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Being Organized: The Ultimate Bargain

Eco-Mom BJ Marshall goes green with at-home organization.

Bargain hunting is a borderline-addiction for me. There’s nothing like scoring a deal on something I love (or even just like a lot). In fact, my husband officially banned me from the TAG Warehouse Sale after the year I had to make two trips to fit it all in the car.

This summer, I discovered the mother of all bargains—finding something you already own but didn’t know you had. Snagging this great bargain took a lot of hard work, though. And it involved one of my most dreaded household tasks: organizing.

A couple of years ago, I saw a show about an environmentalist who worked for the City of Chicago and lived an extraordinarily green lifestyle. What impressed me most was not the “gray water” system in his home, in which the water he used to brush his teeth made its way to the toilet for a second use. It wasn’t the fact that his wife used cut up cloths as baby wipes. It was his storage closet.

The closet was immaculate. Everything was perfectly organized. There were numerous clear plastic bins that were clearly labeled with the contents. The bins were kept on easily accessible shelves in locations that made sense.

“What does this have to do with being green?” I asked myself. “He’s using plastic for goodness sake!”

As he explained the reason for the bins, everything fell into place for me. I could almost hear angelic voices singing as I picture my future totally organized self saving the planet.

If you know what you have and where it is, you buy less, he explained. That’s fewer raw materials needed, less factory pollution, less transportation involved in getting items to the store, and less gas used as a result of less frequent shopping trips. He pulled out a bin of lightbulbs, showing how readily he knew how many of each size he had.

Since that day, I fantasized about being that organized. I asked for a label-maker for Christmas that year (and got it!). I started numerous organizing projects, and even completed a few. But I just never could get a grasp on how exactly to do it—or really how to motivate myself to go through that pile of used gift bags—until I met Lara.

She’s a professional organizer with Chaos to Order, a company that provides various types of organizing services throughout the Chicago area. One summer day she came to my home to help me wade through a kids’ activity closet that had gotten out of control.

My children love games, puzzles and crafts, so I had a closet with these kinds of activities that, at one point, was reasonably organized. A chaotic school year later, puzzle pieces, stickers and glitter glue were everywhere. I had no idea whether we were out of construction paper, where to find a red crayon, or how many adhesive foam snowmen lay waiting to inspire a work of art. Organizing the closet had been on my to-do list for quite some time, but every time I opened it, I simply felt overwhelmed.

Monica Friel, the president and founder of Chaos to Order, says that’s a common problem, but one that’s well worth overcoming if consuming less is important to you.

“When you’re organized, you have a better mental inventory of what you have versus what you need,” she told me. “Items are also better taken care of so they last longer.” And you never know what you’ll find. 

Friel says her team once found a $1,500 bond for a client while doing some organizing. Though the chances of finding some spare cash in that craft closet were pretty slim, I figured there must be some hidden treasures in there. Knowing that I might be saving some future cash even if I didn’t run across a wad of bills, Lara and I got down to work.

She took everything out of the closet and sorted it before I had time to make a cup of tea. Hot beverage in hand, I went to work weeding through it all and tossing what was no longer wanted while Lara worked her organizing magic.

Two hours later, we had an amazingly organized activity closet complete with detailed labels and a kid-friendly system (check out my before and after photos to see the true transformation).

We uncovered many items that we’d forgotten about and realized how many “overstocks” of certain items we had. I could barely close the crayon drawer and mentally crossed "Box of 64 Crayons with Built-in Sharpener" off my back-to-school shopping list. And I knew my daughter would be giddy about the Paint Your Own Ceramic Tea Set uncovered in the process.

When the kids came home and saw the closet, they went straight to their favorite crafts and worked happily for hours. In the true test of its value, I am proud to say that it has stayed completely organized so far this summer thanks to Lara’s logical system and labels—and my evil eye as I supervise cleanup.

The project has saved me oodles of time and meant hearing much less “Mommy, I’m bored.” Plus, I can say ‘no’ to the occasional request for new markers or stickers when we’re out because I know how the inventory stands at home. I’ve also been able to put some of Lara’s techniques to work in other organizing projects.

It feels great to be organized, to buy less, to know that I’m supporting ecological responsibility and to teach my kids some organizational techniques. The challenge is to keep it up as we tackle other parts of the house.

I’m trying to use Friel’s advice and break each project into steps. “Don’t look at the whole stack of papers,” she says. “Just start with the top sheet. You can only do one page at a time.”

That’s easier said than done, but knowing the benefits I’m willing to give it a try. Now, where did we put those lightbulbs?

Monica Friel July 28, 2011 at 03:39 PM
Great article BJ! It's great to see when our organizing services can really make an impact not only on your life, but on the environment as well!
Lara Miller July 28, 2011 at 05:57 PM
Great article BJ. The kids and I just went through our own surplus of leftover school supplies to make a list of what's needed for grades 8, 6 and 4. It was well worth it. The shopping list is not long!
Beverly Hansen OMalley July 30, 2011 at 04:40 PM
Getting organized for back to school started in our house when the kids brought home that huge bag on the last day of school. Everything was sorted and then stored for the beginning of the next school year. This keeps the shopping list manageable when it is time to return to school and there were even a few years we had nothing to buy!
Hertha Lange August 01, 2011 at 07:10 PM
Hertha Lange The article has inspired me to get after our own toy/game/craft closet. Although I live too far away to subscrib to Chaos to Order's services, I can atest to Lara's organizational genius. As a small example, she brought her label-maker to our family Thanksgiving get together, labeled the different bins, making our 8 part recyling system much more user friendly so I didn't need to resort the garbage after family lerf!

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