my two cents

Is Clutter Also Making You Bad With Money?

Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

Like everyone else with a Netflix subscription, I spent a recent Saturday watching Marie Kondo’s new show, Tidying Up, and then dumping the contents of my dresser onto my bed (including a bunch of forgotten cedar chips at the bottom of my sweater drawer, unfortunately). Per Kondo’s instructions, I thanked my ratty undies, fondled my socks, and folded my shirts into pert little rectangles. I hauled a bunch of crap to Goodwill. And then I saved $138.

The money was an indirect result of my decluttering rampage, and also a surprising one. The backstory: I was planning to spend it on a pair of pants that I’ve wanted since last summer and had just gone on super-sale — 60 percent off, down to the aforementioned $138. I decided to buy them. Instead, I clicked through to the checkout page and stopped. These pants would disrupt my new organization scheme. Suddenly, the pants lost their novelty. I didn’t want them anymore. Ads for them followed me around the internet for days afterward and I wasn’t even tempted.

It hadn’t occurred to me that cleaning out my wardrobe would have such an immediate impact my shopping habits. Of course, the connection is almost too easy to make: Become happier with fewer things, and you won’t feel the urge to buy so much. But is the process really that simple? Could tidying up really make a lasting difference in my spending? If so, perhaps a lot of us are approaching our finances backward — instead of stressing out about our bank accounts, we should be looking at our stuff.

My theory was confirmed by Kaitlin Roberts, a “gold-certified KonMari consultant” (which means she has taken Marie Kondo’s seminar, aced a written test, and whipped at least 20 clients’ homes into shape). “It’s common that a cluttered home and messy financial health go hand in hand,” she says. “Clutter is a representation of procrastination and unmade decisions.” This seems logical: If we can’t get our belongings in order, then other aspects of our lives that require similar skills — like bills and budgeting — are probably in rough shape too. But if we fix one, does that help fix the other?

According to Roberts, the answer is yes. If you’ve watched Kondo’s Netflix show, you’ll know that everyone starts the tidying process by identifying “a vision for your ideal life” (while Kondo kneels gracefully on your floor, surrounded by your slovenliness, and closes her eyes). This vision is supposed to extend beyond your tupperware and into every corner of your existence. In doing so, “you learn to identify what brings you value and you have the opportunity to make changes to better align your financial habits to this vision,” says Roberts

There’s actual science behind this, too. From a psychological standpoint, your spending and tidying habits are both related to a specific dimension of your psyche known as “conscientiousness.” Part of the “Big Five” model, a widely accepted method for assessing the many facets of human personalities, conscientiousness is comprised of a bundle of behavioral traits like being on time, avoiding procrastination, working efficiently — you know, “vision of your ideal life” stuff that we try to do but can’t because our lives are complicated and flawed. These traits tend to stick together in individuals, and usually emerge in childhood and endure throughout adulthood. However, they aren’t set in stone.

“There is no clutter gene,” says Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University who has studied the connections between procrastination and clutter. “Certain habits — like holding onto too much stuff — may become ingrained when you are very young, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn new ones.” His research has also found that the more clutter you have, the lower your general well-being — a correlation that remains consistent across socioeconomic groups, he adds.

Psychologists are still in the process of exploring ways to boost one’s own conscientiousness and its associated virtues. As a result, the jury’s still out on whether tidying could actually cause better financial practices (or vice versa), or whether they just correlate. However, researchers have posited that “experiencing stable, consistent, and supportive environments” — i.e., a neat and orderly home — “may be a critical ingredient for the development of conscientiousness-related traits.” Meanwhile, literature from Harvard Medical School suggests that adapting certain behaviors of conscientious people — like “organizing your desk” (or, presumably, your sweater drawer) — could give you a leg up. I’ll take what I can get.

Is Clutter Also Making You Bad With Money?