Ruminations on Estates and Organizing

I recently had the opportunity to clear out a densely hoarded home. The home was sizable, about 3,250 square feet of living space, plus a two car-garage and large basement. With the exception of one room, everything was densely packed. I had to walk on 'stuff' just to make my way from the front door to the kitchen. This is the second such home I've cleared in the last 18 months.

In both cases, the deceased left behind a single (adult) child. In both cases, the kids were completely overwhelmed. Clearing an estate with even a more typical amount of stuff can be a daunting task. It's emotionally freighted. Simply put, it's just hard to let go of the things which once belonged to someone you loved. But when the house is hoarded, it's an open wound and a herculean task.

It was my job to do the heavy lifting. In both instances, the heirs trusted my judgment in sorting through tons of stuff.

In the most recent instance, I set to work, tossing obvious trash, recycling the things that could be recycled (plastics, paints, cardboard, glass, electronics and so on) and donating the things which could be donated (in hoarded houses, it's not much because things can be pretty funky, mildewed and possibly contain bedbugs or other critters). I was also tasked with finding certain financial and legal papers; and I also took it upon myself to find other personal papers (for instance, photographs and personal papers -- in this case there was a treasure trove of letters between the mom and dad from the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's).

What was left, after I cleared the house, amounted to eight boxes of those personal objects, plus four pieces of art (wall-hangings) and one small piece of furniture. Eight small to medium bins, four paintings and one small cabinet. That was all that the bereaved wanted to remember his parent.

It is an object lesson in what things are important and what things are not.

Go fearlessly into your own closets and basements. Remember which things are important and which are not. Think about the things that are really important to you -- the ones that you love and which are of use. Everything else can be put on the chopping block. And if you get stuck, call a professional.



Out of Control Clothes, Part 2

One of the things I run into most frequently are overstuffed closets, dressers, armoirs, with clothes busting out at the edges and spilling over into the room or even the entire house. My clients often show me a photo (from an organizing magazine) of what they'd like their closets to look like.

I'll share a secret -- there's no secret magic to that. For those photo shoots, they simply remove about one-half of the clothes, get nice hangers and put remaining one-half of the clothes back neatly. It's not actually a secret; it's just common sense. There is a finite amount of space in a closet. If you put too much into it, things are going to be so tight it becomes hard to get to anything. The key to an organized, tidy closet is that there is room to move the hangers from side to side, so that you can see what you have and get out what you have, without a serious tug of war battle.

For most people, the problem is the stuff. They want to keep it all. 

But we know that we wear 20% of our clothes, 80% of the time. Everybody has that go-to pair of jeans, casual summer dress, favorite shirt and so on. We wear them over and over. Meanwhile, other articles languish in the back of the closet or drawer or in a pile of dirty laundry which has been gathering dust for months. If an article of clothing has adopted the shape of a hanger and is literally dusty, you don't need it any longer. Wish it a fond farewell and donate it to somebody who will wear it, rather than banish it to the back of the closet. You'll feel better for doing so. 

I know that it can be hard to let go of things, but clothes, like most things in life, are replaceable. The things that are irreplaceable cannot be purchased at the Gap or Marshall's or Macy's. Time spent with loved ones. Taking the dogs for a walk. Reading a good book. Doing work that is satisfying. Cooking a meal. Those things are irreplaceable. A pair of jeans? Not so much. 

If you want to get organized but are having a hard time culling through things or letting go, stop focusing on the stuff and instead focus on the space and the state of mind it creates. Ask yourself what you want. Do you want a room that gives you peace of mind? Do you want a closet that doesn't make you feel bad when you open it? Do you want your home to have harmony in it? Focus on those things and forget about the shirt, the jeans which still have the tag on them, the shoes that pinch your feet. 

When you stumble or get stuck, try to re-shape your thinking about it. Spend less time thinking about the stuff you are donating and more time thinking about how good a tidy, organized closet will make you feel. Harmony. Balance. Clean spaces. Those are the important things and sometimes to get there, you have to think about the problem differently. A sense of well-being is more valuable than anything you could ever buy.


Out of Control Clothes

I frequently walk into homes with tons of clothes only to have a client tell me that “well, I just need to get these organized.” It is true enough that an organizational system is needed, but we’re all living with finite space limitations. Most of the time, the answer isn’t a bigger space or a clever system of boxes or shelves, tempting as those may be. The answer is the hardest one -- sorting and prioritizing.

It may be time to take a hard look at your closet. 

True story. I was working with a single mom one day. It was early in the winter, so it was starting to be serious coat weather. As there was no coat closet near the entry, there was a large wardrobe in the living room which functioned as the coat closet, holding the coats, hats, gloves, sports equipment, etc. for this family of three. After we reconfigured much of that living space, I suggested we tackle the contents of the wardrobe.

“Oh, we don’t have to do that,” she said.

I persisted. “Let’s just take a quick look in there.” 

She was game. We quickly discovered that it was so jammed full (coats, hats, boots, scarves, athletic equipment, sneakers, too many hangers) that nobody could get anything in there. Thus, the coats and jackets in current rotation were tossed on furniture (or the floor) in the living room and dining room. Athletic equipment was likewise strewn throughout the living room, dining room and kitchen.

We ended up getting rid of about two-thirds of the contents of that wardrobe. Some went to a consignment shop and some things were donated. A few things were in such a bad state that we tossed them. There were multiple coats and pairs of shoes that her kids had long outgrown. There were coats in there which she no longer liked and didn’t even remember having. The upside was that we also unearthed a few favorite pieces she had forgotten -- it was almost like getting new stuff!

When we were done, there was room in the wardrobe. We had designated a shelf for things like yoga mats, athletic gear, and so on. Every member of the family had a nook for their hats and gloves. No more coats hanging on chairs and no more gloves lost because they were absent-mindedly tossed on the kitchen table.

I learned two things from that experience. The first was that just one closet (in this case a wardrobe) can create an entire room's worth of mess. It's fair to say that at least one-half of the mess in the living room was caused by the over-stuffed wardrobe. When we fixed that it became much easier for her and her kids to put things away. Thus, the living room looked fairly tidy, pretty much all the time.

The second thing I learned was that I have to just go with my client sometimes. In this case, I had a client who was game to give it a go when I suggested it. And she was able and willing to let go of things she no longer needed, wanted or used.

With the living room tidy and manageable, she was thrilled and her kids were happy. If you have a problem with clothes in your home, your closets (or dressers or wardrobes) may be the source of the problem. Don't be afraid to get in there and tackle them. 


Drowning in Paper, Part 1

Every home  I am called into requires creativity, patience and a bit of quick thinking on my part, but one thing I know I will come across in the majority of homes is out of control paperwork. I run into mounds and mounds of papers everywhere -- stacked on top of the refrigerator, tucked alongside the television, piled high on the kitchen table, hanging in grocery bags from door knobs, scattered across the living room sofa, tucked into dresser drawers and laying on every available surface. The papers I come across are all kinds and they’re often all piled together -- junk mail, old financial papers, christmas cards, bills, bank statement, grocery receipts, restaurant receipts, medical bills, coupons, school papers, recipes, magazines (often magazines with organizing tips) and just about anything you can imagine. 

Most of my clients keep all of their papers for fear of losing one which may be important. Ironically, with paper everywhere, it is impossible to locate the one they may want or need.

And if you don’t know where your important papers are, you might as well not have them at all, right?

If you can relate to at least some of that, you have certainly been in a situation where you needed a specific paper but couldn’t find it. Anxiety builds exponentially for every second spent rifling through the various papers in your home. It’s a terrible feeling. And while filing may seem dull, what it does is eliminate anxiety on the back end. No more hunting for your auto insurance policy, or your passport, or that very important tax document. Filing is not about putting things away, so much as it is about retrieval. At the end of the day, it is about eliminating unnecessary anxiety.

But before I tackle the stacks that may exist in your home already, I want to talk about new paperwork, that is, the paperwork you bring into your home on a daily basis. After you develop new habits for the new papers, you can then start to tackle some of the pre-existing stuff.

-- Junk Mail.  Bring your mail into your home and head straight for the trash can or recycling bin. Toss all the junk mail immediately. Keep the rest. Do this every day. Make it your pattern and I guarantee you will start to notice a difference in the mess in your home.

-- Receipts.  If you are not self-employed, you don’t need 99% of the receipts I find in homes. I constantly come across receipts from Starbucks, Walgreens, Giant Eagle, Target and Applebees, to name just a few. Not self-employed? You can’t write off that dinner; thus you don’t need the receipt. Toss it. Burn it. Torch it. Line your cat’s litter with it because you don’t need it. And you never will. [If you are considering returning something -- say a new pair of jeans -- keep the receipt with them. Once you remove the tags and wear them, you can’t return them, so you can get rid of the receipt right away.]

-- Bank Statements. If you are reading this post, you are on-line. At least consider going paperless. Instruct your bank to email your statements to you monthly. You can check them on the computer and you don’t have to worry about the papers building up. Plus, you don’t have to worry about how to dispose of papers with important account information, something that is a major stumbling block for many.

The above tips are simply geared to eliminating papers and I know you’re asking, ‘Okay, smarty-pants, what about the papers I do need?’ Fair enough.

After you toss the junk mail and after you dispose of your unnecessary receipts, you are still bringing paperwork into the house, probably daily. The papers you may need or want to keep fall into two really basic categories -- financial and personal.

You’ll need two boxes. You can get decorative bins made of canvas or wood or anything you like, but if you need something fast and cheap, use a cardboard box. [For this purpose, I often use cardboard bankers boxes, which can be purchased at any office supply store.] Dedicate one box for personal papers and one for financial.

-- Christmas cards, birthday cards, magazines, catalogs, recipes, etc. are dropped into the personal box. If you have kids, you may want to put their school paperwork here, as well as any drawings and paintings they bring home for you.

-- Then all of your household bills, car papers, insurance policies and forms, investment and 401k statements, medical bills and so on can be placed in the financial box.

This is a really basic first step using two very broad, simple categories. I’ve suggested these as a deliberately simple starting place, a place where you begin to have an idea of where things are if you need them. Once you get in this routine, you can think about fine-tuning your system, creating sub-systems (perhaps a box dedicated just to the kids, or one dedicated to auto papers, you get the idea.) As with anything, new habits are made in tiny, incremental steps.

If you’re already drowning in papers (as described above), these tips should help you keep those piles from growing, which is a huge step. First, we have to arrest the development of the overwhelming paper:  next time, I’ll tackle what to do with the paper which is already there.


The Big Shop

Nobody calls me when things are tidy and the household is running smoothly. The nature of my business is such that when things in the home reach a tipping point, I get a call. Every house is different. Every client is different. Yet there are common themes that I run across time and again, one of which is the subject of this entry: over-buying groceries.

I walk into kitchens that are literally over-flowing with food. There are hundreds and hundreds of cans (soups, sauces, vegetables, tuna, you name it); there are myriad dried goods, plus jars of jam, salsa, mushrooms and just about anything that can be put in a jar. Often, much of the food is so old and out-dated that it has to be pitched. It is quite simply TOO MUCH. 

Most of this is the by-product of over-shopping and lack of preparation. Being organized isn't about the right shelves or the perfect hangers, despite what television advertisers would like you to believe. Being organized is about taking a moment to just breathe and think. It's about being thoughtful in your planning. Here are some hands-on tactical tips to keep the contents of your kitchen under control: 

1.  Plan your breakfast/dinner/lunch menus for the week. Planning the week doesn't have to mean that you abandon all spontaneity. This is an outline for the week, but it's not written in marble and you needn't be rigid about it. Plan your menu, then allow yourself some flexibility and wiggle room:  if a friend calls and asks you to come out for a quick bite one night, go enjoy the food and the company; if your kids want pizza night after basketball practice, order the pie and enjoy. But planning the menu prepares you for your week. More importantly, it makes it easy to follow step No. 2.

2. Make a list based on your menus before you head to the grocery store. After you take a few minutes to plan your menus, write down all the items you need.  Steps 1 and 2 will take you no longer than 15 minutes. [Maybe it'll take 25 or 25 minutes when you start, but after a while, you'll get to be a whiz and you can complete the planning and list making in 10 minutes flat.] When making your list, be sure to think about other household items you may need:  kitty litter, laundry detergent, paper towels, etc. The idea here is to do all the thinking at home and then go on autopilot at the market. 

3. Use only the coupons for items which you intend to purchase on your list. But what about all the money you can save with coupons? Hooey. 80% to 90% of coupons encourage you to purchase items you do not need, do not want, and may never use. If you have coupons for items on your list, even better. Otherwise, ditch the coupons. Use your list. And your head.

4. Don't fall prey to the 10 items "bargain. You've seen the deals -- 10 cans of butter beans for $10. You know what? If you buy 2 cans, it still only costs you $1 per can. Buy the amount you need and not in bulk. Most of us aren't cooking for an army. Don't shop as though you are. 

5. Don't impulse buy. Try to stick to the list. One thing that will help you to avoid impulse purchases is to eat before heading to the store. Shopping while hungry is a recipe for disaster.

As with any new habits, this may be uncomfortable, unpleasant or strange. Stick with it. Don't beat yourself up if you have way too much in the kitchen. And do not castigate yourself if you backslide or slip up. Just keep on trying. 

Last thought. If you take these steps above to re-take control of the shopping, you'll start seeing a difference in your kitchen. And in your grocery bills.