A well-organized financial plan is part of a well-organized lifestyle. If you can’t find things in your home, you might not be able to find them in writing, either. We amass gadgets, clothes, documents, and so much else in life … so, what can we do about it?
To answer that question, we’re thrilled to be talking with Mara Bangura. Mara is the owner of Green Earth Organizing, where she helps people, quite literally, get organized and declutter.
In this episode, Mara walks us through how she helps people respectfully part ways with all the stuff we amass in life, how to help friends and family declutter when a loved one passes, and how to apply these strategies both at home and at work.
In this podcast discussion, you’ll learn:
- How to give a second life to once-loved objects while also getting them out of your house.
- What it means to Death Clean–and the difference between legacies you do and don’t want to leave.
- Why it’s so important to go at your own pace–even if it means clearing out one room at a time.
- “There isn’t a one size fits all to organizing. It’s really about the person and what works for them.” – Mara Bangura
- Green Earth Organizing
- Mara Bangura on LinkedIn
- National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals (NAPO)
- The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter (The Swedish Art of Living & Dying Series) by Margareta Magnusson
- The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify – Updated and Revised (Minimalism Books, Home Organization Books, Decluttering Books House Cleaning Books) by Francine Jay
Matthew Peck: Welcome, everyone, to another edition of SHP Financial’s Retirement Road Map podcast. I’m your host today, Matthew Peck, joined by partner Keith Ellis. And today, we have a very special guest. We have Mara Bangura of Green Earth Organizing. So, you might ask, okay, what is Green Earth Organizing? Well, that’s a question we are going to dig into and answer in regards to providing professional organization and decluttering services.
And so, if you think about financially, how we approach our own planning, well, we want to make sure you have a well-organized financial plan. Well, Mara is here to tell us about having a well-organized life, a well-organized space, set and setting in your own environment. And so, we’ll certainly be answering all those questions and the type of benefits that that can bring you as you combine, again, a well-organized financial plan with a well-organized lifestyle, I guess. And I’ll be curious, well, how Mara will put it. Certainly, thank you all for joining us today.
Matthew Peck: And certainly, thank you, Mara, for joining us. And welcome to the podcast.
Mara Bangura: Well, thank you. I really appreciate being here. Thank you for the opportunity.
Matthew Peck: Absolutely. So, again, I want to hear all about it. It’s funny, I went on the website and I saw the National Association of Professional Organizers, NAPO.
Mara Bangura: Yes.
Matthew Peck: I didn’t know NAPO existed. I’ve heard of NATO. I’ve heard a couple other things. So, tell us about, what is a professional organizer? And how do you get into that world?
Mara Bangura: So, it’s interesting. I always say that I’m a natural organizer. I’ve been doing it my whole life, whether it’s been helping family members organize friends, and it’s something that I really enjoy doing. And so, I decided, well, you know what? I’m going to try it.
And I took some classes on NAPO and I decided to reach out and contact other organizers who are a friendly bunch of people to see if they need extra help. And I had a couple of organizers hire me to help them, teach me the ropes. I asked questions and I discovered I really enjoyed this work.
I have my degree in early childhood education, which is different working with young children than organizing, but there is that piece where when I meet with clients, I look at their individual learning styles and what works for their organizing trajectory. There isn’t a one size fits all to organizing. It’s really about the person and what works for them. Some people say, “Oh, I’m so unorganized, I’m messy, I’m this.” Well, if you know where a certain pair of shoes are at all times or you know where that bill is that you need to pay, well, you’re in the realm of being organized. It’s what works for you.
Matthew Peck: So, if you could put it in one word, I mean, what type of benefits do you see? And also, take us through the different ages. I mean, is it something that someone should look into when they’re in their 20s to start this process? Or sort of kind of explain a little bit more about the environment itself and some of the benefits that it brings.
Mara Bangura: Sure. So, I mean, you’re never too young to learn how to organize and that goes right down to my nine-year-old daughter who I try and teach. And it comes, at times, it’s really difficult but just kind of getting into that cadence of what that means for you all the way up through college age into young adulthood and later in life.
And I think a huge part of organizing is decluttering the things that we accumulate and making sure that the things you have are the things that you need. And I have seen it myself. I know I feel it when I declutter, I am calm. My environment, it’s easy for me to access things. I am more productive. I’m not wasting time searching for things. I know where things are. I know that interesting fact is, generally, we use maybe 20% of anything in a given category, whether that’s clothing, typically, someone will only use 20%. Whether it’s kitchen gadgets, someone will typically use 20%. Name a category. That’s generally what happens. We forget about the other 80%. Or it’s just we bought it, maybe we don’t use it as much as we thought we would.
Matthew Peck: So, what’s the process?
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Yeah, I was just going to say one of my favorite days of the year, and my wife’s especially, she’ll listen to this and be like, “Yes, it’s dumpster day.” I mean, we literally just get a dumpster once a year and go through the house and be like, “Okay, we didn’t even know we had half this stuff. Why do we need it?” And then you feel so rewarded afterwards and your house is nice and, like you said, organized. And I don’t know, it’s a calming feeling, like you said, to really go through. And especially as the kids age and you’re right about clothes, it’s like you look at your closet, you’re like, I still have– you know what I mean? It’s pretty interesting that you said that.
Matthew Peck: But wait, you actually have dumpster day, really?
Keith Ellis, Jr.: I do, yeah, once a year.
Matthew Peck: I love it because I mean, certainly, anytime, there’s renovations in your house, it’s like, okay, hey, this is a great time. Well, let’s fill up the dumpster, and certainly, anytime, neighbors have dumpsters. I’m always, like, knocking on their door.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Well, that’s usually what happens is the neighbors, I mean, we can’t fill a whole dumpster. I mean, we don’t have that much stuff, but our neighbors love it, too.
Mara Bangura: And I mean, one of the things that I like to really try and do and the reason I named my company Green Earth Organizing is that I want to take the things and try and donate them, donate as much as possible to whether it’s a Goodwill or the Epilepsy Foundation or Big Brother, Big Sister, or work with small nonprofits. So, that’s a huge part of what I do as well is can we give a second life to these things that were once loved by a person or a family? How can we allow them to be loved again?
Matthew Peck: Okay, so then, along the same lines, Mara, so that’s like, okay, let’s just take dumpster day for a moment, right? So, it’s like, okay, today’s the day I really want to clean house and maybe it’s not as sort of brutal or immediate like that. But is it along those lines where you then create categories of, okay, no, this is a dumpster, this is charity, this is keep? So, what is the process?
Mara Bangura: Yeah. So, I mean, things that you’re just– whether it’s a recalled car seat or car seats in general. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to find a way to give those away. But yeah, I mean, if something is in not great condition, sure. Or you don’t think that you could recycle it at your local dump, or a lot of clothes now, Goodwill will recycle clothing. So, if it’s torn or just not in good shape, you can put it in a plastic bag. They will recycle it. So, things like that.
Matthew Peck: But is that how you approach it, though? If you’re sitting with a client, or I guess, take us through…
Mara Bangura: So, if I’m sitting with a client, if we’re going through their things, I will definitely ask them. I never throw anything away or take anything out of anybody’s home without their consent. And I will have a bag of items that are going to be donated clothing-wise, a bag of items that are going to be recycled. And I label it so I know the difference. And then when they get it at there and they know the difference as well.
And then whether it’s, I have a place I donate box and what are those box that are going to be donated? Papers. Papers are a huge thing. Having piles and piles of papers from years past. What needs to be shredded? And setting up a box of shredded, recycling. What needs to be filed? So, helping clients set that up so that they can take bite-sized pieces out of organizing their things, their life. How can we make this manageable?
And that is the thing is that you don’t have to do this in a week. You don’t have to do this in a month. It’s your process. And I often help my clients become accountable for that process.
Matthew Peck: Accountable in what way? Saying, okay, hey, we have a deadline, or I mean, the deadlines move people. As much as it’s scary, they do people to the act.
Mara Bangura: Right. So, you have a meeting with me today. I’m going to be there for at least three hours. I go into the meeting with a plan of based on our conversation, these are the things that you would like to work on. This is a room you’d like to work on. Let’s do X, Y, and Z to move us towards that end goal.
And you talk about goals with clients. What do they want? Why are they hiring me? What do they want from my services? And usually, I go into a person’s home and I will meet with them for however long they need to meet. And we talk about what their goals are and why they’re hiring me, and then I can create a plan for them in terms of organizing.
Matthew Peck: And I guess the other questions are about the process, too. You mentioned the 20% rule. If I’m looking at my closet or whomever it is, is there a rule? Remember the clothes, remember hearing a rule that they would close, which was like, okay, if you haven’t worn this in a year, get rid of it, right? So, I don’t know. Are there rules of thumbs when it comes to– I think tax returns are five years. I’m just trying to think of all the different rules of thumb when it comes to, okay, what you should hold on to and where you can make that determination of whether it’s going or staying.
Mara Bangura: So, if you are a person that’s having trouble letting go of some things, you might gather a couple of those things, put it in a Tupperware, like a big utility bin or something, put it in your basement, check it in three months. How do you want it to go use those things? Maybe, it’s six months for you. If you haven’t thought about anything in that tub in three or six months, you can probably say to get rid of it. I mean, that’s one thing that you can do. Deciding if you want to hold on to something, give yourself whether it’s 30 days, 60 days. If you haven’t worn it, you haven’t used it in your kitchen, you never use your Cuisinart, but you like having it…
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. There we go.
Mara Bangura: Maybe, don’t feel bad. And a lot of times, something like that, maybe it was given as a wedding gift. And so, you feel this guilt. And not just with that, but also furniture that you’ve gotten from family members. And you feel this guilt that you have to hold on to it, but you have no use for it. Let yourself be okay with saying, you know what? I don’t need this in my life.
Matthew Peck: Like, tell Aunt Elmo that I got rid of it, though.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Yeah, I was just thinking of three chairs in my house.
Mara Bangura: And off air, I mentioned sort of this philosophy that has come from Sweden called death cleaning.
Matthew Peck: Okay, death cleaning.
Mara Bangura: Death cleaning, which sounds really scary.
Matthew Peck: It does.
Mara Bangura: And there’s a book out now called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. There’s a show about it. But essentially, the philosophy that I think is newer to Americans is that take the time to go through your things and give yourself the agency to get rid of them in a way that you want them to be dispersed, whether it’s through a charity that you really like, whether it’s giving something special, asking your niece or your great niece or great nephew, “Would you like this? This was handed down. This has been in our family. I would like to give it to you.”
You know what? If they say no, they say no. You can decide to keep it or take a photo of it. And there’s all these great apps out there now too, where you can write why something’s important to you, take a photo and write that down and you have a picture of it and that memory because I think a lot of people are worried about losing that memory and what that meant to them.
And then, so to get back to Swedish death cleaning, it’s a way that, at any age, you don’t have to be in your later years. You can be midlife, you can be your early 30s, and going through your things and saying, “Would I want this? If something happened to me today, my family is going to be left with having to decide where everything goes and having to declutter my life for me. How can I make that easier?”
There’s legacy you want to leave and legacies you don’t want to leave. And if we’re not in control of our decluttering, then not only are we maybe leaving unwanted things to our family, but we’re also leaving them, it’s expensive. It’s expensive after someone passes and trying to figure out what to do with their things. Of course, it’s emotional, too. And when you pair that emotional piece with that heavy decision making, it’s a challenge. And so, what are ways that we can make things easier for our loved ones after we’re gone?
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Yeah. I remember when my grandmother passed, and the family got together at her condo and all the kids got to go around and one by one, just put labels on. This uncle got this first pick, as weird as it sounds. Second pick, third pick, fourth pick. Kind of went back and forth until everything was kind of marked. I’m not sure if that’s the way she wanted things to go, but it was kind of the only way that we as a family could decide to kind of declutter. A lot of it did go like– I know I made the joke earlier about dumpster day, but I mean, we give tons of books to charity and do a ton of recyclings.
We just call it dumpster day as a family because it’s like us really cleansing ourselves of things that we don’t necessarily need. But I’m not sure if my grandmother thought that that was the way that things would be done, but that was the only way we could think to do it. So, it was a pretty interesting process, to say the least.
Matthew Peck: Yeah. I mean, so how often? I mean, do you see a lot of your clients ending up in that 75, 80, 85 or even after the fact? I mean, I guess, when this, in your own experience, how often is it, yeah, you’re stepping in after the person has passed?
Mara Bangura: Right. And I’ve had that experience where, with a team of organizers, I’ve gone into people’s homes after they’ve passed and the family is distraught. They might not live in the state. They’re very emotional. But it’s just so emotionally overwhelming that they don’t know where to begin because maybe it’s their parents and they lived in their home for 45 years. And so, they call in organizers to help them declutter. And they might say something like, “You know what? We really just want photos,” or “We’re really looking for this item, but everything else can be donated.” So, that…
Matthew Peck: And do you help? If some of those things where you– and it just popped my mind where if something is going after me about the family auction that Keith was describing, but an estate sale, I’ve heard terms like, oh, you have an estate sale, and so, do you work with auctioneers?
Mara Bangura: So, I don’t. There are organizers that do work with estate sales. I don’t currently offer that service, but there are organizers that do that, that will work with auction houses or will do estate sales. And those are really great options as well. Even when a person is alive, you can do it at any time. You can do that as well. And that’s a great way to generate a little extra income, but you’re also decluttering your possessions as well.
Matthew Peck: Yeah. I’m just curious to talk a little bit offline about how the different mentalities too, how that changes, about how all of our grandparents either grew up in the Depression, or obviously, made their way through World War II. And yeah, that’s going to leave a mark in regards to your hoarding or cluttering versus decluttering system or just sort of like how you’re wired at that point. Have you seen that type of mentalities, of older mentalities in younger and different outlooks when it comes to clutter and decluttering?
Mara Bangura: Yeah, I would say that the younger generations, from my experience, they have more consumables, right? We talked about the way earlier about how furniture is made. It’s not made the same way anymore. You don’t have that woodworking craftsmanship with a dovetail. Like, whenever you hear dovetail, now, you’re like, oh, that’s quality, right?
So, yeah, and so, I think, definitely, the younger generation with the older generation, there’s a lot of memories tied. And when you think of, too, the social media that we have and photos and videos on our phone, older generations don’t have that documentation, right? And so, a lot of things, this is just my opinion, I think, are tied to the physical items.
So, what are some things that can then move somebody forward? And sometimes, it’s a lot of just talking and kind of really getting to the bottom of why is this piece difficult to let go of. What is it? And let’s talk about that and see.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Do you think social media is going to play a big part in regards to decluttering? Because I know my wife, for example, uses the marketplace to sell X, Y, and Z, like you said, to declutter, but also, not just have it go to a dump, or someone else can see value in that. And I think that is a nice– and you can get a discount.
Mara Bangura: And also, just a little aside, I have had dumpster day at my house too.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Okay. I’m not feeling guilty.
Mara Bangura: Yeah, don’t ask me if I do. And that was before I got into organizing and understood and really researched. Where can I give things too? Who accepts what? So, it was before I had that knowledge of that, I have had that, I’m going to put myself out there.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Right. There we go. There we go. This is very powerful for me.
Mara Bangura: But yeah. And also, I think a big takeaway is go at your own pace, right? I always say, take little bites. So, do what feels manageable. Start in one room, one corner of the room. Start just maybe with your closet. Or if you know you don’t want this piece of furniture, that’s a big thing you can get rid of, so.
Matthew Peck: Okay. Just one or two, and I’m just thinking, obviously, you always look through the prism of your own lives and it’s like, okay, kids, because I’m blessed with four kids.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: A lot of clutter.
Matthew Peck: A lot of clutter. That’s all I’m thinking of, like, I would love this process, although I’m not sure if the seven-year-old to a 13-year-old. So, I have four, between 7 and 13. The thought is, okay, I’d love to declutter right now because literally, I’m not sure if your boys do this, but Prime energy drink, he holds on…
Keith Ellis, Jr.: It’s everywhere.
Matthew Peck: And he holds on to the bottle, like the bottle. It’s like drinking Gatorade and just saying like, oh, not only do I drink this, I’m going to hold on to this recyclable plastic bottle.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: We have a shelf of Prime energy bottles.
Matthew Peck: Okay. All right. So, Mara, you have a nine-year-old daughter. So, I don’t know if…
Mara Bangura: Well, she likes Prime.
Matthew Peck: There we go.
Mara Bangura: So, I know.
Matthew Peck: Yeah, but it just is more the idea that I can imagine it being a little bit easier the older you get. But correct me if I’m wrong, I mean, tell me, is that something that you can necessarily almost talk about the legacy you want to leave? Is that something that you can almost get your kids into as well?
Mara Bangura: Yes, definitely. One thing that I like to do is from, in my own house, so our living room gets just– my daughter brings everything upstairs from her room, brings it downstairs, drives me nuts. So, what I do is I have a laundry basket empty. And I ask her, just put all your things in that laundry basket. When it gets full or to the point where I think it’s full, we’re going to bring that upstairs. You’re going to put it in the places where it belongs. So, kind of like having that place to house.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: I’m doing something right because I do the exact same thing, yeah.
Mara Bangura: Oh, see. There you go. Good job.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Thanks. I feel good about myself now. But yeah, I mean, it’s like when the kids bring everything down, you’re right, it just runs all over your house. And I always needed that central place to be able to put things to have it look at least somewhat clean and organized. And like you said, once that laundry basket is full or whatever, bring upstairs and put it away and then they learn to put stuff away. Their room is a complete disaster. That’s another story. But we’ll go from there.
Mara Bangura: I think, you just shut the door.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Yeah, that’s right. Again, I’m like, this is great. I’m doing awesome.
Mara Bangura: Well, and the point is, I think, kids are going to be kids. You also want to give them that leeway, and as parents, we have the Charlie Brown teacher voice, right? Wah, wah, wah, wah.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Yeah, absolutely.
Mara Bangura: And so, you don’t want that to happen. So, you have to kind of tread lightly, figure out where are their strengths and what do they like. Maybe it’s the Prime energy drinks. So, maybe…
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Drinking them is their strength, yes, yes.
Mara Bangura: But the bottles, maybe you have a specific shelf that they live on. Once that shelf is full, then maybe we have to think about, let’s decide, pick two that are going to be recycled. And so, giving them kind of that choice within a choice so that they’re making the choice, but you’re kind of giving the guidelines to that. Maybe that’s where my teacherness comes in, right?
Matthew Peck: Well, let’s say, last question, just to pivot very quickly is– two more, but this is something you also do for businesses. I think I saw on your website.
Mara Bangura: Yeah. So, actually, I’m working two businesses right now. I can organize a back stock room. I mean, I’m doing that right now for a business where they need some help just organizing the things that they have in the back to be put on the floor. So, I’m helping them with a system to do that. And I’m working with my local public library to help them with a project that they’re doing for Library of Things, so.
Keith Ellis, Jr.: Excellent.
Matthew Peck: So, this is something obviously not just personal. This is something businesses can necessarily consider as well.
Mara Bangura: Right, exactly. And obviously, depending on the needs of the business, it’s a little bit different. It’s not always decluttering, but it’s planning sort of that step by step of your need and how you want to go about doing that to be more organized because organization leads to productivity, right? So, your staff members or less time figuring out where is this item, what’s this? They know where it is. They can get it. They can get back to working and doing what they need to do, and really, throughout, any part, not just business, but your personal life productivity as well.
Matthew Peck: Right. And again, just less hours.
Mara Bangura: So, less time looking.
Matthew Peck: Yeah, less time looking, a lot more time doing. Well, and the last one I was going to ask too is just about the book. So, I thought it was like The Joy of Less. And there’s a number of decluttering books. I think The Joy of Less is the biggest one of recent history. But is there one that you highly recommend that you like reading yourself that you would provide to the listeners?
Mara Bangura: So, I did just finish reading The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. The name of the author is escaping me. Her first name starts with an M. The last name starts with an M.
Matthew Peck: If it’s Swedish, it’s going to be a lot of M. Forgive us, all the Swedish listeners. There’s a lot of vowels and consonants and…
Mara Bangura: But I think, that really spoke to me not only as an organizer, but personally, where in the last two years, I lost both my parents. And so, it really spoke to me in terms of, okay, what do I want as a legacy for my daughter? What are the things I need to get in order so that she’s not left with my stuff?
Matthew Peck: And I think this is enough to broaden the conversation too much, but I think as a society, or I think, Americans need to get better at talking about death because it’s almost like occasionally, and recently talked about it, Keith and myself, in regards to estate planning and with clients and whatnot. But it is going to happen. And so, whether it’s that necklace or this heirloom or what have you, having the conversations now versus after, I know they’re uncomfortable, and as you were saying earlier, that your niece or nephew or whomever, might say, “No, I don’t want that,” which would be kind of hurtful, right? But the same point…
Keith Ellis, Jr.: At least you know.
Matthew Peck: Yeah, at least you know. But having those conversations now while you’re living, while you’re healthy is just such a better way of approaching what is inevitable.
Mara Bangura: Yes.
Matthew Peck: Whether we like it or not.
Mara Bangura: Right. Yeah.
Matthew Peck: All right. Well, I’ll say we’ll kind of end on that. Sorry to add on such a relatively sad note, but at the same time, it’s to get organizing, to get your house in order, your life in order. As Mara was saying about productivity, right? We talk about how much more the common sense of having a financial plan in order and knowing where your income is coming from and knowing what the tax plan is going to be. Imagine having that in your household or in your parents’ household if the needle tends toward more of hoarders than not. And Mara, real quick, I imagine, you probably don’t watch any of the Hoarder shows that gives you nightmares.
Mara Bangura: No, I don’t. I do not watch, I actually don’t watch any of the reality TV organizing program. But I mean, I think to the one thing just to add to what you’re saying is that the wellness too in organizing and that sense of calm, that sense of accomplishment, just your environment is so much of your mental health as well, right? So, just adding to all of that as well.
Matthew Peck: Absolutely. So, that was Mara Bangura of Green Earth Organizing. Thank you again for coming on the show. Really appreciate it. I certainly hope our listeners appreciate it, too. And thanks again for listening to the SHP Retirement Road Map. And stay tune for the next one. And we certainly wish you all very well.
Mara Bangura: Thank you.