Decluttering pictures, heirlooms, keepsakes, children’s art, and other items with sentimental value can really take its toll, but here are some proven strategies to help you win at decluttering sentimental items and working through the guilt.
Keeping your home tidy is difficult enough. It gets even harder when you’re trying to sort and declutter sentimental items. The memories and emotional attachments can make it nearly impossible to let go of anything.
Maybe you’ve kept every art project your child ever created or every letter and greeting card you’ve ever received. Maybe it’s your grandfather’s fishing poles and your Great Grandmothers China collection that reminds you of specific times or events in your life.
Whatever the actual item is, the sentimental attachments you’ve formed make it incredibly difficult to part with.
The mere sight of these items can bring back years of memories and all of the emotions associated with them. Some make you happy recalling a wonderful tropical vacation or an annual White Elephant Christmas party with family and friends, and others might make you sad due to the loss of somebody close to you.
Holding on to too many of these items causes clutter and it can impact your mood, health, and life, as well as your home. It can make your home feel crowded and cramped.
When those items start feeling heavy and weighing on you in any way, it’s time to declutter those sentimental items and find a different way to preserve all of those memories.
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Is Your Home a Storage Unit?
According to a report on census.gov, the average size of a single-family home in 1973 was approximately 1521 square feet. That size increased over the next several years to a whopping 2169 square feet by 2010.
A quick drive around my town would suggest the average size of a single-family home currently sits somewhere around the 2500+ square foot mark.
The increase isn’t because our families are getting bigger although I’m sure there are exceptions. Most of it’s because we obtain and keep way more stuff than ever before.
We’ve turned our homes into oversized, overpriced storage units and a lot of what we’re storing is sentimental clutter.
Here are some strategies to help you declutter those sentimental items and take back your square footage.
What is Sentimental Clutter
Sentimental clutter can be any item that’s no longer useful but you keep around because you’ve formed an emotional attachment to it. It can also be an excessive amount or collection of similar things.
Any physical item that creates negative feelings, causes you distress or feels like a burden can be considered sentimental clutter.
I’ve already mentioned a few examples above, but the possibilities are limitless. What other items can you think of?
I’ll give you a few more examples to help you identify the sentimental clutter in your life.
Think about every picture you’ve taken in your lifetime? Are they all stashed in bins or boxes in your garage or do you pile them up in the back of a closet?
What about all of the programs you saved from every sporting event you’ve ever been to?
Maybe you’ve kept every card or stuffed animal you ever received from a boy dating all the way back to those childhood homemade Valentine’s day cards?
Or maybe you still have a trunk full of favorite shirts that belonged to a lost loved one?
Sentimental Attachment to Clutter
I possibly just triggered some raw emotions but hear me out and keep reading. You might like what I have to say.
We’re all human. We associate items with people, and we attach our feelings for those people to those items.
It’s ok to keep some of those around. When they become a burden or make you unhappy, they’ve crossed the threshold from memories and precious keepsakes to sentimental clutter.
My father loved classic muscle cars. When he passed away, I hung on to his diecast collection for a few years.
Every time I tripped over those boxes stacked in my garage, it made me a little sad. I realized it was time to let go, so I pared it down from hundreds to just a few favorites that are displayed in my office.
Sentimental Clutter is Costing You
It’s hard to let go, but make no mistake, sentimental clutter is clutter, and it’s costing you in several ways. It can impact your mental and emotional health, ruin your relationships, and deplete your wallet.
Mental and Emotional Health
Sentimental items don’t always have happy feelings and emotions attached to them. A majority of them can have both.
The feel and smell of your mother’s favorite sweaters probably take you back to happy childhood days and make you smile. Seconds later you’re ugly crying because you’ve been stuck in the grieving stage for the last five years.
Maybe it’s time to move on and celebrate all she did while she was here.
Relationships can suffer too.
Often a spouse or loved one doesn’t have emotional attachments to items. They aren’t built that way and they don’t understand why you need the items to retain the memories.
Do you argue about the amount of clutter, the specific items, or the way they impact you emotionally?
Is your sentimental attachment to certain items more important than the relationships that are being affected?
This is actually a big one. The true dollar cost of clutter is outrageous. Even if you’ve optimized the organization of your clutter, it’s costing you dearly.
Remember when I said our homes have become oversized, overpriced storage units? Let’s explore that a bit more.
Write down the price you paid for your home, then divide it by the square footage. This is the cost per square foot of your living space.
$350,000 cost of home / 2500 sq ft size of home = $140.00 per square foot to store your clutter!!!
Now measure the square footage (length times width) of every space that’s being used to store sentimental items. Don’t forget the garage and any outbuildings that are used for storage.
Multiply that by the cost per square foot that you figured out in the last step. OUCH right! We’re not even done yet.
Now add the cost of any storage bins, trunks, sheds, etc. that you purchased to organize your clutter.
That’s the true monetary cost of your sentimental clutter.
Now that you can identify your sentimental clutter and realize what it’s actually costing you, here are some proven strategies to help you declutter your sentimental items.
Strategies to Declutter Sentimental Items
I write a lot about decluttering.
It’s one of the biggest problems and frustrations we deal with as adults, but decluttering sentimental items is in a class of its own.
Here are some strategies to help you navigate through it.
1. Recruit A Friend to Help You Declutter Sentimental Items
Enlist a trusted friend or family member to help you out. They can be a shoulder to lean or cry on, a different perspective, and a reality check when you get lost in your thoughts and sentiments.
They can also serve as a bit of a barrier to the emotional side of decluttering.
On her Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, Marie will often hold an item and ask ‘Can you let this go’. She’s actually using 2 different strategies to help the person declutter.
First and foremost, by holding the item herself, she’s eliminating the possibility of the touch of the item causing an emotional response (remembers mom’s favorite sweaters).
Secondly, she doesn’t say anything about keeping the item. The question ‘Can you let this go?’ is more of a suggestion than a question, and if the answer isn’t an immediate ‘No’, it’ll likely be a YES.
Your helper can do this for you, and they’ll likely know how to keep you on task but be able to see when you need a short break.
2. Work At Your Own Pace While Decluttering
I know I said to get help, and I mean it, but make sure you work at your own pace.
Be mindful of suggestions to move along and keep the progress going, but if you’re really struggling to let something go, set it aside and move on to the next item. You can return to the most difficult items later.
Don’t make rash decisions. You want the decluttering process to have a positive impact and end result.
3. Gather Sentimental Items One Place
Start by gathering similar items all in one place. If you’re tackling baby clothes today, place them all in one spot so you can truly understand how much you have.
Having it all out at one time also tends to put things in perspective. Not only will you realize how much stuff you have, but seeing it all together can also clarify the importance of each item.
Using the children’s clothing example, you might have six of your daughter’s favorite dresses from different times in her life. If you look at each one individually, you’ll likely save them all because of the memory each one brings about.
On the flip side, if you look at all six of them together, you might be able to select the most favorite one and let go of the other five.
4. Understand and Define the Emotional Attachment to the Memories
Understand and define why you’re keeping something and how it makes you feel.
Does the item really hold the memory or feeling you’ve associated with it, or is it just stuff? Do you need that particular thing to conjure up that particular memory?
Sometimes things that bring happy memories can cause frustrations or feel like a burden because of sheer volume. If the amount is causing negative feelings, it’s time to downsize.
5. Repurpose the Sentimental Items
This is my favorite strategy. Repurpose the items to create a visual representation of the things on a smaller scale so you can get rid of the bulk of the items and still preserve the memories.
Shadow Boxes – Shadow boxes are deep frames that are designed to hold and protect small trinkets, pictures, and memorabilia. You can use a shadow box to preserve mementos from a specific time or event and eliminate the rest.
Digital Files – Digital files include digital picture frames, external drives, and thumb drives. You can use a scanner to transfer collections of photos, letters, cards, etc on to digital media and get rid of the physical copies.
Memory Quilts – A memory quilt is a compilation of items that have been transferred on to fabric and used to make a quilt. I think my good friend Cindy has one of the best examples of this.
She tragically lost her young adult son Andy. She honors and remembers him with this quilt made out of pictures of him that were transferred on to fabric, his favorite t-shirts, letterman’s jacket and other memorabilia from his life.
You can check out some others at Sealed With Stitches.
6. Minimize the Amount of Sentimental Clutter
That doesn’t mean become a minimalist and get rid of everything right now.
It just means that grandpa’s favorite fishing pole can bring back the same memories and feelings that the entire collection does. Just keep a few of your most favorites.
7. Pass the Sentimental Items On
Sometimes you’re holding on to sentimental items out of a feeling of obligation or guilt.
If the enjoyment you get from these things has run its course, try passing them on to other family members and let them enjoy them for the years to come.
8. Give Yourself Grace
Decluttering sentimental items is incredibly difficult and challenging. Give yourself a little grace during this process.
Even if you only got rid of a few items, you made progress. Celebrate that.
If you find you’re having trouble letting an item go, but still wrestle with the cost of keeping it, give yourself a little grace and set it aside to deal with later.
You don’t have to declutter everything in one session.
9. Wash, Rinse, Repeat
The final and most impactful strategy is to do it again. Decluttering is not a once and done thing.
Do one session, then plan a time and date for another session. Each time to repeat, you’ll be able to declutter a little more. When you gather all the items in one place, your brain automatically signs a rank or tiered value to each item.
Let’s say your first session started with thirty of grandpas fishing poles and you eliminated five but decide you couldn’t let go of the other twenty-five. The next time you gather them together, you’ll automatically decide which ones are the least important.
Each time you go through your things, a different group moves to the bottom and can be let go.
* Bonus Tip from a Reader
Here’s a great tip from a reader!
If you have generations of family photos that none of your immediate family want, look into uploading them to a genealogy site like Ancestory.com.
You never know which long lost relative or friend of the family may stumble on those pictures!
Final Thoughts on How to Declutter Sentimental Items
Now that you have a clear understanding of what sentimental clutter is and what it’s really costing you, plan a decluttering session of your own.
Get a trusted friend to help you through this process, but work at your own pace. Decluttering sentimental items is difficult and can require some time.
Gather all of the items in one place and define why you’re emotionally attached to these sentimental items.
Repurpose the items into a beautiful memory piece and minimize the amount you choose to keep. You can even pass some of it on to other family members.
Give yourself a little grace through this grueling process and remember that even a little progress is still progress. Then, do it again, and again, and again. Each time you’ll be able to let go of a little more.