Letting go of sentimental clutter

Journalist Kara Morrison’s article “8 tips on how to declutter and let go of sentimental items” for The Arizona Republic on August 5 included great advice for people struggling with memorabilia clutter. A number of the tips really struck home with me and made me think, “why don’t I do that?”

One ah-ha tip from the article:

8. Correspondence and documents: There’s no way you can hang on to every Christmas card or letter. McGivney suggests treating holiday cards like kids’ art. Keep only the best. Then make a holiday album you store with the seasonal decor to remember great holidays past.

Morrison interviewed Julie Hall, author of The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff, for the sixth decluttering tip. In this section, Hall provides a very practical definition for how to decide what is clutter and what isn’t:

“Keep the stuff that really, really means something to you, and let the rest go,” Hall said.

“Really, really means something to you” isn’t a scientific definition by any account, but it is one that all of us can relate to our lives. I call this the Cry Factor — if losing it in a disaster would make me cry, I don’t get rid of it.

40 Comments for “Letting go of sentimental clutter”

  1. posted by Damsel on

    A few months ago, I ran across a HUGE tub of high school stuff as we were preparing to move across the country with the military for the first time. I’m 32 years old, and couldn’t remember what half of it was about. I took pictures of all of it because I thought it would be funny to post it on Facebook and see how many (if any) of my friends would know why I kept some of it! Then I tossed all the stuff.

    It occurred to me at the time that this would be a great way to declutter. Take pictures of items, so that you can still remember them and trigger the memories. Digital files are much easier to store (and move!) than clutter.

    However, I agree with your Cry Factor; I just didn’t know what to call it!

  2. posted by Another Deb on

    I like the quantifier “Really, really”. It simplifies how MUCH sentiment is actually involved, beyond guilt, beyond moderate interest. This defines your attachment on the gut level you have known since childhood.

  3. posted by Amanda on

    There was a tip about heirlooms that I appreciated. My grandma gave my mom several sets of glass plates that have places to hold a cup of punch. They are pretty but we never used them. A friend of my mother’s admired them and said she’d be able to use them, so off they went to a new happy home. Even my grandma thought it was a good idea.
    I repurposed heirloom china I received from hte same grandma, she it was given to her by her mother-in-law, but she never really liked the pattern. I use the cups for pen storage all over the house and the plates for snacks.

  4. posted by Michele Connolly, Get Organized Wizard on

    I like to keep precious moments in my memory, where they take up no space, collect no dust, and create no clutter! ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s too easy to glamorize the past at the expense of the present – and possible future.

    Although there’s certainly pleasure to be gained from revisiting past times via mementos, I think there’s also much pleasure to be gained from a simple, clutter-free, forward-looking life.

  5. posted by Karen on

    I don’t know about this “Cry Factor.” I’ve cried over losing a person, but not over losing a thing. (Ok, I’ve gotten mad and punched the wall when I lost my keys, but I don’t think that counts). It’s the memory that matters, not the physical object. If you would be heart-broken to lose something, you should certainly keep it. But also, take pictures, make copies, share them and the story behind the object, store them in a place that would be safe in a disaster.

  6. posted by Elizabeth H. on

    I have a friend who’s hobby is scrapbooking & altered books. I give her my cards, calendars, etc. It’s amazing what she does with what I call junk! Recycle your stuff to crafters.

  7. posted by Sam Brown on

    I just scan everything and then toss the physical thing.

  8. posted by Dawn F on

    I took digital pictures of my favorite artwork from my son from his preschool years and used Snapfish to make an amazing memories book. It was fast and fun to make online and the book is high-quality. It’s much easier to keep (and enjoy) a simple book rather than a pile of assorted loose art projects.

    You can do the same thing with special greeting cards, awards certificates, etc. – take digital pictures, make an online album (perhaps a duplicate, too for a grandparent or sibling), enjoy the book for a lifetime and ditch the paper clutter. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. posted by Celeste on

    Confession: I saved every card my child ever received, including cards from baby shower gifts. She’s 7. Her grandma sends her cute cards all the time, but she is just barely hanging on. I’m thinking about saving only the cards with her handwriting on them for my daughter. I’m not convinced they have any value to her now, but I wonder if they would in the future. They’re in a plastic tub in the basement. We would never consider reaching for them if the place was on fire, though. Food for thought.

  10. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Karen — I know a handful of people who have lost their homes in disasters (fire, hurricane, tornado) and all have grieved afterward. It’s okay to have attachments to some physical things. I certainly know that I would be upset if I lost my wedding ring. Sure, I’d survive, but I would definitely cry about it.

    Your advice to take pictures, make copies and share the stories is good — but there are some things that photographs can’t replace and that it’s okay to cry over when/if they’re lost.

  11. posted by Anita on

    Thanks for this post, Erin, I needed a push to go through my pile of old letters and cards. Why I still have letters from long-lost pen pals from when I was 12, I don’t know.

    A word on storing things digitally. I used to see my hard drive as this bottomless pit that can never run out of room until, lo and behold, it did. 90% of it was occupied by photos — not of stuff I threw out, but of my 1.5 years of trial-and-error attempts at photography. It was a harsh wake-up call that yes, hard drive space is finite, and digital file management is as important as paper file management. Now I keep a close eye on what goes into my computer, just like I watch what comes into my home. For this reason, I’m always reluctant to relocate my clutter to my hard drive, as it were.

  12. posted by Chris on

    My dad, who is not a very sentimental man, has one large manila envelope for each of his three children tucked away.

    These envelopes contain letters to Santa Claus, art projects, schoolwork, stories we wrote/illustrated, and other relics. They are all things that he decided were special or important or touching.

    Three flat 12×18″ envelopes tucked in his closet is not a lot of clutter; actually it’s nicely self-limiting, and I think a very reasonable and rational trade-off for preserving the physical artifacts.

    I actually haven’t seen mine, but I love the idea, and it makes me loved knowing that there are these tangible pieces of my childhood my siblings and I can giggle over someday, that I can show to my future-kids.

  13. posted by Tom D. on

    I liked this post so much I printed it out and saved it. I think I’ll read it again someday when I get around to doing the whole GTD process. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  14. posted by Beth on

    Anita – storage space is so cheap these days, it really can be considered effectively infinite. What’s important in keeping digital files uncluttered is not selection/deletion of files, but an effective way to index, sort & retrieve them.

    (I’ve been putting together a file-management archive for my work this summer, using a tool called M-Files (http:www.m-files.com) — I like it very much from a small business perspective, but it’s a bit spendy for individual/family use.)

  15. posted by Juliana on

    I cut my favorite cards in to gift tags for future gifts. some of cards really are tiny works of art that deserved to be shared. Once I do that, I know they’ll get tossed. Somehow it is easier then.

  16. posted by WilliamB on

    The 8 Tips article says “When photos are digital, they’re preserved for the ages on a DVD.”

    Maybe. Maybe not. Talk to a librarian about the impermanence and changability of non-paper collections. Remember HD-DVD? Laser disc? Betamax? 3.5″ floppies? 5″ floppies? 8″ floppies? Microfilm? Microdots? Microfiche? DOS? Mac OS (before there was more than one version)? I have both Mac and PC and neither can read old PC and Mac files that I am very had to have lost.

    If you go to an electronic format you will have to maintain both the data and the processor that reads the data.

  17. posted by Eleanor W. Craig on

    Erin, having just completed cleaning out my Mother’s home and sorting clutter from valuables, I applaud this blog! Loved the article, and have put the book on my reading list.
    As a former professional organizer, I learned a very valuable tip from another PO about going through sentimental items.
    When and individual is going through sentimental items, he/she needs a “buddy” who can assist. The Buddy holds up each item in question and the individual makes a decision. The key here is that the individual DOES NOT TOUCH the item! Touching the item increases the sentimental value and makes it more difficult to part with.
    Also, I made one BIG mistake while my brothers and I were going through my Mom’s stuff, and I share it in hopes of saving others from this heartbreaking error.
    We were in a BIG hurry to clear out my Mother’s home. It was two hours from my brothers’ homes and I live ten hours away, so when I could come up for a weekend, we moved FAST!!! I worked through the bedroom. In a small broken wooden box, amidst safety pins,I found my mother’s treasured teardrop pendant, which my grandmother had commissioned for her following my grandfather’s passing many years ago. It was made of small diamonds from a piece of his jewelry. I put the box in one of the “take with us” boxes. Somehow, someone thought it was trash and threw out the box. With the pendant still in it. Why did I not take five minutes to stop and put the pendant in my purse? I am still sick over this mistake- we threw away a valuable heirloom because of a hasty poor decision.

  18. posted by Joe R on

    I’ve started scanning old letters and cards. Then I won’t feel bad about tossing them and I can still look at them down the road if I want. Someday I’ll be scanning all my pictures!

  19. posted by Jeffrey on

    The Cry Factor is an amazing tool. I’ve never thought of it that way. I’m not one to hold on to a lot of sentimental clutter (thankfully), but I do have four shoeboxes from my high school years. I don’t think I’d cry if I lost them, but I think I’ll combine them into one scrapbook. Thanks for the insight.

  20. posted by Mike on

    Echo what WilliamB said. About 6 years ago, I archived to DVD all my old videotapes of the family and friends. Lately now I find I would have been better off just capturing them to DV-AVI files and storing them on data DVDs rather than burning actual video DVDs. They’re in the oldest possible DVD format (no AC3), and some modern DVD players choke on them (and that’s when the media holds up… fortunately I kept backup discs).

    After a robbery, I learned to use services like Mozy to back stuff up remotely. I ended up re-ripping the video DVDs, losing a bit of image quality, to files and storing them the way they should have been stored in the first place. Now, no worries: any Mac or PC can read the files; if there is a fundamental change in the way data files are stored (a la Longhorn FFS), I’ll likely have more than adequate warning; and they’re stored remotely AND on my Time Machine drive at home, so the chances of loss are very low.

    When I record new things on my hard drive camcorder, I just keep the original DV-AVI files. Yeah, it’s 13 gigs per hour, but when a terabyte hard drive is under $100, that’s not too rough. Can’t get any better quality than that (except HD of course), and it’s already in the correct format for storage. I definitely recommend doing it this way for anyone looking to preserve family video/film/etc.

  21. posted by Magchunk on

    My mom still has many of my childhood items (both my parents are packrats, I was weeding through my stuffed animals at age 8). There is one box that she stored school papers, artwork, valentine cards I received, etc. My sister has one too. What has made weeding easy is to only keep the drawings, etc that have names and dates on them. Otherwise, as my mom admitted, some of them might actually be by my sister! It’s not a permanent solution, but it’s certainly been a comfortable first step, as my mom would really like to be using my tiny old room as an office, and currently can barely walk to the desk (doesn’t help that my dad sees it as his storage unit…)

  22. posted by Jay on

    Photographing and scanning items is great and lets me throw away lots of stuff.

    Also, sometimes people give stuff to you because it is clutter to them. When my grandmother passed away, I looked around her house and chose one afghan (she loved to knit and crochet) that I actually remember on her sofa and a 50-year-old iron skillet (she loved to cook). Talk about a non-stick skillet!!

    Over the next several months, my aunt mailed me (and other relatives) box after box of stuff: more afghans, clothes, all sorts of trinkets, etc. I photographed the stuff (so I would remember what I had been given, not for sentimental reasons) and gave or threw it away.

  23. posted by Karen on

    @Erin, sorry I wasn’t clear, I didn’t mean that I thought it was wrong to grieve for an object, I just meant that I personally haven’t done it.

    BTW, I think the best way to preserve kid’s art is to take their picture while they hold their creation. Someone gave me that advice when my youngest was in third grade and I wish I had heard it sooner.

  24. posted by crunchycon on

    I used to be fairly good at not allowing sentimental stuff I didn’t just love to clutter up my life; a few years back, my parents’ home burned to the ground with a lot of my childhood toys and things that I’d been around all my life. No lectures about “it’s just stuff,” please; I’ve heard and assimilated them all. I have far fewer sentimental items now, but still have some I don’t love. I’d love to get rid of them, but can’t quite seem to let go.

  25. posted by Sky on

    Great post! I have 4 grown sons and a large Rubbermaid box for each with their baby things, school stuff, and various items I’ve kept for them. Also, my husband and I have one each of our mementos. They slide under my bed (it’s very high) so they don’t take up valuable living space. It may seem like a lot but it is stuff I value and don’t want to part with or only have photos of.

    I love the “would you cry if you lost an item”. What an eye opener for me and an excellent way to realize what we really value.

  26. posted by Greg Milliken on

    Per the comment from Beth above regarding M-Files.

    There is actually a completely free version of M-Files called M-Files Express, it is limited to 10,000 files/documents but that is generally OK for home or personal use. You can check it out at the following link:


    At this link you get a trial of the full product but after 30 days you can convert it to the free Express version at no charge.

  27. posted by Ally from Zwaggle on

    Great post! A lot of people are weary to participate on Zwaggle because they can’t part with their sentimental kids’ items. Our hope is that sharing those items with families that really want and need them helps alleviate any of those bad feelings. (Zwaggle.com is an online marketplace for parents to post their gently used kids’ gear (toys, clothes, Halloween costumes, etc.) for free. We have a points based system rather than dollars, so the whole process is free and fun! Please visit http://www.zwaggle.com for more information.)

  28. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    I *love* Dawn’s suggestion of using one of the online services to make a permanent book of your kids’ artwork. You still get a physical thing, but it fits nicely on the bookshelf and takes up a lot less room than the originals. We have one of these books from my father-in-law’s birthday last year, with pictures and mementos from his life (and his twin brother’s), and it really is quite nice.

    I’m leery of tossing originals and having only digital versions of things I think are important (I’m currently fighting my own battle with important documents in obsolete formats and done on outdated software I don’t care to invest $$$$$ to upgrade), but a printed book would serve my needs.

    Thanks for the idea!

  29. posted by cakemix on

    i have a very strange rule…
    keeping the last bit of correspondence received from each loved one. that way i do have something as a memory, but it helps me cull and keeps the amount of items down to a manageable amount. although considering i’m one of 56 grandkids, i should maybe start scanning!

  30. posted by jcard21 on

    Keep your Greeting Cards forever:

    When I send OR receive greeting cards, I:

    Set up computer folder(s):

    2007_GreetingCards, 2008_GreetingCards, 2009_GreetingCards, etc

    1) Scan card front to jpg file;

    2) Scan card inside to jpg file;

    3) Merge the above 2 images side-by-side to another jpg; and delete the original 2 scans.

    4) save side-by-side jpg as:





    4) Throw out original paper greeting cards.

    PS: If there is a note written on the inside of the card, that gets scanned too, so you may end up with 3 or 4 jpgs to merge. It takes about 30 seconds for each scan, 1 minute to merge the scans.

    Anytime I get nostalgic, I use Picasa Photo Viewer (WinVista) to scroll through the images.

  31. posted by Ajana on

    I must be seriously unsentimental about objects. I keep nothing from the past except one childhood toy about 4″ high. That’s it. But I wouldn’t stop to collect it if the place was on fire.

    I wonder whether my lack of sentimentally is a problem. I have plenty of empathy when friends talk about problems/people/animals/etc. but don’t understand friends who will look at something, cry about it but won’t throw it away, preferring instead to get upset every time they see it. Why keep something which causes such recurring pain?

    Are there others who are the same as me?

  32. posted by Sky on

    Ajana….I have recently let some items go that made me cry. It is silly to keep anything that makes you upset but you have to be ready to let it go. Grief is a strong emotion and sometimes makes us do strange things.

  33. posted by Lou on

    Christmas cards make great gift tags for the following year. Throw them in a ziplock bag and re-purpose them.

    The next year when you break out the bag and gift wrap you won’t have much sentimentality attached to the cards anymore because you’ll have a whole new batch coming in.

  34. posted by Another Deb on

    My mother has sent me a bag of old (50+ years) birthday cards sent to me by long-gone relatives. I am going to scrapbook a few of them with my baby pictures and then perhaps re-gift the rest to the children and grandshildren of my siblings with a note inside telling them what the deal is. I plan to include a picture of the original sender and a memory I have of who they were. I hope this might become a very small treasure for the next generation. The old prices on cards give me a laugh!

  35. posted by Soochi on

    I store documents and do my writing in google documents. That should take care of the obsolete factor for old formats. At the moment, 5,000 documents is the size of the account. Who knows, Google may increase this in the future. And google docs is free with a gmail account.

  36. posted by KatrinaD on

    I’ve kept photographs of some things I’ve given away and I’m slowly building an album of them. Yes, digital photos would take less space but keeping a computer with the right software for the next 50 years would take more space than a small album.

    Celeste – I suggest that you do keep the cards sent to your daughter by her grandmother. Perhaps in a special box of carefully chosen momentoes. Then when your daughter is old enough she can choose if she keeps them or not.

    Personally I’d give away my home, my clothes and some of my relatives if I could get back a few special items that my family got rid of when I was young without asking me. Like the audio letter from my great-grandfather to his descendants that he recorded before I was born.

  37. posted by twosandalz on

    “I call this the Cry Factor โ€” if losing it in a disaster would make me cry, I donโ€™t get rid of it.”

    I like this approach. Thanks

  38. posted by Marie on

    I think the intent of the item is also an important factor when considering what to keep. I don’t keep Christmas cards–they’re meant to offer a warm hello and well wishes during a time of the year that many people consider sacred family time. They don’t belong in my “this was meant for you to have forever” pile.

  39. posted by Chris Grasse on

    You feel sooo good when you get free of your stuff. The stuff that just sits and sits either in the basement or up in the attic. I used to go and draw up a chair and sit in front of it up in our attic and just study it, letting my feelings come to the surface when I looked at it. I am one of those people who needs to know my clutter is going to someone who will care for it. It’s that “caretaking” thing which slows us down. We don’t just want to toss our stuff in the trash. I give things away on Freecycle, locally. Different people e-mail me, asking for it, and I can tell by the way they word their interest who gets the stuff almost every time. The hardest thing for me to let go of are classical vinyl recordings. They just sit and sit. Last week I managed to get free of 115 of them. The person who took them went through them and donated the balance to Goodwill. I spotted them a day or so later, priced and being gone over by about five people in the store, having the time of their lives, all delighted in finding old gems from the past. It was a win/win situation all around. There comes a time when empty living space means more to your values than owning things which crowd in on you. Think what you need to know in order to let go. With me, it was simply knowing someone else would care for my things when I parted with them. I know that’s nuts, but it brings continuity to the letting go process. VHS video tapes are another item. If you have proper motivation it becomes easier. One man told me his wife was going to undergo surgery for cancer and needed movies to help her pass the time during the healing recovery period back at her home, afterwards. I managed to give away 80 tapes very quickly because it was such an excellent cause. Good Luck, people, with your clearing out clutter programs. You feel so good when you’re on the other side of owning things you never use. Your generosity toward others shows your gratitude for all life’s blessings. It is a way of saying Thank You. Submitted by Chris Grasse (67 years old) from South Portland, Maine, U.S.A. on 12 March 2010.

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