I hate to admit it, but I am organizationally challenged.
My home is littered with doubles of items I’ve bought when I could not find the original.
My living room often looks like who-did-it-and-ran, which is only partially the fault of the resident rugrats.
I’ve even been known to misplace checks for months at a time in the pile of stuff on my desk.
After years of failed resolutions, I’ve come to realize that organization is a habit, and that there is no particular product I can buy that will make me organized—much as I love shopping at the Container Store.
Ready to learn how to organize your life and save?
Here are five ways that organization will help you to save money, and some suggestions for how to go about changing your habits to make organization possible:
1. Meal-planning keeps you from wasting food.
How many times have you excavated some moldy food item out of your refrigerator that you never even tasted before it turned to the dark side? Not only do I sometimes find myself throwing out fruits or vegetables that never saw a plate, I also have a tendency to throw out delicately aged leftovers that I carefully put in Tupperware only to lose it in the back of the fridge until it has become a science experiment.
The solution to the food wasting problem is meal-planning. Planning out your meals in advance (or even just your dinners) forces you to think about what ingredients you have at home, allows you to only shop for the ingredients you need, rather than going on a grocery binge, and makes you plan out your week with the difficult days in mind.
If you’re new to meal-planning, using a service that provides you with menus, recipes, and grocery lists is a pain-free way to start. The SavingDinner.com program, for example, offers menus catering to both dietary and financial restrictions.
Editor’s note: I’m a big fan of the meal planning service that Erin Chase of $5 Dinners provides. Learn more here.
Even if you go it alone, the main thing to do is get into the habit of planning out your meals in advance. Sit down on Sunday with your calendar and some cookbooks, and figure out what dinner you will make each night of the coming week. Then go shopping in your own pantry to find out what you already have, and make a list of what you need before you go shopping. Post your dinner list somewhere you’ll see it, so you remember to defrost the necessary ingredients ahead of time.
You’ll find that you not only spend less at the grocery, less of your food will end up in the trash.
2. Keeping an organized calendar will save money on everything from gifts to maintenance to food.
Most parents have had at least one panicked Toys R Us run on the way to a child’s birthday party and grumbled at the cost of the gift (plus the gift bag you have to buy at a high mark-up so your kid won’t be the only one giving an unwrapped present.) But giving presents does not have to be expensive or last-minute, as long as you have a well-organized calendar at home.
Placing upcoming events on the calendar allows you to plan ahead for the gift-giving occasions and actually shop around or find items that are less expensive online. Knowing that you’ll need a gift in the near future also makes it possible to wrap the present at home rather than waste money on a gift bag that is immediately going in the trash anyway.
Maintaining a home calendar can also save you money elsewhere. For instance, regular maintenance is important for both home and automobile, but it can be difficult to remember to clean out your gutters and get your oil changed when you have a busy schedule and a family. Taking the time to pencil in all of the regular home and car maintenance duties on your calendar will ensure that you schedule them—and prevent serious problems from cropping up.
Finally, the meal plan you set up will be much more useful if you create it with your calendar in hand. Not only will that prevent you from buying ingredients for dinner on a day you’re scheduled to meet friends at a restaurant, but it also helps you remember which days’ schedules can and cannot handle elaborate recipes. It’s much cheaper to plan on simple spaghetti for the night of little Sis’s piano recital rather than realize you have to order a pizza because the duck à l’orange you planned will take too much time.
It doesn’t matter if your family calendar is a traditional wall calendar, a digital timekeeper, or a paper agenda. All that matters is that all events are posted in the same place and that everyone in the family has access to it.
3. Having a laundry system will save you in utilities.
How many times have you rewashed the same load of laundry because you forgot about it until it mildewed? This happens at least two or three times a month in our house—meaning we overspend on utilities and laundry detergent, and sometimes on new underwear when nothing in the house is clean.
The problem with laundry it that it is a task that Stephen Covey would refer to as important but not urgent. Things that don’t have to be taken care of immediately fall into that category—which includes things like retirement planning, exercise, and cleaning the cat box. We tend to be on top of the urgent items, whether they are important or not, like a ringing phone, a crying baby, or a looming deadline.
In order to stay on top of those important but not urgent tasks, we need to set up a system and make it a habit. For instance, FlyLady.net, the reigning queen of housekeeping and tidiness, suggest doing one load of laundry every day. That means gathering up all the dirty laundry every morning before work and starting a load. Then, when you get home from work, transfer the wash into the dryer. After dinner, fold it and put it away.
Each one of these steps takes very little time, which is why it’s very easy to put it off. But that is also why it’s easy to integrate each habit into your day. After a few weeks of doing this, you will find your laundry is always caught up, and you will not be wasting time in the morning looking for a clean shirt or wasting money on your utilities and cleaning supplies.
4. An organized pantry will save you money on snacks.
Most pantries are a mishmash of boxes and cans, with the requisite dusty food items shoved in the back that no one in the house remembers having purchased. Not only does a disorganized pantry leave you vulnerable to double-purchasing ingredients, but it also costs you money any time someone wants a snack away from home.
That’s because impeccably organized pantries include some sort of snack box or bowl, where you can find individually packaged granola bars or trail mix or jerky. Family members who know they will be coming home late from school or will be out all day can grab a snack to throw in a purse or book bag and avoid spending money snacks from a vending machine or a cafeteria, where they’ll be much more expensive.
5. Organizing your paperwork will end late fees and the “what did I do with that insurance check?” moments.
Even with the rise of online banking and bill pay, most American households still receive about 41 pounds of mail per year, most of it currently sitting on kitchen tables. In among the junk mail are checks, bills, and other important papers you really don’t want to lose.
The problem is that our hands are generally full the moment we walk in the door, so we throw our mail on the nearest handy spot to deal with “later.” But later never comes until we’re frantically searching for our overdue Visa bill or for the rebate check we need to deposit before it hits its expiration date.
The trick to organizing paperwork is having a simple system. David Allen, author of the book Getting Things Done suggests you do one of three things with paper as it comes into your house:
- Shred or trash the junk. A good way to make sure you do this is to put your shredder and trash can right by the front door. Make trashing it is as convenient as throwing it on counter.
- Take care of anything that will take less than two minutes. Call the vet to schedule your dog’s appointment the moment the reminder arrives. Then it’s taken care of and not cluttering up your space.
- For anything that needs more time, place it in your “action bin.” Allen recommends having a single in-box on your desk for taking care of things that require more action, like bill paying or calling to dispute a charge with your cable company. You must plan a time at least once a week when you go through your action bin and take care of everything in it. Clearing out your action bin more often will make it like the laundry habit above—it will take very little time since it’s not overflowing and it will become a daily habit.
Setting up this system will require one grand purge ahead of time, but it’s liberating to dig yourself out of the paperwork that first time. (In fact, many of us are great at the grand purge and have trouble with the habits following it afterwards). Take a weekend soon to set this up, and you’ll save yourself time, headaches, and money because you always know where your bills and checks are.
The Bottom Line
Getting organized may seem like it requires discipline, but in fact the opposite is true. Once you put habits in place and make them automatic, you don’t even have to think about organization. Making the change in habits is a slow process, but even tackling one bad organizational habit will make a big difference, both in your stress level and in your finances.