How to stop living in a landfill and get solvent?
October 29, 2008 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm drowning in clutter and my bank account is empty. How do I change?

I have stuff. Too much stuff. I don't need to buy anything ever again - when I say 'too much stuff', I mean clothes folded in crates under the bed because they won't fit in my clothes storage, striped laundry bags on the floor of my room, and barely enough space to open the door of the bedroom I rent. I find it hard to get rid of things - I worry I won't be able to replace them, or I might miss them, or in the case of practical things, that I'll have to spend more money to replace them. I'm aware that I live in a stressful environment, but it still feels so hard ot get rid of anything. I've never saw it as a problem for years as I've thought 'I'm not one of those people who keep empty milk-cartons' but the situation can't continue.

That's one problem.

The other is that I still keep buying things. I don't want to make it sound like an addiction,'s gotten to the point where 'sale' signs make me nervous and I try and avoid going into shops because I know I will spend money I can ill afford. Even museum shops. As a student I would overspend in the sales, buying things that didn't quite fit because they were cheap. Now the 'trigger' seems to be bargain shopping - eBay (thankfully I have no account now - it was dangerous - and sell things through my boyfriend's) thriftstores, planning what activity or scheme I'll take up next. Lots of people describe themselves as 'shopaholics' and there are so many magazines that encourage shopping, but this isn't buying shoes on impulse (well, it is :) ), it's getting halfway through the month and having to budget to the penny.

I earn a reasonable salary (£25k) and should be enjoying having disposable income - or money to save - for the first time. I'm paying off an overdraft at £200 per month so for the next year or so I can;t, or shouldn't, be spending recklessly. It'[s embarrassing that colleagues are buying hardware or going on holidays when I'm either unwilling to buy simple groceries because I think I'll blow my budget, or have only £10 to last the month.

I want to move in with my boyfriend in a year or so, so for that reason alone habits will need to change, but beyond that daily life is much less pleasant and I want to get to a place where I have a sensible attitude about money and my possessions. I'd like to be someone who lives in a comfortable place and doesn't feel guilty treating themselves to a new top or a trip to the theatre *once or twice a month*. At present, the idea of buying something the week before payday seems unheard of.
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Can't believe I'm saying this need therapy. This spending and hoarding are symptoms of issues more complex than budgeting.
posted by trinity8-director at 10:54 AM on October 29, 2008

Have you thought of seeing a psychiatrist? Sounds like you have some real addiction issues that you might not be able to get to the bottom of on you own.

A practical suggestion that won't get to the root of the problem, but may help you manage it. Get a savings account (if you don't already have one), and set it up so that 50% of your salary comes out of your checking account and into your savings account, the day after you get paid. Then, get your bank to make it so that you can't access your savings account from your ATM card. Because you'll have to go to the trouble of going to the bank to access the other 50% of your salary (or whatever percentage feels appropriate), you'll be more likely to stretch the first 50% as much as possible, and only dip into the other half for things that "really matter." (This is how I saved for a downpayment in only two years - its very effective!)

The other thing you could do is have a certain amount go directly to a non-accessible investment (in Canada, i'd suggest an RRSP), so you absolutely cannot spend it without consequences.
posted by Kololo at 10:57 AM on October 29, 2008

I find it hard to get rid of things - I worry I won't be able to replace them, or I might miss them, or in the case of practical things, that I'll have to spend more money to replace them. I'm aware that I live in a stressful environment, but it still feels so hard ot get rid of anything.

Sounds like compulsive hoarding.

I don't like to recommend medications for this kind of thing, partially because I too have a tendency to hoard stuff (though not to the extent of being unable to navigate in my room) and believe this can be solved non-medically. What I do recommend is taking steps to get rid of the stuff:

- Start in one area of a room. Get those stuff and sort them out into categories: clothing, office supplies, toys, whatever.
- Then in each category, pick up an item and ask yourself, "Will I EVER use this? How will I use it? When will I use it (what kind of situation)? Where? Is this piece of clothing the wrong size RIGHT NOW?" If you can't honestly answer all these questions for the item, it's off to the refuse bin.
- Repeat for other areas of the room.
- Take the "refused" stuff and hold a yard sale. Or donate them.

For the second problem:

If you have credit cards, hide them in some inaccessible area, or in the extreme case, stop the accounts and cut them up. Use only cash as often as possible. Impulse buying is greatly stymied by the lack of "convenient money", aka credit cards. There's a reason why a lot of Americans are in debt: they spend beyond their means.

Budget your money. As in write it down with pencil and paper, or use budgeting software (I can't think of any at the moment, but they are out there). Bills/utilities and groceries come first. Entertainment is way down low on the priority list.

Don't think about what others think, don't think "Oh, my friends are spending X on Y wonderful things, I should be too". I know it's tempting; I live in a college environment where it seems every student is richer than me and have iPhones and bikes and new computers and whatnot, and it would be oh so cool to be a cool kid too. But deep inside I know those people are going to face some serious debt later when they graduate, and they're probably feeding off their parents, while I try to be self-reliant. So don't be embarrassed. You have to watch out for yourself.

Good luck!
posted by curagea at 10:59 AM on October 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Note: if you really, REALLY can't start doing these changes, then get therapy. There are treatments for hoarding and impulse buying.
posted by curagea at 11:01 AM on October 29, 2008

credit-cards - hide them in some inaccessible area

Actually - I've heard one neat suggestion in the past. Get a large bowl, fill with water, place your credit cards in the bowl. Place the bow in your freezer.

Then, when you need to use your credit card, you will have to wait for it to thaw.
posted by jkaczor at 11:06 AM on October 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

1. No credit cards. (If you need to keep one, best advice I have seen is to put in a small tub of water and freeze it so you can't use it until you defrost it.

2.Make a budget. Pay your bills and overdraft first. For all your shopping and descritionary funds, take the money in cash, put it envelopes labelled with its purpose. Don't carry more than $20 in your wallet unless you plan to go shopping list. Make a shopping list, buy what is on it only and pay cash.Extra money goes back into the envelope when you get home. No window shopping or internet shopping - find other activities. I think you already know that buying something that you won't wear isn't a deal, it is just throwing money away.

3. As for getting rid of things. Start with things that you are obviously not going to want to use. Ask yourself 1. Do I use it? (Have I used in the past year) 2. Do I really love it? Does it make me happy to look at it? 3. Do I need it (like old tax returns or the key to gas jet on the fireplace? Even if you do need it, how much would it cost to replace vs. probablity that you would go to the trouble of replacing it instead of making do. 4. Does it make more sense to give it away to someone who will use it regularly and appreciate it 5. If I had to pay storage, would it worth keep paying money to have this in my house. (Clutter is a cost, even if it isn't a cash cost)

Pick one box or drawer. Have trash can, a "give away" box and a "goes somewhere else" box handy. everything you don't wear, don't need, don't really love goes in the trash or give away box. Use freecycle or donate to Goodwill type stores so you. The more you give away, the tougher your standards will become for not buying. Break the job into tiny bits - one box, one drawer at a time, then take a break. It will take a long time to go through everything but after a little while, you will be so happy to see under your bed, that you will move energy to tackle your closet.
posted by metahawk at 11:08 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't want to make it sound like an addiction, but...

...but from the sound of things, an addition is precisely what this is. Fortunately, the fact that you have admitted to yourself that this is becoming a problem is a big, big step, and there are ways to combat the addiction part of this, long-term. You are far from the only person with this issue.

On the short term -- to clear out some of your things and reclaim some of that money -- you're going to have to get rid of some of those things, which aren't serving you well right now. If you have a particularly kind-but-firm friend, enlist them to help you take a weekend and sort through it all, and this friend is to make sure you get rid of anything you cannot come up with a good reason to keep. You ultimately get final say, but they are there to look you in the eye and say, "come on, are you REALLY going to wear this t-shirt you made at a birthday party when you were eight?" It will be really, really hard, but when it's over, you will definitely feel some relief. And whatever's still in good shape you can try selling in a jumble sale, and you could make a surprising amount of money for that -- perhaps you could escape the temptation of buying an object with it by investing in some kind of experience (i.e., dancing lessons, a weekend getaway, some kind of concert, etc.), so you will still have treated yourself but you won't be bringing more clutter back in.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:08 AM on October 29, 2008

> "I find it hard to get rid of things - I worry I won't be able to replace them"

It'll be easy - just go to the landfill.

That's a great idea above, about the credit cards in ice.

One recent suggestion I've seen is to ask yourself "does keeping this item help me move toward the life I want to be living?"
And if the answer is no - then pass the item on to someone else.

Make it a habit to go to the library once a week - and borrow, and read, "Your Money or your Life" by Dominguez and Robin, who point out that you should be measuring the cost of an item in terms of how many hours of your time it'll take to make the money (plus overhead incl. taxes) to buy and maintain it.
posted by niloticus at 11:27 AM on October 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

With clothes, anything you haven't worn in in the last 2 years should be given away to a thrift shop. Don't save worn out items for rags -you need to throw them out.

My wife and I went traveling for the first time in 10 years and the only part of the trip I didn't enjoy was the fighting/stress of repacking all the crap we brought with us. It ate up half a day every time we moved to a new city and if the hotel was crappy, we ended up staying anyway because it was such a hassle to switch.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:28 AM on October 29, 2008

Actually - I've heard one neat suggestion in the past. Get a large bowl, fill with water, place your credit cards in the bowl. Place the bow in your freezer.

Then, when you need to use your credit card, you will have to wait for it to thaw.

I've done this on numerous occasions. It doesn't take long to thaw out the credit card when running the big block of ice under hot water. You're better off cutting up your cards.

As for getting rid of your stuff, you might want to have a friend come help you. That person can help you make decisions on getting rid of stuff, and can be the one to take it away, so you don't back out of it. I have a one year rule - if I haven't used or worn something in over a year, I get rid of it.
posted by at 11:30 AM on October 29, 2008

All.Star has a good point. When you don't have to sort things out all on your own it makes the work a lot less stressful.

Metahawk, Have you been reading Sandra Felton? :) I love her. I have "Smart Organizing" this book rocks!
posted by SheMulp AKA Plus 1 at 1:04 PM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Could you try selling some of your clothes and shoes at a consignment shop, and sell books you don't need on
posted by Lycaste at 1:57 PM on October 29, 2008

I try and avoid going into shops because I know I will spend money I can ill afford.

Good. Excellent. That is not some kind of crazy behaviour. It is how sensible people live all the time. We don't go into shops unless we have a clearly identified need for something. Going into shops merely to look around is for people with more money than sense. Retailers put enormous effort into strategies to make you buy on impulse - so don't visit them.

More broadly, identifying your triggers (eg sale signs) and then avoiding them is also smart. Again, managing your own behaviour and recognising your own weaknesses is what adults do. Other people who manage better don't do it "naturally" - if you talk to them you will find that they have already developed strategies to manage their urges.

One strategy to deal with your clutter is to sell your excess stuff. Then you're not losing things - you're getting something in exchange. This will also help you financially. Just do it one item at a time, so that you can get used to the idea. If you can't get nearly as much as you paid, learn from that. Your possessions do not have the value that you think they do.

Lastly, I agree that this could be a problem that is too big for you on your own. If you find this is so, there is no shame in seeking professional help.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:17 PM on October 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

[This is a followup comment from anonymous.]

I think that the problem is being nervous about missing an opportunity. Missing out on something which will never appear again, either on the high street (UK high street stock changes on a weekly basis) or in charity shops where items are one-offs, or the lure of the cheap in the case of supermarket shopping. It's like that with clutter - if I get rid of this thing, will I be able to find one in the future?
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:29 PM on October 29, 2008


- Every piece of clothing you have should ideally go with three other pieces of clothing (but I'd probably trim that down to two for girls). If it doesn't, bin it (by which I mean give it to a charitable organisation).

- Not worn something for a year? Bin it.

- Have no intention of wearing last year's [insert season here] clothes this year? Bin them.

- Ratty, tatty, torn and creased? Either repair it and have it professionally cleaned, or, preferably, bin it.

- Doesn't fit? Bin it.

- Any underwear even the SLIGHTEST bit frayed, holey, or stained should be burned.

- Bonus wardrobe advice: clear out all those shitty wire and plastic coat hangers and get a whole bunch of matching wooden ones. These should be the only kinds of clothes hangers you ever use.

Unless you have a PARTICULARLY nice piece of quality condition designer clothing (principally jackets/coats and jeans), DO NOT bother attempting to sell your threads. Just give them right to charity. The reason for this is if you're going through stuff trying to figure out what you'd be willing to part with certain items for, more often than not you will throw up your hands in despair and just decide to keep it all. Or you'll be analysing it and assigning personal value to them: "Oh this is the shirt I wore when blah blah blah, it was the best day ever, I can't possibly let it go for any price!"

Those stripy bags you've got? Fill them up, to the brim! And give them to a charity. Winter's coming up, and even though you won't be personally thanked, people out there are going to be very greatful. And you have no idea how much better YOU will feel.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:17 PM on October 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

On re-reading, this goes way beyond "clutter". If you have filled up your living space with things such that you can't move freely, you have reached a point where professional help (ie from a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist) is going to be much easier than doing it on your own.

"I've never saw it as a problem for years as I've thought 'I'm not one of those people who keep empty milk-cartons'"

Lots of people deny being alcoholics because they are successful professionals and don't live in the gutter - but they still have drinking problems. Likewise, you sound like someone who has a compulsive hoarding problem.

It sounds as though you've realised this and you're dealing with that as best you can (and the right way as far as I can tell) but problems of this magnitude are typically easiest to fix with professional help.

"I think that the problem is being nervous about missing an opportunity."

We could persuade you that that's bollocks, and that there is a neverending stream of opportunities so that you need not worry. Would that change your behaviour, or would you hit on a new justification? It sounds like there's a deeper problem, that might have a label like anxiety or OCD or whatever.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:35 PM on October 29, 2008

I think that the problem is being nervous about missing an opportunity. Missing out on something which will never appear again, either on the high street (UK high street stock changes on a weekly basis) or in charity shops where items are one-offs, or the lure of the cheap in the case of supermarket shopping. It's like that with clutter - if I get rid of this thing, will I be able to find one in the future?

Regarding the clutter issuse:

I deal with this on a smaller scale (I have a tendency toward clutter, but it tends to be pretty localized). What I've found that helped me with similar tendencies is to put my feelings to the test, on a small level. Get rid of a few things. How do you feel? I've noticed that when taking the chance of getting rid of something, I never once missed things on an emotionally debilitating level. If I did miss or need something, I got over it pretty quickly. I usually forgot I owned certain things in the first place. When life feels brighter because of a lack of clutter, you don't dwell mentally in the dusty corners anymore.

After trying this for awhile, you may find that your fear of potentially needing all this stuff long term was unjustified, and you can go large scale cleaning. But this realization needs to be a "knowledge by acquaintance" rather than simply "propositional knowledge" in order for it to sink in, so you can't really talk your way into this. You just have to do it, and put it to the test.

The big thing for me was that I'd get frozen, not knowing what to do with all my stuff, even though I wanted to organize it. One time, I just threw everything into a HUGE box and tossed it into the dumpster. It was the most freeing feeling in the world, and I never regretted it. It was a lightbulb moment for me when I realized I forgot about most of what I put in there.

Occasionally, I still have to do similar purging. But I always recognize that the fundamental issue for me is always worrying I'll need something, and then I realizing that 1) it's unlikely I'll actually miss or need it, and 2) on the remote chance that I do, who cares? I'd rather be free of clutter than missing out on having something that I didn't use for years and just sat around. A good rule of thumb is if it's still packed after months or years, you are probably safe to get rid of it.

Perhaps consider the worst thing that would happen if you did end up needing or wanting something you couldn't get again. I'd weigh this remote possibility against the incredible freedom you'll have with being clutter free. The risk/benefit analysis far outweighs the possibility that next year you might want that one shirt that's packed away.

I have to suggest as well that for a lot of people, there are medical connections regarding hording that need to be considered. However, if you want a practical way to test the waters while determining if you need to consider this, I'd suggest starting slow, see how you feel; and likely, in the end, note that the consequences aren't what you think.

The ancients used to say that "virtue is easy." Not because it didn't require difficult things to become virtuous, but in looking back, the end result justifies the entire difficult journey. I hope that you find freedom in your journey!
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:39 PM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Possibly helpful.

"What is compulsive hoarding?

Compulsive hoarding has been defined as the acquisition of and failure to discard items that appear to be useless or of little value. It is manifested in excessive possessions in the home interfering with the normal use of living space and furniture, and is accompanied by significant interference or distress."
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:41 PM on October 29, 2008

I just learned about the 30-day rule of spending -- this might be helpful for you.
posted by oldtimey at 6:14 PM on October 29, 2008

You're getting a lot of technical advice, which is fine but appeals more to the rational side of your brain -- which is not in charge currently. Addiction doesn't do rational. You already know this practice is making you unhappy, you know it's unfulfilling, you know it's not what you consciously want to keep doing; yet something deeper is driving you to ignore that knowledge and keep the clutter cycle going despite the rational reasons to stop. Until you can find a way to permanently shut off that irrational impulse, you're going to have a very hard time making new habits stick because those "what if..." fears still hold ultimate sway over your choices. This is where addiction counseling can help.

After you've gotten help dealing with whatever underlying fears are driving this impulse to hoard, then I suspect you'll be better able to use some of the excellent tips offered above.

FWIW, here's a pretty decent book for hoarders who are ready to make some permanent changes: Julie Morgenstern's When Organizing Isn't Enough To Change. Unlike many organizing self-help books, this one spends a lot of time acknowledging the emotions that drive our decisions to live in clutter and chaos, and offers some ways to brings the emotional/mental script into alignment with the changes we'd like to make. So, instead of thinking "If I don't acquire this now, I may miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own this useless trinket!", you might shift to looking at that object and thinking "If I buy [useless trinket], I may be moving myself further away from the goal of having a happy home life that shared with my loving boyfriend."
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:54 PM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think that the problem is being nervous about missing an opportunity. Missing out on something which will never appear again, either on the high street (UK high street stock changes on a weekly basis) or in charity shops where items are one-offs, or the lure of the cheap in the case of supermarket shopping. It's like that with clutter - if I get rid of this thing, will I be able to find one in the future?

Here's a trick, then -- when you're clearing things out, take one box -- ONLY one box -- and call it "the safe box." That safe box is for things that you don't use and don't need, and would otherwise get rid of -- except you're afraid that maybe, someday, you'll need it. This box is for those "maybe this would be a missed opportunity" items, but you are only allowed to keep as many things as will fit in that one box.

Once you've filled that box, seal it, and store it somewhere in your home. You'll of course be getting rid of the other things you need to get rid of. But that "safe box" stays in your closet or whereever for one year.

If, during that year, you find that you actually DO have a need for one of the things in that box -- "hah! I have twelve people coming to eat pears with me tonight! I KNEW I needed that set of one dozen matching fruit knives!" -- then you can just go get it from the box and move it back in with the rest of your things. But get that item and only that item from the box -- leave everything else in there. After you get that whatever it is, re-seal the box.

And then -- after a year -- get rid of that box. Do not take "one last look just in case," do not even unseal that box -- just get rid of it. If you didn't have need for any of the things left in it over the course of a year, then you most likely wouldn't ever need them at all. But they've been out of sight for a year, so you won't have missed them, and you won't be tempted to keep them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:32 AM on October 30, 2008

I have to suggest FlyLady as a really practical way for dealing with clutter. She is enthusiastic, so you have to kind of bear with that. But the goal is small manageable tasks for 15 minutes to slowly empty all of the clutter.

My parents have been compulsive hoarders all of my life, and this has finally cracked my mum's lack of ability to let go of anything. Because all she was doing was "cleaning out a drawer" or "clearing a surface". She's lived with it for over 30 years, and all of a sudden in the last few months I've had phone calls "do you actually want the toys you had when you were 9?" They found out last week they had 27 single duvets, all of which went to a homeless shelter. As annoyingly chirpy as Fly Lady can be, it works.

But I would also recommend therapy for the reasons behind it.... and letting go of guilt alongside of that.
posted by Augenblick at 8:41 AM on October 30, 2008

Good suggestions here. I exhibit a less severe (but still problematic) version of the same patterns. One thing I've found important for avoiding impulse add-on purchases when going to store for a particular item is to guard against the sense of 'fleeting opportunity' when another item is spied.

I do this by writing down the names/model or style numbers/UPC/ISBN etc on the price or shelf tag (as well as the item's price, store location, the date and maybe a short description) rather than considering purchasing it. (Actually, I keep these in a few text memos on my Treo--one for books, one for clothes etc.)

This does away with the anxiety that I won't be able to find the item again, will forget it's name or brand, where I saw it, etc. I then feel more comfortable about taking time to read reviews, compare prices at other places as well as waiting to see if I still want the item in a few days/weeks or waiting for it to go on sale.

For me, this has been especially important for book, music and clothes shopping. And it just so happens that all of those products tend to have easily found identifiers, making it easy to track the item down on the web or by phone if you decide to buy it.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:49 AM on October 30, 2008

One more thing:

Depending on what you're stacking/piling/etc and what kind of storage space is accessible to you, you might find that 'archiving' your possessions (including whatever junk you can't force yourself to part with) is a helpful first step.

I've done this with much of my library, as I simply have more books than I can reasonable store on shelves, in cabinets, dresser tops, nightstands.....sigh.

Anyway, I accomplished this by first separating out all of my read popular fiction (mostly paperback) that I hadn't elevated to the status of 'literature' (worth of *regular* rereading) in my personal canon, running it through Delicious Library (to catalog it) and then dumping it into bankers boxes labeled "Pop Fict -- Read". Then "Pop Fict -- Unread" got the same treatment. I tag the titles in Delicious Library with their box numbers. And I keep the boxes in out-of-the-way locations (i.e. under the bed, top top shelf of closets, behind loose books in deep cabinets, etc.)

The same approach will work with DVDs, CDs, and even clothing (Delicious Monster has a couple screenshots on their site of people using Library to catalog their wardrobe, by taking a webcam shot of each article of clothing.)

Delicious Library works really well for me for this as it has a filterable "shelf browse" mode. There may be other options out there (such as for Windows), I haven't looked. (I know there's the web-based Library Thing for books.)

This kind of collection/archive cataloging software is a close enough analog to being able to wander around my place looking at book spines or flipping through closet racks that I find it an acceptable substitute, and this has had a remarkable impact on my clutter and the oppressive feeling that accompanies it by allowing me to put much of the stuff I don't need regularly but can't bring myself to throw away out of sight without it becoming out of reach (as reluctance to put things where I might not be able to find them aggravates clutter almost as badly as the hording itself.)

(this needs editing for grammar, but I can't be bothered.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:16 AM on October 30, 2008

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