Transforming inherited jewelry

In doing research for posts on inherited clutter, I discovered an artist who takes old costume jewelry that people never wear, modernizes and reworks it, and creates stylish, fashionable, new pieces of jewelry. Since outdated, costume jewelry is the majority of what I inherited when my maternal grandmother passed away, I find this process brilliant.

I wanted to learn more, so I contacted Sara Bradstreet, the artist I discovered who most deeply captivated my attention, for an interview. Thank you, Sara, for talking with me. (The necklace pictured on the right is a brooch she transformed.)

Unclutterer: What inspired you to become an artist who brings new life to old jewelry?

Sara: I wanted to create art with little waste and satisfy my desire to sniff out the diamond in the rough. With jewelry, there is little waste. I use most elements of the piece. Sometimes, I will buy a not-so-attractive necklace just for the clasp, or a bag of buttons for the few rhinestone buttons at the bottom — even things as random as old silverware find their way into my collection. I find much beauty and integrity in old things and hate to see beautiful gems in a dumpster.

Unclutterer: What types of pieces are best for this type of transformation?

Sara: There is a lot of room for variety here. Sometimes the most random pieces, when re-oriented with others, make the most interesting. I look for pieces that, with a little manipulation and solder, can turn from a brooch into a pendant or cuff link into a clasp. I like to use only quality silver and gold–I’m not into green necks–and use my sense of touch to bend and scratch and, oddly enough, I will even smell it to see if it is metal or simply painted plastic. I am not afraid to alter a collector’s item and am often feared by collectors.

Unclutterer: What should people consider before having their older jewelry reinvented?

Sara: Well, the jewelry won’t be the same anymore. The good news is that it will be out of your jewelry box, or that random box under your bed, and hopefully, around your neck. I hesitate to use pieces that have extreme sentimental value and like clients to be somewhat detached from the brooch being simply a brooch, but an element of something larger that will be worn again. When creating custom pieces for clients, I like to have a variety of pieces, multiple chains, found objects, etc. I may not use all of the different elements, but the more I have to chose from, the merrier.

Unclutterer: Some of our readers might be distraught with the idea of repurposing their grandmother’s brooch. What would you say to people with such hesitations?

Sara: I believe that what I do helps people to remember and, in ways, celebrate those who have passed away.

I agree with Sara that wearing and getting use from your jewelry is much more worthwhile than hoarding it in a box where it doesn’t see daylight. Also, if you decide that you aren’t interested in reinventing your old jewelry, but are still looking for ways for it to cease being clutter in your home, consider donating your pieces to artists like Sara.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Depression-era mindset and clutter

My grandmother passed away in 2002. She was old enough to remember being a child in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression. She used to tell stories about her childhood to let us know how lucky we were to have all of the things that we were undoubtedly taking for granted. She remembered sharing what little clothing she had with her two sisters and squeezing her feet into shoes that no longer fit. One year, her Christmas gift consisted of crayons which she received as a joint gift with her sisters. I’m sure those crayons were used in the most judicious manner.

Flash forward to the years when my grandmother used to shove sugar and ketchup packets in her purse when we went to a restaurant and you could understand why she did such things. The abundance with which we are so accustomed is easily taken for granted because we really don’t have a frame of reference for the really tough times. My grandmother was also a “pack rat” (i.e. highly cluttered) which we didn’t fully realize until we had to empty her house.

She lived in her last home for over forty years, twenty six of those years she lived by herself. The clearing out of all of the stuff from her home was quite a chore. She kept everything that might one day be useful — for example, she had more than five non-working vacuums.

I understand why she behaved the way she did, and why others like her do the same. But the reality is that in today’s more prosperous economy it can actually cost a person more to hang on to broken things and store sugar packets. Real estate is expensive, and energy use to properly heat and cool a home in such a way as to keep mold and mildew off of belongings is pricey. If you’re keeping items in an off-site rented storage unit, you’re probably spending more in rent over time than you would if you had to repurchase what you’re storing. Our post on sunk costs also addresses an aspect of this issue.

Keep in mind the real expense of holding onto clutter and fight the urge to keep something just because you think one day it might be useful. In many cases, the expense of storage is greater than any cost you may at some point incur.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Reader Question: How to unclutter some possibly valuable odds and ends

Reader Alice recently sent us the following question:

I inherited a rather big plastic bin of items that are not junk but would need specialized attention to sell. For example, there is a messy but large stamp collection, a reprint of a newspaper from the day after Lincoln’s assassination, and a beautiful pair of felt baby booties from the late 1800s.

There isn’t enough stuff for an estate sale. I don’t know if an auction will take it and I’m skeptical about the value I would receive. I am worried I will need to take every item to a different place to sell it. I also don’t want to be taken advantage of. I know some things have some value, but don’t want to be given $20 for something worth $2000.

What is a fair way to approach this random collection of stuff? Is there a method of selling I am missing? Should I just forget the “value” and put more of a premium on getting my space back?

Thanks Alice for a really great question and one that I’m sure many readers can relate to. It isn’t easy to know what to do odds and ends especially when you are not sure of their monetary value.

The first step is to research the approximate monetary value of each item. Whether you are selling through an auction house or via private sale, the first thing someone will ask is, “How much do you want for it?” You need to have at least a minimum price in mind.

The internet is a great resource but it can be overwhelming and time consuming to search for the value of certain things. The Collector’s Marketing Resource Center has built an amazing guide called, “How to use the Internet to research the value of your antiques.” It has links to multiple websites and search engines specifically for antiques, collectibles, and vintage items.

Stamporama has a great article on what to do with an inherited stamp collection. The site provides three options for the collection; keep, donate, or sell. It states that most collections are not worth very much money but you should have a dealer evaluate the collection to confirm especially if you have no experience in stamp collecting yourself. You can find dealers through the American Philatelic Society.

Kovels has an article specifically on Lincoln’s assassination newspaper. Unfortunately, reprints do not have a high monetary value. However, they may be valuable to someone so you may be able to sell it on a site like eBay if you’re willing to take the time.

As you mentioned, you could send the items to auction — if an auction house would accept it. Some auctioneers only do full estate sales. Others will include lots from several estates in one auction if each individual estate does not have enough or compile the items from many estates or businesses together and sell them in theme auctions such as “tools and farm equipment” or “restaurant equipment.” Most auctioneers will give you an appraisal of your items but the value they provide will likely be what they could fetch at auction, not necessarily the value you would get if you sold each item privately. They will take a commission from the sale so ensure you inquire about that percentage.

Another site to check is the online auction site MaxSold. They do online estate sales across North America. It is interesting to note that similar items sell for different prices in different cities so the value of your items might depend on your location should you chose to use a local auction house to liquidate your goods.

Once you have an approximate monetary value of the items in your bin, you need to ask yourself whether it is worth your time and effort to sell these items. Take into consideration the value of your time (i.e. what you would do with your time if you did not have to sell them), the value of the space in your home, and the peace of mind that you will have once you are no longer worrying about these things and this task.

Some people may decide to just donate everything. Others may decide to take the time and sell each piece individually. There will also be people who choose to sell the more valuable items and donate the rest. Each person who reads this column may come up with a different answer because it is all based on how they value their space, time, and the “mental load” of worrying about all of this.

Thanks for your great question Alice. We hope that this post gives you the information you’re looking for.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, 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 as “Ask Unclutterer.”

Is it possible to unclutter too much?

In a recent post, Dave wrote about the concept of Swedish Death Cleaning, which is the process of uncluttering our lives bit by bit so that when we die we don’t leave a monumental task for those who remain.

My natural minimalist tendencies are drawn to this process and I can see myself doing this naturally. My parents, however, most definitely did not ascribe to this belief, leaving us with a 4000 sq. ft. house and outbuildings full of stuff when they passed away.

And while it was a lot of work to clear out the stuff, I can’t help thinking that it was the least we as children could do for our parents who enjoyed everything they owned right up to their last days.

My parents weren’t packrats. Yes, they had mountains of stuff, but they actually used all of it. For them, the process of Swedish Death Cleaning would have been a sacrifice and a reduction of the pleasures in life. And it would have been selfish on our part to push them to unclutter and get rid of things just to make our lives easier later.

So, we are left with the question, “How much uncluttering is too much?”

I think the answer comes in the form of a couple of questions:

  • Do you use what you have?
  • Does what you have give you deep pleasure?

My husband and I often find ourselves at odds when it comes to what to keep and what to get rid of. He likes things and is very creative so comes up with brilliant ideas for re-purposing items that I think should go into the bin. We find a compromise through the two questions. If we haven’t used something in a year, out it goes. And if we hold onto something only out of a sense of obligation, or because a friend gave it to us as a gift, out it goes. What have left over still fills our house (and truth be told is more than I would hold onto if I lived alone), but everything we own has emotional or practical weight to it.

The same was true for my parents, even though what they had was at least four times more than what I have, and it would have been a cruel and unusual punishment to force them into a Swedish Death Cleaning mindset just so that we could avoid a bit of work at the end of their lives.

And now it’s your turn. Where do you believe the uncluttering line lies? Is there a limit? Can someone unclutter too much?

An idea for inherited china

Since the 1880s, when a woman in my family has raised her children and finds herself getting along in years she has picked up a small paint brush and signed her full name and birth date to the bottom of her china’s tea cups and saucers. Then, as she sees fit, she distributes the tea cups and matching saucers to her family and friends.

My mother has a collection of seven tea cups and saucers on a shelf in her dining room’s china cabinet. As a child, I would ask about the tea cups and my mother would pull them out and tell me the stories of the people to whom they had belonged. Not all of the tea cups and saucers were signed, those had come from my paternal line where signing the china hadn’t been the tradition. My mother had collected the unsigned pieces from my father’s family members so that when she one day passes on the collection to me that I will have a set including pieces from more than her family.

It seems a bit cluttered to collect seven different tea cups and saucers to store on a shelf of a china cabinet, but in comparison to keeping seven complete sets of china it is quite uncluttered. Also, with the sentimentality of past generations being passed on in tea cups, it means that other, more clutter-prone objects, are eliminated guilt-free from the inheritance process.

 

This post was originally published in August 2007.

Will your heirs really want your stuff?

Saddleback Leather makes some lovely products. As Alan Henry on the Lifehacker website pointed out, the company’s tag line is “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead.”

Similarly, designer Jonathan Adler told Valeriya Safronova of The New York Times, “I make tons of stuff, but my life motto is, ‘If your heirs won’t fight over it, we won’t make it.'”

But despite claims like this, many times the heirs do not want many of the items being left behind — even those of outstanding quality. Maybe that Jonathan Adler zebra bath mat just isn’t their style, or doesn’t fit the color scheme of their bathroom.

There are many reasons that an item that’s valued by one person might be of no interest to another:

  • Different tastes. Sometimes that’s generational — for example, certain furniture styles are out of fashion right now. But often it’s a matter of personal preferences.
  • Different lifestyles. Someone living in a small apartment isn’t likely to want large furniture pieces. Those who don’t entertain much at home may not want a 12-piece place setting. China or glasses that can’t go in the dishwasher may be of little interest to others. And depending on a person’s job, that person may have little need for a fantastic briefcase.
  • Homes that are already furnished. For example, those who already have a nice toaster are unlikely to want another one.

So what does this mean for seniors who are thinking about the future of their possessions — and those who eventually inherit those items?

To me, the most important thing to keep in mind was summarized by Tyler Whitmore, who was quoted in The Washington Post. “It’s not that they don’t love you. They don’t love your furniture.”

If something isn’t right for the inheritor, I believe getting it back into use by someone who will value it honors the prior owner more than letting the item sit hidden away in a closet. This exchange on Twitter captured that sentiment perfectly:

From Peter Nickeas: ebay is flooded with guys who inherit hand tools and have no idea what they do, no appreciation for craft.

Reply from Bill Savage: better the tools get sold to and used by people who do know and respect the craft. Otherwise? Clutter.

Another point worth considering is that sets of china, glassware and such don’t have to be treated in an all-or-nothing manner when it comes to giving them away.

Cynthia Broze wrote in reply to an article on Forbes:

My family had large Christmas gatherings every year at my grandparents house. My grandmother used her china, that she saved hard for, at these gatherings. When she died she left it to me and I kept it for 30 years … I emailed to all nieces, her great grandkids, cousins, etc., saying … Hey remember that china? I split it up between many who were happy to take a plate, cup or setting.

Another anecdote along the same lines: When my stepmother died, my father asked my brother and me what we would like to take from the many household furnishings. I took two cut glass wine goblets that aren’t my style (so I had no desire for the full set) but that bring back many happy memories.

And if items are going to be sold, it’s important to be realistic about their value — which is often much less than what the items originally cost and much less than what you might have expected. If seeing items get sold for low prices is difficult emotionally, you may find it easier and more emotionally rewarding to donate them.

Wayne Jordan, a licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser, wrote about what can happen when those who are downsizing aren’t realistic about their possessions:

More than once, I’ve heard from the children of Boomers about parents who put their treasures into storage because the kids didn’t want them and they “weren’t going to sell them for pennies.” Then, they paid storage fees until they passed away or until the contents of the storage unit mildewed. Ultimately, these items ended up in an auction or in a landfill anyway.

That’s not the type of uncluttering any of us wants to see happen.

Keeping the memory but not the possession

antique green teapotNew research recently published in the Journal of Marketing, showed that people who were encouraged to find a way to preserve memories found it easier to part with the sentimental items.

This study was originally initiated to help increase the flow of goods to charity shops (e.g., Goodwill). The “supply chain” of goods to these shops depends solely on people’s willingness to donate. The researchers looked at ways to help people let go of unneeded, yet sentimental items.

Researcher Rebecca Reczek of Ohio State University, states that when we give up sentimental items, we often feel like we’re giving up a piece of our own identity — part of who we are. This is what makes it so difficult to let go of certain objects.

The study showed that when people were encouraged to take photos of items and preserve the memories, donations to non-profit charity shops increased. Additionally, those that took a photo of the item, reported less “identity loss” compared to those who did not take a photo.

Reczek indicated that although these memory preservation strategies will probably work for most items, they may not work for items with high sentimental value such as the baptismal gown your grandmother handmade for your child.

We’ve written a few posts on sentimental clutter over the years, so please feel free to check out Unclutterer’s advice on how to capture memories and let go of some of these items.

If you need some support and encouragement in dealing with bouts of nostalgia while uncluttering, visit our forum on Sentimental Clutter.

 

P.S. The photo shows my great-grandmother’s green teapot in which she served green tea. I still use it to serve green tea.

Inherited work clutter – what will your successor have to deal with?

In my last post, I wrote about inherited family clutter. But there are other places we inherit other people’s clutter and the biggest one is at work.

Let me give you an example. Where I work, my former boss had been in her position for almost twenty years. Her mind worked better in paper. She liked to be able to touch things and look up information in books and files. After retiring this summer, she did me the mega-favor of coming in on her own time in September to clear out her office and leave me with what she considered to be the right amount of information.

I, however, don’t work the same way. As I think I might have mentioned once or twice, I hate paper, filing cabinets and bookcases full of books that nobody references.

This has meant that whenever I’m not focused on daily operations or moving the organization forward, I tackle a shelf or a handful of files. I have also rearranged furniture and eliminated several non-matching pieces that just begged to have unused paper piled on top of them, and in the process taken a sort of informal inventory of what we have.

Some areas of the office are bit chaotic since I haven’t been able to devote whole days to a beginning-to-end purge and reorganization, but I am bit-by-bit transforming the office, bringing it in line with the beliefs and habits of the staff who are paper-haters like me.

This process has raised questions for me about my own work habits and although I have just started in my position with the intention of staying in it a long time, having to go through the inherited clutter of my boss, I have been asking myself about succession planning and what someone who comes in after me will think of the way I’ve left the office.

Before I go any further, therefore, I’ve decided to formalize the organization and to depersonalize it. In other words, I am going to use the organization’s mission statement and objectives as my guide for what we end up keeping, what we get rid of, and even where and how we store it.

In doing so, if and when I move on, my successor will have a clear understanding of what is where and why.

In the end, I will have cleared out four bookcases, two small filing cabinets and what’s left over, the staff will able to use because they know what it is, where it is, and what it can be used for.

So, now my questions for you:

  • What information do you store at work?
  • Are you clear why you are holding onto it?
  • Are you making your organizing decisions based on personal preference or are they tied to the cultural beliefs and mission of the organization?
  • If you won the lottery tomorrow and stopped working next week, what would your successor have to deal with? Could he or she sit down at your desk and start working without too much trouble?

Dealing with the clutter of previous generations

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to help a friend clear out the family home that needs to come down before it falls down. The house, which fills half a block in a small northern Spanish town, is a 17th century villa cut up into living quarters, a bar, a garage, and now-inaccessible storage space. My friend grew up with his parents, two uncles, a grandmother, and various other family members at different points over the years. When half the house was renovated and modernized, the unchanged part became a dumping ground for all those things no one quite knew what to do with.

The bar has been shut for over 15 years and yet (apart from the dust) it looked like it could have closed a few weeks ago. Every bedroom still had all the furniture, bedding, leftover clothes, and memorabilia from the last person to occupy it. The two living rooms had wall units that were stuffed to the brim with everything imaginable.

I was curious to see exactly what was in the dumping ground, but my friend told me the floors were not safe to walk on, meaning whatever someone had stored two, three, or ten decades ago was now gone for good more or less (perhaps to be rescued when the demolition starts).

A local charity shop was going to stop by to take furniture, wearable clothing, and “anything that is sellable.” That last category was never quite defined, so when it came to clearing out the house, about 80% of what was in the cupboards, closets, and wall units ended up in garbage bags. After two full days, the main living spaces were cleared out and ready for the charity pickup, but that still left the bar, the accessible storage spaces, and the terraces (I forgot to mention earlier the two large internal terraces full of more stuff).

With the sheer amount of junk to deal with, no one suggested organizing it all for recycling. Everything went into the same garbage bags, meaning it would all end up in landfill. And being non-sentimental types, my friend and his cousin were ruthless — photos, letters, report cards, everything went out. Their thinking was “if we haven’t missed it in ten years, we don’t want to know about it.”

That attitude seems to be one that is growing among people my age. We grew up with parents who were born just before the Second World War (or during the Spanish Civil War) and that generation for the most part, liked to hold onto things. My parents (who lived in Canada) were very organized people, but they had a house of over 4000 sq ft plus about six outbuildings. It gave them a lot of room to hold onto a lot of stuff.

My friend is single and works in an industry that requires him to move quite a bit. He has no interest in collecting anything. His cousin told me that as soon as she was done with the family home, she was going to go through her own house and clear out most of the stuff because she didn’t want to leave the same disaster for her own kids.

My brother and sister had the same reaction after clearing out our parents’ house (having picked up and moved to Europe a few years earlier, I had already purged everything I’d owned).

There are lots of articles on inherited clutter here on Unclutterer, but I wanted to talk about my recent experience because it raised some questions for me:

  1. Are Generation-Xers less sentimental and less interested in holding onto stuff?
  2. For those 40-somethings with parents still alive, have you encouraged them to streamline while they are still around to help give context to some of their collections?
  3. Are our children going to hold onto everything because we don’t?
  4. And finally, on an unrelated note, does having a lot of space always mean building up mounds of unwanted clutter?

I’m not going to try to answer any of these questions. Instead, I’ll leave them open to you to answer them in the comment section.

Reader Question: Storing someone else’s clutter

Reader Christopher wrote in to ask us this:

A former co-worker, “Robert” stored stuff in my basement. He promised to pay, but 6 months later I haven’t received any money. The only time I see him is when he wants to crash on my couch overnight. I’m getting ready to renovate my basement and I need his stuff gone! What can I do?

Thanks for a great question Christopher. It is nice to be able to help out a friend in need but there comes a point when you feel a friend is taking advantage of your good nature and in this case taking advantage of your storage space. I’m sure you’re very frustrated. It is difficult enough to deal with our own possessions but having to deal with someone else’s clutter is rather unfair especially when he should be able to manage on his own.

What you legally can and cannot do with someone’s stuff stored in your home varies by jurisdiction. It is also based on the relationship of the people in question. For example, former spouses are treated differently from landlord/tenant relationships. The actual items in storage may also influence what you can legally do with them. For example, cars and high value items like jewelry may be treated differently from clothing and low value household goods.

Do not act hastily to dispose of Robert’s stuff. You could be sued or accused of theft. It is unfortunate that this could be the case especially since you were trying to do Robert a favour.

The best thing you can do is speak with a legal advisor on this issue. If you cannot afford a consultation with a lawyer/notary, you may be able to find a free legal clinic in your area that can provide some advice. Often there are free online help centers. Ensure you contact one that is in your local area so the advice you receive is relevant to your jurisdiction.

Before you visit or speak to a legal advisor, I suggest that you write down very clearly the events/conversations that led up to your agreement to store Robert’s stuff.

  • Did you offer to store the items or did he ask?
  • Did you suggest payment, or did he?
  • Was there a verbal or written agreement about the
    • amount of storage space;
    • duration of storage;
    • conditions of storage area;
    • rate of payment?
  • Provide a list of dates of when you contacted Robert for payment or when Robert stopped by for a “visit” and include details of your conversations on those dates.
  • If you have records of your communications on the subject of the items in storage (text messages, emails, etc.) keep secure copies either by printing or by saving them as PDFs. Make sure they are dated.
  • If you have records of other moneys you have spent on the storage of Robert things (a portion of your utilities, a portion of your rent/mortgage) keep those too.

You will be able to provide all of this information to your legal advisor if he/she asks. You will also have records to look back on should Robert’s recollection of events differ from yours.

In the meantime, keep trying to connect with Robert and let him know there is a deadline for collecting his belongings.

I wish you all the best of luck with your situation. I hope you are able to get things resolved to your satisfaction.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, 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 as “Ask Unclutterer.”

The inherited-photos dilemma

Do you struggle with a collection of old photos? If so, you may relate to the following question I got via email, which the sender agreed I could answer here since this situation is not uncommon:

I have a ton of old pictures that I ended up with when my mom passed away three years ago. Sadly, some of them I have no idea who they are. I dread organizing them and wonder if you have any tips to help me. Many of them are in old photo albums on black paper with those little edges.

I’m wondering if I should save those as is or take them all apart and scan and get rid of them. I’ve put this off for three years now. Help me before I put it off for another three years — or more!

I also have slides that my parents took and have no way of looking at them to see if I even want to keep them.

First of all, you are under no obligation to keep old photos that have no meaning to you, which would be the case with photos of unknown people. Just as with anything else you inherit, you can decide which items you want to keep and then find appropriate homes for the rest.

What would be an appropriate home for those photos of mystery people? If anyone in your family is into genealogy, that person might well appreciate getting the photos. My brother began researching our family tree over the past few years and has identified many of the mystery people in the photos we inherited from my mother. You might bring the photos to a family gathering and see if anyone wants some.

If no family members have any interest, you could check to see if a local historical society would be interested in them. An art school — or any school’s art class — might enjoy working with them. Some people have had luck using freeycle groups, Craigslist, or eBay to sell or give away old photos.

If none of these ideas work out for you, it’s okay to just toss the photos that aren’t meaningful to you. As Earth911 explains, many older photos have a chemical coating that keeps them from being recyclable, so they may just need to go into the trash bin.

For the photos you do want to keep, scanning at least the best of them is a good idea. Digital photos can be stored and backed up so they won’t be lost if you were unlucky enough to have a flood, a fire, etc. Also, digital photos can be easily shared with other family members. You could scan them yourself, using a flatbed scanner, or pay one of the many photo scanning services to do this for you.

You can then decide whether you want to keep the originals of the photos you’ve scanned. For any you do want to keep, using an album or box that has passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) will help ensure the photos don’t deteriorate over time. Albums can make for nicer viewing, but photo boxes take a lot less space.

You are lucky that your photos are in albums with the little corner holders, so it will be easy to remove them as needed. If you have any hard-to-remove photos in those magnetic sticky albums, you can follow the advice from the Smithsonian Institution Archives about safely removing those photos.

For dealing with the slides, you can buy a slide viewer fairly inexpensively to allow you to look through the slides. Slides you would like to keep can also be scanned for easier viewing in the future. If you don’t want to pay a service to scan them, you could consider renting a slide scanner rather than buying one for just a one-time project.

Finally, work at a pace that is comfortable for you. Some people like to set aside a whole day or more for a project like this, while others prefer to do a little bit every day or every week.

What to do with an unused piano

An Unclutterer reader wrote to us asking a surprisingly common question:

I’m currently getting ready to move out of state. I’m retired, and am downsizing everything in my life. I have a piano that my father gave me when I was in high school. He passed away over 20 years ago. I’m moving to a small beach cottage on the Oregon coast. I am struggling with the decision of not taking the piano. I don’t really play it anymore, and feel that it isn’t going to fit in our small home. Somehow, I’m not sure if this is the right decision. What are your thoughts?

This is a question I can relate to, as I’ve been on both the giving and the receiving end of a piano. In addition to being a large instrument, pianos can also hold great sentimental value for their owners. Therefore, what to do with a piano can be a difficult decision.

The piano

First and foremost, pianos are big. Even a small upright piano can be as large as a couch. Inviting one into your home is a commitment, as they’re big, heavy, and difficult to move. Typically, once a piano has been placed in its spot, that’s where it’s going to stay until you move.

Don’t get me wrong, a piano is not a burden. It’s a lovely instrument. And, like many other objects, a piano can harbor tremendous sentimental value. When I was in high school and a dedicated music student, my parents acquired a piano from family friends who wanted to offload it. For the price of moving it across town, the piano was ours. I adored it and spent countless hours on the bench, playing away.

When I moved out to attend college, my parents were left with a massive piece of unused furniture. I was the only one in the family who played, and while I studied far away in Boston, the old piano back in Pennsylvania was being used to display family photos. After much deliberation, they decided the piano had to go.

The sentiment

The weight of emotion can be even stronger than trying to budge a piano that exceeds 400 pounds. In 2010, the BBC published an article, “What is nostalgia good for?”, which acknowledged the appeal of keeping sentimental items:

Nostalgia is a way for us to tap into the past experiences that we have that are quite meaningful — to remind us that our lives are worthwhile, that we are people of value, that we have good relationships, that we are happy and that life has some sense of purpose or meaning.

The article also noted the potential risks of keeping everything from the past:

While highlighting the benefits of nostalgia, a 2006 report in Psychology Today magazine has warned that ‘overdoing reminiscence’ risks an absence of joy derived from the present, and a reliance on past memories to provide happiness.

If you have no need for the piano, but it holds a great deal of sentimental value for you, perhaps there’s a book of sheet music in the piano’s bench you can display in a quality frame. Maybe the rack that holds up the music can be removed and repurposed elsewhere in the house. For your specific situation, I’d suggest finding a way to display some part of that experience in a meaningful way that will let you say goodbye to the piano itself.

As far as getting rid of the actual piano, start by asking friends if they might be interested in having it. Talk with music teachers — at schools, music stores, and those who give private lessons — to see if there might be students who are looking to acquire an instrument. List it on Craigslist or your local Freecycle if you can’t find the piano’s next owner in one of the previously mentioned ways. And, finally, see if the next resident of your home might be interested in having it. It’s very difficult to sell pianos, so prepare to think of it as a donation instead of something with monetary value.

Good luck and congratulations on your new home.