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Apr 23, 2018

How I Swedish ‘Death Cleaned’ My Way To Better Finances

By Sara Benincasa

Writer Sara Benincasa gets real about how embracing ‘death cleaning’ helped her get a financial life.

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I bet you’ve got more stuff than you want – and certainly more stuff than you need. I’m absolutely the same way, and I only started to change when I fell in love with a trend that was almost certainly made up to sell books: dostadning, or Swedish death cleaning.

Margareta Magnusson, author of “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” claims to be somewhere between the ages of 80 and 100. She’s not a financial advisor, but her housekeeping philosophy has actually had a bigger impact on my financial choices than a lot of money experts have. And I’ve listened to my share of money experts.

When I was younger, Suze Orman’s “Young, Fabulous and Broke” taught me how credit works and what the hell a FICO score is. I continue to appreciate and benefit from  materials from Debtors Anonymous as well as Allen Carr’s “Get Out Of Debt Now.” (I recommend the audiobook, if only to hear him politely bark common sense at you in a fun English accent.)

But it is Magnusson’s book that got to the heart of my own problem with overspending.

I’ve always been bad with money, but it wasn’t until three years ago that I began to realize I had an actual problem.

Reading up on making change

Books have always helped me get through life’s cascade of challenges.

“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg taught me to build and maintain both a meditation practice and a better nutrition plan. Howard Halpern’s (admittedly dated) “How To Break Your Addiction To A Person” helped me to stop engaging in inappropriate “friendships” that crossed boundaries.

For me, the last few years have been full of personal change. I moved to and from (and back to) California, ended a long-term relationship, re-evaluated my friendships, and got my physical, mental and financial health in better shape. In addition to writing four books, learning to cook, and working through my aforementioned problematic friendships, I also found a day job I genuinely enjoyed.  

I made contributions to my retirement funds; and I got into, out of, and back into credit card debt.

At the same time, I also admitted to myself, my family and friends that I had a problem with debt, and started to do some things about it.

But I didn’t choose Magnusson’s book because of my debt issues. This totally metal-sounding Goth death manifesto seemed like just the thing to jumpstart the reorganization of my living and working space. I downloaded the audiobook, narrated by the British stage and screen actress Juliet Stevenson.

Magnusson’s overall objective is to encourage people to get rid of excess possessions in order to make things easier on their relatives and friends when they pass away.  People who know me know that I’m not afraid to tackle “morbid” things. I’m in the process of finalizing my will, and I’m finding it rather enjoyable.

But her ideas  about how living in a well-organized space with fewer objects can make one feel more relaxed and peaceful really resonated with me in a way that turned my attention not to my own death, but to my own life.

Our stuff keeps us from moving forward

Believe it or not, there are a lot of studies out there about clutter.

One that particularly fascinated me: Researchers at the Center for Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) at UCLA spent four years engaged in an ethnoarchaeological study of the lives of several Los Angeles-area families — and their massive amounts of stuff

“For more than 40,000 years intellectually modern humans have peopled the planet,” the study authors wrote. “But never before has any society accumulated so many personal possessions.”

The researchers found that its subjects found it difficult to sort organize, and manage all their objects, souvenirs, papers, books, CDs, DVDs and all the things that add up and spread out over our homes.

“Our excess becomes a visible sign of unaccomplished work,” wrote study’s co-authors, Anthony P. Graesch. “[It] constantly challenges our deeply ingrained notions of tidy homes and elicits substantial stress.”

Magnusson has good ideas for how to get rid of clutter. She recommends giving things away to family and friends and taking time to enjoy how much lovelier and calmer life is once you’ve cleared out that terrible closet.

But one of her main points is not to leave an undue burden of excess stuff on other people after you die and take responsibility for your possessions and your space. I hit pause on the audiobook, and took a deep breath. That’s when it all started to click for me.

This wasn’t just about organizing one’s physical space. This was about not creating a mess of any kind and expecting others to clean it up.

And this brought me to consider my finances. It turned out my money issues were all mixed up with my clutter problems.

Why collecting stuff can make us feel good – for a while

I believe that we can understand the causes of and influences on a particular negative behavior without excusing said behavior.  So rather than continuing to criticize my clutter habit without doing a damn thing about it, I began to consider it in the context of my personal psychological history.

I came to understand why I turned to overspending as a method of self-soothing. For one thing, it was modeled for me by some of the adults around me when I grew up. For another, when I was an adolescent, I dealt with an ever-increasing case of agoraphobia that eventually led me to drop out of college.

It has been pretty well in check for many years, but it rears its head when I’m particularly stressed. I’ve experienced occasional suicidal depression since my teen years but I’ve always been been dutiful about seeing a therapist, maintaining a proper schedule of sleeping and waking, and eating reasonably well during those rougher times.

That said,  there are plenty of other unhealthy methods of diversion or comfort available to me when I’m feeling particularly low. And over the years I’ve used the Internet, food, sex, and more to keep myself distracted in order to avoid what’s really going on.

In my experience, overspending is the most insidious method of briefly numbing the pain. It doesn’t leave you with a hangover or pose much of a physical health risk, at least until your pile of unnecessary cat sweatshirts falls on you and smothers you. (Note: I only have one unnecessary cat sweatshirt. The other one is very necessary.)

Overspending can also be fun and can grant you the delusion that people really like you. Well, of course they do, if you’re covering the tab for a fancy restaurant meal or taking everyone to the movies twice a month.

Our clutter can be a reflection of the lives we want

I looked around in my two-room studio apartment at all the things I’d purchased and left in the delivery boxes: the two sets of fancy headphones; the big selfie light perfect for those goofy vlogs I’d never actually shot; the microphone for the podcast I had yet to begin producing; the novels I knew I’d love if only I could muster the enthusiasm to actually read them.

Then there was the container garden starter kit, never started, still in its own big container (an unsightly Amazon box.)

There were other things, too, all tied in some way to an unfulfilled idea of some activity bound to bring joy to my life. It was not difficult to see that my self-soothing habit of buying things online led rather swiftly to an experience that was anything but soothing: a cluttered home.

Oh, and the little manner of more debt.

Cleaning house takes time

I had for some months been tracking everything I spent on a spreadsheet. Now, I decided that I would commit to only using cash, checks, or my debit card. This would both put a halt to new expenditures on my credit card and put a check on my inclination to make an impulse buy with “imaginary money.”

Further, I would not purchase any new object for my home beyond the necessary supplies like food and toiletries. I would of course continue to pay my rent and utility bills, as well as the very helpful luxury of a housecleaner once a month.

And during this two-month period, I would bring some giveaway objects to my car with me every single time I left the house. Once my trunk was full, I would go to a local nonprofit thrift store and donate the items. Along the way, I’d also continue throwing out and recycling items I no longer needed.  Then the cycle would begin anew.

I liked Magnusson’s suggestion that I offer some items to family and friends who might find them useful or lovely – not to guilt them into taking away some of my garbage, but as a pleasant transaction. They get something new and cool, I get more space in my home.

In this way, I could combine my desire to spend less with my desire to declutter my home.

Death cleaning = more space to live

I’m pleased to report that it’s working quite nicely. I’ve grown to enjoy the sight of my own hardwood floors again. I have more room to stretch out in the corner of the kitchen where I work. I take great pleasure in looking at my bookshelf and seeing that it isn’t full. And I have more money to pay down debt and take care of medical necessities.

My home isn’t nearly as decluttered as it will be in a couple more months, and I’m not magically out of debt. But that’s the thing about changing your life – it isn’t magic. It’s work, real work, and when you start showing up for yourself and the folks around you, taking the small steps to be healthier and kinder and happier, the changes happen.    


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Written by

Sara Benincasa

Sara Benincasa is a screenwriter, recovering stand-up comedian and the author of "Real Artists Have Day Jobs"


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