Be a Good Gatekeeper

An MSN article reposted by Joshua Becker on Becoming Minimalist, which I discussed in a previous post, presents seven useful tips for decluttering. This is my third post in my series examining each of these tips, but today I am going to skip ahead and discuss the final tip on the list: Be a Good Gatekeeper.

When I decided to get my household clutter under control and become a minimalist, this was one of the first ideas that I really embraced. It made perfect sense to me – there is no point trying to go through your belongings and get rid of things that you no longer need or want, if you are not going to to stop accumulating things that you don’t need or want.

Think of it this way: if the water supply line under your kitchen sink springs a leak and starts to flood your kitchen floor, you don’t just place a bucket under it, wait until it fills, empty it, and then replace the bucket. No, the first thing that you do is shut off the water. That way, no more water will enter, you can clean up the water that is already there, and then effect repairs.

I have found that the three biggest gatekeeper challenges are mail, freebies, and emotional shopping items.

Mail

One of the biggest gatekeeper challenges is mail, and this was the first process that I tackled. On any given day, we generally get more junk mail than regular mail. This in spite of opting out of every mailing list that we could find. Credit card offers, mortgage offers, coupons, flyers – the list goes on and on.

Valued Customer

I used to feel that I needed to open and examine every piece of mail before shredding it or recycling it, in case it contained any kind of personal information. Now, I only open those things that are addressed to a member of the household. The ones for “Resident” or “Customer” go straight in the recycle bin. If I am a really valued customer, they will use my name!

Offers
I will open items from places at which I do business, such as my bank or credit card company, if they are addressed to me. These are generally offers for services that I am not interested in, so I will place them at the end of the kitchen counter (more on that in a moment). If there are account numbers or anything like that included, I will place it in our shred box to be (eventually) shredded on a a boring, rainy Sunday afternoon.

Also, I open everything addressed to my daughter if it is not from someone she knows. She rarely gets anything like that, but when she does, it usually goes in the shred box.

As I mentioned before, items that don’t need to be shredded get placed on the end of the kitchen counter. Every night, when we clean the kitty litter box, we throw these items in the bottom of the bag, and put the used kitty litter on top. Then, the bag goes in the garbage can outside. If someone is willing to dig through cat poop for my name and address, I figure that they are pretty desperate!

Coupons, Ads, and Flyers

Coupons and sale flyers to stores that we never patronize also go straight in the recycle bin. Sure, I might miss purchasing an item that I need on sale, but I honestly don’t have time to peruse all those multi-page ads on the off chance that I can save 50 cents on shampoo. I will, however, quickly flip through ads from stores where we do shop to see if there is anything that we are planning to buy that is on sale. For example, if I know we need cold medicine, I will glance through the pharmacy ads to see if it is on sale. However, if you know that you are susceptible to getting drawn in by things that you don’t need that are advertised, it’s best to simply recycle these items as well without opening them. The $1 that you save on cough syrup won’t make up for the $9.99 you spend on that talking teddy bear combination cookie jar and calculator.

Bills

We have converted our bills to paperless billing where it is available, which makes going through the daily mail much easier. I know which bills still arrive through the mail (I’m looking at you, water bill), so I keep an eye out for those and place them in the bills basket when they arrive. Having the bills in one location makes bill paying much easier.

I pay most of our bills online. As I pay each one, I record the electronic confirmation number in my spreadsheet budget next to that line item, and shred any paper bill associated with it. If I am unable to pay the bill electronically, I write the day that I paid and the check number on the bill. For these items, I have one of those multi-pocket file portfolios. I have one pocket for each month, and I will file the paper bill under the month that I paid it. When I reach that month the next year, I remove and shred any items remaining from the previous year. If I haven’t needed to refer to it in year, I likely won’t ever need it.

Personal Correspondence

Cards and letters of course get opened immediately, or placed on the end table to open after dinner. Holiday cards from the family will be displayed on top of the TV during the holiday, and then recycled. Occasionally, we will keep a card that has special meaning for scrapbooking.

Once you have your method in place, it’s very easy to quickly sort mail right after you come in the door. When we get home in the evening, we bring in the mail as we come in. Usually, before I even take my coat off, I will sort through the mail, tossing and recycling as needed. Within 2-3 minutes of arriving home, the day’s mail is sorted. My suggestions for success are:

  • place bills in a assigned spot so they are easy to find at payment time
  • toss all items addressed to “Customer” or “Resident” – you aren’t missing anything by not opening them!
  • toss ads and coupons from stores you don’t patronize
  • for shops that you do visit, quickly glance through the ads to see if an item already on your to-get list is on sale
  • shred all those credit cards offers, mortgages offers, etc. that are addressed to you personally
  • open items addressed to you from places that you do business, then shred or deal with accordingly
  • open and enjoy correspondence

Freebies

This category is pretty simple to deal with once you get the hang of it – just say “no” to freebies. For adults, freebies usually arrive in the form of incentives – a free umbrella when you open an account, a free teddy bear when you buy a necklace, etc. If you can’t say “no” at the store, make a plan to immediately give away or donate the freebie. Don’t need an umbrella? Pass it off to a co-worker or neighbor, or donate it. Don’t want the teddy bear? Donate it to the fire department, toy drive, etc.

One big source of freebies for me is the goody bags at races. Sometimes there will be good stuff that I can use (a GU sample, a sample of blister cream, etc.), but most of it gets recycled or tossed. Many races have started offering electronic goody bags for this reason, filled with vouchers for items rather than the item itself.

If you have children however, you are constantly inundated with freebies. Party favors, prizes from the bowling alley, etc. Sadly, 99% of this stuff is just junk. Unfortunately, you may not be comfortable with saying “no” to these items (I know I never was). The best way to approach this is just to ask your child which items they would like to keep, once they get home. Make a note to deal with them within 24 hours, before they disappear into the black hole of your child’s room.

And remember, if you have a child, and you want to offer favor bags at their party, you can offer “non-stuff” favor bags. Coupons for a free ice cream or a free game of bowling, consumable items like novelty candy (Pop Rocks, Bottle Caps, etc.), or usable items like bubbles are great party favors.

Emotional Shopping Items

I don’t shop much, but even I have been susceptible to this one. You go shopping to find a specific item, but the store doesn’t have it. But since it is such a hassle to drive to the store, find a place to park, etc., you feel like you shouldn’t come home empty handed. So you buy something that you don’t need and don’t really want to make yourself feel better. Before you buy an item, practice mindfulness, and ask yourself these questions and answer truthfully: do I need this item? will this item make me happy a month from now? a year from now? will I have to maintain this item? do I have a place to put this item? Consider these things before every purchase, and episodes of buyer’s remorse will become a thing of the past.

Even though I still have plenty of clutter to deal with in my home, I feel like I have mastered being a good gatekeeper. Dealing with mail immediately, saying “no” to freebies, and mindfully considering each purchase has slowed the deluge of items coming into our home to a trickle. What kinds of actions do you take to be a good gatekeeper in your home?

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