Getting started on spring cleaning

By Daisy Whitney

In Jerry Seinfeld's stand-up act, he describes the garage as the nearly final resting place in the life of "stuff." Rarely does stuff ever make it out of the garage and back into the house, he says, because the garage is really just the way station before garbage.

Well, the truth is that most of our "stuff," and we have a lot of it, should actually begin that trek to the garage, and garbage, a lot sooner.

Like now.

It's spring cleaning time.

To be most effective at spring cleaning, you may need to install the skills to get better organized  in the first place.  That's because most of us undertake spring cleaning because we simply have too much stuff. And when we have too much stuff, we have clutter.

"In its simplest form, clutter represents all the decisions we are not making," says Barry Izsak, author of "Organize Your Garage in No Time" and president of the Association of Professional Organizers. "Everything we own needs a home. If it's paper, that home is a filing cabinet. If it's stuff, that home is a shelf, cabinet, drawer, box or closet. If we don't select a home in the first place, we don't know where to put it away. If we don't put stuff away the end result is clutter."

We all need a system because a system prevents the stuff from taking over, he says. So before you attempt that big spring cleaning project, devise a system that will help you stay organized once the cleaning is done.

Izsak offers some basic tips to consider.

  • Store things near where you use them
  • Keep a donation box or giveaway box at all times
  • Don't buy more than you need
  • If you don't know where to store it, don't get it
  • If you buy something new, something old must go
  • Keep things in their selected homes
  • Your desk is your most valuable real estate, so keep it clean. Have action files rather than pieces of paper.
  • If you don't have enough hanging room in your closet, then fold more. If you don't have enough folding space, then hang more.

Once you have a system in place, you can start the heavy lifting of spring cleaning.

So if you're ready to clear out the clutter, Erika Salloux, founder of personal and business organizing company Living Harmony in Cambridge, Mass., offers this advice.

Tackle the closet with three bags, labeled toss, donate and sell. Then ask yourself, "Have I worn this in the past year?"  If the answer is, "no," deposit the item into one of the bags. If you haven't worn it in a year, you never will, she says. "There is a reason you are always choosing another sweater over this one that just sits in your closet," she says.

Also remember that your clutter may be someone else's treasure. If you don't use it, then sell it or give it away on sites like and If you are donating items, get a tax deduction slip from the store. Then put that receipt in your tax file for 2006, she says.
Reducing The Paper Piles

To finally free yourself from the mounds of paper that surround you, create homes for the paper, Salloux says. Get rid of boxes and bins and use a sturdy file cabinet, she says.

"On the top of your desk create a tray for action items and a separate one for bills. Then begin to sort. Pick up one piece of paper at a time, and decide which of three categories if falls into: file, act, or toss. Then either let it fly into the trash, lay it in one of your action trays, or set it down in your temporary bin for filing later," she says.

Also, remember the 20 percent rule. Most of us only ever refer to 20 percent of those papers we put in our file cabinet. So ask whether you can get the information elsewhere and if you have ever really needed it. Chances are you can live without it.

Also, to be successful at spring cleaning, break it down into bite-size chunks. Then schedule those pieces in your calendar so you can meet the goals you set. Give yourself a deadline for the whole project too, she says.

Spring Cleaning = Tax Prep

Spring cleaning is a great time to get a head start on next year's taxes. It's early, but think about how much easier tax time will be if you pave the path now. Start a new file called "Taxes 2006," Salloux says. As you collect receipts throughout the year that will be needed for taxes, immediately put them in the tax file.

But only the necessary ones.

"Don't be one of one of the many who hold onto receipts for toothpaste, bills paid eons ago, ancient bank statements, cancelled checks, and other documents far longer than necessary simply because you are worried that one day you might have to prove something about a transaction," Salloux says. "Check with your financial institutions to see if they will provide you with back statements (hard copies or on-line ones).  Many do this free of charge." Do hold onto paper like credit and debit card receipts, ATM slips, and deposit slips until the transaction appears on your statement. After that, toss.

Also, look for opportunities to consolidate any financial accounts. The fewer you have, the less paperwork you will have to deal with at tax time. Along those lines, look at your credit cards and department store cards to determine which ones you really need. Try to just use one, preferably a card that lets you rack up frequent flyer miles or points, she says.

Remember to monitor accounts now for errors and mistakes, rather than waiting until the end of the year.