How to Get Rid of Sentimental Clutter

How to Get Rid of Sentimental Clutter

Simple Living + Minimalism

You know you need to declutter, but it’s so much harder than you thought.

I come from a long line of hoarders, I’ve lost lots of highly important people in my life, I’m a sentimental person, and I know the ‘I’m poor’ mentality that won’t let you throw out the junk. Throwing away sentimental clutter is seemingly as scary as throwing a lead ball off a cliff while you’re still chained to it.

But I have found ways to cope and downsize, and I’m hoping these little tricks can help you too.

Know Why You’re Holding On

To Keep that Person?

I lost my dad, both of my paternal grandparents, all of my great-grandparents, my god-mother, and my great uncle (who I considered simply ‘my uncle’). It’s really freaking hard to get rid of their gifts and memory items because it feels like we’re losing them all over again.

Ask yourself this, are you willing to set up and live in a tent in the cemetery to be closer to that person?

Yes? Then you’re definitely not ready to declutter. It’s okay to hold onto items for a while after you lose someone you love, especially immediate family members and significant others. Take time to just live and cope.

No? Good, you’re in a place where you can begin to deal with what’s left and come to the understanding that items don’t bring people back. I’ll be sharing some tips below that’ll help you declutter in a way that’s right for you.

To Hold It for Another Person?

We sometimes refuse to let go of items because we think we’re ‘saving it’ for another person.

Sometimes that person is dead.

Sometimes that person is living.

Sometimes that person hasn’t even been born yet.

Holding on for a Dead Person

When I lost my great uncle Charlie, I had a lot of his stuff at my house (which was previously his home before he moved). Stuff like his high school diploma, personal photos, yearbooks, favorite books, notebooks, tax papers, cards, gifts, and really random stuff he hoarded (like 4,000 orange colored bobbins, a literal crate of buttons, a dozen dressers, 1,000+ wine bottles (he didn’t drink!), 7 typewriters, 5 microwaves, the list just goes on and on). There was a lot of it.

Getting rid of the hoarded stuff was easy. Well, as easy as it can be to get rid of literal dump truck loads worth of stuff. Admittedly, I still have my shed and garage packed away with his hoarded stuff that I take off every opportunity that I get. No kidding, my garage was so full that when cleaning it, I discovered two tool chests, three dressers, four shelves, and a warm box that I didn’t even know I had because it was stacked so full of clutter.

Getting rid of the personal items was not easy. Charlie had boxes and boxes of photos of his house, pets, garden, cattle, the garden at his work, his work’s parking lot, his work’s desk, family, and friends of his I never met. At first, I just kept it all, it was overwhelming and super emotional to go through. After a while though, I finally asked myself the question of, “why am I holding onto this stuff?”.

It turns out, I had subconsciously been hoarding his personal belongings because I thought he’d want me to, because it would seem ungrateful/cruel to get rid of it, and because I felt like it wasn’t “mine” to get rid of. It was Charlie’s stuff, and I was holding onto it for him, even though he’d never come back for it.

Holding on for a Living Person

This is something I personally don’t do so much, but I have friends and family members who do (or did).

My grandma Alice saved almost everything should could as a keepsake for her son, my dad. Some of the stuff I really appreciate her saving, like photos of him, some of his artwork, and his toys as a kid. That was really cool.

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Some of the other stuff though… wasn’t so cool. Like his retainer as a middle schooler. Each and every one of his stained cloth diapers, diaper pins, and baby teeth. Every single piece of school work he ever did from kindergarten through high school. Items that weren’t self-explanatory enough, she had a note attached to it explaining what it was to dad, and the date she set it back.

Grandma was holding onto stuff for her living son, and even though he only lived 5 miles away, she never gave it to him when she was alive.

If you’re wondering why I had to go through this stuff and not him, it was basically due to bad timing, and crappy luck. My grandpa died in 2004. Nine months later, my grandma died in 2005. So their house had to be emptied. When grandma and grandpa died, dad was given all the stuff grandma set back for him, which promptly went to my parents’ basement for him to go through. He procrastinated, and then died in 2006 so ultimately my mom, my sisters, and I had to sort through it. 

Holding on For a Person Who Isn’t Even Born Yet

I used to be a bit guilty of this one, though I have changed my ways.

I kept saving ridiculous stuff for my future kids (or my sisters’ future kids), even though it wasn’t really ‘good’ stuff, or even items they’d ever be interested in.

My future kids are not gonna care about my horse show trophies, or a book that I read so much that the cover fell off, or broken (or just plain worn out) toys. I can get them involved with horses if they care about them, buy books with covers (or visit a library), and buy new toys.

Because of the “Poor” Mindset?

This is probably the biggest reason why so many people in my family hold onto junk they should let go. The “what if I need it later?” monster is the number one culprit behind our overstuffed garages, barn, and houses.

I will say that I have been extremely privileged, and I haven’t had to really deal with hard times. My older family members have though, or they were at least raised by people who have (my great-grandparents were farmers during the Great Depression). You don’t get rid of this part or that part, because someday something might break, and you don’t want to have to buy it again.

The unfortunate reality behind holding onto everything means that you have nothing. In the event that you do need that part (that weighs less than a pound and is smaller than your fist) you now have an entire very-full-farm to dig through to find it, which means you probably won’t.

Because You Don’t Want to Hurt Feelings?

Sometimes we’re given gifts that just don’t suit us, and that’s okay. We say “it’s the thought that counts” and then we store that unwanted item until the end of time.

When the person gave us that gift, ultimately, they did it out of love, and partially because they want us to see it and appreciate them when using it.

If that gift is just a burden that clutters your space, every time you look at it, you’re not thinking about how nice that person was, you’re thinking about how much clutter you have in your life. Do yourself a favor, and rehome that item so you’re not making yourself harbor negative feelings about the gift giver.

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They just want you to be happy, if you’re not happy with the gift, get rid of it and make yourself happy.

Also, this isn’t Toy Story. The item isn’t alive, and it’s not going to feel sad or upset if you give it away. It’s an inanimate object, and I think a lot of us (myself included) forget that.

Or is it Just a Silly Habit?

Sometimes the reason why we hold on is really dumb.

For three years, I kept my prom ticket in my wallet. Prom was not special, and it’s not a night I really want to remember. I kept it though because:

“I’ve had it two months already, why throw it away now?”

“I’ve had it six months already, why throw it away now?”

“I’ve had it two years already, why throw it away now?”

There was absolutely no reason for keeping it, other than I just hadn’t got rid of it, and had somehow become attached to that little bit of paper sitting in my wallet.

If you don’t have a very good reason for holding on, it’s time to let go.

Declutter Method #1- Find Someone Who Will Love It

Grandma Alice set back some of her beautiful costume jewelry for my sisters and me, which we received after she died.

I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, but some of her stuff was so gorgeous I couldn’t help but wear it.

The other pieces I didn’t wear though, just stayed in my jewelry box, literally from 2005 until 2018, when I decided enough was enough. I offered the jewelry to my aunt (my dad’s sister), and she seemed grateful to have it, apparently, she wasn’t given any of her mother’s jewelry. Those pieces that I begrudgingly stored for years are now being loved as they should be. Now my only regret is that I didn’t give it to her much sooner.

Declutter Method #2- The Photo Solution

Thanks to technology, this wonderful method is now available. If you’re having a hard time parting ways with a sentimental item, snap a photo of it (or scan in the photo/document/note), and regift, throw away or recycle the tangible item. This is also really useful for larger items, such as houses and vehicles that you can’t keep.

I did this with a lot of sentimental pieces, and it really worked. I got rid of the clutter while reassuring myself that if I ever changed my mind, I could always print the photo out, or purchase a look-a-like on eBay. After a while, I even felt confident enough to delete some of the less important digital copies/photos.

Declutter Method #3- Can I Google This?

On my abroad trip to Poland, I took so many photos and bought so many books.

After lugging those postcards, books, and pictures around for a few years, I finally wised up and recycled the majority of them. Believe me, St. Mary’s Basilica isn’t going to get up and walk away. I don’t need 50 photos of it to remember it, and far more talented photographers have pictures of it online to view for free. I also don’t need to keep all twelve books on agricultural practices in Poland, Google has all that information online for free anyhow.

Declutter Method #4- The Konmari Method

I’ll admit, I haven’t done this method *exactly* as it’s prescribed, but it does work, even when tampered with.

Pick up each item individually. Hold it, examine it, think about why you bought it (or who gifted it to you), why you’ve kept it, and if it still sparks joy in your life.

If it no longer sparks joy, it’s time to let go. Be thankful for the time you’ve had with this item, know that it has served its purpose, and say “thank you” out loud to the item.

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Personally, I skip the part about thanking it out loud, but I definitely see how that can be a healing, thoughtful thing to do.

Declutter Method #5- Bring in the Judge

Grab all the stuff, throw it on the floor, and sit in the middle of it. Now call your parent, sibling, aunt, roommate, or spouse over (or at least imagine them being there).

Now ask yourself if you want to get rid of these items. I don’t know about you, but being seen sitting in my shameful pile of junk is motivation enough for me to declutter. I don’t want to be like that little old lady in the hoarder’s vine:

Declutter Method #6- Bag it Up, Forget It

If you’re easily overwhelmed by the clutter, this is probably your best option.

All the items you know you should get rid of, but just can’t, bag it up into heavy duty black trash bags and don’t even label the bags.

Put these bags out of sight, and forget about them. After about 6 months or a year, open up all the bags and look at the stuff you hoarded, but never even needed, or thought about.

Don’t even bother trying to sort them out to be regifted to individual people, you’ll probably lose steam and give up. Throw it all away, or donate all the stuff to Goodwill.

Declutter Method #7- Make it a Living Thing, Not Dead Energy

Make that item into decor, something useful, or designate it to a tiny shoebox.

If you’re having a hard time getting rid of a loved one’s clothes, have them made into pillows or blankets, or even wear a few yourself (I kept one of dad’s shirts that I occasionally wear around the house).

That breast collar that your grandpa used on his workhorses can be hung on the wall in your living room.

The silverware set that belonged to your mom can replace your current set.

Those well-kept toys you played with as a kid, can now be given to your kids to play with. Yes, they will break some of them, but they’ll be loved, and will have a purpose.

And if you can’t make it useful or beautiful, it’s okay to keep a small memory box. I have one from my dad that contains his handwritten grocery list on the day he died, his glasses, his pocket watch, his cologne, his last can of Wintergreen Skoal, and the glasses case that he always carried full of bubble gum for us girls. I still visit that box a few times a year, it brings me peace.

Let’s Talk!

  • Why do you hold on?
  • Which methods do you use for decluttering?
  • Any cool hacks I didn’t list today? Be sure to share that with everyone in the comments below!

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