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The financial rewards of clearing out clutter

The Savings Game

The Boston Globe reported recently on an emotional and practical dilemma facing baby boomers. Their parents are passing away, they are downsizing and their children don’t have much interest in antiques, heirlooms or other memorabilia.

The problem is so acute, the Globe reported, that “senior move managers” are charging $75 to $100 an hour to help people manage the transition to a smaller living space while donating or passing along their accumulated objects.

Truthfully, feeling burdened by unwanted objects affects people of all ages. For young parents like myself, it’s toys and baby gear, not to mention piles of laundry.

But managing the flow of stuff can feel like another part-time job in our busy lives.

If you’re reading this column, you’re probably concerned about personal finance. So allow me to present some purely financial motivation to get rid of things — or to buy less in the first place.

Storage costs

The “self-storage” industry took in $32.7 billion in 2016. Every object that you pay to stash in a big corrugated-steel warehouse off the highway will cost, on average, a dollar per square foot per month. But having unused stuff hanging around in your living space costs much more.

In extreme cases, you may be paying for hundreds of square feet of basement, attic and garage space to hold onto things that neither you nor your descendants have any use for.

Maintenance costs

From big houses and cars to lawn mowers, tools, sports and camping equipment, clothes, dishware and household furnishings, almost everything you own needs to be cleaned regularly and repaired when it breaks. These costs add up to thousands of dollars a year.

It’s not possible to avoid maintenance costs completely, of course. But they vary widely by the type of possession you invest in, which is why “right-sizing” is so important.

For example, AAA estimates that it cost $6,579 to drive a small sedan last year, and $10,255 to drive a 4-wheel-drive SUV. This includes not only the note but taxes, insurance, maintenance and fuel, plus finance and depreciation costs.

Waste costs

Think of this as “throwing money down the drain.” If your home is cluttered with too much stuff, it’s much harder to make efficient use of what you have. One example: The USDA estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply is wasted each year.

Our individual share of that is due in part to the popularity of big box stores, where it’s so easy to buy two giant bottles of ketchup for a little more than the cost of a reasonably sized container. The only problem is that you’re unlikely to eat that much ketchup before it expires.

Time and stress costs

Have you ever gone out to eat because the kitchen was a mess? Have you ever lost a Saturday to the battle against clutter? Have you ever been late for work because you couldn’t find your keys? Have your kids ever complained that there was nothing to do when their room was stuffed with toys?

A home with too much stuff is harder to keep clean and organized. That takes a toll on family life. And the loss of time and emotional stress means less productivity at work, which translates to less money. It also can add to health-care costs.

The battle against possessions affects our lives in many and mysterious ways. I once interviewed Peter Walsh, one of Oprah’s organizational gurus. He told me that many of his clients found that they lost weight when they finally got their houses under control. He went on to publish a book with the delightful title, “Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?”

Anya Kamenetz’ most recent book is “The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, but You Don’t Have to Be.” She welcomes your questions at diyubook@gmail.com.

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