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3 Things to Keep When You Tackle Clutter

Shutterstock_375900517The world now seems chockful of tips to streamline your desk, your home and even your life. This isn’t a bad thing. For CPAs, the files pile up fast. Not to mention the articles, notes, e-mails and phone messages.

At home, the challenge to keep a grip on all the stuff can be even bigger with old clothes, shoes, sports equipment, tchotchkes and other stuff.  The cappuccino maker that your brother-in-law bought you is collecting dust but you feel guilty giving it away.  Or, in the case of my parents, it was books, tons of them. “They were like houseguests who never left,” my brother observed.  In her bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” Marie “KonMari” Kondo advises getting rid of things that don’t bring you joy.

Being surrounded by useless things, be they old magazines or appliances or clothes, can be draining. I am a big fan of regular (ok, semi-regular) sweeps to free up visual space, bringing an “ah” feeling to your eyes and brain. However, I want to caution you in your zeal to unclutter to consider keeping a few items that you may regret tossing later.  With all due respect to Kondo, it doesn’t have to bring you joy, but provide a crucial link with a person or memory you cherish.

This article on sorting mementos suggests keeping items that relate to positive experiences like triumphing over adversity and letting go of things that relate to other people’s life events (an invite to your brother’s wedding). Of course, it’s a personal decision of what is important to you to save; below are my suggestions based on my experience, as well as related tips for retrieving or storing. 

  • Phone messages: I can’t tell you how glad I am that I didn’t get too efficient in deleting messages from my mother. A few weeks after she died, I went through them so I could hear her voice. There were ones I had forgotten, including one on my birthday, wishing me a good year and telling me she loved me.  So before you hit the delete button, stop and consider whether this is a message you’d like to hear again.

I wish I could say this was a simple thing for me to retain but the logistics were not as simple as I had hoped, especially since it was an older phone. The service provider did not transfer them to my new phone so I downloaded free software called Audacity to save the messages to my computer. Fortunately, some folks have gone to the trouble of posting a video to explain how to do this and it was easier than I expected.

  • Cards and Letters: Holding on to every birthday or thank-you card can create real space problems and you’re not likely to re-read them all. But here again, I am grateful that I kept some of the cards from friends and relatives that reminded me of moments we shared or my relationship with them.

How do you choose?  I kept what I considered representative samples; for example, one letter from siblings or parents while I was in college, one card from Grandma, etc. I also held onto to some with messages in them beyond “Happy B-day” or Love, Mom. Remember that when you read cards at a party or while sorting your mail, the message may not register so consider giving them a grace period of a week or two, then decide whether to toss. To keep it under control, you may want to set a limit and keep only what will fit in one box or album that are safe for long-term storage (see below).        

  • Photographs: With smart phones working as mobile cameras, keeping photos is not as much of a challenge as is doing something with them. It gets overwhelming fast, especially when you add in pictures posted by friends or family on social media. I am considering hiring someone to help me organize what I have so it will finally get done—at least until the next batch starts to pile up.

If you want to put off that task, I understand but there are some  important steps to take now:  

(1) Check that any storage boxes or albums are lined with acid-free paper so they will preserve well. These are widely available at craft stores or online. Certain clear plastic boxes are okay too; these tips from a storage expert will help you choose. 

(2) Back up images that are stored electronically. Most of us have learned the hard way that crashes happen, which is why you back up work files. Treat those irreplaceable vacation photos the same way. Consider using a cloud-based service to store your photos remotely to protect against computer failures. There are a number of services out there, and this article gives a quick overview of some of the more popular ones.

(3) Label, label, label.  Trust me, you won’t remember all those names five or 10 years from now. And if you are labeling print photos, use a pencil rather than a pen.

For comprehensive pointers on preserving just about anything, from videotapes and furniture to flags and tools, the American Institution of Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has you covered.

Ann Marie Maloney, Communications Manager- Tax, American Institute of CPAs.

Mother and daughter image courtesy of Shutterstock

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