We’re leaving for a trip tomorrow. There are three ways to go about this.
Freaking out is a common reaction. Most people manage their anxiety about change and transition by trying to over-plan and overpack. Just bring everything you can possibly carry, and most eventualities will be covered, right?? This attitude guarantees that you’ll have the maximum weight and bulk to drag around, which multiplies the hassle and planning time that you’ll need. The longer you spend worrying and fretting about what to bring, the more ideas you have of more stuff to cram into the suitcase.
The way I used to pack was basically, Look around at every single thing I own, exclude as few things as possible, and try to bring it all. Like, okay, I probably don’t need to bring the furnace but maybe it will fit? Do they have ovens where I’m going?
Harness this overthinking energy. It’s a rational, logical way to deal with uncertainty, and that rationality can be used more efficiently.
Start with the minimum. What if I just went in the clothes on my back, and all I had was my wallet and phone? Worst case scenario, my outfit would get smelly. Maybe I’d wash it and I’d have to borrow a towel to wear while it was being laundered. Second worst case, maybe I’d have to stop somewhere and buy a new shirt and pants. If that happened, I could bring the new clothes home and install them in my regular wardrobe rotation.
My hubby once grudgingly spent $80 buying a simple fleece pullover at a gift shop on a motorcycle trip. It was LUDICROUSLY overpriced. He loves it, though, and he’s still wearing it nine years later. It’s amortized down to less than $9/per year of ownership, and it still fits and looks great.
All we’re doing is taking that “WHAT IF?????” feeling and welcoming it, taking it seriously. Okay, what if?
What won’t happen is that we won’t vaporize or suddenly find ourselves in the eighth dimension. We won’t swap personalities and find ourselves suddenly in a different body. We won’t forget the names or faces of everyone we’ve ever known. All that happens is that we go somewhere else for a while, sleep in a different bed for a while, meet some new people, and, if we’re lucky, eat some different food a few times.
This is my method.
Pack four outfits and one extra pair of shoes.
Literally, that’s it.
I don’t fold them or roll them, either. I lay out the four distinct outfits on my bed, so I make sure that they match and I have the correct undergarments. In the past, I’ve often forgotten to pack socks, and this “stack for each day” method has helped with that.
Next, I take one garment at a time and lay it in the suitcase, matching the shoulder seams and waistbands to the edge of the bag. Pant legs, skirts, et cetera, are laid out flat, stacked one on another. When they’re all matched up, I fold over all the legs and skirts. Socks, underwear, and swimsuits get stuck in the corners and along the edges. Then I zip it closed. The extra shoes and my shower kit go in another compartment. It takes five minutes.
I’m able to do this because I just pack my regular wardrobe. These are the clothes I wear all season long. I know they go in the washer and dryer. I know they fit. I know they mix and match because I plan ahead and buy things that go together. I don’t tolerate singletons and I remorselessly ditch any odd garment that isn’t earning its space in my closet. My clothes serve me, period. I’m not a museum curator and I don’t run a boutique. I don’t owe a piece of fabric anything, anything at all. I’m not going to be the defense lawyer for something if it isn’t already obvious why I should bring it. No threes, no maybes, no almosts. Just four outfits.
If my trip is longer than four days, then I simply do a load of laundry during the trip. I’ve done it at hotels, I’ve done it at campsites, and of course I’ve done it at my parents’ house.
I have had a couple of trips over the years where the weather suddenly turned, and it was much hotter or colder than the forecast. The way I deal with that is to allow one extra garment for the off chance, like a tank top or a layer of thermal underwear. It’s not the end of the world.
What about all the other stuff? All the special travel gadgets and pillows and what-not?
I like to buy travel doodads for the same reason that I like to buy kitchen utensils. They look cool! Then I inevitably realize that I don’t need them and I never use them.
My priority when I travel (and remember, priority is singular) is to bring only one bag that fits under the seat.
To that end, I bring only what I feel that I really, really want during the flight. I wear a heavy cardigan because I always feel cold on a plane. Wallet, obviously. Phone, tablet, charger, backup battery, headphones. Light snack. Hand lotion and lip balm. That’s it. Why would I need more than that?
The thing to remember is the reason for the trip. MY STUFF is never the reason for a trip! I’m traveling to be with specific people and to go to a specific location. I’m only there for a limited window of time. I can worry about MY STUFF when I’m home again, assuming I want to spend my precious life thinking about and stroking material objects. I want to channel my feelings of elevated adrenalin and remember, That’s excitement!
Now it’s time to chill out and pack. Remember, everything can be bought 24/7 and objects are consumable. Bring the minimum, remind yourself what you’re doing on the trip, and, yes, chill out and pack.
One of the consistently humorous moments in my work with chronically disorganized people is when they find stuff in their homes, and they can’t figure out how it got there. Whose is it? How long has it been here? Where did it come from?
Sometimes they don’t even know what it is!
We’ve been in situations where there is an entire box full of random items to redistribute. Whose are they? Former roommates? Friends from gaming night? Gremlins? The best we can do is to put that box by the front door and try to remember to ask people to check inside the next time they come over.
This issue of infiltration by random items comes from a lack of situational awareness. It’s cute and charming and funny, but it can also be... a little dangerous?
Not noticing your surroundings can lead to all sorts of problems, from spilling coffee to tripping and falling downstairs. I had a client who couldn’t find an actual dead rat for several days! It’s worse than that. The rat was in plain view. In the living room. And the pet dogs didn’t notice it, either. I’m like, your dogs are fired. But then, my personal dog is a rat terrier, so maybe it’s unfair to compare other dogs to him in that regard.
The simplest way to grow into greater situational awareness is with a focusing exercise that I call Perimeter Check.
Simply put, Perimeter Check means walking through each room and looking around. Many people learn to do this at work, using a checklist and doing routine tasks like closing out the till, taking out the trash, or setting the security system. There are few things more common than my people using a skill at a high level on the job, and then failing to use that same skill once they get home. That’s because there is no built-in accountability, no negative consequence for not doing it. We try to see Perimeter Check as a quick, easy thing we do for ourselves and our friends and family.
Perimeter Check can be done in mere seconds. Every time you get up, whether it’s on a bus seat, leaving work for the day, or at the movies, just glance around and make sure you have all your stuff. My hubby and I are both notorious for having to go back for stuff. I made up a little rhyme to try to make this something funny, rather than annoying:
Wallet, phone, glasses, keys / I don’t like mac and cheese
In a hotel room, Perimeter Check can be done in about a minute. I’ve been conditioning my hubby to perform it with me as a redundantly duplicate act of redundancy. We both open and shut every drawer, look in the closet, and check the shower and the bathroom counter. Before we started doing this, we had something of a track record of losing things in hotels, including the earrings I wore to our wedding. It would be nice to live in a perfect world where these left behind items are returned to Lost and Found, but in practice that has virtually never happened. It’s our responsibility to look after our own belongings, and with a sixty-second Perimeter Check, we do.
Around the house, Perimeter Check depends entirely on how many rooms there are and how much stuff is in each room.
We live in a studio apartment (technically a “junior one-bedroom” but it does not have a bedroom door, or a wall, or... a dishwasher or a washer or dryer or air conditioning or... ). Optimally, a Perimeter Check should only take us a couple of minutes. Due to the nature of living in two rooms, almost every single thing we own is in open view at all times. Even the closet doesn’t have its own door, so you can stand in the bathroom and see all our clothes, luggage, sheets, towels, shoes, laundry soap, etc. Obviously we can’t have a huge amount of personal items in a 600-square-foot apartment, but there is that issue of dozens of things in multiple colors and shapes and sizes. It’s like a “find the hidden object” puzzle. Without systems in place, it could be challenging.
What are the systems?
Everything has to justify its existence in our home
One in, one or two out
A place for everything and everything in its place
Never put something big in front of or on top of something small
Clear surfaces except when in use
Paper-free whenever possible
Basically what this means is that the kitchen counter, bathroom counter, floor, couch, and desktops need to be kept clear. If something is sitting on one of these clear, flat surfaces, that means it’s an intentional signal to do something. (Mail it, replace it, repair it, bring it with you).
Perimeter Check happens as a routine a few times a day. My hubby does it every morning when he leaves for work: Feed dog, walk dog, put dog in crate, grab backpack, grab bike, lock door. After that process, the only objects left on view in those areas should be things that belong there, like the dog leash. I do almost the identical routine when I leave, and then we both reverse it when we get home. This gives us ample opportunity to notice when the dog food bag is getting low or when he needs his prescription filled at the vet. The vitally important area around the front door is constantly being checked and cleared. At bedtime, it takes just a few seconds to check the locks, turn out lights, and gauge the levels of the laundry basket, toothpaste tube, dental floss, etc. There are a thousand tiny cogs in the machinery of daily life, and it can be a lot, but doing the routine Perimeter Check is a way of keeping everything running smoothly without a lot of extra mental energy.
Our home is for us, not our stuff. A house should serve the people and animals who live there. We should be able to sit on the couch, eat at the table, cook in the kitchen, sleep on the bed, and get ready in the bathroom. If there are any mysterious objects floating around, how did they get there and why didn’t we notice them? A stray tennis ball wound up in our yard one day, and believe me, our dog noticed within hours, if not minutes. A Perimeter Check is a way of fully inhabiting our home and, even more, our mental space.
As long as I’m making a contrarian stand, I might as well toss out there that a house most likely isn’t an asset, either, but that’s a topic for another day. An “asset” is an economic resource, something valuable that produces income. If a thing generates expenses, then it is not an asset, it is a liability. The concept that a car may actually be costing someone money, that it might not qualify as an asset, is something that can really be upsetting. Let’s explore it, though. At the end of the thought experiment, anyone who owns a car will still own it, and nothing has changed except for a bit of a brain workout. Let’s go. Why is a car not an asset?
When I owned a car, I was utterly shocked to realize that it was costing me a quarter of my net income. A friend of mine who drives a low-mileage pickup truck disputed my figures. Look, I’m sorry, but I didn’t have a very high income at the time. Almost everything I earned went to the three categories of rent for my cruddy apartment, my car, and my student loans. There are probably a lot of people in my situation, who have never thought about how much it costs to have a car in their life but who could technically be getting to work by other means.
Note: Driving your car to your workplace to earn an income does not make the car an asset. The job is the asset.
There are only three ways that a car could ultimately be an asset, which I would define as bringing in more money than it costs. That would have to be more than a break-even rate, too. I imagine a car could be an asset if it 1. Earned its own income, such as a classic car being used in commercials, but does this even happen? Would that income actually exceed the total cost of the car, including purchase price and lifetime carrying costs? 2. Sold for far more than its original purchase price plus lifetime carrying costs, but does this ever happen, either? Like a, um, what do you call them, a Maybach or something? 3. Enables the owner to earn more money than could be earned through other means. I don’t think this is true of 80% of ride-share drivers, for instance, because it looks like most of them aren’t calculating externalities such as depreciation of their vehicle. They also aren’t paying themselves for the time they spend waiting or driving the unpaid legs of their trips.
The reason most people think of their vehicles as assets is that the thought of trying to get through life without one just seems hopeless or extremely annoying. Never put people in a position where they feel that they are going to lose something or have something taken from them. It’s the same with personal finance or fitness - people feel that “giving up” an inefficient habit is not worth the gain of being debt-free or more agile. It’s hard for us as humans to realize that letting go of one thing can be a significant upgrade, a tradeoff for something better.
I claimed that a car is not an asset, because it depreciates in value and because it incurs significant carrying costs. I also claimed that a bicycle is an asset. Let me back that up.
When I was 22, I got a windfall at my $9/hour job, a retroactive pay increase of $400. I sat on that money for about two months as I decided what to do with it. Then a sale came up at a local bicycle warehouse. I bought the new bike that I still own 20 years later. I had been paying between $30-$35/month for a bus pass, and I wanted to cut that expense from my budget. At just $30/month, the cost of the bike would be fully amortized in 13 months. That bike was my main source of transportation for the next three years, and sporadically in the following years, depending on where I was living. My bike became an asset because it allowed me to save money I had previously been spending.
There are other reasons why I regarded my bike as an asset:
At that time in my life, on $9/hour, I could not afford to own a car. I wouldn’t have dreamed of paying to join a gym. My bike, which paid for itself, was a major life upgrade. I felt stronger and safer, and I had more time and slightly more discretionary income.
After I originally sold my car in - I think it was 2007? - I got my old bike tuned up and started riding it around again. I paid off my credit card balances. I paid off one of my student loans six years early. I bought a new couch. Then I went on vacation to Cancun. I’ve remained free of consumer debt for over a decade now, and I’ve gone on yet more vacations, just longer, more often, to more interesting places, in much nicer hotels. Car ownership was draining a quarter of my income, and after I eliminated that expense, I was finally able to start saving for retirement in earnest.
I got married in 2009, paying for my share of our wedding in cash, and we both drove my husband’s pickup until it died a little after 200,000 miles. We switched to a sedan and got a great rate on the loan, because my credit score is over 800. It was still a loan, though. We sold it back to the dealership after the big emissions scandal, and due to that weird situation, we essentially drove it for two years for just the cost of the gas. The improvement in our cash flow since we’ve been car-free has meant an escalation in our retirement planning. We save and invest 35% of our income, a number we couldn’t pull off while our practical, economy car was bleeding off $700/month in total costs.
I got my old bike tuned up again. My hubby and I have started riding around and exploring our neighborhood together. It feels like we’re dating. More than that, it feels like we’re on a date on a vacation! There’s just something indisputably romantic about riding bikes on a bike path together. I can’t say I ever felt that way when we were spending our weekends driving through freeway traffic to go to the warehouse store. I know neither of us ever felt that way when we were commuting in freeway traffic to get to work. Riding our bikes is helping us to save thousands of dollars for our retirement, stay fit and mobile as we get older, avoid the worst annoyances of standard commuting, and even feel more connected and affectionate with each other. For all these reasons, I continue to claim that a car is not an asset but a bicycle is.
“I could never do that” is most people’s automatic response when hearing about an alternative of some kind, whether that’s getting rid of their TV, waking up at 5 AM (same), or not eating dairy products. Nobody is asking; generally people are just talking about something that they do, not campaigning for other people to do it. Living without a car is definitely, definitely on that list. For those who are curious, it’s not really all that complicated. Resolve how you’re going to get to work, and that’s almost all of your trips. Shopping and errands take different strategies than the work commute. This can be an interesting game in its own right.
The first secret behind car-free errands is to realize that many errands are really just excuses for something to do. Going straight home every night can feel boring and restrictive. Errands can be set up to include fun stops, like picking up some ice cream. In fact, I think the majority of the time we’re looking for reasons to swing by the drive-thru. Guess what? They don’t let you through the drive-thru unless you are, in fact, driving thru. Gotta go inside. If the treats and fun side trips are a hidden motive behind errands, those can be rewards for using an alternative mode of transport, whether that’s a bike, unicycle, donkey cart, or the city bus.
The second secret behind car-free shopping is that so much of it can be either eliminated or delegated. For instance, I refuse to buy any garments that are dry-clean only, so we never have to go to a dry cleaner. We order a lot of things online and have them delivered. Judging by how many different delivery services come through our apartment complex, more and more people are doing this, and it seems pretty efficient. It’s also possible to special-order various products, from groceries to books, that a conveniently located store doesn’t currently have in stock. Occasionally, we’ve been known to have groceries delivered. This feels like a true luxury, and it’s definitely cheaper than the carrying costs we were paying when we still owned a car.
The idea here is that we’re only making side trips when it’s fun, when we want to. We refuse to be daily freeway commuters, and we also refuse to spend our precious free time on evenings and weekends circling around looking for parking. When we go out, it’s an excursion.
Another very important strategy behind car-free shopping and errands is to consolidate them. We have various hubs where we group errands together, and most of these trips can be delayed until we have enough of them to make a real outing of it. Examples:
Movie theater/favorite casual restaurant
Movie theater/mall/chain bookstore
Independent bookstore/nicer restaurant/specialty dessert place
Grocery store/pharmacy/haircuts/UPS Store
Bike shop/bookstore/REI/nicer restaurant/indie movie theater
For many errands, there are multiple options. We may be going to one place because we’ve always gone there, because it was close to our old apartment or our old job, or because it’s close to our hidden destination of frozen yogurt or whatever. We can often find an equivalent, or a different location of the very same chain, that’s closer to another stop we need to make. Finding these places is a big part of the fun. Often we run across hidden gems, expanding our sense of possibility and enjoyment of where we live.
Another aspect of car-free shopping and errands is to choose what type of car-free option to use. My husband and I go places on foot, by bike, on the bus, and using ride-share services. We choose which way to travel based on what we’re trying to do and what time of day it is. For example, we rode our bikes together to get breakfast on Saturday at the cafe near my gym. On Sunday, we took the bus to the movie theater, walked to a restaurant to get dinner afterward, and caught a Lyft for the trip home. The local bus is cheaper, but it only runs once an hour at that time of night. We’ll eventually ride our bikes for more of our trips, as we get fitter, because our increasing physical strength will start to redefine what we consider to be “biking distance.”
A bicycle is the most efficient way to get around for anything within a 7-mile radius. I confirmed this for myself when I first bought my bike twenty years ago. Not only could I beat the bus home, but I sometimes made it home before my evening bus would have made it to the stop by my work. Almost all errands involve items that can easily be carried in a backpack or panniers (which are special bags designed to hang off a rack on the back of your bike). An easy pace on a bike is about double a fast walking speed; I can speed-walk to my gym in a sweaty 35 minutes, or bike it in 15-20, including the time messing with my lock and helmet. There are only a few occasions when a bike is less efficient: When picking up very bulky or unwieldy items, like a garden rake; when combining a trip with bus travel, if the rack on the front of the bus already has two bikes on it; and, for us, if we’re trying to bring our dog somewhere. The existence of affordable delivery services and ride-sharing make these anomalies something of a moot point.
If you want to cut back on how much you drive, because driving is really a very annoying chore when you think about it, you can do it gradually. Test out one errand or one trip through an alternative method. If that didn’t work out so well, try the same errand a different way, or try something else. Then start keeping track in your mind of every time someone cut you off, honked at you, or stole your parking spot. Remind yourself every time you have to clean out your car, buy new tires, or send in your quarterly insurance payment that these are just part of the price you pay for car ownership. Or you can look at some of my vacation photos and see where else that money could be going!
See you at the beach. There’s plenty of room for you to lock your bike at the rack right next to mine.
We sold our car over a year ago, and we’re laughing. That was $700 a month that we now have available for other things. Most people will immediately shut down any exploration of that topic, because not having a personal vehicle is too radical to even think about. For the curious, this is the sort of strategizing to do.
The first thing we did was to look at our pain points. A “pain point” is any persistent area of stress, annoyance, or frustration in your life, such as losing track of your keys or running out of dog food. We determined that commuting on the freeway every day was the single biggest annoyance in our life. For us, it was worth doing anything possible to rearrange our lifestyle and avoid a freeway commute. We were able to do that very quickly by finding a rental house within walking distance of my husband’s workplace. That gave us about a year to feel what walking everywhere was like while still retaining our vehicle.
Walkable neighborhoods are not always all that easy to find. It’s a sign of privilege. We’re able to afford to live in a safe neighborhood with lots of shops and services nearby. Of course, walking in your neighborhood automatically starts to improve its safety! Each individual person who dares to go out, carrying a phone and video camera, helps the other residents to feel safer and more comfortable going out. (Martial arts training is not irrelevant to this discussion, and neither is dog ownership). In my opinion, car drivers’ assessment of the safety of a given neighborhood is often off-base and unduly paranoid. I’m much more afraid of car drivers than I am of pedestrians!
What about anchors? An anchor is anything that keeps you in a given situation. When my husband and I first got married, we had two anchors: His golden-handcuffs job, and my stepdaughter’s school. For other people, anchors might include home ownership, a spouse’s job, a probation officer, proximity to a certain doctor or hospital, caretaking for an aging relative, military service, owning a storefront business, or anything else that makes a permanent location strategically important. These anchors actually make it much easier to plan around going car-free, or at least ditching one vehicle. You know exactly where you need to be for the foreseeable future, so you can feel more confident in your other decisions.
There are a bunch of ways to transition to going car-free. Some households have multiple vehicles and are paying insurance even on “project cars” that aren’t running. It’s possible to do this if you have a big garage, a big driveway, a lot of street parking, or more than one property. In SoCal, where we live, most neighborhoods will have as many as five cars associated with one house. Street parking is almost impossible to find, and sometimes people are even living in converted garages. It makes sense when there are five or six working adults sharing a house. It makes less sense when it’s one married couple! Count up everything that needs insurance and ask whether any of them can go.
Getting rid of a vehicle frees up the monthly, quarterly, and annual expenses associated with it. Our “$700/month” figure includes car payments, insurance, gas, oil changes, maintenance, parking, bridge tolls, car wash, and every other car-related expense that we no longer have. If we had owned two vehicles, it would have been much higher. Getting rid of a vehicle might also generate a lump sump of cash, which could be used to pay down the loan on the main vehicle; pay off credit card debt; put aside for an emergency savings account; buy a motorcycle, scooter, or electric bicycle; or, what the heck - go on vacation.
We live in a walkable neighborhood, and the reason is that we chose it when my husband got his current job. He got the offer, we had twelve days to relocate to a new city, and we moved our stuff into storage and stayed in an AirB&B while we scouted the rental listings. Another valid point about going car-free is that we downsized from a suburban house with a garage to an apartment. Not only did we eliminate that $700/month of car ownership, we also significantly cut our rent and utility expenses. We were able to painlessly escalate our retirement savings.
Going car-free is about more than just the money. It’s a straightforward fitness strategy. My hubby just turned 50, and I’m cruising through my forties, so we have to start taking our health and mobility more seriously. He rides the bus for most of his daily work commute, using his folding bicycle to get between bus stops. (That was strategic also, because standard bikes are not allowed inside his building, but he can carry the folded bike and store it in his office). I ride my bike to my gym, adding 20 miles a week to my fitness program. The initial cost of a bike is amortized when you weigh it against what you would have spent on a car, higher rent, a gym membership, or other fitness equipment that you might have bought.
Our overall lifestyle was constructed from the ground up. We have a status meeting every week, and we sat in a cafe and talked out our ideal life. That made it easier to imagine ourselves living in a one-bedroom apartment instead of a three-bedroom, two-bath suburban house with a two-car garage and a car payment. In one way, it was an extreme, radical move, but in another, it was really straightforward. We spent two weeks downsizing our stuff and relocating, and then we were done. My hubby sits on the bus and reads the news for half an hour instead of being tailgated by road-raged caffeine junkies. I ride my bike and get a free warmup before my martial arts classes. Our retirement accounts are filling more quickly than they ever have before.
The result of going car-free is that we’re both fitter and more relaxed, partly because our finances are in such great shape. Because we were willing to downsize into a tiny living space, we can afford to live at the beach. It’s fair to admit that we’re in a position to go to a car lot, take out a loan, and drive home with a new car any day of the year. Most changes are not permanent. We didn’t really risk anything by making a radical lifestyle decision. There was much more risk involved in spending a higher proportion of our income, with comparatively less in savings. We originally agreed to reevaluate after one year, and we already have. We’re in no hurry to ever own a car again. It’s fun and freeing and helps us feel like a team. Plus, we never have to set aside time to “clean out the garage.” Think about it. Maybe going car-free for a while would work for you, too.
On the biggest clutter-clearing jobs, there is one category of stuff that takes more time than everything else put together. In this category, a single item can burn up an hour of time. A single grocery sack could represent weeks of work. This category is where people tend to get lost, and that’s why I advise them to wait and save it for last. That category: The Flats.
The Flats are flat things. Original, right?
What is it about the Flats? What makes them so much harder to sort?
The Flats include:
Coupons, expired and current
Articles to read
Old to-do lists
Procrastinated social obligations
Papers representing anxiety, dread, guilt, shame, and grief
You can see how it works. An entire truckload of construction debris or yard waste can be hauled off with a single decision. The trunk of a car can be filled with old blankets and linens for the pet hospital in, oh, half an hour. A decision to free up kitchen space by donating all the plastics could be executed in half a day. Vast volumes of bulk clutter can be virtually waved away. The Flats, though, they take concentration. Concentration and focus.
What’s worse, the Flats can take emotional energy in a way and at a level that physical objects may not.
Physical clutter is often aspirational. Stuff represents imaginary versions of ourselves that we haven’t yet lived out. Maybe we never will. We pile up things like foreign language workbooks, exercise equipment, art supplies, musical instruments, and clothes with the tags still on. We acquire them because we’re enchanted by the possibilities they represent. Getting rid of aspirational items feels like killing that potential, erasing those potential future selves before they’ve had a real chance.
The Flats, though, usually represent the past rather than the future.
Photographs, artwork, school papers, journals, and other keepsakes represent our history, our legacy, our memories, and often our relationships. That’s why it can be hard to discard things like wedding invitations, even after that once-happy couple has divorced and remarried other people. We tend to feel obligated to preserve what feel like archival records.
I have a degree in history and I can tell you, you don’t have an obligation to save anything if you don’t want to. If we were required to archive every piece of official-looking paperwork for every person who ever lived, much less every lock of hair, baby tooth, tiny shoe, or piece of children’s art, there wouldn’t be enough buildings on the planet to house it all. What makes records special is their uniqueness. When everything is special, then nothing is.
I can also tell you, as a person, that it’s better to live an interesting life than to mull over old records of things that have already happened. That’s my opinion. I’d be horrified if my grade school artwork or even my college papers wound up being the most interesting manifestations of my lifetime here on earth. I’d be equally horrified if I had nothing better to do in my old age than to pore over that musty, mildewed old junk.
‘Nostalgia’ means ‘sickness.’ Sickness for home. People used to believe that one could die of it.
Not all the Flats consist of sentimental papers, though. The warnings there are to avoid getting lost in it, to know what a huge time suck it can be when memory-laden papers catch your attention. The other variety of the Flats are those that represent more of a cognitive load.
Most of my clients are chronically disorganized. They often think they are hoarders because their stuff has tended to pile up. Once they decide that it’s time to get a handle on it, though, it turns out that they don’t hoard at all. They’re quickly able to decide to get rid of absolute truckloads of stuff, and they don’t tend to be emotionally attached to much of anything. Where they get into trouble is in mentally processing their bureaucratic papers. That’s why 80% of the Flats belonging to my chronically disorganized people are junk mail and other expired stuff.
What I do when we sit down to work is to set expectations. I say, “I will never throw away any of your stuff. That’s your decision to make. The only things I’ll throw away are candy wrappers or dirty napkins, and you can check the bag before it goes out. I’m just here to sort.” Then we start going through sacks of mail. It’s easy for me, just like it’s easy for anyone to sort someone else’s stuff. No decisions! Almost everything is unopened mail. I whip through it and sort by the logos on the envelopes. Coupon circulars go in one pile, newspapers in another, magazines in another. There’s usually a distinct pile for invitations, another for photos, another for receipts, and another for business cards. While I sort, my client suddenly realizes that most of this stuff is irrelevant, redundant, or obsolete.
We once sorted TEN YEARS of old papers in two days, ending by setting up an entire filing system that fit in two drawers. One of the drawers was filled with printer paper, envelopes, and other office supplies.
The thing is, if this client with ten years’ worth of unsorted paper tried to do it alone, it could have taken months or years.
My recommendations are twofold:
If your issue with the Flats is one of mental focus, maybe see how much you can “get organized” digitally first. I don’t have a paperwork problem because we pay our bills and do our taxes electronically. We spend about two minutes sorting our mail every day. In this millennium, there’s no need to have disorganized drifts of papers.
If, on the other hand, your issue with the Flats is one of unprocessed emotion, be gentle with yourself. Recognize that if you let it, this kind of sorting job can go on for years. Maybe what you need is just to buy some acid-free archival boxes or albums and put everything away neatly. You aren’t required to read through it all. Don’t bother unless you feel it will be meaningful or constructive for you. If the Flats are one piece of a larger organizing and space clearing job, I exhort you, save them for last.
Zero savings. I keep reading about it everywhere and it’s infecting my mind. Where does the money go? How can people possibly have not one single dollar tucked away somewhere? I have a jar with over $80 in it, because I’m a scrounge, just from coins I’ve picked up in the street in the last twelve years. (Mostly pennies!) Then I remind myself that most people do not make a mental or emotional connection between “savings” and their spending habits. We don’t even think of our “spending habits” as spending habits, just as “trying to live my life.” When I work with photos or do home visits with my clutter clients, I look around and think, even at a dollar per item, there’s a lot of money sunk into this room.
When I don’t have any savings, then my personal belongings represent my net worth.
Um, unless I have debt. Then I have clutter and a negative net worth.
Before we go on, I’ll state the obvious: Financial net worth is not the same as spiritual net worth or social net worth. All we’re talking about today is money. Although, as long as we’re on the topic, when we don’t save any money then we are counting on other people to fill in for us, bail us out of trouble, and perhaps support us in frail old age. What will we do if we find out that they had the same plan as us, to count on us for material support the exact same way we were counting on them? We tend to fill our homes and lives with clutter when we cut ourselves off socially and isolate ourselves emotionally. That’s part of why any discussion of the emotional, spiritual, and social inevitably includes the financial.
Back to the clutter. Where did it come from?
The extremely frugal of us will be chuckling and remembering all the stuff we’ve brought home for free. The chronically disorganized will be looking around and noticing how much of the clutter consists of junk mail, newspapers, recycling, and other stuff that... well, it didn’t cost anything but we don’t think it’s all that valuable, either. In both cases, we might do well to ask ourselves if we could lower our rent by using less space. We can also ask whether we could earn more by diverting our scrounging, bargain-hunting energy toward more lucrative side hustles or training for a higher-paid career.
The rest of us can ask, did this cost more than a dollar? A used book, a shirt, a throw pillow, a pen, a can of soup? I still shop at thrift stores, and the price range in my area is now $3-8 for most items. Anyone with a good memory for the lineage of their bargains may be able to bump up that estimate and say, Yes, everything in this room cost at least three bucks, or whatever that number might be.
It could be an interesting exercise to go around with a notepad and write down estimates for the larger items. Roughly how much was the couch, the TV, the bed? It could also be interesting to do an estimate for one small area, such as “everything in the fridge” or “everything on the floor of my car.”
There’s something about the number 55 that comes up often in my work. Fifty-five coffee mugs, fifty-five t-shirts on the floor, fifty-five mechanical pencils. At a dollar each, we can say, “Okay, that’s $55.” Did I actually need each and every one of them? If all my shirts are in layers on the bedroom floor, and I’ve been washing the same basket of other clothes for the last several weeks, then is it possible I could have saved that $55? If I had, would I then have an envelope of money and a clear surface in my home?
Or does any cash on hand “burn a hole in my pocket”? Does a bare surface make me feel a little stir-crazy? Do I spend money quickly or surround myself with stuff because it’s emotionally more comfortable and familiar?
The trouble with clutter is that it fades into the background. We’re so used to it that we forget it’s there. More, we have trouble imagining anything else. How would life be different if I never had to clean this up again? How would life be different if I actually had an emergency savings account? How would life be different if that savings built up over years, and I started trusting its presence?
The other problem with clutter is that it generally doesn’t have any resale value. Many of my people are so emotionally attached to the sunk value of their stuff that they’ll hang onto boxes and piles of it for years, hoping to “get something for it” at the yard sale they’ll never have. Then they finally do put a yard sale together, spend twelve hours a day sitting out in the hot sun, and fail to sell 80% of it. This is a mistake that derives naturally from scarcity mindset. Abundance mindset says, donate it all to charity, spend the weekend napping and going to the park, and think of a different way to come up with $300. My husband and I once wasted a beautiful summer weekend trying to make $100 at a yard sale, and this year we just offset our expenses $600 a month by moving. The new place is thirty square feet smaller, which is less than the size of a ping pong table.
In an emergency, could we get everything out? I think not. I have two pets, and if a natural disaster happened, I’d really have my hands full just collecting them and getting them safely out the door. In my area, the main risks are tsunami, earthquake, wildfire, flash flood, and mudslide. Years ago, I decided that I would never allow myself to get my heart broken by feeling like my stuff was “ruined” or that I’d “lost everything.” If I’m alive, my loved ones are alive, and my pets are alive, then I have lost nothing. I feel much better having an emergency plan, a go bag, physical fitness, insurance, and emergency savings than I think I would if my apartment were full of a bunch of material objects, no matter how awesome they might be.
We keep clutter because we’re overly concerned with the value of things. We’re caught up in the aspirational feelings that we will Definitely Use This Someday. We believe that objects represent our memories and our heritage, and that without the objects we’d forget our past. Many of us believe that our stuff is our personality, so much that we even use the term ‘conversation piece.’ When we feel poor and that life is difficult, we hang onto our stuff because we believe it’s the best we’ll ever have. Imagine how different it would be to instead feel financial comfort, to feel that the future will be more interesting than the past ever was, that we are changing and growing and contributing all the time, that tomorrow will be easier. Imagine how it would be to feel less “this thing is worth something” and more “I am worthy.”
We’re sharing a table at a conference. Breakfast is being served. We haven’t met before, but I know immediately that he’s one of mine. I know because he’s a bag-spreader. He has more personal belongings arrayed around him than I’ve brought with me on long international flights. At a table meant to seat eight, where there aren’t enough spots for all the attendees to eat their meals, he’s taking up a quarter of the table, and that’s only because my husband has nudged some of his stuff away from his plate.
Bag-spreader, bag-spreader, what’s in your bag?
Nobody knows. I find out later that, in addition to all the stuff he has spread around him at the table, he has two additional bags stashed on the extra chairs off to the side of the room.
What’s in front of him?
A smartphone. A tablet with a keyboard. A Moleskine notebook. A composition book. A stack of catalogs, not relevant to the conference. Two separate glasses cases. A pen. A protein bar. The folder of conference materials. Index cards.
Some people might be annoyed at this excess, for excess it surely was. Across the table, I was able to find it amusing and interesting. That’s because I study material culture through history. This tableau is a solid representation of the challenge of straddling two or three eras: the 19th Century desire to keep archival records and commonplace books, the 20th Century habit of taking paper notes at meetings, and the nascent 21st Century practice of using portable “smart” electronic devices. A generation or two further down, it will feel more natural and obvious to rely on the electronics alone and see all that paper as unwieldy and inefficient.
To my guy, Mr. Bag-Spreader, all that paper must feel like a good idea. Why? What is he thinking?
I’d ask him, but we’re on a tight agenda today. Besides, he hasn’t introduced himself or spoken to anyone at our table. He’s taken it upon himself to move other people’s belongings as well. It seems clear that he really wants the whole table to himself and he’s made annoyed faces at those encroaching on him.
Sorry, bud, this is a common area! We paid to be here, too. We have to share.
Why can’t you just keep all your stuff in your bag and put it by your feet or hang it off the back of your chair? You could take items out one at a time as you need them, and put them back in when you’re not actively using them. I mean, that’s what I’m doing.
Back to what’s going on with the bag-spreading. Why a Moleskine AND a composition book AND index cards? Even excluding the two electronic devices? My guess is that he’s using index cards because he doesn’t want to mess up his nice expensive (bright yellow) Moleskine. But he wants to have it out because he’s referencing earlier notes? Or he just likes looking at it? Or he doesn’t even realize that this particular object is extraneous to purpose? I’m also guessing that the composition book is part of a different project, perhaps notes from his home club’s meetings. The catalogs are in case he gets bored.
I used to be like this. I was a bag-spreader myself. I would bag-spread in class, on the bus, on airplanes, at restaurants. I didn’t realize that I was being selfish and unfair to others around me. I didn’t realize that I was spending far more time than other people in interacting with objects, playing with my personal possessions, distracting myself from whatever was going on. It was most likely a way to sublimate my desire to just stay home, a way of comforting myself with familiar belongings and marking my territory. I guess. I can’t say I had much insight into it at the time.
It’s pretty common for bag-spreaders to drag multiple bags everywhere. I kinda still do this, at least one day a week. I have to go straight from kickboxing to one of my weekly Toastmasters meetings, so I have my gym bag with my boxing gloves and shin guards, and then I have my work bag with my tablet, pen, workbook, sunglasses, wallet, etc.
That’s what gets us into trouble with the bag-spreading. Our stuff expands to fill the bag available, and then it becomes background stuff, and then we stop having enough space to carry all the other stuff we want to bring with us.
Right now I have an explanation for everything in my bag, but I can guarantee that there are things in it that would make someone else laugh. (Library cards for three distinct libraries?). Sun block. Wallet. Keys. Lotion. Lip balm. Tissues. Headache tablets. Microfiber screen cleaner cloth. Backup battery with two types of charger cables. Dental floss. Phone and tablet. Paper day planner, for which I cannot defend myself. Right now there’s a trophy and a cowbell, and hopefully I remember to take them out. It’s true that I could have gone out the door with half this stuff and made it through the day.
The heuristic behind bag-spreading is to bring as much as possible, just in case. In case of what? I have no idea, which is what “just in case” means! This is the opposite of minimalism. The minimalist heuristic is to try to bring nothing at all, and add only that which is truly necessary. Anything more is an encumbrance.
More to carry, more chronic neck pain and shoulder pain and back pain. More to lose, more to have stolen. More to spill on, more to stain and fold and spindle and mutilate. More to detract from your fashionable ensemble and general poise. More to spoil photographs. More to trip people or bump into them. More to spread over twice as much space as you’re legitimately entitled to. Or three times. One man, three chairs?
What if everyone brought three bags everywhere? Where would they all go? Would every hallway and every room have to have a wall of cubbyholes? Would every bus need an overhead rack and every plane have room for only half as many passengers?
There were three reasons why I finally learned to quit bag-spreading. One, working with chronically disorganized people and hoarders put it into context. Two, my career ambitions demanded a more polished appearance. Three, I got a smartphone and realized that almost everything I carried could be digitized. I had a fear of boredom as much as anything else. I learned to trust that my phone wouldn’t start bulging or weighing more if I put more books, magazines, news articles, podcasts, or music on it. Oh, and then I became a distance runner and learned that I could leave my house with nothing more than my phone, headphones, and keys.
Bag-spreading can come from a desire to feel resourceful and prepared for every occasion. It can come from a desire to look polished and have backup hygiene and beauty supplies on demand. It can come from a fear of boredom. It can come from simple habit. It can come from distraction and lack of focus. Look at it as a behavior pattern, and observe how many other people indulge in it. Look again and wonder how the majority of people seem to be able to get through the day without bag-spreading. It can be done!
We sold our car over a year ago. We still don’t have one. We’re an upper-middle-class, middle-aged married couple. Supposedly a car (or two or three) demonstrates our social status. Conspicuous consumption is supposed to advertise our relative wealth. Since we prefer actual wealth to the perception of it, we don’t particularly care. What do we have to prove? No matter what car you drive, you still have to look for parking just like everyone else and get stuck in traffic just like everyone else. Or, if you go car-free, you can skip both. Avoiding the conspicuous consumption trap of automobile ownership is a subversive, fun way to broadcast conspicuous leisure!
As a quick note, we had a VW Jetta TDI that was recalled due to the emissions scandal. We took the buyback offer. Due to our low mileage, we got a big check that meant we had essentially been driving it for free for two years. It was a great little car. We don’t really miss it, though; for the last year we owned it, we’d have to take it through the car wash every time we drove. I work at home and my husband walked to work, so we really only ever took it to the movies every couple of weeks. We were car-free in most ways, except for the payments and the insurance and all the other expenses.
Cars are EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE as a proposition. Between the payments, the insurance, gas, oil changes, parking, bridge tolls, and maintenance, it was running us $700 a month. Cars are also socially expensive. Take a look around at all the single-occupant vehicles and ask, is this really the most efficient way to run things? Take a look around at all the pavement, the parking lots and roads and viaducts, and ask, is this really the best use of our space?
Let’s go back to that $700. We could certainly have qualified for a loan for a more expensive vehicle, or leased one at a higher bracket still. But why? Unless you’re absolutely in love with the physical experience of driving, it’s a little silly. I in fact loathe driving and find it to be THE least pleasant adult activity. I’d literally rather scrub a toilet, do taxes, or take a load of trash to the dump. Driving sucks! Neither of us are particularly impressed with the aesthetics of automotive design, either, and if we were, we could just go to the car show every week, or put up some car posters or something.
So we bought a practical compact car. Great. Fine. It was still $700 a month.
IRA contributions for one person under age 50 are currently, as of 2018, $5500 a year. That works out to $458.33 per month. Two people, since we’re a married couple? That’s $11,000 a year, or $916.66 per month. ($12,000 if one of you is over 50 and $13,000 if you both are). By not owning a car, we were able to redirect that money to fully fund one of our IRAs and half of the other.
Oh, hey, I just remembered. A lot of couples have two cars! Crazy, right? One for each of you! Why not have a house for each of you, too?? Two refrigerators and two ovens! And YOU get a car and YOU get a car...
Add up all of the expenses for both of your vehicles over year and compare that total to the $11,000 to $13,000 that would go into your IRAs each year. If you already fully fund your IRAs as well as making car payments, awesome! Good for you! Celebrate by skimming through some vacation packages and comparing those prices instead.
I want to tell you that five grand can buy a really excellent three-week vacation for two.
Not owning a car. Isn’t that extreme? It depends on how you define ‘extreme.’ I’d say it’s extreme to carry credit card debt and pay 16% interest on it. I’d say it’s extreme to “buy” a $30,000 car that depreciates the moment you drive it out of the dealership, and then make payments on it for five years or more. I’d say it’s extreme to age one year every year and not have solid plans for how you’re going to support Future You in your old age.
It’s truly not a big deal. My husband rides the bus to work, and he has a little folding bicycle that he uses between stops, because the bike rack is often full by the time he gets on the bus. His work pays for his monthly bus pass. He’s able to use that pass every day, even if we’re going to the movie theater or something. I work at home, and I walk to my gym, so I only generate transportation expenses when I go into the city once or twice a week.
Instead of driving on Southern California freeways, we can sit back and relax. Play games, read the news, read books, take catnaps, chat with other passengers, generate all sorts of wacky stories, and even get in a few steps on the pedometer.
But how do we do our errands???
We’re within walking distance of the post office, a UPS store, a hair salon, two pharmacies, two dry cleaners, a pet food store, the public library, several boutique gyms, a couple of restaurants, and the veterinarian. For everything else, there’s online delivery, which again is cheaper than car ownership just for the sake of a couple dozen errands per year.
There’s a grocery store a quarter-mile from our apartment. When we lived in a house, the nearest grocery store was about a third of a mile. The house before that had a store directly behind our back yard. They’re everywhere! We’ve also ordered grocery delivery and found that it was pretty reliable. Without that $700 monthly carrying cost of a vehicle, there’s a lot more latitude for tipping delivery drivers.
We sometimes use a ride-share service, like when we go to the airport, or when we’ve left the movie theater and it’s forty minutes until the next bus. The occasional $15 fare for two people is nowhere near as expensive as car ownership. Like paying for deliveries, ride-sharing is a way for us to contribute to the economy. I like the idea of jobs with no dress code, where drivers can choose their own schedules and play the music of their choice.
We’ve rented a car once since we sold our car. We also rented a moving van, but we would have done that anyway because our mattress wouldn’t fit in a car. We always planned that we would rent a car about once a month for running errands, but in practice it hasn’t happened. We just haven’t needed it.
When we first returned our Jetta to the VW dealership, my hubby was a little nervous. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 29, so I didn’t really care, but this was the first time he hadn’t had his own car since he was 16. He used to talk quite a bit about buying a motorcycle, or getting a new car, and I would remind him that we could take a Lyft to the dealership that very night if he so pleased. No call for anxiety. We wanted to test out being car-free for a year, using that time to move more quickly toward our goal of financial independence. That year is now up.
Now that we’ve done it, we’re most likely never going back. I won’t say “never” because innovation is happening quickly, and who knows what game-changers might hit the market in the next decade or two? For me, a car-free life is about the same as it ever was. For my formerly freeway-commuting husband, it’s a whole new world. He now sees car ownership as an unnecessary, extravagant expense. Car-free and carefree!
I wish there were a better euphemism to use for translating the Swedish word döstädning than the phrase “death cleaning.” Okay, that may be the most metal thing of all time, but it may cast an unfairly gloomy pall over what is really a very charming and sweet book. Maybe let’s call it... life sifting. Then let’s move on and talk about how this is just the best book, one that deserves worldwide success.
The author, artist Margareta Magnusson, claims to be “somewhere between eighty and one hundred.” She put together The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning while sorting her own belongings. She did the same process after the deaths of her mother, her husband, and her mother-in-law, among others, and she points out that this work usually falls to the women in the family. She says: “I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.” One of the reasons for doing this work ourselves, Magnusson says, is to prevent fights between family members. For instance, rather than have her five kids quarrel over an heirloom bracelet, she sold it! In my work, it is more common than not for my adult clients to have siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes parents or kids who have not been on speaking terms in years over some piece of jewelry or furniture. If death cleaning can prevent these stupid materialistic arguments and keep families together, that is reason enough to do it.
The other reason is that as far as I can tell, the majority of bereavements result in grief clutter that is still hanging around, years or decades later. Almost every storage unit I’ve encountered in my practice includes boxes of the ordinary domestic wares of a relative who has passed on. Often, the boxes are stacked up in the adult child’s home. There has never yet been a time when anyone has been “ready” to process and clear this type of grief clutter. I know of one home with three generations’ worth. Clearly our culture is in need of some new mourning rituals and traditions. Swedish death cleaning, why not?
My beloved mother-in-law did this process after her fifth lymphoma diagnosis. She spent the last months of her life systematically sorting through all her things. She had a lifetime’s worth of wacky costumes, hats, costume jewelry, and stuffed animals, including all sorts of prizes and joke gifts from her different clubs. She invited her friends to visit, one by one, and had them choose things that spoke to them. She sorted through every shelf and closet. When she was done, she taught her husband how to cook all of his favorite recipes. I believe this methodical clearing work helped my mother-in-law to make her peace, while also pacing those inevitable goodbye visits that might otherwise have been overwhelming. She wasn’t Swedish, but that process is reflected in this book, which even closes with some bonus recipes.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a light-hearted, breezy take on a situation that could really use it, viz. mortality. The author’s illustrations add just the right note of whimsy. Read it, share it, bring it to book club, and give out copies to everyone in your family. Then let’s all push up our sleeves and get started.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.