Handling sentimental clutter

Little League BaseballWe all have somethings that we are holding onto that serve no purpose other than to remind us of someone, something, or some important event. A few of these items may actually be worth keeping — so where do we draw the line on what to keep and what to shed?

One thing that has survived multiple moves in my life is a baseball I have from my days playing Little League. It is the ball I hit for my first home run.

This Fond du Lac Reporter article has some great tips on what one should do to detach themselves from sentimental clutter. From the article:

LeAnn Peterman, an organizational specialist from Fond du Lac, said it’s important to ask yourself why you’re holding on to an object.

“Questions you should ask are: do I or someone else have a relationship to the item? Is it useful? Do you or someone else need it? And do you have a place for it?” Peterman said. “Does owning it create good feelings or not?”

In helping to make those hard decisions, Peterman recommends the following:

  • Items that have a strong sentimental attachment should be organized in a manageable system โ€” taking a picture of an item still retains the visual memory but not the actual bulk of the item.
  • Pass along items to others that may have a more sentimental value to them such as cards, pictures or news clippings.
  • Pictures that you cannot identify should be tossed or donated to a local historical society.
  • Set your criteria and don’t do it alone. If you tend to hoard, invite a person opposite of yourself to help make sensible decisions, they said.

Erin has written on photographing sentimental items on a couple occasions that you may be interested in exploring. One for parents stuck with their kid’s left behind items, and one on photographing your mementos.

33 Comments for “Handling sentimental clutter”

  1. posted by Martin on

    Your baseball is an ideal example of why I find taking pictures a poor solution to this. You can’t hold a picture in the same way, you can’t feel the texture or weight or smell it. These things are all very important to the memory of a thing.

    You trade off on four of your five senses when you just take a picture. I’m not saying that it isn’t great for reducing bulk, but it’s a little like hamstringing anything. Say you could have your computer, just not the hard disk, the monitor, the mouse or the webcam. It’s just not the same, nor is it as potent.

    That’s the real trouble with sentimental stuff for me. If it’s sentimental, it requires a full range of emotions that a picture doesn’t deliver. If it were me, a picture would make me feel more sad because it’s just hollow.

    But I guess that doesn’t really solve any clutter issues. Sigh.

  2. posted by jon on

    I think you MUST hold onto some (a few) sentimental objects. The baseball is a perfect example of something that should be nicely displayed along with a few other mementos.

    Now, if you’ve got 100 things that you can’t say goodbye to, you’ve got to learn to fix that. I think one shelf with a bunch of things nicely displayed is very reasonable though.

  3. posted by Beth on

    My father passed away 5 years ago this July and one of the things my Mom gave me was his old Statistics book from college – it sits on a shelf above my desk. Aside from the fact that I love old books, it reminds me of my father’s talks with me as I was in business school and couldn’t manage higher than a “C” in the class. He couldn’t quite understand this – coming from a man who MAJORED in statistics at the Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania. His favorite comment was, after I changed one of my majors to Accounting, “You can count the beans but I can ANALYZE them!”

    I can’t imagine myself getting rid of this or not having out on display. It serves as a reminder of how far I have come and everything I have worked hard for – including those “C’s” in Statistics. Clutter – no way! I think we all need visual reminders for inspiration!

  4. posted by Richard on

    Would like to second Jon’s comment:

    I think one shelf with a bunch of things nicely displayed is very reasonable though.

    Most sentimental items deserve the recognition they get by being displayed. I have had items in boxes for years, and they were really more clutter than not — by setting them out, I get the pleasant feelings they inspire every time I see them, and it’s easier to slim down to those that real

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    I don’t think Matt is saying to get rid of everything:

    “A few of these items may actually be worth keeping โ€” so where do we draw the line on what to keep and what to shed?”

    It’s about moderation. If we keep everything from our pasts, then we can’t live in the present. So, it means that we have to part with some items and I think the article speaks well to that decision-making process.

  6. posted by Vered - MomGrind on

    I actually have the opposite problem. I dislike clutter so much, that I tend to get rid of EVERYTHING, but once in a while, I regret it.

  7. posted by Ian Hakes on

    Wow — I was just thinking about this yesterday while unpacking from a recent move. I have some awards plaques from high school, that I am really tired of toting around from house to house. I’ve stopped putting them out (what 30+ y.o. man wants to show off his Grade 12 awards?), but they do have sentimental value and I didn’t know what to do with them. Photos are ok, but maybe there’s a better solution?

  8. posted by Lola on

    Psychology of Clutter (found through this blog. thanks!!) has a great post about sentimental attachment to items:
    “The problem most people have is deciding what has emotional value and what they value simply because someone else once owned it.”

    Thinking of it this way has really helped me and I’ve already been able to let go of several items, guilt free.

  9. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    I like Beth’s story about her father’s statistics book. I keep my late father’s small, leather-bound dictionary on my desk and use it regularly. It’s more fun than dictionary.com and keeps me connected to him. It makes me smile. I think the “smile test” is a very good way to determine if you should continue holding on to something.

    A bit trickier are the items that pass the smile test but you simply don’t have room to display. I have some old quilts my grandmother made that are in good condition but are too fragile to use as bedding (they’d never survive frequent washing or cleaning). But I do periodically pull them out of their safe storage containers and always enjoy looking at them. They’re keepers!

  10. posted by ShopLittleGifts on

    So true! Although I’m pretty good at good-willing things and getting rid of old stuff – childhood memorabilia, all things that i wouldn’t necessarily use but has sentimental value is so hard to organize.

  11. posted by Nat on

    I think my problem with sentimental clutter is that sometimes it takes a lot of time before I can step back and figure out that the object doesn’t bring up the joy and good memories I once thought it did. Or it might take years for me to figure out that symbol of achievement twenty years ago mean nothing to me now as new milestones take their places. Meanwhile these objects get stuffed in a bag or a box for safekeeping, breeding in the dark. Then it becomes an overwhelming ordeal when I do get around to disposing of them.

  12. posted by Sonya on

    I was just thinking about something similar – my high school diploma. It’s been in a box since I graduated, and I’m never going to frame it or otherwise display it. Is there any good reason to keep high school or college diplomas?

  13. posted by lionel on

    A little more than a year ago, I had to throw away mountains of stuff in order to move to the States. The sentimental stuff I hoarded for years had to go.

    The biggest criteria I used is one of the questions above: is it useful? If not, then why hold on to it? Thus books stayed but old statuettes had to go.

    I echo Vered’s comment though: once in a while, I DO regret giving /throwing away some stuff.

  14. posted by Mel on

    Would love some ideas for what to do with old college t-shirts. My husband and I have boxes of them but can’t seem to part with them.

  15. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Mel — Check out my column on RealSimple.com on Thursday. It’s all about what to do with old college t-shirts!! No joke!

  16. posted by Marianne on

    I think Nat nailed how I feel about it, above. I’ve waited so long to process some old sentimental pieces that it’s overwhelming to consider moving them along now. I also feel like I’ve dragged them around with me this long, I ought to keep them to make the effort worthwhile.

    Also, to Mel – what about making a quilt out of them? A quick google search shows me that many quilt stores offer this as a service, if you’re not a quilter.

  17. posted by Kim on

    Anyone have a good idea for what to do with trophies? I have swimming trophies I’m proud of, but I don’t display them. I’m worried if I take a pic and toss them I may regret it, but the space they take up is driving me nuts!

  18. posted by Sara on

    It should probably be mentioned that if you aren’t able to identify the subject of an old photograph, there’s a very good chance that the local historical society won’t be able to either. Many institutions aren’t interested in donations that come without context or identifying information. (We have clutter problems too! -rather, storage space can be in short supply.)

    If photos are of a known building, or location, or group, then they’ll probably be greatly appreciated. If they’re a complete cipher, you may be disappointed.

  19. posted by Anna N. on

    “If you tend to hoard, invite a person opposite of yourself to help make sensible decisions, they said.”

    I don’t entirely agree with this. I DO agree with inviting someone over to help, but just because a person has trouble getting rid of their own items (“hoard” is a loaded word in this context) doesn’t mean that they can’t help you go through yours. I know this from personal experience, because I am a pack rat and it is very difficult for me to go through my junk and throw stuff out; however, I found that I am pretty good at helping other people go through their stuff. Other people’s stuff isn’t sentimental or meaningful to me, so I can look at it much more objectively.

  20. posted by Sue on

    DH’s prized memory T shirts are currently in my mother’s hands. She is an expert quilter, who has the time and is doing a T shirt quilt for him as a labor of love. Win/win for all.

    We inherited a bunch of stuff when DH’s dad died, and took some items from his first job and had them mounted in a shadow box. We also realized we didn’t need to keep ALL the stuff to keep the memory of him, and that it was not a violation of his life to pass on some items. For me, a watch and a Swiss Army knife FIL gave me are my special items I treasure; that’s sufficient.

  21. posted by Nina on

    If the things are inherited from a loved one and you are still morning them, take your time (if you can) and don’t get rid of things too fast. This not just because you might regret throwing away or giving away some of the things later on, but because it is also a difficult and painful process, one which I have had to go trough several times.
    I have the luxury of space, so I go through the things every few months or year, and then I am able to let go of more things, which can also have a healing effect. The process might not be easy, but in the end I am glad to let go of those things. Because memories might be attached to things, but in the end they are in your mind and heart, not in a thing. That might be a good thing to remember when one has difficulty letting stuff go.

  22. posted by Jeff on

    About 25 years ago, while in college, I took a picture of three people that I have not seen since. They were good friends at the time, but school ended, we all moved on. Although I often came across that picture and had fond memories of those people, I would also think, “Why do I have these piles of pictures of things, or in this case, people, who I will never see again?” So, about six months ago, I started sorting, and tossing old pictures, trying to unclutter– including that picture.

    Flash forward to two months ago. I was visiting a hospital as part of my clinicals as a student nurse. I recognized one of the nurses, but couldn’t place her. It was driving me crazy. We started talking, and one of the first things out of her mouth was, “You used to live in the dorm right across from us, 25 years ago.” You guessed it. She was in the picture that I threw out. I should have scanned it. I still have it on my todo list to look through my negatives and see if I can resurrect it (I think that day of uncluttered was spent in front of a shredder). To make matters worse, her old boyfriend, that she never fully got over, was in the picture as well, and she wanted to see the picture.

    Having said all of this, I agree totally with this tip for uncluttering. I have taken many, many pictures of silly things that didn’t make sense for me to keep around, especially when I know that they could be better used by someone else. Things like blankets, clothes, furniture, appliances, tools. Things that I have memories with, but when I really analyze it, it isn’t THAT burning of a sentimental connection. It just has things associated with it. But it’s just a thing.

    I do have certain items that I will keep. Like the person above that talked about the statistics book on the shelf. For me, it is a small, homely wooden box that I made with my own hands as a 10 or 12 year old kid. It’s worthless to anyone– even me. But it represents my childhood, and strong memories of wanting to be independent and to make something completely by myself. I did it myself. Start to finish.

    This decluttering tip has been very valuable to me. As another reader commented, I don’t think it was ever intended to mean to replace everything with a picture. It prompts us to realize that some things really aren’t about the thing itself, but just memories that we have associated with it. A picture will, in many cases, more than suffice. I’ve even found myself near the point of deleting a picture of some thing that I previously got rid of after taking a picture, as I had realized how little sentimental value it really had to me, and how much more free my life was without the bulk of the item. Turns out, I was really only keeping it out of habit.

  23. posted by Michael Kastler | TechTalk on WRLR 98.3FM on

    Had a great idea when I saw this (posted on lh too) >

    Mash this up with the post you had on decluttering your closet … take pictures of all the clothes you don’t think you’ll use, and keep the pictures in your closet in a little folder or album – but the clothes go in a box elsewhere.

    Anytime you actually go get a piece of clothing out of the box, remove the picture from the album. After 6 months, give the box (but not the album, if you don’t want) away.

    That way, you don’t just ‘forget’ about clothes, they’re honestly ones you had the option to wear but didn’t, and you immediately gain space in your closet!

  24. posted by Karyn on

    Oh, man. I have memories of huge moving cartons labeled “MEMENTOES” that sat, untouched, piled up in our storage rooms at home! ๐Ÿ˜‰ I agree that there will always be a few things that no photograph can replace, but once I learned the concept of questioning sentimental clutter, it’s amazing how much of it I really didn’t need–or, often, want. I kept it because I thought I “should.”

    A great question to ask when clearing sentimental clutter: “Does this item lift my energy? Does it make me feel really, really good when I hold it and look at it?” You’d be amazed how many “mementoes” actually do the opposite! Chuck ’em.

  25. posted by Janelle on

    I got married about 7 months ago, and while purging all of our clutter (we didn’t want it in our home!), my husband & I decided that we would each have a “memories box”. We each get to put whatever sentimental items we want in that box, no questions asked.
    Putting things in the box ensures that we only keep what is really special to us (it all has to fit in the box) and that we have a specific place to keep those items.

  26. posted by Tabatha on

    hey i have a question. i have a ton of Artwork from high School, i don’t want to throw any of it out and my mom has offered to take it all to her house since i am moving soon and won’t have a lot of space. also i am not taking anything that will not fit into my car and its a three hour trip that i don’t want to make to many times. so i thought photos would be good. not sure what the best way to get photos of Art work is though. i want good quality photos that i am not sure i could take myself. and i have a mixture of stuff, not just on paper. i have some clay stuff and wood, and a painting and some other stuff, any ideas?

  27. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Tabatha — For the three dimensional stuff, make yourself a photo box and take some pics: http://digital-photography-sch.....ight-tent/

    For the 2D stuff, I’d have them high-res scanned.

    You may just want to frame or shadow box some of it and display it … if you like it, that is …

  28. posted by Ablestmage on

    Just make a simple journal and write on each photo a tag number of some kind, that corresponds to an entry in the journal, describing the object in detail and associated memories with it. There’s not a limitation of one photo per item, take as many as you want. Then you’ll only have to heave out a box or photobook in order to recall them, instead of taking up space that other various bemusements make instead take up that space ^_^

  29. posted by Ablestmage on

    With a journal alongside the photos, any heirs discovering them can look through them and imagine those times with you, instead of just guessing.

  30. posted by brooklynchick on

    I’ve decided to keep ONE thing from each grandparent, ONE thing from my childhood home, ONE thing from old boyfriends ๐Ÿ™‚ etc.

    Any t-shirts, blankets, other cloth things I am having made into a quilt.

  31. posted by Crochet-er on

    When I am overwhelmed by sentimental stuff from my parents and myself, I think about the fact that my dad has only TWO–just TWO–sentimental things from his parents. One is a copy of their wedding photo (not even the original) and the other is his father’s watch. That’s it! No clothes, no other photos, no furniture, knick-knacks, letters, papers, books, cookware, etc. And somehow, he has kept his memories of them and survived without the sentimental objects.

  32. posted by Craig on

    I did this with all my trophies a year or so ago. I hung a nice black backdrop, arranged some decent lighting, put the digital camera on a tripod and kept taking photos and reviewing them until I was happy with the result.
    Now all my baseball trophies and HS band and choir plaques are available for me to see anytime I want to in a file on my computer, as well as on my iPod.
    I don’t miss them at all. I also took pictures of a few tshirts from HS that I felt were important to me but that I didn’t want to hang onto and they came out great as well. I now wonder if I could have put them on a computer scanner and acheived the same result.

  33. posted by Dasha on

    Since I live across the world from my family, after each of my grandmothers died and I had the option of taking sentimental items from their homes (including my childhood home), I had to consider that I had to drag them on a 10 hour plane ride. This made for some interesting choices. The twelve piece tea set made it across the ocean fine and is proudly displayed. However, my mom cannot understand my need to take tons of fabric scraps and old clothes – but I am a sewer and I know I will alter and use the items I chose. And they travel easily and take up little space. I like living with and using the sentimental items in my daily life, which is my main criterion for selecting what to keep.

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