, Newburyport, MA

April 2, 2013

Cleaning out your nostalgia and inertia intertwine

Money Matters
Donald E. Askey

---- — The two greatest obstacles to putting order in any of the cubbies of our lives are nostalgia and inertia.

Why do we resist clearing out the unused and unusable accumulations in our files, our closets, our garages, our basements and our kitchen drawers? Why are we saving books we will never read?

Life’s clutter builds up over time and we stuff it into the space under the stairway and into the dark corners of the attic.

I’m reminded of George Carlin’s piece, “A House is Just a Place for your Stuff with a Roof on it.” When you run out of room in your house, you go out and buy a bigger house so you have more room for your stuff. We rarely throw out the stuff we don’t use when we move, we just pack it up and find a new place to store it.

We keep stuff because of its sentimental value or because we just may have some use for it. After all, the accumulation of my tax records, going back to my first job 50 years ago, are a story of my life — a story somebody someday will want to tell . . . though nobody’s likely to want to listen to.

Many of us will have just completed filing our 2012 tax returns and now we have to decide where to file the supporting documents, which we should do for no more than seven years. But do we pitch the 2005 file? What holds us back from heaving all of that personal information from the distant past?

And now that we’re thinking about tax files, what about the other financial records from years gone by? Statements from accounts closed long ago?

Time and time again when I sit down with clients to initiate a comprehensive plan for their financial future, we first have to sort through piles of unopened envelopes, contracts for lapsed insurance policies, copies of superceded wills, and CD renewal notices from banks that don’t even exist anymore—detritus from the past.

George Carlin’s voice again echoes in my mind as I imagine him rummaging through his files to find a CD renewal notice from the Avalon Savings Bank and shouting to his wife in the next room, “Where is the Avalon Savings Bank?” She replies, “I don’t know.” He replies, “Is this bank notice important?” She says, “I have no idea. Just keep it.”

Besides nostalgia and inertia, something else also prevents us from throwing out those aged financial documents and files. Somewhere in the back of our minds there is a haunting sense that we saved this once for a good reason. “It must have seemed important then, otherwise why would we have saved it in the first place? Better hold on to it just in case.”

In case of what? Really if you don’t throw it out now, somebody else will after you’ve lost the capacity to make that decision.

If you are at all motivated to leave a clean trail that your family can follow knowing they’re doing what you wanted, do them a favor and rid your house of that old financial stuff you don’t want and don’t need.

Spring is coming! It’s time for spring cleaning.


Donald E. Askey, a fee-only financial adviser and planner with offices in Amesbury and Boston, can be reached at