The high cost of clutter

Do you have piles of papers lurking on your desk? Mountains of laundry looming beside your bed? Shelves double-stacked with knick-knacks? I have a bit of a clutter problem myself. The other day, I spent an hour looking for the vacuum cleaner, which eventually turned up buried under a pile of laundry almost as tall as I am.

All that clutter isn't just annoying. It's expensive. That's right: Excess Stuff can keep costing you money even after it's been bought and paid for.

How expensive is your Stuff? Professional organizer Jen Hunter of Find Your Floor in Boston says clutter can cost us real money in a lot of ways:

  • Buying replacement Stuff: Somewhere in your closet is that pair of running shoes you bought last year. Probably next to the ones you bought the spring before that. Clutter costs us dollars and time when we have to buy duplicates of stuff we know we own but just can't find.
  • Damage to your Stuff: When you have more Stuff than space, storage can become a problem. Things can get stepped on, stored improperly and broken, water-damaged or just so buried they can't be retrieved when needed.
  • Missing deadlines: When your Stuff is disorganized, you wind up paying hundreds of dollars a year in bank fees, late charges, library fines, overdue fees and tax penalties. Trust me on this one. I speak from years of painful experience.
  • Renting storage space: Almost 10% of U.S. families rent storage space for belongings that don't fit in their homes. That's a lot of dollars going to serve your Stuff instead of your life. Even those that don't rent space may choose larger homes than they need so that they can store more Stuff.
  • Health costs: Out of control clutter can pose health risks from falling, and encourage the growth of allergens like dust and mold. Treatments for those can get expensive. Clutter can also affect your mental health. Writer Ariel Gore saw a therapist until she realized that what she really wanted was a clean home. So she hired a housekeeper for less than she paid the therapist and lived happily ever after.

To Hunter, the biggest cost is an intangible. “It's the impediment that it presents to people's lives,” she says.

Stacy J. Kaplan of Clutter Away in San Diego agrees. “You can't function at your optimum level if you're disorganized,” Kaplan says. “You wouldn't run a business without a business plan. If you're not organized your business will fail. A house is a small business in a way. It's the operating structure behind what your family is doing.”

Clutter stops us from working as effectively as we otherwise might. At its most basic level, time spent looking for your car keys is time you're not spending working, playing or relaxing.

It also costs us time because all that Stuff demands attention. While clutter might be a sign of neglect, it requires us to spend time working around it to accomplish basic household tasks like paying bills or preparing a meal. Those extra hours of housework are a drain on time and energy that could go into creative side projects, education or any number of other productive pursuits.

We can become prisoners of our Stuff. J.D. has written a lot here about how Stuff ties up our money. We can inadvertently tie up a lot of our earnings in rarely used sports equipment, video games, and other pricey toys. Selling that unused Stuff frees up not only your cash but your energy. When there's too much Stuff around you, you're like a plant in a too-small pot. It's hard to grow or thrive when hemmed in by clutter.

Of course, the answer isn't to move to a bigger place. There are families who live happily in 100-square-foot apartments. They just have less Stuff than we do.

The solution is to put your space on a diet. Some basic steps to get started:

  • Consider adopting The Compact, an agreement to buy nothing new for one year. This should cut the flow of Stuff coming in down to a trickle.
  • To deal with the Stuff you have, go through one small area at a time. Don't try to do the whole house at once. Choose a room, a closet, a desk, or even just a kitchen drawer.
  • A good rule of thumb: Get rid of anything you don't use or love.

A habit of clutter can be hard to give up. If you're used to having a lot of Stuff around you, a pared-down space can feel too spare and empty. Before you rush to fill that void, try sitting with it for awhile and really setting an intention for you want to replace your clutter with. It might be original art, new bookcases, workshop space or just more breathing room.

Whatever you choose to do with your space, you can use the same techniques you used to clear it to keep it clean. Don't keep Stuff you don't use or need. Don't buy Stuff you don't want or need. Spend a little time each day keeping your space organized.

Here are the top three clutter-busting tips from GRS Twitter followers:

  • “Throw clutter in bags, put them in the attic. As you need something, take it from the bag. After 6mo, donate bags.” — @jacobmlee
  • “For clutter: I'm using @gretchenrubin‘s rules: Make your bed and the 1-min rule: if you can do it in 1 min, do it now!” — @jc_losangeles
  • “My fave declutter advice: Spend 15 Mins a day!” — @BudgetsAreSexy

I know we just talked about Stuff last week, but how do you combat clutter? What tips and tricks can you share with readers?

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Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

I post alot of stuff on freecycle. As long as the item can be used/re-used/re-purposed I post it. 95% of the items I post get picked up within a day or two. When I’m in a clearing out mode, I’ll post three items or so a week. It has been a great resource for getting little used items to those who need or will appreciate them.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I’m a fan of Rubin’s 1 minute rule and making the bed. I also use the flylady 15 minutes of decluttering. My big problem area is our office, papers all over the place. Getting the office organized has been on my list now for a year. I can’t find stuff, documents for taxes, etc. leases, etc. Part of the problem is stuff doesn’t get filed and the other part of the problem is Mr. Sam pulls stuff out and never puts it back.

basicmoneytips
basicmoneytips
10 years ago

I had never really thought of clutter in these terms but I guess I can see the point the author is making.

I know when you move, that is a great time to go through old stuff and sort it out.

One thing I will mention is start small, or it could get overwelming. Maybe start with a closet this weekend and next month move to another closet, etc.

jeannelli
jeannelli
10 years ago

I am a professional organizer and therapist.To ” declutter” your life, one must first understand the psychological hold possessions have on their life.For some it is a daunting task of mammoth proportions no matter the amount of stuff.It’s not just getting shed of things it’s a mindset that you live with every day!The use it or lose it approach is an excellent way.In 6-12 months if you haven’t used, worn or needed it then adios!I see “clutterholics” just like any other addictive behavior disorder.I personally have “downsized” my life from 6k sq.ft. to 1800 sq. ft. and two-thirds of my… Read more »

Allison
Allison
10 years ago

I read somewhere (it may have been Gretchen Rubin’s blog) that most of the time when we say we want to “get organized” we actually should be getting rid of stuff. Rather than filling boxes, buying shelves and containers and making labels, we should find the stuff that we don’t use and just toss it!

threeoutside
threeoutside
10 years ago

1. The one-in, one-out rule. For every new (to my home) object I bring in, I have to get rid of one old one. When I’m in Decluttering mode, that’s 2 or 3 or 5 to 1. 2. I made myself develop the habit of always putting my car keys in the same place, even if I had to get there from two floors away because I discovered them in my pocket. Eventually, it got automatic, and I VERY seldom have to hunt for car keys any more. 3. I sat myself down and analyzed my attachment to things. Most… Read more »

lupalz
lupalz
10 years ago

Not buying new stuff for a whole year may not be practical but we try to stick to a few simple rules: 1. Buy the best quality you can possibly afford. The clutter will decrease quickly. You will save time and money in the long run 2. Replace, don’t add. If you buy a new pair of shoes, another pair has to go in the bin 3. If we haven’t used something for 2 years, we will never use it/wear it. Give it away. 4. There is some stuff you know it’s useless but you love, in this case I… Read more »

Peggy
Peggy
10 years ago

In her books, Alexandra Stoddard calls the decluttering process “editing”. It’s helpful for me to think of it that way. I get rid of things that aren’t in harmony with what I want my future life to be like. Another term she uses is “de-thugging”, I like the mental picture this evokes of striking back at the Stuff that is stealing my time, energy, and peace. Some people find it helpful to take pictures of the room they’re working on, because the clutter is more obvious to them in the pictures. We get out of the habit of seeing what… Read more »

Slackerjo
Slackerjo
10 years ago

I’ve said this over and over again on GRS and other blogs. One in, one out rule. You get to a point in your life when you really don’t need more. Think replace over accumulate. If you get a new pair of jeans, an old pair must go!

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

When my husband and I want to start a new project or hobby we go through our stuff and sell what we don’t love. It’s a great practice because if we REALLY want to move on to the new hobby (beekeeping is the current one) than we have to get rid of the old!
Our kids do it too. The one thing I grapple with is we are still in the practice of ‘accumulating stuff’, we’re just moving it through.

Madeline Arce
Madeline Arce
10 years ago

This is more of a perspective than a tip that’s helped me. Understand decluttering isn’t a one time huge project or you’ll just keep getting discouraged. It’s a lot like your finances, you’re constantly “editing” and “re-editing”. This happens for a lot of reasons but mostly I think it’s because once you see how well you do with less stuff, you move on to having even less stuff. Things just seem less and less critical. So for an average family, allow yourself time and patience. It always feels like you’ll never get there but just take a look at all… Read more »

Craig Ford
Craig Ford
10 years ago

We bought a smaller house. Less storage space means less place to keep junk. Eventually you weed out the unnecessary things.
Another tip is to move. Everytime we move we get rid of a lot of clutter.

Tiffany
Tiffany
10 years ago

uncluttering is so hard for me! i decided to dedicate 20 minutes per day to HONEST keep-or-donate gaming. the hard part for me is the wasted money i have spent on something when i donate it. i don’t have an emotional attachment to the thing, but feel i need to keep it because it cost money! i decided instead to look at this as a lesson on mindful money spending. example: i tossed about 10 long sleeve t-shirts because they were filthy. i work as a nurse and wear them all the time. my immediate instinct was to order more… Read more »

Amy(Super Healthy Kids)
Amy(Super Healthy Kids)
10 years ago

Whenever I feel like making a purchase, I always think about myself driving that item to the local Goodwill/ DI, because ineviteably it will end up there. It has curtailed loads of lame, clutter causing purchases.

Ella
Ella
10 years ago

It can be fun to paint or draw on things before you throw them away. I had notebooks full of old math research notes. The paper was pretty good, so when I was sure I was never going to use them I painted all over them. It was quite cathartic and I think it looks quite nice to have the algebra underneath, and since I’m really just learning how to paint, I don’t think it matters so much that it’s not a clean piece of paper! Also, you can paint on a lot of objects if you put gesso on… Read more »

Financially Fab
Financially Fab
10 years ago

I used to shop frequently, but never seemed to have just the right items. So I’d go shopping again. 1. When I moved 3 years ago, I gave away/sold/trashed 75% of my possessions. It was scary at the time. Years later, I don’t miss any of it. Now, when I’m shopping, I occasionally ask myself, “If I had to move next year, would I keep this item?” 2. When I’m considering whether I need an item, I ask myself, “If I put this off for a month, will I be okay during that time?” I keep postponing the purchase until… Read more »

smileymamaT
smileymamaT
10 years ago

I have 3 teens and so Stuff seems to seep in through the walls when I’m not looking. However I feel better knowing they’ll take or box up most of their Stuff when they move out! For my own clutter, I live by a 4-foot rule. I only declutter a 4 feet by 4 feet section of the house at any one time – keeps it short and sweet and I do it nearly every day…at least once a week if schedules are crazy. The kids have to pitch in to do the same on the weekends. 🙂

Monica
Monica
10 years ago

I think poster #6 (threeoutside) makes a great point. I also find that I hang on to things that I don’t really need (or want) anymore because someone I love gave it to me. For me, sentimental items often aren’t about the items themselves so much as the memories associated with them. When I was packing to move the other week, I took pictures of items I was ready to get rid of. I get to keep the image and the memory — but not the “clutter” of the item. I also came up with a similar idea for t-shirts… Read more »

Ellen
Ellen
10 years ago

I got a dog – an exuberant dog who loves to chew and will get into anything in less than 15 seconds when you turn your back on him. My house has never been so clutter-free.

(The dog is actually now a lot better about not getting into stuff, but the anti-clutter habits I picked up have remained.)

Sandy E.
Sandy E.
10 years ago

I reclaimed my house, one room at a time. Here’s how I reclaimed my kitchen: I picked 12 of my favorite dinner recipes and side dishes to go with and handwrote each on a sheet of notebook paper and put them in a 3-ring binder in plastic pages. Then I went through easch recipe and jotted down what spices I needed for each. I went through my spice cabinet and relocated the spices that I would not need for these recipes. (took them out of the kitchen). Next I noted what cooking utensils I needed for them, like which baking… Read more »

kelle
kelle
10 years ago

I have the future projects problem. Great old things (that needs a face lift) clutter.
Watch a episode of Hoarders on the A & E TV website. It works great for me to get off my b*** and get rid of more stuff.
Photographs are the toughest thing, even the really bad ones are hard to get rid of.

Jane
Jane
10 years ago

“If you get a new pair of jeans, an old pair must go!” – Or perhaps a better rule – don’t get a new pair of jeans until the old pair falls apart or are otherwise unwearable. If you’re replacing perfectly good clothes with new ones, the one in one out rule will certainly reduce your clutter, but it doesn’t address the larger issue of buying things you technically don’t need. I’m not saying it’s wrong to buy things, but the one in one out rule doesn’t technically solve rampart consumerism. I like this post, and I really struggle with… Read more »

Joey
Joey
10 years ago

If I think I need something but know I haven’t even touched it for a long time, I put it in a box. Then write a label on it saying “Haven’t touched this since [today’s date]”, and store it away in the attic. I’ve found boxes before that I hadn’t even opened in over a year. Trashed!

Plus, I get rid of most books. I’d rather pay for it twice than buy it once and hold onto it for years and years. Chances are you will never read it again anyway. Just keep the ones you really really like!

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

No mom, I’m not going to make my bed. It feels all wrong.

Embrace comfortable levels of clutter. Stop stressing out so much about stuff whether you’ve got it or you don’t.

Kathy
Kathy
10 years ago

We live in a small house: family of four in about 970 square feet. I am very selective about what I bring in here! We just don’t have the room. Additionally it is a good excuse not to take things people try to unload on me when they declutter their own homes.

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

Following that post last week, I went through my closet and tossed a ton of clothes I was not wearing. It was liberating! Of course now I feel like I’ll need something and not have it. But I love living with less! 🙂

kaitlyn
kaitlyn
10 years ago

I just “saved” almost $100 by decluttering this weekend. I thought I had another box of Frontline flea medicine, but I couldn’t find it to save my life, so I was going to buy some next weekend. Lo and behold, I found the Frontline while decluttering my closet.

Since we’re moving, I’m trying to look at everything with “do I REALLY want to pack and unpack this?” It’s easier for me, but my fiance is still stuck in the “but it might be useful some day! It’s a waste to throw it away.”

Patti
Patti
10 years ago

I maintain a simple method of purchasing….if I think I need it/want it I give it 2 or 3 days. If I still feel the same way then I go get it. However, in the last 20 years of doing this I can only remember going back for 1 thing. I have a house full of stuff and have been working to clear out over the last year. I really did not need 12 candle holders. I love candles but I can’t use them all and so I got rid of those and bought me some new updated ones. I… Read more »

Kathy B
Kathy B
10 years ago

My parents had a lot of stuff. My dad had a 2 car garage full of his stuff. When he couldn’t find his rake or shovel, he would buy another one. My mom collected stuff as well, but on a lower scale. I collected stuff because that was what we did in our family. When my father passed away my mom had a garage sale every weekend for a month and still didn’t get rid of all his stuff. She ended up donating the remainder. When I moved 2000 miles away. I took all my stuff, stayed 5 yrs, and… Read more »

ebyt
ebyt
10 years ago

Hmmm I didn’t realize normal people had such problems with clutter that they’d lose a pair of new runners and have to go out and buy another pair. Seems a bit ridiculous. I understand having a basement with some crap you never use, but I’ve never had a huge clutter problem. I live in an apartment and routinely chuck stuff I don’t use. I like having the place nice and tidy. I say if you don’t use the item for a few months, toss it (or give it to charity). Also, shop smarter. Think about what will happen to the… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

Generally, I have no problem getting rid of clutter or unused items. I have two issues though (would appreciate anyone’s hints on these) – 1. I have a really hard time getting rid of my “skinny” clothes. My weight isn’t constant. I’ve been somewhere between the same 3 sizes for the past 15 years and have learned to keep things in each size for when I move up and down. BUT I have things that are like 5-6 sizes smaller from when I was in college that I have a really hard time parting with. And I know it’s just… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Right this very moment I’m looking at a big piece of clutter: a giant aquarium tank and stand that have been unused since I brought them home. Well, “unused” in the sense that there’s never been water in the tank. DH wants to have a reef system someday. Early in our marriage he had a little tiny tank (saltwater) with a cute little tiny fish. Eventually the fish died and after we moved to our new big place I got him a new big aquarium. After six years, I think it is clear that this is not going to happen… Read more »

Crystal
Crystal
10 years ago

Kate @ #31: I have some thoughts for you

1- Don’t get rid of your skinny clothes if it makes you feel defeated, thats not the point of de-cluttering. You DO still need them, if for mental reasons only. Get your self a nice box or two and store it

2- I started with the Craigs list thing and it ended up being a hassle for me more than anything. Try pawn shops (here in Fort Worth you can get about .50-$1 for a used CD), have a yard sale, then donate the rest

Kristi
Kristi
10 years ago

The reason I don’t like clutter is because I have found it to be a major cause of my stress and eventual depression. I do not buy a lot of things because I just don’t need them and I know that the more “stuff” I have, the more depressed I get. My motto: “There is a place for everything and everything in its place”. It frustrates me to no end when I know I have something and I know where I put it, then when I need it and can’t find it in the place that I put it, I… Read more »

Tiffany
Tiffany
8 years ago
Reply to  Kristi

How terrible, from many perspectives. Terrible you are getting a divorce. Terrible he wouldn’t compromise. Terrible “stuff” was a deal breaker. I’d rather just not have the stuff than fight about it and loose my life partner. How tragic a compromise couldn’t be met. I wonder how often excess possess and excess spending compound emotional differences in marraige and lead to divorce 🙁

Michele
Michele
10 years ago

I go through things as I clean each week and set aside things that I don’t use, don’t love, don’t need or don’t fit. Then, once a month, I pile it all up on the dining room table, take an inventory of it and a photograph. I pack it up, and it goes to Goodwill. the items get re-used, the money from the sale of the items supports developmentally disabled folks, I get the use of the item for as long as I needed it, and I also get a tax deduction. Much less hassle than craigslist or a garage… Read more »

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass
10 years ago

I don’t think this article will force many folks who are living in piles of clutter to take action. And it’s nothing against this article, in particular–it’s just that the truth is most people won’t take action. So here is my advice: Hire a professional organizer. Most likely, his/her fees will be paid back by stuff you find (checks, cash, even stuff you can sell or were planning to buy another of!) Have the organizer help you make the mental/emotional decisions. Otherwise, it probably won’t get done. http://www.napo.net/ is a good place to start to find a professional organizer in… Read more »

Christy
Christy
10 years ago

Kate @ 31

I have to disagree with Crystal on one point. Get rid of the skinny clothes save one item. When you can fit in it you can thrift store/consignment shop for new clothes. In the mean time those clothes are going or are out of style and you probably wouldn’t want to wear them anyway.

Pawn shop is a great idea.

just my 2 cents.

Pat
Pat
10 years ago

One of the things that helped me start to beat the clutter bug – more specifically my overflowing closet & drawers – was the concept of sunk cost. As an accounting & finance instructor, it took teaching this concept to students awhile before it clicked in my head that all this stuff is NOT going to provide a return to me. The money has been spent and is gone – therefore cost is irrelevant in my decision to keep or give away or toss. What is relevant is space available and pleasure given by having the item. It’s taken awhile… Read more »

Justin
Justin
10 years ago

I LOVE decluttering. My only problem is I don’t do it enough.

My bookshelves are all full with books that I havent read in 2-3 years, and probably never will again.

I have at least 20-30 movies that I definitely havent watched in 1-2 years.

Ever since moving from a small 1 BR apt. to a house, I’ve learned how muchs tuff I really have- and don’t really need.

I personally like my little 1600 sq ft house, and couldn’t imagine the costs of filling up a big one, as well as how much time it must take to clean!

JennW
JennW
10 years ago

I’m amazed that nobody has mentioned FLYlady. FLY stands for finally loving yourself. She has powerful essays on her site about the effects of clutter on our pocketbooks, our self-esteem and our families. And she has GREAT tools to deal with it, many of which I see listed in the comments above, but they are organized into a system that you can work to not only get to a state of clutter you can deal with, but then to stay there and avoid backsliding.

Check it out: http://www.flylady.net/

Kathy
Kathy
10 years ago

@ Kate – if you had your “skinny” clothing from college they’re probably out of date anyway. Think of how nice a reward of some new feel-great-in-them clothes would be after you’ve done all the hard work necessary to need them!

Piccolina
Piccolina
10 years ago

My parents’ home is very cluttered, and it stresses me out to visit. My mother loves to buy things that she thinks are a great bargain. Now she buys things for me that I have not asked for and do not want, but I feel obligated to keep them because she bought them for me and they are in perfectly good condition. It hurts her feelings when I tell her I don’t want these things, so I can’t give them back to her. She often orders things and has them shipped to my house. Even though I’ve asked her to… Read more »

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

I’d suggest tackling the areas you see most first. It was so invigorating to get our downstairs organized! Coming home to clean counters, an organized pantry, and a calm living room was awesome! I’m now using Craigslist to sell a few items that were just taking up space in the garage (fish tank I no longer wanted and a wall mount we never even opened that came free with our tv). I’ve also donated half my closet to Goodwill since I was just keeping stuff I hoped to fit into again…bad reason to use space. My next project will be… Read more »

benoit
benoit
10 years ago

Nice article. However “There are families who live happily in 100-square-foot apartments”?? Please, that is a bit too much. There are families that live in 100-square-foot apartments but none of those are happy. The article you are referring to is about a couple (not a family) and they live in a 175-square-foot flat. This is a hugh difference.

Josh Wheeler
Josh Wheeler
10 years ago

Just wanted to say great article! I really enjoyed it… well researched too. Thanks for bringing in some stats and opinions from outside sources to bring some extra dimension in. So many times we want to keep “stuff” cause we think someday it may save us money if we ever happen to need it… yet, it’s not unlike new distribution models that businesses have adopted over the years to implement lean inventory systems that deliver on demand cause of all the time it saves. Taking care of “stuff” takes a lot of time, and we say time is money… but… Read more »

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

I love de-cluttering!

For some weird reason, it gives me the same pleasure as buying something new. Perhaps because de-cluttering makes my space/remaining clothing look “new”?

So now when I sigh and look at my house and think “oh it needs something to pep it up”–I just start throwing things away instead of buying new throw pillows etc.

Emmy
Emmy
10 years ago

Kate- Oh my God, yes. I have the same problem. And really, the clothes I’m holding on to aren’t even very nice, I just can’t bring myself to get rid of the perfectly worn in pair of jeans that I practically lived in at 18. Or the cute top that is really too fussy and impractical to wear on a regular basis. I’m slooooowly starting to let go of these things, but the emotional factor is a big obstacle. I think it’s because that was a really exciting, fun time in my life, and I’m associating the clothes I wore… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

I think all these ‘unclutter’ sites and posts are missing the point. Well, not entirely, but they’re largely focusing on a small aspect of something that could have a big impact. Sure, having a neat, tidy house with lots of open space and flat surfaces looks nice and modern and Frank Lloyd Wright-ish and will impress your “rarefied middle-class San Francisco greenie” (from that “The Compact” site) friends. That’s fine, and your house will look like an architecture or home decorating magazine. But the biggest gain in not in the *absence* of stuff, but in the lack of *acquisition of… Read more »

Carla | Green and Chic
Carla | Green and Chic
10 years ago

I try to look objectively at what I have ever few months and ask myself if I really need it or at least really want it. I tend to purge clothes more often than anything else. Whenever anything gets too big, its gone. I never hold on to clothes “just in case” (if it doesn’t fit me). Everything either gets sold, or given away. There were certain items that I regretted selling like an older sewing machine that was much better than my newer one, but that is rare.

Sierra Black
Sierra Black
10 years ago

Great comments. I love all the creative things people do with their unwanted Stuff. I’ve never been overweight per se, but my weight has fluctuated a lot with having two kids. I did get rid of all my skinny clothes when I got pregnant, and had no trouble replacing them with stuff from clothing swaps and thrift stores when I lost the weight. It was fun getting new things. I did hold onto some stuff, and as many people have said, when I was skinny enough to wear it again it had gone out of fashion or no longer fit… Read more »

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