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Clutter Is Costing You: A Professional Organizer Explains

Sandy M. Fernández  |  November 15, 2023

Is clutter costing you? A professional organizer weighs in on how organizing your living space can help save you money.

That mess on your desk, on your shelves and on the living room table? It’s more than unsightly—it can be expensive! As Arlington, Virginia-based certified professional organizer C. Lee Cawley explains, an unorganized living space can lead to everything from missing payments to forgetting to turn in rebates. If you think clutter is costing you, read on for tips to address it, straight from a professional organizer.

You Miss Payments

Your credit card bill’s due the 15th — or is that the 25th? Your intro offer on cable ends in August — or wait, was that July? One of the main reasons people pay bills late is because they’ve lost them.

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The fix: Check out automatic bill pay. It can radically change your life, if you have strong budgeting skills and remember that payments will be automatically withdrawn each month. With auto pay, routine payments are automatically payed from your bank account for you. E-bill delivery is another way to keep track of bills without dealing with clutter, and it’s likely your creditors offer it.“No matter how the bills come make paying them part of your routine,” says Cawley. “Every week is too laborious, and once a month is too long to wait, so pay them every 1st and 15th of the month, or do it every other Friday evening, and then treat yourself with a glass of wine. You’ll never have a late bill again.”

You Buy Clothes You Don’t Need

The good news: You got a great pair of black pants off the clearance rack. The bad news: You can’t return them and already have two similar pairs in the back of your messy closet.

The fix: Stop buying things you don’t need.Americans own a lot of clothing: On average, we buy more than one piece of clothing per week. So keeping track of it is going to take some work. First, go through your closet and dressers and get rid of everything you’ll never wear again. Be merciless! Then, organize your closet so you can see everything quickly, hanging items together by type of garment (pants, shirts, skirts) then color.If you have room, try stacking your sweaters and t-shirts on open shelves or cubbies — where you can scan them instantly — instead of putting them in drawers. And to keep it neat, be selective about what you buy. “Only go shopping with a list of what you need, not for recreation,” says Cawley. And, when you get home, follow the golden rule of professional organizers: “one in-one out.” In other words, when you add something to your closet, remove an item you no longer wear. 

You Misplace Your Mail

Even in this paperless age, some bills only arrive via snail mail…or in the case of one of Cawley’s clients, checks. “I once found a check for over $9,000 in a client’s home,” says Cawley. “It was the third one issued to her — she had lost it two other times — and it was less than two weeks from expiring,” adds the professional organizer. 

The fix: Create a mail station near the door where you bring it in. Make sure to put a trash can there, so junk can get tossed immediately and a shredder for anything that can’t just get thrown out. After that, Cawley suggests setting up five durable, color-coded plastic folders and labeling them “To Pay,” “To Do,” “For Taxes,” “Pending” and “To File.” Unopened envelopes can go into “To Do,” then get fanned out to other folders accordingly. (Bills into “To Pay,” your W2, 1099 forms and tax-related donation info into “For Taxes,” etc.)

You Forget To Turn In Rebates

Tearing that little $50 coupon off the display stand is a great start—but in order to actually get the money back, you have to actually mail it off. By most calculations, fewer than 50% of rebate offers are ever returned.

The fix: Buying online simplifies things, because rebates are applied automatically. But if you’re a brick-and-mortar type, try always keeping a few pre-stamped envelopes by the door closest to your mailbox, so you can address and send off the rebate coupon the moment you get home. Or, Cawley suggests, hang a fluorescent-trimmed envelope in a place it’ll be highly visible (like hanging on a hook on the door to the garage), and keep all your rebates and reimbursements there. Just don’t forget to mail them in.

You Lose out on Returns

The goat cheese you bought for tonight’s salad turned out to be a month past its sell-by date—but you can’t return it because you can’t find the little slip proving where you bought it.

The fix: Keep a pouch or pocket in your purse, dedicated solely to receipts. Once you’ve squared the amount with your statement — and the returns window is closed — throw it out.

You Miss out on Tax Deductions

Remember that big bag of clothing you took in to Goodwill? No? Well, that’s too bad: It would have given you a nice write-off on your tax return. (For which receipts to keep, see “When to throw away financial documents“.)

The fix: Trying to remember all your deductions in the last few days before taxes are due is likely to cost you. If using a digital money-tracker like Quicken or You Need A Budget (YNAB) doesn’t appeal to you, try setting up a file box with hanging files. Throw in receipts, bills and statements as they come in (or, with bills, after you pay them), and then at least you’ll have everything together at tax time.

You Buy Too Much Food

A recent study showed that U.S. households are wasting roughly 6.2 cups of edible food per week and, if they changed their habits, they could end up saving $1,500 per-household annually by reducing food waste.

The fix: Menu planning will help you avoid overbuying at the store, which is a major culprit in family food waste. Make sure to schedule “leftovers night,” or plan to take food to work for lunch. (This is also a major money-saver.) Then organize your fridge and pantry so similar items are together and you can easily see all of them. Hopefully, that’ll keep you from mistakenly buying that third bottle of tabasco sauce at the store.In the case of Cawley, her professional organizer skills apply in her own home…and especially In the refrigerator. “I love setting up a dedicated leftover area on one fridge shelf, so everyone in the family knows where to look first for a snack,” says Cawley. “I also use Rubbermaid TakeAlongs. They stack nicely and I write the date in a fat dry erase marker on the side so I know just how long that pasta has been lurking in the fridge.”


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