8 Ways Clutter Keeps You Poor

The worst financial mistake I ever made was keeping a cluttered home.

Losing money is painful. Bad investments have driven people to suicide. People end friendships and marriages over debt. But what's so insidious about clutter is how relatively pain-free clutter is in comparison to other financial blunders. People who live with clutter may never realize the tremendous amount of money they are wasting. Here's why.

1. Over-Consumption

Americans are hyper-consumers. Americans now own more possessions than any society in human history. In the United States, clutter is so commonplace, that it has been normalized. For example, United States has 3.1% of the global child population, but Americans consume 40% of toys. This means that many Americans, from the cradle, are accidentally taught that more is better by their own parents. Over-consumption generally means overspending. Babies grow out of their clothes before they can wear them out. People swap out their cell phones for the thrill of the new. Over a lifetime, buying unnecessary things carries a tremendous cost.

2. Duplication

Earlier this year, I wasted $300 on painting supplies. Why? Because I needed to repaint the dining room and I couldn't find my box of paintbrushes in my garage (that is packed to the rafters with stuff my husband and I don't use). I am still mad about this purchase. Not only did I have to spend money to buy something I already own, but now I have duplicate brushes that I don't need. Buying unneeded replacements is costly.

3. Like Cash, Only Not

I don't even want to know how much money I've lost in coupons, free tickets, and store credit over the years because I've managed to misplace these money saving offers in the random stacks of paper in my office. Of course, I always find these lost treasures the day after they expire.

4. Time

In addition to wasting $300 on the purchase of duplicate paintbrushes, I also lost an hour of my day digging through the garage, looking for my missing painting supplies. Time is money.

Even if I only spend five minutes a day looking for lost items, five minutes a day adds up to more than 30 hours each year of lost time. In 30 hours I could write eight articles for Wise Bread. In 30 hours I could make 210 jars of jam to sell at my local pop-up farm stand. In 30 hours I could knit a scarf for my husband while I watch an entire season of Law & Order: SVU and still have time for many snack breaks.

5. Upkeep

The purchase of material goods is only part of the expense of ownership. Even if you do your own housework, keeping possessions clean and in good working order costs money. I have discovered through stupid amounts of trial and error, that I actually need very few possessions to pass as an adult. In fact, it's way easier to pretend that I have my act together now that my house verges on minimalism. It's easier to fake a clean house when there's no clutter. My default setting is messy but clean. Unfortunately, no one ever believes that the clothes stacked on the bedroom chair are actually freshly laundered. Clutter makes even the most sanitized home look dirty.

6. Moving

You really never know how much stuff you have until you have to move it. My best friend was in the Navy. She and her husband have moved approximately 453,000 times in the last 20 years. Moving does not stress her out. If anything, it inspires her to refine her personal style. With every move she's jettisoned things that don't make her happy or reflect who she is now. Since she only moves the possessions that are both beautiful and functional to her (at this moment in her life), her home always works like a gorgeous machine, and each move requires a smaller truck.

Alas, most people do not view moving as a way to curate a better life. According to the American Moving and Storage Association, the average interstate move costs $5,630, an amount that is based on the average weight of 7,100 pounds. The average intrastate move costs $1,170 based on the same weight. That's a lot of money to move things that aren't beloved or used constantly.

7. Storage

The very first story I ever wrote for Wise Bread was about personal storage and how much I hate it. At the time I wrote the article, my friend Sarah had spent $48,000 on personal storage. Six years later, I would like to report that Sarah is out of debt and now has a robust 401K.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Sarah is currently in the process of moving all of the stuff she has in storage in Los Angeles... to storage in another city. She has spent over $100,000 storing her personal belongings, some of which she hasn't seen in over a decade. Unless she's storing gold bullion in one of those dusty cardboard boxes, there is nothing, in any of her four storage units, that could possibly be worth all that time and money. Had she set everything on fire six years ago, she could have saved $50,000 and instead used that money to pay for an advanced degree to increase her earning power.

8. Profit Loss

My old iPod classic is selling on eBay for about the same price that I paid for it in 2006. Which is amazing. What other nine-year-old piece of technology has held its value so well? I should be thrilled that I when I sell my iPod, I will break even. I pretty much got a decade of use out of it for free! However, had I listed my iPod last year on the day that Apple discontinued the click wheel, I could have netted a cool $300 in profit. But, I held onto my iPod for nostalgic reasons. It's traveled all over the world with me, after all.

Let me just say for the record that the extra 12 months of nostalgia was not worth $300.

Most material goods do not gain value with age. Clutter makes it that much harder to identify what should be sold immediately to maximize profits or at least a tax write off. If you are holding onto things because you think they might be valuable and not because you love them, the least you can do is look at what similar items have sold for online. More often than not, people are shocked by how much their possessions depreciate in value. If you have to hoard something, make sure it's worth all the money and time it will cost you to buy it, clean it, store it, move it, and get rid of it.

Why are you holding on to your clutter?

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Guest's picture
Elizabeth Vega

Ironically, the small (but no less obtrusive) amount of clutter I'm holding onto is because I've been too busy working to set aside time to deal with it! And it is indeed coming at a cost: a crowded kitchen makes eating out even more tempting, the clothes I no longer wear crowd out the ones I do, and I'm starting to think a shopping trip might solve my dilemma. Thanks for the reminder: I know how I'm spending my weekend!

Max Wong's picture

Hi Elizabeth!

I find the older I get, the less tolerance my brain has for visual noise. Perhaps it's the constant onslaught of information that my brain has to process due to the internet, texting, etc... that has put me over the edge. My OCD definitely gets worse with more clutter. That said, I have discovered that downsizing my belongings to just the things I love has been liberating. I think you'll love how much better your brain works once you've removed your small stash from your house. Clutter, especially for women, causes a lot of stress.

Guest's picture

Very good advice. I am the person who always has the intention of cleaning and organizing, I only find it difficult to set aside time to actually do!

Max Wong's picture

Hi Crystal!

This is why I decided to severely downsize my personal belongings. I hate cleaning more than I love most things. Less things, less things to dust!

Guest's picture

This sounds like me. During the work week, I plan what I'm going to get done on the weekend as far as decluttering and when the weekend comes ... I'm too exhausted to get anything done.