The hidden costs of clutter

Published: Friday, Nov. 18 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

Matt Wolfe works at his family's company, Downtown Self Storage, in Salt Lake City. He is moving a card table that he'd been looking for and found in his personal storage unit.

Michael De Groote, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — There is enough space in America's 46,500 self-storage facilities to fit every man, woman and child. Everybody would have 7.7 square feet to call their own — more than many Occupy Wall Street campers. To accomplish this feat, however, would require moving a lot of stuff out of the way.

And stuff is what it is all about. Stuff with a cost.

In a recovering economy people look for ways to save money — all the while holding onto stuff they own. But that stuff they own has hidden costs. Costs they don't consider or costs they think are necessary.

Just don't call it clutter.

"Is it clutter just because it is more than can fit in a house?" asks Timothy J. Dietz, vice president of communications and government relations for the Self Storage Association. "I would not say it should be considered clutter just because somebody runs out of space for storage in their home. People turn basements into home theaters or turn garages into family rooms and they need space for storage."


On a cool November morning, Matt Wolfe walks through the maze of wooden storage units at Downtown Self Storage in Salt Lake City. Light filters into the corridors from old warehouse windows. Wolfe's self-described position at the business is "owner's son." He stops and opens his own rent-free unit. "I'm not a clutterer," he explains. The unit features winter coats, an old microwave, some ski equipment, a few blue Rubbermaid bins and a fake skull on a stick suitable for use at the Burning Man festival. "People don't really keep valuable things in self-storage," Wolfe says. "They will keep valuables close at home or in a bank."

Then Wolfe finds a hint of one of the hidden costs of clutter. Behind a piece of plywood leaning up against the unit's wall is a card table. "I've been looking for this," he says as he grabs it, "and I didn't think to look in my own storage unit."

Sarah Stitham, a certified professional organizer in Ulster County, New York, said that one of the hidden costs of clutter is how it hides things. People don't know they already have something because they can't find it and so they go out and buy another one. Stitham sees this happen often when she works with people to organize their homes. "So many of my clients will say, 'Oh! That's where that went,'" Stitham says.

The item-lost-in-other-stuff cost isn't, like clutter, limited to any socio-economic level. "Even if someone doesn't have a lot of money, they can always buy more clutter," Stitham says. "They just shop differently at different stores."


When clutter expert Mike Nelson stood outside his burning apartment in 2005 in Austin, Texas — wearing only a bathrobe and standing next to his dog Fluffy — he had a profound and surprising sense of relief. He was free from the bondage and cost of stuff.

At least temporarily.

"Clutterers are driven by fear. They are afraid of throwing anything away because they fear they will make a mistake," Nelson said. "They think losing something would be the end of the world. But it is not."

Now, years later, Nelson, who lives in McAllen, Texas and is the author of "Stop Clutter From Stealing Your Life," can easily rattle off several ways stuff costs more than just its purchase price.

"I knew a guy that the only way he would ever really clean out his car was when he would sell it," Nelson says with a laugh. "He would just bring it full of all his junk and tell them to just take it all. And of course they would offer him a lot less money." A similar thing also happens when people move — losing them the security deposit.

There are costs from trying to get rid of pests that breed in boxes and around the piles and stashes of clutter.

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