It’s All Too Much: The Connection Between Debt & Clutter

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about clutter lately.

When I’m not vigilant about nightly pick-ups, my house quickly decomposes into a cluttery museum of stuff. And when that happens, it starts to feel a bit like the walls are closing in and I can’t breathe.

It dawned on me a few days ago that I have experienced this kicked-in-the-gut feeling before. When we were in debt.

As you know, I hit an emotional rock bottom with our finances about three years ago. I’d had enough of not being able to breathe and so we did something – something HUGE – about it. We changed our lives.

I’m ready to do something HUGE about our clutter. The irony of our oh-my-gosh-didn’t-we-just-clean-so-why-is-there-stuff-EVERYWHERE problem is that I’m actually not overly attached to the… stuff. My husband and my kids – that’s another story. But for me, I think my primary challenge is the upkeep.

Whatever the problem, though, I’m sick and tired of being a clutter ostrich. So, I’ve picked up a book called, It’s All Too Much, by Peter Walsh. The subtitle of the book is “An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff”. That’s gotta be a good sign that I’m on the right path, doesn’t it?!

I’m hoping It’s All Too Much will do for our clutter what The Total Money Makeover did for our finances. I’m a quarter of the way through the book, and so far, my big take-away is his question, Does your house feel like home?

Answer: Not quite yet. But we’re going to get there!

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing some of what I’m learning from Mr. Walsh and examining how living within your means can refer to more than just finances. Next week, I’ll be starting in the most logical place for this blog: An organized pantry.

I’m hoping we aren’t alone! Do you also struggle with clutter? Are you also realizing that clutter in our homes can be linked to clutter in our finances?


  1. Yes, yes, yes. This is my challenge. Feel free to read about the solutions I’ve worked through on my blog.

  2. Chavelamomela says

    yes!!! I feel like the piles of paper/mail/books/etc pile up (courtesy of our babysitter, who tidies up, which we are pleased with!) – and often there are bills in those piles that get overlooked, and then we finally go through the pile months later, only to have missed an important (often financial) deadline.

    we never had this problem before the past two years. But with the great upheaval in our lives, and my demanding job, I just don’t know how to find the time to tackle it all.

    • A cluttery desk is being blamed for me turning in our 940s by a week late this year. I’m bracing myself for the fine on that one. Ugh, I haven’t made a good like this in a while.

  3. Sounds like us too!! I feel so overwhelmed with all the stuff we have in our house. I’ve made progress with some things – like out of season clothes, the pantry. It helps that my husband is big purger. It does NOT help that some of my kids think EVERYTHING is worth saving, even empty cereal boxes.

    I would love to hear what you are learning from this book.

    • Oh, we might have the same kids. “Ima, don’t throw thaaaat away, I’m making a project with it.” ‘Project’ being code for nightmare of tape, cardboard and packing peanuts that will take you 2 weeks to clean up.

  4. We have a major clutter problem too. It’s causing me a lot of angst, but I can’t seem to figure out how to fix it. I think I might go put this book on hold at the library, or maybe pick it with the Barnes and Noble groupon I purchased the other day, because we definetely need some help around here. Looking forward to hearing your insights.

    • We got it from the library, too! I’m really liking it, so I might splurge on Amazon. I have had it on my Paperback Swap list for over a year, so I’m not holding my breath on that one.

  5. Ditto here. I’m always battling the clutter, and while I’ve made decent headway, through organizing and discarding non-essentials, I’ve found that procrastination is my nemesis. I’m always saying, “Oh, I don’t know what to do with that, so I’ll put it here for now.” Or “Hmm, I don’t have time to put that away just now, so I’ll lay it down over here.”

    And then it all adds up. Ugh.

    • It adds up so quickly, doesn’t it? Can be very discouraging. I just read where Walsh talks about “lazy clutter”. YES! (I am 90% convinced that (my) laziness is to blame at our house for the clutter pile-up. The other 10% I’m blaming on all the mail, school papers, and other bits of paper that seem to multiply while we sleep!)

  6. a few weeks ago we went through and removed loads of books we hadnt read and had no intention of rereading. i took my 6 year old to a few used book stores and he sold them. i let him keep the $$ so he got a little lesson from the project. we donated the rest to charity. the books were the first project…we’ve been donating and giving away lots of things from stuffed animals to toys. not sure why we have so much stuff!

    • I think it really helps to involve kids in that way – thanks for the good suggestion. I must confess that I have a hard time involving the kids, because they seem to think that everything — even outgrown, stained clothing and broken bits of junkie goodie bag toys — is too-good-to-give-away.

  7. Great post Mara. I think there is a strong correlation, perhaps even a cause/effect relationship, between personal clutter and financial clutter. Discipline is discipline whether it is processing your mail, paying the bills, keeping a kosher kitchen, getting routine maintenance on a vehicle, finishing homework/degree, working out, etc.

    Perhaps some are better than I am, but I have had to prioritize that which I “must” be disciplined with, that which I “should” be disciplined with, and that which I can let slide so as not push myself into an obsessive-compulsive tizzy.

    Processing the mail and paying the bills is a discipline I have systematized for our family. Mail MUST be processed everyday and dealt with prior to us going to bed (this is the ideal). Occassionally we will have random pieces that takes a day or two!!! Then I make sure we have it completed prior to lighting candles on Friday night. Obviously there are many things that need to be done prior to candle lighting so usually Thursday night I will try to get everything squared away.

    The mail must be brought in the house by either me or my husband….NO CHILDREN!!!! We have a dedicated spot in our kitchen where we process the mail. Our laptop sits right next to it and thus we can do all of our electronic bill paying there when we open it. I think we are passed the days of “helpful” children bringing in the mail and leaving it in random parts of the house and me finding it unopened several weeks later.

    The mail must be opened – even if it looks like junk mail. I cannot tell you the number of times I have e-paid someone to tell me they never got my check, only to find out they throw out mail if it looks like junk mail. Often times rebate checks come in envelops that look like junkmail, and occasionally we get back rather large rebate checks. I would hate to think I may have thrown one of them away at one time or another.

    Like I intimated earlier, we are far from perfect. The library fines, seemingly easy enough to avoid, seem still to plague us, and in JO County they were just increased from $0.15/day to $0.30/day – eekss!!!! To minimize this we have routinized our library day to the same day every week so chances are much better we will get our books back on the right day. I am okay with an occasional small fine, but once we had a $43 charge on our credit card for a book we left in the rain. Not cool!

    I was speaking with a friend about finances and we were talking about “little money” and differences in opinion as to whether it is worth the time. In my work, I get reimbursed for the mileage I put on my own car to get to the airport for a work trip. It ends up being $33 on each end of my trip or usually $66. On average I would guess I fly 20 times a year for work. $33 could be considered “little money”, but if I leave a year’s worth of “little money” its $1,320. Seems worth it to me to keep track of that detail.

    • re: little money

      I have found that it’s not the big purchases that cause budgetary problems. It’s the little things — $3 here, $5 there — that add up and cause my budget to implode. So the question is… do I *really* need a hot chocolate from Dunkin’ Donuts? Will the $10 I spend on dinner one night make sense several days later when I’m waiting impatiently for the next paycheck? Am I cutting it too close? Yes. Am I doing the best I can to create margin? Getting better every day…

    • I really like your “must”, “should” and “can let it slide” categorization. I have a hard time distinguishing and prioritizing at times, so I think that will be a help to me.

      As for small money- I totally think it adds up! It wasn’t the (imaginary) trip to Barbados that got us $30K in debt… it was the death by a thousand cuts. And those cuts generally didn’t cost more than $10 or $15 ;-).

  8. I am on a mission to get rid of my clutter. (I have a lot of clutter) I figure that I can do both Pesach cleaning and clutter cleaning at the same time.
    Then once I am finished with the clutter removal, I can focus on the stuff I really want to do. I am very bothered by all the money I have wasted on the stuff that I am now getting rid of. No more wasted money.

    • Pesach is a great decluttering excuse!

      Walsh had a thing about the “but I spent good money on that” rationalization. (I paid close attention, since DH definitely has that one down.) He says keeping something just b/c you spent a lot of money on it once is like throwing good space after bad money. I liked that :).

  9. I actually wish the people from clean house would come and get rid of my clutter. Its not as bad as the people on that show, but at least if they convince me I don’t need my stuff anymore and its okay to let go. I think it helps for someone else to tell you “you just don’t need it!”

  10. I don’t know if I can even type about this without getting emotional. Our house is so messy and disorganized (and even, dare I say, dirty lately… then again we’ve all been sick for weeks). It is draining me, I am not paying bills on time because I can’t find them, and… ugh. It’s just taking so much energy. It’s not so much that I’m a “stuff” collector. We don’t have tons of tchotchkes (though we have more than we need, I’m sure). It’s my lack of organization, my lack of motivation to create and MAINTAIN a system for my papers. So on and so forth.

    • As, hugs, Tovah. This, like debt, is a very emotional topic – it’s got so many layers. Guilt, sadness, shame…

      You wrote: “the lack of motivation to create and MAINTAIN a system for my papers” and I just have to say, YES! The paper problem is enormous in my house. I have started resenting DS1’s school papers. I mean, seriously, what am I supposed to do with all those darned worksheets. I recycle them, but then DS whines that “you can’t throw thaaaat away”.

  11. I would love to see an article on how to deal with the question of kids and clutter. Kids amass unnecessary, cheap, half-broken or one-part-missing toys, and then don’t want to part with them. How can we keep our kids’ rooms organized and neat (I’m talking kids who are old enough to notice if a toy goes missing), keep them from having their stuff spread all over the house, and get them to get rid of stuff? How much stuff is reasonable for a kid to own? So on and so forth. We are new parents to a 10 y/o and 2 y/o via foster care and 7 months in I’m still really struggling with the piles of crap (both cheap toys our older son never plays with and his “nature collection”) in my kids’ room.

    • This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about (and fretting over), so I definitely plan to address it in the future. I think fewer, quality toys works great with littler kids, but older kids really seem to love those collectible things – which inevitably have soooo many pieces!

      I have no idea what their living situation was like before they came to you, but I’d imagine that attachment to “stuff” might take on a whole new dimension for children who have been in foster care for a long time.

  12. Sorry to post a third time on this…but clutter is really one of my biggest challenges, and I just found a solution that will make our frugal minds so, so happy:

    Did you know that you can send in old cell phones, mp3 players, books, and video games to be recycled and GET SWAGBUCKS IN RETURN?!?!?!? See Trade In column on the SB site.

    Happy decluttering and points-accumulating(ing)!

  13. I think that the clutter – debt connection is so true! I know when my life gets overwhelming, I start not keeping the keenest eye on my finances. This post really hit close to home because I’m in that place right now… I’m not dragging us into debt, but I’m not using my strategies like I should!

    About a year ago we redid our home and put in a bunch of organizational solutions that were specific to us. I wrote a post series about it on the blog… Hope my ideas might help someone else!

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