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What Your Stuff is Costing You

The hidden price tag of clutter could be hurting your bank account

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Organizational experts say hanging on to old stuff can end up costing you in the long run.
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Perhaps this sounds familiar: You finally treat yourself to new clothes, new furniture or new appliances. But in an effort to be frugal, you also hang on to the old stuff. You cram the clothes into closets, move the old fridge to the basement (it still works well enough for now…), and put the well-worn furniture into a storage unit.

Unfortunately, what we consider being thrifty is actually costing us — in everything from living space to hassle to cash. If you’re looking for motivation (or permission!) to unstuff your home, read on.

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Loss of living space

When we have empty space, whether it's a shelf or a garage, we tend to fill it. So over the years, our homes can start to feel cramped, which often makes us think we either need a larger home or can't possibly get by in less square footage.

But with housing being most people's largest expense, it can pay to try to separate how much space you actually live in from how much space you're using to store things. If you're heavy on the storage side, your most economical solution is probably to unstuff the home you're in.

Ann Zanon, a certified professional organizer in Norwalk, Conn., calculates the cost of space per square foot and uses that to inspire her clients to clear out unused stuff. For example, a family that bought a 2,000-square-foot home for $300,000 typically spends nearly $15 per year for each square foot. “It doesn't sound like a lot,” she says, “but that's $15 every year to keep a toy your child isn't playing with.”

Multiply that by all the unused items, and it really adds up. Zanon estimates the average household could free up 20 percent of its space by getting rid of items that are not needed or used. The common space cloggers she encounters include excess clothing, shoes, frames — and, ironically, unused storage containers and organizers. Another source of excess: bulk buys from wholesale clubs.

“I'm not a huge fan of buying in bulk,” Zanon says. “For the majority of homes, even five-person households, it's not worth it.” The cost savings, if any, she says, are overshadowed by how much space you take up to buy years' worth of things like paper towels.

Other bulk purchases — especially perishable food — frequently get wasted. “You buy a six-pack of romaine heads and use two of them,” Zanon says, adding that she also frequently encounters stockpiles of expired vitamins. Even frozen food doesn't last forever — from one to 12 months, depending on the item.

Time and maintenance

Living with too much stuff costs us in other ways, too.

With too many items in our closets and corners, we can't find what we need. We waste valuable time searching and spend money needlessly on replacements, as Valerie Poteete, 50, realized she had done when she downsized from a 2,800-square-foot house in Las Vegas to a motor home. “It was amazing how many duplicate items I had acquired over the years,” she says. “I found five sets of measuring cups!”

Plus, the things we keep need to be cleaned and maintained. That's more time and money. Turning to professional organizers to help manage our stuff — wise investment or not — costs an estimated $40 an hour.

Monthly storage fees

If the American dream includes buying a home, it often involves renting storage space to go with it. According to the Self Storage Association, the 1 in 10 of us who pay for storage are more often homeowners with a garage or attic than apartment dwellers.

According to other market research, Americans will fork over $37.5 billion this year on storage, at an average cost of about $90 a month. The most common unit rented measures 10 feet by 10 feet, enough to store two to four rooms' worth of furniture.

“Storage units are the bane of my existence,” says Zanon, who cites the example of one client, a recent widow, who moved in with her daughter and moved many of her possessions into storage for three years, at a cost of about $320 per month. Zanon calculates that her client ultimately spent about $11,500 to store about $1,000 worth of items. When she finally cleaned out the unit, “everything she kept fit into two boxes,” Zanon says.

The sooner we make decisions about our stuff — and let some of it go — the less expensive it is.

Clean-out costs

However attached you may feel to what you're filling the family home with — a lifetime's worth of athletic gear, heirlooms, kids' keepsakes — we all have to move on at some point, whether that's to a condo, an assisted living facility or the hereafter. And when that happens, you (or your kids) will have to reckon with what's in your attic, storage facility or those basement shelves.

If it costs roughly $1 per pound to move things, “more things equals more money,” says Zanon, who has repeatedly seen people stockpile food ... and then move it. “They're paying a dollar to move a can of beans they paid 79 cents for,” she says.

Bigger items cost much more. Jerry Flanagan, CEO of JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, a nationwide franchise, says his company most often gets called in before a house goes on the market. “Realtors want a clean slate,” he says.

What does he see households hanging onto — and then finally junking before they can even sell the house? Old appliances, swing sets and basketball nets, unused hot tubs, and tools that have often been passed down. Often these space hogs haven't been used in years, yet people haven't gotten rid of them. “They push it off as long as possible,” Flanagan says, noting that customers pay his company between $100 and $600 for pickups of unwanted items.

If you keep on top of clearing out unused stuff — maybe by scheduling an annual clean-out — then “by the time you're ready to move in five to 10 years, you've spread out the cost,” Flanagan says. Not to mention the effort.

Holly Wolf, 59, of Fleetwood, Pa., learned the hard way the high cost of holding onto stuff. Her uncle had long collected items he thought would be worth money down the line. When he died, she filled six trash bins with things removed from his four-car garage alone. “I paid to get rid of it,” she says, “and I have no idea how much he paid for the stuff. My suggestion is, if you don't use it, get rid of it now.”

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