s lock screen.

This is useful should you have to visit the ER, but that’s not all. I recently had to have a prescription refilled and while at the pharmacy I couldn’t remember the medication’s name (nor could I pronounce it even if I had remembered it), so I simply opened this info on my phone and handed it to the pharmacist. “Wow,” he said. “I wish everybody did this.”

On Andriod

Storing emergency medical information is a little tricker on Android, but not impossible. There may be a field for this information among the phone’s contacts, but that depends on what version of Android you’re running. If it has an In Case of Emergency field in the contact’s app, be sure to fill in this information. But in addition to this, I suggest you download and use an app like ICE: In Case of Emergency. For $3.99, it lets you list:

  1. People to call in an emergency (and it can call them directly from the app)
  2. Insurance information
  3. Doctor names and numbers (again, it can call them directly from the app)
  4. Allergies
  5. Medical Conditions
  6. Medications
  7. Any special instructions or other information you wish to provide

Both of these solutions can be a convenience in any medical situation, especially emergencies. More importantly, this simple bit of organization can greatly help a first-responder when you need help the most. Take some time this week to set it up.

Organizing for disasters: your emergency preparedness supplies

What goes into an emergency preparedness kit? As Erin has noted before, FEMA can help you with this and the American Red Cross can help, too.

If you’re interested in creating your own kit, the following are three specific things to think about as you assemble it.

Food and water

You may have heard advice like: “A good rule of thumb is to have supplies for about 3 days, or 72 hours.” That advice comes from the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. Both ready.gov and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have repeated that advice, recommending at least a three-day supply of water per person.

Other sources indicate that 72 hours worth of supplies is a bare minimum. The Southern California Earthquake Center, in its brochure “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Territory,” recommends that you have enough food and water for “at least 3 days and ideally for 2 weeks.”

FEMA’s guide entitled Food and Water in an Emergency (PDF) advocates for more supplies, too.

If an earthquake, hurricane, winter storm or other disaster strikes your community, you might not have access to food, water, and electricity for days or even weeks. … Store at least one gallon per person, per day. Consider storing at least a two-week supply of water for each member of your family. If you are unable to store this quantity, store as much as you can.

The American Red Cross has made a distinction between the supplies you need if you’re evacuating versus the supplies you need if you’re staying where you are. They recommend a “3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home.”

Emergency lighting

I’ve had clients tell me they were holding onto candles as an emergency supply — but that’s a really poor idea. As the CDC has indicated:

Home fires are a threat after a natural disaster and fire trucks may have trouble getting to your home. If the power is out, use flashlights or other battery-powered lights if possible, instead of candles. If you must use them, place candles in safe holders away from anything that could catch fire. Never leave a burning candle unattended.

I’ve heard people suggest getting a headlamp, so you can walk around with your hands free, which sounds like a good suggestion to me.

Landlines with corded phones

In day-to-day use, many of us rely on our cell phones, and many people are getting rid of their landlines. If you’re lacking power, a landline using copper wire, in conjunction with a corded phone, may work when no other phone will. Tara Siegal Bernard wrote in The New York Times about this in more detail. She noted that 911 services works better when the calls come through on a landline rather than a cell phone.

There are additional advantages to having a landline during an emergency. If your local cell phone network is overloaded after an earthquake, your landline calls might still go through. If you need to evacuate your home and you have a landline with an answering machine, you may be able to call home to find out if your power is back on; if the answering machine picks up and your home is still standing, your electricity is back.

Prep your tech for a weather emergency

Earlier this week, many of us here on the Eastern Coast of the USA endured hurricane Sandy’s assault. As a resident of coastal Massachusetts, I spent last weekend preparing for the storm. There’s a lot to be done, and you’ll find an excellent overview from the American Red Cross here. Now that the worst seems to be behind us in my particular neighborhood (I know it’s not this way for all those affected by the storm), I’ll share some simple tips I picked up from this event to ensure that your tech gadgets are ready to go the next time emergency strikes. Getting things organized ahead of time can lessen the stress of dealing with the event itself.

Charge Up

It’s likely that you’ll lose power during a major storm, so charge all of your devices ahead of time. When power does go out, unplug your devices, as it could be restored with a jolt. Also, if you’ve got a generator, it’s best not to run electronics like phones, laptops, and tablets off of it.

Keep it Charged

I live in a small town, so we lost power at the drop of a hat. Once it’s gone, it stays gone. A good backup battery is great to have on hand. iPhone owners should check out the Mophie Juice Pack. It starts at $80 and provides several hours of additional life to your iPhone 4 or 4S (an iPhone 5 version is under development). It’s a case that charges separately from your phone, and features an on/off switch so you needn’t use it until you need it. If that’s not enough, consider the Mophie Powerstation Pro, an external battery that provides even more power to your iPhone.

There are several options for Android phone owners, too, like the Samsung Galaxy S III Power Bank External Battery Case.

You can also extend your phone’s battery life by disabling certain features, like Wi-Fi (your router’s probably out anyway) and Bluetooth. Also, dim the screen brightness and avoid playing audio at a high volume. If your phone is set to check email automatically at regular intervals, turn that off, too. All of those processes drain battery life.

Store Important Documents

If you’re forced to evacuate your home, it’s helpful to have important documents with you, but not always practical. One solution is to store copies in the cloud. Evernote lets you store digital files remotely and access them from nearly any Internet-connected phone, tablet, or computer. Simply scan your documents or take photos of them. Create a new notebook in Evernote (I suggest the name “Emergency Documents”) and add the digital copies.

Find Some Useful Apps

The American Red Cross has released several great apps for both the iPhone and Android devices. For this storm, I installed one called Hurricane App. This free, full-featured app provides tips on preparedness, push alerts for your area and so much more. You’ll even get location-based NOAA weather alerts and can monitor alerts for far away regions of the country where loved ones are. There’s even a flashlight, strobe and alarm included.

iPhone owners who are interested in NOAA weather radio should check out NOAA weather radio app for iPhone. It provides live NOAA weather broadcasts for a huge variety of locations across the USA. A crank radio is best, as there’s no battery to exhaust, but this works if you have power on your phone.

Back It Up

Back up your computers, tablets, and smart phones before the storm hits (you’re doing this anyway, right?). It’s nice to have a backup in your house, but inadequate if that’s all you’ve got. Create remote backups with a service like Crashplan, Dolly Drive or Carbonite.

Go Social

Finally, keep an eye on social media. It’s amazing how significantly these services affect our lives. You can follow The American Red Cross on Twitter for up -to-the-minute information. Also, look for relevant hashtags, like #Sandy.

Of course, the best advice is to follow the instructions of emergency personnel in your area. Be safe, be careful and be prepared. And our thoughts continue to be with those most affected by this horrible storm.

Workspace of the Week: Emergency

This week’s Workspace of the Week is [email protected]$’s office in red:

The color of the wallpaper reminds me of a fire truck. Everything is organized, similar to how it is on a fire truck, and in its place. I wonder if the colored magnets on the front of the red storage cabinet under the desk denote any information? I like the idea of the magnets meaning “to do today” or something equally valuable. All of the components for this office were purchased at Ikea and the space looks incredible. Thank you, [email protected]$ (I’m saying that as “Vegas” in my mind), for sharing your space with us.

Want to have your own workspace featured in Workspace of the Week? Submit a picture to the Unclutterer flickr pool. Check it out because we have a nice little community brewing there. Also, don’t forget that workspaces aren’t just desks. If you’re a cook, it’s a kitchen; if you’re a carpenter, it’s your workbench.

Organizing pet information in case of emergency

My friend Elspeth recently lost her cat. The kitty is home safely now, but in the process of looking for her my friend learned a thing or two about how she could have been a better organized pet owner.

After her experience, Elspeth put together a list of emergency information and resources you should have on file if you have a pet:

  1. Have your pet microchipped and have on file the name of the company, the microchip number, and contact information for the company.
  2. Know the number on your pet’s rabies tag.
  3. Have documentation on all of your pet’s vaccinations and surgeries. Shelters and vets that take in lost pets will conduct blood tests to identify strays from non-strays. Knowing which vaccines are in your pet’s blood and locations of scars can help in identifying your pet.
  4. Take pictures of your pet at many different angles and of all unique pattern markings. Have these images in digital format. Many states and shelters will post pictures of lost pets online and you’ll want the pictures to print fliers.
  5. Most agencies will only allow you to report a pet that has been missing for more than 24 hours. Find out which agencies take these notices (usually shelters and animal control) and have their contact information in your address book.
  6. Even if your pet lives primarily indoors, you still need to have a collar on your pet with identification. Break away collars are best for constant wear so that your pet doesn’t accidentally choke himself/herself.
  7. Keep contact information for how to post messages to your neighborhood e-mail listserv and Craigslist community.

Ultimately, it was a couple who found the cat and also saw one of Elspeth’s posters on a bus stop in the neighborhood. We hope that you never lose one of your pets, but if you do, you’ll be prepared by having the above information at your fingertips.

In case of …

No one enjoys thinking about the macabre. But, as Benjamin Franklin so accurately posited in a 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

On Unclutterer, we’ve certainly glossed over the death topic. The truth is that we don’t enjoy thinking about it either. However, if you’re going to take the time to get your life organized, you would be remiss to ignore that there will be a point where you’re no longer here and others will need to find important documents and information to close your estate.

We call these our “In case of …” files. In mine, I include things like contact information for employees, server details, and passwords, and a key to my fire-proof safe where I store my Will and a copy of my birth certificate. The idea is that if something does happen to me, I want things to be easier on my close family and friends who are mourning. I’d rather them have good thoughts of me after my passing, not angry thoughts because they searched for hours trying to find my life insurance policy to pay for the funeral.

If you’ve never put together an “In case of …” file, the best place to start is by visiting a lawyer to draft your Last Will and Testament. This document will include answers to all of the big questions: custody of children, property disbursements, where you want to be buried, etc. After you have this document created, you’ll then need to pass along the name of your lawyer to at least two different people — someone who lives near you (spouse, partner, close friend) and someone who lives in a different part of the country or world — and then store this document safely (such as in a UL 350 fireproof safe).

The rest of your “In case of …” file will be up to you in terms of its contents. Are there people who would need to be contacted at your job? Are you the primary care provider for a child, sibling, or parent who may need to receive immediate attention before the reading of your Will? Do you have bills that have to be paid? Look at your life and identify all of the places that could be stressful for someone to handle if you weren’t there to help. Now, provide information on those issues and put it in your “In case of …” file. It won’t be a fun process while you collect the information, but afterward you’ll have a peace of mind that things will be okay in case something happens.

 

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

House Hunting Trip, part 2

In House hunting trip, part 1, we discussed how to prepare before you leave your current home. Here are a few more tips.

Before you leave home

Take measurements of furniture that will be moving with you. Ensure you know how big your credenza, chesterfield, and large screen TV are. If you’re moving appliances, measure those as well. Keep this information on a spreadsheet either on paper or on your laptop. You don’t want to buy a house that your furniture won’t fit into.

Pack a tape measure in your suitcase. You’ll want to be able to measure room sizes and spaces to fit appliances. Most real estate websites only list approximate sizes for rooms. For example, they will state that a room is 10ft by 12ft when really it is 9ft 10 inches by 11ft 11 inches. Those few inches might make a big difference when trying to fit a large piece of furniture. You may also need to measure the width of doors and windows.

You might also want to take a laser measure for determining the size of large spaces like open basements, garages, and even fenced in back yards. They are also handy for measuring smaller rooms because sometimes people’s furniture is placed so you cannot accurately use a tape measure.

Note taking equipment (pen, paper, clipboard, etc.) is essential on a house hunting trip. You will likely look at so many homes you won’t remember which house has which features. It is helpful to print out the real estate listing with the address and a photo of the house and write details about the house on the reverse side.

A camera is also an essential tool but be organized in taking photos and videos. Think of how they make a movie. At the start of filming, they use a clapperboard to show the name of the upcoming scene. When you are house hunting, take a photo of a piece of paper with the address of the house. Then, take photos of outside, and inside the house. At the end of the showing, take a photo of something completely different (yourself, your car or even just blank paper) to indicate the end of that set of photos/videos. It will be much easier to separate one set of house photos from another — especially if many of the houses are similar in colour and design.

On arrival

On the first few days of your trip, visit as many houses as time allows. Don’t hesitate to cancel a showing if you know right away a house will not meet your requirements. (One time, we arrived at a showing and realized the house was directly below the flight path to an international airport. After we heard the noise of the airplane overhead, we didn’t even bother going inside the house.)

Here are a few things that you might want to think about to narrow down your choices before you call in a home inspector who can inform you of structural issues with your potential new home.

Location

What is the noise level like? Are you close to train tracks? Are you underneath a flight path? Is there a busy thoroughfare for emergency vehicles (loud sirens) nearby? If you’re moving into a multi-unit building, what is the soundproofing like?

What smells? Are you downwind from a farm or a local dump? Are there any factories nearby that might create smells from time to time? If you are looking at a multi-unit building, can you smell your neighbours cooking dinner?

What can you see when you look out windows? Are you looking at factories, rail yards, or derelict empty lots? Who could look back and see in your windows? Remember to think about what you will see when the trees lose their leaves or if they have to be cut down for any reason.

Traffic

Are you near a bar, restaurant, or event centre (theatre, concert hall) that becomes boisterous in the evening? If your house is on a route between a bar/restaurant and major public transit stop there may be people walking past or heavy traffic making lots of noise after the venue closes.

Will a nearby school create traffic problems that make it impossible to get out of your driveway at school start and finish times? If your house is on a route from a school to other community services (recreation centre, shopping area, playgrounds) it might mean kids marching past your house all afternoon.

House orientation

An east facing master bedroom window will let in a lot of light first thing in the morning — not ideal if you like to sleep late. Avid gardeners will want to ensure that the yard gets sunlight during peak growing season. Those in snowy climates will want to check wind direction to ensure that they won’t have to shovel deep snow drifts right in front of the garage door. Don’t hesitate to use the compass app on your smartphone to help you figure things out. Try to visit the house on a sunny day and a cloudy day to check light levels inside and outside the house.

Household chores

If you are going to be living in this new home, you are going to have to clean it. You might not like that gorgeous chandelier over the large, open stairwell if you have to rent a scaffold to clean it every few months. A yard with lots of shade trees is nice until you spend every autumn weekend raking leaves. Likewise, that sloping driveway might add a touch of class and elegance until the first ice storm turns it into an Olympic-like bobsled track.

Watch for home staging tricks

Staged homes may be so uncluttered that they seem incredibly open and spacious but remind yourself that real life never looks like this. Think about how small the living room would look with your large sectional and several toy boxes.

Pedestal sinks make bathrooms look larger but then storage and usability are a challenge. How easy would it be to shave, do your hair, and put on make-up in the morning with no counter space?

Other tricks for giving the illusion of space include strategically placing mirrors, using smaller sized furniture, arranging furniture diagonally in a room, and removing closet doors and doors between rooms. Always measure, measure, measure so you ensure that your belongings will fit comfortably in your new home.

Some dubious tricks have been used by home stagers as well. These include strategically placing rugs and carpeting to hide damaged flooring, hanging unique art pieces to divert your attention from leaks or cracks in walls or ceilings, or hanging curtains to hide old or rotting window sills. Take a moment to look a little deeper and if you see any of these issues, bring them to the attention of your home inspector.

How it flows

Imagine your typical day living in the home. If you and your partner are using the walk-in closet at the same time, is there enough room? Do you need to assist children with their brushing hair and teeth? If so, can two or three people fit in the bathroom at the same time?

Do you and your family members cook meals together? Make sure you can all work comfortably in the kitchen. Ask your real estate agent to pretend to load the dishwasher while you pretend to get a roast out of the oven. Then see if there is still room to have someone chop vegetables at the counter at the same time.

Is there enough space in the entryway? It might be summer when you visit a home but think about winter coats, snowsuits, and muddy boots. Will there be enough room to store everyone’s things? Consider the design of the home. Will you have to track through a snowy, muddy entryway to go from one area of the home to another?

Is the laundry area convenient? If hidden away in a dark, dank corner of the basement, it might be difficult to motivate yourself to get the job done especially if you have to carry heavy laundry baskets up and down two flights of stairs.

If you have children or pets, take into consideration their safety requirements such as doors at the tops of stairways (or the ability to easily install safety gates), spacing between banister rails in older homes, secure fencing in the yard, etc.

Outlets and vents

Take a moment to note the locations of power outlets and heating/air conditioning vents. Are there enough power outlets and are they at the right locations? You might want to ensure you can plug in both your coffee maker and toaster in an accessible area in the kitchen. Likewise, you may wish to ensure there are power outlets in locations where you normally charge your electronic devices. Note locations for phone, cable, and internet connections as well.

If there is only one living room wall long enough to put your wall unit, make sure there isn’t a heating vent there. It is expensive to relocate ventilation ducts. Likewise, make sure you check the bed placement in relation to vents so that you won’t blocked a vent with a bed or end up with air from a vent blowing on you all night.

Rank your choices

Now that you’ve accumulated all of this information, you’ll be able to rank your home choices. Return to your top three or four choices for a closer look. Re-rank your choices if required and provide this information to your realtor and home inspector and proceed with the next steps in home buying (or renting if that’s what you’ve chosen).

Finding the home of your dreams in a short period of time doesn’t have to be stressful if you’re prepared and organized.

Readers are more than welcome to chime in with other tips and tricks they have for finding a home.

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.

Organize your medicine chest

Last year we shared some advice on organizing a medicine chest. Now that cold and flu season is upon us, I want to revisit the topic with a few more best-practice tips and tricks.

As Erin previously stated, don’t store medicine in the bathroom. Humidity isn’t good for many medicines and unlocked cabinets can be an invitation to curious kids (or nosy house guests). Instead, invest in a lockable cabinet that can be mounted in a closet or somewhere similar. You’ll find the rest of Erin’s great tips here.

In this post, I’d like to offer some tips on how to organize the items within your medicine cabinet.

First, round up those little cylinders that love to fall over, roll around, and make a general nuisance of themselves. I’m talking about lip balm, sunscreen, and the like. Clear acrylic canisters will keep them tidy and easily identified.

Next, round up small metallic items like bobby pins and tweezers and stick them to a bit of adhesive magnetic strip. It will save you hours of hunting around trying to find them.

Move “leftovers” into smaller containers. You don’t need to store the last four bandages in that gigantic cardboard box that is already falling apart! Move them into something like a zipper lock bag or coupon organizer. The same goes for cotton balls, cotton swabs, etc.

If you keep cosmetics in the medicine chest, consider these stick-on mini-shelves for the inside of the door to keep them organized and separate from medication.

Lastly, give the cabinet a good cleaning. Remove everything, wipe down the entire interior with sanitizing wipes, and properly dispose of anything that is expired or no longer needed. When that is done, re-arrange the contents based on how you live. Put oft-used items front and center while moving the stuff you rarely use on a top shelf. You’ll spend less time digging around.

This is tangentially related, but I keep a dopp kit ready to go at all times, with the following inside:

  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Shampoo
  • Mouthwash
  • Deodorant
  • Disposable razor
  • Shaving cream

That way I don’t need to tear the medicine chest apart to find these things in an emergency or when I’m packing for a trip.

Unclutterer’s 2017 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Practical gifts

Not everyone wants a practical gift, and what’s practical for one person might be useless for another. But for the right person, one of the following might make a great non-clutter gift. These are all things I own and find incredibly useful, so perhaps someone you know would appreciate them, too.

A gift subscription to the AP Stylebook Online

This can be a truly useful gift for the writer or editor in your life. I prefer the online subscription to the physical book because the search function is so useful — and because you can submit questions to the editors if you can’t find an answer to your question. (They usually reply quickly.) You also get updates throughout the year instead of just annual updates.

To purchase a gift, just order as you would for yourself and indicate you have a gift order during checkout. If the gift option doesn’t seem to be working, you can contact the help center to place your order: [email protected] or 800-353-6798 (U.S. phone number).

Really good kitchen shears

I’m not sure these Wüsthof shears are the ones I have, but they are pretty close. I use these all the time, both for cooking and for various other purposes.

An emergency kit for the car

Living in earthquake territory, I put a kit in the trunk of my car to ensure I have some critical supplies with me in case I get trapped away from home. I also got kits as gifts for my brother and sister-in-law when they moved to California. But a kit can be good preparation for all kinds of emergencies. You can create your own or buy one that’s already assembled. If you go for a ready-made kit, you can choose one with just the basics (food, water, ponchos, survival blankets, basic first aid supplies, etc.) or one that’s more comprehensive.

A TubShroom

I got one of these last year and it’s the best hair catcher I’ve ever used in my shower. It’s a little thing that makes my life a bit easier, and I’m glad to have found it.

Spurge item: really good binoculars

These Zeiss binoculars cost a lot, so they would probably be a gift for a special someone, or perhaps a gift from a group rather than an individual. But I got mine 20 years ago and I use them for all sorts of things: watching the birds in my back yard, getting a closer look at the performers at a play or concert, taking a good look at the top of a stained glass window in a cathedral, etc. The compact size makes it easy to carry them with me whenever I might find them useful. This isn’t a gift for someone who tends to misplace things, though!

Old favorites

There are some items we’ve mentioned before that would still make good practical gifts:

Feel welcome to explore our previous Gift Giving Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.