Decluttering and Your Money

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Connie writes in:

You write a lot about how there’s a deep connection between less clutter and financial success.  I don’t get it at all.  I think the opposite is true because when you clear out a bunch of stuff you would just have the space for a lot more.

This is an issue I’ve discussed to a certain extent in both of my books.  I think there’s a deep connection between personal finance success and clutter, and there’s no better time than now to break it down.

What Is Clutter?
You’ll see many definitions of clutter out there, but the one I typically use is pretty straightforward. Clutter is anything in your life that you have inadequate time to enjoy or inadequate space to store.

When you’re juggling so many relationships that the truly important ones are withering on the vine, you’re experiencing clutter.

When you jam all of your papers somewhere because you don’t have time or the space to store them, you have clutter.

When you’re embarrassed to let someone see some part of your home because of the piles of stuff you have jammed in there, that’s clutter.

When you burn fifteen minutes digging through junk drawers looking for the one thing in there you actually have any need for, that’s clutter.

When you have shelves jammed full of videos or DVDs or CDs or books or video games or old magazines that you’ve barely touched in months but you keep telling yourself you’ll get around to someday, that’s clutter.

What Clutter Eats
Clutter eats time.. The more things you have, the more time you spend maintaining them.  Stuff.  Commitments.  Relationships.  That means less time to enjoy the things that are genuinely important to you.

Clutter eats space.. The more stuff you have, the more space you need to store it.  That means a bigger apartment or a bigger home or a storage locker.  Those things mean more rent or a bigger mortgage and more time lost to cleaning and maintenance.

Clutter eats money.. Most stuff has a financial cost.  The more stuff you have, the more hard-earned money you’ve dumped into it (and the less time you have to enjoy each item).

The Solution
The solution, of course, is to pare down.  That’s harder than it sounds, because people often have a deep attachment to their stuff.  Here are five tactics that work.

Use rental services.  If you’re a film buff and accumulate DVDs, join Netflix.  If you do the same with books, join a library.  Video games?  Gamefly.  Music?  Napster.  This allows you to enjoy a library of what you most enjoy for about the cost of one purchase every two months without accumulating stuff.  

Empty your clutter attractors.. The junk drawers.  The closets.  The garage.  Pull out everything and keep only what you might actually use again.

Realize that you are not your stuff.. Many people self-define by the stuff they have.  You are not your car.  You are not your house.  You are not your gadgets.  Normal people who like you do so regardless of the stuff you’ve accumulated.

Move to a “one in, one out” philosophy.. Whenever you acquire a new item, an old one has to go.  This allows you to focus on quality upgrading than accumulating tons of mediocre stuff.

Date it.. If you don’t touch a non-decorative and non-sentimental item in a year, why are you keeping it?  Once, I started over with our DVD collection, putting them all in a box.  We dated the box one year in the future.  Whenever we wanted to watch a movie from that box, we pulled it out, watched it, and put it on our rack.  After a year, why not just sell the contents of the box?

The best part of decluttering is that you usually earn some money back from doing it via garage sales or secondhand shops.  Sometimes, decluttering can even open the door to less expensive housing.

There are many great decluttering tactics.  I highly recommend the Unclutterer blog for countless great ideas for decluttering.

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43 thoughts on “Decluttering and Your Money

  1. As a Ham I have quite a few radios I have collected over the years, but only about 3 see any actual use in the shack these days, this post inspired me to list some on ebay and to donate a few to the local college club to help free up some space, thank for the inspiration.

  2. The original objection seems valid. If I empty out my closet, what’s to stop me from filling it again?

    Nothing, if I’m approaching this as a one-time activity. If I go through a bi-yearly cleaning ritual and dump a bunch of old stuff to make room for the new stuff, I probably will end up spending more.

    However, if decluttered becomes the new normal, then I think you’ll have a shot at some real success. Think of having less and an end in itself. Enjoy the feeling of space and simplicity. If it’s a new habit to have less (instead of a temporary state), then all that eliminated stuff won’t need (or get) replaced.

  3. Also, clutter makes it hard to find things. Sometimes when you can’t find something you have or you forget that you have something you want, you end up buying it again.

    Also, clutter takes up space and space costs money. You may be renting or buying a larger place than you need (or a storage unit), and larger places cost more air condition or heat, maintain, pay taxes on, and insure.

    Also, getting the mindset you need to get rid of clutter and keep your place clutter-free helps keep you from buying more things you don’t actually want that much, which saves you money for the things you really want.

    However, if your place is really cluttered, it is probably a deterrent to thieves, which could save you money. :-)

  4. great points.

    When my kitchen is free from clutter and clean, I’m much more likely to cook healthy food from scratch and to enjoy the process.

    I also think much more clearly and can focus on the task at hand when my desk is clutter free.

  5. Don’t forget the clutter that is so long amongst all the other clutter that you forget it’s there! Talk about a waste of money!

    I’ve been decluttering and/or trading up items for the past month through Glyde, SwapTree, Amazon’s Trade-in system, and eBay with great success. Been trying to pass this idea on to my wife. Hopefully it’ll catch on soon.

  6. Sometimes I think we have lots of clutter because of how we store things. Take DVD’s for instance. I buy all mine used from Blockbuster for like $4-5 per DVD (or less). Most people keep them in the bulky case they come in. Why? So you can display your collection to all your friends? Keep the case cover insert and the DVD and throw out the case. Get a CD/DVD wallet to store it all in. Now it is no longer clutter. One small container for all your movies.

  7. I think Trent’s reply to Connie was right on when it comes to defining clutter and laying out the first steps to getting rid of it. I think he missed on the correlation between uncluttering and financial success.

    You rarely see true financial freedom in a cluttered household. People who have trouble dealing with their Stuff almost always have trouble dealing with their money, too. And that’s because the same emotional triggers and environmental pressures that shape our spending also shape our relationship with Stuff.

    The point of really getting to the bottom of your Stuff is not to make a few bucks selling it on ebay, or wherever. The point is to find out what is truly important to you. Which is also necessary in order to begin building a sound financial life.

    Very trivial example: For some people, having a collection of 1000 DVDs is truly important. For most of us, we watch a movie once and then we’re happy to catch it on cable a few years from now. We don’t need to keep that DVD. We didn’t even need to buy it; renting it would have worked fine.

    We’re just in the habit of buying what we want, because it’s so easy to do. The trouble is, we want a lot of things on a very trivial level, and when we indulge those trivial wants, we are drilling little holes in our bottom line.

  8. It is important to consider that “decluttering” is not the same as purging. It is not always necessary to get rid of stuff. Simply by organizing your things, your things will almost certainly take up less space. As Trent said, clutter is what you don’t have the time or space to deal with…. which means if you deal with it, it ceases to be clutter.

    Consider also that getting rid of stuff just because you haven’t used it for a while doesn’t mean that you never will. My parents have a large house with ample storage space. They kept surplus household items for many years, and now that we kids are moving out, we’re finding they are a great resource for furnishing our apartments and houses. I bought a antique floor lamp at a yard sale. It was cheap because the light socket had a faulty pull chain. My father was able to locate a good socket with pull chain in his box of old lighting stuff, and repaired my lamp within minutes. He had stored that socket so long, he didn’t remember where he got it.

    My parents have a very tidy and fairly organized property. If you ask them if they have an “XYZ,” within minutes they can put their hand on that thing, even though they might not have seen that item for a decade. They call the things they keep “inventory.” Inventory can save money.

    Seems to me there is something of an art to figuring out what to keep and what to get rid of. I immediately get rid of a novel I know I will never read again. I also agree Netflix is preferable to storing a collection of DVDs. I do save raw materials that I might make something with. I tend to purge when the stuff I have been saving exceeds my storage space, or when I start to feel overwhelmed with stuff.

  9. Even though I’ve heard that “an empty desk is evidence of an empty mind and a cluttered desk is evidence of a cluttered mind” I’ll go with empty.

    It took me about 5 years of a slow-trickle of eBay selling to de-fragment my life. I am a single guy, living in a 1400 sq/ft town-home, and I came to the conclusion that having “stuff,” whether it be old paperwork, furniture, dishes, computers, you name it, just weighed me down. I have removed most of the redundancies in my life, have digitized the permanent stuff that I want, and now have a clean canvas almost every day.

    Now if I could only solve the problem of doing laundry all the time, I’d be free and clear of all of these cluttered thoughts.

    Another note on clutter. Some of us stay cluttered in our lives to use it as an excuse to avoid an empty canvas because the empty canvas means we have to stretch and think of something new to do. Get rid of the chaos crutch!

  10. Good post. We just de-cluttered our entire guest room and are selling a lot of things on eBay! It will be listed in detail on my next monthly overview.

    It feels good to rid yourself of the mess, and to gain some cash at the same time. We’re slowly fixing things in our home with the extra money.

  11. I agree that clutter can be a problem. But, on the flip side, saving things that you will use seems to me to be very frugal. Sure, I have 5 bottles of the dish detergent I like stored under the sink because they were on a super sale. I know this and don’t buy more (unless it is an even better deal). I think that real problem isn’t stuff, but the organization of stuff.

  12. Just because you have space doesn’t mean you have to fill it up with more stuff.

    If you feel that every inch of space has to be fill with material belongings, maybe you need to examine why that is.

  13. I moved from a 1000 square foot condo to a 720 square foot condo with no storage locker. I got rid of a ton of things to Salvation Army, but still have used all my closet space. Sometimes its about lack of space rather than a true problem!

    That said, I always feel better giving away things to charity and clothing swaps and seeing more free space!

  14. I like the shoebox idea a lot.

    Back when I had more money than brains I bought DVD’s like they were going out of fashion. Now, save for a few – most are worth less than it would cost to mail.

    I have 500+ DVD’s (told ya – I was a fool with money) and I bet all but about 50 could go and I could care less about the rest. There’s a few I watch and re-watch, but most were one time eye candy with little or no value except for the hour and a half escape.

    My favorite movies are all ones where I shared the experience with somebody, now that I think of it. Probably most of the value of the movie was that I shared it with somebody – not that the particular movie was any good.

  15. I’d like to hear more about decluttering relationships. At this point in my life, time is probably the thing I have the shortest supply of. So I can’t maintain every relationship to the extent that some people demand. Yet, I find it extremely painful and awkward to break things off or pare things back when it’s not because I don’t like them but because I don’t have time for them.

  16. Yes! Get rid of it!

    This winter whenever my husband was home we went through one room at a time floor to ceiling and did this. In our bedroom alone (which only fits a queen size bed and nite stand) we had 3 garbage bags of stuff!

    It is freeing – everyone should try it!

  17. It’s more than just stuff. It’s a state of mind, a way of thinking. When you have lots of stuff, you feel like you need it. You forget you have things and/or can’t find them, and buy them again without realizing, especially if you find a good “deal.”

    When I intentionally don’t have something, I realize how content I am without spending money on it, without finding room to put it, without maintaining it. It’s freedom that has to be experienced to be understood.

    Case in point: I don’t sew nearly often enough to justify the cost and storage and maintenance of a sewing machine. But today I repaired a pillow case by hand with a tiny needle and a few yards of thread while I caught up with my mom on the phone. It really didn’t cost me any money, storage space, or time.

  18. @ Pop

    Try posing the question at the blog Trent mentioned (unclutterer dot com). They take questions and I haven’t seen this one yet although I may have just missed it in the archives. As Trent said, they’re good.

  19. It seems like the difference between cluttered and uncluttered is more than a matter of degree. There seems to be a different mindset, either random/collective or organized/focused, to make up some terms. I’m not sure getting from one to the other is as simple as getting rid of stuff. They seem like different worldviews. Am I wrong? Any testimonials to how de-cluttering changed your life?

  20. I would only comment that while I think clutter is bad, I dont necessarily believe that stuff is bad. In other worlds there is simple/minimal living, and there is frugality. Sometimes the two meet, often they do not. I am a frugal person who watches her finances. I also have a lot of things. I have space for all my things, and they get used (some are seasonal and they get used rarely). I also have backups for many things because I am retired, and don’t want to have to go out and buy substitues. The point of all this rambling is that people who want to live simply should. but those of us who have things are just as frugal and financially responsible as anyone else.

  21. If you ever watch the show about Hoarding, you will religiously purge anything you don’t use on a regular basis…

  22. Great post Trent! Suggest Don Aslett’s book on conquering clutter, available online used for a dollar or two, WORTH EVERY PENNY! He has some good books on how to clean but they’re not so important or interesting. His blockbuster book on decluttering is provocative, thought provoking, and will save you time and money if you follow his info. If you cut down on clutter (yard sale and use the cash to pay down debt or invest!) you have more time, space, and mental space (uncluttered) to manage money wisely.

  23. I am beginning to see an analogy between clutter and debt, where time is like a fixed income and clutter is the “debt” that comes from poor management of time (overcommitment, procrastination).

    If you have more stuff than you can use and properly care for, you have committed more time than you have available or have not been using that time effectively (both maybe). The maintenance you put off and the things that sit unused are like the balances piling up, that will need to be paid eventually. The wasted time you spend from being disorganized is the interest that eats away at your current free time like interest on debt reduces your discretionary income.

    And when you decide to pay off the debt of clutter, expect to have to cut back on your time spent in other areas to deal with it properly, just as you would have to cut back on spending to pay off financial debt.

    And like paying off financial debt, when you finally clear the clutter out of your life you need a plan to keep it that way. If you do not make real changes to your behavior, and make a plan for sustaining the changes you are making, it is likely the clutter will just happen again.

  24. Totally agree that clutter and money management go together. I don’t think clutter and earning capacity are necessarily linked. Plenty of top earners have cluttered homes and offices – but then again, those folks probably don’t actively manage their own finances!

  25. flylady.net – if you need to get on track and learn more about decluttering. I’ve realized I’m a packrat, as already mentioned watching Hoarders will naturally make you want to purge everything. I think the financial advantage to less clutter is that you don’t feel the urge to buy more stuff. Or you work on relationships that could potentially earn you more money through promotions and job opportunities. And, as I personally move through stages of more and less clutter, it affects my attitude about life. Waking up every day to piles of stuff is unsettling, waking up to clean, organized living space is calming. I think I read somewhere that your bedroom should be the cleanest place in your home, since it’s the first thing you see in the morning. Unfortunately, I cannot convince my husband that his DVD collection is nothing more than a symbol to me of our descent into debt – all I see is the money spent on many unworthy movies that weren’t good the first time. But he feels proud of the overflowing collection that doesn’t fit the space designated in our home. It’s a sore subject, all I want is to get rid of the ones we rarely watch, but he’s attached. I just hope he sees my way sometime and weeds some out.

  26. I actually go beyond Trent’s definition of clutter to include anything that prevents you from having the life you want. A poor financial life and lots of bills are definitely clutter in a persons life. I made this connection when I started getting rid of the what is traditionally consider clutter. It made it extremely easy and rewarding to make the jump to getting out of debt.

  27. “You rarely see true financial freedom in a cluttered household. People who have trouble dealing with their Stuff almost always have trouble dealing with their money, too. And that’s because the same emotional triggers and environmental pressures that shape our spending also shape our relationship with Stuff.”

    I find it hard to believe that you can truly claim this with such authority. Have you done a study to verify this? Or could you find one?

    Just anecdotal: We have a very cluttered household due to having small children and a small house, and we’re doing great financially. No debt, prepaying our mortgage, strong emergency fund, about to pay cash for a new (to us!) car….What am I missing here? In theory the connection might make logical sense, but I imagine that if you actually did a scientific study, you would not find a strong correlation between household order and finances. They seem to be entirely different things.

  28. #14 Jane–I would agree with the quote you mentioned. I have never seen a cluttered household, office, car, etc. that didn’t have an owner who had financial clutter as well. It’s like they go hand in hand because it’s a mindset (or perhaps a temporary situation like an illness) that sets it all off. When your mind is going in a million directions, and you can’t let go of stuff, when you cannot focus one thing it’s difficult to focus on the money.

    When there is less clutter, even my mind is clearer and it makes easier to sit down and tackle the money, even if something is behind or off kilter I can still tackle it because I know when I look around I can say to myself, “I’ve got a handle on the house, the yard, whatever, I can get a handle on the money, too.”

  29. @15 – that’s no better than Trent’s claim. Your anecdotal evidence doesn’t really provide any empirical proof that this connection is there. Point to a study done.

  30. Good advice. I’ve been fighting the clutter battle for probably a couple of years now and I’m continually amazed by how long it takes. I’ve removed many boxes and garbage bags full of junk, yet I can still go through the house and fill new boxes and garbage bags of junk any time I try it.

    My point is for the new de-clutterer, don’t expect it to happen in one day and don’t give up when it seems like you aren’t making any progress. Getting control of just one drawer may be a big win if you’ve been accumulating for years.

  31. Well everyone is making a big deal about the correlation between clutter and finances but for myself and my own house I feel the connection. I hate clutter and every few weeks I go through my house and get rid of stuff because I just can’t stand it! I do have a room that I never want anyone to go into because it hold wrapping paper, Christmas decorations, winter (or summer) clothes out of season and things like that. I suppose I should probably organize it in a way that doesn’t stress me out since those are pretty necessary items in there but as of now I feel like it’s just clutter.

    I personally really enjoyed this post. Thanks!

  32. I think the financial aspect of de-cluttering also depends on the extent of clutter vs a real hoarding issue. Are you buying things because you can’t find the one you have, or it’s been damaged due to lack of care? Are you throwing away expired food because it’s buried in the back of a cabinet? Do you eat out because it’s physically impossible to do anything more than microwave in your kitchen?

    I helped a friend do some de-hoarding last month, we filled a 10 yard dumpster and made 4 trips to charity, and that was only 3 rooms of her house. All of the above are examples of the condition of her home. Her disorganization severely affects the ability to run her business efficiently or to do timely maintainence on her home.

  33. #14 and #16, studies don’t get done unless there is money in it. There is no drug in development to treat cluttering.

    If you are really interested in some of the science, there is a major new book out called “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.” Just searching “stuff” or “clutter” in books on Amazon will give you quite a list.

    Of course, if you’re just interested in throwing out the correlation because I didn’t cite ten studies on Clutter Science, go right ahead.

  34. I’ve actually started decluttering last week. I started with my bookcases which hold tonnes of books, DVDs, old CD-Roms etc. Pretty much everything I could I listed on Amazon – if it doesn’t sell in the 60 day period then it’s going to a charity shop, as it is I’m selling loads as I do match the other prices or compete in most cases. So I’m decluttering and making money at the same time, and following your ‘date it’ tip (if I want to read it then I’ll take it off Amazon).

    I found that it’s much easier for me to sell things or to try to first than to just give them away – maybe it’s my mind-set of “I paid good money for this, I shouldn’t just give it away”.

  35. My entire house is a clutter attractor. It’s not affecting my finances as far as I can tell – we don’t have a larger home to store it, a large percentage was bought at thrift stores and yard sales, etc. Maybe it’s only because we have a large income and a willingness to stack things ever slightly higher.

    We are getting to the point, though, where a new baby and the resultant acquisitions could lead to a larger home unless we get rid of a big chunk of stuff. Stuff we haven’t used in a while, but my wife is not willing to part with. Any advice for that?

  36. I’ve adopted the “one in, one out” philosophy, but my problem is that I’m a pack rat and tend to hang onto “stuff” because I might need it some day. So, while I don’t accumulate as much stuff anymore, I’m not really getting rid of any either…

  37. I definitely agree and I’ve written about this, too. People with clutter may have trouble finding their statements, checkbooks, etc. when it’s time to pay bills. As a result, payments may be late. Not only that, you may end up re-purchasing things because you can’t find them.

    I think the same mindset that keeps you from focusing on keeping your physical space organized also keeps you from organizing your finances. Personally, I can’t think when things are out of order and my affairs tend to follow suit. When I clean up, I can handle business better.

  38. I’ve noticed I got tons of magazines lying around. Basically I signed up for a bunch of subscriptions but never had time to read the magazines. It really takes away from the appearance of my condo and was a waste of money.

    The best thing is to just collect them in a box and give them to a friend with similar interests.

  39. Another factor: house dust, mildew, and dust mites can create low-grade allergic inflammations which impact attention and thought.
    Second: one criminal family in this region, with one or more relatives in the mortuary business, will remove cancer tumors, dry and pulverize them, and use them in enemies’ houses or on relatives with property bequests. The fellow who got me the info said they claim a 30% success rate. Keep the clutter down and the dust out, for your own good.

  40. re: #4 Jon – If you take this suggestion, please don’t add the empty cases to the landfill. Donate them to your library instead. The cases wear out long before the DVDs. Seems like we’re always scrounging for intact cases. The landfill won’t be grateful, but we sure will!

  41. Hi Trent,

    I recall seeing a advice or a link to advice about decluttering on your blog. Specifically, I remember the suggestion to start with some cash and to require the person to buy back his stuff/clutter …otherwise, it’s taking up spaces/resources/money. We’re planning on moving soon, and I’d like to share that link with my husband. Can you send me that link, please?

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