The Emotional & Financial Cost of Clutter + Tips for Decluttering

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Clutter is an expensive proposition – environmentally, financially, mentally, and emotionally. Our modern lives are consumed by clutter, leading to a society that is in desperate need of a lifestyle overhaul. And while all aspects of this topic are important, this article will focus on both the emotional and financial costs.

According to an article in the New York Times, clutter can lead to feelings of unhappiness, procrastination, and an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. Sustained periods of high cortisol can lead to a myriad of health problems – weight gain, high blood pressure, and depression, to name a few. Despite these facts, and the costs associated with them, it is easy for many to remain comfortable and/or complacent when surrounded by clutter. Moments of outward frustration may arise because of the clutter, but in the end, nothing is actually done to fix the problem. Clutter is what most of us know, both physically and mentally. In turn, we are less likely to question it. This behavioral phenomena is something that we see in addicts, or those stuck in abusive/dysfunctional relationships.

To put it bluntly, many of us are in a co-dependent relationship with clutter. We love clutter. We use people. It is a relationship that is backwards. This emotional attachment to clutter, the felt need for more, and the “I might need this later,” mindset often muddy what should be a cut-and-dry situation – they are just things, after all. But this co-dependent state leaves many individuals pacified, stuck, and unwilling to part with their possessions, even if they would be better off without them.

To quote from a 2015 essay by Terrance Shulman:

For a time, my codependency served me well. It occupied my mind so I didn’t have to feel anything or look at myself. I learned home-life skills. I felt special, superior, even like an adult.

The same is true for most who choose to live in clutter. Having a style, owning the latest and greatest, or finding the next-best-deal, makes us feel superior, important, and like we have it all together – if only temporarily. In the end, people are lonely, tired, unhappy, in debt, and desperate for their next hit of spending-induced dopamine. Entire industries seek to deepen this co-dependency and encourage feelings of want where practicality and simplicity should reign. As a result, it is common to see drawers, cabinets, and closets full to the brim. Clothing, kitchen goods, craft supplies, and other miscellaneous items crowd every area of the home, taking up space, and serving as an emotional pacifier. In many ways, our environments are little more than outward manifestations of an inward reality. And while most of us would not be classified as hoarders, the toll of this clutter epidemic is costing us financially as well.

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From the rising need for storage units, to televised home renovation shows, families and couples bemoan their need for more space and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just to accommodate things that they may never actually use again. By some estimates, the average cost to store our junk is $10 per square foot. Given that the self storage industry is worth over $38 billion – our addiction to things is using up roughly 3.8 billion square feet of space – and these numbers do not include our housing. Based on statistics compiled by Joshua Becker over at Becoming Minimalist:

The United States has upward of 50,000 storage facilities, more than five times the number of Starbucks. Currently, there is 7.3 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation. Thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand—all at the same time—under the total canopy of self storage roofing (SSA).

Let that sink in …

If you are reading this article and only starting on the journey toward a more minimal/intentional way of life, you may feel overwhelmed at the task of decluttering and simplifying. Changing habits, finding alternative ways of living, and having to explain to your friends/family why you are simplifying your things, can be an overwhelming process. Plus, you probably see the stress and issues caused by things, and you may be asking: Where do I even begin? In order to address some of these questions, I have compiled a list of helpful tips below.

1. UNPLUG YOUR TELEVISION.

No, I didn’t just swear at you … It is a legitimate suggestion. Cable is expensive, and you are (more or less) paying people to sell things to you. Opinions, Cialis commercials, infomercials for the latest skin care (that a B-list celebrity swears by), the Kardashians flaunting their wealth – they are all there, stalking you, reminding you that you need something or that something is missing from your life.

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… But now that I think of it … my life would be so much better if I had that at-home foot spa, snuggie, and a thigh master – then I would be set …

Just kidding.

Personally, I have never purchased a cable package. I have never purchased a television either (which is ironic considering that I briefly worked for a television manufacturer) … I do not say this to brag, only to prove a point: You don’t actually need cable to survive. Television is mostly noise – with astronomical opportunity costs. It pulls our attention away from friends, family, and true productivity. You will be amazed at how much money and time is saved when there is no television to distract you.

2. UNSUBSCRIBE FROM MARKETING EMAILS.

Following the same logic in tip number one, unsubscribing from marketing emails can be helpful while you are breaking the strangle hold that is the consumerist mentality. Removing this form of digital clutter can be laborious (depending on the number of subscriptions in your inbox), but it is well worth the hour of time spent to save yourself emotional and financial stress. By removing these emails you are removing a source of temptation for spending. Plus, those sales and coupons are only a good deal if you really need the thing you are purchasing.

3. SHOP LESS.

This may seem like a straightforward – maybe even simplistic – proposition, but it is true. Many of us – especially in the United States, have enough things to last us for years with repeated use. Women in the U.S. have an average of 108 items in their wardrobes, which is enough clothing to create outfits for every day of the year while only wearing each piece an average of three times. According to some statistics, the average American throws away roughly 81 pounds of clothing in a given year. Not only does this clog up our landfills, the effects of producing and consuming this much clothing is devastating to our environment.

Our addiction to fast fashion (to borrow a popular term) is often driven by marketing, social media, and the created sense that we are lacking something. To revisit the first two points of this article, it is usually best to unplug from the constant and emotion driven marketing campaigns that seek to manipulate our behavior. We need to base our decisions on what we actually need rather than what we want in the moment. Wise decisions are rarely made when emotion and impulsivity are involved.

4. START WITH YOUR WARDROBE.

Rather than buying new things, I would recommend “shopping” in your own closet. Start with your wardrobe, and slowly move through each area of your home. Divide your possessions into keep, donate, and toss piles. Marie Kondo is an advocate for using this method as well. Since clothing is a practical commodity that we use every day (unless you live in a nudist colony), it is generally more straightforward when deciding what to keep and what to donate. When decluttering clothes, I usually ask my self the following questions:

  1. Have I used this article of clothing in the last six months?
  2. Does this article of clothing fit?
  3. Do I feel good in this article of clothing?
  4. Does this article of clothing fit my work and/or lifestyle?
  5. Do I foresee needing or wearing this article of clothing in the next month?

If the answer is no to all five questions, I will more than likely donate said article of clothing, especially if it is in favorable condition.

You will notice that none of my decision making questions involved things like Is it cute? or Is it in style? I find that being a minimalist has lead me to a mindset that seeks out classic pieces, ones that are well-made and, at least for the foreseeable future, timeless. These same pieces tend to be more expensive upfront, which means I am consuming them less often and with more thoughtfulness. Additionally, I tend to use pieces until they cannot be used anymore, a fact that segues nicely into my next point.

5. USE WHAT YOU KEEP FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE.

If something is functional and you use it, keep it – even if it isn’t necessarily plastic free, or ethically sourced, or greener than product x, y, or z. While all of those characteristics are amazing things to look for when purchasing new products, throwing away perfectly good items (or packing them away in your closet) is wasteful and the opposite of sustainable. Doing so is actually the epitome of a consumerist mentality. If you have a car that gets you from point A to point B, it is much greener to keep said car until it no longer runs, than it is to purchase a hybrid car that is newly manufactured (i.e. using more resources … we can talk about the toxicity of the hybrid battery later). The same is true for things like Pyrex with plastic lids, clothing from fast fashion stores, and shoes. Keeping and caring for what you own is one of the most sustainable practices you can aim for. Use what you own for as long as possible before buying something new.

6. REPLACE DISPOSABLE ITEMS (ONCE USED) WITH REUSABLE, PLASTIC FREE OPTIONS.

Bar shampoo and conditioner (without plastic wrap), mason jars, plastic free produce bags, bamboo toothbrushes, tooth powder in glass jars, plastic free food wrap – we are returning to an era where plastic free is becoming more doable in simple and practical ways. That means, by the time you do need to replace something that you use, you can do so with items that will leave less of an impact on the environment. Whether or not you believe in man-made climate change (and the policies being pushed to “fix” those presumed problems), I think that we can all agree on being good stewards and taking care of that which we have been given.

7. TAKE THINGS ONE DAY AT A TIME.

As someone who has been seriously practicing minimalism for the last two years, I can tell you that the decluttering process takes time. Human nature tends toward accumulation, making this an on-going process. While some minimalists, such as Ryan Nicodemus, prefer to declutter using the packing party method, said method isn’t for everyone. Just this week I decluttered three pairs of shoes, five tops, and 12 books. Next week I will probably declutter even more.

The moral of the story is this: Don’t be hard on yourself. Small changes lead to dramatic, long-term results. Take things one day at a time and do what you can with the time and the materials you have been given. Six months to one year from now, you will be amazed how far you have come if you simply apply this basic mindset.

Blessings.

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