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I bought O Magazine the other day because it was a “Declutter” issue—‘tis the season for that now, I guess.  The Suze Orman article promised “a surefire way to build wealth that won’t cost you a penny.”  Her solution: getting organized.  Suze says that financial clutter needs an overhaul now and then just like closets, and that piles of disorganized bills and papers indicate a lack of control over what undoubtedly is important stuff.

While she recommends putting each of your bills into their own folder and we already know that I dismiss that approach, but I did appreciate her advice about which documents to save and for how long—and the fact that she doesn’t recommend a safety deposit box for important docs, but suggests a more portable safe instead, since I’ve been debating that issue for a while myself.

I think everyone pretty much gets that not having your financial life in order costs you more money in late fees and interest.  But finding the motivation and discipline to get it all organized is incredibly hard.  Why, when the benefits are so great?  I think this speaks to what I think is one of the biggest problems people face, but don’t realize they face: mental clutter.

Mental clutter is when you have so many things on your mind that you can’t keep them straight and are constantly forgetting things or getting distracted by remembering things you forgot earlier.  Some people probably think living in a state of mental clutter is just normal life, but I think of it as the epitome of stress.  It’s more dangerous than actual clutter, because that’s objective.  What looks like chaos to one person can be perfect order to another—if and only if they don’t have mental clutter.  Organizing your external stuff is really just a means to the end of organizing your internal stuff, of eliminating mental clutter.

For example: a credit card bill arrives which you don’t have the money to pay right now and just the thought of paying it anyway overwhelms you because you’re paying just the minimum and you know the interest that’s accumulating is going to take you forever to pay off.  So…you put it aside because it’s too much to think about right now and make a mental note to get to it over the weekend when you have more time to think about it.  Which means you’re then walking around trying to remember to pay that bill, along with a million other things, and then maybe you forget and that causes more stress and before you know it you’re overwhelmed by mental clutter.  Bad news bears.

It should be no surprise that my solution is to find a way to not have to think about it.  For financial stuff that means automating it.  Everyone should take advantage of online banking and online bill paying.  In my opinion this is one of the best inventions known to man.  One session of going through just one month of bills means you can set up recurring payments to each biller well before the deadline every month.  I prefer sending it from my bank account rather than having the biller automatically withdraw it because it’s easier to make changes if you switch banks and you aren’t chasing down your money if you have a dispute about a bill.  Then you also don’t have to worry as much about saving bills because you can always print the backup from your bank.  Once you’re relieved from the burden of having to keep track of all your bills, it is so much easier to start paying down debts and setting aside savings as well.  Then not only are you not paying late fees and interest but you’re also putting money aside and not even missing it—bonus!

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Without exaggeration, I think half the battle in remedying a problem is correctly identifying it.  It’s not as easy as it sounds, and you can’t determine a solution until you really understand what you’re dealing with.   One of my favorite bloggers, Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, talks about it as well.

I’ve had two situations recently where I was frustrated by systems that weren’t working until I realized that I hadn’t correctly identified the problem.

The first had to do with paper filing: I keep and file all the bills and other financial miscellany we receive for at least one year, just in case I need to go back and reference something.  I had folders for each bill in a small two-drawer filing cabinet.  So the cell phone bill would go in the Verizon folder and the electric bill would go in the National Grid folder and so on.  I hate filing though, so I would procrastinate it because I just didn’t want to spend time doing it everyday.  But then things would pile up and when I finally got around to it, it would take forever, which was even worse.  I thought the problem was just that I didn’t like filing, but I had to dig deeper.  Why didn’t I like filing?  I finally determined that what I really didn’t like was the sorting—going through the pile and sorting each bill into its appropriate folder.  Once I realized that, I had a lightbulb moment: what if I just filed them by month instead of by category?!?  Then I could let them pile up for a month and at the end of the month just stick them all in their own folder!  I could still go back and find something if I needed it but I wouldn’t have to spend time sorting through the pile of bills.  Thus the lovely, decorative wall-hanging monthly file system pictured above was born.  Now not only do I not even have to think about filing the bills, but they add interest to our office space too!

The second situation had to do with laundry.  No one likes doing laundry either (if you do…wanna come over?), especially me.  But it’s not the collecting or washing or drying that I dislike—those things are pretty easy, especially because we have machines to do the hard stuff for us.  It’s the folding and putting away that I can’t stand, and I’ve always hated it.  I used to let baskets of clean laundry sit on my bedroom floor for weeks until I had finally worn all the clothes in there and they were empty again.   It drove my mom crazy.  Sorry, mom.  I would still do that today if I had any extra floor space in my bedroom, but I don’t (and I am unwilling to follow my husband’s example of leaving the baskets in the spare bedroom—that’s right, I’m talking to you!).  I had thought it was the act of folding the clothes and putting them away that I didn’t like, but I realized that, once again, it was the sorting I didn’t like!  I didn’t like going through a big pile and having pants and shirts and socks and having to fold each thing a different way and put them in a different spot.  So now, instead of sorting and washing my laundry based on color (lights vs. darks) I now sort them based on type, or tops vs. bottoms.  This way I have a basket full of pants and I fold them all the same way and put them all in the same spot and don’t have to think about it as much.

When you have an area of clutter or some obstacle to efficiency that’s driving you crazy, take a second to think about what the problem really is.  Is it really that you’re too forgetful or have too much to do, or is it just that you don’t have a good list-making system?  Is it really that you have too much stuff, or is it just that you don’t have appropriate places to store the stuff?  (You probably still do have too much stuff, though.)

Clearly, the conclusion to this story is that I run into problems when I have to think too much!  My standard, go-to solution should always just be whichever one will require me to do the least amount of thinking.  My brain’s not lazy, it just has better things to think about than bills and laundry.  Like cupcakes!  Those are always better than bills and laundry.