Ask Unclutterer: Regrets and legacy items

Reader Andrew submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I agree and aspire to be neat, minimalist, the epitome of uncluttered … but I have a couple of high priced items that I haven’t used in some time but feel I would regret if I didn’t have them … primarily because I feel my kids could one day use them. So I wonder:

  1. Have you ever regretted getting rid of something?
  2. What do you do about “legacy” items?

The items are few, but still weigh upon my mind.

Great questions, Andrew!

Addressing the first question: Yes, I have regretted getting rid of something.

In my early days of uncluttering, I wanted to be uncluttered RIGHT THEN. I was ready to live my uncluttered life and I didn’t want to have to sort through all of my possessions. I just wanted the clutter magically gone.

One day my patience grew thin, and I tossed to the curb some boxes I hadn’t unpacked since my previous move. I didn’t even look in the boxes. I figured if I’d lived without the stuff for a year, I couldn’t possibly need it.

Except, in one of the boxes was stuff I needed — my passport, my birth certificate, my immunization records — all my vital documents.

I’ve been able to replace these items, but doing so was an extremely long and frustrating experience. Had I simply opened the boxes, I would have instantly seen the mistake I was making. But, I was in a hurry and didn’t want to take the time to do the project correctly. I regret getting rid of those things.

I’ve never regretted getting rid of something that I took the time to sort through and conscientiously review.

Addressing the second question: I keep a few legacy items for my son.

We have a large Rubbermaid storage box in our office closet with my son’s name on it. There isn’t much in it right now — his baby book, his first pair of shoes. However, this is the box where we plan to store any legacy items we think he might want of ours when he is an adult.

We can’t keep everything we think he might one day want, so we limit ourselves to only storing things we can fit in this very specific space. If it doesn’t fit, we don’t store it. Things we don’t store, we either use or give away. Our goal isn’t to clutter up his future home with our stuff, so we are making the decisions during his childhood instead of forcing him to deal with a giant amount of our things when he’s an adult.

Additionally, in our Wills we have directions for items we regularly use — like the watch my husband wears, which isn’t very expensive but has sentimental value — stating that if he wants these things, we would like for him to have them. The Wills also give him permission to not keep the items if that is his choice. We know he doesn’t need permission, but we want to make it clear that he shouldn’t feel any guilt if he chooses to part with the objects.

Legacy items are reminders that you are part of a family, and the items honor and represent these caring relationships. I think it’s nice to pass on a few things to your children. That being said, don’t go overboard. You don’t want to overwhelm your children with stuff that can clutter up their adult lives. I’ve found that putting space restrictions on storing these items is a good way to keep out the clutter and only store the most treasured items, the items your child will truly cherish and appreciate that you kept.

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

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30 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Regrets and legacy items”

  1. posted by cng on

    In deciding to leave legacy items to your children, I think it’s important to explain to them throughout their childhood why the item is significant to you and why it might be important to them one day. I recently helped my parents move and took the opportunity to gently suggest that my mom get rid of a hideous vase that had been a fixture in the bathroom for as long as I could remember. She looked horified at the idea and informed me that it was the vase in which the first bunch of flowers had been delivered after my birth and that she had been keeping it for me. Then it was my turn to look horified. I don’t know that I would have appreciated it any more had I realized its “significance” sooner, but it would have been one less item for my mother to care for out of a self-imposed sense of obligation to me, at the very least. That vase is now at a thrift shop waiting to find a new home.

  2. posted by Meg on

    ” but I have a couple of high priced items that I haven’t used in some time but feel I would regret if I didn’t have them … primarily because I feel my kids could one day use them.”

    I’m curious what sort of items they are. After all, if *you* haven’t used them, why do you think your children not only could but *would*?

    I should say that while I know that some people do like to inherit family pieces, I personally have no desire. I have my own tastes, my own needs. So, for me, such items have been more a burden — especially when there are strings attached like people trying to make me feel guilty for getting rid of such items (or for not taking them). People even gave me a hard time when I donated my wedding dress to Goodwill because, “What if your daughter wants it?” Not only do I not have children, let alone a daughter, let alone one that plans to get married and would be the right size and have the same tastes and want a used dress and miss out on dress shopping… my husband and I don’t even want children (and would want someone to enjoy the dress NOW, anyhow). So, neither do we have to worry much about keeping stuff for others. (I admit, that might make it harder for me to relate here, so I do look forward to reading what others have to say.)

  3. posted by MJP on

    I agree whole-heartedly with cng. Also, you mention that the items you are keeping were high-priced. If you are keeping them as an investment, in the hopes that your kids could one day benefit from selling them, why don’t you sell them now (taking the time to investigate how to get the most value out of the particular item) and invest the money in some kind of account dedicated to your kids? (college savings plan, trust fund, whatever) This way your kids still benefit from the item, but it won’t physically be in the way of your uncluttered life.

  4. posted by Andrew on

    hi all,
    as the writer of the questions that inspired this post, I thank Erin for responding, and all the commenters on their input.
    The items in question are musical instruments, electric guitar, amp, bass guitar. I got them when I was young and thought rock-star dreams. To be honest, I have very little musical aptitude, so I’m not sure what I was thinking all those years ago. But the irony is my son is very musical, but still young (only 5) He’s shown a talent for piano, and I can easily see him progressing to other instruments. So not small enough for a rubbermaid, too expensive for the curb and unique one-of-a-kind items that could not be re-bought, so the reason for the question.

    I’ve reasoned through the same suggestions you note, but couldn’t come to a decision I thought I would be happy with.
    @ Meg, while I respect your decision to not have kids (my sister has the same plans) please understand that everything in your life changes…and, for me at least, providing for them is paramount. If living a “partially-cluttered” life is that price, I freely except that.

  5. posted by Meg on

    Hi Andrew!

    Musical instruments! Now that’s something I can relate to! If there’s one area of my life that is a bit cluttered, it’s my instrument and music collection. I just started getting rid of some of mine this year. I have one currently on Ebay, the highest priced one so far that I’ve tried to sell. I was really nervous and put it off, but now I wish I had put more on there in time for the Christmas rush. With the others I’ll probably wait a while to catch those buying for next school year.

    It was really hard for me at first, though, because I had so many personal dreams associated with them and so many memories, even though I’m usually not very sentimental at all. It was going to be my career but other things got in the way and it’s just not an option anymore — at least not anytime soon. I keep reminding myself that if things change, I can always buy more instruments and probably save money in the process by using the money I get now to pay off debts or invest in something. But I will probably keep a few still for entertainment — which ever ones I really enjoy playing and feel the least guilty and frustrated playing.

    I don’t know how it will work with your son, and I can definitely see keeping some instruments for him, but just be careful about not pressuring him too much. I’ve known a lot of musicians (myself included) who have felt the ill effects of over-eager parents with certain expectations. Hopefully it will only be a few years till you get an idea what instrument he really enjoys, in which case you should probably sell the others. It’s o.k. to have more than one instrument and good to know a bit about other instruments, but I’ve learned personally that having too many can make practice overwhelming. You can easily become a Jack of all trades, master of none.

    Best of luck to your son in his musical endeavors!

  6. posted by MJP on

    Could you perhaps find temporary homes for the instruments with people who would use them, with perhaps written agreements in place to ensure that you can get them back if/when your son wants them? (and to stipulate what happens in the event of possible damage). I’m thinking this could be informal, like lending to them to another family, or more formal, like renting them to a local music school.

  7. posted by Jay on

    When my grandmother died, my aunt asked me what I wanted from her house. Since she was a great cook and always cooking, I chose her cast-iron skillet (over 50 years old!!!), which is something that I associated with her and the time I spent with her.

    Andrew, how much (if at all) is the expense of the musical instruments affecting your decision process? If they had been cheap or free, would you get rid of them?

  8. posted by Arlette on

    In answer to the question, “Have you ever uncluttered something and regretted it?”: I will report: once. In my 20’s, I gave to Goodwill a black velour Betsey Johnson mini-dress with a square neckline and bat-wing sleeves because it had led to some bad decisions after a holiday party (long story, but Matthew, if you’re reading, you never called me!), and also, I thought I would never be thin enough to wear it again. Well, guess what, 20 years later, thanks to my thrice-weekly Core Barre classes, I am fit as a fiddle at 42 and the dress would be perfect to wear to Halloween parties as the base of a sexy Catwoman getup. Then again, as a grownup, I have sworn of Halloween as a concept and it only comes around once a year anyway, so in retrospect, it was probably not such a loss after all…and the uncluttered life is so worth it that only one regret in 20+ years is a pretty good record.

  9. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    I think it helps to really think thru exactly *why* something is sentimental and valuable. If it is something you truly want to save and pass on, then do so mindfully.

  10. posted by RebeccaL on

    @Arlette- I think it’s good you got rid of it. The dress sounds fabulous, but if it makes you think of someone you don’t have fond memories of, it’s clutter! About 3 months ago Goodwill got the Harley Davidson shirt that an ex gave me. It was a favorite shirt, but I *love* the fact he no longer comes to mind when I’m getting dressed in the morning. Whew!

    I like MJP’s idea to let someone else (a teen relative with rock star dreams, perhaps?) use the instruments until your son’s ready.

  11. posted by Beverly on

    My mom and her family were heirloom collectors. Dishes, glassware, stemware, flatware, quilts – all that good stuff was handed down from mother to daughter over the decades. My mom is the only daughter and ended up with all this stuff. Which she diplayed, or kept put up. NEVER used it, oh noooo, that was granny’s. She saved her money my whole life to be able afford that.

    In 2000, my mom and dad got divorced – she had to scale down from a 5000 sq ft home, to a 900 sq ft apartment. She sold EVERYTHING. Beatles albums, all the antique furniture and above mentioned heirlooms. I was able to go through and get a few things – but I was also in a small house and me and my family didn’t have room for all that furniture or stuff – plus she needed the money.

    Anyway, the things I DID take – I USE. To this DAY it just kills her that I use Great granny’s 1932 antique platter to put a batch of sugar cookies on, that I cooked on any given day of the week!! I tell her – Mom, I think of granny every time I use this platter. I tell my boys about her when I do. It’s not stored away, never to be seen or used like you did. She says, but if you BREAK it!! I tell her, if I break it, it’ll be sad, I’ll send up an apology to granny, and thank the dear Lord that platter made it almost 100 years!! LOL

  12. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Andrew — Does your son want the musical instruments now? Children in Montessori schools start Orff music lessons at age two, and children studying Suzuki violin pick up their first fiddle at three. At five, your son can be trusted with a guitar. If you’re worried about him damaging the instruments, supervise him while he plays. We already let our son play our mandolin, ukulele, and guitars while we supervise him, and he’s only 17 months old. Musical instruments should be played! I think you should let your son enjoy them now.

  13. posted by Rebecca on

    My husband has a mandolin that was his late grandfather’s and we fashioned a hanger for it and us it as a prominent decoration on our living room wall. You could always hang up the instruments in your son’s room, and then take them down at times to play on together.

  14. posted by Nana on

    Side note: Do NOT put disposition of Things into your Will. If you do, they will have to be appraised and it’s another complicated (sometimes expensive) step. Write a letter disposing of sentimental items and keep copies wherever the Will is.
    Years ago, the cost of appraising my father’s ordinary wedding band and watch (and the inability to pass them along until this was done) caused upsetment at an already fraught time.

  15. posted by J on

    We used the same principle as Erin to limit the items from our children’s childhoods. At first we made the decisions, then when they got older, they made their own choices.

    The musical instruments are somewhat different because of the space requirement. Remember that there is no perfect way to be uncluttered. Your comment about a “partially cluttered” life being worth it is an example of that. If you want to keep them, you should, despite the partial clutter it makes – because deep down, where it really counts, that’s okay with you.

  16. posted by Hilde on

    My advice is: Give with warm hands! This is what we say in Germany, meaning you should give heirlooms while you are alive and not let your children wait until you are passed away. For more than thirty years now, my mother in law shows me jewellery, china etc saying “I am too old to use/wear it, but you know, one day you will get it all, so don´t think of buying something like it!” I am now as old as she wehn she started talking like that, so I´m too old already, too, at least in her opinion. So when she has passed, I will let my daughters in law choose right then instead of telling them “One day you will get it”.

  17. posted by Rowena on

    I volunteer at our county historical museum. There are organizations like ours all over the country, dedicated to preserving local history. Our entire community benefits when a local family donates an heirloom, whether it is great-great-grandma’s wedding dress or an early settler’s axe or an old diary or photo album. Museum visitors love to see these items and cherish the stories that go with them. Before throwing out these kinds of things, please consider donating them to your local museum.

  18. posted by Maryann on

    Well then…

    I guess it’s time to take my 1980’s short-neck bass guitar & cheap Gorilla amp out from hiding in the attic & let my 9 yr old son get his grubby hands on them.

    Maybe he’ll have more success than his non-musically-talented mom…thanks for the reality check.

  19. posted by WilliamB on

    IAAL – I agree about writing a letter about disposition of your personal possessions rather than including it in your will. Same effect, less trouble, easier and less expensive to update later.

    My parents have a lot of personal possessions with stories attached. I know most of what’s family heirlooms (or sometimes hair-looms) but do tend to get mixed up which was great-grandma’s and which was great-great-grandma’s, and certainly don’t know about most of the goods gotten during travel.

    So I filmed my parents giving a tour.

    It took a *long* time but is worth it. Now we have a visual record of what they have, where it came from and when, anything interesting about the item, and stories that might go with. For jewelry I had my mother write notecards with a bit of history “Brooch made of great-grandmother Ella’s hair” and filmed that along with the rest. Several copies are distributed in various places for access and security. Now all I have to do is make sure I can access that particular media or transfer it as needed.

    In addition to serving as a record of stuff, it’s also a video of my parents talking about their lives. I love seeing my grandparents on video or on hearing them on tape, and I expect my parents’ descendents will feel the same.

  20. posted by Louise on

    @Maryann: Your comment made my day! I love that you are ready to let your son use your bass. If he learns to play at 9, he will carry that skill through his whole life, no matter what else he does. Rock on!

  21. posted by Grammie Linda on

    I agree with Hilde–give with warm hands when you have heirlooms. Of course, that means GIVE–once it is theirs, it is their decision as to what to do with it.

    As to what to do about other items someone is not ready for, but are expensive: most of the time, I believe that the expense of keeping it (space, tying up money, emotional cost of pressure to keep and later use–or, per Hilde, not use) is not worth it. For example, people keep their wedding dress or crib or baby clothes for future children and grandchildren. You have to store it, keep it nice, and then what if the daughter is a different size? What if you have sons? what if you store your child’s crib for 30 years and find out that safety considerations mean that your children would never use it for their children? Or that they have no children? I saved just a FEW special clothes that I gave to my daughter for her daughter (all fit in a fairly small box), like the two outfits her grandmother made for her. Actually, I did then wonder why I kept a couple of the dresses, but most were adorable and special. Remember that your child could have completely different tastes from you!

    We had a cradle for our daughter, purchased by my mother. It wasn’t heirloom quality, but was VERY useful with a colicky infant. Instead of storing it, we loaned it out. Two other children used it before we used it for our younger daughter. I think approximately 35 children used that little bed by the time our granddaughter was born 31 years later. Then, her parents were in a condo that simply did not accommodate the cradle–too small! I assured my daughter that it was FINE. Until they found an alternative, they strapped the bed part to the coffee table to make her safe, then received a great little portable bassinet from a friend. We brought the cradle back to repair and continue to loan out. I did have to reassure our daughter that I was fine with the situation, and there was no problem with their not using it!

  22. posted by gypsy packer on

    Before you give to your local historical society, check backgrounds. Ours locally is comprised of several legit history buffs and three or more antiquers who divert interesting items to their own personal and/or business use. The state of Tennessee has a program wherein they photograph Civil War and other historical items for state archives, while leaving the actual object in family hands. The historical collections of state universities and private colleges may have similar programs.
    I do have relatives who, for only one example, has kept an entire collection of worn-out, battered, scratched, buck-naked mass market dolls for a relative who does not want them and never will. I’m holding a few pieces of furniture and old pottery for my mother’s only grandchild but she can dispose of them as she wishes, once she has her own dwelling.

  23. posted by GayleRN on

    Just for a reality check take the instruments down to the local music shop and see what they would give you for it. My guess is that unless it was built by Les Paul himself they are probably worth a whole lot less than you think. Electronic music technology is changing as rapidly as technology in any other field.

    The child is old enough to take lessons if he is so inclined. Ask him if he would like to. I was amazed when my then 10 year old son wanted lessons badly enough to start hiring his own music teachers. We were fortunate enough to live in a school district with an extremely strong music program. I know many professional musicians just because we were all band geek parents at the same time.

    All that being said just gently encourage your son in whatever interests he would like to pursue. These will change from time to time. Be sure that you are not projecting your own dreams and wishes on him. Maybe you ought to be taking the lessons and pursuing your own interest in it. There is something to be said for demonstrating the pursuit of interests and education in your own life.

    I will warn you though that if he pursues music that he will be taking lessons from somebody for his entire life. And professional grade instruments carry astronomical price tags. Professional musicians have a lot of instruments. Be careful what you wish for.

  24. posted by JoDi on

    If you have the space to store them, I don’t see what’s wrong with hanging on to musical instruments your son might like to use in a few years. And even if he doesn’t take an interest in them, you might decide to play again if the two of you can play together with him on the keyboard or drums! 🙂 I would probably get rid of them if nobody ends up using them by the time he finishes high school.

    Definitely have to disagree with those who recommend lending them out for the time being. Too much potential for damage there!

  25. posted by Jude2004 on

    Of course you should keep musical instruments. My sons started on trumpet and alto sax in 5th grade. They currently play percussion and bari sax in high school. The older son has decided (he’s 18) to major in music in college. Every instrument will be valuable to him. He had a guitar that he didn’t use, but now I’m learning guitar as my fourth instrument, so it’s being used every few days. Now that he’s majoring in music, he’ll need his trumpet. In fact, I wish we had a few more instruments–the tenor sax and clarinet that were my dad’s, which my brother insisted his sons might want (one plays the guitar, the other plays nothing) and which the older son sold to support his (now thankfully over) drug habit. (My dad and his saxophone, both now gone forever):

  26. posted by OogieM on

    Absolutely have regretted decluttering. Which is probably why I have such a hard time now. I can’t even begin to count the things I gave away or donated or sold that I now need or want and cannot replace. Either the replacements are too expensive or, as is more likely, the replacements are of much poorer quality and do not last costing you even more money. I’d have been much better off paying for a storage unit for decades than get rid of the stuff I thought I’d never use, on a clear dollars and cents basis. Even more so when you consider the regrets from getting rid of good stuff you cannot find anymore. I did actually calculate the cost of storage units vs trying to replace what I got rid of and I’d have been money ahead to pay for a small unit for 15 years before getting rid of some items I wish I had now.

    Be very very cautious when getting rid of stuff that is high quality and durable. You may not ever be able to replace it.

  27. posted by Jen Strange on

    last night I was finishing up some homework for a college class, and my wireless mouse failed! We think that the USB connector somehow got fried. Anyway, because I had kept my OLD mouse, I was able to switch them out and keep going to get my homework done – I couldn’t very well have gone out at midnight to buy a new mouse! (Well, I COULD, but I hate Walmart.)

    Anyway, this is a small example of something you’d think you shouldn’t keep, but it comes in handy. I’m really walking the line lately of trying to clear out my house, and not shooting myself in the foot while doing it.

  28. posted by R.D. on

    I held onto what was probably a very cheap trombone for something like 20 years after I quit high school band. My dad purchased it for me in sixth grade, so I never could quite just give it away. One day, I read an online post from someone (on a budget) looking for a trombone to play, so I gave him mine. It is now in much better hands, but I never regretted holding onto it for so long.

    On the other hand, my spouse was a serious guitarist for a long time, but when we needed money for a new car, we sold some of his equipment. It was a great help in getting that car, and he has since purchased a new guitar and amp that really make him happy. Don’t give away the musical equipment just yet; it doesn’t sound like you’re ready. The time will come. Luckily, musical instruments are usually not unattractive when stored in the open.

  29. posted by sarita on

    hello i was wondering if your new book will be put on dvd. it would be easier for me to listen to it rather than to read it. thank you. sarita

  30. posted by sarita on

    hello i meant cd. thank you. sarita

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