What to do if you are organized and your partner isn’t

I have a friend who is a psychologist who specializes in family therapy. One of the reasons I love this friend is because she doesn’t seem to mind my endless supply of psychology of clutter questions. I’ll ask her a question, she’ll think about it for a week, and then she’ll provide me with a brilliant response.

A few months ago, I asked her to assist me with constructing a post to help mismatched couples. When I say “mismatched couples,” I’m talking about couples where one of the people in the relationship is clean and organized and the other person in the relationship is messy and disorganized AND at least one of the two people has animosity about the difference. (If no one seems to mind, then the pair isn’t mismatched.) The following advice derives from the conversations we’ve had on this topic since I first posed the question to her. If you’re a part of a mismatched couple, hopefully we can be of assistance.

  1. When considering moving in with someone (romantic or otherwise), a person’s level of order and cleanliness should be part of the equation. Similar to how in pre-marriage counseling couples are asked to discuss finances, living arrangements, and household expectations also should be discussed. No one should be surprised six months into a living arrangement that his or her partner/roommate is messier or cleaner than one had hoped.
  2. If you’re already in a living arrangement and are disappointed by your partner/roommate’s level of order, you need to have a conversation. Yelling and passive aggressive behavior is not productive and damages the relationship. Having a calm, sincere, and respectful conversation has the possibility of yielding powerful results.
  3. It is good to have ground rules for what to do when frustration takes hold. Here are some productive rules you might consider establishing:
    • No nagging. Treating someone with disrespect is never a good option. Either the person honors what you say the first time you say it, or they don’t. All nagging says is: “I believe you are an idiot and I think I have the right to constantly tell you that you’re an idiot.” No one responds well to that message.
    • No backpacking. Set a time limit for how long after something happens that it can be discussed (like two weeks). If you don’t bring up the frustration within that time limit, you have to let it go. You can’t fester or stew on a frustration. Also, if you’ve already discussed something, you can’t bring it up again. The reason it’s called backpacking is because it’s like people carry around another person’s wrongs in a backpack and pull every wrong out of the bag when there is a disagreement. Don’t backpack, it isn’t fair.
    • Discuss the real problem. If you’re upset that your spouse repeatedly leaves dirty dishes strewn about the living room your frustration has very little to do with dirty dishes. You’re upset because you believe (s)he doesn’t care about the cleanliness level in the living space. So, talk about the real problem and use the dirty dishes as an example of how that lack of caring is expressed.
  4. Often times, the person who is messier doesn’t care one bit if the living arrangement is disorderly or orderly. When this is the case, and if you’re the one who prefers a more orderly home, prepare to take on full responsibility for cleaning up after the other person. Happily do the work because you’re the one who gets the sense of joy from an organized space. If a pair of shoes in the middle of the living room floor annoys you, just move the shoes to a location that doesn’t annoy you. The five seconds it will take you to move the shoes are less than the time you will be angry over the shoes if you don’t move them. The children’s book Zen Shorts beautifully addresses this topic.
  5. Maybe the problem is that there aren’t any systems in place to deal with the mess where it happens. For instance, my husband stores his wallet in a valet in our bedroom. I store my purse in a cube near the front door. He puts his wallet in his pocket first thing in the morning and takes it out at night before he goes to bed. I only grab my purse as I’m entering and exiting the house. If my purse were supposed to be stored in a valet in our bedroom, I can guarantee you that it would never be in the bedroom. It would be on the dining room table or living room floor or wherever I conveniently dropped it. So, a storage cube near our front door is the best place for my purse because it’s a storage location that works. Think about how you live and find solutions that meet your actual needs.
  6. Designate “clean rooms” or “messy rooms” in your home. In my family, we insist that all public spaces are clean rooms. This means that rooms visitors will see when they come into our house must be free of clutter. Visitors rarely come into our office, though, so the rules for this room are less stringent. Things can’t be dirty (no food or bug-enticing items), but if objects are left out of order in this space it’s less of an issue. A once-a-week cleaning is more typical in our messy spaces.
  7. Finally, if you’ve tried all of the previous options and nothing is working for you, try seeking outside help. This help can be in the form of a professional organizer or maybe a couple’s counselor. If you’re in dire straights, you want to work with someone who isn’t a part of your relationship and can see it more broadly. I don’t recommend using a friend or family member for this task — if you do, the other person will believe that you’re ganging up on him or her, and that won’t be productive. Also, professional help could be in the form of a cleaning service coming into the house twice a month. Let someone else handle the deep cleaning so that the light work is less of a burden.

If you’re a part of a mismatched couple, what effective strategies have you employed? I’m sure that everyone could benefit from reading your positive results in the comments.

 

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

Establishing routines

One of the best ways, in my experience, to stay ahead of the game and keep your home from being overrun with clutter is to establish routines. Every household works differently, so develop a set of routines that is practical and effective for your living space.

Here are some ideas for routines that you can develop for your home:

Car — Each time you leave your car do a quick check to see if there is anything that doesn’t belong in your car. Then, once a week, do a check under the seats for dropped wrappers, coins, etc. I do the full check on Saturday mornings before I run errands.

Laundry — You’ll want to have a weekly schedule for washing bedroom sheets and bathroom towels (I do these on Thursdays). Additionally, you’ll want to plan for doing the laundry once a week if you’re single, twice a week if there are two or three people in your home, every other day if there are four people, and everyday if five or more people occupy your house. I suggest putting the load of laundry in to wash before work, putting it into the dryer after work, and folding it and putting it away after dinner.

Home Office — You should have routines in place for filing, clearing off your work space, and addressing to-do items. I promote filing items as they need to be filed instead of collecting a pile to file all at once (piles = clutter). Every Friday, I make sure to clean off my desk and review my next week’s goals.

Banking — One day in your schedule needs an hour dedicated to paying bills, organizing receipts, depositing checks and taking care of your finances. Once a month, add in balancing your accounts to your hour of banking responsibilities. I do this on Fridays because my bank has extended hours on this day if I need to contact them.

Deep Cleaning — The best way that I’ve found to tackle cleaning is to give each room a day of the week (Monday is living room, Tuesday is family room, Wednesday is bedroom, Thursday is bathrooms, Friday is kitchen, etc.). I’ll dust, clean the floors, and do other chores for 15 minutes to half an hour everyday per room instead of a five-hour, full-house, cleaning session all on one day.

Yard — During the warmer months, walk through your yard looking for children’s toys, fallen branches, and any other clutter that can find its way into your yard at least twice a week. If you mow your lawn, do this walk before you mow. If you have someone else mow your lawn, do this check the evening before the lawn maintenance people arrive. During the winter, you can probably reduce this check to once a week or once every other week.

Closets — As discussed in previous posts, go through your closets every six months to purge items that shouldn’t be in it any longer. Do this for linens and other storage closets, in addition to your clothing closets.

There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of other routines that you can establish in your home to keep it clutter free. Think about your home and create a schedule that you and your family can work with to keep clutter reduced. Remember, too, that even though it feels like you are doing work on your home everyday, when routines are in place you spend less time overall on organization. Plus, your home will always be in a state of order, which will cause you less stress and will be presentable if an unexpected guest decides to drop by for a visit.

If you have effective routines established in your home, feel welcome to share these in the comments. The Unclutterer team loves to hear about innovative ways people are keeping their homes clutter free.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Not all charities want your stuff

Imagine for a moment that you’re a 20-something female who lives in downtown Chicago. You live in an apartment that was big enough for you when you moved into it, but over the last year you’ve accumulated so much stuff that it’s starting to feel too small. You decide to get rid of clutter and you head to your closet to see what can be purged there.

You end up collecting two garbage bags full of clothes that are in good condition and can be worn again by women in need of casual and business clothing. You decide that a women’s shelter would be a great place to take your clothes.

You visit one women’s shelter and they don’t want your things. Then you go to a second and they won’t accept them either. You decide to pick up the phone and see if a third shelter will take your clothes, but no luck. Finally, on your fourth attempt, you reach a women’s shelter that is interested in your clothing. As you drive to the fourth shelter, you think about how you never imagined giving away nice clothes was going to be such a difficult task.

The above scenario is exactly what happened when one of our readers tried to donate clothes to Chicago-based women’s shelters. What was it that was wrong with her clothes? Why didn’t the women’s shelters want her things? The shelters didn’t want her clothes because they were sizes 4 and 6, and the shelters needed clothes in sizes 12 and larger. They appreciated her offer, but couldn’t accommodate the donation.

Right product, wrong size.

My community is currently holding a book drive for the area prisons. I planned on donating a bunch of fiction books to it until I realized that the book drive was for specific types of books: atlases, textbooks, and travel guides. I haven’t owned any of these types of books in years, so my fiction books are still on my shelves waiting to be donated to the next library book sale.

Many charity shop locations don’t accept electronics or exercise equipment. Unless a public library runs an annual book sale to raise money, they may not want your book donations. Many food pantries are only interested in specific types of dried and canned goods.

The lesson in all of this is that you should pick up the phone and call your local charities or research them online before making donations. Investing the time up front to learn what your community needs will save you from driving around town and giving yourself a headache. Also, the needs of charities change over time, so don’t assume that just because they accepted or didn’t accept one kind of good in the past means that they will continue to need or not need it in the future.

Finally, if you can’t find an organization in your community that needs your donations, jump online and research national organizations. As is the case with electronics, there are numerous national groups that will accept what your local charities may not be able to accommodate.

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On a sort of related note … this cartoon makes me smile.

 

 

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

Saying farewell to a hobby, part two

In the original “Saying farewell to a hobby” post, I talked about how to decide if you’re not really into your hobby. Letting go of a no-longer-active hobby can be difficult, especially if part of your identity is wrapped up in that activity. (I know I still think of myself as a tennis player even though I haven’t touched a tennis racket in more than 10 years because of a rotator cuff injury.) But, if you make the hard decision to break up with the stuff for a hobby you’re no longer doing, getting rid of the supplies can be emotionally difficult.

The following are five ways to let go of hobby supplies to make the purging process less traumatic:

  1. Call up local enthusiasts whom you know are still into the hobby and let them take what they want from your house. They are more likely to use the materials than you are, and they will truly appreciate your generosity. Plus, as you pass along your supplies you can tell them stories and talk about how and when you acquired or used the items. You’ll get another happy moment sharing the history with your friends.
  2. Sell the supplies on a website whose community is dedicated to the hobby. For instance, if you’re a knitter or crocheter looking to de-stash your yarn, the website Ravelry has a marketplace forum that is perfect for you. Be sure to include shipping costs in the price of your goods, though, so that you don’t go broke getting rid of your items.
  3. Have a yard sale, but be very specific in your advertising to point out what types of things you are selling. “Woodworking Supplies Yard Sale” “Sailing Supplies Yard Sale” If you place an advertisement for your sale, use similar language and target publications people interested in these hobbies would read.
  4. Often stores that sell new supplies for a hobby also will sell “gently used” items on consignment. Call your local stores and ask about their policies. If they won’t sell them, usually they know who will or clubs related to the activity that could use the supplies.
  5. Programs and/or schools that teach the hobby — rock climbing schools, your local YMCA or community center, the high school down the street, a day care center (for adults or children) or seniors’ center — typically need supplies to help teach others about the activity. Make a few phone calls and you’ll probably find a program that is elated to take the discount or free supplies off your hands.

Sites like eBay, Craigslist, and Freecycle are great for getting rid of items, but I’ve found that it’s harder for me to use these sites for hobby supplies that I have some sort of bizarre sentimental attachment to. Even though I’m no longer using the stuff, I still want to know that it’s going to someone who is enthusiastically going to use it. This is probably true for whomever buys or picks up the item from one of these three websites, but my mind doesn’t process it that way. Weird, right?

Good luck with the final step in purging your no-longer-active hobby supplies. And, most of all, enjoy the space for whatever new will take — or not take — its place.

 

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

Charity, Repair, Switch, and Store

sweater storage bagOne of the responsibilities that comes with keeping an uncluttered life is spring cleaning. When warm weather sets in, I turn to two books in my personal library for help: Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook (pgs. 27-29) and Better Homes and Gardens’ Making a Home: Housekeeping for Real Life (pgs. 56-60). Both books have lists of chores and maintenance that, when done semi-annually, can end up saving a lot of time, money, and stress.

Before beginning any spring cleaning routines, I like to have what I call a Charity, Repair, Switch, and Store Party. I open my closet and identify the winter clothes that I didn’t wear over the last six months or that have gone dreadfully out of style and I put those in a charity pile. I gather together all clothing that needs to be repaired or altered and put those clothes in a bag to take to the tailor. Next, I identify all of my clothing that contains wool or cashmere, fold it up, and put it in vinyl storage bags with cedar chips. Finally, I pull my warmer weather clothes out of storage (I keep these contained in large plastic containers under my bed) and swap out the contents of my closet.

I do a similar task with my shoes: one pile for charity, one pile for the cobbler, and switch my summer shoes to the top of the shoe stack. I also do the same with the front hall closet: charity, tailor, moth proofing, and switch the winter coats, hats, and gloves with jackets and umbrellas. If I had children who stored sporting equipment in the garage, I would have them take on the same type of task there: charity, repair, switch, and store.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

The Tupperware is everywhere!

One of my pet peeves in my kitchen has been the Tupperware drawer. Most food storage containers aren’t that easy to stow away in an organized manner. In my kitchen, we had a plastic tub that barely contained the clutter of all the bowls and lids. They just didn’t fit together nicely and the overflow began to make me see red every time I reached for a container.

Our solution was fairly simple. We purchased a set of Tupperware FlatOut containers and happily dumped our old set into the recycle bin. The FlatOut containers are collapsible and flatten down to a half an inch which makes storage so much easier. Now when I reach for Tupperware, my blood pressure doesn’t rise and the clutter in that drawer is completely gone. I highly recommend these containers, which are dishwasher safe and also very durable.

Since the original publication of this post in 2007, Tupperware has ceased manufacturing FlatOut containers. However, Thin Bins are an ideal alternative. These containers are made from food-grade silicone. The lids have an airtight seal plus a vent so that steam can escape during microwave heating. They are microwave and dishwasher-safe.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Tough questions for your things

I like to think of myself as a person who is unattached to physical objects. Truth be told, however, this might not necessarily be the case. My lifestyle, being more minimalist than average, means that I make a conscience decision to bring something into my home. Each object exists in my space for a reason, and a chunk of time, planning, and research was dedicated to its acquisition, and there are further evaluations to let it stay. I make an investment of myself in every object, and that is why it’s hard for me to say that I’m not attached to these objects.

I likely will never resolve this quandary, but I think that the acquisition and evaluation process that I put into every object — and I do mean every object — is a valuable one. If I bring a non-essential item into my home, it ultimately will become clutter, and I am more interested in keeping a clutter-free lifestyle than one full of knickknacks and pointless objects.

I have two set lists of questions that I ask myself about every object in my home. These lists have changed a bit with time, and I expect them to go through some adjustments as my family grows, so feel welcome to adapt these lists for your own use and adjust as you see fit. The first list is directed toward new acquisitions and the second is for objects that are already inside my house.

Questions for New Acquisitions:

  1. Do I have something like this already that fulfills the same purpose?
  2. If I own something like this, am I ready to get rid of the older item since this newer item will have to replace it?
  3. Will this item make my life easier/save me time/save me money/fulfill an essential need?
  4. Where will this object live in our house?
  5. Is this the best price for this object, is this the best quality that I can get for the money, and is this object in its best possible condition?
  6. Do I need to do more research about this object before I make this purchase/bring it into my home?
  7. If this is a perishable item (like food), when will I use it and what will I do if I don’t use all of it?
  8. Does this item help me to develop the remarkable life that I want to live?

Questions for Items Already in My Home:

  1. Do I have something else like this that fulfills the same purpose?
  2. If this is a duplicate item, which of these items is in the best condition, of the best quality, and will last me the longest?
  3. Is this item in disrepair and need to be replaced or fixed?
  4. Does this item make my life easier/save me time/save me money/fulfill an essential need?
  5. Why does this object live in our house and is this the best place for this object?
  6. Do I need to do more research to know if this is the best object to fulfill its essential need?
  7. If this is a perishable item, has its expiration date passed?
  8. Does this item help me to develop the remarkable life that I want to live?

I’m interested in knowing if others have additional or alternative questions that they pose before acquiring or retaining objects for their homes. Please feel welcome to use the comments for this post to discuss your decision-making process!

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Reader question: Should I sell my stuff in storage?

Reader Tonie wrote in with this question:

I’m living overseas and I have items in storage such as china plates, crystal glasses, and Charles Babb paintings (about 12 of them). Everything else I sold — all my furniture, my car — but I’m having a hard time getting rid of these items. It has been a year and a half and I’ll be here another year and a half. Should I just sell everything?

This is a great question Tonie. Our family had to make similar decisions when we moved from Canada to England for three years. It’s not always easy to decide what to keep and what to let go. Here are some things that helped us make our decisions.

The first step is to determine what is not worth keeping. (You obviously did that and decided to sell your furniture and car.) In our situation, our appliances were about six years old. After three years of storage, that meant nine-year-old appliances — almost at the age we would want to replace them anyway. At six years old, they could still fetch a pretty good price in the used appliance market so we let them go.

We decided to part with many children’s items as well. After three years abroad, we knew our children would be too old for many of their toys and games and definitely too big for their heavy winter clothes (essential for Canadian winters but not at all needed in England). Many items went to charity, others were sold.

Once you have eliminated the non-essentials, take a look at the items you’ve decided to keep and determine their value. Check auction website such as eBay to determine how much the item is worth used, — how much you could sell your items for right now. For antiques or artwork, you may wish to contact a dealer and get a quote. You should also determine replacement value — the amount it would cost to buy the item (or one very similar to it) brand-new if you needed it.

Next, calculate the cost of storage for the period of time you’re abroad. Remember to include insurance costs and any other incidental fees relating to storage.

If the cost of storage is more than the replacement value of your items, you may decide it is a better option to sell all of the goods. This means it would be less expensive to sell your goods now and buy new later, than to put them into storage.

It is very difficult to put a dollar amount on the sentimental value of an item but that too must be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, we at Unclutterer cannot do that for you. You’ll have to make that determination yourself.

So, back to your issue Tonie — you have about 18 months left before you return to your items in storage. Here are my suggestions:

  • If you honestly do not want the items, and you are coming back to visit family and friends anyway, then go ahead and sell the items during your visit home.
  • If you do not want the items and have not planned on coming back, but a trip back will cost less than the storage fees, then consider returning to sell the items.
  • If you are unsure but can afford the storage fees until your return, wait until you get back to liquidate the items you do not want.
  • If you are not coming back for a visit and cannot afford the storage fees, find a reputable liquidator, or friend/family member you can trust, to sell the items on your behalf.

The above suggestions are based on a financial perspective. Please take a few moments to listen to your heart and take the sentimental value into consideration when you are making your final decision.

Thanks for your great question Tonie. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for.

 

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.”

Uncluttering and firearms

Editor’s Note: Regardless if you are for or against the possession of firearms, there may be an occasion where you may run across them while uncluttering and organizing. Generally, this would be when you are cleaning out a space that does not belong to you, for example a deceased relative. In this situation, we should always expect to discover the unexpected, and a firearm might be one of those unexpected things.

To provide some guidance on what to do when you come across firearms, we welcome today’s guest, Monica Ricci. She is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker, author, blogger and firearms instructor. She enjoys cooking, travel, music, photography and competitive shooting.

 

After 20 years in the organizing and productivity business, you can imagine I have seen nearly everything there is to see in a person’s home, from dirty diapers under the sofa to “adult novelty products” in the bedside table drawer. For most organizers, finding these items is no big deal. We remain unfazed, letting professionalism and discretion prevail in what might otherwise be an awkward situation.

However, as prepared as most of us are for the aforementioned items, stumbling upon a firearm is a different story for someone who is not accustomed to dealing with them. As an experienced shooter and firearms instructor, I am not personally unnerved by the presence of a firearm, however I’m also not cavalier about it. Finding a gun when you don’t expect to can be a surprise for everyone.

The good news is that firearms aren’t magic. They don’t “just go off” by themselves. They are mechanical devices which require human interaction to work, which means as long as you follow some basic rules of firearms safety, you can prevent an accident.

Rule # 1: A gun is always loaded. Never — and I mean NEVER EVER — take the word of another person who says, “It’s not loaded.” First of all, unless you see them physically check the gun in front of you, they are guessing or assuming and you never guess or assume when it comes to firearms. Secondly, even if they check the gun while standing in front of you, please do not take their word for it. They may know enough to drop a magazine out of a pistol but there may be a round in the chamber and they may not know to check for it. If neither you nor the others you are with have the skill to check the status of the gun, do not attempt it. But always assume every gun is loaded.

Rule # 2: Always keep a firearm pointed in a safe direction. This is more difficult than it sounds because by default it has to point somewhere. But for our purposes, that means do not put yourself or another person in front of the muzzle and never allow another person to “sweep” the muzzle of a firearm past you. In the case of finding a firearm while uncluttering and organizing, take note of which way it is pointing when you find it and stay behind it (the handle side) at all times. If you or someone else picks up the gun, always ensure that it is pointing away from people and in a safe direction. Outdoors, a safe direction might be the ground, but in a home, unless you’re in a basement, pointing the gun at the floor may not be a safe direction because there may be someone below you. Sometimes you have to choose what you perceive as the safest option such as pointing it at the floor, and this is why the four rules always work together to prevent accidents. So that even if you must point a gun in what could be construed as a potentially unsafe direction, if you follow the other three rules, you shouldn’t have an accident or injury.

Rule # 3: Keep your finger OUTSIDE the trigger guard and OFF the trigger. When you hear someone say, “It just went off!” what they failed to also say is that someone had their finger (or another object) inside the trigger guard which moved the trigger. Rest assured that a gun in working order does not “just go off.”

Rule # 4: Know your target and what’s behind it. This typically pertains to when you’ve actually chosen to fire the gun. It’s important to know not only what you’re shooting at, but what is beyond it. The reason for this rule is because bullets can penetrate walls, floors, windows, furniture, and lots of other things!

Getting back to the scenario in which you happen across a firearm in the course of uncluttering and organizing…

First, remain calm and let everyone you’re working with know you’ve discovered a firearm. Next, determine if there is a space in the home to store the firearm so no one else will have access to it — preferably with a door (or box with a lid) that is lockable. Ensure everyone knows where the firearm will be stored until proper gun storage can be arranged.

If someone in your group says they are comfortable moving the firearm then let them do so BUT, be mindful that they may not know the rules of gun safety. This is the time for you to stay alert. Tell them that you will stay behind them as they do so. Keep your eye on them to be sure they keep their finger out of the trigger guard as they pick up the gun and transfer it to the designated storage area.

If no one is comfortable moving it, leave it where it is (remember it will not go off by itself as long as nothing touches the trigger) and shift your attention to work in another area, or leave the building until someone arrives who can handle the gun safely (e.g. police officer, firearms dealer, or other firearms expert).

Be mindful that in some countries, if you find a firearm, you must, by law report it to authorities (usually the police) who will take the firearm for safekeeping until proper ownership and safe storage is arranged.

Although many people own firearms, the odds are fairly slim that you’ll find one just lying around in the course of your work. However, it is still a good idea to consider what you would do, so if it ever happens you’ll be able to be prepared.

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.

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.

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.