Declutter and save your sense

Once, I couldn’t find a matching pair of shoes, so I put one foot in a ballet flat and the other in a tennis shoe and acted like I had sprained my ankle. True story.

You may wonder then why this girl is writing an article on decluttering and disorganization and their relationship to finances, especially since I still have a lot to learn. While there are definitely others who are more organized, I have come a long way.

I have no idea how much being disorganized has cost me directly, or how much a cluttered life affected my finances indirectly. But it’s significant: Paying credit cards late, getting overdrafts, losing bills or other important papers, buying stuff only to find out I already had it, and on and on. It was painful in so many ways.

As I mentioned in a recent article, when I conquered clutter, things really improved financially. This is an expansion of that article.


This magazine article cites a study that found a link between cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and clutter. I am not surprised; I felt stress every time I looked at my paper piles, too.

But it wasn’t enough to feel stress. After all, I read book after book, article after article about organizing and decluttering. I knew how to improve, but I wasn’t doing it. My house and life still looked the same.

Does that sound familiar? Money is more about the mind than it is about the math. And getting organized is more about the mind than it is about how many storage containers you have.

1. Easier is the goal

The first step to curing yourself of clutterosis (it’s kind of like halitosis because you can’t find your toothbrush) is to convince yourself that you just want to make your life easier; however that needs to happen, do it. I had to have several conversations with myself about this. In most cases, it was not easier for me to store things that I wasn’t using for an indefinite period of time. I just thought it would be easier, you know, to have two coffee carafes in case we had lots of coffee-drinking friends over at the same time or a spare electric skillet for…something. In addition to clutterosis, I also had a serious case of the “in cases.” You know, in case I lose weight, I’ll keep these clothes. In case I start playing the violin again, I’ll keep this music.

2. Just say no

You also have to realize that your organizing abilities/desires are different from other people’s. Since I have difficulty organizing a lot of stuff, I need to have less stuff. Period. For a long time, I had the reputation of liking free stuff, so if someone had something they wanted to give away, they called me. Most of the time I said, sure!

After all, what is better than free? Having only the objects you want or need, that’s what. Once I realized that I could organize my life so much better when I didn’t have so many things to worry about and take care of, I started saying no to even free stuff most of the time.

Guard your life. If you don’t really like it or don’t think you will use it often, keep it out of your life. I’ve never regretted declining a free item. But I enjoy my tidier, decluttered streamlined house. And now that we have two kids, I am even more zealous about keeping stuff we don’t use outta here. You don’t like that shirt and won’t wear it? Let’s give it to someone who will. STAT! Because I’m not great at managing lots of stuff, I have to be even more diligent about what comes through the front door.

3. Purge

Before I got serious about decluttering, I sold a few things, but the piles of stuff always found their way home. Once I was ready to tackle the clutter — for real — I started by evaluating the areas of my house that were the problem areas: the kitchen table, the kitchen counters, and some closets. I started out hesitantly, still stuck on “I might use this someday,” but quickly created a huge pile once I started feeling some freedom.

This is a step that had paralyzed me before. Even I find stuff to get rid of, where should I take it? I will have to put it in my car and make time to stop by Goodwill and then…do I just throw it away?

But to get the purging started, I called up a couple of friends and invited them to take any part of the pile. I was so excited to see my stuff leave my house and find new life with my friends. That inspired me to keep going.

While I still have some spots to declutter, I am getting there.

4. Be systematic

Once I cleared our house of things we weren’t using anymore, I started creating systems and processes that maintained our new and (more) decluttered lives. This is where all the books and articles I had read in previous years came in handy.

Here are just a few tips that I’ve found particularly helpful:

  • Sort the mail over the garbage can, immediately after coming in from the mailbox.
  • Put like things together (for instance, creating a baking zone with flour, sugar, etc. in the kitchen).
  • Make a place for everything and put everything in its place.
  • Waiting does not change a mountain into a molehill. Many times, I left kitchen clean-up for the next day, but dirty dishes don’t improve overnight, but wouldn’t it be great if they did?!


There are a zillion websites on organizing/decluttering, but here are a few just to get you started.

Chime in if you’re a reformed slob like me or if you’ve always had clutter under control. What works for you today?

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There are 34 comments to "Declutter and save your sense".

  1. Skint in the City says 03 September 2013 at 07:24

    I’m favouriting this Lisa – thank you, and especially the links to sites that might help me get organised.
    I am very badly organised to be honest. I battle against it wilfully, but have always been an untidy, person and live in hope that it’s not too late to conquer it! Being disorganised wastes a lot of time, doesn’t it? With two kids, like you, I don’t have time to waste! Tackling problem areas first makes sense to me – decided to blast the kitchen worktop tonight!

  2. SAHMama says 03 September 2013 at 07:55

    I’m still reforming myself and our family! My husband has a hard time of letting go. For example, he has his obsolete computer engineering textbooks from freshman year of college 16 years ago. He has cds not opened since we moved into our house 9.5 years ago. He has half-started bike repair projects, woodworking projects, etc. I’m in charge of the food shopping, household shopping, and kids’ clothing shopping. I grew up without enough to eat and without sufficient and appropriate clothing, and I have had a tendency to get much more than we need. I use the stockpiling method to save on grocery expenses and keep our weekly budget to $80 for food, cleaning, hygiene, toiletries, OTC for 5 people and cat food/litter for one cat. But in the past I’ve overbought on things and had to throw stuff out when I found things hidden away well beyond the expiration date. I don’t mind a box of pasta a month or two or three past the date, but two or three years? No!

    We’re house hunting, but I’ve been decluttering since before then. It started in earnest about a year ago, shortly before our third (and last!) child was born. My basement was a mess and I couldn’t find the baby equipment and supplies I needed, things were falling on me, and I had several jars of salsa catapult themselves off the shelves and onto the concrete basement floor, resulting in a huge and hazardous mess.

    We’ve been eating off the stockpile and I donated unexpired foods I knew we wouldn’t be able to eat or things we didn’t like. I’ve also donated lots of things to my daughter’s school- those penny school supplies I’d collected over the years. We only need so many pens and rolls of tape at once!

    I also got rid of a lot of my “someday” stuff. About 12 totes worth of craft stuff. The reality is that with three little kids, I just don’t have time for: scrapbooking, stamping, latch hooking, beading, cross stitching, knitting, sewing, quilting. I kept 1 tote of crocheting supplies because crochet is my favorite, and I donated the rest. I also got rid of a lot of unitaskers. I streamlined my wardrobe. I’m a SAHM and freelance writer, and I had no need for business casual clothes, especially ones that don’t fit me right after having this latest baby. I even pared down the kids’ wardrobes. I can do laundry every day if I need to. In reality I do a load about every other day. The two youngest kids can be pretty messy, so now we have 10 outfits in each size for each season. That allows for 2 days worth of messes. I hang the shirts, shorts, pants and pjs on clothes racks and they take about 24 hours to dry, so this amount of clothes is just right.

  3. Slackerjo says 03 September 2013 at 08:06

    What comes into my (1 bedroom apt) must have value. If it does not have value it’s just crap I don’t need. That’s it.

    • Matt @ Your Living Body says 04 September 2013 at 07:43

      I like your mentality. For me to even consider buying something it must have some sort of value.

  4. Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies says 03 September 2013 at 08:13

    I go in waves with clutter, but by far the easiest thing to control is the rate at which stuff comes into the house. Cutting off that flow definitely decreases the amount of clutter. But I also find that I can’t do big one-time organization binges since if it’s not a system we’re practiced using, it falls apart over time. So gradual changes are the way to go for us. They seem to stick a lot better than the big organizational overhauls. =)

  5. Sassy says 03 September 2013 at 08:19

    Enjoyed the article. It reminded me of the one thing I managed to do with our kids to keep the clothing clutter somewhat under control. Twice a year I would tell them to go through their closets (we hung up everything or threw in baskets in the closets) and pull out anything they would not wear for any reason. They generally argued that they wanted all those clothes and my answer would be “Fine. As long as you like everything and it fits, I will pull out something each day for you to wear to school and you will wear it no matter what.” That generally got them moving (that and a small box for sentimental clothing that we agreed to keep).

    Good for you on figuring out the freebie stuff and all.

    • Debi says 03 September 2013 at 11:27

      “Fine. As long as you like everything and it fits, I will pull out something each day for you to wear to school and you will wear it no matter what.”

      That sound like the tactic I used to take when I told my 3 sons to pick up their clean laundry from the laundry room and put it away. Later I’d ask each of them if they had put away their laundry and when all three would say yes then I’d say “OK, so whatever is left in there in 2 minutes is going to Goodwill.” That usually sent at least one of them scrambling away to get it done!

  6. MonicaOnMoney says 03 September 2013 at 08:49

    I cleaned my closet recently and was amazing at how much easier it was to find things and stay organized without all that clutter!!

  7. Jess says 03 September 2013 at 09:16

    My husband and I just had a Labor Day decluttering session… Our spare bedroom/office/nameless storage area need some love, bad. It took us about 4 hours, but it looks way better – all the papers are filed, trash is trashed, and the clothes in the closet were tossed into the “donate” pile or moved into our bedroom closet. We also organized the attic – we’re storing stuff for two couple friends with small apartments) and designated lots of stuff for “give to our friends who have all just moved”. (A lot of our stuff had been made redundant by our wedding registry!) We’ve decided that we want to do this to one room a month.

    I also recently (well, not really, actually – over Christmas of 2012!) cleaned out my closet in a fit of “I can probably make this stuff fit into less space”… I finally donated 3 trash bags’ worth of clothing and a duffle bag of tote bags and hand bags to Goodwill this summer. It felt GREAT!

  8. CandiR says 03 September 2013 at 09:20

    I can speak to FlyLady, it’s a great system (when one follows it, ha ha).

    I’d like some advice on the anti-decluttering saboteurs. You know the type: they’re the people that come over when you’re decluttering to move and actually GIVE YOU STUFF, you know, for the “new place”.

    I have found that there is a subset of people who become surprisingly unsupportive of your own decluttering. Even bald statements like “I really don’t want any new [x, y, or z] for the house” are ignored.

    It bothers me because things just travel in the front door and out the back to recycle, donate, or what have you. It’s a waste of their money, and my time and energy.

    Any thoughts? Or am I bound to suck it up and keep up the flow of unwanted goods through the house?

    • SAHMama says 03 September 2013 at 10:54

      I have a similar problem, called parents and inlaws. They are our saboteurs. They bring mountains of junk for the kids with each visit. More so my parents. My dad brings the kids “prizes” he won playing the claw machine game, they bring garage sale treasures that are missing pieces or a few sizes too small or that are just plain old junk. They also bring a few bags of junk food with each visit. They only come a few times a year, but now my kids EXPECT goodies when my parents come. And my kids have plenty of (nice) toys and plenty to eat (they are allowed occasional treats but when they see the bags and bags full, they want it NOW! they are only 6, 3 and 8 months (well the baby doesn’t want the junk since she doesn’t know what she’s missing, but the other two want it)! What I did the last time they came here was have my dad take the bags straight down into the basement before the kids could get into it. Then later when I had time, I got rid of what I didn’t want them to have and I hid the junk food and just got one treat out at a time.

    • Shari says 04 September 2013 at 14:07

      We have de-cluttering sabotage too. I have told everyone I know (many times) that I no longer collect knick-knacks and such, but I still get them all the time. My philosophy for years has been if I can’t eat it, wear it or use it I don’t want it in my house. I’m an artist, so I can hang my artwork for decor or make something if I have an area that’s lacking. When people give me stuff now I don’t know what to do with it…usually I keep it for a while and then it goes to Goodwill.

  9. JMK says 03 September 2013 at 09:39

    I absolutely love to read books and devour them frequently. These days I hit up my local library. There I can take advantage of my tax dollars spent, indulge in my reading obsession, and not clutter my house with books I likely won’t read again.

    • Slackerjo says 03 September 2013 at 12:23

      I borrow about 95% of my books from the library. I write a review in a journal after I read each book as a way of “keeping” the book but not cluttering up my apartment.

  10. Carla says 03 September 2013 at 10:31

    Thankfully I almost never buy anything for my home. I’ve had all of the stuff I’ve wanted for years and living in a 1 bedroom apartment where I also work from helps keep me in check. I do have an issue with not knowing where to through certain types of rubbish away.

    I have an extra office chair I don’t need but have not been able to give away. Up until last week I had a bag full of broken electronics (modems, phones, batteries, etc) that I did not know where to discard them. I search for local places but either they are no longer taking electronics or the place doesn’t exist. Sadly I ended up putting them in my garbage because it was driving me crazy.

  11. SWJenn says 03 September 2013 at 10:34

    I strongly recommend for anyone struggling with clutter. She’s very sensible, and most importantly doesn’t make you do it all at once. One new habit a month, slowly build routines your own way, and declutter at least 15 minutes a day. You would be astonished how much you can accomplish in 15 mins. The best part is how the rest of the family is pitching in. Before, when there was junk all over the kitchen table, nobody bothered to clean up their stuff. Now that it’s almost always clean and empty, they take their dishes to the sink and toss the trash. And I didn’t have to nag. So check out FLYlady. Declutter away! You can DO it!

    • SAHMama says 03 September 2013 at 10:56

      I don’t find flylady particularly practical for our situation. I couldn’t care less about having a shined sink. What I do care about is that there’s no little junk on the floor that the baby could choke on, and that everyone has a clean butt, clean clothes and healthy food to eat. So long as my sink is not growing its own vegetation, I don’t really care if it is shiny!

      • CandiR says 03 September 2013 at 13:26

        eh, you take or leave some of the FlyLady schtick. My sink is never shiny, and I NEVER wear shoes in the house, but I can be company-ready in less than 5 minutes most days: Meaning “Boss ready” not “friends ready” (except now, seeing as how I’m packing to move, which is never pretty).

  12. M says 03 September 2013 at 10:47

    I personally do not have a problem with clutter as I’m super organized but even I noticed that I was developing a slight issue when I had a large house. We always fill the space.

    Now, as far as papers go, my mother drives me absolutely crazy. She’s one of those people whose cortisol levels rise but she just can’t get it together! Kills me!

  13. Debt Blag says 03 September 2013 at 10:47

    I like this a lot. I always find it harder to de-clutter because it means prioritizing to get rid of stuff. What’s really important to us?

  14. Kelsey says 03 September 2013 at 11:21

    I just moved to Alaska, which gave me a very good reason to declutter. Even though we easily got rid of 1/3 of everything we owned, it still feels like we have too much “stuff.”

  15. Derek @ says 03 September 2013 at 12:07

    I have the goal of trying to get rid of at least one thing a week. This helps to constantly remind me that we don’t need 90% of the stuff that we surround ourselves with.

  16. El Nerdo says 03 September 2013 at 13:07

    Once, I couldn’t find a matching pair of shoes, so I put one foot in a ballet flat and the other in a tennis shoe and acted like I had sprained my ankle. True story.

    I laughed at this so hard earlier today, I forgot to post a comment!

    ps- I sort my mail over the paper shredder. Paranoia FTW.

    • Elizabeth says 03 September 2013 at 15:56

      Glad to know I’m not the only one 😉 I shred anything that has my name or address on it. (Along with some flyers and other junk just for colour.)

      There’s something cathartic about shredding things into tiny little pieces…

  17. Samantha says 03 September 2013 at 13:16

    I really liked this article. I am a crazy perfectionist who hates to clean. I just kind of want everything to be wonderful without having to mop, or go to Goodwill. lol.

    Fly Lady was helpful for a time. I also love the Container Store. For me, I know I need to get rid of things… develop systems… do a little each day. Its just not any fun. Maybe I’ll have a party and invite friends to take my stuff!

  18. Brian says 03 September 2013 at 13:20

    We just went through a little purge before we purchased new school clothes for the kids this year.

    We have decluttered our kitchen cabinets recently too, I mean we make a trip to the store at least once a week I’m not sure why we had 10 cans of soup on hand at all times.

  19. Ellen Cannon says 03 September 2013 at 14:46

    Sorry, Claire — the story was late, it was a holiday weekend in the States…

  20. Amy McKenna says 03 September 2013 at 19:07

    I’m a professional organizer and had to chuckle and shake my head at the times this article or comments mentioned clutter “coming into the house,” as if clutter were a sentient being on four legs. Many of my clients are great at purging stuff but seem to be unaware at how their choices at Target/Macy’s/The Dollar Store/etc create even MORE clutter. “You need to stop it at the source,” I tell them. “And the source is you. The objects you buy have a cost beyond their manufactured-in-Bangladesh bargain price: You still have to store, maintain and look at it.”

    As for others foisting their clutter on you in the form of hand-me-downs or gifts, well, you’re an adult aren’t you? I made it clear to my family that if they gave me an object without any direct practical purpose, I would extract that “thought” that went into it and donate the object itself to someone who would appreciate it. I don’t have the time or money to curate the Museum of Mediocre Gifts. I value cards, letters, photos, cash, frequent flyer miles and gift cards. If it can’t be put in an envelope, I don’t want it.

    Now, I have to admit that I don’t have kids and that represents a clutter challenge that takes a lot of discipline to maintain. It’s not easy. But if you begin and maintain that discipline, your kids will have values and habits that will help them out in the long run.

    • Elizabeth says 04 September 2013 at 04:36

      I totally agree about stopping things at the source. Some of the worst clutter I’ve seen among family and friends is the free stuff they get (hand-me-downs for kids, stuff from career fairs or trade shows, etc) and stuff they pick up at garage sales.

      My clutter weakness was when I got my first apartment and friends and family gave me stuff they no longer needed to help furnish it. It took me a long time to figure out what was useful and what wasn’t — and to risk offending people by giving their stuff away even though they didn’t want it and would have donated it anyway.

  21. Brigitte @ Clutter TOSS says 03 September 2013 at 20:09

    As a professional declutterer & organizer this article hits the nail regarding the “costs” of clutter. I tell my clients this all the time. When I start working with someone I always ask them what part of your disorganization bothers you the most. This is the part we start with. As we go through stuff and they learn the process it usually becomes easier and easier for them to let go of stuff when they get the feeling of relief of having less. Most folks just have way too much and it inhibits them from enjoying life. Less is more!

  22. adrian says 05 September 2013 at 09:30

    I am very much like you – a reformed slob. In my case, I have improved my financial picture by sharing the lessons I have learned over the years with others. I have a small side business as a clutter coach. I work with people over the phone or directly in their homes to help them conquer their own clutter issues. It’s really gratifying to see their spaces open up and just see the smile on their faces grow and grow. I still have a few clutter problems of my own, but nothing compared to what it used to be like, and I am much more energized about getting clutter out of my house. I love what you say about “guarding your life”. I think I may have to write a post about that for my blog. It’s a great concept to kind of visualize a big wall around your house keeping the clutter out and the peace inside.

  23. Jonathon says 06 September 2013 at 05:21

    I am a professional organizer. I can say that when people grab ahold of there chaos and beginn to make sense of it the clarity alone provides an opening to the path of success. We all have some form of clutter. No shame in that.
    These are good tips.

  24. Talley says 19 October 2013 at 07:04

    I recently had to declutter our home of 12 years to sell it for a cross country move. I was amazed at how much stuff we had accumulated over the years with three children. What really helped me was posting items to sell on the Swip Swap app from my phone. I could work on clearing my house of clutter and post items to sell as I found them instead of making another big pile for garage sale or donate. It really motivated me to clear stuff out with an immediate financial gain! The best part is I made over $3000 selling things I didn’t need anymore.

  25. Lin @ Removal To says 26 July 2016 at 00:44

    I used to hoard a lot of unnecessary things when I was younger but now my mind is constantly in “declutter” mode. I love having a free space to breathe in and would rather enjoy a minimalist, simple lifestyle than having too much stuff going on around me.

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