Clutter, personal finances, and your remarkable life.

Clutter, personal finances, and your remarkable life

Recently a friend and I were talking about debt. (I know! We talk about such exciting things sometimes.)

She financed a major business purchase last year and is in debt—not counting her mortgage—for the first time in years. The balance isn’t large; she’s scheduled to pay it off by midsummer. For her business, the purchase was worth it.

She’s a smart cookie, and thought carefully about the financial implications of the loan before she signed the papers. But the debt has been costly in ways she didn’t expect.

She didn’t anticipate the mental toll of the loan. She was prepared to make regular payments, but she hadn’t counted on the management the loan would require of her. It doesn’t demand much time, really, and there aren’t too many papers to file (although you can bet my friend files them away neatly as soon as they come, because she’s tidy like that). But it still takes up head space she wants to devote to more important pursuits.

She says the loan clutters up her clean open spaces.

Her workspace is tidy; her mind, a little less so. Erin Doland defines clutter as “any distraction that gets in the way of a remarkable life,” and this loan is exactly that: a distraction.

The financial obligation is low, but she’s acutely aware of the serious repercussions to missing a payment. It creates more filing, and nobody likes filing. It’s one more thing to keep track of, and nobody needs one more thing to keep track of.

I hate clutter (which is not the same as not having any, alas). Physical clutter shorts out the circuits of my easily-overwhelmed brain. Mental clutter—those swirling fragments consisting of unfinished tasks, grocery list items, books I forgot to add to my TBR list, phone calls I need to make later—weigh me down so much that sometimes I’m unable to function until I do a good brain dump.

But I’d never considered the potential clutter of my personal finances.

After our chat, I began sifting through my bank accounts and my filing cabinet. I was appalled at how much excess I found. (Not on the bottom line.)

Over the years, we picked up unnecessary accounts one by one—the usual way, I suspect. We were required to open a savings account at the bank that held our home mortgage back in 2007. We paid off the loan; we still have the account. We have five savings accounts, as a matter of fact. We use one of them. Those other four are clutter.

Will has four retirement accounts from four previous jobs that need to be rolled over. We keep meaning to do it; we never do. Those four accounts remain nagging tasks on our to-do list. Clutter.

I have two store cards—the kind you open to get a killer deal on your first purchase—that I haven’t used in five years. They take up space in my wallet, show up on my credit report, fill my mailbox with promotional offers. Clutter.

We had good reasons for opening all our accounts, but they became pure distractions when they outlived their usefulness. Even good things—like my friend’s loan—may hold a distraction factor.

I’ve been a wee bit obsessed of late with streamlining my life—what I wear, what I eat, the structure of my day-to-day—so I can focus on what matters most. It feels like playing whack-a-mole: as soon as I conquer one area, another pops up to take its place. Hellooo, personal finances. I was shocked to discover how much clutter you were hiding.

I’ll be closing some savings accounts this week, and maybe even googling the dreaded rollover thing.

It’s a pain, but it’s worth it.

I’d love to hear what surprising sources of clutter you’ve unearthed in your own life, and how you managed to deal with them.  

If you agree that clutter is anything that distracts you from your remarkable life, it's time to take a hard look at your personal finances.

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  1. Hannah says:

    I recently took the time to unclutter my email inbox. Over the years I’d managed to find myself on the receiving end of thousands of promotional emails, subscriptions I didn’t remember signing up for, ads, etc. It always made me feel like I had more urgent mail than I really did, and it bugged me–granted, in little ways, but still. Now, after unsubscribing to a million things, when I check my email I know it’s important stuff. Or at least something I want/need to read.

  2. kimmie says:

    We hit the end of our car lease this month and decided to buy the car out. That meant talking to the loan lady at our credit union…the car finance company that held the lease…and the finance guy at the dealership. And then talking to the credit union and dealership again. I HATE making phone calls. I know what I need and I would think these people in their professions know what I need. Yeah. Not so much. We got loan papers signed at the credit union on Friday and our final paperwork at the dealership signed on Monday. SOOOOOO glad that’s done!

  3. Nichole says:

    The dreaded rollover thing is so easy, if you do it correctly. And you will be able to invest the money so much better in your own IRA than in a company 401K. More choices.

    The way I cleared up our financial clutter years ago was Dave Ramsey. I had to get over the fact that he was speaking some hard truths that I did not want to hear. So glad I did. If I had not done his snowball, etc… and learned so much from listening to him, then my husband’s continued hard work and raises would be down the drain. Instead, we can be generous whenever the mood strikes or the cause is calling to us. Such a great feeling.

    I do have to continually be vigilant, and go back and declutter. Which is annoying. I love the whack a mole visual!

  4. Jess Townes says:

    Just reading your words made me groan inwardly. (Not at your words of course, but at the gnawing truth that my financial clutter is also in a case of neglect). Same/same. Making the bills, working diligently out of debt, but the clutter, the organization, the mental space it takes up are too much sometimes and it’s easier to just clean out my closet again than tackle this particular monster.

    • Joanna says:

      I know what you mean. I had two lots of shares plus 3 bank account plus 4 savings accounts. None of them were earning me very much and the amount of paperwork coming through the door ‘cluttered’ my mind as well as the files and desk.

      I set my self the task of spending 2 days to get it sorted. I made appointments at banks an building societies then spent half a day throwing out all old statements and papers not needed. I cashed in the shares [there were not very many], closed a bank account and was refunded for money taken out after I had stopped a standing order. Found an ISA I didn’t know I had, plus some share dividends.
      All in all, I came home with over £3000. About £2700 more than I thought I had. So my efforts were well rewarded.
      That was 4 yrs ago and so I need to re-appraise things again

  5. Betsy says:

    So timely, as usual, Anne! I, too, have 401k rollovers on the mind. I was all set to roll mine into an account at the Major Bank where I work, but I was unpleasantly reminded this week that Major Bank’s technology doesn’t always work when you need it to. It’s left me flailing about for other options.

  6. Martha says:

    I love your reference to whack-a-mole. I’ve definitely been feeling this way recently. Last weekend, I uncluttered (read: 10 trash bags to Goodwill) my closet, and it felt so freeing (as well as a little stressful). This week, I’m thinking about the finance clutter, as well. What I get out of these feelings that I have is that the process to de-clutter always seems daunting, even if you just went through its cathartic effects, but (and here’s the good part) it’s always worth doing. I think reading posts like this and having support through the process are key to coming out the other side with lasting effects. Thank you for the post!

    Re: inbox clutter from above – I’ve been using Google’s new product “Inbox,” and I absolutely love it. It allows you to mark your emails as “done” so that they are out of your inbox, but not in the trash. You can still search for them at any time. For those pesky emails that you don’t know what to do with, you can push them off to deliver later (and *bam* it’s gone until later). I’d definitely recommend.

  7. Deborah says:

    Just after reading your post I went to make a grocery list. My fridge and pantry aren’t empty, but we have “no food”. I realized, it’s clutter!! I have half bottles, half containers, half left overs. I needed it all at the time for whatever I was making, but haven’t used it up. I need to either find another recipe for it, or just throw it away. We have six boxes of opened cereal and my kids eat cereal less than once a week. Clutter!!

    • Joanna says:

      I would put all the boxes away and bring out one box and use until done. We give our kids far too many choices anyway. Get them on an economy drive and give them the money you save by not throwing stuff out. Once they see there is something in it for them, ie money, they are often quite helpful.

      Left overs? Bits of this and that? I go through the fridge before I go shopping. Its then tidy to put the shopping in right away. Any veg, tomatoes etc that are going a bit soft, or that there is only a little left, goes into a pot with a stock cube and seasoning. I make soup at least 3 times per week, great for diets and healthy eating. You can ad a can of tomatoes, lentils, barley, spices or chilli to make it different. Done in half an hour then blend with a hand blender. I never seem to have waste food these days so I’m saving a fair bit of cash.

  8. Monica F says:

    Not being able to function without a good brain dump every once in a while–I so know that feeling! Like others have said, I started with clearing out my inbox. I keep it clean by using, which takes all the newsletters and promotional emails I want to receive and collects them in a daily digest, while making it super easy to unsubscribe to emails I no longer want to get. It has made a huge difference in my mental clutter, as I only have to look through non-personal emails once a day.

    • Jules says:

      I have just started using and loving it. All my subscribed emails delivered once a day makes for fewer distractions during the day. Seeing them all together helps me see the ones I no longer want to see. And unsubscribing is super simple.Totally recommend it.

  9. Katia says:

    This is so timely, Anne! I’m on a mission to declutter my life right now. I have already let go of many toxic friendships. I’m throwing out old papers, giving away clothing I don’t need, etc. Our house is looking quite minimalist, and I love it! I love creating space in my life and not feeling as though I need to fill every single empty corner with something. I love to see the empty spaces.

    The financial clutter is a good point that I never thought of before.

  10. 'Becca says:

    Our latest surprising source of clutter was a kitchen implement that I was using somewhat often but that didn’t work as well as I’d hoped it would, which meant that my partner wasn’t using it at all. It didn’t take up a huge amount of space, but our kitchen is quite small. Last week my attempt to use this tool led to a cascade of problems, and I agreed to just throw it in the trash!! It’s rare for me to chuck something like that, but I’m feeling really good about the decision.

  11. Kristin says:

    this post and all the comments ring SO true! finances, email, the pantry . . . i get overwhelmed by all of it sometimes. when pushed to the point i absolutely can’t take it anymore, i finally tackle the problem and usually find it’s not nearly as painful as i expected. right now, it is kitchen drawers making me crazy. i finally recently got into my daughter’s “art drawer”, which had been overflowing with paper, stickers and glitter for months. about 15 minutes and a trash can full of pipe cleaners and googly eyes later, she can find things and it’s not hanging over my head every time she opens it. i’m almost inspired enough to hit the junk drawer and other 2 drawers of random kitchen utensils i mostly barely use!

  12. Kaitlin says:

    I quit my job at the end of last month and it only now that I am realizing how much it fell into the category of clutter that you describe…schedule clutter and mental clutter mostly. I feel like I can think so much clearer and have had a wonderful burst of creativity the last week or so!!

  13. i am SO glad to hear that i am not alone in this! i am trying to clean up my life this spring because we are in the process of buying our first home this spring (!!!) and though the house is just 30 minutes across town, i don’t want to move junk. or all our unfiled papers. i also know that having a mortgage and a house to maintain means that we need to keep our finances on track and be more diligent in this area since we’ve never had debt like this before (just a car payment and my husband’s student loans, that we are ALMOST finished paying off!) and i want the cash in this random savings account (no card, the bank isn’t even in our city) to buy a hutch for my new kitchen. #motivation

  14. Miriam B says:

    I can relate to this post. I had to take out a student loan my final year of undergrad. I will have it paid off this May but it’s been a constant little nagging thing that has never left my mind.

  15. Laura says:

    My main clutter area is on my computer. At any given time I might have 15 tabs open at once (and several more on the iPad as well) for days and days. Some are pages I look at frequently – but many are things I want to look at but just haven’t yet (articles, youtube [songs I want to remember to download], pins from Pinterest that I haven’t opened yet to see if they are worthwhile etc). I thought this was totally normal, but whenever someone uses my computer and sees all the tabs there is always a comment! I’m not sure how else people keep track of these things? Does anyone else have this issue? I will admit, sometimes it gives me ‘clutter anxiety’ to see all the tabs that haven’t been dealt with…

    • ann a says:

      Why not bookmark them? At work, I have several folders of bookmarks by topic, for future reference. I should say sub folders. I have two main folders, with many folders inside those (cuts down on the visual clutter!). I do the same with documents on my desktop. On my phone, which is where I do more personal reading, I have bookmark folders, as well. (I have an old iphone). When I come across an article I know I want to read, but it’s a bad time, I save the link in a “reads” folder. (Youtube videos and other such things I want to look at later go in there, too). I also have a “future reference” folder for things I read but think I might want to reread later. I use bloglovin’ as a feed reader. Lastly, I keep links to my favorite websites in my “favorites” folder, so they are on the screen every time I launch safari.

  16. Rachel says:

    My word for 2015 is simplify. I too would love to simplify my finances, life in general. I’ve been a big fan of decluttering my living space for years, but have pockets of clutter hidden around the house as well as tons of paperwork to be dealt with. I would love to hear how you are simplifying your food. I feel grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning up after are taking up a huge chunk of my life!

  17. For your rollovers, contact a local Edward Jones advisor. Seriously. They are good people and meet with you in person. They will tell you stuff and answer all your questions. And you never hear about them in the news… because they aren’t … How do I say this… screwing with people’s money.

    In other news, thanks to your influence and recommendations, I’ve made my first annual reading list! It has 55 books plus one series and doesn’t include the books I’ve finished so far this year. There might be 8 books that aren’t found on your blog. So thanks for your (and your readers’) advice! I really appreciate your blog.

  18. Lindsey says:

    My current project is decluttering my bills and important documents. I finally turned off paper statements to everything, opting for emails instead, then saving the pdfs to my dropbox account. That wasn’t too bad, but going to back through all of my papers to determine what I need to keep hard copies of, what needs to be scanned and saved to dropbox, and what can be shredded. It’s so time consuming to go through it all but it needs to be done, not to mention it is so convenient to find something in dropbox than hunting through semi-organized paper files.

  19. Allison says:

    I know this sounds absolutely SINFUL, but I have moved to a new stage in my life, and I realized just TODAY, that a lot of (gulp! accckkk!) BOOKS I have been holding onto have been getting in my way. I have, well, outgrown them! They are books about how to raise children, being a better homemaker” and those kinds of things.

    Well, I’m not “there” anymore; my kids are grown, one is married, another is getting married and the third is on his own too. I am a different woman now and I am accumulating NEW books for this NEW stage in my life. It is time to pass the other ones onto younger wives and moms and clear the space on my bookshelves so there is room for the ME of today!

  20. Kirsten says:

    We are in the process of refinancing our house so I totally understand the finance clutter! Of course it will be worth it to save the money every month but it’s driving me nuts right now. Luckily I have all of the papers we need filed neatly and readily available but it seems like I send one set of papers over only to have more requested! Ahh! During the process we have also found that we have too many open accounts, for no reason. There’s always something to de-clutter.

  21. What sources of clutter? Ahhh…too many–way.too.many! I have recently been using Trello to brain dump post ideas because I had so much mental clutter with ideas that would come to my head! I was dumping them in a notebook, but that notebook had no rhyme or reason to it, so I could never go back and easily find the ideas. Now, I have one board called “post ideas,” and I have other boards for the categories of my blog. When I have a few minutes, I drag the post ideas to the appropriate category. Now…for the time to write all of these posts! My hubby also got me a waterproof notepad for our shower for Christmas. I couldn’t even take a relaxing bath with all of my mental clutter! So now I at least have somewhere to jot down my ideas, so I can rest in the tub.

  22. I totally understand this. I have a health savings account, but none of my current financial institutions offered one, so I had to open an account at yet another FI. I have two brokerage accounts. Student loans with various lenders. It goes on.

    The rollover thing is so not as bad as it seems. I rolled my old 401(k) into a traditional IRA, and it was a piece of cake. It offers more investment options to choose from than a typical company-sponsored retirement plan, and my advisor keeps tabs on it for me. Compound interest will work more powerfully for you with a larger, consolidated principal. And, you’ll save money on administrative fees by consolidating them into one account.

  23. Maryalene says:

    Personal finance is my area of expertise, and I vote for taking the store cards out of your wallet but leaving the accounts open. Your credit score is calculated, in part, on the length of time your accounts are open. Closing long-standing accounts could negatively impact your score. Of course, if you don’t plan to finance any major purchases in the future (I.e. you’re already got your mortgage and pay cash for your cars), your score may not matter as much so go ahead and close those puppies! 🙂

  24. Lori says:

    Yes, mental clutter from all that you mentioned. Any physical clutter becomes a mental clutter problem for me because then I’m thinking about cleaning it up or dealing with it so it’s double the clutter problem. Glad to hear of other people’s struggles with this too!

    We have a 5 year old and a 1 year old and for 5 years I put off getting our will done and that was some serious mental clutter hanging out with me every day. But we just got it all done and it feels so good!

    My husband and I have several different IRA accounts from before we were married and it would be nice to do some consolidation so we can be a little more streamlined with our accounts and paper statements that get mailed. It is good to hear that the process isn’t as bad as it seems. Now that our wills are done I can focus on the financial things.

    When I am cleaning out things, deciding what to keep/give away/get rid of and I am stuck I always ask myself this question — If I was moving would I want to pack this up and then find a place for it again? If it’s not worth it to me to continue the cycle of not knowing what I should do with it, I get rid of it.

  25. Ana says:

    Yes, I can relate to this (especially the several different 401Ks and whatnot) and its on my to-do list for this winter to figure out how to roll them over and then do it. We are also refinancing, and the bank requires us to open another (YET ANOTHER) account, and there is paperwork for that everywhere. Can’t wait til its done.

    And the kids art stuff. oh my. I need some kind of storage solution for that hot mess of glitter paper, markers, pens, paint, fuzzy little balls etc… all over our house.

    Sometimes I think I need to take a day off work and tackle shredding papers, dealing with financial stuff, and organizing kids’ stuff. But if I did take a day off work I’d probably binge-watch Gilmore Girls on netflix instead because ugh.

  26. Heather says:

    This all rings so true. We have done a lot of uncluttering over the past few years. Everything from selling businesses and property, paying off our mortgage, renovating our house and thereby forcing a massive clean-up.
    It’s kind of like the 10 year cycle that happens inside. Renew your person, renew your stuff. Maybe we should be doing it more often? Keeping current?

  27. Richard Buse says:

    Getting down to using/having just one credit card sure helped. At one time or another, I acquired numerous store cards to capitalize on immediate discounts, but I’ve since decided that trying to keep up with all those cards just wasn’t worth it. For convenience sake, the one card I have now is used frequently, but balances are paid in full every month, and it’s easy to track the reward points, too.

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