The unspoken connection between clutter and finances

I recently got rid of some clothes I’ve had since high school. And some socks with huge holes in them. And even some newer clothes that I just didn’t like. I felt the magic. It was incredible.

I couldn’t believe it took me so long to finally get rid of so many articles of clothing I never even liked and had not picked out myself.

But, the more I thought about it, I knew exactly why it took me so long. It actually had very little to do with Marie Kondo and more to do with my savings account.

I think there’s a really significant connection between clutter and money that I have not seen mentioned in most discussions about discarding. (Granted, I have made no real goal of reading everything on the subject, so feel free to put some links in the comments if I’ve missed some good discussions on the topic.)

It’s common to mention the ease of access as a reason for not needing to keep something.

For example, “If I really need that again, I can just get one.” But, there’s an underlying assumption here that I think is worth pointing out. You have to have a certain level of financial stability in order to make that statement in the first place and believe that you could get one if you actually needed it.

The unspoken connection between clutter & finances

Words cannot describe my gratitude to be in a better place in life, but I have experienced poverty. Food stamps. The whole deal.

So, I understand what it is like to truly think, “what if I need that,” not from a place of convenience, but of genuine concern — “what if I get rid of this, end up needing it, but can’t afford it.”

The fear of not having enough is a major mental block to getting rid of junk. Even after you’ve improved your employment and financial situation, the fear can remain if you don’t actively address it. This fear can dramatically affect the way you hang on to clutter.

If you can relate to this feeling of, “but what if I need that,” from a deeper place of financial instability, I would like to gently and compassionately suggest that you focus on your finances before you focus on your clutter.

Of course, some people can make progress on both areas at the same time and end up paying off debt with the money they make from selling stuff they don’t need. But, if you desire to experience more simplicity in your home, but you’re struggling to get rid of stuff you don’t use or even like, take a look at both the state of your finances and your attitude about money.

It might be more beneficial to focus on paying down some debt, or adding to a savings fund before attempting a major decluttering marathon.

The unspoken connection between clutter & finances

Ask yourself these questions:

• If I had 3-6 months of living expenses saved, would that reduce mental stress and help me be able to tackle clutter with a different perspective?

• Am I holding on to fear about not having enough based on a past experience?

• Is this affecting my emotional attachment to stuff I don’t use or find beautiful?

I realize this is a sensitive topic, and my realization might not resonate with everyone. I just know that for me, making this connection was a significant break-through in my personal war on clutter. Before I could even start with the lists of questions about whether to keep or purge, I had to first address my finances and my mindset about money.

Related post: Three truths about decluttering: an invitation

Featured photo: https://www.pexels.com/photo/flowers-books-desk-house-48012/

43 Comments

  1. Crystal

    Thank you for saying this because o think it is so true. We are currently in a very dry and risky place financially due to a downturn in the economy of my husbands profession and him in the process of starting a “start up.” A year ago we had so much money in savings and I didn’t even bat an eye at donating broken or less items, but now….. I feel this fearful grip has grabbed a hold of my chest and my stuff. And I find myself thinking things like: This toy– isbroken and tattered now and the girls really never seem to play with it; I just want it out of the way. But then fear creeps in— what if the next baby would need it? Something is better even in disrepair hen nothing at all right? But not really- I hate being surrounded by broken things. The glaring reality is that right now our finances are broken and only time and pain and work will fix it and I have no choice but to live with the brokenness. But the broken stuff— I think, just maybe we can live without it. At least in hoping so because I’m packing it away to be donated or tossed anyway.

    • Crystal Ellefsen

      Crystal, thanks for sharing your candid comment. I think it’s so important for all of us to be honest with ourselves as we work this out individually and find out how to really live in line with our values. I am making progress myself, but it continues to be a struggle because of old habits. Thanks again, for sharing.

  2. Maryalene

    I think this is so true. Another aspect for some people (or at least me) might be the items they are gifted when they are financially struggling. I know that when our money situation was poor, we had a lot of people share hand-me-downs, and I was always extremely grateful for their generosity. However, I also felt obligated to keep everything which meant that the kids’ drawers were stuffed with clothes and the toy box overflowed. It took me a long time to realize that it was ok to sort through those donations,take only what I wanted and pay the rest of it forward.

  3. Trish Finley

    LOVE THIS. Realizing that my husband’s and my views on “stuff” were partially the result of different money situations growing up resolved a lot of frustration for me.

    • Shirley

      I loved this! Thanks for sharing!

    • Michele

      Yes! This!

    • Helena

      Good article. Exactly how I think about minimalism.

    • Crystal Ellefsen

      Abigail, that is so fantastic! Thanks for sharing. I’m going to go reread it again. Great insights.

  4. Helena

    So true. Marie Kondo is not realistic. She lives alone and I guess she has a lot of money from selling her books. Discard items is easy for her. Most of us have a family and a smaller budget. Instead of “spark joy” we think of the things we own will do the job just fine. I have faith enough to discard items because we need very little and there’s little room to store things. I live in The Netherlands. We have a small house and small garden without garage or basement. Frugal living is in our blood. I’m a happy and lucky person because I have people in the house to say hello to.

  5. Michele

    I’m so glad you wrote about this — it’s something I think about and feel frustrated about whenever I attempt to do a purge. I feel wasteful getting rid of things that could be useful or needed down the road. What if I my favorite shirts all become worn out and I don’t want to spend money on new clothes? Maybe I should keep these clothes I haven’t worn in two years just in case… My family is in a secure financial position right now, but if I’ve learned anything over the years, and in particular during this last economic downturn, it’s that security isn’t permanent. And times that have been less stable have steered me into a place of frugality that pushes back against my urges to get rid of excess stuff. I have no problem getting rid of things that are broken or worn out, or clothing and toys that my daughter has outgrown, but it’s so much harder to part with things that I could imagine still using at some point, even if I haven’t needed or wanted them any time recently.

    • Crystal Ellefsen

      I totally understand! It’s so hard to find a system that works for your own family in terms of resuing things and not wasting, but also not holding on to stuff out of fear. Such a challenge. Thanks for sharing, Michelle.

  6. Darcy

    I enjoyed this post – for me, I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. When I decluttered and threw away things, I realized that what I had left was what I really only needed – nothing more. And because I could focus on a few items, I appreciated them more and used them more. By knowing exactly what I have in front of me, I spend less money because I don’t buy things I think I don’t have, simply because I can’t find them. (I think this is especially true with clothes, pantry, toiletry and grocery items.)

    *Not trying to be contrary, just commenting on what I found personally – I can totally see how someone would feel the way you have written about. 🙂 (I’ve lived pay check to pay check before too.)

    Overall – what a great discussion to be having though! 🙂

    • Ree

      I felt the same way. My husband and I are starting a business and we are well below the poverty line, food stamps and the rest. I started Marie Kondo’s decluttering a few months ago and we both agree it was the best thing we’ve ever done. I feel like I am free from all the “possiblities” the clutter afforded and now I can focus on what’s in front of me. The result is significantly less money spent and much less stress about finances. I’m very happy to have Decluttered in the “lean times”.

      • Crystal Ellefsen

        Ree, I know that many people are able to make progress in this area no matter the condition of their finances, but for many people (like me!) the mindset related to money/discarding is a confusing challenge.

        So great to hear that financial struggles didn’t block you from being able to discard and declutter! Yay!

    • Crystal Ellefsen

      Darcy, thanks for your comment. I know there are some people who have the opposite experience from me… having financial challenges actually becomes an inspiration to stop acquiring AND get rid of junk. That wasn’t the case with me, but I think it’s so important for all of us to think through the mindset connections to this stuff. Thanks again for joining the conversation. 😉

  7. Sue

    I have been a pack rat for years. Not sure exactly why. Could be a fear of some sort. I don’t want 1 quilt- I want dozens. Same goes for books, etc. It got to the point of ridiculous. I had too many things to enjoy any of them.
    My story is not so much financial but I have come to a place where for me less is more. I’ve gotten rid of so much and don’t miss any of it.
    You know that quote that says ” Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful, or joyful” ? That’s what I’m doing 🙂
    Great article. Thank you!

  8. Ali

    Great point. My MIL is like this and it makes so much sense. As a single parent she always struggled with money and her house is full of pity furniture from well meaning people. When she “declutters” her full to bursting 3 Tupperware cupboards, she gets rid of like 4 things. She replaces things then doesn’t get rid of the old one. She keeps multiple versions of the same dish because she uses this one to “make macaroni and cheese sometimes” as if there was no other dish. She asked for a new salad bowl for Xmas, kept the old one. I found it amusing and sometimes frustrating, but this really puts it into perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  9. J

    Great article and great discussion. I am so glad that you addressed the elephant in the room. Makes me think that everyone has their “security blanket” in something a little different. I was at a class for working with kids in the foster care system this past weekend, and the teacher made a comment about grown ups who were in the system still need to carry a granola bar or something in their pocket just to know that they won’t starve. Everyone has their thing. I am certainly no expert on the matter, as my home will attest, but the connection between finances and clutter here seems to be how much you depend on God to provide. Whether you are wealthy or not, it would seem that if you trust in something greater than you or your bank account, its easier to let go of the stuff.

  10. Lynn

    Wow, yes! There really is something to this. I think there’s even a link to a history of that scarcity that keeps us hanging onto unnecessary things even when we’re in a position to be able to replace them.

  11. Kanae

    Just wanted to say that I love this post! I have never thought of the connection!

  12. Venus

    I certainly answered “yes” to the 2nd and 3rd question. Unfortunately, having an emergency funds doesn’t help me to part with my stuff. Yes, I could afford to just get it again if I need it but it would not think that would be right because it would be wasteful.

    For me, it is through actual decluttering that help me get past that mental block — no matter how wasteful I felt about buying stuff twice, I ended up finding identical items in the clutter because, by the time I actually need to item again, I couldn’t find the first one and I bought again. Knowing that this is what I do, I am more at ease with giving away things. Decluttering has certainly been a long learning process for me.

    On second thought, perhaps if I knew that there is not just an emergency funds but also extra room in our monthly budget for blow money might help me get rid of stuff. Give the clutter a second life where they actually get appreciated, so to speak, while I reclaim the room 🙂

  13. Linda Sand

    I have lived at both ends of the financial scale. Now I love to declutter by donating useful things because I remember how wonderful it was to find something useful at a thrift store when I couldn’t afford to buy retail. Even when we had no money I donated used children’s things as our daughter outgrew them once it became clear we would never have another child. But, I hung onto them at the beginning in case I was able to successfully reproduce again. Somehow finally donating those things helped me through the grieving process.

    • Clearwing

      I think the thought that “someone else could use or enjoy this more than I can” is the most compelling reason to donate things. Your comment made me remember why passing things on can be a real help to others experiencing hard times.

  14. Guest

    This isn’t directly related to this post but kind of in that it is a connection between clutter and finances. 🙂 I find this hard to explain but my experience has been that living simply (and I may be the only person who feels this way!) is actually kind of costly. Sounds counterintuitive but I’ve found that I have to buy stuff and live with it and get rid of stuff and live without it to figure out what we really NEED to live simply and comfortably. It has annoyed me for years because I felt I wasn’t doing it right but then I realized the reality is that we CAN afford to experiment and that experimenting isn’t a bad thing. 🙂 Anybody else have this experience?

  15. Christina

    So true. Many ideas on how to live come from a basis of privilege, and we don’t always see it as such.

  16. Lana Wilkens

    It really hits on the question, “What is a need?” Rarely are there things we actually “need.” I think comparison is largely responsible for feeling most needs. We need to feed ourselves, to drink, to have a shelter and to clothe ourselves in a way that doesn’t get us arrested! 🙂 haha

    It’s so great to look at our finances first, and then the other stuff, but I think a precursor to even thinking about finances is to think about trust. What or who are we putting our trust in? Those fears you talked about (which are totally legit and I think everyone deals with them to some degree), they reveals where trust is being placed.

    One of my favorite sayings, my husband said if I lived this way just think of how different my life would be, is that “tomorrow has enough trouble of its own.” If I only dealt with current real troubles it would free me from worrying about future potential troubles.

    Don’t think I’m not into thinking into the future, oh no, that’s what I have to guard against! 🙂 For those whose tendency is to think way ahead and feel concern for what will happen, trust and control can be big issues to consider. But for those who naturally think in the present, they may have a different path that encourages them to think ahead.

    Good luck to all of you, from whichever perspective fits your temperament! May we all grow into more peaceful ladies.

    • Tim

      Well said. I wrote something similar to reach a similar conclusion.

      Fears of what we need and how we are provided for is at the root.

      I have a hard time letting go of “stuff” because of this fear that I won’t be fed or clothed.

      I call cleaning my garage a spiritual exercise because of this!

      • Caroline

        Well said!

  17. Kathy

    Oh so beautifully said! I’m still working through the balanced mind set of knowing what is wise to keep and what to discard! I will not give up!

  18. Tim

    I agree. The act of trying to declutter stuff reveals fears, real and legitimate, about not having enough finances.

    It’s the area I have pushed into. Whom do I trust? Why do I fear? How can I overcome?

    All from holding onto an old stack of post it notes (becAuse you. An never have too many of those)

    Or my bane: old electronic cables. Never know when I need that cat-5 back again.

    As a note: I did get rid of all my cables and then suddenly needed one. I kicked myself because they are $15.

    But I put a request on Craigslist. And a guy gave me a bunch for free.

  19. Sue West

    In my professional life, I’m an & ADHD organizing coach and your article struck a chord from my experience. I’ve often seen people first focus on decluttering, and the very next thing? Very often, more than any other kind of clutter, it’s been their financial life. Sometimes it’s the couple’s/family’s finances, or sometimes it’s been the business my client owns.

    It’s fascinating what you’re saying here, about flipping it around. I’ve always wondered about the connection.

    I wonder if dealing with one’s clutter is easier than dealing with finances? Our clutter is more tangible since it is in our faces constantly (or if hidden, we know it’s there, waiting for us), so maybe that’s a reason. Or with money, it necessitates working together as a couple if that’s your world. Both are very private topics for most people, too. (I can’t have anyone over because …. I’m ashamed of this …. Please don’t judge me…).

    Really interesting thinking. Thank you.

  20. Caroline

    Loved this post! Now to tackle that clutter with my budget in mind 🙂

  21. Monica Ricci

    As a Certified Professional Organizer this article and the other article from The Art Of Manliness blog could not resonate more with me!!

    I am SICK to death of those “more minimalist than thou” who talk about how they quit their (6-figure tech) jobs, sold or donated 90% of their possessions and now live blissfully in a 320 square foot loft.

    I could go into great detail but I will save that for my own blog post but suffice it to say that minimalism is personal and it’s fluid. Minimalism may look one way to you when you’re a single broke 20-something than it looks when you’re a coupled more financially stable 40-something. Or vice versa.

    My guiding philosophy for myself and when working with clients is to get to a place of “the right stuff for this season of life.”

    • Laurie

      yes! exactly–“right-sizing” is what i call this. it is all about seasons of life. my dream to own a big home in my 20’s is no longer valid in my 40’s with my kids (i have five) one by one becoming adults and moving on. in fact, i now look forward to a small efficiency/ 1 bdrm loft in ten years’ time (when my youngest should move on) so that my then adult children will be motivated to stay out on their own. (of course, my door is always open should they have rough spots, but nooooobody wants to live in a home where they practically share a room with their mother!) plus, i don’t want to be a slave to stuff. i want to travel. and a huge home full of stuff would require me to clean, or have a maid. neither of which i feel a truly awesome option.

  22. Edie G

    I take a different perspective on this subject. I appreciated your article and take on this subject. However, I was surprised to read your connection between clutter and finances because I thought you were going to make the opposite connection. My definition of clutter is a group of items that you are holding onto and that no longer serve your purpose for having them. For example, clothing that you can no longer wear but you hold onto for sentimental value is not going to help you if your financial situation declines. Keeping extra cans of food in case is not going to help if you’ve kept them beyond the expiration date. There is a difference between clutter and having extra for a rainy day. Those extras are still functional and serving a purpose, but clutter is weighing you down. By not attacking clutter, I think it keeps you from attacking the financial situation too. How many times have I gone out to buy an item that I know I already have because I can’t find it I my piles? I’m wasting money. Positively changing one area of your life affects positive change to other areas of your life. Attack clutter, and watch the finances grow!

  23. Rachel

    Thank you thank you for this post! The quote that always gets me is the one…have nothing that is not useful or beautiful in your home… because I always wish that my things could be useful and beautiful. We have the dresser in our bedroom that I grew up with. Not beautiful but useful. I can only name 2 or 3 furniture items in our house that we actually paid for because all the rest were hand me down. They are not beautiful and many times I think we could have things that were much more useful than they are, but we are very strapped financially and so it is frustrating. Our house is very small and so while we don’t have many toys, storage space is small and so I still find myself picking up a lot. It is certainly much better than it used to be so I guess it is just an on going process…

  24. Summer

    You bring up some great points… Clutter does accumulate from the fear of not being able to buy it again and at the same time, I think that when clutter is gone, the finances clear up too as the brain can think clearer.

  25. Rebecca Chapman

    This raises some really interesting points Id love to think about and discuss with my husband.

    I am very much in the ‘if I doesnt add value to my life get rid of it and if I ever need it buy a new one’ camp.

    My husband, who comes from a family of hoarders (hes by far of the least hoarding mindset if them and yet our spare bedroom is still packed with his things) definitely has a I’ll keep this just in case’ mindset and the really is we have things like cords that don’t belong to anything anymore and three spare DVD players and the list goes on.

    His parents are from Chile and his father grew up in the slums where they begged and stole to live. His father still eats every meal like it might be his last, even though he’s been in Australia now for 40+ years and is in his seventies.

    I wonder if this ‘just in case’ mentality has been passed down from his parents who would never have had the financial ability growing up to buy things in the first place let alone replace them.

    Looking at decluttering and the collecting of excessive possessions from a financial point of view is an interesting way to consider it.

  26. Rosemary

    That fear of not having something you might need certainly is a component in hoarding, as I learned from observing and talking to my mother. She kept things that she would, in reality, never be able to use, things that were worn out and broken, things that were useless and ugly. She kept scraps of cloth that were never going to be made into quilts, drawers full of old pantyhose that had lost their elasticity, worn out shoes, stained and faded clothing, outdated textbooks, napkins, dried-up pens, wire hangers, old magazines – in short, everything. Sadly, the few things that actually had some kind of monetary, utilitarian, or sentimental value were mixed in with all the junk, and as a result couldn’t be found when needed. They often ended up damaged and ruined because they were jumbled up in the piles with everything else. And the presence of the piles made housecleaning impossible, so she lived in dirty conditions which she resisted having cleaned because she feared we’d throw out the junk in the process. Of course, unhealthy hoarding like hers goes beyond mere clutter, but the line between the two is not always clear. I’d rather err on the side of simplicity.

  27. Dean

    I can see the wisdom of your point.

    However, I suspect that what is true for me is true for many people. In my experience, a lot of clutter tends to be stuff I know I’ll never need, old papers, half an old vacuum cleaner attachment, leftover toys the kids no longer play with. While we’re striving to pay off debt, this stuff can all be safely chucked.

    At the same time, debt can take a long time to pay off, while decluttering can be a pretty fast process. For people who need to feel some immediate benefit from changes they are making, decluttering might be a good place to start.

  28. Clearwing

    I loved this article. I am simultaneously afraid to let go of things in case I cannot afford to rebuy them and aware that I purchase lots of things I do not use or need regardless of whether or not I can afford them. I think I am one of the people who would improve my finances by decluttering, simply because it would help me step away from focusing so much on material things and get a better grasp on my circumstances and what I truly need.

  29. Judith Cane

    Hi Crystal,
    Thank you for posting this. I’m a Money Coach and this is what I recommend to my clients almost all the time. Usually (but not always) clutter is their way of life with both stuff and money. If they tell me they want to clear the clutter of stuff from their life, I try to encourage them to start with the money first. By the time we have worked through the process, they often have less attachment to their stuff and it’s easier to declutter and they can do it more rationally. I really love reading your posts, regards, Judith,

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