Expert Interview with Erin Doland on Uncluttering for Mint

Erin Rooney Doland, editor in chief of Unclutterer, wasn't always organized - in fact, she used to be a bit of a pack rat. But over the years, she's discovered letting go of excess stuff can be pretty liberating, not to mention financially beneficial when you start to sell unwanted items and get rid of monthly payments on storage units and the like.

Her family is always finding new ways to live with less, like going down to one car after one was totaled in an accident. They realized they could live just as easily with one car as they had with two - easier, actually, when they decided to use the insurance money from the accident to pay off the remaining car, canceled insurance coverage on the second car, and now spend significantly less for gasoline, insurance, property taxes and maintenance.

"A smaller life costs less and frees up more money for savings, vacations or whatever it is you see as a priority in your life," she says.

Here, the author of Unclutter Your Life in One Week discusses the reasons behind our cluttered lives, the benefits to cutting back and tips for reigning in spending on unnecessary stuff.

Tell us about Unclutterer.

Unclutterer.com was founded in January 2007 by Jerry Brito. He hired me to start writing for the site in March of that year, and then I was named its editor in November. I've been leading the site for close to seven years now, and I truly love having this opportunity.

Initially, I wanted to write for the site because I'm someone who lived in utter chaos and clutter for more than 20 years who transformed into the unclutterer I am today. I'm obsessed with researching and learning about the human connection to physical possessions, how the brain organizes information and even technologies to help people organize their lives.

Unclutterer allows me to share this information with others - and now is a platform for a staff of writers to share their insights, too. We try our best to keep things fun and helpful, without any kind of judgment or taking ourselves too seriously. Life is amazing, and we want to help people keep clutter and disorganization from getting in the way of whatever it is they want to accomplish and experience.

When did you hit rock bottom in your life as a pack rat? What steps did you have to take to unclutter?

Things were bad for a long time for me - I was flailing at work, my home life was a disaster and all the stuff was causing a ridiculous amount of stress that affected every area of my life.

One day my husband talked to me about a life he imagined that didn't include all my clutter but did include adventure and friends and freedom from stuff. I loved his vision and wanted it, too, but it didn't happen overnight. I researched and procrastinated and mentally prepared and then, one day, I put on my big girl pants and started to make it happen. I failed a lot.

That is when I realized being organized and uncluttered is a skill - like playing a sport. No one wakes up one morning able to win a gold medal at the Olympics; you have to practice every day. Even today I slip up, but now I have systems in place, significantly less stuff and years of practice to help me quickly get back on track.

How did that process help you grow? What did it make you realize about your life?

The process was extremely humbling. I was almost 30 and had no clue how to be a responsible adult. Thankfully, with every box and pile of stuff I worked through, I felt more relaxed and life became easier. Then, when I started to put routines into place to maintain the uncluttered world I created, I finally felt free and that I was as in control of my life as I could be.

What are the benefits of being a minimalist?

Let me start by saying I'm not an ascetic. I don't live in a sterile or nomadic way. It's cool if that is the way you choose to live, it's just not my preference. The style of minimalism I adhere to is one where I get rid of the distractions (physical, mental, structural) that get in the way of the life I want to pursue. We don't have things we don't need. I can't speak for anyone else, but the benefits I've experienced from choosing to live this way are things like reduced stress, greater spontaneity in my life, the ability to sleep soundly at night (when the kids will let me), significantly improved productivity at work and being able to keep things in perspective. What matters to me is actually the focus of my life, and that means I have fewer regrets now than I did in the past.

What do you miss about your pack rat days? Anything you got rid of that you wish you'd held on to?

I miss the metabolism I had in my youth, but I don't think my pack rat tendencies were responsible for that.

The only thing I got rid of that I wish I hadn't is my passport. At one point in the uncluttering process I became frustrated and threw out an entire box of stuff without opening it and properly sorting through it. In the box was my passport. I was able to replace it, but I didn't realize my mistake until three days before I was scheduled to leave on a trip to France. It was a situation I could have avoided had I been not so careless.

Lesson learned: Don't rush through the uncluttering process just to get it done; you'll pay for it later if you do.

What do you think are the biggest/most common reasons for our clutter? What is the real reason behind why we accumulate so much stuff?

There are too many reasons to count for why people accumulate stuff. Common ones are:

  • Uncertainty (I might need this stuff one day)
     
  • Fear of death (this stuff is proof of my existence)
     
  • Avoidance (I'll deal with this stuff later)
     
  • Sentimentality (if I get rid of this stuff, I'll forget this person or memory)
     
  • Grief (the stuff belonged to a loved one who has passed)
     
  • Addiction (compulsive shopping)

All the reasons are real, and they're just as varied as we are from each other. And a person might have multiple reasons they have difficulty letting go of their clutter.

Oftentimes clutter is the result of our unbridled spending - what do you think is the reason we feel the need to buy so much stuff?

Similar to why people accumulate stuff, there are myriad reasons people spend money. It would be impossible to try to identify all the reasons we spend money.

Scientists have found, however, that the brain releases a chemical that induces happiness when we make tangible purchases. However, they've also discovered that buying stuff also produces a great amount of regret because we compare our purchases to things other people buy. We then buy more to feel less regret, get a small bump in happiness and then feel regret again. It's a cycle, and it's difficult to break.

Knowing that the small increase in happiness after a purchase isn't sustainable joy and is only a response to the buying process can help us not get caught up in retail therapy.

How can people who spend a lot on extra stuff back down on their buying habits? What steps do they need to take to rein in spending?

I'm not against buying things, especially things you actually need and that fulfill your responsibilities. I support the idea of conscientious consumerism. Set a budget. Stick to it. Wait a few days to buy things other than groceries and gasoline. Meal plan and make your grocery list based on this plan. Comparison shop and learn about what you're buying. Read the manual. Get rid of duplicates you don't need. Be mindful of your spending and what trade-offs you're making.

What tips do you have on organizing family finances? What are your favorite tools/tricks/tips for managing bills, statements, budgets, etc.?

Keep a budget and stick to it as much as possible. Have regular family meetings where the budget is discussed and reviewed. Use services like Mint.com that allow you to see your spending habits visually in charts. Have an emergency fund in addition to retirement savings. If your bank has the option, take advantage of having separate savings accounts for larger items you wish to purchase - down payments on a house, a dream vacation, back-to-school expenses for the kids, etc. If you have children, teach them about money and conscientious spending. Try your best not to carry debt from month to month beyond housing and transportation.

I'm a huge supporter of everyone in a relationship having their own accounts and then contributing to a shared account that pays the bills and family expenses. Start saving for your child's college education the day he or she is issued a social security number.

As far as specific tools and tricks, I recommend doing as much digitally and automatically as possible. Set up a file on your computer and save digital statements from your bank, investments, and bills to it. Scan anything you get in paper form and save it to your computer, too. Only save in paper from the things the IRS requires you to keep. If you have questions about what those things are, talk to an accountant or tax lawyer in your state. Shred originals you don't need to keep that contain sensitive information. Back up your computer to the cloud so when your hard drive crashes, you have a backup of your information.

There are myriad programs out there to help you set up a budget - Mint among them. Research and use the one that works best for you and your family.

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