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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