Color of Money Live: Ways to start de-cluttering your home

Aug 16, 2018

Join Washington Post nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary for an online discussion.

“Knowledge isn’t power. The right knowledge is power.”

Stay informed.

Read & share Michelle Singletary’s Color of Money Column on Wednesdays and Sundays: https://wapo.st/michelle-singletary

Follow Michelle Singletary on Twitter (@SingletaryM) and Facebook www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary

Thank you for joining me this afternoon. I see there are lots of questions so let's get started.

Aretha, Queen of Soul.

I know. I'm so super sad. Most of my favorite play list on iTunes is her music. Been playing her songs all morning. 

Have you ever considered collaborating with the Post's food department to compile a cookbook of economical (but not difficult) recipes for homemade meals from the Post's incredible database? I bet it'd be a best-seller!

Wow. What a great idea! 

My husband and I, rounding the curve to our 70s and in good health, have done a decent job with estate planning. Our wills, beneficiaries, etc. are all in good order. But where we are at a loss is "stuff" planning. We have our home plus a vacation home. We have inherited things that it would be nice to keep in the family. We have stuff that we aren't sentimental about, but will need to be disposed of somehow. We do not have any children, and the nieces and nephews are scattered across the U.S. and overseas. It's not realilstic to think they can handle it. There is only so much we can get rid of while we are living. So - how to plan for "stuff" disposal? Are there companies who can take this on? How do we find someone trustworthy?

For ANYONE who has had to clear a home of stuff after someone dies we would have welcomed some decluttering. You are doing your family such a favor thinking about this now. 

But I don't think you need to hire anyone. Just create a schedule or system to go room by room and declutter. And be hard. Let stuff go!

Start giving away things now that you think family or friends may want. But  don't count on folks wanting the things you hope to keep in the family. So don't be hurt when they turn you down. 

Contact local charities and donate items. Or have a sale. It's so easy to sell online (Just be very, very careful.)

Make it a fun project with trips down memory lane. 

Sometimes you can tell what day it is by what I wear. I rotate thru my clothes. If I can't remember what I wore on Monday, I doubt anyone can remember. My clothes need to work 3 seasons out of the year. Summer shirts under sweaters or suits. I look at some of my 10+ year old pictures and I am still wearing the same blouses that are classic in design. At this stage of the game I am trying to pare down my wardrobe. I look at new clothes and see what else it can work with my current garments. One day I decided to eat the food in my house. I don't cook THAT much and was amazed how much food we had in the frig and pantry. It's the little things and changes in behavior that really stopped me from shopping as a hobby. Unless I need something I don't go to the grocery or any store. If you are trying to cut back on drinking and eating out, why are you stopping at a bar? Why wander around in a store. Temptation is out of reach. You can't keep up with the Jones and the Jones can't keep it up either. Ask Manafort. He is living paycheck to paycheck...who would have thought it? The best magician since Houdini. Look all that money is really no money.

Read Michelle's column: This is how you know you’re living above your means

The Manafort case was just so fascinating to me. I'm still stunned how he could blow through $60 million and allegedly resort to crime to keep up his lifestyle. 

By the way, I found a picture of one of my girls when she was a baby. I couldn't tell which kid it was because I recycled their clothes. They never had a closet jammed with clothes. Nor my son.

Why? 

Two words: College Fund!

I found you can still to a plan of living below your means by having a financial goal. 

And realizing you can still go broke earning millions.

Why won't our government help people with huge student loan debt that is crippling some people?

Well, "our government" is you and me. To help that means the money has to come from "the people" and that might mean higher taxes. People don't even want to spend on safety nets for people to put food on their table. They aren't likely to vote for higher taxes to bail people out of student loans.

Now having said that, I agree that the increase in student loan debt is very troubling. It's the next financial crisis. 

 

I just wanted to say thank you! Today we have our appointment with a fee-based financial planner who manages our investments. We've been working with her for a year and a half now, after receiving an amount of money that we no longer felt comfortable managing ourselves. When we were discussing what to do, I came to your chats and found the link you've recommended several times to finding a planner. It has been a huge relief to have someone else's help!

Totally not a "sort of" testimony. It's an all the way testimony. It's okay folks to spend money to get a professional to help make sure you are managing your money well. Just be sure to properly vet people. 

I would buy some vacation cottages and let my relatives live there with minimal rent as "housekeepers" until they died. Then the property would revert back to my children. Maybe I would stay in the cottage a week every couple of years so they wouldn't feel like moochers.

Such a nice thought. But giving people stuff doesn't necessary mean they will be without financial issues.

Not property trained to handle their money even with a low-rent option, they won't just be moochers they might end up being dependents -- especially if they know you got money.

 

What would you recommend if you wanted to invest in something that you would be able to leave to your great-great-great-grandchildren, say in 100 years. The stock market comes and goes. Maybe real estate? Bury some gold?

Low index growth mutual fund. Over time, based on past performance, stock market still beats out most other investments. And it's passive. No collecting rent and no even wilder swings with a commodity like gold. 

And don't be afraid just to toss! My late mother HATED dithering over possessions and taught me that it's ok to throw out EVEN IF you think it has some value, ior think that somebody, somewhere *might* be able to use it, EVEN if it was expensive or a gift, EVEN if it was something you wanted or asked for, once upon a time, EVEN if it was the kind of thing that everybody else kept. She gave me all those permissions. I'm not always as uncluttered as her, but if I hesitate for one of these reasons, I summon her spirit.

I have such a hard time letting go of stuff. But been in a mission to declutter. Did well the first part of last year but slipping again. Now that my oldest has moved back home to finish up her last year in graduate school, as we clear space for her in our basement, I'm back on track to get rid of stuff.

Hi Michelle - I could use some advice. My husband passed away 12 years ago and I was left with a lot of debt. I have a decent job, so I figured I could pay it off over time and be OK. I used his small life insurance policy and my retirement savings to pay down what I could, but still owed over $200K. Then 2 years ago I sold our house, bought a small house with my son, and used the rest on the debt. Now it was down to $100K. So now I'm paying $2500/month on debt, $1000/month for taxes, and save $500/month. I'm 59, and just figured I'll keep working as long as I can and I can get through this. Last week I had a health scare, I'll be OK but now I will have to use my small savings to pay the deductible - and I finally realized that I'm really stuck. I've tried to find a higher-paying job, but haven't found one yet. Anything bad that happens and this will all fall apart. I've never in my life missed paying a bill, but I'm considering bankruptcy. I hate even thinking about that. Are there other options for me? I've thought about consolidating the debt to reduce interest, but I'm not sure I'd qualify (OK credit, 730 score, but high debt to credit ratio). If I do file for bankruptcy, would that affect my son at all, since he and I are both on the mortgage? Thanks so much for any advice you can give me.

I'm so sorry for all that you have been through and are going through. Without more information I can't say if bankruptcy is your only option. But with the changes in the bankruptcy laws you have to go see a nonprofit credit counselor anyway should you look into the option. And because there's a means test to file for a Chapter 7 (where you get to wipe out all your debt) you might end up in a Chapter 13 and still have to pay the debt off over five years.

So go see a counselor now. Go to debtadvice.org to find an agency near you.

Talk to the budget person and go through your finances. They will help guide you. 

Go and then come back and tell me what happened. 

Not if it's needlessly defiling the environment in a land-fill. There are many organizations that will recycle a variety of items.

Yes, of course you are right. I did see that but forgot to address that. I do try not to throw away things that can be donated or sold. I've very worried about the environment and all the things we throw out. Honestly, that keeps me from replacing a a lot of things that may be a little worn but still functional. I hate adding to the stuff in landfills. 

Hi, Thank you for the chats! We have 6 months living expenses, but we're trying to decide how much to have in a life happens fund? Any good ways to calculate?

What I tell people is to figure out what major things might come down the pike. For example, do you have an older car likely to need major repairs. If so, go for saving $1,000 to $1,200 for repairs. (Doesn't seem a repair always cost $800 to $1,000?)

If you're living in an older home, expect appliances to die (even if you have a whole house warranty you have to have money for the repair visit about $100 per). 

See where I'm going. Start adding up the things that might happen and shoot for a savings in the life happens that would cover the expenses without raiding your emergency fund. 

To start aim for $500 to $1,000. If you're well paid shoot for $2,500 to $5,000. 

And especially recipes with overlapping ingredients so nothing gets wasted. Meal planning is my personal bugbear. Sticking to a budget and making sure ingredients I buy can be used in multiple recipes is a total grind. Oh, and while I'm wishing and hoping, how about not including obscure ingredients I have to drive all over town to locate?

LOl! Love it. Going to send an email to the folks over at food today!

A friend just lost her husband and she is working like gangbusters to get her house cleared out. She sent stuff to her kids, and is really really getting rid of things (also planning to sell the house and downsize). Just go thru and send it to those who want things -- and give to those in need, and get rid of junk. No one seems to want most of the stuff anymore, though, so understand that.

Good advice. 

The question was about how do they ensure what stuff they have left is disposed of after they die. Even if they are ruthless about decluttering, there will still be household items, etc., that will need to be dealt with. (And absolutely declutter as much as possible before!)

You tell folks in your will or letter of instruction, which lays out your wishes about such things. But when you do a will you'll have an administrator. Talk to that person about what you would like. 

There will be things to get rid of and there is a thriving estate sale industry to help the person charged with handling your estate. 

My grandmother was very good about marking who, when and where on her photos. My mother, not so much. Now I have albums of people I don't know. I have multiple copies of the same photo of people I do know. I have 7-10 bibles.

I'm your mom. Lots of photos no idea about many. That too goes on the list of things to do. 

 

In her decorating column this morning, your colleague Jura Koncious mentioned Freecycle as an option to get rid of a chair. It's a great way to clean out your house and feel that someone who wants it and needs it will get your stuff--I've "donated" furniture, clothes, shoes, small appliances and someone out there always takes my discards.

Very good tip. Thanks.

A great group is "buy nothing." It is neighborhood based, and we use a group on facebook. People post stuff to give away and it goes to a good home. Or people ask for things a lot -- and then if you have it laying around and you don't use it -- give it to someone who needs it! so they don't have to buy it. We literally got a 3000 dollar TV that way.

Right. Another good source.

Many thanks for all you do. I am new to your columns and am learning a lot. Really appreciate your efforts. I was wondering if I could get your take to plan my financial next steps. I have a 3-months emergency fund and $3k in Life Happens. No car (take the bus) and zero credit card debt. 10% of my pay goes to a pension fund with 10% employer match (so 20% in total for pension savings). I recently bought a condo with 10% down so I have PMI (I know 20% is ideal, but it is what it is). I'm living simply and I have about $1,000 left in my monthly budget, minus the retirement savings and other expenses (mortgage, groceries, bus fare, etc.). With this leftover $1,000, I'm thinking of splitting it between paying more on my mortgage to get rid of the PMI faster (maybe $700 extra per month) and then some more into a 401(k) with my employer (~$200) (this would be in addition to the pension). Then any leftover to general savings (I'd like to save up for a new sofa after the PMI goes away :), and I'd like to have closer to 6 months of emergency funds). Does that plan make sense? Or should I be focusing on getting rid of the PMI over the 401 additions? Or vice versa? For what it's worth, I'm single in my mid-30s. I've been savings since my early 20s and have about $250k in retirement assets (pension/401ks/Roths). In about 7-10 years, I will be likely taking in my parents (they're getting older and will need extra help), so just want to get a solid financial foundation setup ahead of time.

You have a good plan. I might tweak it this way.

-- Use the extra money to get to the 6 months emergency fund.

-- Also, make sure I have a really well funded life happens fund. The $3,000 is good but push it to maybe $5,000. 

Once those pots are done, then yes look at paying down the mortgage to not just get rid of PMI but to well pay down the principal so that you become mortgage free faster in case you parents do have to come live with you or you need to take care of them. 

And I say that over the retirement because you are still so young and you have a GREAT start on that front. 

I have read somewhere that individuals spend about $1700 annually on clothes. Somebody must be doing my share because even before I retired I never spent that much. Am I the only person who has clothes more than 20 years old? Some coats get worn only a few weeks of a year. Sweaters last for years and I am not hard on clothes and I hate shopping so classic styles are always in.

I definitely don't spend anywhere near that much and I'm in front of the public A LOT speaking. Look for photos of me online and you're see the same outfits!

Michelle, I took a 15k paycut about a year ago to leave a terrible (shady business practices, etc) job. I've managed to get by. But I'm not sure if I'm approaching my debt monsters the right way. I'm about a year from paying off my federal student loans, but I still have a chunk of private student loans (refinanced at a decent rate). I got deep into credit card debt when I first moved to the big city (huge regrets there!). But I started aggressively paying that off two years ago, and haven't used a credit card since. I'm on track to get that paid off in two more years. I max out my TSP match plus a little more, and I have almost 2k in savings... but that's barely enough to get through a month of living expenses. Annnnd my old car just was diagnosed with a problem that will be about 5x the value of the car to fix (on top of about 1k of repairs I've already done on it this year). How foolish is it to get an auto loan? Should I be abandoning savings till I'm above water with debt? Should I scale back some of my aggressive payoff plans to put towards others?

You are putting too much pressure on yourself. So yes, pull back a bit. Build up your safety net -- emergency fund and life happens fund to take care of the car. Keep it running by making repairs as long as you can because from what you tell me you don't really have room for a car payment.

It's okay to slow down the debt payments until you have a better cushion and your car situation is stable. 

Maybe even -- for now, temporially -- but back on the "then some" for the TSP until you get a handle on all the debt. 

I love that you are being aggressive but you can slow down just a bit.

I wonder if my grandmother was related to the OP's mother. I have albums full of photos. The obvious people I know. I'm sure a lot of them are relatives, but distant enough that I never saw them again after my teens. I know I really should just throw out the ones that are meaningless to me.

Or maybe next major family gathering have a photo party. Ask everyone to bring photos and help label them with who is who. Maybe even swap photos. 

My mother has been dead over 30 years and it has taken me decades to get over her keep everything mantra. I mean keep one odd candlestick that was part of a pair that someone gave her 25 years ago because it was a gift from a dear friend. When she died we pulled stuff out of closets that we had never seen, had never been used. I try and be a bit more ruthless. If I haven't used it in 5 years I probably don't need it.

Or maybe even give away/sell if you haven't used in one or two years? 

Speaking to myself right now. For example, my daughter -- the one in graduate school who moved back home -- wanted to sell two lamps. I was having panic attacks. What if I need them kind of thing. She just looked me and said, "You didn't even know they were in the basement." 

She sold them for $45. I'm letting her keep the cash from the declutter sales. 

I'm retiring soon and would love to get into financial education as a second act. Starting my own program is not what I want. How do I determine what makes a good financial education program to get involved with? What are the red flags to stay away from? I would just like to volunteer some time to help people become independent and successful at managing their money, not investment advice. I have no educational background for this, just life experience and a willingness to be someone's cheerleader.

If you live in the DMV area I could use you in my financial ministry at First Baptist Church of Glenarden.

But if not or not your thing, just look for nonprofit, free financial programs that may need mentors. That's how I use people. I get them to be financial accountability partners for folks. We teach about budgeting, getting out of debt etc. 

Contact a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency and see what volunteer help they may need. Go to debtadvice.org to find local agencies. 

That's why classic fabrics and styles work best. But I literally wear them out: fraying, holes, tears that can't be mended. I have an entire bag full of these items but Montgomery County no longer recycles textiles! I can't figure out what to do with these beat up shirts and slacks and blouses that will keep them out of a landfill! (P.S. have a six-month follow up next week with my fee-only financial planner, thanks to you, Michelle!)

I'm in the same boat. I have bags of old clothes right now that can't be sold or donated and just can't bare to throw into the trash headed to a landfill. 

My dad went through his photos and tossed the ones he didn't care about - duplicates, people he didn't know, etc. He then took them all to Costco and had them make photo CDs and tossed the paper photos. He sent each of us kids a CD. Yes, this costs some money, but if you have it in your budget, I highly recommend it. I LOVE having the photos, which if he'd have left on paper (or, for some of them, slides), only one of us would have been able to keep them.

I LOVE, LOVE this idea.

A habit my mother taught me early on was not to put on my good clothes until I was ready to leave the house, and to change out of them as soon as I got home. Saves a lot of wear-and-tear on good clothes that way.

My grandmother Big Mama taught me the exact same thing!

I recently left my job and and am home full time. My spouse and I are in our early 40s. One of our biggest financial impacts is regarding retirement planning. Should I roll my 401k from my former employer into an IRA? Is there any way for me to continue tax-advantaged saving for retirement?

You don't necessarily need to roll over your 401 (k) money especially if you have a good workplace plan with low fees. And yes because you are married you can still contribute to a tax-advantage account. You are a good candidate to visit a fee-only planner to map out how you need to still save for retirement.  

I think I might have the winner here: When my dad died, he left behind a box of unlabeled photos. I have NO IDEA who any of these people are. I tried asking my dad's cousin, and he'd say, "Oh, that's Poppers/Apron Sally/Mammabee" or whatever in a snotty "how dare you not know?" tone. I quickly gave up because the tangle of nicknames and attitude was just irritating. So now I have a box of random ancestors in my attic and no clue what to do with them. I'm not generally in touch with my relatives (they're not big on gay folks, and I'm loyal to a gay sibling), so I'm guessing I'll just have to live with the mystery forever.

Or send the photos to your relatives with the attitudes as a gift!

My sister sat down with our grandmother and a tape recorder and her old (now almost 100 years old) and asked her to talk about each of the pictures in turn. Now that our grandmother is gone, we have a priceless record of family history, because of course there was lots of cross-referencing.

Beautiful!

Can you donate them to the appropriate local historical society? Most counties have one, along with members who might value the photos, and be able to ID the photographees.

Good idea. At least check.

Michelle, My partner and I are thinking about marriage soon, and we're starting to talk about making sure we're jointly prepared for retirement and estate. The tricky thing in this case is I'm in my mid-20s, and he's in his early 40s (16 year age difference). The even trickier thing about us is that I'm already the higher earner with a lot of upward potential. We are both putting away significantly into 401k and retirement planning, assuming that we basically have to save for 2 almost separate retirements. I will be investing in a term-life policy because we're counting on the fact I have 3-4 more decades of earnings ahead. I've read a lot of your advice about social security planning and estate planning, but much of the traditional wisdom doesn't seem to make sense for us. Michelle, my question to you is twofold: Are there any special resources that you can refer us to for a set of unique circumstances? How would you recommend finding a financial advisor/planner/counselor that can help us evaluate the risks and strategies we're not seeing?

I"m close to closing up but wanted to get to your question. You definitely should see planner because of your situation. Google "fee only planner" and you'll find lots of resources including the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA). Also ask around for recommendations from your friends. 

Is it best to pay off cc debtunder 10k down to a zero balance before starting an emergency fund, or to do them simultaneously? In case another emergency really does happen.

You still need an emergency fund even as you are paying down debt. If you don't have a cash cushion and a financial crisis happens, you'll just get into more debt. 

I was so glad to see your column on this! I think few realise just how much goes into purchasing, maintaining and insuring cars. I drive an almost 17 year old Honda, and work at a local university as a junior faculty member. Med students who see my poor old hoopty often ask, "Hey, Dr. T, don't they pay you enough to get a decent car?" I just smile and reply that it still gets me from point A to point B. Thanks for your columns and advice!

Exactly! 

Now I'm going to waste the afternoon googling how I can recycle dead clothing that Goodwill, etc don't want because it's torn, or underwear and the like.

LOl!

If you give them to a local charity shop such as Value village, the raggedy clothes will get passed on to a recycler either to be used either as rags or to be shredded for stuffing.

I'll have to check this out. 

H&M stores accept worn textiles and clothing for recycling. I have taken threadbare ripped sheets and other things like that to them (laundered), no problem.

For real? Another thing to check out.

The OP could also call around to some of the estate sale places and get an idea of what they will charge to empty out her place after her demise. She might really like one or two of them and can identify them in her will or a letter to her executor.

Good tip! Thanks

Sorry, but if she's selling your stuff, she should be giving you half of the proceeds.

Nah, she's a great daughter, honor student and her internships for social work are unpaid. So I'm happy to let her keep the money. 

To where we live now, across the country from where we were, I was working and my husband was not. He got rid of a ton of stuff (we still moved stuff across the country we didn't need). I didn't even know about it (I was at work, didn't see it) -- and still don't know what it was. We are a great team.

Teamwork. My husband does this sometimes because he knows I can't let go of stuff. The packrat, grew up poor in me. 

What a great chat today. Turn a pretty interesting turn on letting go of stuff. And I LOVE it! 

I so appreciate this forum and all of you who participate. 

I'm sorry if I didn't get to your question or comment but I read everything. Your efforts are not in vain. I often use what I read for a column or to help inform my reporting. 

See you next week. Take care. 

In This Chat
Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, "The Color of Money," which appears in The Post on Wednesday and Sunday and is carried in more than 120 newspapers.

Read recent columns
Subscribe to Michelle's newsletter
Color of Money Q&A Archive
Recent Chats
  • Next: