Determining if a sentimental item is clutter or a treasure

In January, Bubba Watson bought the General Lee that jumped over the police car at the end of the opening sequence to the television show The Dukes of Hazzard. Watson, who won the Masters golf tournament this weekend, is reported as having said the car was his “dream car” and sought out the car’s auction.

Without a doubt, the General Lee is a sentimental item to Watson. He probably loved the television show. He probably associates the car and The Dukes of Hazzard with very happy memories from his childhood. He treasures it and will likely put it on display and dust it regularly with a cloth diaper. If the mood strikes, he may even drive it.

Conversely, if the General Lee had been in my garage, I would have found it to be sentimental clutter. I have no affinity for the car and never really got into the television show. I wouldn’t want to waste the garage space on it, and I wouldn’t want to pay for its upkeep. I would have eagerly sold it or given it away to get it off my hands.

This example of the car illustrates the most important point with regard to sentimental items — only the owner of the object can determine if something is a treasure or clutter. I’m certain my husband believes my collection of Mold-A-Rama animals is clutter, but to me it’s pure happiness and joy. The animals remind me of the vacations we’ve taken and the fun we’ve had locating the Mold-A-Rama machines. My husband’s favorite stuffed toy from his childhood looks like a germ minefield to me, but to him carries wonderful memories from years past. So what does this point mean for an unclutterer? Only you can sort through your sentimental items. This isn’t a chore you can pass off to someone else.

The second point the car example illustrates is that sentimental treasures are respected and treated as treasures. Watson displays the car, maintains it, pays attention to it, and values it. He doesn’t have it shoved in the back of his garage, under a pile of stuff, collecting dust. If it could fit in a cardboard box, you can bet he wouldn’t store it in such a thing. In fact, he probably has a security system and sprinkler system installed to protect his treasure.

If you’re storing sentimental items in cardboard boxes in your basement or attic or garage, it’s a pretty good sign the items are clutter and not treasures. Cardboard is easily damaged by water, mold, mildew, and pests and doesn’t protect belongings for any length of time. Plus, you can’t see your items or appreciate them through the walls of a box in a corner of a room beneath boxes of holiday decorations. If you truly treasured the items, you would protect them properly and/or display them in your home. It would be clear to a complete stranger what is a sentimental treasure to you. If it’s unclear, it’s likely the item is sentimental clutter.

As you’re sorting through your sentimental items to determine what is a treasure and what is clutter, ask yourself:

  • How will I store this item? If you will store it in a way that shows you value the item (archival quality materials, stored per archival quality recommendations, or cleanly on display to enjoy every day), keep the object as a sentimental treasure. If you plan to store it in a cardboard box in your basement, get rid of the sentimental clutter.
  • Is this item associated with a happy memory? Keep only objects that bring you happiness. Life is too short to surround yourself with sorrow and pain.
  • Is this the best item to evoke the most powerful sentimental memory? If you have five objects associated with the same memory, consider reducing your collection to just the best quality item. When it comes to physical possessions, too many of something can detract from the overall impact. You can stop seeing the proverbial forest for the trees.

30 Comments for “Determining if a sentimental item is clutter or a treasure”

  1. posted by Melissa (oddharmonic) on

    I thought of you last year when I visited the Pacific Science Center and saw their Mold-A-Rama machines. Sadly, the naked mole rat mold had been retired, so I ended up making a figure of the museum’s arches.

  2. posted by Ann on

    I appreciate what you wrote about displaying your treasures…I have collected turtle figurines since I was about 11. That’s a big collection after 50 years. I think the box of “untreasured” ones can finally go. The treasured ones are in a lighted display case…seems obvious to me now. Thank you!

  3. posted by Karyn on

    Good principles and guidelines to follow. I remember those Mold-A-Rama animals from the Como Zoo in the late 60s or early 70s. At the time, they had metallic bronze-colored plastic. I think the machine was long since retired, but as a kid I sure found them fascinating and utterly COOL.

  4. posted by Karyn on

    I also liked those “make a souvenir from a penny” stamping machines that zoos and museums had. They still have them, come to think of it. :-D

  5. Profile photo of

    posted by ElFish1 on

    Erin, this is an excellent post. Good job!

  6. posted by Patti on

    Good point about cardboard. I recently moved and ONE of my decluttering goals is to go all Joan Crawford on removing all cardboard boxes from my home. Of the few small keep items left in my home, over 90% I was able to transfer to plastic lidded bins for storage, each bin sorted and labeled as to household category. The bins stack two-high in my closet, and as you said are water- and pest- proof, and yet I can see what’s inside

    Plus, next time I move I can get rid of my furniture and just tape up the bins temporarily for transport; not have to pack-unpack…Hey, it works for me ;) No more hiring movers for me esp. since this last time several expensive items turned up “missing.” Next time I move I plan to have all the “big” furniture GONE so that I can move whatever’s left by myself

  7. posted by Joel Zaslofsky - Enlightened Resource Management on

    Hey Erin,

    I’ve just started poking around here and I dig what I see. I like your “cardboard box” test and I might try it on my wife sometime soon. I’m looking forward to exploring more on Unclutterer!

    P.S. Anyone in the community want to help make a guy feel welcome? :) If so, point me to other awesome personal organization blogs and resources out there.

  8. posted by Marlene Devine on

    Great article! I say the same thing to my clients: Keep what you love, but keep it the right way by protecting or displaying it. You don’t need to throw everything out, but make sure it means something to you if you’re keeping it!

  9. posted by deb on

    I totally agree, but some things are still difficult. Years ago my mom gave me a set of “silver” salt & pepper shakers that were given to her from her grandparents. At one time they were silver plated, but over time nearly all the silver was worn off leaving what tested as lead. They could not be refurbished in any way, and I threw them out. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mom that I didn’t consider them valuable enough for even a cardboard box.

    Wouldn’t you know, EVERY single time my mom visits (which isn’t often due to distance) she asks where I have those darn salt & pepper shakers. I make up an excuse (in the attic in a box I never unpacked), but I’m sure she doesn’t believe me. There is no way I would have thrown them out if I knew they meant so much to her, and I wish she had kept them for herself. I do display some other family heirlooms that I love dearly.

  10. posted by Keri Noack on

    Great post! I will use this as a check list when getting rid of clutter. If only we had control over what others define as sentimental ;) my garage would be a lot less crowded!

  11. posted by snosie on

    I’m not sure I agree. I have two boxes (ikea storage boxes, so not huge, size of a normal sheet of paper, and a little deeper than a ream of paper). One is for school memories, one for uni. I’m not going to display sentimental items from those times but I don’t want to toss them. I know my memory isn’t that good, and I enjoy looking back at what’s in these boxes (incl an old uniform, projects etc). They are small and managable. They are in cardboard, in my bed room (one acts as a bedside table, the other as a lamp ‘table’). Plastic boxes seem to crack so easily in my experience and leave indents in the carpet. Each to their own I suppose.

  12. posted by Klyla on

    deb, how about telling your mom, “as it turns out they weren’t real silver and they kind of disintegrated over all these years so I had to pitch them” or something to that effect. That will stop both the discomfort you feel when she keeps asking and the discomfort she feels by you not producing them. Win win!

  13. posted by Kandice on

    Loved this post. A lot. It’s really good to read this, especially as I count down the days to when i tackle all of the junk in my garage. I’m thinking I’ll be able to part with the “art work” from my 7th grade art class. :)

  14. posted by Kate on

    On my travels I collected heart-shaped boxes, made of various materials. I have a built-in lighted curio cabinet in my living room, so they are displayed there. I only had room for 12 boxes on the shelves I had designated, so I stopped collecting. This way I do not have to worry about bosing anything up.

  15. posted by Mary on

    Karyn obviously grew up in Minnesota (or Western Wisconsin)!
    Although I never got a Mold-a-Rama, the smell of the machine takes me back to the Milwaukee County Zoo. Growing up that was only place I had ever seen them.

  16. posted by Sandy Speed on

    I had never heard of mold-a-rama before your post, so I looked them up on Google. What a wonderful idea. My parents criss crossed this country in a car more than 2 dozen times, visiting hundreds of sights, and we never did a mold-a-rama. I’m sad that we missed the adventure and special feelings that must have accompanied finding and choosing which mold to get. With our youngest child (now 16 and independent) we have collected pressed pennies and Happy Meal toys. The time of family collections is nearly gone with her growing up so fast. Maybe we can find a working mold-a-rama machine to visit before she goes off to college. Thanks for the great article that we can actually use to help us get out of some of this mess we live with.

  17. posted by creativeme on

    thank you so much! I needed this post like crazy.
    One item to spark the memory is enough. Even a photo can be enough… I just unpacked a box of framed family photos that I had taken down from the wall to list our house last summer. The photos are very nice. They are in good frames. BUT the problem is I like my walls better with less on… and therefore putting the photos beck up would be clutter. I am seriously concidering taking the pictures out of the frames, scanning them and putting the originals in a plain old photo album. The idea makes me sad that they won’t be displayed, but less sad than the idea of putting the pictures back up. Is that crazy?

  18. posted by Jay on

    From the picture you show above, I hope you have watched the show Wonderfalls. Esp if you collect those mold toys.

  19. posted by Karyn on

    @Mary – Yep, Minnesota. :-D The Como Zoo is in St. Paul. I grew up in suburbs of the Twin Cites, and currently live in Minneapolis.

  20. posted by Karyn on

    I guess they have a new, “restored” Mold-A-Rama machine at Como Zoo. Here are some photos of vintage and current animals: http://www.billyseven.net/mar/.....o_zoo.html

  21. posted by Jenn on

    Erin, I thought of you in December when we were in Florida and I found a Mold-A-Rama machine at the manatee viewing center in Apollo Beach. I didn’t have any money on me, boooo.

  22. posted by Melissa on

    Please tell me you’ve seen the TV show “Wonderfalls”.

  23. posted by Misha on

    Jay and Melissa, I agree – the picture with this post forcibly reminded me of Wonderfalls. I kept expecting it to say something.

  24. posted by Judes on

    @creativeme, another thought might be to have one or two of the framed photos up at a time, and rotate which ones are on display. Then the photos doesn’t take up an overwhelming amount of wall space, but your favorites still all get displayed eventually. (+Scanning either way, though!)

  25. posted by Lossea on

    Thank you for a great article, Erin! In the past three years I moved three times (all within one city) and from the first time saw how much unsorted things I had. When I got to the clearing, I sorted my things into sentimental and not sentimental (papers to be organized and recycled). Now every now and then I mainly look through my knickknacks. Questions in the article helped me to remove some things that I kept because they were pretty…For instance, I had this large watch that I got on the market 10 years ago, back in Europe. I never really worn it and it just reminded me of the time, but it didn’t have any specific warm memory connected with it. Now I have a beautiful watch that I wear all the time, and the other one would just keep sitting there. So I put it for donation.

    As far as storage, I agree that dear things should be stored properly, to show them respect. I also agree with snosie on storing some dear things in boxes, just not in the attic, but close by. I have three very fluffy key chains that my sister gave me before I moved to the States. I keep them snug in a large round body cream container that I saved years ago, and the container is in a shoe box I keep in the closet. But those questions are very helpful, especially the one about which memory the object evokes!

  26. posted by Lossea on

    @deb, it’s not your fault that the silver on those salt and pepper shakers wore off and showed lead through it. It is unfortunate if these items evoked a memory of your mother’s grandparents very strongly, and perhaps there is an object that she inherited from them that also reminds her of them. I agree that both of you would find peace if you would tell her that unfortunately the shakers expired and you could no longer keep them. As you feel, she doesn’t believe that they are stored away, and it is what it is. Some things do not last forever, no matter how good of a care you take of them.

  27. Profile photo of

    posted by PJ on

    My parents also have silver plated salt and pepper shakers – two sets, actually! They are lovely, one pair shaped like pheasants, and the other set are just shakers, but with a grapevine pattern on them. The salt in particular does interact with the silver and damages it, so they have been told that they should not keep the salt and pepper stored in the shakers, but just to fill it up when having a formal dinner, then empty and rinse out afterward. Sounds like a hassle, but these aren’t really “everyday” dishes anyway.

    Despite that, the shakers have had to be re-silvered a couple of times over the years. This is a bit expensive, but well worth it (if you can afford it!) for well loved family artifacts.

    This applies to other silver plated items as well. My parents recently gifted me with a “spare” set of family cutlery that had been re-silvered. It was not just tarnished before, but the silver had worn through in spots. It is so shiny now! Exactly who in the family had owned/used this extra set of silver is lost in the mists of time, but we decided that it was nicer to spend the money on refurbishing items that had been in the family, than on buying new items with no history attached. The fact that I happened to like the silver pattern factored in too :-)

  28. posted by Sharon H. on

    Have you read the story (I believe it’s from P.G. Wodehouse) about the rich old lady whose butler returned from a vacation in Egypt and gave her a souvenir: a sphinx with light-up eyes.
    She considered what her friends would say if she displayed it. Then she considered what her butler would think if she didn’t. Then she considered which would be easier to replace, and displayed the sphinx in a prominent spot. :-)

  29. posted by Alex Yang on

    We can also simplify our lives at the point where we’re tempted to collect something. This post reminded me of a visit to Dorset when we went fossil hunting on the beach at Charnmouth. The experience of the hunt was great fun – and then I found a fossilized ammonite! That was so exciting!

    But then I thought: “What do I do with it now? I don’t want it cluttering up my house – I can’t think where to display it.” At the same time, I didn’t want to just put it back on the beach. In the end, I donated it to the Charnmouth Heritage Centre by the beach where they educate visitors about fossils and have a collection they use as examples of fossils.

    I have the photos of the fossil and my memory of that lovely afternoon – and that is good enough for me!

    Alex Yang (pen name for Yang-May Ooi)

  30. posted by Alli on

    I am originally from Nebraska, but moved to Minnesota a few years ago. My boyfriend (originally from MN) took me to the Como Zoo last year. They had those mold-a-rama machines. I had never seen one! I fell in love with them and now have a black plastic Gorilla sitting on my book shelf among some of my other favorite pieces to display as conversation pieces :)

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