Claudia Buck

Professional organizers help you get to the bottom of household clutter

Kim Stone inspects the plastic tubs she will use to organize her garage clutter at her home in Sacramento this month with help from professional organizer Gwynnae Byrd, owner of Home Transitions Professional Organizing. In five hours, the pair purged junk and reorganized the garage.
Kim Stone inspects the plastic tubs she will use to organize her garage clutter at her home in Sacramento this month with help from professional organizer Gwynnae Byrd, owner of Home Transitions Professional Organizing. In five hours, the pair purged junk and reorganized the garage. rbenton@sacbee.com

Call it the Big Dig. As in digging down into decades of accumulated family clutter.

For one suburban Sacramento family, it started with the kitchen cupboards and ended in the garage.

“I’m not a hoarder, but my home was always a mess,” said Kim Stone, a lawyer and mother of two pre-teens. “I work and we have very active kids, so I don’t spend much time at home, which is why it’s so disorganized,” she said surveying her torn-apart, about-to-be-organized garage on a recent winter morning.

Over Thanksgiving break, Stone finally reached her limit. “I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t find anything. It wasn’t relaxing to be home.”

She did a Web search for “Sacramento home organizing” and found Gwynnae Byrd, owner of Home Transitions Professional Organizing, who knows those calls of distress very well.

Like many New Year’s resolutions, lots of folks this month make a vow to “get organized” at home or work.

January is officially designated “Get Organized” month by the National Association of Professional Organizers, and for good reason. It’s a fresh start to a new year, when many individuals are fired up to make some organizational changes at home or work. And it comes just after many households took in loads of holiday gifts that add to already-cluttered spaces.

“Getting organized is always one of the Top 3 New Year’s resolutions,” said Byrd, who gave up a 17-year law career to pursue professional organizing years ago. “But whether people act on it is another story.”

At Kim and Tony Stone’s home, she started in the family’s expansive kitchen where, despite dozens of drawers and cupboards, Kim said she could never find anything.

As a result, she frequently bought new – whether it was Kleenex, felt-tip markers, kitchen spices, Advil or umbrellas. “Whenever it rained, I couldn’t find an umbrella, so I’d buy another.”

They started by pulling out everything to see what Stone had. It was quite a bit.

Paring it down and organizing it into manageable space and quantity is Byrd’s job. For many people, hiring a professional organizer is like having a buddy to sort through belongings. Or, as Stone jokes, “It’s more like a boss than a buddy.”

Out in the garage, the finale to several weeks of organizing sessions, they unearthed an inflatable kayak, old Halloween costumes, Christmas decor, random pogo sticks, an “ungodly supply of hula hoops,” even a charcoal caddy for tailgate parties. “Oh,” said Stone, as a package of Christmas wrapping paper came to light, “That would have been handy last month.”

As two-car garages go, the Stones’ was far from the worst, says Byrd, who’s seen them so stuffed that the door won’t budge open. In this case, the spillage of stuff meant there was only room for one car. But in a five-hour transformation, the Stones’ garage was – mostly – transformed into a labeled, binned and neatly organized place. With almost room enough for two cars.

A home for everything

Whether it’s a garage or a medicine cabinet, the organizing process always starts with a purge. Organizers are like a task-buddy who can help individuals quickly and decisively decide what to keep, what to give away. With most paper, it’s about paring down unnecessary documents, articles, magazines, etc., then creating filing systems for what you need to keep.

“You want to keep the things that are purposeful, that you use and need,” said Byrd. “You don’t want to be putting back into cupboards things you don’t want.”

With medicines or food, it’s also about the expiration date. If food or medicines are still useable, Byrd consolidates half-empty bottles of aspirin or half-filled containers of sugar into single containers to save space.

Byrd is meticulous about helping her clients find a home for everything, both within the client’s house but also for everything that’s going out the door. With schoolbooks and adult paperbacks, she donates to the nearest public library branch. For still-good juice boxes, crackers and other foods, it’s the Sacramento Food Bank. For school supplies, it could be the Mustard Seed School for homeless children. Worn out blankets and towels go to the Sacramento SPCA, which uses them for animal care. Women’s clothing, toys and games to the St. John’s women’s shelter, or the client’s charity of choice.

In most cases, Byrd offers the donation drop-offs and brings the homeowner a tax-donation receipt.

Money savers

Decluttering is also about saving money. Many consumers overspend or buy too much because they can’t remember – or can’t find – what they already own. In Stone’s case, organizing meant uncovering myriad duplicates: 30 tubes of sunscreen, 8 boxes of Kleenex, 11 umbrellas.

“It’s very common,” said Byrd. “People with busy lives buy things all the time because they don’t remember when they’re in the store what they’ve got at home. They’re on top of their professional and family lives, but their home gets the least attention.”

There’s also “found” money, like forgotten gift cards, checks and cash. Even the pennies add up.

At Byrd’s home, they discovered $25 in a backpack and $50 in Amazon and Target gift cards.

Byrd also collected every loose penny, nickel, dime and quarter from kitchen drawers, desks, closets or by the computer. Kim Stone took the bagged coins to the Golden 1 Credit Union, which doesn’t charge a fee to convert coins to cash if it’s direct-deposited into a member’s account. All that spare change added up to $180.

Bring in, send out

Many professional organizers preach a common mantra: In with the new, out with the old. For every new toy, sweater, piece of jewelry, pair of shoes, gift or book that comes in, designate one that is donated or given away.

Another January organizing tip, shared by Sacramento “virtual organizer” Janene Russick, is to start the year by buying all the 2015 birthday cards you expect to mail to friends and family during the year. Russick buys cards – preferably from Trader Joe’s because they come in plastic sleeves – for everyone on her list, from her 85-year-old father to her girlfriends. She tucks a small slip with the person’s name and birthdate into the clear sleeve, then files all the cards chronologically by month in a basket by her desk. So she won’t forget to mail each card, she keeps birthday reminders on her computer and smartphone calendars.

Russick, owner of The Art of Living Simply, calls January a “transition month,” when she urges clients to close up the old year, including putting away all the holiday decor.

“Give yourself a little bit of breathing space to open a year, said Russick, who works with women and families all over the country, using Facetime, photo sharing and coaching by phone. She charges $300 for eight 90-minute phone sessions.

Spend a little time each month rotating through a different room in your house each month, she suggests. In January, she starts in her living room; in February, the office and “getting ready for taxes” paperwork; in March, the kitchen and dining area, “including the recipes”; in April, bedrooms, closets and clothes; May, the garage “because it’s not too hot yet”; in June, the bathrooms. Then she starts over, “So twice a year, I’m going through my entire home. If you do just a little bit all the time, it’s not so overwhelming.”

Dawn Cannon, owner of Finely Organized and longtime professional organizer in Roseville and Granite Bay, recommends taking an empty bag or box and starting in one room, looking at everything that’s visible: “The decor on the walls and shelves, the stuff stashed in the corner, the pillows on the couch, the books on the shelves. Let go of things that no longer serve you and have just become white noise that you don’t even see anymore because you haven’t used or thought about them in years,” she said.

Cannon advises taking just 15 minutes per room to eyeball everything, then gather up items you’re ready to let go of.

Stone, who used a vacation day from work to tackle the organizing, calls the process liberating.

For the first time, she can see the floor in her hall closet. All of her children’s art supplies – felt tips, colored pencils, Sharpies and pens – are in one desk drawer, neatly stashed in their own labeled boxes. In the kitchen, all the cooking spices are neatly lined up in a drawer, and cupboard shelves are lined with labels, such as breakfast cereals and syrups, so everyone knows exactly where to put them back. There’s even a wide drawer where her 10- and 12-year-old can pull out crackers, drinks and snacks for making their own lunches. Her medicine cabinet? “It’s a thing of beauty.” As for all those umbrellas, they’re now conveniently stashed in an easy-to-reach bin in a hall closet.

“It feels awesome,” Stone exults. “I feel like I have a new house.”

Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or read her Personal Finance columns at sacbee.com/claudiabuck.

Professional organizers

at a glance

What they do: Organize, declutter and create systems for homes/offices

Benefits: Eliminates clutter; saves time spent searching for paperwork; reduces stress

What they charge: By the hour or the job, with fees based on the project’s complexity. In the Sacramento area, typical hourly rates can range from $50 to $90.

How to hire: It’s important to find the right fit with an organizer. The National Association of Professional Organizers website has tips on what to ask when hiring an organizer. Many organizers have a questionnaire to help determine a client’s goals, budget and personality.

Special services: Organizing a special collection or photographs, blending two households after remarriage, helping seniors with downsizing, working with ADHD or special-needs clients.

Source: National Association of Professional Organizers, napo.net

Lightening the load

Almost every home or workspace can use a little decluttering. Here are some quick tips from the pros:

Start small. If the mess is overwhelming, tackle one surface, one drawer, one corner of a room. Use a timer.

Weed out. Shred or toss every monthly utility, credit card or other bill after comparing them with your bank/credit card statement. The only exception: Keep if needed for a tax deduction. Open mail near a recycling bin or basket to toss out paper immediately.

Dump duplicates. Get rid of extra phone books, last year’s insurance policy or health plan documents, etc. In most cases, keep only the most current copy.

Know what to keep. Hold on to tax returns and all documentation for seven years, in case of tax audit. (After that, keep only the final return.) Keep mortgage paperwork (including home-improvement receipts), year-end statements from bank and investment accounts and medical histories.

Delete, delete. Every time you slip a new piece of paper into a file, take something out – permanently. The same concept applies to clothes, kitchen pantry, kids’ toys.

Business cards. For piles of business cards, scan them for uploading to your computer’s address book. Or buy plastic sheets of business-card-sized pockets and keep in a binder.

Charity box. Keep a box handy where you continually stash giveaways. Your unwanted “stuff” becomes a charitable donation to help someone less fortunate.

Ask a pro. To search for a professional organizer by ZIP code, visit the National Association of Professional Organizers website, napo.net.

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