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Your Household Clutter Is Costing You a Bundle

6 ways to get organized and put cash in your pocket


Clutter is costly. Just ask Jessica Doyle of Fullerton, Calif. After her divorce in 2010, she moved to a small apartment, dumping a few boxes on the living room floor and sending the rest of her belongings to a storage unit, incurring a monthly fee of $127. Paperwork was everywhere, so when her bills went missing, Doyle got slapped with late charges averaging $30 apiece. When her monthly car payment got lost in the shuffle, it cost her nearly $70 in extra interest. And when her traffic ticket disappeared, Doyle lost a day’s work standing on line at the courthouse to pay the $354 fine.

“It’s expensive to be broke,” Doyle says, “and for me, clutter was at the heart of it. My mind was chaos; everything around me was chaos. It was a vicious cycle.”

She’s not alone. Experts say that in the US, 15 to 20 percent of our annual income is drained by disorganized finances. Some of the ways it plays out:

  • 23 percent of Americans pay their bills late and incur extra charges because they can’t find their bills. Misplaced gift cards that never get redeemed waste money, too (in 2014, that amounted to $1 billion). Then there are overdue library books — the average community library collects a whopping $182,000 in overdue fines each year).
  • More than 10 percent of households rent storage space to hold their extra stuff. Families who use them spend as much as $1,000 a year on storage-space rent. And home storage products — those plastic bins stacked in garages and basements — have blossomed into a $10.5 billion business.
  • Americans spend 55 minutes a day looking for stuff they own but can’t find. The result? They end up buying duplicates of everything from roasting pans to bowling balls. Whatever you can’t find, you have to pay to replace.
  • American families throw away 25 percent of the food they buy. A family of four wastes up to $2,275 a year.

“The hidden clue to financial chaos is right there under all the clutter,” says Dorothy Breininger, organizing expert for the TV series Hoarders and author of Stuff Your Face or Face Your Stuff: The Organized Approach to Lose Weight by Decluttering Your Life. “When I start the decluttering process with a client, it’s clear that chaos keeps them from financial freedom.”

I’ve had clients whose car sat in the driveway for months because the keys were missing.

— Dorothy Breininger, organizing expert

Chances are, clutter is eating into your income. Here’s how to take control and save:

1. Pile, don’t file. Can’t find your bills? It happens to everybody, Breininger says — even the rich and famous have had their utilities disconnected simply because statements went missing.

The solution: Use a piling system instead of a filing system, she advises.

Clear out a bookcase and use the shelves to pile your paperwork into categories. The most important one: your To Be Paid pile. Add piles for other categories, too, like medical information and bank statements. “It doesn’t have to be pretty,” Breininger says, “it just has to be predictable. Never misplace your bills again.”

2. Round up receipts. Ever bought a sweater without trying it on, only to realize later it didn’t fit? But if you couldn’t find the receipt, that sweater — along with the one you bought to replace it — is still in your closet. “In one home,” says Breininger, “I found a new mattress in the garage, still in plastic wrapping. The owners didn’t like it, but since they couldn’t find the receipt to return it, they just bought another one. That cost them $1,000 and kept them from parking their car in the garage.”

The solution: Grab a shoebox and stash receipts inside after every shopping trip. Or, go high-tech and snap a picture of sales slips with your cellphone. Then, create an electronic file.

3. Deposit your documents. Every single misplaced document can cost you money and stress. Need to renew your passport but your birth certificate’s gone AWOL? It’ll cost you up to $30 and put you in a panic that you’ll miss your trip.

Your roof’s damaged in a storm but you can’t find your insurance policy? That’s money down the drain. “It happens all the time,” says Breininger. “Not only do people misplace the policy, but they can’t remember who they’re insured with. Company names — and agent reps — change so often and those details are either clogged in their email inbox or in a pile of unopened envelopes. And by the time they figure it all out, it’s often too late.”

The solution: Create a binder — or a file on your computer — and insert every important document, from birth and marriage certificates to tax records and insurance policies.

4. Lock up your savings. One of the top stressors is losing your keys. That’s expensive: the average cost of hiring a locksmith to rekey your house is $181.

“I’ve had clients whose car sat in the driveway for months because the keys were missing,” says Breininger. “The battery drained and the tires needed to be replaced.” Cha-ching.

The solution: Put a hook at the front door (it can be a plain old nail or a decorative ornament) and always hang your keys there. For things you might use less frequently, like a snowmobile or a lock box, use a bowl or jar.

5. Simplify storage. Sometimes it’s unavoidable — you’ve moved from a big house to a tiny apartment and need to stash your stuff in a storage unit. But besides the monthly rental fee, there’s another, unexpected cost. “My clients lose money by repurchasing items they’ve forgotten about,” says Breininger. “So they’ll end up buying a new set of Christmas decorations or lawn chairs, spending more money and creating more clutter.”

The solution: Keep a basic inventory of everything in your unit. “It doesn’t have to be detailed — three lamps, two boxes of kids’ clothes,” Breininger advises. “Then keep that list, along with your storage unit number and keys in a clearly marked envelope in your binder.”

And if you haven’t used anything on your list in a year, clear out your storage unit and save yourself $1,000.

6. Create cash. Thinking of finding a roommate to share expenses or renting out a room through Airbnb? Seems like a great idea — till you remember the junk in your spare room.

The solution: Recruit a couple of friends to spend a day helping you clear it out. “Group like items — say frames, crafting supplies, clothes — in a staging area,” advises Breininger. “Then pick the best and donate the rest. Have team members run the items you’re keeping to the place they belong, and bring the rest to a donation center.”

While you’re at it, you might even find a surprise. “One family broke down in tears of relief when we found an uncashed $20,000 check in the clutter,” says Breininger. “That’s unusual, but we almost always find some money.”

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By Nancy Fitzgerald
Nancy Fitzgerald is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Better Homes & Gardens, National Geographic for Kids, Scholastic, Brides, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor.

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