Mellody Hobson talks about organizing in this week’s “Money Mondays” segment.

This morning I have a cautionary tale for you. Last week, a woman in Queens threw away her life savings. She literally threw it away in a rusted out old refrigerator.

She didn’t remember she’d stashed her cash in there until later that night. When she returned to the dump in a panic the next day, she and the crew couldn’t find the old Frigidaire and she left in despair. Fifteen minutes later, a worker clocked in who had a vague recollection about where it was and they found the old fridge sandwiched between two cars. Inside were two black plastic bags with stacks of cash.

But the woman hadn’t left her name or any contact information! This is the truly unbelievable part: The story made the news and she was reunited with her savings.

And the moral of this story?
Don’t even get me started on keeping your savings in the fridge. Furniture and appliances are NOT a safe place for cash, and they don’t return a penny in interest. But what I want to talk about today is how people are throwing their money away—both literally and figuratively—because they’re not organized.

I know it sounds a little hints-from-Heloise-y, but like your mother told you, it pays to get organized. Just like a business takes inventory, you need to know what you own to better use what you have and thereby cut wasteful spending.

Saving isn’t always about clipping coupons. It’s putting what you already own to good use, and that goes from t-shirts to your cable bill. Instead of just watching your dimes, dig them out of the couch–and I promise you, in one way or another, we all have money in our homes that we’re wasting.

Plus, disorganization causes undue stress. What’s interesting is that the IBD/TIPP Financial Related Stress Index actually fell 1.3 points in the latest month to 57.1. That’s the lowest level of “financial stress” people feel going back to the recession’s start in December 2007. But among those making less than $30,000 a year, last month’s stress reading jumped 3.3 points to 64.3, an eight-month high.  It makes sense that lower earners are more cash-strapped and more likely to suffer from financial stress, but the best way to lessen that stress is to take back a sense of control. That starts with a thorough housecleaning.

So get out the rubber gloves to get your finances in order?
Yes! For starters, according to the research firm Tower Group, over $40 billion in gift cards went unused from 2005 through 2011. Those unused gift cards are cash collecting dust in your junk drawer. Sell them on the secondary market online for about 80% of their value.

Disorganization breeds waste. How many times have you searched for something you KNOW you have only to just go buy a new one in frustration? Duplicates are an unnecessary expense. If things are at your fingertips, that’s not going to happen.

Also, every time you make another unnecessary trip to a store, you’ve created an opportunity for impulse spending. And once you’re organized, you’ll find you really don’t want to buy something new if you don’t have a place and a genuine need for it.

What’s the action plan?
First, You need to cut the clutter. I’m talking about your closet AND your desk.

In the closet, get rid things you don’t wear. Either sell them on eBay or have a garage sale or donate them and save the receipt for taxes. Any way you slice it, that stuff is found money.

When it comes to your desk, we are inundated with SO much paper every day that if you don’t set a method to the madness, you don’t have a fighting chance. Misplaced bills mean added charges and fees, overlooked notices, raised interest rates and debt. Establishing a system of order is critical.

How do you do that?
Gather your bills. If you deem all your monthly expenses worthy, see that you’re getting the most for your money. Call your cable company, cell service provider, even your insurance agent to ensure you are getting the best plan available or to negotiate a lower rate. Get some file folders and start sifting through that mountain of paper, grouping by category and tossing what you don’t need. Then be disciplined about sticking to your system so you don’t find yourself buried again.

Once you’re finished with your closets and your desk, we’re back to the refrigerator, which hopefully isn’t doubling as your retirement savings account. According to the EPA, Americans produce over 33 million tons of food waste every year. We could cut this tremendously if people made weekly meal plans and shopping lists—and everyone would save money.

Organization is money in the BANK (not the refrigerator!) Getting started is the hardest part, but just go drawer by drawer, room by room.

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