Sorting through sentimental keepsakes

Last week, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

An Unclutterer reader asked:

My mother in law recently moved out of her house and into a small place with medical care and more services than her home could provide. In her process of downsizing, many many items were earmarked for my husband and I. In the spirit of not hurting any feelings, we got a U-Haul and took all the items back to our house. Now, my husband is dealing with guilt and doesn’t want to get rid of hardly anything from his mom’s house. Is there a delicate way to handle this? I’d like to encourage my husband to keep a few choice items and ditch the rest, but its a delicate subject.

It’s definitely a delicate subject, and a familiar one for many people. A few years ago, my family was in a similar situation when my grandfather, who had been living alone for several years, had to move into a place that could properly care for his increasing medical needs. To make the process even more difficult, we had to sell his house as well. He passed away shortly thereafter, and we were left with a lot of stuff.

I can remember my extended family sitting in my aunt’s house surrounded by so much stuff and trying to decide, “Now what?” It seemed like an impossible task. At last I asked myself, “What did grandpa mean to me?” The answer came, “He was an artist.” At that point I knew what I would do.

For years, my grandfather had designed flatware and more for Oneida. He was also an accomplished artist in other mediums, like wood and charcoals. I found some items that represented my overarching impression of my grandfather: a sketch I had long admired, a spoon sample, some early product photos taken for the company, and a sketch.

The sketch, entitled “Winter’s First Snow,” is framed and hangs behind my desk. The spoon, photos, and sketches I had professionally mounted in a shadow box that now hangs on the wall in our bedroom. Both look great and are nice reminders of someone I loved.

We wrote about parting with sentimental clutter a few years ago, and that advice is still very good:

  • Only keep items you’ll display and/or use
  • If you insist on not displaying or using the items, limit items to a number that can fit inside a designated space, like a single chest or keepsake box
  • Remember that items don’t have magical properties, memories do — getting rid of something your loved one owned isn’t getting rid of that person

I’ll add this: identify a specific number of items that best represent your fondest feelings of your loved one and treat those items with the respect and love that those memories deserve. By giving the items a place of honor, you’ll feel that you’ve done right by the fond memories you have.

It’s also important to remember that you can’t force your spouse to get rid of his mother’s things, but you can show him what you think might be a nice alternative to keeping everything. This is also a big adjustment for your husband and it may take time before he can let go of some of the items he doesn’t want to keep. So, with a little time and suggestions from you, you both should be able to come to the right solution for your family.

And, you can remind him that a box in the basement full of items you rarely, if ever, look at is not a fitting tribute to an important person from your life. Two or three items tastefully and beautifully displayed or used in your home, however, shows that you care for, respect, and value the relationship.

Going on a sentimental journey

When uncluttering, it’s quite easy to make decisions on items for which we have no feelings or emotional attachment. But when we have feelings associated with physical items, it can be hard for our heart to let them go even though our lack of usable living space tells us we really need to say goodbye.

There are different types of sentimental clutter (clutter referring to items you don’t necessarily want or have need for; not sentimental objects you value and/or regularly use). Some of the most common items are:

  • Things handed down to us from previous generations
  • Gifts received from important people in our lives
  • Souvenirs and memorabilia

These are some of the most difficult items to deal with because the object reminds us of the person or event, so we keep the item to trigger memories.

A short-term emergency measure of dealing with sentimental items is to box them up and store them. This is ideal if there is a sudden death or downsizing in the family. You must, however, eventually deal with these items because they will eventually fill your storage area and will deteriorate if stored indefinitely.

Sorting and organizing sentimental clutter can be very emotional, so only do a little at a time. Finding a friend or family member to help you sort can be beneficial. Make sure you choose someone who is willing to listen to some stories behind the items. This person should also know whether you need a shoulder to cry on or a kick in the pants when it is time to say good-bye to the sentimental clutter.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • If you had to purchase the item yourself, at full price, would you?
  • If someone you didn’t like gave you the item as a gift, would you still keep it?
  • Does the item invoke happy memories?

If you answered no to any of these questions, consider getting rid of the item.

The following are a few tips to help you get rid of sentimental clutter but keep the memories:

  • Take photos and write stories to capture an item’s significance in your life. You can even tell the story on video and share it with your family. Your children can do this with some of their school projects. Essays, reports and drawings can be scanned and saved in digital format. This will prevent them from getting lost or broken over the years (especially during household moves).
  • Make and display photomontages of your vacations instead of keeping souvenirs. You also can set digital images of your vacations as the screen saver on your computer, if you’re short on wall space.
  • If you’ve inherited a collection of items (pocket watches, salt and pepper shakers, etc.) keep the ones you like best and let the rest go. Offer the other items from the collection to other family members or friends of the family. This holds true for sets of dishes too. You needn’t keep the entire set of china together. For example, if you inherit grandma’s china, one grandchild could have the dessert plates, another could have the platters and another the gravy boat.
  • Display your items so they bring you joy throughout your home. You should limit your items to one or two shelves and keep only items that fit on those shelves. If you can’t display your items, limit them to only one storage bin and keep only the things that fit inside that bin.

Because you have a significant emotional attachment to these sentimental items, it is important to get them out of the house once you’ve made the decision to let them go. If the items are destined for charity, then take them the same day or ask a friend to take them for you (then, return the favor). If the items are to be given to other family members, box them up and tape the box closed. Make arrangements for pick-up or drop-off as soon as you can.

If you’re really feeling bad about an object that is leaving your life, you can have a “funeral” for the item. It helped me out when I really needed it.

How to hold on to sentimental items and let go of clutter

In Gretchen Rubin’s recent article in The New York Times, she said:

While we’re constantly bombarded with messages of “More!” and “Buy now!” we’re also offered the tantalizing promise “You’ll be happier with less!”

She goes on to say that achieving simplicity is not as cut and dry as it may seem. Like some relationships, it can be complex. And, it can get especially complicated when you have to let go of things that have high sentimental value.

Rubin also suggests that we need to keep things that are precious to us. Striking the right balance between how much to keep and how much to let go of can be difficult if everything is (seemingly) dear to you. How do you decide what stays and what goes? It’s this part of the process that can stop you in your tracks. And, there are times when you’re forced to make a decision, like when you’re moving to a smaller home (or office) or if you have to sort through the belongings of a loved one who has passed away.

Though you may not know what to do with everything, there are some steps you can take until the time comes for you make a decision.

  1. Pack them away. When your emotions get the best of you, it can be difficult to make a final decision about what to purge and what to keep. You might find yourself changing your mind many times. This can add to any stress you’re feeling, so you may want to put those items in a box to review later. But, before you put that box in the garage or the top shelf in your closet, add a label with the contents and an expiration date. Choose a reasonable timeframe that you think will give you enough time to figure out what to do. And, if/when that time comes and you still haven’t decided what to do with them, give yourself permission to let go of the box and everything in it.
  2. Capture the moment. One of the reasons we hold on to documents is because we want the information that on them. The same can be true for sentimental objects. Sometimes, it’s not the object but the memory that the item conjures up for us that we wish to save. Consider writing down (or recording) your memories and feelings associated with those cherished items. A paper journal may be all you need, but you also can create a digital scrapbook (and include photographs) or start a blog to capture all your memories. This way, you’re still honoring the objects without having to keep them.
  3. Pick the best. As you try to decide what to keep, select the things that mean the most to you or that are in the best condition. Then, put them in a spot in your home or office that you can easily see them. Over time, your feelings for them might wane. By then, you will have enjoyed them and be ready to pass them on.

Making a decision about an emotionally charged object is a tricky endeavor. But, you don’t have to have all the answers right away or to decide what to do immediately. And, if you keep in mind that you likely can’t keep everything, you’ll be able to part with items that are truly clutter and keep the ones that mean the most to you.

Ask Unclutterer: Displaying sentimental items in one location or spread throughout a house

Reader Amy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer regarding sentimental items:

I do a pretty good job keeping my clutter contained. My partner is a clutterbug. We live in a small apartment in a big city and are preparing to move to a smaller apartment in a bigger city.

We have the clutter/anti-clutter conversation a lot, and our biggest problem is that even if we follow the display rule, it’s still lots of “treasures” all around our house collecting dust. What do you do with the treasures once you’ve decided which ones are display-worthy? We both rather like the idea of putting his treasures up on the wall somehow to keep it off the surfaces, and I am partial to having everything in one place, so there are obvious visual limits to how much stuff is allowed to stay (like shelves or some kind of cabinet).

What you’re trying to decide is if the sentimental items you’ve chosen to keep should be zoned together or zoned apart. Do you want a Sentimental Items District or would you rather they commingle with all the other design elements in your place?

I recommend starting with a Sentimental Items District. The first reason I think you should do this is just to get all of these pieces together on a series of shelves or in a display cabinet so you can really get a grasp on how much you have. Sometimes, when objects are spread throughout the house, they feel like a bigger collection than they actually are. Other times, you come to realize you have way more sentimental items than you intended.

Creating a Sentimental Items District is also a good idea because it forces you to be practical with how many items you can keep in your home. If you don’t have a single space that can display all your sentimental items, you’ll need to do some additional uncluttering to get your collection down to a size you can properly store. This is when the Unclutterer motto is a good one to recite to yourself: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” I also like the Sentimental Items District because it forces you to be realistic about the maintenance and upkeep of these items. How long does it take you to dust all of them? How much room in your apartment do you have to provide to keep them? Are some of these items more valuable than others (what did we push to the back of the shelf to make room for what we really want to see)?

After three or four weeks of living with your Sentimental Items District, sit down and talk about how you want to display these items moving forward. Did you miss walking past your championship bowling trophy on the way to the kitchen each morning? Do you think only having your sentimental items in one place makes your home less personal? Did you like it better when you could be reminded of different memories as you moved through your home? Or, are you happy with the Sentimental Items District? Does it help you to make better choices about what is worth keeping and what isn’t? Do you prefer to have the majority of surfaces in your home free of sentimental items? Or, is there a middle ground that will work best for you? Do you think you would like to have two Sentimental Items Districts — one for framed family photographs on the fireplace mantel and then everything else in the display cabinet in the dining room? You’ll have to figure this out together, and there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Starting with the Sentimental Items District, though, will give you the opportunity to stop thinking about this issue in the abstract and really see how it would work in a concrete way.

Thank you, Amy, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I answered your question, and be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Determining if a sentimental item is clutter or a treasure

In January, Bubba Watson bought the General Lee that jumped over the police car at the end of the opening sequence to the television show The Dukes of Hazzard. Watson, who won the Masters golf tournament this weekend, is reported as having said the car was his “dream car” and sought out the car’s auction.

Without a doubt, the General Lee is a sentimental item to Watson. He probably loved the television show. He probably associates the car and The Dukes of Hazzard with very happy memories from his childhood. He treasures it and will likely put it on display and dust it regularly with a cloth diaper. If the mood strikes, he may even drive it.

Conversely, if the General Lee had been in my garage, I would have found it to be sentimental clutter. I have no affinity for the car and never really got into the television show. I wouldn’t want to waste the garage space on it, and I wouldn’t want to pay for its upkeep. I would have eagerly sold it or given it away to get it off my hands.

This example of the car illustrates the most important point with regard to sentimental items — only the owner of the object can determine if something is a treasure or clutter. I’m certain my husband believes my collection of Mold-A-Rama animals is clutter, but to me it’s pure happiness and joy. The animals remind me of the vacations we’ve taken and the fun we’ve had locating the Mold-A-Rama machines. My husband’s favorite stuffed toy from his childhood looks like a germ minefield to me, but to him carries wonderful memories from years past. So what does this point mean for an unclutterer? Only you can sort through your sentimental items. This isn’t a chore you can pass off to someone else.

The second point the car example illustrates is that sentimental treasures are respected and treated as treasures. Watson displays the car, maintains it, pays attention to it, and values it. He doesn’t have it shoved in the back of his garage, under a pile of stuff, collecting dust. If it could fit in a cardboard box, you can bet he wouldn’t store it in such a thing. In fact, he probably has a security system and sprinkler system installed to protect his treasure.

If you’re storing sentimental items in cardboard boxes in your basement or attic or garage, it’s a pretty good sign the items are clutter and not treasures. Cardboard is easily damaged by water, mold, mildew, and pests and doesn’t protect belongings for any length of time. Plus, you can’t see your items or appreciate them through the walls of a box in a corner of a room beneath boxes of holiday decorations. If you truly treasured the items, you would protect them properly and/or display them in your home. It would be clear to a complete stranger what is a sentimental treasure to you. If it’s unclear, it’s likely the item is sentimental clutter.

As you’re sorting through your sentimental items to determine what is a treasure and what is clutter, ask yourself:

  • How will I store this item? If you will store it in a way that shows you value the item (archival quality materials, stored per archival quality recommendations, or cleanly on display to enjoy every day), keep the object as a sentimental treasure. If you plan to store it in a cardboard box in your basement, get rid of the sentimental clutter.
  • Is this item associated with a happy memory? Keep only objects that bring you happiness. Life is too short to surround yourself with sorrow and pain.
  • Is this the best item to evoke the most powerful sentimental memory? If you have five objects associated with the same memory, consider reducing your collection to just the best quality item. When it comes to physical possessions, too many of something can detract from the overall impact. You can stop seeing the proverbial forest for the trees.

Ask Unclutterer: Difficulty parting with sentimental objects

Reader S. submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I really want to unclutter my house, but every time I go to do this I get emotional and start reminiscing in my mind. So, back in the pile/box it goes. I can’t seem to move forward. I know if you haven’t used it in 2 years you should get rid of it. HELP!!!

I think there are two main types of objects in our homes — utilitarian and sentimental objects. Utilitarian objects are useful items like plates and chairs and blenders. The two year rule you mentioned primarily applies to these types of objects. If you don’t have use for a utilitarian object over the course of two years (or one year), you should donate the item to charity or sell it on Craigslist or give it to a friend who wants it. My guess is that you don’t have much issue parting with these types of objects since they hold no emotional attachment.

Conversely, sentimental objects don’t usually work with “if you haven’t used it in X timeframe” guidelines because the reason you have the item has very little to do with an object’s purpose. You keep sentimental items because you have an emotional attachment to them that is often based on a specific memory. You may have your grandmother’s rocking chair in your daughter’s nursery, and you may actually use it to rock your daughter to sleep at night, but the reason you have that exact chair is because it was your grandmother’s. When your daughter no longer wants a rocking chair in her room, you’re more likely to move the chair to another room of the house instead of selling it. If you were to get rid of the chair you might feel like you’re getting rid of your grandmother. (Obviously, you wouldn’t be getting rid of your grandmother if you did part with the chair, but the emotional attachment you have can certainly cause you to feel that way.)

Remember that clutter is anything that distracts you from pursuing the life of your dreams. If you have so much sentimental stuff that it is causing a stressful mess or taking up room in your home for things that matter more to you, you will want to cull the clutter. But, you don’t have to get rid of all your sentimental stuff. At least for me, some of the things I keep for sentimental reasons are objects that reflect what I value most. My grandmother is one of my most favorite people on the planet, and having her rocking chair makes me smile and remember all the wonderful times we have shared. So, I keep that exact chair. However, I don’t keep every card she ever sent me or every gift she ever gave me because I don’t have room to keep everything and the chair elicits the happiest of all the memories. With sentimental items, it’s usually a good idea to aim for quality over quantity. Think about sorting through your sentimental items like an editing project — you’re not getting rid of everything, you’re just getting rid of the excess that distracts from the really good stuff.

For you, I recommend choosing one nice waterproof box (like a plastic bin) and calling it your Keepsake Box. Do not use a cardboard box as critters and pests can eat through it and water can soak into it and ruin your keepsakes. Then, only put the sentimental items you decide to keep in your one Keepsake Box. You’ll need to make guidelines for what sentimental objects you wish to keep and which ones you wish to purge. Items to get rid of might be things that are broken or damaged, things that you don’t remember exactly what they represent, things that are associated with bad memories, and things that you value less than another object that represents the same memory.

Also, grab a friend and a digital camera as you’re going through this process. Have the friend hold up stuff from your current stash (Rule #1: YOU can’t touch any of the stuff. Research has found that it’s harder for people to get rid of things they are holding). Any item that doesn’t meet your “keep” criteria, photograph it with a digital camera before having your friend help you get rid of the item. This way, if you ever want to see the object again, you can simply pull up the digital image file on your computer. That file takes up a lot less space in your house than the actual object did, and you’re still able to look at it whenever you want.

At the end of the project, you’ll still have a Keepsake Box, but it will hold things that are really important to you. Moving forward, you can only put items in the Keepsake Box that fit inside the box. This means, you need to leave some room in your Keepsake Box for future memories and be sure to only add the really important paraphernalia. You also might consider getting a journal and writing individual entries about each of the items in your Keepsake Box. Tell the story of the things that matter most to you. If you don’t want to spend the time writing about an item, it could be a sign that the item isn’t actually very important to you. (This isn’t always the case, but it’s definitely something to consider.)

If you don’t have a friend who would be good at helping with this sort of uncluttering project, hire a professional organizer to assist you with the work. Interview a few and choose one you trust and believe can best help you.

Also, I strongly recommend displaying and using your sentimental items that have some utility. If you’re proud of your college diploma, frame it and hang it on the wall of your office as a daily reminder of your accomplishment. If your mom made you a quilt, get it out of storage and wrap yourself in it on chilly evenings. Hiding important and useful sentimental objects in a box is a pretty lousy way to enjoy something. Use your Keepsake Box only for those small things that lack utility and would be awkward to display. For instance, I have a copy of my wedding invitation in my Keepsake Box. I don’t have any use for the invitation and I don’t have a desire to display it, but every year on our wedding anniversary we pull it out and look at it and talk about how much fun we had on our wedding day. I think Keepsake Boxes are perfect for this type of item.

Good luck!

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

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Three concepts to keep in mind when processing sentimental objects

Sentimental clutter can be some of the hardest clutter to address in our homes. It’s difficult to let go of a drawing from your daughter or an inherited chair (even though you don’t have space for it) from a loving aunt who has sadly passed away.

When I process sentimental objects to decide if I should keep them or let them go, I often remind myself of these three concepts:

  • Objects are not people. Material possessions are made of plastic or wood or clay or cotton. Blood doesn’t pump through veins in furniture or jewelry or tools or linens. If you get rid of an object, you’re not getting rid of the person who gave it to you or the person you were when you acquired the item.
  • You should focus on living, not preserving. Only hold onto sentimental items that you can find a way to honor, that fill you with joy, and/or that are useful for you. There is no need to act like a curator and keep every object from your past in a box as proof of your existence.
  • There are not awards to collect or accolades to be earned for having the greatest amount of sentimental stuff. You cannot win at being the most sentimental. Your loved ones will not value you more for having an unmanageable amount of sentimental trinkets and doodads. And if you aren’t convinced it’s not a competition, remember a well-edited collection is much more impressive than an avalanche of stuff. Two iconic works of art will fetch more at an auction than a hundred pieces of uncared for mediocre memorabilia.

What standards do you use when processing sentimental items? Share your tips in the comments.

Ask Unclutterer: Photographing sentimental objects

Reader Mary submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’ve noticed that one of the main pieces of advice you give to people looking to reduce or corral sentimental clutter is to photograph it and then toss the original item. I have to admit I am baffled by this. I cannot think of a single “memory” item I have retained where simply having a photograph of it would be as valuable as having the original. This does not include things like photographs and documents, where scanning does make sense to me since it’s about the information, but not the physical object–I’m talking about 3D objects. Could you give me some examples of the types of items you have found photographing useful for? Maybe I’m just not the kind of person who can let go of the sensory experience of holding a memory in my hand.

Mary, my guess is you are better at letting go of things than I am. Your home probably isn’t being overrun with items you deem sentimental. You likely only retain an amount you can manage and honor appropriately. The reason the advice is baffling to you is because you can’t imagine replacing your valuable sentimental items with a less valuable photograph, which is healthy.

The problem I have — and many of our readers, too — is that we want to keep all items with any sentimental attachment, even the stuff we don’t value more than a photograph. Before I started my uncluttering journey, I had every handbill anyone had handed to me on the street when I was on a vacation. They were sentimental, because they reminded me of the vacation, but they weren’t the most valuable trinkets from my vacations. I actually value a photograph of these handbills more than the real objects, so the decision to photograph and get rid of them was simple.

The decision to replace a sentimental object with a photograph should be based on your answers to the following questions:

  1. Would an image of the object recall the same memory as the physical object?
  2. Would you value an image of the object the same as the object or more than the object?

If “yes” is your answer to both questions, photograph the object and get rid of it. If “no” is your answer to both questions, find a way to feature the object in your home. If your answers are split, take a photograph of the object and store the object in a taped-up box in your garage or storage space for six months. If six months have passed and you’ve never accessed the box to look at the object, you should be fine with just keeping the photograph and getting rid of the original object.

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

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Ask Unclutterer: What to do with sentimental t-shirts?

Reader Dawn submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

My son has played sports since he was 5 yrs old and between me, my husband and him, we are overrun with “spirit” shirts with his name & number. Of course, he’s switched teams over the years, and has grown, so although a cute memento, I only need to keep 1 per team for the memory box. So, what do I do with the rest? I’m hesitant to donate them because they have his name on the back. Do you have any suggestions for me?

For the cotton spirit shirts you want to toss, I recommend cutting them up and using them as rags. If they would create more rags than you could possibly use in a lifetime, ask your friends, family, and local charity if they could use some cotton rags. Someone will want them.

If the fabric is polyester, you can actually recycle it. Call or check the website for your local recycling center to see if they accept polyester. It’s expensive to recycle and not all recycling centers accept polyester, so be sure to call before you make your donation.

Regarding the shirts you plan to keep, have you thought about having them sewn into a quilt instead of leaving them in a memory box? I think you might enjoy having a quilt to take with you to your son’s sporting events that is made up of all of his previous team shirts. The other parents in the stands might also have fun looking at it and taking a stroll down memory lane. There are companies that offer this service which you can find online, quilters you can hire through Etsy, and probably even your local quilt shop knows of someone in your vicinity who would be willing to sew it for you.

If one particular shirt holds special meaning (a state championship, his very first team shirt) you might also consider putting it in a frame and hanging it in his room as artwork. Since you’re going to the trouble of keeping some of the shirts, why not celebrate them?

Also, ask yourself if you really want to keep a copy of each shirt. Would just a few highlights have the same meaning for you and your son? There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that question, just something to consider.

Thank you, Dawn, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

On the Forums: Sentimental’s cousin, textbooks, and clutter and weight

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Ask Unclutterer: Feeling guilty about parting with sentimental items

Reader Laura submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

While helping my sister unclutter for her move, I came across some dolls in dresses she’d worn as a baby and a huge (unfortunately not her style) afghan a great aunt had crocheted. We both agreed that if it were just up to us, we probably wouldn’t keep these items … but instead of our own voices in our heads saying, “You can’t get rid of that!” it was our mother’s. How do you unclutter when it’s not really sentiment, but more guilt, that stands in the way?

Guilt is such a complicated emotion. We feel it when we’ve actually done something wrong we’d like to correct, and we use it as a monitor and guide to keep us from committing bad acts in the present and future. Unfortunately, it also plagues us at times that have nothing to do with right or wrong. Choosing to keep or get rid of some dolls, baby clothes, and an afghan isn’t a question of morality, yet guilt can prevent us from making a clear-conscience decision. In this situation, guilt is even plaguing you after you decided not to get rid of something. You’re feeling guilt no matter what you choose.

The first thing to do is take a break and acknowledge that this isn’t a situation where you should be feeling guilt at all. No one’s life is on the line when making decisions about processing clutter, you haven’t broken any laws, and you’re not being asked to do anything unseemly. Put things in perspective — you’re trying to decide how to unclutter for your sister’s move, not decide if you should rob a bank.

Once you can see the larger picture, you can let go of the guilt and make a more rational decision. Ask yourself:

  • Does this object have utility? Can it make my life easier/save me time/save me money/fulfill an essential need? (Would you use the afghan if you kept it? Could your child wear the baby clothes?)
  • Do I already own something like it that has the same function or holds a similar sentimental meaning? (Do you have other objects from your childhood you treasure more? Do you have pictures or objects from your aunt already in your home?)
  • If you keep the objects, where will these objects live in your home that reflects your respect for them? (Hint: Storing them in a cardboard box in the attic or basement isn’t respectful.)
  • Does this item help me to develop the remarkable life I want to live? (Do I enjoy looking at and/or using these items? Do they reflect what I value most?)

Only you and your sister will be able to answer these questions, but hopefully you’ll be able to avoid feeling guilty about your decision. Often with sentimental objects, it’s emotionally easier to get rid of the items if we know the objects will be used and appreciated by their next owners. The dolls, baby clothes, and afghan (if they’re in good shape) would be great donations to make to a women’s shelter. Children in need could find comfort from the dolls, babies could use the clothes, and a woman and her family could benefit from the warmth of the blanket. If the items aren’t in good enough shape to be donated to charity, this might help you answer the four questions listed above.

I find great inspiration and joy in the sentimental items in my home, and I think this is because our house isn’t overwhelmed with them. We’ve chosen to keep only our favorite pieces that we really treasure. We found that we saw nothing and appreciated little when we kept every sentimental object in our lives — as the saying suggests, we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. If you and your sister treasure these dolls and the afghan, keep them! If you’re keeping them only because of misplaced guilt, it’s probably time to let them go.

Thank you, Laura, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to help! Check the comments for more suggestions on how to handle sentimental items from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

After a breakup: Handling sentimental clutter

My friend and professional organizer D. Allison Lee sent me an amazing unitasker that I’ve been laughing about ever since: The Wedding Ring Coffin. It’s a burial coffin for your wedding ring if you get divorced.

Although this is an entertaining idea, it started me thinking about how objects like engagement rings, wedding bands, love letters, jewelry and sentimental trinkets can instantly turn into clutter after a breakup. What was once extremely valued can become worthless in a matter of minutes.

There are laws in each state that determine who is legally entitled to owning engagement and wedding rings when these contracts end, so always start by following the laws of your state regarding these items. If you turn out to be the owner of the engagement and/or wedding rings after a breakup, and the owner of the other sentimental gifts, you’ll have to decide what to do with these objects. You might want to keep them, sell them, donate them, trade them, give them back to the person who gave them to you, have the materials turned into another piece of jewelry, or even bury them.

I thought it might be interesting to start a conversation in the comments talking about what people have done with sentimental items after a breakup. People rarely talk about these objects, so a robust discussion could be really helpful for someone in this situation. Personally, after one college romance ended, I found that I really liked a necklace I’d been given and actually didn’t associate it with the guy who gave it to me. I still wear it because it really is a cool piece of jewelry. Another piece of jewelry, however, had a lot of emotions attached to it so I returned it to the store where the boyfriend had purchased it and traded it in for a new piece. Have you done anything creative with breakup items? Share your stories in the comments!