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.

Coping with overwhelming inherited possessions

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

Unclutterer reader nana2much asked:

I have also “inherited” my parents’ possessions. I have 5 siblings who have already taken what they want. They have helped some but they all live quite far away.

My mother lived with us so everything ended up here. It isn’t just sentimental objects, but very old photos, some books with family history, many old Bibles, (my father was a pastor) some with family obituaries pasted in or notes written in them. So many letters and “artifacts” saved since my parents’ childhoods…some 90 years old. Many “sermons” my father wrote for individual funerals and memorial services. It is overwhelming. Glass figurines, vases etc. etc.

My father died 5 years ago and my mom 2 years ago. I have given away, donated, sold and even threw out so much but I am finding it difficult to figure out what to do with what remains.

I feel like I’m supposed to be the caretaker of all this stuff. Very torn about it all. Any suggestions on how to continue this process?

Nana2much, I’m sorry to read about your loss. Dealing with a parent’s death is never easy, and you’ve had to cope with two in a short time.

But let me reassure you: You do not need to be the caretaker of all this stuff. It is not disrespectful to the memory of your parents to keep the things that you really want and dispose of the rest.

It sounds like you are ready to deal with the remaining stuff. But if you find some things you can’t quite cope with right now, that’s fine; set them aside and just work with the things that don’t make you upset.

How do you continue? Here are some suggestions:

Decide which things are the keepers

Of the many things you have from your parents, which ones do you really want to hold onto? These are very personal choices. Don’t worry about what you “should” want to keep, but focus on which items really speak to you. Ideally, most of these will be things that are either practical or decorative — things you’ll use, not things you’ll stash in the back of a closet.

How much family history do you want to retain? Again, this is a very personal decision, and only you will know what feels right. You didn’t mention whether or not you have children. If you do, saving items related to family history may be more important than if you don’t. But in any case, saving a sample of things like memorial sermons may work better for you than saving all of them.

When going through photos, you can make some easy choices to eliminate photos that are poor quality (out of focus, heads cut off, etc.) and photos of scenery, flowers, and such. Since going through photos can be very time-consuming, you may want to leave any detailed review to the end of this project, so you don’t get bogged down.

Save photos instead of things

You can take photos of anything you don’t really want to keep but which still has a sentimental pull. For example, that might include taking photos of selected pages of some of the bibles, if you don’t want to keep them all.

Consider who might appreciate receiving your parents’ things

Since you’ve already consulted with your siblings, consider who else might want some of these things. Would members of your father’s congregation want some things to remember him by? Would the church want anything? A local historical society? Any of your parents’ friends? A more distant relative who is into genealogy?

But please don’t feel like you need to put tremendous effort into this. Do as much as feels right to you. Some people really enjoy playing matchmaker between things and people, and can do it without getting bogged down. Others won’t want to bother. It’s yet another personal choice.

Decide whether to sell or donate the rest

Things like vases and figurines can be donated or sold. If they are donated to Goodwill, a charity thrift store, or some other worthwhile nonprofit, they are helping others. That might be something that would have pleased your parents.

Selling might be a bit traumatic — are you willing to listen to people barter over the price of your parents’ things? If not, go the donation route or find someone who can do the selling for you, for a commission. If your finances allow, you might like to donate some of the proceeds to a nonprofit in memory of your parents.

Answers to a reader’s four questions

On the 14th, 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 wrote in and talked about her four main struggles.

1. Finding pockets of time in the day to do large projects when you have small kids around. For example, I am trying to stain our wooden fence on our own, but I have two children under 3 years old. How can I approach this messy process strategically?

I’ve been in this situation before. I had two young children and my husband was deployed for six months straight with the Canadian Forces. One suggestion would be to find some teenagers you can hire. You can ask around to neighbours and friends or visit the local secondary school or community centre if you don’t know any personally. Some teens would appreciate getting paid for a few hours of work per week painting your fence or keeping your children occupied while you work on the household chores.

Another suggestion might be if you have friends with young children, you can do an exchange. One grown-up looks after all of the children and the other grown-up works on a project. The next time, you switch.

Before engaging someone to assist you, it’s always best to have a plan of what you can accomplish during the time you have. Here are some tips I’ve learned from experience:

  • Always underestimate the amount of work you’ll get done in the time that you have. If you think it will take you two hours to paint the fence, it may really take you four hours. Remember to include set-up and cleanup times in your estimate.
  • Always have a Plan B. If you’ve booked a sitter so you can paint the fence, have an alternative project to work on (e.g. sewing curtains) in case it rains that day.
  • Don’t fret if you’re not making as much progress as you’d like. Remember that slow and steady wins the race.

2. Overcoming analysis paralysis … how do I restore my decision-making confidence and JUST DO IT? For example, hanging art on the wall: it feels like a permanent choice! So I delay!

We’ve written before about improving decision-making skills and how to make the process of decision making easier. Reviewing these posts might help you get over your “analysis-paralysis.”

As someone who has moved houses eight times in 23 years, I can say that nothing is “permanent,” some things might just take a little more effort to change than others. As far as hanging art on the walls, try GeckoTech Reusable Hooks. They are made with a unique synthetic rubber technology that allows them to be used again and again. 3M picture strips are also very handy for hanging artwork without damaging walls. You may also wish to consider the STAS cliprail pro Picture Hanging System.

Apartment Therapy has great tips for hanging artwork so go ahead and make your house a home.

3. Thinking long-term about home projects, while on a budget. We plan to stay in our home a long time, but it needs some love. But our wallets are thin! What should we prioritize: remodeling the kitchen, or taking control of the landscaping? New interior paint job or pressure washing and re-glazing the pebble driveway? What house projects are most important and have lasting impact?

Home renovations can make your home more comfortable, improve your living experience, and increase the value of the home. However, shoddy workmanship or too much “unique customization” may actually decrease the value of your home.

Start with the basics by keeping the home safe and livable. Consider projects that involve your home’s structure (roof, windows, doors, etc.) or mechanical systems (furnace, air conditioning, electrics, plumbing). These upgrades make your home more energy efficient and may actually pay for themselves during the time that you live in the home. Insurance companies may also decrease premiums when you improve wiring, install secure windows, or add an alarm system.

Next, think about making you home more livable. High-end countertops may look good in magazines but more cupboard space may be what your family needs right now. Discuss your ideas with a designer and talk to a few contractors to determine prices and see what fits with your budget. You may decide to do the work yourself, but talking about it with a professional is great for brewing ideas.

Try to build the most flexibility and long-term usefulness into your designs. Remember that children grow quickly, so envision the basement toy room becoming a games room and study area in a few years. Installing the required wiring now will save you time and money later, and may also add a selling feature if you decide to move.

You might be able to do some work yourself, such as painting or installing closet systems. However, because of permits and laws/regulations/codes, most people find it best to hire professionals for tasks requiring plumbing, electrical work, specialized carpentry, and work involving altering the structure of your home (supporting walls, roofs, staircases, etc.).

4. How can we encourage others in our life to take care of their clutter before they leave this earth and give all their clutter to us? This is especially a problem when they don’t think what they have is clutter!

Unfortunately, the value of an item is in the eye of the beholder. Items you might consider clutter, might be of significant value to someone else. It would be difficult to ask someone to part with items that are valuable to him or her. You can’t control another person’s desires, wishes, and attachments to their things.

However, there are some steps you can take to ensure that your family members’ items are appreciated once they pass on.

Envision what you want for your family. Are you minimalists? Do you prefer art-deco style furniture? Will you travel? What hobbies do you enjoy or do you wish to start a few new hobbies? It helps to write down the lifestyle you want to lead and then act according to these visions when the time comes.

Prepare a respectful “no thank-you” response now. Chances are you will be offered something you don’t want or you will be told that items are being kept for you. If the item will not fit into your envisioned lifestyle, you will be able to turn it down. For example:

I know [item] is very important to you and it means a lot that you want us to have it after you are gone. But [item] will never replace you or our memories of you. Let’s consider how [item] could best be used and appreciated. Perhaps we should:

  • Consider offering [item] to a [name friend or family member] who would truly appreciate it
  • Donate [item] to charity or museum, where it could be used or appreciated by even more people
  • Sell [item] and either enjoy or donate the money

Sometimes once people find they are no longer obligated to hold an item for you, they are more willing to let it go.

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.

Getting past uncluttering stumbling blocks

Some things are fairly easy to get rid of: broken items that will never get repaired, excess food storage containers that are missing their lids, etc. But other items are harder to deal with and might delay your uncluttering project, including the following:

Inherited stuff

You don’t need to keep something just because it belonged to a beloved relative. If it’s something you don’t like and don’t use, and it has been stored in the back of a closet for years, it’s not serving anyone. Personally, I think it honors the memory of that relative much more to get the item back in use, even if the person using it isn’t you. Remember that most relatives, given their love for us, would not want us to be burdened by their things.

Maybe another family member would appreciate having the inherited item. If not, it can be given away, thus taking on a new life as part of someone else’s home. Depending on the circumstances, the new owner might even appreciate hearing the story behind it.

And before you give the item away, you can always take a photo of it to serve as a smaller keepsake.

Potentially useful stuff

These are the “I might use it someday” things. Here you need to evaluate the trade-offs between keeping the item and passing it along. The following are some questions to consider:

  • Is it worth giving this item space in your home today because it might be useful at some future time?
  • How likely is it that you’re really going to use it?
  • If you give it away and wind up needing something like it later on, could you borrow one from someone else?
  • If you had to rebuy it, would that be difficult or expensive?
  • If you wind up needing something like this seven years from now, would the one you have now even be likely to meet your future needs? (Some things are timeless, but others aren’t.)
  • If someone else could make good use of the item right now, would giving it to that person make more sense than having it sit on a shelf in your home, so you have it “just in case”?

Other people’s stuff

This category is often filled with things that belong to adult children who no longer live at home. If those children are still fairly transient and living in a limited space, such as a college dorm room, you may want to keep storing these things for them, for the time being.

But if the stuff is taking up space you want for other purposes and you’ve had it for ages, you may decide it’s time for a change. If the owners live some distance away from you, consider sending them photos and letting them know you’ll be donating any items they don’t specifically tell you they want, and include a deadline for responding to you.

Be sure you also set a date in the not-too-distant future by which the owners will pick up the items they’ve asked you to keep. Alternatively, make arrangements to have the items mailed or shipped to them.

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.

Organizing military memorabilia

November 11 is the time when we pause and remember the service men and women who serve their country. Over the course of their military careers, they may have accumulated some items that are personally and historically significant and when organising these items you’ll need to decide what to keep, how to store what you keep, what to part with, and where donations and sales of items you’re getting rid of can be made.

Military memorabilia, often referred to as militaria, can include any and all aspects of military life including:

  • Medals and ribbons
  • Uniforms, including rank insignia, buttons, lapel pins, etc.
  • Hats and helmets
  • Weapons (swords, bayonets, firearms)
  • Inert Ordnance (empty shell casings, etc.)
  • Equipment (compass, binoculars, canteen, etc.)
  • Books and training manuals
  • Photographs
  • Flags
  • Currency (both notes and coins)
  • Documents such as:
    • Identity badges and papers
    • Certificates of completed training
    • Maps
    • Journals
    • Charts
    • Posters
    • Letters and post cards
    • Postage stamps
    • Invitations and programs to official military functions

It is important to understand the significance and importance of items before deciding whether or not to keep and preserve them, donate them, or relegate them to the trash.

You may have the opportunity to work with a veteran to make these decisions. Be aware that certain objects may represent very powerful memories. It is important to respect the veteran’s desire to discuss, or not discuss, the items and the associated memories. Be very patient and understand that you may not be given an explanation of why the veteran wishes to keep a particular object, but respect his/her wishes.

If you do not have the chance to work with the owner of the militaria, there are other ways to determine the value and significance of the artifacts.

The Government and its Armed Forces: Many governments and armed forces have sections of their websites that deal specifically with military history. You will find information about medals and decorations, uniforms, as well as weapons and even vehicles. This is a great place to start for general information.

Veterans Associations: A veterans association may be able to provide you with details about your treasures including how they were used during military service and what those items meant to the serviceman/woman.

Local Historical Societies: Some historical societies have an interest in militaria. They may be able to provide some information about your items and how they related to the history of the local area. For example, your uncle who was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal may have been the only one in his county to receive one.

Online Auctions: EBay is a great place to get an idea of the monetary value of your collection. There are also military-specific online auctions sites, some dedicated to the militaria of specific countries or specific periods in history.

Collectors and Traders Groups: There are many military collector groups around the world. They hold shows and fairs where people can bring in their items for evaluation. Some members of these groups will also provide appraisals via email or videoconference.

Antique Dealers and Appraisers: If you have visited some online auctions and feel that your pieces may be worth quite a bit of money, it is best to pay for a professional appraisal. Search the American Society of Appraisers or a similar society in your country for an appraiser near you and remember to ask for references.

If you decide to keep your military memorabilia, it is important to properly preserve the items. Displaying military memorabilia can be a way to honour the men and women who proudly served their country and to help transfer family history from one generation to the next.

Here are a few examples of the way that military memorabilia can be displayed.

If you’ve decided to part with your militaria, adding letters, journals, and photos to the objects will contribute their relevance and credibility.

While museums may not be able to accept your donations, there are other groups that might be interested such as:

  • Local libraries
  • History or Military Studies departments of colleges and universities
  • Historical societies
  • Community Centres
  • Military Unit, Corps or Regimental museums
  • Veterans groups

Reenactment groups and theatre troupes may be interested in certain items, too. They may not take entire uniforms but the rank insignia, buttons, and pins may be helpful to them in re-creating period costumes.

A Note about Weapons

Many collections of military memorabilia contain weapons such as swords, knives, bayonets, and firearms. These may be antiques but they are still dangerous. Please seek out expert assistance when dealing with weapons and obey all laws and regulations.

Display swords, knives, and bayonets in locked display cases. A professional firearms expert should deactivate firearms prior to them being stored in a locked display cabinet.

If you decide to sell or donate these items, ensure you follow all laws and regulations for sale and transport. Be aware that you may have to pay extra fees for customs clearance and may be required to alert law enforcement officials that you are transporting weapons.

Should you keep a family heirloom or donate it?

A nice result of uncluttering is that you can sometimes find things you’ve been looking for or that you forgot you had, and you’ll get a welcome surprise when you happen upon the items. You might also come across things that have high historical value. They may be items that have great historical significance, a family heirloom, or perhaps an artifact. These items represent “the museum of you” and if they are not properly cared for (a box in the basement or attic will not suffice), they can degrade and lose their value.

You can certainly take on the responsibility of caring for these valuable pieces yourself, but you’ll likely need some help, like the book, Saving Stuff: How to Care For and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions written by Senior Conservator of the Smithsonian, Don Williams. Williams gives detailed, step-by-step instructions about how to keep your prized belongings in good condition.

Of course, before you can start the preservation process, you’ll need to decide which things to keep and which things not to keep. Taking stock of everything you have and making an inventory list is a great starting point. Then, you can use a Pro vs Con list to help you decide which items you’ll maintain yourself and which ones would be best cared for by a museum or special interest group. As you go through this process, think about:

  • How meaningful each item is to you
  • The amount of time and effort required to keep the item(s) in good condition
  • The type of equipment needed to maintain the item(s) in a pristine state

Williams suggests that you also think about whether or not you’ll be able to preserve an item “without changing its character.”

Fundamental to preserving your stuff is keeping it as it should be for as long as possible without changing what it is.

This is an important point, as changing the items will likely affect its value. If the item needs repairing, this means you will probably need to restore it and then follow up with protective measures to prevent any future damage. Depending on each item, the types of things you may need to do to preserve an heirloom might be numerous, taxing, and require specific actions. Unless you have the time to devote to keeping special items protected, you might want to hand over ownership to a museum or historical society. Doing this will help you to potentially honor the family members to whom the items belonged and reclaim your space for items that you use regularly. It can also be a way to keep those items out of harm’s way from the normal hustle and bustle of your home, particularly if you have pets or children.

Should you decide to donate an item to a museum or historical society, consider having it appraised so that you have an accurate understanding of its monetary value. Then, start looking for a specific institution that handles your particular items and what the donation requirements are.