Five household hacks to save you time and energy

When I was young, my friend Mike excelled at things that everyone else did marginally well. Like Hacky Sack, that little ball you’d kick once or twice before it went careening through the air. Mike was like a magician with that thing. Ditto juggling, Yo-yo tricks, all the stuff I thought was cool.

Today, I feel like Mike every time I use plastic wrap and while completing other assorted hacks around the house.

Plastic wrap tabs

I’m a calm guy normally, but using plastic wrap can make me homicidal. “We can put a man on the moon,” I’d say, waving the box around as if it were the very worst thing on the planet, “but we can’t design a usable box of plastic wrap.” You know the drill: draw out a length of plastic and the whole roll leaves the box, either as you’re pulling or when you attempt to tear it off.

A careful inspection of the box reveals the hidden solution. On each end of the long box, you’ll find a little perforated tab. These are the lock tabs. Push each one into the box, punching out the perforated edges, and they lock the roll into place. It’ll never leap out of the box again.

Laundry tag iconography: Solved

Take a look at this amazing chart from the American Cleaning Institute.

This thorough guide to fabric care symbols has helped me immensely. Many of the little icons convey their meaning instantly, but what the heck is a square surrounding a circle with three dots in the middle? Or a square with three black lines? I want to clean my shirt, not decipher cryptic code.

Print that out, laminate it if you wish, and hang it up near you laundry station.

Shoe tying

“I learned to tie my shoes when I was a kid. I know what I’m doing.” Well, maybe.

Unless you’re tying your shoe like Professor Shoelace, you might be taking way too long to tie your shoes:

The ghost’s toilet

A poltergeist is a “noisy ghost,” known for tossing objects around a room and making a general mess. But what about the ghost who likes to randomly flush the toilet?

The issue of a spontaneously flushing toilet isn’t supernatural in origin. What’s likely happening is that water is leaking from the tank into the bowl. When it reaches a certain level, the toilet flushes. You can fix this by replacing a part called the flapper for about five bucks.

Folding a fitted sheet

This last tip was as mind-blowing for me as the plastic wrap thing. For years, I “folded” a fitted bed sheet by crumpling it into a ball and then shoving it in a drawer, where no one could see that I had crumpled it into a ball. Turns out, that’s not the prettiest way to do it.

This great tip from Jill Cooper at Living on a Dime is perfect. Not only will you save storage space with a properly folded sheet, you’ll have an easier time finding the sheet you need.

As with the shoelaces, this one is better seen than described:

Being early

As the person who was voted by his classmates “most likely to have a tardy slip” in eighth grade, I’ve had a lot to overcome when it comes to punctuality.

If someone were to ask me about why I was often late, my most common answer would have been some variation of “I ran out of time.” Does this sound familiar? Additionally, I thought that arriving earlier than I needed was a waste of time. Why sit in the parking lot and do nothing for 15 minutes? Also, there’s a rush that can accompany sprinting out of the door at the last second.

I believe that I was into that rush for a while, at least subconsciously. Waiting until the last possible second generated an adrenaline release that accompanied the sudden, pressing flurry of activity, and that was something I enjoyed. Once I recognized that’s what was going on, it was time to address it.

And, surprisingly, all I did was create a simple pro and con list regarding my persistent tardiness. On the “pro” side (if you can call it that) was the thrill of adrenaline and the other reasons I already mentioned. The con side was much longer, and much more convincing: chronic stress, disappointing others, disrespecting others’ time, shoddy work, etc. With that in mind, I decided to be chronically early.

Ultimately, I discovered that being early can actually save you time. Here’s how:

  1. You have time to relax and prepare before an event. Arriving 15 minutes early isn’t a waste of 15 minutes, it’s a gain. Look over your papers. Review what you’re going to do or say in your head. Or, just sip your coffee or tea and breathe.
  2. Good things pop up. I’ve been in situations where someone has said to me, “Oh, since you’re early do you want to help me with something?” I was able to provide a little unexpected something extra to someone else, which they won’t forget.
  3. Bust out some email replies. When I pick up my daughter from ballet classes, I like to be a good 15 minutes early. The waiting room is quiet and cozy with lots of comfortable furniture — perfect for replying to a few email messages. Again, that’s 15 minutes gained, not wasted.

Finally, and this is my favorite reason to be early: it gives me time to connect with others. “Why are we so early?” my kids often ask. The answer is so we can talk. Or laugh. Or discuss school or friends. Even 10 quiet minutes in the car or a waiting room can be so nice.

Some organization is required to join the perpetually early. Commit to working on projects well before they’re due. Leave the house earlier than you think you need to, and ensure that bags are packed and ready to go the night before they’re needed. You’ll be sipping tea and chilling out while everyone else is speeding along, stressed to the gills in an attempt to show up on time. Welcome to the early club.

I Murdered My Library: A Kindle Short review

Author Linda Grant needed to downsize her personal library when she moved from a place with all sort of nooks and crannies for books — plus some specially installed bookshelves — to a flat with much less space. (Also, her real estate agent saw her huge number of books and told her something had to be done in order for the house to sell.) She wrote a Kindle Short entitled I Murdered My Library about the experience, which perfectly captured the mixed feelings so many people have when they consider downsizing their book collections.

On the one hand, there was a lot of sadness about giving up a library she’d been building since she was a little girl. Since the author is British, American readers may not recognize some of the specific authors and titles she collected back then, but the passion for books is definitely recognizable.

However, there were certainly some issues with that book collection. Some were books she had no need for, such as multiple copies of her own novels, sent to her by her publisher. She had those books in various translations, too. She also mentions the “books I did not particularly care for, but kept anyway” and the “non-fiction which I kept in the era before the internet” in case she ever needed specific nuggets of information.

And then there was the problem with the too-small type:

No-one told me. No-one said, “In the future, you will squint and screw up your face and try to decipher those words you once read so easily. Not because you are going blind, but because in the middle of you life your eyes have betrayed you. They are no longer fit for the purpose of reading.”

Grant is no technophobe, and she embraced her Kindle as a way around the print-size problem. And she reveled in how much easier it was to carry the Kindle than a 900-page book, and how nice it was to have “a library in my pocket.” But while new releases are available in digital format, a lot of backlist books (and much of her collection) are not available yet. And then there was the problem when her Kindle died at the start of a four-hour flight, leaving her with only the airline magazine to read.

Grant also realized that keeping all her many books didn’t make sense, if she was being logical about it all. As she noted:

I’m not going to re-read these books before I die. I am just bequeathing my nephew and his wife the heavy task of removing them at a later date.

What did she do with the books she decided wouldn’t make it to her new home? She gave the multiple copies of her own books to reading groups, charging just for the price of postage. She gave the translated books to libraries. As she noted, “Polish speakers in the London Borough of Haringey now have a choice of books: by me, or by me.” And the rest got donated to an Oxfam shop, where the sale benefits the charity.

But still, the empty shelves bothered her.

In my fear of not having enough room in my new flat for my books, I had got rid of far too many. The truth was, I now had empty shelves. Fewer books than space for them. …

There are not enough books here. The sight of the bare shelves shames me. What have I done?

At just 28 pages, this is a quick read and one that many people struggling with overflowing bookshelves will appreciate.

Organizing and updating useful data

When you hear the word “maintenance” in regard to organizing, you probably think about putting things back where they belong, going through the mail, catching up on filing, etc.

But I did a different sort of maintenance work this past weekend. I maintain a spreadsheet, used by the professional organizers in my area, which lists 400+ places people can donate, sell, or recycle a wide range of things. I hadn’t updated it for about a year, so it was time to do that again.

And so far, over 50 percent of the entries have needed to be changed. Some places went out of business, and one closed four out of its five sites. One business changed its name. Some no longer accept donations or take different things than they did in the past. And many of them had changed their website’s structure so the URLs I had were out of date. What had been a really valuable resource had become much less valuable, as so much of the information was dated.

The same kind of problem can happen with other types of information collections. For example, there’s your address book, in paper or digital form. Addresses (and sometimes phone numbers) change as people move. People marry, divorce, and have children — all of which might mean you want to update your listings for them. The stores and service providers you use change over time. So it might help to go through your address book periodically to ensure the information is kept up to date.

Another example: I have a Dropbox file listing specific things I sometimes buy — things where I might not remember the brand, model number or size when I’m out and about. One of those is the specific type of ink cartridges I use in my printer. But I just discovered that I never updated that when I replaced my printer five months ago. Oops! That’s fixed now.

I also have a medical history file in my Dropbox that summarizes my vaccinations, surgeries, prescription medicines, etc. New doctors ask for this type of information, and I sure don’t want to rely on my memory. I noticed this file was out of date by over a year — missing a surgery and my last flu shot — and I updated it.

Do you have a home inventory? It’s a good idea to have some sort of inventory (photos, video, spreadsheet, inventory app, etc.) in case you need it for insurance purposes. But it’s all too easy to create that inventory and forget to update it as your possessions change.

Another information collection that some people maintain is a list of payment dates for each of their normal bills. And some people who have restricted food diets keep notes on what they can eat at what restaurants.

Whatever useful information you’ve collected and organized, take some time periodically to make sure that information is up to date, so it can continue to serve your needs.

Organizing rules you can ignore

Organizing rules abound, and some of them make a lot of sense. One of my favorites is one that Erin stresses in her new book: “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

But other rules are more like folklore and can be ignored or replaced with better versions.

Only touch it once

If you followed this rule exactly, it would imply that you needed to pay a bill as soon as you opened the envelope it came in. You would need to scan, file, or shred the bill right then, too. But it’s perfectly fine to place the bill wherever you put bills to be paid, and batch process it with others during some future planned bill-paying time.

Similarly, if you’re straightening up a room, you don’t need to take each misplaced item to its proper home when you first pick it up. Rather, it makes more sense to accumulate all the items that need to be moved to other rooms and then do one trip to put them all away.

The main idea here is to avoid picking something up, like a paper in your in-box, and putting it back without doing anything. Instead, determine the next thing you need to do related to that paper. For example, a bill that looks wrong might mean you need to check your files or make a call, so you’d note that next step and place the bill wherever it needs to go (in a to-do file of some sort, perhaps) to make sure you follow through.

If you haven’t used something in six months (or twelve months), get rid of it

If it’s been awhile since you’ve used something, it’s certainly worth thinking about why. You may well decide it’s something you no longer need or want.

But sometimes there are good reasons to keep things that haven’t been used for a year or more. Maybe you’ve put an activity or hobby on hold for family reasons (a new baby, for example) or business reasons, but you have every intention of resuming that activity or hobby in the foreseeable future.

Or maybe you have something that only gets used for specific occasions, such as formalwear. If you haven’t attended a formal event in a year or more, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily get rid of the tux or the gown that you adore.

Any rule that just doesn’t work for you

I totally agree with the time management advice that says it’s important to make time for sleep. This advice is often packaged with rules about sleep hygiene:

  • Keep the same sleep schedule every day
  • Don’t read or view a screen right before bed
  • Keep the bedroom totally dark

I trust the medical professionals who suggest these rules, and I’m sure they work well for many people. But I ignore all of them, and I sleep just fine. As always, you need to figure out what works for you, which may involve breaking an organizing rule — even one that’s generally good advice.

Creating a schedule to reflect your priorities

One of my resolutions for 2016 is to get a better handle on my time. I created this resolution because I noticed in the last three or four months of 2015 that the vast majority of my days were spent catching up or just going with the flow instead of actively participating and pursuing what matters most to me. It’s not that I was neglecting my priorities, rather that I was being passive about them.

To help work toward my resolution, I bypassed traditional goal-setting and went straight for creating a list of to-do items. For my first to-do item, I wanted to track exactly how I was spending my time — from the moment I woke up in the morning until I went to bed each night. I grabbed a stopwatch and a notebook and recorded what I did each time I changed activities. Some things I left a little vague, such as “got ready for the day,” since brushing teeth and getting dressed aren’t things I’m going to remove from my daily routine. But for the most part, I kept detailed notes of how I spent my time like, “checked Facebook on phone” and “read 2 pgs. of a book while standing at bus stop waiting for son.” After a week of recording data, I felt that I had a decent idea of how I was spending my time (and I was bored out of my mind with writing down what I was doing). If this is your first time recording data about how to spend your time, you may wish to log your activities for two weeks because often the act of logging what you’re doing influences how you spend your time. Once the novelty of tracking what you’re doing wears off, you’ll get a better idea of how you’re really operating.

My second to-do item was to sort through the logs and label the activities. I chose three colors of highlighters and swiped a color over each activity. Yellow were for activities fully in line with my priorities and my time commitment to those activities or actions taking care of my responsibilities (like depositing money into my retirement fund — it’s not a task I particularly enjoy, but it’s one that takes care of a responsibility that is in line with my priorities). Pink highlights were for activities not in line with my priorities or actions that were in line with my priorities but taking up more of my time than I wanted (like staying in touch with my family and friends is a priority and reading and posting to Facebook is one of the many ways I fulfill that priority, but I don’t need to check in with Facebook four times a day when two times is sufficient). Green highlights were for things in line with my priorities that I wanted to spend more time on than I was (one example that fell into this category was that I was lifting weights three times a week but I wanted to start training for a triathlon, so I needed to increase my numbers and types of workouts to better reflect this priority).

My last to-do item was to create and begin to follow a new schedule that more accurately represents my priorities. I chose to make a weekly calendar, broken into 30-minute increments, to help me with this process. In addition to chores, wake up and bed times, and most of my life’s set activities, I’ve mapped out blocks of time that are more open ended but still have direction. For example, after cleanup from dinner but before it’s time to start getting the kids ready for bed, there is usually an hour of “free” time. Each night I’ve made notes on the calendar for ideas of things to do during this hour that reflect my priorities. Instead of plopping myself down in front of the television (which is not a priority for me on weeknights), I now have a list of things I can do that I know bring me much more happiness than squandering that time (like working on a puzzle with my kids or having a living room dance part with them or playing flashlight tag in the yard if the weather is cooperating or Skyping with my parents).

Since creating the new schedule, I’ve been much happier and feel more like I’m actively participating in my life. I’m not rigid with the schedule — if something falls through the cracks or I come down with a migraine (like I did on Saturday), I’m not freaking out about abandoning the schedule for a bit. It’s there more as a guide than a law, and this attitude is working well for me.

How do you ensure that your time is focused on what matters most to you? Do you think a similar schedule would help you to feel happier and more comfortable with how you’re spending your time? A few changes might be all it takes to get your life more in line with your priorities.

Digital family organizing with Cozi

Recently, I was bemoaning the busy parent life: scouts, ballet, after-school clubs, friends, homework, and all the other things that make scheduling crazy. It’s so easy to make a mistake — forgetting an activity or to pick up a kid — when there’s so much going on. During this conversation, a colleague pointed me toward Cozi. It’s a digital family organizer with mobile apps that can be used for free (though there is a paid “Gold” version that I’ll discuss in a few paragraphs). I’ve only been using it for about a week, but it’s quite encouraging.

The main feature in Cozi is the calendar. You can set one up for each family member, all color-coded and tidy. It’s easy to see who has what happening and when. Additionally, each family member can update his or her own calendar and those appointments automatically show up for everyone else on that account. It will also import Google calendars.

There’s more than calendars in the app as well. A favorite feature of mine is the grocery list. I often get a text from my wife asking me to pick up this or that, which I’m always glad to do. Cozi makes this easy with a built-in shopping list feature that can be updated on the fly. For example, my wife can add a few things she’d like me to get on my way home from work on her phone, and the list is instantly updated on my phone. Pretty cool and nicer than a text.

There’s also a to-do list and a journal. I haven’t used the journal much yet, but the cross-platform to-dos are very nice. The paid Gold version costs $29.99 per year and unlocks a recipe box, birthday tracker, notifications about new events, shared contacts, and removes ads.

There are a few cons here, of course, and the biggest one is getting everyone in the family to agree to use Cozi and actually use it. Unless all family members are on board, it won’t be helpful. Also, and this is rather nit-picky, but it’s not very pretty. Function trumps form in this case, but it’s not awful when my tools to look nice, too.

It’s quite useful and free, and for those reasons I recommend checking it out.

Storing a casual comic book collection

My 10-year-old has taken to comic books in a big way. I never had more than a passing interest as a kid, but my son is a fan. What was once a very small collection of a few issues on his dresser has become a full-on collection that needs organizing attention.

One note before I get too heavily into this topic: my son’s comic book collection bears no resemblance to the investment libraries that many older collectors have amassed over a longer period of time. For those folks, specialty materials and practices are required. In this article, I’m talking about a casual collection that’s maintained for fun. I’m not talking about a super rare Batman comic that’s worth a pile of dough. In my case, these are low-cost comic books that a kid wants to read and show off to friends. A few steps will keep them enjoyable for years to come.

Bags and boards

Even for casual collections, I recommend keeping your comics in protective bags. These thin, plastic coverings will keep books safe from spills, dirt, and grimy “kid hands.” The three most common materials for bags are mylar, polyethylene, and polypropylene. For my uses, polyethylene bags are fine. Reserve mylar bags for your more costly comics ($30+).

Boards slip into a bag with the comics themselves and help prevent bending and corner wear. Just like with the bags, there are several types of boards. For a casual collection, I’d recommend .24 millimeter basic boards. They’re inexpensive and will do the job. Again, if the comic is more valuable, use a better grade of cardboard.

Boxes for storage

Find some good, acid-free storage boxes and be careful about where you store them. A damp basement is a bad idea for storing cardboard. If you can find a storage spot that’s a moderate temperature with low humidity, you’ll be good. Also, make sure the box does not rest directly on the floor. Put it on a shelf, but not a high one. And don’t forget to mark the exterior of the box to list what’s inside.

Organizing systems

How the comics are organized inside the box is up to the user, but instilling a system will definitely save its user time retrieving and returning comics to the storage box. A trip to a few comic book stores might provide ideas for how to organize the issues. Could easily organize by publisher and then subdivide by series and issue number. If the collection is small, could organize by year or series only. And, in addition to bags and boxes, you can also buy dividers and label them to make the organizing system obvious.

Favorites

If you or your kid likes to haul a handful of favorite comics around to enjoy or share with friends, you might wish to invest in a comic notebook. The harder cover helps to protect the comics inside of it. This is also a great option for people who only have a few comics and wish to store them on a bookshelf.

When plans go awry

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. As much as you try to be a reliable, organized person and meet your commitments, sometimes life interferes. Would it help to know that members of Congress face the same challenges that you do?

Derek Willis and Cecilia Reyes recently published an article on the ProPublica website entitled “The Dog Ate My Vote: How Congress Explains Its Absences.” Members of the U.S. House of Representatives can file explanations for missed votes (as well as noting how they would have voted, had they been present). As you read their explanations, I’m sure some of them will sound familiar.

Travel delays, sometimes because of weather, are a common theme. For example, Rep. Jackie Speier wrote, “I was unfortunately unable to cast votes on Monday, July 8, 2013 due to inclement weather that prevented me from making it to Washington, DC.”

And sometimes our representatives experience the same travel frustrations we all do. As Rep. Rep. Nick J. Rahall II wrote in October 2011:

I regret that I was prevented from casting votes during last Monday night’s session due to repeated delays of a flight from Charleston, West Virginia, to Washington.

The flight, originally scheduled to depart at 4:50 p.m., did not leave Charleston until after 9 p.m., more than four hours late. In that time, the airline offered numerous excuses — maintenance, delayed flights that had backed up the system. Numerous alternative departure times were put forward and then retracted. Within one four-minute span, the airline emailed four different departure and arrival times. At moments, the arrival/departure information was so confused that the airplane would have had to violate the laws of physics in order to abide by the airline schedule. This is an all too often occurrence and often maintenance delay excuses are used to cover crew issues and/or other problems.

Needless to say, all passengers were inconvenienced and the airline’s explanations were wholly unsatisfactory. This flight delay prevented me from carrying out my Constitutional duty to represent the people of southern West Virginia.

Sometimes there are medical issues or family emergencies. As Rep. Ruben Hinojosa explained in Feb. 2011, “I regret that I had to return to my district because of the illness and subsequent death of my sister.”

Competing priorities can also cause someone to miss an important event. (At least in these situations you sometimes know about the conflict in advance and can warn people about your absence.) As Rep. Billy Long wrote: “Friday, May 15, 2015 I was away from the Capitol to attend my daughter’s graduation from the University of Missouri Medical School. Due to this event, I was unable to vote on any legislative measures on this date.”

And sometimes we just mess up. I love this honest explanation from Rep. Jeff Landy in April 2011: “I stepped outside to discuss issues with a constituent group and completely lost track of the time.”

As Willis and Reyes wrote, “Voting is one of the most important duties of a lawmaker, and most miss very few votes.” Assuming you are also a person who meets your key commitments the vast majority of the time, just realize that sometimes — no matter how organized you are — things will go wrong. However, there are steps you can take to these situations to a minimum, and make it easier to recover when they do happen.

Unexpected flight delays can ruin your schedule, but you can try to minimize the potential for problems by not booking super-tight connecting flights, and looking at airline data about which flights tend to get delayed when making your choices.

If you regularly lose track of time, using timers and alarms can help. If you’re often on the go and don’t have a smart phone with an alarm function, a watch with a timer might help.

Because you never know when an unavoidable delay might occur, it helps to have contact information (phone numbers, email, etc.) for anyone you might need to inform of any delays. And let them know as soon as you can, even if your revised plans are not yet firm, so they can adjust accordingly. Similarly, have everything you need to reschedule flights and hotel reservations: the confirmation numbers for your original reservations, and the phone numbers, websites, and apps you need to revise those plans.

And when making plans, follow the advice of experienced project managers and include some contingency time in those plans — time added to the schedule to allow for the unknown issues that almost always occur. A schedule that assumes everything will go perfectly is often unrealistic and leads to last-minute scrambling when things go wrong.

Put things away, right away

The advice “put things away, right away” seems so basic it feels almost ridiculous to share it on Unclutterer. We all know the benefits of spending a few seconds to put something away as soon as we’ve finished using it. So why is it this advice is often so hard to follow?

My assumption is that there are two reasons. First, human beings will almost always choose the path of least resistance. It’s just how we’re wired. Putting a book back on a shelf is easy. Placing it on the coffee table is even easier. We choose the easiest option, even when it’s to our detriment.

Second, we have a limited amount of self-control each day. Think of self-control like a pitcher of water you drink from throughout the day. At some point, the pitcher is empty, usually in the evenings. You’ve made tough decisions and focused all day and by the time you get home you’re just done. It’s so easy to just plop the book down when you’re tired.

I’ve come to a compromise with the temptation to not put things away: the “outbox.” I’ve put one by the end table at the bottom of the stairs to the second floor, and another near the door to the basement. The idea is simple: If you’ve got something that needs to go upstairs, put it in the basket by the table. Likewise, if something needs to go downstairs, put it in that outbox. (Don’t put these boxes ON the stairs, though, as you want to be safe.) At some point, when the container is full but before it’s overflowing, you transport it and put everything away at once.

It’s not perfect — ideally, I’d just put the things away — but it’s also a decent solution if you’re truly exhausted and putting things straight away isn’t going to happen: items are neatly organized, out of the way and ready to travel to their final destination.

How returnable purchases can lead to clutter

The things you buy and intend to return — but never do — are an all-too-common type of clutter. A recent research study gives some interesting insight into the psychology of return policies and provides one reason why some people wind up with those unreturned items. Somewhat unintuitively, a longer return policy can lead to fewer returns.

As Sarah Halzack wrote in The Washington Post:

Ryan Freling, who conducted the research alongside Narayan Janakiraman and Holly Syrdal, said that this is perhaps a result of what’s known as “endowment effect.”

“That would say that the longer a customer has a product in their hands, the more attached they feel to it,” Freling said.

Plus, the long time frame creates less urgency around the decision over whether or not to take it back.

“Since they don’t feel pressure to take it right back to the store, they kind of sit with it and live with it and say, ‘Well it’s not that bad,'” Freling said.

(If you’ve ever found a blouse lurking in the back of your closet with the tags on it months after you bought it, this is probably a familiar feeling.)

So if you’re not sure whether or not to keep a purchase, it might be a good idea to give yourself a decision-making deadline that comes well before the store’s return deadline if that deadline is quite far out, like 90 days. Putting the return deadline on your calendar will help you remember to make that decision and handle any returns.

For other people, the problem may simply be making the time to handle the return, especially if it involves going to a store that’s not nearby. And some people have a “returning-things” anxiety which makes any return difficult, even if the item is defective. If you know you’re not going to do the return, for whatever reason, it’s best to get rid of the item (by donating it or whatever) as soon as you determine it’s not going to work for you. Keeping it around just takes up space and reminds you of the wasted money, neither of which is helpful.

Are you curious about what happens to things you do return? If you decide to return something you bought online, there’s a good chance it goes to a liquidator, not the company you bought it from or the manufacturer. Davey Alba wrote in Wired about what she learned from one such company, Shorewood Liquidators.

Major retailers can’t resell returned items, even if they’re still brand new, says Shorewood’s Ringelsten. “You don’t know where the product went after it left your store, so you can’t put it back on your shelf.”

More to the point, people most often return things because they are defective. Retailers simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the suppliers. “It would be very expensive for a company like Amazon to handle returns,” Ringelsten says. “They would have to sort it out — and there are a million manufacturers out there.” What’s more, he says, manufacturers usually supply items to retailers like Amazon through a contract where it’s understood that items that may be returned will simply be liquidated.

If the items can’t be sold or recycled for a profit, they simply go to landfill. About 10 percent of what Shorewood handles falls into that category. That’s a lot, but less than you might expect given that so many returns are defective items. So go ahead and do those returns, knowing that many items will be resold at bargain prices — which might help someone who could really use a bargain purchase. That’s certainly better than having the items stashed in the back of a closet, unused.

Avoiding clutter by careful purchasing

Poorly chosen purchases are one major source of household and office clutter. While most of us are unlikely to totally eliminate this problem, we can certainly minimize it.

I’ve written before about controlling online purchases, but what about in-store purchases? You could implement a “mandatory waiting time” policy for anything not on your shopping list, but that’s not the only possible approach.

Paco Underhill is an expert in how stores convince people to buy, and he provided the following suggestions in The New York Times:

For consumers, my advice is this: Never shop tired, never shop hungry, and keep a list of shopping objectives. And if the deal looks too good to be true, pay attention to your instincts and just step around it. Don’t buy for “someday” — if you can’t wear it or use it today, chances are it will become clutter in your home instead of in the store.

What else might you do? If you’re going shopping with a friend, be sure that’s a friend who will be useful. You want someone who will give you honest feedback about the wisdom of a purchase: whether something does indeed look great on you, whether it’s something that makes sense for you to buy at this time, etc. I made one of my more useless purchases when I went clothes shopping with someone else. With her encouragement, I bought something I would never have bought if I had been shopping by myself. (Fortunately, it wasn’t an expensive item.) But another friend helped me pick my fantastic sofa, which was somewhat expensive but worth every penny.

Reflecting on prior purchases and seeing where you tend to go wrong can also be useful. Jeff Yaeger wrote on AARP’s “Money Talk” blog about doing an annual “What the Heck was I Thinking” self-audit annually, at tax time.

It’s simple: Just quickly review your credit card statements, canceled checks, receipts, etc. for the larger purchases you’ve made in the past year, particularly the discretionary, “nonessential” things you’ve spent money on. Then ask yourself one question: “If I had it to do over again, would I have bought that?” Make a note of those things that you spent money that you now regret, and then take a few minutes to really study that list once it’s complete.

The idea is to learn from your spending mistakes so that you won’t keep repeating them.

… It’s also helpful to carry your “What the Heck Was I Thinking?” list with you in your wallet or purse, and glance at [it] whenever you’re headed out on a shopping spree. 

Similarly, you could choose to give yourself a different kind of physical reminder to help control impulse purchases. This pocket wallet reminds you to think twice before spending your money.

For those who share its social concerns, The Center For a New American Dream has a wallet buddy you can print out and wrap around your credit or debit card, with the reminder that, “Every dollar I spend is a statement about the kind of world I want & the quality of life I value.” On the reverse side, there are a series of questions, including “Do I need this & do I need it now?” There are also questions about whether the product was made sustainably and whether it has too much packaging.

If you like the idea of a credit/debit card wrapper, you could certainly create your own, with whatever reminders are helpful to you. As an alternative to the wrapper, you could print a short reminder on a label maker and attach that directly to your card.