When is it okay to start a collection?

If you follow Erin’s column over at Simply Stated, you may have seen Holly Becker’s article Starting a Collection. First, let me state that there is nothing wrong with collecting things you love. In fact, it’s a great way to display some of your personality in your home. However, you need to be careful that it doesn’t get out of control and become clutter.

That’s why Holly’s question “How do you start a collection when you don’t even know what you are interested in?” caught me completely off guard. I think my eyes may have actually jumped out of my head as I exclaimed “WHAT?!” I cannot think of any good reason to start a collection just for the sake of having a collection. That type of behavior is often at the root of massive clutter problems. Ever watched an episode of Clean House? Then you know what I’m talking about. Under no circumstances should you start a collection just for the sake of having a collection.

So when is a good time to start a collection?

  • If you have something that you love and it inspires you, by all means collect it and put it on display.
  • Sentimental collections can also be done without cluttering your home.
  • Some people collect items as investments. While it can be done, it is very difficult to turn a profit especially in this age of globalization and mass production.

All in all, collecting is not a bad thing. You just need to be mindful of it to ensure it accurately represents you and is not clutter in disguise. As for me, I’ll be paring down my stuffed animal and shot glass collections as part of the big move, and I’ll be looking for a better way to display my sports collectibles. If you have any ideas for me, please share them in the comments!

41 Comments for “When is it okay to start a collection?”

  1. posted by Eric on

    A collection only becomes clutter when it isn’t displayed well.

  2. posted by Arjun Muralidharan on

    I just thought about our showpiece collection in the living room, and how nice it looked. Then I thought about why I didn’t feel it was clutter.

    I think a collection can be non-clutter if it has it’s place in the house and somehow adds visual value. Pieces should also have context, it doesn’t make sense to showpiece all the little vases you’ve got.

    My mom’s a bit of a hoarder, so we have a very uncluttered living room with beautiful showpieces, but loads of junk stored away in cupboards…

    The problem is those things are fairly valuable, and she’s not willing to liquidate them or get rid at all.

  3. posted by Alex Fayle on

    This is from a tongue-in-cheek post from December 2006, where I define the difference between a collection and clutter (which I called crap in a non-sensitive Professional Organizer way – more in a shock-people-into-thinking way)


    A collection is (thank you Dictionary.com): a group of objects or an amount of material accumulated in one location, esp. for some purpose or as a result of some process.

    Crap is stuff that just hasn’t been thrown out yet.

    Don’t know which is yours?

    When you die, the things grouped and categorized into a collection will make sense and/or have meaning to others. And if when you die people have no idea what all this stuff they now have to deal with is, then it’s crap.


    The full post is at: http://tinyurl.com/6euund for those interested.


  4. posted by Meghan on

    I think the most important way to make sure a collection is not clutter is to display it. I have a collection of cameras – lomo, vintage, thrift-store – I just love old cameras. Unfortunately, I have not displayed them anywhere so they are taking up space in boxes in the office. Okay – I just moved 6 weeks ago, but I really need to get on it.

    A problem with having a collection is that people start giving you things that they think fit into your collection. That’s where it gets dangerous!

  5. posted by Patty on

    Why not make a shadow box with the items on shelves inside the shadow box. Think of a rectangle with individual spaces for each item. You can then hang it or place somewhere that shows off the items.

    Now yarn, sigh, is another thing entirely…

  6. posted by @Hametner on

    I have a shot glass collection from a little over 80 universities I collected during my first job out of College. It has meaning sense I actually visited each College and they all bring back memories. Right now I really do not have a place it, nor do I particularly want all those shot glasses on display. My solution was to use a service called http://www.itagit.com. That way I can keep my collectables, I can see them at anytime (online) and I don’t have all that clutter, which I hate. The shot glasses are in storage, for some future day when I have a house on the beach with a big bar.

  7. posted by martha in mobile on

    Do have a care for the people you leave behind. My husband cannot part with his parents’ collections, so now we have: art glass vases (this one I like), soapstone carvings (many bears and walruses), silver mint coins from smallish countries, many sterling silver spoons circa 1900ish, hundreds of postcards from the same era, cut crystal shot glasses and serving bowls, 2 sets of china, lots of silver serving pieces and utensils (including an ‘olive server’ and some oyster forks) and last, but not least, frosted tumblers from various national parks. Our house looks like an antique mall and it drives me a little nuts!

  8. posted by PlantingOaks on

    I suppose it is possible that somewhere out there a person has decorated their home so austere and impersonally that it resembles living in a hotel.

    In that case, a well managed collection might be in order.

    However, I don’t think that’s a problem many people have.

  9. posted by Sarah on

    I’m married to a long-time athlete, and we had a little trouble parting with all the old trophies…until we figured out that the figurine tops of the really old metal ones made a fantastic key caddy. We extended a piece of trim in our kitchen, attached the trophy tops, and now there’s six swimmers ready to dive off the wall, holding keys. Six swimmers and one ballerina (I had to get mine in there somehow).

  10. posted by Jasi on

    Haha. The answer is never! *kidding*

  11. posted by Shanel Yang on

    @ Martha

    LOL! One word of advice: eBay.

    @ PlantingOaks

    That would be me!

    @ Sarah

    Very cool idea, if a little sacrilegious, no?

    @ Teri

    Totally agree. Ax exes father collects cast iron figurines. Some of them must be very valuable and the whole collection must be worth quite a few thousand dollars (maybe even tens of thousands of dollars). But, he isn’t willing to part with any of them; and, much worse, he has no idea what he has or doesn’t since he’s have most of them in storage for years! What is the benefit of that? His only son (my ex) is not at all interested in them for their sentimental value. He worried more about how the heck he was going to deal with all that stuff once his father passes on. But, I guess his father just enjoys knowing he’s got a lot of good stuff — even if he can’t remember exactly what it is. Kinda reminds me of Citizen Kane and the boatloads of priceless artworks he bought all over the world and never even bothered to take out of their crates after having them shipped to his humungous estate at Xanadu.

    Thanks for such a fun post topic!

  12. posted by Anne on

    I have lived on the edge of collecting now for about 7 years…I used to go for the whole gambit…county stuff, cats, siloquettes, etc. We put our house for sale and I boxed it all…we changed our mind after 6 months on market and the boxes went directly to Goodwill, my house was easier to clean and keep clean.
    I love to look at others collections, but honestly I think why is this so important that they would have it out and clean it(if it is clean) or not clean it,(if it isn’t clean). Just my own thought!
    and to ballerina and swim couple, neat idea, bet you guys have a blast combining your lives! You made me smile with the ballerina!

  13. posted by Michele on

    I suggest that people don’t start a collection for a child. Someone gave me a collectible, fancy teacup as a child, and then it was “known” that Michele collects teacups. I was never interested in teacups, and lugged those cups through many moves as an adult before becoming clutter-conscious and deciding to get rid of them.

  14. posted by Emily on

    I love that you pictured a shot glass collection. It was a collection I once had, but once it grew to more than 60 shot glasses, I had to stop myself. They were not on display and just sitting in my cabinets with the rest of my cups.

    I just don’t like having things that aren’t useful… I can use a few shot glasses, but I will never need 60.

    I’m not saying that I don’t have things I can’t use, like my sports memorabilia, but I try not to have anything in excess.

    Also… I love Clean House. I really want to submit my mom’s house to be included on it, but I know she’d never agree to it. She keeps everything! I mean EVERYTHING!

  15. posted by Sarah on

    I used to love my antique typewriter collection. After the kids were born, I ignored them. They started their own collection, dust.

  16. posted by Sarah on

    Michele – LOL!

    For a good friend’s “tea party” theme wedding shower, each guest was asked to bring a tea cup.

    My friend was pretty peeved and had no idea how she was going to store 75 mismatched cups.

    On the other hand, my friends have started a tradition of asking baby shower guests to bring a favorite children’s book to the party. This has been a huge hit.

    Everyone has loved receiving books for their children. I particularly enjoyed books from loved ones’ personal collections, their cherished childhood books.

    Passing down books to children you love is a great way to say goodbye to books we don’t read but do love.

  17. posted by Phil on

    Stuffed animals – maybe you could remove the stuffing so they don’t take up so much space 🙂

    Or more seriously – maybe a childrens’ hospital ward?

  18. posted by Bex! on

    One clutter-adding part of a collection can be the items other people give you for your collection. This is tricky becuase it’s hard to control, it pulls up the guilt at not keeping a gift, etc.

    My friend’s mom has a (really big!) collection of Santas. They put them all out at Christmas so they do get displayed (at the appropriate time). Still, she has received so many as gifts that it is a little out of control.

  19. posted by jon on

    You all seem to think that a collection is for display or value. Have you thought how empty modern life would be without the history that people have collected? Letters, posters, packaging, the way people lived 100 or 200 or 1000 years ago is of interest and use. If you through things out, then our inheritors will have to search through our middens to understand our lives. Just think what a collection of campaign buttons from the 60s means today. What propoganda posters from the 40s mean today. Don’t collect junk because people at parks make junk. Collect things that today seem worthless but will speak to later generations. No, not Nintendo cartridges. Try LP covers. Try transportation system maps. Try Wal-Mart Greeters aprons. Look around you. Try collecting things that are still made in your town, in your state, before everything gets made in China, before it is too late.

    Try to remember the future now.

    Do you realise, in 100 years time, nobody will believe you drove a petrol fueled car, watched rented video tapes, took injections for diabetes.

  20. posted by Erin Doland on

    @jon — I think you make a good argument for things to collect if you’re going to have a collection. However, I’m with Teri on the point that if you don’t have a collection you should start one just to have one. That seems completely pointless to me and counterintuitive to a clutter-free lifestyle.

  21. posted by Michael Moncur on

    I’ve come to realize recently that size matters more than anything when it comes to deciding whether to have a collection. For example, both guitars and fountain pens are things that I love and find inspiring, but collecting guitars is something that won’t scale. The pens, on the other hand, fit in a few tiny drawers…

  22. posted by Jul on

    Ugh, if only I knew what to do with our shot glass collection. While we have plenty of room for it (thanks to the rest of our belongings being quite minimal), I find myself hating it purely for its dust-collecting ability. I do like having tiny, kitschy mementos from various destinations, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to dust them all regularly…

  23. posted by Emily on

    Jul – Have several big parties where people get much too intoxicated. (Not sure how old you are, but it worked well for me while I was in college).

    Several of my shot glasses were broken, and I really couldn’t care less.

  24. posted by LM on

    @Michele– it’s not just kids it happens to. When I was very young, it became “known” that my mom collected owls.

    She got a couple of gifts that happened to have owls on them, then someone else saw them and got her something else with an owl. As more and more items decorated with owls made it into the house as gifts, it became more and more “obvious” that my mom was really into owls– so they kept coming at an ever faster rate.

    In fact, Mom never cared one way or the other about owls, but she did reach a point where she was getting kind of tired of them. We had glasses with owls, throw pillows with owls, wall hangings with owls, drawings of owls, plushie owls, serving trays with owls…

  25. posted by Susan on

    Martha has a point.
    After spending two sorrowful weeks helping to clean out the floor-to-ceiling clutter in his old scoutmaster’s apartment/garage/2 storage units (clutter that had, towards the end, worsened the poor man’s emphysema and speeded his death), my Dad came home, looked me in the eye and said, “I CAN’T do that to my daughters” and tossed out 30 years of “collections” out of the garage so we would not have to once he was gone.
    I stick to my silver charm bracelet and blue-and-white china for marking major events…but photos are the best of all!

  26. posted by Susan on

    Oh– and in terms of heirlooms, let’s be honest-
    Years from now, the only things that you KNOW will be treasured by your heirs are:

    1- a good family health history (really. I have adopted friends who would do anything for that!).

    2-A tastefully kept journal with photos (or keep the racy one in a Safe deposit box for the grandkids to open after your kids are gone!) or well annotated family album (on digital so everyone can print a copy)

    3- real or classic-example-of-the-time costume jewelry


    4- Well invested trust fund or real estate.

    China dogs, teddy beasr, pianos and dishes are all fine and well, but who needs hereditary clutter?

  27. posted by tabatha on

    you could just hang the stuff on the walls as art, like they do in some restaurants. . i always thought that looked really cool.

  28. posted by Shannon on

    My boyfriend has a shot glass collection. They are covered with dust and never used. I *dread* the day when that collection becomes “ours.” (Not because I dread marrying him… totally the opposite!! I just dread having to share my living space with his junk). There’s a post idea. How do you convince your significant other to get rid of their junk before moving in together? The Unclutterer and the packrat… can they live happily ever after?

  29. posted by Sarah on

    Ahhhh … the day my then-fiance, now-husband recycled the beer bottle collection …

  30. posted by Sara on

    I think I found a cool balance between collecting and not cluttering when I chose Fiestaware as the dishes I wanted. People started buying them for me on gift occasions and I ended up with all kinds of crazy colors and pieces. I use them every day and love ’em to death. It satisfies the bug to build a collection and people have an easy gift to give that they know I’ll appreciate and use.

  31. posted by R.C. on

    My mom had signs made for our bedroom doors as a kid, with my room identified as my “nest” and my sister’s room as her “den.” She then wallpapered our rooms with photo nature scenes (a meadow for me and a forest for my sister) and told our families that I collect birds and that my sister collects bears. I had a lot of people who were then angry with me when I got rid of that collection, the things they had “paid good money for” – even though I had never asked for them.

    Mom still has not reformed. A few years back, out of the blue, she told people at Christmas that I now collect wolves. (I got a plate with a 3-d wolf head emerging from the center.)

  32. posted by Lynn on

    @Shannon – if you can persuade your boyfriend to part with his collection in a *meaningful* way, and if there are enough of them, you could fill them with candy / rose-petals or whatever and give them as favors to your wedding guests?

    When I got married, the collection of white-faced clown dolls and ornaments that I had since I was a teen just HAD to go, my husband found them really creepy! and I had to admit that my life has moved on since then anyway LOL…

  33. posted by Rae on

    Erin, you have great timing! I’m going to visit my parents over the weekend. My mother started a very small collection of very tasteful items many years ago. The word got out, and people started giving her these items in droves. Our friends and family are lovely, but not all of them have…any…taste, and she now has a plethora of tacky (IMO) pieces in this collection. She’s said repeatedly that she doesn’t want all of them, but she feels terrible about getting rid of them, because she cares deeply for the people who gave them to her. This weekend, I’m going to gently say to her that if she doesn’t love these pieces, she needs to get rid of them – because I’m an only child, and God forbid I should ever lose this precious, perfect woman – but they will go right in the dumpster. She doesn’t love them, and whenever I look at them, that’s all I’ll remember, so they’ll be tossed with great haste. Maybe this will help to unburden her heart (and this collection). Thank you again for a timely, helpful topic!

  34. posted by decor8 Holly on

    Clutter – A confusing or disorderly state or collection.

    Collection – Multiple related objects associated as a group; A set of items or objects procured by an individual.

    I see a very clear difference here by definition.

    Is a museum cluttered?

    Having a collection is about being IN control, clutter is not in control. The show “Clean House” that you refer to is not about collections, it is about clutter. I wrote about collections not clutter.


  35. posted by ErinM on

    I got saddled with “collecting” rabbit figurines at one time in my life. I started with two ceramic rabbits that had been in the family for a while, and suddenly everyone decided that I collected them. Soon I had over 20 rabbit figurines!

    Finally, last Easter, I gave them away as gifts to friends, nieces and nephews, and now I’m happily back to the two that originally meant something to me.

  36. posted by A.M.B.A. on

    @Hametner – I have a collection of 125+ university/college mugs. I also visited all the colleges except maybe a handful. Maybe your shot glasses and my mugs might meet up in beverage heaven 😉 ! Thanks for the tip. I, too recently moved and the mugs are stored in boxes. I’m trying to decide what do – display, give away or ???

  37. posted by Katie Alender on

    We had a shot glass collection, but when it got unwieldy, we narrowed it down to the five or so that meant something to us and keep those on hand in case we need shot glasses. In true domestic fashion, we switched our souvenir collection to refrigerator magnets and Christmas tree ornaments. Magnets are useful (and they tend to break after a while), and the ornaments are small, and only come out once a year!

    Also, one thing I’ve done with little cluttery pieces–wedding favors, etc.–that I didn’t want to part with is bought hooks and turned them into Christmas ornaments. They are safely tucked away most of the year, they get a place of honor when they do emerge, and they keep the tree nice and personal.

  38. posted by Angie on

    My grandfather collected little tchotchkes from his travels, some quite valuable, but mostly junk. But he displayed them in a wall unit with glass doors, as did my mother when she inherited them and added her own pieces. All displayed in a dust-free unit they ceased to become bits of (mostly) plastic junk, and were instead a fascinating collection. The keys were to have them in one place and dust free.

  39. posted by becoming minimalist on

    karen kingston has a good chapter on collections in her book: clear your clutter with feng shui.

  40. posted by buzz on

    I have a modest collection of small, cheap, tacky snowglobes – mementos mostly from friends’ travels. I keep the clutter down by displaying just the most recent ones and rotating favourites in/out in a limited space.

    I do like to collect some reminder of places I’ve visited, especially museums. I decided years ago to pick out one or two postcards with the restriction that I must have actually seen the landmark or work of art. Postcards are easy to pack for travel and to store, and I can easily limit and rotate the ones I have on display.

    I have a collection of unusual Santa ornaments some, such as fiddler Santa from a visit to the Grand Ole Opry, are mementos from travels. I get to appreciate them for a small part of the year, but they aren’t around all the time collecting dust.

  41. posted by Nunya on

    Couldn’t clear glassware (like mugs & shot glasses) be turned in to a recycling center that takes glass?

    I just bristle when unclutterers talk about “tossing out” or “throwing away” their unwanted items, usually into landfills when so much of that could be recycled.

    Stuffed animal collections can go to local organizations (police, churches, etc) that help foster kids, who usually are shuttled from one location to another with not much more than the clothes on their backs. I donated about twenty small suitcases and large tote bags, as well as three large bags of stuffed animals to my local agency and they were most appreciative.

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