Why do we keep the things we do?

Our family completed two international moves in the space of 14 months and have not really had time to settle in our current house. So, it didn’t take much effort for recent home repairs wreak havoc in our basement. As I was sifting through stuff that I didn’t even remember we had, I started reflecting on why we keep the things we do.

Emotional connections

We keep some things is because we have an emotional attachment to them such as Grandma’s teapot or the toy cars from our youth. We’ve written a lot about sentimental clutter over the years so if you are dealing with sentimental items, reading these posts can help you decide whether or not to keep the items or let them go.

A need to be prepared

It’s great to be prepared. When the smoke detector starts its incessant “I have a dead battery!” beeping in the middle of the night, having a spare battery in the kitchen drawer is certainly handy. But is there a need for keeping a circular saw you use once every two or three years? We’ve written about renting seldom used tools as an option for reducing clutter. What about the huge roasting pan you use only at Thanksgiving? It could be shared among family members and whoever hosts next year’s family dinner, gets to store the pan for the year. Alternatively, you could always use disposable roasting pans.

No one wants to be caught off-guard so think about what you absolutely need in an urgent situation and what you’re keeping for non-urgent, just in case scenarios.

It’s for a special occasion

Many people have items they use only on rare, special occasions. I’m not talking about holiday decorations which are only used during holiday periods (it would be odd to see Christmas decorations in July). I’m talking about the “good dishes” that can only be used during a candlelight supper with dignified guests.

In reality, using special things all the time, or at least more frequently, does not make them less special. By using them, we are acknowledging the privilege of owning them and every time we use them we are creating special memories. Treating your own family members as dignified guests at a candlelight supper every month will give your children something to remember.

There are people, (and I am one of them) that use the term, “saving for special occasion” as an excuse to not use high maintenance items such as a dry-clean only clothing or hand wash only dishes. If this is the case, then it is likely you’re really keeping these things for one of the other reasons listed here.

It was a gift

If there is an emotional connection to the gift, follow the advice on dealing with sentimental clutter. Unclutterer Jeri wrote a great post on how to deal with unwanted gifts that provides some great information as well. Remember, you can keep something if it was a gift, you don’t have to keep it because it was a gift.

Some people keep items because they are going to give them as gifts “when the time comes.” I would suggest “the time” be scheduled in a planner, calendar, or reminder list. If there is more than one gift per person per occasion, then it is probably safe to unclutter those items.

The price

When people say, “It was free!” they really mean they didn’t pay any money for it. That is good deal if you need, want, and use the item. However, factor in a portion of your real-estate costs (mortgage, rent, utility bills) plus any maintenance time and costs for “free” items that you never use you realize that they are not really free. Liberate yourself and unclutter the freebies.

At the opposite end of the scale, it may be hard to part with items that were expensive. In most cases, thanks to mass-produced market goods and depreciation, the longer you own an item, the lower its value. Therefore, selling an item sooner, rather than later will reduce your loss. For example, if you buy a grandfather clock for $5000 in one year it would be worth about $4800 but after five years it would only be worth about $4100. Selling it sooner would result in more cash in your pocket. This depreciation guide may help you determine how quickly your assets decline in value.


Sometimes it’s our dreams that cause us to retain clutter. We dream of creating that perfect scrapbook so we head out to the craft store to stock up on supplies. Inspired by the latest sports superstar, we shop at Athletes’ World for all the latest equipment so we too might become the next draft pick. There is nothing wrong with trying something new, but ensure that it is an achievable goal. You may not have the patience for scrapbooking or the time to practice a new sport.

Before you start buying to fulfill a dream, make a plan to achieve it. Schedule time in your planner to practice, take a few lessons with rented equipment, or buy only the minimum amount of supplies. If, after a few months you’re still “really into it,” and practicing regularly, then treat yourself to some extra equipment.

If you’ve got a stash of sporting goods, or craft and hobby supplies lying around that you haven’t touched in months, either make a S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goal to get involved again or let the items go.

It’s not my clutter

There are times when we store items for other people. For example, our children are in university so we are storing many of their things. We don’t mind, but we fully expect they will take their things once they have graduated and settled in their own homes. If you’re storing items that do not belong to you, here is some advice that might help.

Here’s some more advice in case you are uncluttering other people’s things. Remember to get their permission to unclutter and if possible, go through all the items with them when making decisions about whether to keep things or let them go.

Trouble uncluttering

If you’re having trouble uncluttering, you’ve come to the right place. Unclutterer provides plenty of resources and motivation to get you moving. You can check out our Organizing Jump-Start, look through our posts on Resources and Services to learn where and how to dispose of items, and read all of our tips to help you unclutter.

Now I shall return to my basement to unclutter and organize. I should have it completed well before we have to move (again) next year.

3 Comments for “Why do we keep the things we do?”

  1. posted by infmom on

    I inherited some lovely bone china dinnerware from my aunt circa 1970. It is a nearly complete service for 12. We didn’t use it when the kids were small (for obvious reasons). Now it’s just the two of us, and we could unpack those dishes, but for us “It can’t go in the dishwasher” is a legitimate stumbling block. Let’s be honest, after all these years (just passed our 45th anniversary) neither one of us likes to hand wash dishes. Likewise our teak handled Dansk Fjord wedding silverware, which has to be hand washed and treated with teak oil from time to time (we did buy some stainless steel Dansk Fjord silverware last year for daily use).

    As for “other people’s clutter” my parents did not give a hoot about anything that wasn’t theirs, so a lot of my brothers’ and my things just got the heave-ho over the years when they felt like it–none of us were ever asked, the stuff just went. I have no intention of summarily throwing out my kids’ stuff. It’s THEIR stuff and THEY have to deal with it. As a result we still have bins of Stuff from both kids in the garage, but we are gradually getting them to deal with the contents. It has taken a lot of parental stubbornness to get to that point, though. I think my daughter’s stuff languished for close to 10 years after she moved out till I finally put my foot down.

  2. posted by Kenneth in Virginia on

    There is an irony in owning things that are “too good to use.” The Good China fits that category. So does expensive clothing. Contrary to claims, especially by college students selling bone china, expensive things usually don’t last any longer than things costing much less. Shoes with real leather soles wear out faster than shoes with rubber or composition soles. Expensive sweaters (and even less expensive sweaters) get holes in them faster than fleece in any price range. I know this because I have things I hesitate to wear because I hate the idea of wearing them out. But my habits are changing.

    Another thing that happens is the changes you typically make when you retire. You don’t dress for work any more, be it either dress shirts and ties or coveralls. You just don’t wear them anymore. Eventually–and sadly–you reach a point where you won’t be going to dances or parties and you find yourself in the last chapter of your life.

    The people around where I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s would laugh at all this. When I was little, the house was bare. There was no basement or attic full of boxes; no stuffed closets; no kitchen cabinets full of unused dishes; none of that stuff. That’s why some of us crave material goods. It isn’t because we can’t live without “stuff.” It’s because we did and we didn’t like it.

  3. posted by Pat on

    There are advantages to using the “good” stuff. When my four sons were young we ate in the dining room every Sunday. With a white tablecloth and Wedgwood china. Mom and Dad used the Waterford for their wine and we had bread or rolls – and dessert! – with our meal. Wine and bread and dessert were not an everyday thing. My husband and I found that they boys lingered at the table and conversed more on those Sunday evenings. And since they were responsible for setting the table, they learned where to put the bread and butter plates, the soup spoons, etc., something that some of the girls they brought home had no clue about. Now the boys are men and out of the house. But some of their stuff lingers in the attic. I have some sympathy because they don’t have a lot of space. But sometimes I wonder if I am storing things that they don’t even want anymore!

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