• Like a bad penny, debt always turns up…

    unless we change how we interact with money, of course!

    The Bad Penny is dedicated to two pursuits: getting out of debt and staying out of debt! It recognizes that frugality and caring for our planet go hand in hand, and that our unsatiated need for stuff is hurting us in so many ways.

    Easier said than done!


    I am not a finance professional. I write about the world as I know it, and my advice may not be the best course of action for you! Please seek qualified advice for your particular situation.

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Container Theory

Everytime I look in a home decorating magazine, I am amazed at how beautiful the homes are.  It’s hard not to be envious of the beautiful spaces! Perfect lines, gorgeous colors, not one flaw in sight – and in the past few years I’ve noticed that the homes have also transformed from sterile showroom spaces to personal spaces – a person’s books, collections, and pictures have made their way to the cover of “Better Homes & Gardens” within the neatly designed rooms.

It took someone else pointing it out for me to realize the truth – a big reason that these homes are so beautiful  is because they are clean and uncluttered.  Kids toys are neatly put away or not even in the room and books are lined on the bookshelf instead of just being thrown up there.   Sure, the paint job is nice, and the furniture looks incredibly comfortable, but the fact that you can see the floor is a major issue, too.

This was  an especially significant revelation for me because we live in a society of clutter.  We mistake the acquisition of things to be a step on the path toward the “American Dream.” More clothes, more toys, more books, more games.  But those things soon leave us with drawers so full of clothing they wrinkle and garages so full of junk we can’t put our cars in there – I’m guilty of the cluttered garage!   We have to buy more organizational bins, shelves, and accessories to attempt to make sense of it all.  Some Americans rent storage units to store all this stuff – or even buy a bigger house!

This is crazy.  Not only do we not need all this stuff, but we couldn’t find it if we did need it!

So my challenge to you, dear readers, is that if you are tired of trying to find new places to put things – tired of your home looking more like the “before” photos on HGTV’s “Mission: Organization” – to try living by Anne Heerdt’s “Container Theory.”  The basic idea is that material things have limits – money only goes so far, objects can only take up so much spaces, food can only give so much energy, and your “container” – or home – has it’s limits, too.

It’s time to get rid of the excess stuff.  You will find that your home will feel more peaceful, you will be able to find what you need quickly, and you won’t miss all that extra clutter!

This can be really overwhelming, but Heerdt suggests something in her article that I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed by a project – I break it down into smaller, manageable parts.  When the house looks like a tornado has made it’s way through the living area, I focus on cleaning one area at a time.  If I don’t, it feels so overwhelming that I continue to put it off until the situation becomes desperate.

In the same way, even if all you do today is go through one drawer or one box, you should be pleased with your accomplishment.  Organization is much more taxing on the mind than cleaning!

I do want to make a distinction here:  many people see organizing as simply moving the things they have around so they look neater.  That’s not what we’re talking about here – our organization has more to do with streamlining and simplifying life and getting rid of the excess stuff that drags us down mentally and physically.


1.  Choose an area to organize – a cupboard in your kitchen, or a drawer in your bedroom, for instance.  I would recommend you do an easy area first!

2. If possible, remove everything from the cupboard or drawer.  Wipe it down with a damp cloth (You might as well multi-task and clean while it’s empty!)

3. Neatly put back anything that you use on a regular basis.

4. Anything that’s left outside the cupboard needs to be sorted – get rid of anything you don’t need or that is a duplicate of something you already have.  If you use it enough to justify keeping it, then do keep it, but try not to justify keeping things just because you can’t bear to get rid of it.  Place it neatly back in the drawer or cupboard.   If you can think of something else that would substitute for a rarely used item, then get rid of it.  The idea is that you are streamlining your life.  You are getting rid of the unnecessary stuff!

If you are really struggling with whether or not to keep something, put it in a box and stick it in an inconvenient closet or basement for a few months.  After that few months, anything that’s still in the box needs to be donated!

And if it doesn’t fit?  Don’t keep it!  Make do! You may not want to go to such extremes, but Heerdt mentions how they didn’t have room in her tiny kitchen for a coffee maker – so they just used the stove.  The quickly realized that the simplicity of warming coffee on the stove slowed their busy day and was a pleasurable way to go about the morning.

Not only that, but having a clean, organized house saves money – you can find what you need when you need it.  And when your house is organized and everything has a place, you are more likely to think about where you are going to put  new  items.  When your house is cluttered, it’s easy to just add new things to the piles.  So if your house is neat, it may actually stop you from buying things you really don’t need!

I’m going to start with my dresser drawers.  How about you?


New Year Decluttering – The Office

I’m one of those people whose desk is a disaster.  Piles of paper, loose pencils and paperclips, and often a food wrapper under all that mess!  Ask me where something is, and I can usually tell you which pile it’s in.  But not always!

And this disorganization isn’t frugal. It costs you – in time, in efficiency, and in money!


Have you ever forgotten to pay a bill because it’s at the bottom of a pile, only to be found two weeks after the due date?  What about not getting a rebate form filled out and mailed on time? What about late videos and library books?  Those fines can add up quickly, and they cost you unnecessary money.

And searching for those items in piles of papers, in a messy living room, or in your cluttered purse costs you moments of time – I’d argue, in fact, that they cost you more time than if you took the time to organize in the first place.

I’m not blameless in this.  Normally, I know that my penchant for piles on my desk will get me in trouble, so I spend time filing and throwing at least every few days – every day if possible – so the piles don’t build up. Lately, though,  our office has been really cold and while I continue to put things up in the office, they are sitting on my desk until I get them cleaned up.  I really just need to get the space heater going and get to work!

I thought I’d pass along some organization tips that I use (since I had to learn to be organized, rather than having it happen naturally.)

Efficient Desk Organization 101 

1. Make space for five piles:

1. A “file” pile
2. A trash can/shredder
3. A recycling pile
4. A “to do” pile
5. A “this shouldn’t be on my desk anyway” pile.

2. Grab a pile and get sorting.  Recycle what you can, but make sure you shred any documents with sensitive information.  Don’t file right now – the point is to make the piles smaller!

3. File your “file” pile – I have a file cabinet with folders labeled for each bill – for example, “Electric,” “Mortgage,” and “Tax Information/Giving.”  My semi-annual bills like garbage pickup all go in one folder label “Misc. Bills.”  I tend to throw out bills more than a year old, unless they are for taxes or credit card bills.  When I can get really organized, it really helps to have the bills in chronological order, paper-clipped by the year (so my 2006 bills are paper clipped together, and my 2007 bills are clipped together.)

We also keep a file for our cats and vet visits, one for product manuals, and one for warranties/receipts.  I’ve been so thankful I did that when we’ve sold appliances or we’ve had problems with a product!

4.  Your “to-do” pile should contain bills that need to be paid, rebates, and other assorted paperwork you need to take care of right away.  I like to keep a inbox for these items.

Bills go in a three-ring binder that I’ve placed pockets in for each month.  I file each bill in the month I need to pay it.  I keep track of what I pay on each bill with a list on a piece of filler notebook paper and place it behind the pocket.  That way I can look at my list and know exactly what still needs to be paid and how much.  When I’ve paid the bill, it gets filed.

Better yet, one of my goals is to start being paperless when it comes to bills!  No bills equals less mess, not to mention the benefits to the environment to have less paper in the trash!  I’ve already opted out of the prescreened credit card offers that I was getting every day.  When I feel like I have fewer bills and more control over my finances, we’ll start getting online statements for our bills instead of paper.  We do get some emailed to us already, but for some reason the companies still send paper bills, too.

Plan a day to sit down and take care of that paperwork!  It’s important!

5. Put away random items on your desk!  Put pens in a nice cup or inside a desk drawer (those drawer organizers are incredibly useful!)

6. Get your “it doesn’t go here anyway pile” and start putting things away.

7.  Wipe down the surface of your desk with an appropriate cleaner.

There!  Your desk should be nice and clean!  Now you just have to keep it that way.  It doesn’t take long to file a couple papers, or to put a pen back, or to put paperwork into your inbox instead of on the desktop.  In my own experience, as soon as there’s a little mess on my desk, it’s so much easier to just keep making a mess instead of keeping things clean.  And that costs me money, time, and efficiency!

Organizing the Grocery List

Have you seen the movie “New York Minute” with Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen?

(Should I be admitting I’ve seen that?)

The two actresses play sisters (big surprise, right?) – one is laid back and messy, and the other is organized to the point of neurotic. In one part of the movie, you get a glimpse of the neurotic sister’s planner, and every single thing is planned out – right down to the minute.

That’s me. Well, okay, maybe I’m not that bad, but I require lists. Grocery lists, to-do lists, home repair lists, and on and on.

I used to keep a planner, but I don’t have enough room in even a student planner to put everything I need to list. So I moved on to notebooks. I can’t say I often completed a lot of the things on those lists – a 100 point to-do list can be a little overwhelming.

My mom came up with an even better way to organize these lists, and she shared it with me. She has a notebook divided into parts – one part has a running “to-do” list just like mine. It includes things that have to be done right away and things that are long term. Another part of this notebook contains her “to buy” lists – groceries, clothing needs, etc.

Every day she takes a look at her “to-do” list and picks 5 or 6 things she knows she can get done that day. She’ll adjust that number depending on the size of the items and the time she has. She writes them on a large sticky note and sticks it to the front of her notebook/planner. Those are her goals for the day. And she is able to get through the larger “to-do” list in her notebook because she’s only doing bite-size chunks and not trying to get as much done as possible in one day.

Okay, that’s been really effective for me, too. And time management is important.

But I didn’t actually write all that so you could learn a new time organization trick.

I wanted to share that because recently I’ve been trying to find ways to stay within our $100 monthly grocery budget. And one of the things I realized I was doing was going shopping way too often. I tried to shop once a week, but we always ran out of something important three days in. Why? Because I wasn’t organized.

First I’d go in not knowing what we would need in the next week. I knew what we needed now. But would we run out of milk on Wednesday?

Second, I assumed that if we ran out of something, I would just go run and get it.

Third, if I did go shopping half-way through the week, I was buying more items than what I went to the store for – I was seeing things we might enjoy or might run out of and buying on impulse.

All of those things meant more money spent on groceries. It had to stop.

So I came up with a plan. Using the trick my mom taught me (big lists and small lists) I’ve started writing down anything I think we’ll run out of in the next month (low-priority items.)

Then I started starring any item on that list that we would run out of in the next week or that we had already run out of (these are high-priority items.) This week, it was mostly milk, cheese, and split peas.

When I went grocery shopping yesterday, I immediately got the starred items, as long as the price was decent. I also checked the prices on the other items on the list, looking for sales (particularly ones that coincided with coupons I had.) I didn’t actually find any sales yesterday, so the low-priority items are staying on the list until next Friday.

This actually worked quite well. I replenished the items we needed and stayed under budget. (The budgeted amount for the week was $25, and I spent $17. That’s good, because we’ll have to buy some meat soon – but I’m keeping an eye out for items that are discounted because their sell-by date is coming up.)

This was only my first week using my new organizational skill. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll update later in the month!