Ask Unclutterer: Difficulty parting with sentimental objects

Reader S. submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I really want to unclutter my house, but every time I go to do this I get emotional and start reminiscing in my mind. So, back in the pile/box it goes. I can’t seem to move forward. I know if you haven’t used it in 2 years you should get rid of it. HELP!!!

I think there are two main types of objects in our homes — utilitarian and sentimental objects. Utilitarian objects are useful items like plates and chairs and blenders. The two year rule you mentioned primarily applies to these types of objects. If you don’t have use for a utilitarian object over the course of two years (or one year), you should donate the item to charity or sell it on Craigslist or give it to a friend who wants it. My guess is that you don’t have much issue parting with these types of objects since they hold no emotional attachment.

Conversely, sentimental objects don’t usually work with “if you haven’t used it in X timeframe” guidelines because the reason you have the item has very little to do with an object’s purpose. You keep sentimental items because you have an emotional attachment to them that is often based on a specific memory. You may have your grandmother’s rocking chair in your daughter’s nursery, and you may actually use it to rock your daughter to sleep at night, but the reason you have that exact chair is because it was your grandmother’s. When your daughter no longer wants a rocking chair in her room, you’re more likely to move the chair to another room of the house instead of selling it. If you were to get rid of the chair you might feel like you’re getting rid of your grandmother. (Obviously, you wouldn’t be getting rid of your grandmother if you did part with the chair, but the emotional attachment you have can certainly cause you to feel that way.)

Remember that clutter is anything that distracts you from pursuing the life of your dreams. If you have so much sentimental stuff that it is causing a stressful mess or taking up room in your home for things that matter more to you, you will want to cull the clutter. But, you don’t have to get rid of all your sentimental stuff. At least for me, some of the things I keep for sentimental reasons are objects that reflect what I value most. My grandmother is one of my most favorite people on the planet, and having her rocking chair makes me smile and remember all the wonderful times we have shared. So, I keep that exact chair. However, I don’t keep every card she ever sent me or every gift she ever gave me because I don’t have room to keep everything and the chair elicits the happiest of all the memories. With sentimental items, it’s usually a good idea to aim for quality over quantity. Think about sorting through your sentimental items like an editing project — you’re not getting rid of everything, you’re just getting rid of the excess that distracts from the really good stuff.

For you, I recommend choosing one nice waterproof box (like a plastic bin) and calling it your Keepsake Box. Do not use a cardboard box as critters and pests can eat through it and water can soak into it and ruin your keepsakes. Then, only put the sentimental items you decide to keep in your one Keepsake Box. You’ll need to make guidelines for what sentimental objects you wish to keep and which ones you wish to purge. Items to get rid of might be things that are broken or damaged, things that you don’t remember exactly what they represent, things that are associated with bad memories, and things that you value less than another object that represents the same memory.

Also, grab a friend and a digital camera as you’re going through this process. Have the friend hold up stuff from your current stash (Rule #1: YOU can’t touch any of the stuff. Research has found that it’s harder for people to get rid of things they are holding). Any item that doesn’t meet your “keep” criteria, photograph it with a digital camera before having your friend help you get rid of the item. This way, if you ever want to see the object again, you can simply pull up the digital image file on your computer. That file takes up a lot less space in your house than the actual object did, and you’re still able to look at it whenever you want.

At the end of the project, you’ll still have a Keepsake Box, but it will hold things that are really important to you. Moving forward, you can only put items in the Keepsake Box that fit inside the box. This means, you need to leave some room in your Keepsake Box for future memories and be sure to only add the really important paraphernalia. You also might consider getting a journal and writing individual entries about each of the items in your Keepsake Box. Tell the story of the things that matter most to you. If you don’t want to spend the time writing about an item, it could be a sign that the item isn’t actually very important to you. (This isn’t always the case, but it’s definitely something to consider.)

If you don’t have a friend who would be good at helping with this sort of uncluttering project, hire a professional organizer to assist you with the work. Interview a few and choose one you trust and believe can best help you.

Also, I strongly recommend displaying and using your sentimental items that have some utility. If you’re proud of your college diploma, frame it and hang it on the wall of your office as a daily reminder of your accomplishment. If your mom made you a quilt, get it out of storage and wrap yourself in it on chilly evenings. Hiding important and useful sentimental objects in a box is a pretty lousy way to enjoy something. Use your Keepsake Box only for those small things that lack utility and would be awkward to display. For instance, I have a copy of my wedding invitation in my Keepsake Box. I don’t have any use for the invitation and I don’t have a desire to display it, but every year on our wedding anniversary we pull it out and look at it and talk about how much fun we had on our wedding day. I think Keepsake Boxes are perfect for this type of item.

Good luck!

Thank you, S., for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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26 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Difficulty parting with sentimental objects”

  1. posted by Annette on

    I really like the idea of a keepsake box. It may not be attractive to have a plastic bin out in the open so why not nest it another container to keep your sentimental items in sight? I suggest a wicker chest or storage ottoman perhaps. That way you can “visit” your sentimental keepsakes without having them hide in the back of a dark closet.

  2. posted by Jessica @ Faith Permeating Life on

    Your division of objects worth keeping into “utilitarian” and “sentimental” reminds me of this quotation I love (which I’m sure you’ve probably used on here before) from William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Beautiful involves more than just sentimental objects, but I think they fit into this kind of a mindset.

  3. posted by Sally A on

    I would add to this, that if you keep something that has a relation to a family member, you document that somewhere. I am in the process of photographing certain objects, and then I put the photo on my family history book with information about what that object is and how it relates to someone. For example, my great-grandfather’s wooden shoes – I have them on display in the living room, but my kids probably have only a vague idea of what they are or whose they were. That way I have the documentation somewhere, and we hopefully won’t lose the connection of why we are keeping that particular thing.

  4. posted by J.P. on

    This post is perfectly timed. My wife and I are in the middle of a move and are discovering that we have accumulated *far* too much stuff. I’m pretty sentimental by nature, and this post was a nice reminder to distinguish between the utilitarian and the emotional and the best of the emotional from the rest. Thanks!

  5. posted by Tammy on

    Instead of keeping a box of my girls’ baby clothes, I had them made into a quilt. Can’t wait to snuggle up in winter and reminisce!

    A while back I had to clean out a cedar chest that was full of my momentos, sitting at my parents’ house. (Reason why is a long story)… my first thought was “how am I going to part with all of this?!” But I had to…I certainly didn’t want it all coming to my house (that should have been a clue right there!) so I started taking pictures of everything and I was very surprised at how easy it was to let go. I found some things from my childhood that I got out for my girls to use and enjoy now, and I salvaged a couple of things that I couldn’t part with. But everything else that I thought was so special, I took a picture, tossed, and I’ve never thought twice about them. Haven’t even looked at the pictures.

    My family loves to give gifts. Over the years I always saved everything because it came from mom or sister or dear friend and I love them so much. But now when something doesn’t fit or isn’t useful or for whatever other reason is actually clutter, I say to myself “I love you mom, and getting rid of this item doesn’t mean I love you any less.” It helps!

  6. posted by Jennifer on

    Great post, as usual. I have read about the idea to photograph sentimental items before, but discovered something odd- at least about myself- quite by accident recently. I have gradually decluttered a LOT over the past 10 years and generally have no problem getting rid of anything that is not supporting the life I am living right now (save a small suitcase full of sentimental items). However, I was looking through my photo album recently and came across a photo of my bedroom at my old condo and saw two items that made me think, “aww, I wish I had kept that”.

    It just struck me as odd, since I generally do not miss what I have let go of, yet seeing it reminded me of it and made me wish I had not let go of it, which is quite opposite the goal in taking a photograph in the first place. Not really a problem, since I’m in no danger of becoming a hoarder anytime soon (in fact, I like to call myself a “stage 3″ declutterer…), but it is a curiousity.

  7. posted by MaryJo @ reSPACEd: Budget Organizing on

    This post couldn’t have said it any better. The plastic keepsake box is the perfect way to store sentimental items. I recommend it to all of my organizing clients. Make sure you have one for every member of the house, and start one for each of your children to store their most precious schoolwork and art projects.

  8. posted by Laura, The "Argie" on

    I am so much like her!
    It’s such a difficult decision to get rid of objects I feel sentimentally attached to but I cannot display…(or take with me to my new house – 12.000Km away)
    I’ll use all this advice in my daily chosing.

    Thanks a lot!

  9. posted by Gemmond on

    Jennifer
    You’re not the only one to have regrets about letting go of an item after viewing photos of it afterwards. We had exactly the same issue a few years ago when clearing out our mother’s home on her passing.

    Seeing the photos was a just-too-visceral reminder that we had never really wanted to toss those items. (It’s obviously different than viewing pix of deceased persons, since they cannot come back but we know that we have that option with things.)

    It’s too bad that families are so much smaller today. In the past, you could often redistribute various items among members (and sometimes have them go from home to home) so that they still remained “in the family” and you could “visit” them as it were. Plus the stuff was actually used (functional) on a daily basis (furniture, pots and pans, etc.)

    Having a few items of sentimental value that you can integrate into your daily life/home design makes it a lot easier to give up a lot of other stuff. But having to sort and place a “value” as it were on some items, is very hard to do. Even if you’re not the sentimental type. And one caution, sometimes it makes more sense to wait before tossing stuff or even sorting. Grief takes time and it is not always a good idea to toss things before you’re ready. We’ve had friends who were like: OK. We have to get rid of this stuff now, just a few weeks after a matriarch died. Huge mistake. They are still beating themselves up over what they tossed and fighting with each other.

    Of course, sometimes there is no way to hang onto stuff for more than a short period (although we paid for a few months storage so that we could properly sort items and then prepare for a tag sale).

    Other friends, whose spouses passed, waited up to a year or more. At that time, they were able to sort through without as much emotional stress and pain and both were able to let go without regrets and with clarity.

    It doesn’t have to be an either / or, all or nothing effort. Toss in haste, repent forever.

    I love the idea of quilts and other items being made by recycling fabric from favorite items, whether adult or baby clothes. I truly wish I had done this with some of the items from my past. (Heck, given fashion trends, I wished I had held on to some clothes. I could have sold them for a fortune now, which is a whole other reason people now want to hang on to stuff!)

    It would be great if we all had more “experience” memories than stuff so this wasn’t even an issue. But until this happens, we’ll continue to face the challenge of dealing with items of sentimental value.

    And going digital doesn’t make it easier. I recently helped a friend try to deal with the massive amount of computers, storage devices, etc. for a family member. You think it takes time to go thru physical stuff? Try sorting thru digital stuff. Really challenging given not only the amounts of stuff, but the various formats and electronics needed to access various types.

  10. posted by Anita on

    Good tips! Another thing I’ve learned from experience: if you’re going to store things in plastic containers, and you live anywhere where humidity is an issue, put some silica gel packets (or a small pouch filled with a similar dessicant) in the bin. It can help paper not get warped and fabric not get smelly. Regularly airing out the contents of your box helps too.

  11. posted by Sue G. on

    RE: Hiding important and useful sentimental objects in a box is a pretty lousy way to enjoy something.

    This was a hard one for me to learn. My mother and grandmother are weavers and make many practical items. G’ma made me several cotton dish towels and I kept them in storage for a long time because they were “Nice” or “Special” (not unlike the guest towels no one can touch, ha!). I finally started using them and you know what… I smile whenever I use them. I think they’re pretty, they work well (much better quality and durability than any store-bought kitchen towels I’ve used) and I think of my loving G’ma.

    Although I must admit, now that G’ma is 97 and can’t weave as well anymore (hand issues) I know these are the last towels of hers that I’ll have. Therefore, I am tempted to store a few away for when these eventually wear out, then I’ll have another batch to use for years.

  12. posted by Carol Swedlund on

    We did the preliminary sort of my parents’ things only 3 weeks after Dad died, since that was when the whole family could be there. That was a little too soon for me to make decisions on everything, so I brought a lot of things home to go through later. It’s now been 3 years and only recently I put together one photo album with some of their photos, and was FINALLY able to throw out the rest of them. It just takes time to make some decisions and it’s OK to do that in stages.

  13. posted by Jennifer on

    Hi, Gemmond,

    Now I feel really silly, as the two items I “regretted” decluttering were not even sentimental! ;-) Both were things I had purchased myself- a pink and white coffee mug and a decorative doll- and I just thought they were pretty and wished I had them back. Neither were expensive to begin with and truth be told I could probably find them on eBay.

    Eh, it was not a huge “Oh, I made a mistake” moment, more like a little pang of regret. I just found it ironic that, had I NOT had a photograph of those items, I would probably never have even thought of them.

    As far as sentimental items, I think long and hard before parting with them. For instance, I have some china pieces that were my Grandmothers. I actually used them for years as my everyday plates and bowls, but never or rarely used the various other items (tea cups and saucers, serving platters, creamer and sugar bowl, etc.) and a couple of years ago I realized that eating from huge plates was not necessarily good for controlling portion sizes. I asked my Mom, sister, and sister-in-law, but nobody else wanted them so I finally packed them up and am going to try to sell them. Thing is, I can’t recall Grandma ever serving a meal in that china, so they are just things to me. It’s not worth even the 2′x 2′ space it would take to store them.

    On the other hand, I have a handmade doll that one Grandma made me and a handmade doll blanket from the other Grandma, as well as rings that each of them owned. Those things are VERY sentimental to me because they were made just for me. (Although, even then I had to put limits- one Grandma was quite the seamstress and made me dozens of cute little skirt and vest outfits during my grade school years. Imagine if I saved all of those!) I’m thinking of getting a large shadow box to put the doll and blanket in so I can display them in my bedroom while still keeping them from getting too dusty.

  14. posted by jodi on

    Erin,

    I like the advice you give about sentimental clutter. My husband has been “listening” as he sorts through items that belonged to his father.

    My question is what advice would you give for dealing with sentimental clutter that is too bulky for the box? Your rocking chair example is perfect for my question since it wouldn’t fit in a box.

    What guidelines would you offer if the majority of someone’s sentimental items are too big for a box? Lots of pictures? Only utility items? A numerical limit (I.e. only 5 or 10 sentimental items too big for the box allowed)?

    Your advice on the small stuff is sooo good! I look forward to hearing more of your ideas!

  15. posted by Sabrina Q. on

    Enjoyed your view point on types of clutter. Thanks.

  16. posted by Marylee on

    Have you done the 24 Things Challenge.. great way to de-clutter and today is day one!

  17. posted by organizingwithe on

    When I was first reading the blog, I kept thinking – just take a picture, soooo much easier to store, and why would you want to keep the actual article if you weren’t using it anyway?

    But after reading the comments, I realize that this is difficult for a lot of people. So now I’m trying to understand a different point of view. Which leads me to some questions…..

    Why keep anything you’re not using? Isn’t the memory of it stored in your mind – a much safer place to keep it? For example, I fondly remember the first knick knack I ever bought – a small glass fish from the Coney Island Aquarium. I can see it clearly in my mind – the fish itself is long gone – to where I have no idea. But I’m happy with the memory – always pristine, always easy to find. Why keep the item?

    And I’m a believer of the quote mentioned above – William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Does a diploma framed on the wall fall into either category? No – it belongs in a file. The memory makes you feel good – but the diploma itself? Face it, it’s ugly.

    And items from relatives. I’m beginning to think that stuff is just being kept as memory joggers. If that’s the case, wouldn’t a list of items and/or stories to go with them serve as a better jog then a box of things you never go through?

    I’m thinking that maybe I’m from Mars and everyone else is from Venus.

    Help me understand the mindset that would want to keep anything they do not use or believe to be beautiful……….

    Thanks!

  18. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @organizingwithe — “Beautiful” is subjective. There is not a Platonic ideal of every object that all of human existence agrees to. The diploma that you think is ugly may be seen as quite beautiful to someone else.

    One of my most prized possession, a thing I would cry about if it were to be destroyed, is a specific clothes hanger. I’ve explained the story related to the hanger to my husband many times and he still doesn’t fully understand why it means so much to me. To everyone else, it’s just a hanger with some string wrapped around it. To me, it represents so much more. If the story behind the sentimental attachment to the hanger were one I felt comfortable sharing with people who came into my home (it’s not), I would probably frame it and hang it on the wall. For now, it’s in my closet, and I smile every time I hang something up on it.

    Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

  19. posted by Sue on

    We are actively decluttering, so I had a tough time when my mom said to go through her china cabinet and pick whatever I wanted as a birthday gift. I settled on a promotional item from my Dad’s long-ago business and a stocking hanger for the mantle.

    I think she was hoping I’d clean it out for her!

  20. posted by Rally on

    For me, I have found it useful to keep sentimental items that I actually remember my grandmother using. When she passed away there were many items of china that she had received over the years as gifts for being in several women’s organizations. For the most part, they resided in a china closet. It was easier to part with those teacups and candlesticks that she never used and meaningful to keep the ceramic pitcher she did use to make cocoa and a large china platter that was used to serve Thanksgiving turkey (and that is still being used to serve turkey).

  21. posted by Jason on

    My problem is that I find sentiment in the idea of someday using utilitarian items, and have trouble parting with those that I know to be difficult or expensive to replace. Likewise, I have a whole shelf of nonfiction howtos for projects I want to start if I could ever find the time – titles on improving my chess game, self-publishing, various aspects of computer programming, calligraphy, activism, coin magic, card games, graphic design, starting a business, juggling, gardening, string figures, negotiating, managing time (ironic, eh?), plus dozens of other related topics. And I have the tools necessary to supplement each of these potential hobbies and projects. It’s not that I can’t let go of the guitar, or the paint set, or the camping equipment. It’s that I can’t let go of the idea of being a rock star or an artist, or even admitting to myself that the odds of finding the time to go backpacking in the next couple of years are slim to none.

  22. posted by Puggle on

    I was in an antique store the other day, and saw a china cup and saucer with the Eastern Star logo on it (an organization that my grandma used to be in when she was alive). My gut reaction was to buy it, because it triggered a memory of her. But my next (and final) reaction was to not buy it…I simply admired it for what it was and was grateful for it reminding me of my grandma (who died 25 years ago). The object had nothing to do with her, so it made zero sense for me to buy it. Memories don’t take up space like stuff does…and require no cleaning and reorganizing! :)

  23. posted by Carol Swedlund on

    A diploma CAN be beautiful … OK, it probably isn’t, but I struggled to earn mine at a time when I very nearly got divorced. The fact that I got thru those classes and that my husband was there to watch the graduation ceremony makes the diploma nearly priceless and I like to display it!

  24. posted by Lynn on

    I have a regret – my grandmother knitted the most amazing, intricate pure wool afghans (not those awful crocheted things) that she gave me for my wedding. Anyway, I used it, day in and day out for years, and now I wish I hadn’t ’cause it’s gone, worn through, torn and trashed. I wished I had saved it instead of used it. I have nothing else from her so I regret not storing it properly as “clutter” and using it only to drape across my bed.

  25. posted by Christyn@StrivingforSimple on

    This is a great post…I struggled with what to do with sentimental clutter for a long time. I finally got down to one plastic bin and my biggest road block would be cards. I been keeping the ones with actual letters written in them that mean a lot to me. The rest I just toss. Thanks!

  26. posted by Licia on

    I work mostly with helping kids unclutter their rooms. For them, most of the stuff in their room is sentimental simply because they haven’t got as many years worth of memories, but those memories can pile up over the years.

    My sister and I (after our dad found the boxes of ‘keep forever’ school papers he’d been saving for us while we were at college, yet never told us where the boxes were so we could weed through them every summer) have decided on a plan to use with our other much younger sister and our cousin, both of whom have problems letting go of those random bits of paper.
    1 filing box and a small plastic bin (I like the ones about 6 inches deep). Every summer, go through the piles of papers that accumulate through school and keep only the ones that fit in the file box. Sentimental memory pieces or craft projects go in the plastic bin and get rotated through some kind of display.

    I like the idea of taking pictures of some of the more bulky items and writing the story of why they’re important on the back. I label all of my pictures- a habit I learned from my grandmother who got tired of having to use the carpet in the background to figure out which baby was in the picture.

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