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Podcast: Clear the Material & Financial Clutter for Positive Space

Clear the Material & Financial Clutter for Positive Space

In this episode of Money Smarts, a podcast of Summit Credit Union, we're talking about how decluttering your home can actually set you up to achieve your goals and dreams in life. We recently sat down with Nicole Gruter, owner of the small business, Positive Space. For the past ten years, Nicole has been going through every stage of decluttering, downsizing, and letting go. For her, it’s been a powerful journey that led to a career change, a massive amount of debt paid off, and so much more.

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AMY CROWE: Welcome to Money Smarts, a podcast of Summit Credit Union where we connect people and inspire action to create member and community wealth. As a not-for-profit financial cooperative, Summit Credit Union exists to improve our members’ lives and help them reach their dreams. Our Money Smarts podcast is just one way we engage members in the community in conversations about money that inspire you to spend smart, save more, and take action to build a richer life.

Welcome to our podcast. I’m Amy Crowe, a financial education specialist at Summit Credit Union and your host for our show today. We recently sat down with Nicole Gruter, owner of the small business, Positive Space. For the past ten years, Nicole has been going through every stage of decluttering, downsizing, and letting go. For Nicole it’s been a powerful journey that has led to a career change, a massive amount of debt paid off, and so much more.

All right, Nicole, you and I crossed paths at a Brava Thrive conference not that long ago, and we started a conversation about aligning our values with the things we have in our houses. And, we talked about how decluttering some of the spaces in our houses can really kind of set us free emotionally, but really free up some money to be able to achieve some of the goals and dreams that we really want to.

So, we wanted to bring you in today to talk a little bit more about that and to share a little bit about your journey about how you got to where you are today. So tell us a little bit about your story.

NICOLE: I will, thanks, Amy, for having me. So, I had this light bulb moment about ten years ago where I opened up my kitchen cabinets and I was trying to cram some more junk in there. And, I stood back and I realized, what am I doing with this enormous tea set in here? I don’t remember ever using it. I don’t have any memories associated with it. It was my grandmother’s tea set that wound up over the ocean from Holland into Madison, Wisconsin. And I just thought, what is this doing in my world and in my life?

And then, I kind of looked around my whole house and I realize, I have a lot of stuff that fits that same bill. I don’t use it. I don’t get any inspiration from it. It’s using up a lot of room in a very cozy home. And, I had a moment where I thought, you know what? I’m, it was a watershed moment. I’m going to focus on this and try to move on to another phase of my life and get rid of a lot of stuff. And so, I hired a Feng Shui specialist and a professional organizer.

AMY: Wow.

NICOLE: Yeah, I wanted to kind of get both sides of the coin, if you will, from, the end product was the same but the way they got there was different. So a bit of an experiment, and it ended up being my MFA show for school, and lots of writing and studying and the passion has always remained.

And, I turned it into a business because I wanted to convey my experiences and my knowledge about going through all that and how it can be extremely difficult but also very, very rewarding.

AMY: So you actually took decluttering your house and turned it into a business?

NICOLE: I did.

AMY: All right. So tell me what you do for folks at Positive Space, because, obviously, you decluttered your whole house. And, how do you help people do that in theirs?

NICOLE: Well, for starters, it’s a process. But, I help people create an environment that is conducive to their home’s current needs. And, I do that by helping them declutter, downsize. Letting stuff go gets people a little anxious. Most importantly I help people zero in on a goal. So they focus on what they want to do at that stage in their life. A lot of times it’s when people are moving, when they are moving in with somebody, when they’re going to have new, more children being born, or their children are leaving the nest, all these different stages and phases in life. That’s where a lot of people are ready for that shift.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of you know what? I am so sick of dealing with all this stuff around me. I just want calm. I want room to breathe. I don’t want to be worried about all this stuff and obsessed about it and have it be in my way. I’m done with it. And so sometimes people just hit a wall and they want help.

AMY: So through your research, what does it say about people who have clutter?

NICOLE: Oh, well, we all have clutter.

AMY: I mean, how does it manifest itself in our emotions or how we make decisions, things like that?

NICOLE: Sure. I feel like it boils down to a mindfulness. So, things cross the threshold of our homes almost daily. And then, sometimes we just wake up and think, where did all this stuff come from?

And we don’t pay attention to what’s, you know, we don’t obtain an object and think, oh, I know the perfect spot for that pen. Or, I have the perfect spot for this, fill in the blank. Or, we lose track of how many…what our clothes look like and what they consist of.

So we buy more stuff because we’re out and there’s a sale and this and that. And it just, it turns into a lot of mental, maybe not chaos but just there’s not a focus to it, and so we wind up with all this stuff in our home and it gives us a lot of anxiety. It can bring on some forms of depression. Sometimes people are embarrassed about how much they own so they don’t invite people over. It gets in the way of people maybe visiting because their spare bedroom is not a spare bedroom. It’s a junk room.

AMY: Ours was a craft room for a while.

NICOLE: Exactly. Nothing wrong with that if you’re loving doing those crafts.

AMY: So you get home from work, you have the newspaper and the mail and you’re like, oh, my gosh, I have these wonderful free mailing labels that whatever wonderful charity decided to give me, right? And, I look at them and I go, should I throw them out or should I put them in the drawer and use them for the holiday cards? And it went in the drawer to go be used for the holiday cards, because I felt guilty about it, right?


AMY: Why couldn’t I just throw that out?

NICOLE: We get an immense sense of obligation toward stuff. We feel obligated to take care of things. If it’s a gift, we feel obligated to keep it for ever and ever and ever. We feel guilt. Like you mention, these labels sure look useful, but we didn’t go out and buy them. We didn’t even invite them to our homes. They just wound up in our mailbox. And, suddenly, oh, now I have to find a place for these labels. And it’s, over time, one thing that I didn’t anticipate, when I first started decluttering and downsizing and learning to let stuff go, was I didn’t anticipate that I, that habit, over time would become a lesson in not attaching yourself to all these things.

So, it comes in the mail. You know what? I don’t have time to read this magazine this week. It’s going to go in the recycling bin. Another magazine will show up for sure, like clockwork. And so it’s that sense of detachment which can relieve a lot of that anxiety or that sense of obligation or, yeah, all those emotions that keep us with all the things that we do own, whether it be, you know, even a blouse, it’s not thread bare, it’s not stained. I never ever wear it, but I have, I can’t get rid of it because I spent good money on it and all of those reasonings. And then, over time I’ve learned to, you know, what? I don’t like this blouse anymore. I haven’t worn it in three years. I’m just donating it today. And it becomes a habit, just like with anything. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

AMY: And you’re detaching yourself, right? You’re making a decision. I think a lot of people have a hard time making a decision.


AMY: Well, it’s interesting because as you work to create space in your house, you work to declutter, you work to have a home for everything, you’ve had a personal story where you decluttered your money through the years.


AMY: So tell us a little bit about that.

NICOLE: Well, I hit that wall that I was talking about before. I was so sick of the obligation of, you know, every month going, I had, rah, rah, rah, amount of credit cards. And you know, it was just, it was so emotionally draining every month to have to pay these bills, work to pay these bills, and for what, you know. It’s like I had gotten myself into that mess, and so it was pretty hard to fess up to. There was, you know, you always want to place blame on everybody else. Like, oh, the economy or my job stopped.

AMY: The cashier who gave me 10% off for whatever credit card I would open at the time.

NICOLE: Yup, just excuses, excuses. And then, I took a really hard look in the mirror and said, Nicole, you are the one that made this mess, so you’re the one that has to clean it up. So I buckled down. I did everything that it took to pay off the debt. I took on as many jobs as I could. I, it wasn’t just the proactive of working more, but it was the kind of work and then also having a budget.

AMY: Yeah.

NICOLE: And that’s where this work dovetails together. So when you have to keep track of every single penny that you spend because you have a goal in mind, it zeroes in pretty fast. So, you start realizing, oh, maybe I shouldn’t spend $5 on an iced coffee. Maybe I don’t need a new pillow. Maybe, that’s what ends up affecting our budget, there’s no mindfulness about it. And, the same thing with what comes into our homes. There’s no mindfulness about it, so we wonder, where did all the money go at the end of the month? Or where did all this stuff come from after X amount of time. And that’s where I, when I was getting out of debt, I had a laser focus on a goal. And that same goal can happen with getting rid of stuff.

Like if you have a goal in mind of, I want to make this space suit me in this way. I want it to be a nursery or a craft room or a spare bedroom that’s actually a spare bedroom or an exercise room or you name it. These are, that’s the goal that fuels you and focuses you. And the financial goals had a lot to do with it. What am I spending my money on? Do I really need, you know, all these other things when I have extras in my house of that? But, you know, we get lured in by sales and by keeping up with the Joneses, and if you’re looking to save money or to pay down debt, you have to keep track of all of it.

AMY: So we’ll continue on that in just a second. But, what came first, Positive Space or the drive to pay off your debt?

NICOLE: Oh, the debt was first. Yeah, that started about five years ago, four-and-a-half years ago. And, I paid off, I think it was $35,000, plus who knows what the interest was.

AMY: That is amazing.

NICOLE: Thank you.

AMY: Because that takes time, dedication, and effort, right?

NICOLE: Thank you. Yes, it does.

AMY: And for a lot of people, like you said, just like decluttering your house, you have to hit a wall with something, right?


AMY: What’s that motivating factor? And I think you got sick of the multiple credit card payments that you were making. You got sick of the emotional drain of the debt. From what it sounds like, you got sick of bringing random stuff into your house that you never used.


AMY: Which created and manifested this whole other thing. Not only were you sick of the not paying attention to where your money was going, but you manifested it in the fact that you had all of this stuff in your house that you didn’t love. And it didn’t represent necessarily who you were, and so not only did it cost you money and interest on your credit card debt, it cost you in terms of your emotional joy because you had a cluttered home.


AMY: See that’s just an amazing thing for me because I don’t think that people make that connection between, like you said, what we’re bringing into our houses and the emotional toll it takes on us. It really is one of those things like when you enter into a client’s home for your business, Positive Space, and you’re trying to help them dig into that emotion of how do I separate what this is, whether this is a wonderful kitchen object that they got from their mother-in-law that they only put out when the mother-in-law comes over versus, you know, you still have tags on the clothes in your closet. You know, what are one or two tips that you can give our listeners as to when you’re starting that process, what can you ask yourself?

NICOLE: I start always with a new client, I ask them, what is their why? Why did you call me? Why do you want to do this? Why now? Answer that, and then ask why again and then again and then again. And, it gets to this kernel of the issue that keeps the process focused. It keeps people motivated because it’s exhausting work. I mean, my sessions are maxed out at four hours. I’ve done a five-hour one, and it was, you know, we could see the light at the end of this very dark tunnel, so we just kept going. But people are taxed after just a few hours of this kind of work.

And so if you can keep that why in mind, that’s what motivates you both with getting out of debt or saving money or whatever the financial goal is and with downsizing, decluttering, or even designing a new space. It’s like, if you know the reasoning behind it, that’ll keep you in the moment. That will keep you going, and that’s essential. If you don’t have that, it’s just going to fizzle and you’re going to feel frustrated.

AMY: What I love is that you take it over small chunks of time. Like four hours is like your max, right? And I think you have to do that with your money too, right? What you were big on being mindful and tracking your expenses so that you know what you’re spending money on so that you see what’s mindful and not so mindful. And then, you can start making different choices. But, it’s the idea of being able to think more clearly and to say, I’m going to spend a small amount of time tracking my expenses or maybe using my mobile app or if you still balance your checkbook with a pen and paper, doing that. But anytime longer than that, you get frustrated.

NICOLE: Sure, sure.

AMY: And so was there a correlation between what you’re doing with people today and how you kind of chunked paying off your credit card debt? How, because I know that you had told me when we talked earlier that you had some big pieces of paper up on your wall?

NICOLE: I did. I think it’s about consistency because before I, well, we can get into this later, but I, now I have an app that I use. But before then, I would write every single expense down that I paid out for the day, whether it be $2, $200, whatever it was, I wrote it down just on a little square on a calendar. And then, I did this, the big pieces of paper were each credit card had their name at the top, how much I owed, and the interest rate. And then, every month I would cross it off and then write, you know, always a lesser number, hopefully, every month. And then, the one credit card would get paid, and I could take that one down, or, actually I kept it up as motivation. And then, you know, eventually all the cards got X-ed off. I had big real red markers, and it was like my living room looked ridiculous.

AMY: So one of the great stories that you shared with me before this podcast was that you took an entire person’s closet and put it on their bed in their bedroom and you sorted through it. Tell me that story.

NICOLE: This is a good one. So this woman, she lived in a substantial home with two children and her husband. They divorced. The children stayed with her and they moved to a condo, beautiful condo, but significantly smaller than her home. She still had all of her, she had downsized somewhat before she moved, but she needed help with the next step. And, I came into her home. There were, she’d been there for quite a number of months already, boxes still waiting to be unpacked, which will happen. When one moves, you get, you know, involved in life and what not. Then I went into her bedroom and it was filled with her clothes, with an enormous amount of clothes. And she wasn’t exactly sure where she wanted to start.

And I thought, you know, she’s living in this condo with two young children. She needs her space. She needs to have a sanctuary. And she had, there was a bedroom, a walk-in closet that led to the bathroom. So when she wakes up in the morning . . .

AMY: She walks through the . . . 

NICOLE: That’s basically the very first thing she sees and has to walk through, right.

AMY: Yeah.

NICOLE: And I thought, no, let’s make this her beautiful space. And there was boxes and bags and clothes just bursting at the seams. And I thought, okay, I have a feeling that she doesn’t maybe even know what she has here at this point. And so I said, okay, we’re going to take everything from your closet, from the closet floor, from the shelves, from the dresser drawers. We’re going to put it all on the bed. Well, let me tell you, by the time we got done doing that, I could barely reach the top of the pile there was so much to . . .  

AMY: And it was four hours later?

NICOLE: Right, exactly, almost. And so we, you know, she kind of looked at it. She’s like, wow, okay. Here we go. But she was ready. She was ready to move on. She had this big shift in her life still happening with, you know, moving and the divorce and just big changes in life.

So we started at the top of the pile and slowly made our way down, or not slowly, with a bit of speed. And, there were a lot of emotions tackled like, oh, I remember this shirt. I used to,..I got this at this great show. I remember wearing this when I was pregnant and, or, oh, I got a really good deal on this. And, all these reasons that we keep our things.

I’m guilty as well of having a wardrobe that’s difficult to let go of. I have a lot of shirts from shows, etcetera, etcetera, memories associated with them. But, you know, when you don’t wear them and they’re taking up space and you, you almost feel kind of, I don’t know, like they can bring you down in certain ways. Like if you’ve outgrown them because you’ve gained weight, or they just don’t fit the same anymore because you’re body has changed, or it’s just not, it’s not your style any more, all these different reasons. It’s hard for me to let go of clothes as well.

But at any rate, we started going through that pile. We got to the end. This is the one where I stayed until five hours, because it was, we were almost done. And her place looked amazing. Her closet looked amazing. We had whittled it. We took away 12 contractor bags filled to the rim with clothes away, took it away. And, she couldn’t have been more delighted. And, I came back to work with her on some other parts of her home at another date. And she was, she’s like, oh, come here, come here, come here. I want to show you, like I’ve kept things...

AMY: She kept it up?

NICOLE: Yeah. She kept it up. You know, I kept things up off the floor. I’ve kept things, everything has a home. I know where everything goes. It doesn’t just wind up on the floor or in these heaps or whatever. And she looked at me and I’ll never forget she just said, ‘I knew that this person was inside of me. I just didn’t know how to get there.’ And she had tears in her eyes. I was just like, oh, my gosh. It was great. It was so wonderful to see her happy and to see that shift that had happened.

And her benefitting from it and like knowing what she had in her closet as opposed to just, you know, I think we have this idea of we buy things on sale or at Goodwill or we get it from a friend, if it’s free or really inexpensive then, you know, we have to keep it. And, it was such a good deal. And, then the more and more of that you get, the more and more stuff you get in your closet. I mean, I know it sounds very obvious but sometimes we don’t make that correlation, and then we’re stuck with these things because we think we have to be stuck with these things.

AMY: And you don’t have to be stuck with these things.


AMY: I have so many parallels to our Project Money families. They’re stuck. They don’t know how to get to where they want to go. And sometimes you just need advice. And, a lot of times people are scared to ask for advice because there’s a lot of shame and vulnerability attached to that.

And so, you have to find the courage to break through, like you have to find the courage ask a consultant or to hire a consultant or to ask somebody at a financial institution that you trust like Summit. You know, here’s my entire debt picture. Where do I start? Like I am here. Like you said, I got myself in this position, I want to get myself out. I’m ready. I’m motivated. Just lay out the steps for me. What’s this going to look like?

And I loved when you also said you didn’t know what you really had because I think that correlates to money. When you, I have this image in my head of this woman in her walk-in closet going, oh, I kept this. And, our Project Money family saying, I didn’t use my credit cards for over a year, because I have money in a savings account allocated for clothes.

NICOLE: Yup. That’s the ticket.

AMY: Or I have now built, you know, $7,000 to $10,000 worth of a savings account that I can use for great things versus having this burden of debt and stress and anxiety. And, it changes people’s financial habits. Like you changed her organizational habits. You gave her the tools to be able to do what she needed to do. And then she came back for more, right?


AMY: And we see that with our Project Money families too. After they end our program, you know, six months to a year later they’re like, okay, so, I paid off the car loan that you refinanced for me, and now, what’s next? Like I have this $250 payment that I want to know what to do with this money now. What do I do? Do I open up an IRA? Do I put towards retirement? What about kids’ college? Like they get excited, right? They want to know what’s next. They’re hungry for it. Do you find that with your clients?

NICOLE: Yup, absolutely. They, I have, I sort of work my way out of business sometimes because I’ll work with somebody for a session or two, and then they get that fire, right, that light in their eyes. And they just, they know that this is the right path to be going down, and we got the ball rolling. And I was their cheerleader, right, and helped them along. And then I’ll get a text or whatever and they’ll tell me, oh, I did the rest of my house, or I did, you know, I’ve been at it for a whole week now.

AMY: You’re like, wait, you should have called. I have more to teach you.

NICOLE: Yeah, right.

AMY: Right. I think you and I were talking about that when you clear that clutter both emotionally, you clear the clutter of any money, stress, or anxiety that you have. You clear the clutter of things that don’t bring you joy or represent who you are in your home. It opens up the possibility to do something different, to shift into more of your authentic self. Do you want to share some experiences with that?

NICOLE: Absolutely. It just, it focuses your, like we can create this void. We think it’s, you know, we’re going to clear a space and then what’s going to fill it? And sometimes it’s just the space itself that’s the inspiration. Sometimes we have this notion in our mind of like, oh, someday this is going to happen, whether it be a trip or, you know, you want so much in your savings account. Or you want to be . . .

AMY: An entrepreneur.

NICOLE: . . . an entrepreneur, or you want to be philanthropic. You want to be donating money.

AMY: You want to go back to school.

NICOLE: Right. Whatever that is, but it’s always sort of this fuzzy back-of-your-head thing. And we get the same thing with our homes. Like, oh, someday I’d love to make this look like such and such. Some day . . . 

AMY: Someday I’ll clean up storage room or my closet.

NICOLE: Yeah. Someday this junk drawer won’t be filled with junk that I don’t even know what’s in it. And, when you can bust through that, it’s just like this shift in life that starts a new chapter. Like you were talking about the people who paid off a debt and then…what now? What can I put this money towards now? They weren’t thinking that two years ago. They were freaking out about all the debt and how to grapple with it, all the stress, all the other emotions, the shame like you mentioned.

And that also happens with people’s homes. They have a sense of embarrassment, or it’s not always so dire that there’s shame involved. I know that money can definitely attract that. But, it’s getting that notion out of your head, those someday projects, those someday goals and really bringing focus to them and making them happen. It’s not just a dream. You can actually make it happen. Because when I was in that much credit card debt, I mean, what’s the use? What’s the purpose of even trying? I’m in so much debt. Why even try? I was like, really? That’s how you’re going to live your life, just give up? Wow. We need to change that attitude. And so, I did. And I just buckled down.

AMY: Got some markers and some paper and you taped it up on the wall and started, right?

NICOLE: That’s right. Absolutely. Yup, and I looked that girl in the mirror and I said, you have to clean this up. And, just same thing with those dreams that we have. I know it sounds a little bit, you know, whatever, esoteric or lofty when you talk about these dreams that we have. But, the smallest shift in a person’s home can affect so many things, not just your own life, but your family’s life. Whether it be, you know, if you’re realizing that you want something different out of your home. You want it to serve you in a different way rather than you serving it. And it can really affect your mood. It can affect your mornings, how you get rolling in the day.

If you’re like freaking out about trying to find stuff or getting the right wardrobe or finding your keys or feeling like you just left a mess behind you and you just want to slam the door and forget all about it. I mean, how does that set the tone for the rest of your day, for your work space, for your co-workers? I mean, it’s just a ripple effect that it’s pretty intense.

AMY: Yeah. This has been so much fun talking with you about clearing clutter, about how psychologically we can let go of the things that we need to in our houses, that it’s possible to pay off a lot of credit card debt. Oh, my goodness, congratulations. That is absolutely amazing that you can motivate yourself, right? And how it all intertwines. Do you have a couple of closing thoughts for the listeners?

NICOLE: Well, just that it’s a connection that we don’t always make, this dovetailing between these two issues. And, I find them completely part and parcel. Learning how to focus on a goal, letting go of some of those emotions, whether it be over what we own and can’t let go of or the resistance to changing our relationship to money.

AMY: Yes.

NICOLE: Where we spend our money, how, what we spend our money on affects what comes into our home. All these things, they’re so intertwined, and often we didn’t see that correlation. And, so this has been the perfect experience to explain all that and to talk about how it does affect us on so many different levels.

AMY: Well, I know I’ve learned a couple of things, and it makes me want to go home and organize something.

NICOLE: Here’s my card.

AMY: So we’ll see how it goes. Well, thank you so much, Nicole.

NICOLE: You’re so welcome.

AMY: I’m so grateful that we met at that event.

NICOLE: Absolutely.

AMY: And that we could chat today. So thank you so much.

NICOLE: You are so welcome. Thank you for having me here. It’s been great.

AMY: Join us next time for our Money Smarts podcast to get more tips tools and advice on how you can own your money. Discover more Money Smarts at Like us on our Facebook page. Tweet us or Pin something from our Pinterest boards. That’s all for today. Thanks for listening, and remember, it’s your money, own it.