Shoppers Brave The Crowds On "Black Friday"
Tasos Katopodis  /  Getty Images file
Tara Jackson and Tim Burnette  wait at the checkout line inside a Best Buy electronics store in Hobart, Indiana last year. Ahead of the holiday shopping season, financial planners suggest having a plan before heading to the mall.
By contributor
updated 11/10/2005 3:07:33 PM ET 2005-11-10T20:07:33

With TV programs like TLC’s “Clean Sweep” and HGTV’s “Mission Organization” finding durable audiences, it would seem clutter has emerged as a social issue — literally coming out of the closet and spilling into kitchens, down hallways, into garages and filling lockers at self-storage facilities.

Is this excess of stuff a symptom of too much disposable income sloshing around household budgets? An outgrowth of the irresistible lure of easy credit brought on by an accommodative Federal Reserve?  Or maybe, as some psychologists conclude, it’s an expression of increasingly unfulfilled lives?

Possibly, but Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, has a different take. “The main reason there is so much clutter is that it represents all the decisions people aren’t making.  Delaying decisions about what to do with things is what leads to the clutter in people’s lives,” he says.

“While clutter is mainly an organizational issue, there is also a financial aspect to it,” says Lynne Hornyak, PhD, a Washington D.C. based psychologist and money coach. “We live in a culture of expanding choices and possibilities. Choice is about freedom, and exercising it is gratifying,” she adds.

Which explains why shopping often relaxes people or is considered therapeutic. It offers an opportunity to exercise authority in at least one area of life — the mall. At the office, within one’s family, having the final say can be elusive. Making a purchase requires exercising authority at least over the transaction. Besides, having stuff — cars, electronics, clothes, sporting equipment, artwork, furniture — can serve as motivation and as a reminder of what all the commuting, working and compromising is all about.

“Pursuing material wealth is neither good nor bad,” says Hornyak.  It is only unhealthy, she says, when possessions mean more than they should to people or when the spending or hoarding of objects begins to impact the health and financial well being of the household.  At that point clutter can be a warning sign of impending trouble in the form of unpaid bills or postponed savings goals.

To combat the financial fallout from clutter, Darlene Simard, a certified financial planner in Manchester, New Hampshire, urges her clients to adopt a shopping mantra: Do I want it? Do I need it? Will I really use it?

Pausing to ask these questions helps address the two threats inherent to every transaction: Clutter and the careless spending that creates it.

“Generally speaking, people don’t think they spend much money until they start tracking where it goes,” says Simard, who has clients execute a spending plan to see where exactly their money is going. Once they do, they find it going toward many of the things that add to a home’s clutter. For instance, often clients with children tell her each time they go to Wal-Mart they buy a few videos. It’s cheap entertainment and hardly a budget-buster. Yet videos stack up, often unwatched — wasting living space and money.

But, it is not just impulsive home entertainment purchases that Simard’s clients are surprised to see hijacking household income. 

“Realizing what they spend on gifts each year often comes as a big surprise,” she says.

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Ahead of the holiday shopping season, Simard suggests having a plan before heading to the mall as a way of both reducing spending and unintentionally giving the gift of clutter to loved ones and friends. “People need to think less about achieving some dollar target that will make it a ‘good’ gift, and more about the value the gift offers in terms of use or enjoyment,” she advises.

Simard also encourages clients to make annual gift-buying part of their short-term savings goals and budgets.  She notes, that quaint as they may seem, Christmas Club savings accounts — funded with monthly deposits — are as effective today as they were in the 1960s for affording inevitable holiday generosity.

Whether talking about clutter or the overspending which fuels it, Simard points out  “money controls too many people, leaving too few in control of their money.”  A growing number of them exert even less control over the stuff they are buying with it. This is why taking a more organized approach to spending can help de-clutter both financial and living situations. Ultimately it is just as empowering as shopping but with longer-term benefits.

Combating clutter
How do you get organized? Barry Izsak, president of Arranging It All, in Austin, Texas and author of “Organize Your Garage in No Time” offers this simple plan:

Select an area. Remove all items from that area. Discard the obvious — the broken, worn-out and useless. Sort items into like-piles. Purge the duplicates and the unnecessary. Sort into items that need tossing, donating or recycling. Containerize what it being kept. Label the containers. Replace items in the same area or in a new space. Move on to the next area.

And if procrastination, inertia, or pure dread is keeping you from even starting, visit to find a listing of professional organizers in your area.

Holiday shopping strategies
January may be “National Organizing Month,” but the holiday shopping that precedes it makes it necessary.  Izsak offers these tips for avoiding clutter creation this holiday season:

  • Shop by mail, phone or online to save time and often money.  It helps reduce the opportunity for impulse buying.  Also, if the gift needs to be sent elsewhere, it is easy to have it sent directly which not only saves time, but clutter at home.
  • Consider gifts that don’t require shopping to avoid being in stores. Magazine subscriptions, theater, concert or sporting event tickets, museum memberships, or gift certificates for services like massages, classes, or dinner; all offer high usability and enjoyment value to the recipient when appropriately selected.
  • Plan shopping trips before leaving home to avoid wasted time and having to make multiple trips. Having a shopping list and a budget helps limit impulsive, excessive or ill-advised purchases.
  • Buy it when you see it to take advantage of sales and discounts when they are offered throughout the year.  While budget-friendly it requires a bit of organization to remember where the gifts are stashed and whom they were stashed away for.
  • Wrap it when you un-bag it to prevent clutter, confusion and last-minute wrapping panic.
  • Keep extra gifts on hand like mustards, spices, jams, wines, vinegars and salad dressings to avoid additional shopping trips.

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