How to Declutter Sentimental Items

Johnna Kaplan

You’ve probably heard some version of that old expression about three moves being as bad (or as good) as one fire. It’s stuck around because it’s true: there’s nothing like the thought of packing up and transporting everything you own to inspire you to part with a good number of your possessions. One fortunate difference between a fire and a move is that the latter allows you to choose which items survive. For many people, however, these choices are the tricky part, particularly when it comes to physical objects that hold any kind of sentimental value. These could be gifts, inherited items, or things associated with people, places, and memories from your past.

Of course, unless you’ll be moving into an extremely small space, you don’t need to let go of all the sentimental things in your life. You probably enjoy having some—or many—of these around, and that’s perfectly fine. The trouble is challenges arise when you’re dealing with possessions you don’t need or even necessarily like, but which you feel obligated to keep or guilty and conflicted about giving away. But if you’re committed to downsizing your belongings, there are lots of methods—call them tips, hacks, or mental shifts—to make the process of decluttering sentimental items go more smoothly. Here are some methods for dealing with those items you just can’t seem to let go.

Know Yourself

When people start to declutter, they often get stuck on old objects they don’t use and would happily get rid of but for the nagging fear that they might regret it. Possibly. Someday. To get past this trap, sit down and think about which specific things you have regretted parting with in the past. Chances are, there aren’t many, and those you can recall fall into a pattern. By understanding and respecting this pattern, you can determine what you’ll regret giving up and how to prevent it. For example, maybe you wish you’d kept all your college textbooks or every novel you’ve ever bought, not because you want to re-read them, but because you don’t like forgetting what you’ve read in the past. Going forward, you can feel free to give away old books after writing down all their titles or keeping track of your read books on an app like Goodreads.

Another way to avoid regrets is to give yourself clear rules or guidelines regarding how and why you choose what to keep and what to discard. Knowing that you always donate all clothes that no longer fit you, or that you only keep one souvenir from each place you’ve visited, means you’ll never find yourself asking why on earth you chose to part with a particular object from the past.

Tell a Different Story

Sometimes all it takes to part with old possessions is mentally re-framing those sentimental objects and re-writing the story you tell yourself about them. If you spent a lot of money on a special dress, and feel you should have worn it more, tell yourself you paid for the wonderful experience of wearing it—even if it was just once—or for the invaluable lesson about how not to shop for dresses in the future. If you’re holding on to stuff that represents a former lifestyle, job, clothing size, or hobby, think about how useful those items were in the past, how lucky you were to have been able to have them then, and how now that that era of your life is over, you and the items are naturally moving on. If you feel guilty about parting with items you inherited consider exploring the vintage items in antique stores and flea markets; they, too, were once the treasured (or not so treasured) possessions of someone who is gone now, but they continue to delight shoppers and find places in the homes of strangers who are thrilled to snap them up.

Save Selectively

Even when you can’t—or don’t wish to—save everything, you can usually save something. And choosing one item to represent a set (e.g., one particularly unique stuffed animal out of a massive collection) often makes it easier to properly display and appreciate it, and to recall the memories it holds. When saving just one object out of many won’t work, you might be able to save a select part of an item. Say you have fond memories of wearing an old coat, but now it’s tattered, out of style, and you haven’t reached for it in years. Rather than storing the coat indefinitely or throwing it away and feeling sad, you could instead salvage its pretty buttons and use them to replace the plain buttons on a newer piece of clothing. Result: nostalgia preserved, clutter eliminated.

Another option that lets you retain the sentiment of items without taking up any space is to scan them (if they’re documents) or photograph them (if they’re bulkier items.) This enables you look at them and reminisce without having to find room for them in your home.

Get Away From Gift Guilt

Gifts can be some of the most difficult items to let go, not because they have a deep meaning to you, the recipient, but because you’re afraid of offending the giver. This feeling can be internal, as in the sense that you’re a bad friend for not liking that painting as much as you should. It can also be about real or anticipated external consequences—what if the giver asks about the painting, or comes over and notices that it’s not on display? Of course, this is rarely about the gift itself, but about the relationship you have with the person who gave it to you.

If you want to declutter old gifts, remind yourself that assuming you properly thanked the giver at the time, you’ve done your part. Few givers really expect you to keep a gift forever, and they want you to enjoy the item, not to stress out every time you see it hanging on the wall. Still, some people are easily offended, or have unusual expectations. For your own peace of mind, it can help to have an unimpeachable answer ready—ready in case they do note the gift’s absence. “Oh yes, I remember that painting well. I looked at it for many years, then when I moved I had no room for it, but fortunately I donated it so someone else could enjoy it, too. It really is so kind how you always remember my birthday.”

In the future, you can let loved ones know that you prefer gifts that won’t become clutter. Even if they aren’t receptive to the idea of you becoming a minimalist or changing your outlook on accumulating excess stuff, they’ll probably understand practical concerns like having less room in your new, smaller home. If not, try expressing your newfound appreciation for lovely things that just happen to be ephemeral or consumable, like flowers or wine.

Focus on Giving

If you feel that it’s wasteful to throw things away, or you tend to hold on to items because there’s a small chance you’ll use them or like them again someday, ease your feelings by concentrating instead on what you can give to someone else. While some of your clutter will inevitably end up in the trash, many things can probably be donated to charity or given away to friends. When you focus on how much someone else can use or enjoy your cast-offs—especially someone who couldn’t afford or find the item otherwise—you replace the sadness of “abandoning” a sentimental object with the good feelings of helping out a stranger or surprising a loved one with an unexpected gift. (Just make sure it’s a wanted gift, so you don’t start the cycle of clutter mentioned above!)

By the way, giving in this sense doesn’t just mean giving away; this even applies if you’re selling old items. Someone who chooses to buy your used goods should be much happier with them than you are, and making some money to spend in a way that you’ll actually enjoy is a good perk, too.

Plan Your Clutter-Free Future

Decluttering can feel like it’s all about endings: the end of an era, perhaps, or of a particular item’s lifespan. It’s also an opportunity to think about how you plan to live with less clutter or less attachment to material things in the future. As you sort your stuff into piles to throw away, donate, or keep, imagine how you’ll go forward after you move. Maybe you’ll decide to replace souvenirs with photographs as memories of your travels. Maybe you’ll choose to shop for fewer clothes, or to only purchase one item if you donate another. Maybe you’ll experiment with a new decorating style that celebrates clean lines and open areas rather than filling every empty space. When you see downsizing as less about what you’re giving up and more as the beginning of an exciting new way of living, you’ll start to feel much better about relegating things to the “no” pile.

While the process of decluttering can be hard work, the goal is to improve your life. Living in a cluttered space, especially one crammed with objects you no longer like or use, can be an energy drain and a mental distraction. And just because some of those items have—or once had—sentimental value, doesn’t mean you need to keep them around forever.

What is the most cherished item in your home that no matter how much decluttering you complete, it will always survive the process and stay nestled in its spot?  Let’s hear it in the comments.

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