Whether you need to get rid of your kids’ things or your own childhood memorabilia, letting go of keepsakes and special items is hard! But, by answering a few questions and learning a simple process, you’ll know how to declutter sentimental items in a straightforward way.
“Would you just zip me up?” I asked my 7-year-old daughter as I stood in front of a full-length mirror at my parents’ house.
For a few seconds, we stared at my reflection. I held my breath so I wouldn’t bust open the seams of the shiny blue dress with a lace collar that would make Ruth Bader Ginsberg proud.
Then my daughter just couldn’t hold her laughter any longer.
“MOMMY! You look SO silly!”
I’d love to show you the photo of me, age 41, wearing my 8th-grade school dance dress lovingly sewn by my grandma. But then that photo would live on the internet forever.
So, you’ll just have to trust me that it was quite a sight.
Why did my mom keep that dress – along with a neatly-labeled plastic bin of my childhood dresses – in the attic for so long?
What’s sentimental clutter and why’s it so hard to part with?
The box of dresses reminded my mom of special moments in my childhood, and now that I’m a parent, I understand. Keepsakes and memorabilia are the toughest things to declutter.
A lifetime of clutter gets me down because I don’t want to get rid of memories.A No Pressure Life survey response
Are you helping your parents or another family member to downsize, and sorting through your old childhood bedroom filled with high school memorabilia?
Are you struggling to decide which of your kids’ masterpieces or toys to keep?
Either way, if you take away nothing else from this article, please let it be this:
Memories are in your mind. Stuff is in your house. You can’t throw away memories.
Sentimental things evoke an emotional response, especially a sense of nostalgia. When you see or hold that item, you’re reminded of a person, place, or time in your life that’s memorable to you.
Sentimental clutter is having more of those physical items than you can reasonably display or use in your home.
That’s an important distinction because you can absolutely hold onto keepsakes and memorabilia without them becoming clutter.
Common Items with Sentimental Value
During a recent trip up into my parents’ attic (which still seems like it’s filled with every single thing from my youth, despite several decluttering sessions), I came across many boxes of items filled with sentimental stuff. While it was a fun trip down memory lane to share with my kids who were “helping” me declutter, I had a hard time sorting through everything without getting caught up in the emotional attachment my family and I have placed on all those physical items.
Here are some of the sentimental things we found that may be hard for you to let go of, too.
- Photo albums and boxes of old photos, including some so old that you don’t even know who the people in the photos are
- Baby clothes, especially handmade items
- Wedding dress
- Ticket stubs
- High school varsity letter jackets
- Stuffed animals
- Journals and diaries
- Family heirlooms, like the crystal goblets my parents received as a wedding gift
- Kids’ artwork and old school projects
- Programs from school plays and concerts
- Travel souvenirs (including destination hats and t-shirts)
- Prom dresses
- Concert t-shirts
- Christmas ornaments (Yep, I just went there! Most of our Christmas ornaments are sentimental, and I bet yours are, too.)
Really, any physical object that evokes special memories when you think about it, see it or hold it can be considered sentimental.
How to Declutter Sentimental Things: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself
Decluttering sentimental items is easier if you try to set your emotions aside and honestly answer a few questions.
If need to get rid of sentimental clutter because you have too much stuff in your house, then the only way to get through it is to be brutally truthful with yourself. It’s probably the most challenging part of the decluttering process, but it has to be done.
1. What memories match the sentimental objects?
Is it a feeling? A person? A particular moment?
There are precious memories, and then there are toxic memories. Sometimes, we end up with stuff that reminds us of a time or person in our life that brings up a lot of negative emotions. Don’t keep something if the memory doesn’t, as Marie Kondo says, spark joy. Your mental health is far more valuable than college textbooks from that time you failed out of pre-med.
2. Are you worried about insulting the memory of someone who passed away?
When you’re dead, you’re dead.My Grandma, March 1905 – September 2005
Newsflash: You can’t make a dead person upset. Because, well, they’re dead.
Did you inherit your great-aunt’s collection of porcelain figurines? Unless you love them and proudly display them, it’s ok to let them go. She can’t get mad at you.
List them on eBay or sell them at a garage sale and allow some other porcelain figurine aficionado to enjoy them.
3. Are you actively using the thing?
If you use your mom’s old 1970’s fondue set for your own parties (I do!), serve Thanksgiving turkey on your grandmother’s favorite platter, or proudly display grandpa’s medals, then please – continue enjoying them.
If those things are in a box in your basement and haven’t seen the light of day since you moved into your house a decade ago, then why are you keeping them?
It’s time to use them, display them thoughtfully, or let them go.
4. Is this thing taking up space that could be used by something you like more or use more?
Whether it’s a piece of furniture or a knick-knack, if it’s not your style or doesn’t function for your family, you’re under no obligation to keep it. There’s someone else who might be searching Craigslist right now for that very item.
5. What’s the WORST thing that would happen if you got rid of it? Be brutally honest.
Are you worried about making yourself sad or regret giving the item away? Even if happy memories are tied to your sentimental clutter, if you aren’t using or displaying them then it’s time to take a picture. Frame that picture and hang it proudly where you’re sure to enjoy it every day.
You Can’t Keep Everything
Were you ever caught in the act of throwing away your kid’s stuff? I remember feeling like the meanest mommy in the world when my daughter noticed some of her artwork in the trash bin.
Even though I know decluttering all those papers is the right thing to do, my kids have a different opinion.
They think everything is important, from an art project they worked hard on, to a pebble they found in a friend’s driveway. Decluttering toys is especially tough, but with a little encouragement, it can be done.
How to Get Rid of Sentimental Clutter Without Feeling Guilty
Your answers to the five questions should make it easier to make a final decision about what to get rid of. But once you make the decision to let go of sentimental items, what should you do with them? Here are a few ideas for decluttering things with emotional value:
Ask if another family member wants it
Perhaps you don’t treasure those antique candlesticks that belonged to your great-aunt twice removed, but you have a cousin that would appreciate them.
Or, as in my case, maybe your kids would love to play with some of your old toys. After discovering a bag filled with mint-condition stuffed animals in my parents’ attic, my kids happily divided them up and now shower them with love. Of course, I’ll have to declutter them from my own house in a few years, but at least my kids are enjoying the stuffies now.
Donate to a good cause
Donating items you’ve been hanging onto for sentimental reasons is a great way to give those things a good home without suffering from guilt. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity accept furniture donations for families in need, or to sell at their Habitat for Humanity ReStore locations.
There are also wonderful charities that will accept your wedding dress to give to brides in need, or to craft into burial gowns for babies who have passed away.
Keep one, and let go of the rest
Say you inherited your grandmother’s entire collection of Hummel figurines, but have neither the desire nor space to display the whole lot in your living room. Select your favorite one, perhaps the one with the most sentimental attachment because it reminds you of your grandma the most, and display it where you’ll see it and enjoy it. Then, donate, sell, or give away the rest.
Offer it in your local Buy Nothing group
The difference between donating your sentimental clutter to someplace like Goodwill and offering it in a Buy Nothing group is that you’ll know for certain that someone wants or can use your item, and often you can personally give it to a grateful new owner. I love my local Buy Nothing group and use it regularly – it’s a friendly neighborhood virtual swap meet, and it’s wonderful to know that my stuff will make someone else happy.
Give an old item new life
If you can’t bear to part with an old piece of furniture, but it doesn’t match your decor, learn how to paint furniture with my tutorial and transform it into something beautiful and useful.
Take pictures of items before passing them on
This method works particularly well for school papers and children’s artwork, but can really be applied to any physical item you’re ready to part with. You can even upload the photos to a site like Shutterfly and create a photo album filled with pictures of important things you want to remember, even though you don’t want them in your house anymore.
Shred, toss it in the fireplace, or simply throw it away
I’m giving you permission to simply and quickly get rid of something that either brings up harmful memories, or would create awkwardness, confusion, or sadness if someone else discovered the item. Love letters (to or from someone other than your spouse), journals, and diaries are prime candidates for the burn pile. Read them first if you want to, then get rid of them and allow yourself to make new memories.
Decluttering Sentimental Things Doesn’t Have to Be Painful
If you’re still struggling with how to declutter sentimental items, remember that it’s not your responsibility to hold on to other people’s stuff.
You can prevent accumulating these types of items in the first place by saying no when someone tries to give you stuff you can’t use. Regularly donating, recycling, or throwing away items are important habits to form and maintain as part of your decluttering journey, especially if you’re a sentimental person like I am.
As for my dress from 8th grade – I asked my mom if she’d tossed it yet, and she hasn’t. But it’s time. Not only did the dress make me feel pretty when I was young, I shared the moment again with my daughter many years later.
The time’s come to let it go (cue Elsa’s song).
Take on a new decluttering challenge each month with this printable calendar. Reduce overwhelm and declutter in minutes per day by breaking down your decluttering projects into monthly, weekly, and daily tasks.