A quick Friday link

It’s been a long week and I am so thankful it is finally Friday. Instead of putting up a long post today, I want to simply direct you to a fairly long interview I did with the financial website Mint.com.

In the article, I talk about how I got started working with Unclutterer, provide some insights on why we buy so much stuff, and then end with a little financial advice I’ve picked up over the years.

Expert Interview with Erin Rooney Doland on Uncluttering

Feel welcome to check it out and have a great weekend, everyone. Happy uncluttering!

Being organized about charitable giving

We’ve often talked on the site about donating things you’ve uncluttered, but what about supporting charities in other ways? The following is an organized approach to making other donations, if you feel so inclined.

Decide how much to give

Include charitable giving in any financial budgeting process you have. If you want to donate your time, make sure that time commitment fits into your time “budget,” too.

Decide where to give

I’ve selected a few charities I give to every year, and I sometimes support friends I know doing a charitable walk, run, climb, or bike ride.

Having made this decision, I don’t waste time evaluating all the solicitations that come my way in the mail; they go straight into shredding and recycling. They may be for good causes, but I can’t personally support them all.

When deciding what charities to give to, you may want to look at Charity Navigator, GuideStar, or the BBB Wise Giving Alliance to learn more about the organizations you are considering. All three of these organizations agree on what’s important in selecting a charity, as they say in a joint statement:

The percent of charity expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs — commonly referred to as “overhead” — is a poor measure of a charity’s performance.

We ask you to pay attention to other factors of nonprofit performance: transparency, governance, leadership, and results…

That is not to say that overhead has no role in ensuring charity accountability. At the extremes the overhead ratio can offer insight: it can be a valid data point for rooting out fraud and poor financial management. In most cases, however, focusing on overhead without considering other critical dimensions of a charity’s financial and organizational performance does more damage than good.

Decide when to give

You may want to spread your donations out over the year, or you may prefer to sit down once a year to do all your donations.

You might also want to consider making ongoing automatic monthly donations. Charities love these because they have a revenue stream they can count on — and probably because people seldom change or cancel these donations. If you go this route, make sure you know how to adjust your donation, and don’t hesitate to do so if your financial situation or your donation priorities change. I have one such donation, and I recently called and reduced the amount; it wasn’t difficult at all.

Keep track of your donations

If you itemize deductions on your U.S. individual tax return, you can deduct qualified donations. If you do this, make sure you have proper records of your giving. Those records can include cancelled checks, credit card statements, and acknowledgement letters from the organizations that received your donations. If you give small donations at the along with your purchases from grocery stores or places like PetSmart, be sure to keep those receipts, too. A simple manila file folder, envelope, or even a gallon-size zip-top bag labeled with the calendar year on it can suffice for keeping all your receipts in one location.

Did you make a donation via text message? The IRS says “a telephone bill will meet the record-keeping requirement if it shows the name of the receiving organization, the date of the contribution, and the amount given.”

Also remember that you can deduct “any unreimbursed out-of-pocket expenses, such as the cost of gas and oil, directly related to the use of your car in giving services to a charitable organization.” If you’re donating your time and this involves the use of your car, you’ll want to keep the appropriate records to claim that deduction.

Being an organized executor

An executor is the person appointed to administer the estate of a person who has died. Being named as an executor is a privilege, but the title also comes with a significant amount of responsibility. Sometimes it may take several years to finalize an estate if it is complicated or if there are disputes among the beneficiaries.

If you feel you cannot adequately perform the duties of the executor (perhaps you live across the country or you have extensive personal commitments), it is important that you do not start. You will need to speak with the lawyer handling the estate as soon as possible so a new estate administrator can be appointed.

If you have chosen to act as an executor, organization and careful record keeping will keep the task from becoming overwhelming.

It is important to set up a good filing system. You will need to keep copies of everything you have sent to and received from banks, the government, creditors, and beneficiaries, etc. It is a good idea to use a small portable filing box to set up the estate’s filing system so it is separate from your own house and business.

The folders should include the following:

  • Vital Records. This includes birth and marriage certificates, citizenship status, divorce decree, social security card, passport, etc. of the deceased.
  • Legal Papers. You will need the original and multiple certified copies of the death certificate. Also keep copies of the will, codicils, and living will, etc.
  • Employment Documents. This folder would contain all of the documents relating to the deceased’s employment and employment benefits. If the deceased was retired at the time of death, retirement and pension documents would be stored here.
  • Financial. The estate must have its own bank account, separate from your personal account and separate from the deceased’s accounts. Keep all deposit and withdrawal records, as well as statements. You will also need to keep proof of account closures and receipts for any debts paid (e.g. for the deceased’s credit cards).
  • Government. This folder would contain all documentation relating to the deceased’s income taxes, government pensions or other benefits.
  • House. If the deceased had a home, it should be made secure and the home insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Keep all bills and receipts pertaining to the house in this file.
  • Automobile. If the deceased had a car, it should be located and secured. The car insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Beneficiaries should not use the vehicle until it is clear that they are entitled to use it and that appropriate insurance is in place.
  • Other Assets. Keep records of other assets. You may wish to have a separate folder for larger assets such as a cottage or recreational vehicle. Smaller assets such as art or jewelry could be combined in the same file.
  • Estate Management Costs. If you have used any of your personal funds to administer the estate, such as purchasing postage stamps or paying for parking while at the lawyer’s office, keep the receipts. You may be able to claim this against the estate.

If you will be doing much of your communication via email, create an email address specifically for the estate. You should also set up a separate section or even a separate account on your computer, specifically to deal with the estate. To simplify organization, the names of the folders on your hard drive should mirror the names of the folders in your filing box.

Remember to save all email attachments to your hard drive especially if they are receipts or proofs of account closures. If the receipt is in the body of the email itself, print the email or save it to permanently readable, but non-editable format such as PDF.

Keep a journal documenting the work you have performed for the estate. A notebook is ideal for capturing this information. Record the dates and times you visited or phoned lawyers, bankers, and other estate advisors. Take notes during meetings. This will help when you need a reminder of what was discussed. You should also write down when death notices were sent and when accounts were marked closed. This alert you to outstanding tasks. Should there be any question about what you did and on which date, you’ll have your notebook to refer to.

Patience is crucial as an executor. You may be held personally liable if you rush and miss crucial legal steps. Many people wish to distribute the assets quickly, but it is usually against the law for you to do this until you have proper legal authorization. This authorization, or probate, varies widely across jurisdictions so it is very important to get advice from the estate lawyers before proceeding.

Although many people think they should pay bills as soon as they come in, they should not necessarily do this. In most cases, creditors (e.g. the electric company) are notified of the death and must wait for payment until the probate court prioritizes the list of creditor claims. Additionally, it’s important to remember not to let Cousin Bertha even take her favorite salt and pepper shakers from the estate until the authorization process is complete, and creditors have been paid.

Having an attorney who knows the rules in the deceased jurisdiction is essential. Attorneys can also help mediate beneficiary disputes, which can sometimes become unpleasant.

The role of executor can be challenging but working with attorneys and other professionals as well as keeping organized and detailed records, can ensure that the estate will be settled smoothly.

Have you had the experience of being an executor? What organizational tips do you suggest?

Avoiding clutter from unnecessary online purchases

Sometimes clutter problems begin with shopping problems.

I have clients who know they have shopping issues, and are working to control them. One of my clients, after her last eBay splurge, is now returning the items she can — and planning to close her eBay account after she’s done. “It’s addictive,” she said.

I’d read books about the psychology of shopping, but they were focused on shopping in stores, so I went looking for other resources to learn more about the psychology of online shopping.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology, wrote about compulsive online shopping in Psychology Today. She said that eBay does indeed have many features that lead to compulsive shopping. One of these is that “emotional selling preys on nostalgia,” and eBay is just full of people selling collectibles, often from people’s childhoods. Whitbourne provided the examples “your favorite Malibu Barbie that your mother tossed out during a move” and “your cherished baseball cards.”

There are a number of psychological effects that the auction element of eBay encourages people to spend more than they might otherwise. “When you see others willing to pay more for an item, you begin to think that the item is actually worth more and so up goes your bid.”

Martin Lindstrom, who has written a book about why we buy, was quoted in a New York Times blog about another issue that makes online shopping such an issue:

“At a retail store you have to pick up the item, put it in the cart, take it to the register, take out your card, and put it through the scanner to make your purchase,” Mr. Lindstrom said. “But online you don’t have all those road blocks. You just click three times.”

The same New York Times blog post explained that, just as with store design, marketers use website design to trigger our brains in ways that encourage shopping. They use colors that are associated with specific emotions; they’ll add a $300 item (which they might not even care about selling) to a page that has one for $200 and one for $250, because listing that $300 item increases the chance a customer will buy the $250 one.

For those who feel a need to control their online purchases, Whitbourne has six suggestions, including:

Decide ahead of time on an item’s value and set that as your maximum (including shipping costs). … If necessary, write that amount down on a post-it note and put it on your monitor. Don’t go above that total.

Don’t go on eBay when you are in an altered state of mind. … If you’re having a little après dinner libation, your inhibitions are likely to become looser, and you will more easily lose control of the situation. By the same token, if you’re feeling sad or frustrated about other problems in your life, stay away from any site in which an expensive mistake can’t be undone.

Lindstrom has his own recommendations:

Determine your online shopping budget, and stick to it. Mr. Lindstrom suggests going so far as spending online only what you literally have in your wallet. “It’s a mental barrier,” he said. “… If people were to follow that single piece of advice, nine out of 10 purchases would not happen.”

Unclutter those little monthly bills

Most of us have two types of monthly bills — the big stuff and the little stuff. For the purposes of this post, I’m not talking about the big ones. I don’t mean the mortgage/rent, car payments, insurance, and so on. Those things are there and you pay them as part of your life responsibilities. No, in this case I mean the little costs, the automatic payments that are so easy to forget and that pile up quickly. You know, that $2.99 a month subscription fee or the $5.00 monthly rental fee. If we remember these at all, the temptation is to say, “Eh, it’s three bucks. I’ll deal with it next month.” Meanwhile, three becomes nine and then 12 and by the end of the year 36 — but for dozens of little things so the total is in the hundreds.

Once a year, I sit down and unclutter these little payments to decide what stays and what goes. If you’re interested, the following is advice on how you can do it, too.

Write it down

The easiest way to get look at what you’re spending is to write it all down. When I do this review, I chart it up on a piece of paper:

There are four columns:

  1. Name: The title of the company or service
  2. Cost: What I’m paying out
  3. Description: A plain-English description of exactly what I’m getting for my money
  4. Stay? After reviewing the information in the three previous column, I decide: “Does it stay?” If yes, I enter a “Y” in the last column. If not, it’s “N.”

In the example above, I’ve entered two services. First is Netflix. It costs me $7.99 per month to stream all the TV shows and movies I want. Is it worth it? For me, yes. My family and I spend more time watching videos on Netflix than we do on cable. For us, it’s worth it. Netflix stays.

Next is Blizzard. Blizzard is a game company that lets me play World of Warcraft online for $14.99 per month. Is it worth it? Well, a few months ago, I was meeting up with several friends so that we could all play together. That was great fun, but it has fizzled out. I don’t enjoy playing solo as much. So, I nixed it. That just saved me $179.88 per year! Hooray!

Why did I sign up for this?

Before you decide if a service stays or goes, concentrate on brainstorming so you get them all down. It’s possible that you’ve completely forgotten about one (or even more). Do you have a transponder in your car that comes with a monthly fee? Do you have a safety deposit box at the bank? Does your bank charge you a monthly fee if your balance falls below a certain dollar limit? Are you renting any large pieces of equipment? Do you subscribe to magazines?

Once you’ve remembered all your little costs, add up the total amount spent. It might be surprising. Once you’ve nixed the services you no longer want, you’ll feel really good about saving that money.

Hold onto your list

Although it’s a little morbid to think about, having all of these subscription services written down in one place would allow for someone else to help close your accounts or suspend them in case of an emergency. Store your list in an “In case of …” file so a loved one can find it. Also, you can reference it in six months or a year to help you brainstorm all the little bills you’re paying each month. You can then replace the old list (shred it) with the new list in the file.

As I said, these small monthly fees are easy to forget and tempting to overlook. This post is your prompt to unclutter them! In less than 30 minutes, you’ll have a good overview of what you’re spending, feel more on top of things, and perhaps save a little money for your trouble.

Organizing your personal finances

Organizing your personal finances can be time consuming and even a little difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s something you shouldn’t do. The following are a few tips to help you get your personal finances organized so you can save yourself time, stress, and even money over the course of the year.

Online banking

Set up online banking and learn to use a personal finance program. Personal Finance programs allow you to view all of your accounts including:

  • Everyday bank accounts
  • Loans and mortgages
  • Investment accounts
  • Credit card accounts

By being able to see everything in one place you will be able to take control of your finances and make good decisions based on accurate information.

There are several different personal finance programs available. Quicken is a very popular program for both Windows and Mac, but Quicken for Mac is only compatible with American banks. Mac users in other countries may wish to use iBank. Mint, because it is an online service, can be used on almost any computer or mobile device. However, it is currently only compatible with banks in Canada and the United States.

Track spending

Personal finance programs organize transactions into basic pre-defined categories but may not reflect your actual spending habits. Categories can be renamed or combined and new categories can be added depending on your lifestyle. It may take a few months of examining your transactions to determine the ideal categories for you. It is better to use a few broad topics at the beginning and then become more specific with use. After a few months of using online banking, you may choose to use sub-categories.

Shopping with your debit card instead of cash allows online banking to identify in what stores you shop and will help categorize transactions. You also may choose to keep receipts to enter more information about each transaction. Do not get too detailed. If you routinely purchase groceries and household items, such as garbage bags, laundry detergent and shampoo all at the same time from the same store, consider creating a category called “Groceries, Personal and Household Supplies”. This would encompass everything that is used for your home and the people in it.

Other categories to consider.

  • Financial Charges: Many banks charge extra fees for cheques, using another bank’s automated teller machines, or making payments or withdrawals in a foreign currency. If you track this information, you can easily tell how much you’re paying in extra fees. Check the different types of accounts and banking plans offered by your bank. Switching to a different plan may help you reduce these fees.
  • Interest Expense: It’s a bit of a shock to see how much interest is paid out on loans or bank overdrafts but it may also be the incentive you need to pay off any loans.
  • Charitable Donations: By tracking any donations, you can easily generate a list at the end of the year that will tell you how much you have donated and from which organizations you can expect a tax receipt. It will also be easier to report this information to your country’s tax office.

Simplify bill payments

Reduce the number of bills you have to pay by hand. Sign up for online bill payment services when possible.

If you buy things on credit (a highly debated topic here at Unclutterer), use only one or two major credit cards and cancel store credit cards. Most major credit cards have lower interest rates than store cards and great loyalty programs, including cash-back programs. Remember, just because you pay off a credit card and cut it up doesn’t mean the account is cancelled. Inform the credit card company in writing that you wish to cancel the account. Verify your credit score to ensure that the report indicates the credit card account has been closed as paid in full.

You might consider bundling services where possible to reduce the number of bills you need to pay. By consolidating your various insurance policies with one company, you may be eligible for discounted premiums or other bonuses. Utility companies as well as media/communications companies provide discounts for bundling services like phone, cable, and internet access.

Most utility and insurance companies offer equalized billing. By having a fixed amount to pay every month, it will be much easier to set and maintain a budget. Some companies offer a pre-authorized payment plan where the monthly amount is deducted directly from your bank account.

Manage documents

Designate certain days and times each month to manage your finances. Use this time to pay upcoming bills and update your account balances. You may wish to do your finances every Saturday morning or the first weekday after your payday. Whatever day you decide, write it down in your agenda and stick to the schedule.

If you are using traditional paper billing, keep all necessary items for bill paying in one place. Fill a plastic bin/box with your chequebook, envelopes, stamps, address labels, pen, and calculator. Label the bin “BILL PAYMENTS”. You can even put your bills in the bin as soon as they arrive. Once paid, the paper bills can be stored in a filing cabinet for up to 13 months. Thirteen months is a good timeframe because it allows you to compare the current month’s totals to what they were the previous year — this is nice for things like water bills where you may be able to spot a small leak before it becomes a major one.

If you opt for electronic billing download your bill/statement into a folder on your computer labelled, “Bills to Pay”. Once paid, it can be filed in its appropriate electronic folder. Ideally, the folders on your computer should mimic paper files, e.g. “Utilities – Electric”. Ensure that the bill/statement is in an easily readable format, such as a .pdf file.

Whenever you receive receipts that you can use for your income taxes, such as those for charitable donations, place them in an “Income Tax” file. You won’t need to waste time searching for them come tax time. Many agencies send tax receipts via email so set up a folder on your computer’s hard drive labeled “Income Tax”. Save all electronic copies of income tax slips and receipts to this folder as soon as they arrive.

Organizing financial matters takes some time and energy but you’ll reap the rewards financially and come tax time. With low-cost personal finance programs available, it is easier than ever to track your spending and make better decisions about your financial future.

Wallet organizing tips

When I was in university in Canada in the late 1980s, I had a hard time keeping my money organized. I had tried a number of different wallets and coin purses but I always seemed to have a heavy pile of $1 coins that I kept forgetting to use.

Everything changed when I visited Switzerland in 1990. Switzerland had 1, 2, and 5 Franc coins. The wallets in Switzerland were designed with a larger section for coins. In Canada, I only had access to purchasing American made wallets that were designed for American currency: $1 banknotes, not coins. Canada had introduced the $1 coin and had not redesigned wallets to adapt to more coins and fewer bills. I purchased a Swiss wallet and my organizational dilemma was solved!

Over the years, Unclutterer has discussed several ways to organize and trim down your wallet, but there are a few more things to take into consideration.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to pay in cash, and the currency in the country in which you live has more banknotes (bills) than coins, choose a wallet with a smaller coin pocket and larger bill pocket. Consider keeping coins in a separate coin purse.

If the currency has more coins than banknotes, a wallet with a large coin pocket might be beneficial. However, if you’re likely to pay for lower priced items in cash, then a separate coin pouch will allow you to quickly find the coins you need without opening your entire wallet.

In many places debit/credit card payments are very popular, so popular that some people never carry cash. This also means that we need more places in our wallets to carry credit and debit cards as well as cards for all of those loyalty programs. For those who prefer electronic payments, choose a wallet with enough card slots to suit your needs. You may wish to consider a second wallet for your loyalty cards.

Tips for International Travelers

Transfer the currency from your regular wallet to a separate coin pouch or even a zipper-seal bag and place currency of the new country in your wallet. This is ideal if you wish to carry many of the loyalty cards and ID cards with you when you’re doing business or sightseeing within the country you’re visiting. This system works well if the banknotes and coins of the two countries are similar.

An alternative is to have a different wallet for each country. Transfer only relevant ID and credit cards between the two wallets. This option is preferable if the currencies between the two countries have differently sized banknotes and coins that will not fit well in your “home” wallet. Also, you may not need many of your loyalty cards or perhaps even your driver’s licence in the country you are visiting so it may be better to keep those cards in your “home” wallet and lock it in your hotel room safe. By purchasing a wallet in country or from an online site of that country, you’ll be able to get a wallet suited for that country’s currency. Many people must keep records of all of their purchases so a wallet with a separate section for receipts is helpful.

Tip for Handling Coins and Banknotes

For greater efficiency and speed in checkout lines, pass the cashier the coins first then banknotes. It makes it much easier for cashiers to put the money in the cash register and it makes it easier for customers to put money in their wallets.

Avoiding impulse buys: mandatory waiting times and a Possible Purchases file

You’ve gone to a store to buy something specific and then something you had no intention of buying catches your eye. Or, you’re online, and read about something that sounds useful. Maybe you’re talking to some friends, and they recommend books they’ve just read. What do you do?

Here’s what I do. Sometimes, the item under consideration is something I can tell immediately I need or love, and it fits within my budget. That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I just make the purchase right then.

But more often, I make a note of the item — by writing a reminder or taking a photo — and add it to my Possible Purchases file when I get home.

I actually have three Possible Purchases files. Right now, I have a physical file for things I’ve clipped out of the few catalogs I get, a collection of online bookmarks (also called favorites, depending on what browser you use), and a list of books at Amazon.com. I may buy the books elsewhere, if I ever wind up buying them, but it’s easy to quickly note them in an Amazon.com wish list.

There are many other ways to collect such information, too. For example, some people would choose to use Evernote and some might use Pinterest. Various sites, not just Amazon.com, provide wish list capabilities.

What kinds of things make it into my Possible Purchases file? Lots of cat-related stuff, for starters. I also have gift ideas, t-shirts, towels, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and whimsical stuff like a Lava Lite night light.

My Possible Purchases file fits well with the approach, recommended by many people, of creating some sort of mandatory waiting period before buying anything except your standard purchases of groceries and necessities.

On The Christian Science Monitor website, Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar said:

Whenever I’m considering making a purchase of any kind, I simply stop for ten seconds and ask myself whether this is really a worthwhile purchase. … I don’t watch the clock on this or anything – I just do it for roughly ten seconds or so.

At the end of those ten seconds, if I’m still convinced that making this purchase is the best idea, then I’ll go ahead and buy it without guilt or remorse. However, I’ve come to find that the ten-second rule frees me from making a lot of unnecessary purchases.

On the Psychology Today website, Kelly McGonigal mentioned the benefits of a somewhat longer pause:

Neuroscientists have found that having to wait even ten minutes for a reward dramatically reduces the brain’s response to it. If you can walk out of a store, or switch to a different website, for just 10 minutes, you’ll see the “value” of that purchase more clearly.

And over on Mint.com, Mary Hiers recommended an even longer waiting period:

If you see an item that captures your interest, sleep on it. Make it a rule that if you see something you want that you didn’t specifically go shopping for, you’ll wait 48 hours before buying it.

For a slightly different approach, Dustin Senos quoted Larry Wall: “Don’t buy something until you’ve wanted it 3 times.”

Different strategies will work for different people — but finding one that works for you will save you money and help minimize clutter.

Thinking about buy-and-return habits

You go shopping, buy a bunch of things, and bring them home. Later on, you decide to return a number of items. That’s a great way to unclutter, right?

Well, sometimes — and sort of.

Certainly, you’ll want to return anything that’s defective. I bought some shoes online earlier this year and they looked exactly like what I wanted. But when they arrived, I found out they squeaked when I walked. Fortunately, I had bought them from a site that makes returns very easy.

On the other end of the spectrum, some returns are questionable, even if stores accept those types of returns. I don’t think it’s okay to buy a dress, wear it to a special event, and then return it. Nor do I think it’s okay to buy a nice TV right before the Super Bowl and then return it after watching the game. Some stores are fighting back against this practice, as The Cut reports:

Bloomingdale’s has had enough. … So they’re attaching three-inch black-plastic tags to visible places on clothing, like the front bottom hemline. … The new devices on Bloomingdale’s clothing are unhidable; once removed, they cannot be reattached. No more wearing and returning, unless you decide to pretend “visible tags” are a new trend.

But many other return situations are less straightforward. I’d never really thought about the problems returns can cause until I read a discussion on Ask Metafilter, where a number of members who worked in retail shared what goes on behind the scenes. Here are just two of the many perspectives:

I can talk about retail for clothing, two industries I worked retail in. For clothing, if the garment was still selling at full price, and showed no signs of wear, we would re-tag and sell it again at full price. If it were no longer selling at full price, we would re-tag and sell it at the current sale price. If it did show signs of wear but we were obliged by policy to accept it, we’d deeply discount it, donate it or just throw it in the trash.

I can tell you from my experience in working at Restoration Hardware and at a few convenience stores/pharmacies: a good portion of stuff is thrown out. Everything that is possible to put back on the shelf is (unopened, like-new packages, unworn clothing, unused cushions and the like) and all products that can be returned to the manufacturer are. This is, at least at those stores, maybe 40% of returns. Everything else is logged and thrown away. We are trying to find more avenues to donate returned items, but most items that are returned are thought of as liabilities. … If you’ve tried on headphones, they were chucked. I mean, would you want to buy something that someone else had put in their ears?

Another thing I just learned is that a number of retailers are using a program called The Retail Equation aimed at helping to eliminate return fraud and to control what the company calls returnaholics. Some of these returnaholics may have a problem with compulsive shopping and need help in fighting that condition.

But most of us can be more thoughtful about our initial purchasing behaviors. If we don’t buy things we don’t need we won’t have to return those things we later don’t want, irrespective of the reason. Additionally, do we have valid reasons for the returns we do wish to make? Or, are we needlessly creating more work for the stores, and causing good merchandise to wind up in the trash? Would donating the item to a charity that needs that item be a better way of handling the unwanted merchandise?

Of course, if you need to return defective merchandise, you’ll want to be very aware of the store’s return policy. I overlooked this recently, and bought some non-returnable “fits all sizes” socks, which didn’t come close to fitting me. I wound up donating them to charity. When making purchases, you’ll want to check for:

  • Whether the item is returnable at all.
  • How long you have to make the return.
  • If a receipt is required.
  • Whether you’ll get cash or a store credit.
  • If there’s a restocking fee.

Nine things to organize before a tragedy

Today we welcome Jeri Dansky to our Unclutterer content team. She’ll have a weekly post full of uncluttering and organizing advice that is guided by her many successful years as a professional organizer.

What would happen if you became seriously ill and a family member or friend had to make sure you and your household were properly taken care of?

Of course, it’s wise to have a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care or the equivalents. (The specific documents you need will depend on where you live.) You’ll also want a financial power of attorney or whatever legal document provides a similar ability to manage your money on your behalf. Consider consulting with an estate attorney to make sure you’re prepared in this regard.

Even with these legal documents in place, you still have some preparation to do. Think of all the things someone would need to know in order to run your life on your behalf. Here are just a few:

  1. What medicines are you taking? Do you have any allergies? What immunizations have you had? What are the major events in your medical history: surgeries, etc.?
  2. If you have pets, what do they get fed, and when? Are they taking any medications? If so, where are those medications and how do they get taken?
  3. What’s the password to pick up your voice mail messages? How would someone check your email?
  4. Where is your calendar — and if it’s online, how does it get accessed? Are there any standing appointments that should be cancelled?
  5. Where is your address book — and again, how does it get accessed if it’s online? Who should be notified if there’s a serious problem?
  6. Do you have a post office box where mail should be checked? Where’s the key for the box?
  7. What regular bills get paid automatically, and which ones need to get paid manually? Will someone need access to your online bill paying systems? Will someone need the PIN for your ATM card?
  8. Is there a home alarm system? If so, how does it work?
  9. Are there any quirks about your home that someone should know about? For example, in my home, the switch for the garbage disposal is hard to find.

It may seem, at first, that pulling this information together only matters if you’re single — but actually, everyone could benefit by gathering this information and sharing it with trusted people. Sometimes, one spouse or life partner doesn’t know everything the other one does. And, there are scenarios where both spouses or partners would need help at the same time.

It’s natural to avoid thinking about the chance of anything bad happening to us — but it’s a real kindness to your friends and family to take the time to pull this information together, just in case it’s needed. I remember being in the emergency room with my mom, filling out the hospital admission forms and trying desperately to remember if it was her left hip or her right that got replaced some years ago. When Mom had surgery and was away from home for weeks, I was glad I knew all the little things to do, such as canceling her weekly appointment at the beauty salon. While it wouldn’t have been a tragedy if I didn’t cancel that appointment, it was a nice courtesy. It also comforted my mom to know I’d be taking care of such things for her.

Money saving ideas that can create clutter

Uncluttering can lighten your load and put cash in your pockets if you choose to sell items you no longer want. You also can save money by repairing broken items instead of replacing them with new purchases. But, one of the downsides of selling (and other money saving ideas) is sometimes you can end up with more clutter than when you started. It works out this way because you likely add new items before the old items leave your home. And, if you don’t get them out quickly, they can linger and commandeer much needed space.

Does that mean you shouldn’t sell your lightly used items? No. But, you should think about ways you can avoid the clutter build up, especially when …

Stocking up on coupons and sales flyers

It can be tempting to stock up on coupons and sale flyers, particularly when you know you can save quite a bit when you go shopping. Couponing, like any other project, needs to be a regular part of your routine. If you don’t have a specific space to keep the coupons (along with the large quantities of things you get), they can start to fill every available room in your home, leaving you with less living space.

Try this instead: Share the couponing experience with a friend (or two) so you won’t have to store every sale or grocery store flyer. You’ll also save some time when you meet up with your couponing partners to process your coupons (be sure to add these meetings to your calendar).

Buying in bulk

Bulk purchases can offer big savings and a high volume of products that can last for quite a while. But, therein lies the issue. Because you have such large quantities of items, you will need to consume perishables (meat, poultry, dairy) and other items before they expire. These items can languish in your pantry or fridge and end up not saving you money in the long run. And, unless you have ample space to store everything, your purchases may begin to clutter other areas of your home.

Try this instead: If you find that you don’t use everything you buy before it expires, consider splitting the cost and sharing your haul with a neighbor or friend. This will give you a chance to use everything you buy and still reap the cost savings. Also, designate specific areas of your home for storing bulk items and do not go beyond those limits, irrespective of how good of a deal something is.

Returning recyclables for money

I recently read a New York Times article that described the author’s love of coffee and the clutter that came from it. She saved Starbucks coffee bags to take to her local store because she’d get a free 12-ounce cup of coffee (a savings of $2). I’m sure coffee lovers everywhere were rejoicing at the opportunity to get free java. As it turned out, she didn’t make it to the Starbucks closest to her home very often and her collection of coffee bags became a source of clutter that she ultimately trashed. I feel her pain. A few years ago, I amassed a collection of bath poufs (mesh sponges) I purchased from a local store that encouraged patrons to bring back old ones (that were fraying and no longer wanted) to get new ones free of cost (the store recycled them). I also didn’t make it to that store often and decided to pitch my collection. At the time, it seemed like a painful decision. Afterall, I was missing out on something free.

While you might not keep a stash of bath accessories or coffee bags, you could be more inclined to stock up on plastic bottles and soda cans. Keeping these two items out of landfills is a good goal to have and you can get some money for them. When you return plastic bottles and aluminum cans, you can collect $.05 for each one (depending on where you live). If you tend to save up recyclable containers so you can return them for cash, they can quickly outgrow your space and infiltrate several areas of your home.

Try this instead: Pick a spot to store the recyclables as well as container that fits that space. When the container is full, stop collecting and schedule a time to return them. If your container is overflowing and you haven’t had time to take them in to the recycling center, consider putting them out on the curb with your other recyclables.

Saving useless things to make something new

Do you save scraps of wrapping paper not big enough to wrap a gift with the intention of making something crafty with them? How about lonely socks (single socks with no mate) that you plan to include in a project you saw someone post about on Pinterest? Are you really going to create a window valance out of those hankerchiefs you never use? While you may be saving money by using what you already have to make something new, unless you actually upcycle them, they will begin to clutter your space and leave less room for more valuable things.

Try this instead: Be very selective about the scrap materials (and volume) that you keep and store them in one location. And, think about other ways to use those useless things yourself (wear unmatched socks at home, use scraps of paper as padding for things you’re shipping), or donate them to a school or daycare center in your neighborhood that wants them.

Saving things that need repairing

Depending on the item, you can save money by doing your own repairs (like hemming your pants or replacing buttons). If you pick a day every week (or month) that you’ll fix a handful of things, you can continually reduce the volume of your fixer-uppers. But, if this is not something you enjoy doing (or know how to do), you could find yourself overwhelmed with lots of things that need mending or fixing.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the cost of repairing an item may be higher than replacing it. According to Lori Bongiorno, author of Green, Greener, Greenest, “a good rule of thumb is to skip repairs that cost more than 50 percent of what it would cost to buy a new version.”

Try this instead:

  • Before you attempt a repair on your own, find out if the manufacturer offers that service for free. Some places, like Coach, will fix wallets (and other items they sell) without charging you or give you a new one (same value as your original purchase) if they can’t repair it.
  • Another option would be to keep the things that are easy for you to do and trade the things you don’t want to do yourself with another person. This could mean that you’ll take on a task they don’t like doing, so you’ll both get your jobs done without having to do the task you wouldn’t otherwise complete. Or, you can barter an item (they fix your thing and you give them a thing that functions well but you don’t want anymore).
  • You can also let go of those items altogether by using Freecyle. It’s not unusual for someone to accept an item that needs a little repair work.

Collecting things to consign

Clothing is often a popular consignment item. It can be hard to let go of some pieces, especially if the purchase price was pretty high. Consigning is a great idea if you have the time to take items to the consignment shop and your items are exactly what the consignment store wants (they can be very picky). But, you’ll lose out on the money you could be getting if you have bags and bags of things you intended to sell that are simply sitting around and cluttering up your home.

Try this instead:

  • Keep a basket in your closet or laundry area for things you want to consign. Once full, put them in your car immediately so they don’t linger in your home. If, after a reasonable amount of time (you’ll hate seeing them in your car) they haven’t made it to the consignment, drop them off at donation organization (or arrange to have them picked up) to get the tax write-off.
  • Have a clothing swap party and trade the items you no long want (or that don’t fit anymore) with friends and/or family.

Go ahead and try your hand at turning your clutter into cash. Just be sure the things you need to do are reasonable for your lifestyle and not too demanding on your time and won’t clutter your space.

From clutter to cash: Four ways to sell your unwanted stuff

Gardeners everywhere can probably tell a great number of stories about their attempts to get rid of weeds. It’s not always a fun task (though some of us may find it calming) and it’s one of those things that we often put off doing. In that way, it’s a bit like uncluttering. It’s something we may need to do, but it may feel like a big undertaking. Did you also know that a weed can actually be any plant that is unwanted, even if it looks pretty and has beautiful blooms? Likewise, anything in your home that is unwanted, even if it’s in great shape (i.e., not broken or tattered), can be like weeds. We just classify those things as clutter.

The difference between the two, of course, is that you can’t do much with the weeds once you’ve pulled them, but you do have several options when it’s time to unclutter and let go of unwanted items that are still in good condition. You can donate those things to a group or organization, pass them on to a specific person, or you can sell them. Though, you will likely not get the original value of the item, you will clear your space and get cash or a gift card in return.

Recommerce is not a new idea, but it is one that has become more popular in recent times. This can perhaps be attributed to a tough economy, though some people sell to get an updated version of the item they’re letting go of. Whatever your reasons are, consider the four selling options below as you weed and sift through your belongings. You might end up choosing to only sell some things, but this list will at least get you started.

Seller Websites

Many of us are familiar with sites like Craigslist, eBay, and Etsy (e.g. vintage clothing) for selling (and buying) things. Those websites are still viable options, but there are many others that can help you transition your items to a new owner.

  • Electronics. Gazelle.com will take your gadgets (mobile phones, tablets, desktop machines) — even broken ones — and send you a check, an Amazon gift card, or transfer funds to your PayPal account. NextWorth.com has a similar service and payment options, except that you can opt to receive a Target gift card. That site also has a referral program. If you decide to sell your electronics on eBay, be sure to check out their Technology & Electronics Selling Guide.
  • Books. If you used Gazelle or TheNextWorth to get a new tablet or Kindle, you may be thinking about purging a few books. You can sell them on Amazon, SellBackYourBooks.com, or Cash4Books.net, to name a few. You will need the ISBN number (typically found on the back of the book or inside the book on the copyright page). Payments are made via check, PayPal, or an account of your choosing.
  • Anything. Yardsellr.com uses the power of your social networks to help you sell your stuff. Log in using your Facebook account and let your friends see what you’re selling in your online yard sale. You will be paid via check or funds transfer to your PayPal account. There are no seller fees, however, Yardseller does markup your asking price. Check out their FAQs for more information.

Pawn Shops

Pawn shops can be a good option for specific things you may want to sell (like guitars) so do a bit of research to find out what is successful through these stores in your area. Selling to a pawn shop may work well since they can often take a wide variety of things, though, because they resell your item, you might not get top dollar. But, they will take the item off your hands immediately and you will get paid at the time of drop off.

Consignment Shops

If you have high-end clothing, shoes, jewelry, or antique pieces, a consignment shop in your neighborhood will consider selling your items and giving you a percentage of the sale. These stores tend to be pretty picky about the items they will accept and prefer to purchase things that are in excellent condition and seasonally appropriate. Some shops will require that you call to make an appointment, so be sure to check their guidelines before going.

A new type of consignment shop has arisen in the last few years that does things slightly differently. ClothesMentor.com will buy your gently used and laundered women’s clothes, accessories, perfume, etc. The transaction takes place at one of their stores (use the store locator to see if they have a shop near you) and you will be paid immediately for the items they purchase. Plato’s Closet works in a similar way for “teen and twenty something guys and girls,” and you can either accept cash on the spot or trade your clothes for a new outfit. They also don’t require that you make an appointment.


So, bartering is technically not selling, but it is a way to let go of things in return for a service that you may need. I read an article recently about someone who bartered a scooter to have her shed painted and dry walled. You may want to have a written agreement about the details of your exchange, and keep in mind that there are tax implications with bartering (read How the IRS Taxes Bartering for more information).

Of course, you don’t have to sell your things at all. You can simply donate them or give them away to a specific person. You wouldn’t have to take your clothing to a re-seller shop, create online seller accounts, upload photos/descriptions of your items, or manage buyer inquiries. You can arrange for donations to be picked up free of cost or meet up with the person receiving your donation. Whether you decide to sell or donate, you’ll unclutter, free up some much needed space, and do something good for yourself.