Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard from a few readers who have asked me whether or not I’ve watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, a Netflix series that debuted early this year. I have actually watched a few episodes (but not the full season), and what I found is that Kondo is a charming embodiment of the principles found in her bestselling book from a few years back, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
Kondo’s focus is on decluttering one’s home using a system she calls the Konmari method. Basically, it involves going through categories of things, rather than going room by room, and asking yourself whether this category of item sparks joy in your life and, if so, which elements of that category spark joy. If it doesn’t spark joy, you should probably get rid of it.
For example, you might consider all of the DVDs and Blurays in your home as a “collection.” Which ones truly spark joy in your life, meaning that the thought of watching them again makes you genuinely feel happy and excited inside? Keep those. If you don’t genuinely have that feeling, you should get rid of the item.
You just simply go through that same process with each type of item in your house. Clothing. Kitchen tools. Board games. Books. Everything. The idea is that if you later decide that something is important to you, you can likely purchase it again.
There are a number of principles that this strategy has in common with good personal finance that are well worth highlighting here.
The Konmari method is a brilliant way of getting rid of clutter. It genuinely works if you take it to heart and apply it seriously. Just go through a single collection of things in your home that feels cluttered. For each item, ask yourself if this item genuinely sparks joy for you. If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, toss it. If you’re on the fence, toss it – or, at the very least, put it in a box somewhere else, label it with a “sell by” date, and then if you never touch it between now and then, you can be sure that it’s okay to sell it.
Aim to have small collections of things. If you find that your collection of a particular item is exceeding the space you have set aside for it, that’s a perfect collection to tackle. Kondo often recommends keeping a collection at 30 items or less, which is a good target.
My own experience with this strategy has been extremely positive, though it’s mostly been small in scale. I’ve used her principles to downsize several of my own collections that I felt were becoming excessive in the past few years, and I have several upcoming projects along those lines. Each time, it has felt incredibly good to eliminate a lot of things from my possession that didn’t bring me any personal value.
And there’s financial value to be had, too.
The decluttering process, if taken slowly and thoughtfully, can produce some real financial returns while also clearing up your living space. As you’re decluttering, you’re probably getting rid of things that have financial value. Don’t just toss them unless they’re truly junk!
Instead, hit up your local buy/sell/trade group on Facebook or Craigslist and sell off some of those items. If an individual item has significant value, take it to eBay and try to get that full value. If you’re doing this in the winter or early spring, culminate all of this purging with a big yard/garage sale.
This takes more time than just tossing the items, but it offers the potential for at least some sort of return on the items.
If you find that they’re not selling, donate the items. If you can, get a receipt for the donation so you can deduct it from your taxes; if you can’t, that’s still better than just throwing the items in a landfill.
A decluttered living space often means more empty space than you thought, which means that it’s easy to move to a smaller living space with lower expenses, which saves further money. In the end, you should theoretically wind up with a living space with a lot less stuff in it. It’ll feel empty. That’s a good thing, because it’s an indication that you can afford to downsize.
It’s important to note here that downsizing your home is one of the most effective methods there is for saving a ton of money. If you can move into a smaller home or apartment, you’re simultaneously cutting down on your rent/mortgage, your utilities, and your insurance, and you’re often able to also cut down on commuting costs if you’re able to move closer to work. That can have a profound positive impact on your finances, and it’s something that’s opened up for a lot of people by using the Konmari method.
Where the method struggles, however, is with overconsumption. This article fairly accurately dives into one of the issues with her methods:
“It’s very hard to switch our mental tools, which is why lots of people, once they’ve done that clearing up and feel good about it, think: ‘I’ve got all this space on my shelves. What do I do?’ And they go buy more.”
The key thing is to remember that once you’ve actually pared down your possessions to the things that are meaningful, that doesn’t mean that you now have a bunch of empty space to fill and should fill it. Rather, it means that you should be careful to avoid getting back into that situation to begin with where decluttering seems necessary.
One good approach to this is to adopt a “one in, one out” policy with each of your collections. If you acquire a new book, then that means an old one has to go. If you’re gifted a new book, read it and then choose one of your books – either this one you just read or an old one – and pass it along to someone else. The goal is to stop increasing the total volume of the stuff you possess and instead just stick with the stuff that’s meaningful.
I am trying to do this with some of my possessions. If I’m considering buying something new, then I have to decide beforehand on something that has to go away. For example, I have a particular area where I store my board games and if I want to add another one and that space is full, one has to go away first. (It’s generally a good idea to have some extra space at all times in case I find something rare.)
This is a key part of enabling some of the benefits described earlier in the article, especially the idea of downsizing one’s home. A home with a lot of empty space is a very inefficient use of money as you have to pay to maintain, heat, and cool all of that space, so you’ll be money ahead by downsizing, but that doesn’t help if you’re going to immediately start filling all of that space again.
In short, unless the Konmari method of trimming down your belongings isn’t paired up with an ongoing strategy for minimizing additional purchases, you’ll end up right back where you were and you’ll have spent a lot of money on stuff that doesn’t “spark joy” along the way.
So, what’s the take-home? The method works well for decluttering, and if you’re smart about it, you can translate that decluttering into some money in your pocket and the possibility of a home downsize that will put a ton of money in your pocket. However, when you’re done decluttering, there’s a strong temptation to fill empty space with fresh stuff, which is inherently expensive. You need to adopt a strategy for this, and I find that a “one in, one out” strategy is really good.
Paring Back: The Power of Minimalism to Transform Your Life and Finances
The Challenge of Getting Rid of Stuff
What the Stuff in Your Closet Can Teach You About Personal Finance