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10 Tips for Dealing With Sentimental Clutter

Ohhh, this is a tough one and it hits very close to home for me. I have always been sentimental about stuff and things. I was a collector of dolls, model horses and other tchotchkes as a child. Does anyone remember the dolls with the giant dresses and made-up faces with fancy hair and hats? I had three of those and added another two when a friend gifted them to me when she moved. They filled the tops of my dresser and crowded my windowsills. I eventually gave those giant dolls away, but I still have a whole box of other collectible dolls in a plastic box on the top shelf of my closet. They are the epitome of postponed decisions. I tell you this to assure you that I am not simply bossing you cheerfully from the sidelines, I am in it with you. I have the same sentimental clutter in my closets, cabinets and attic that you have.

Postponed decisions: dolls from my childhood collection. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find some headless Madame Alexanders.

As a way of working through my own thought processes about sentimental clutter, I’m going to share ten different ways of looking at why we feel like we need to keep everything.

  1. “I might need it someday” This might be true. That punchbowl was useful once in 1985 and you never know when you might need it again. However, you need to consider that there is a cost to storing things in your home. That punchbowl is taking up valuable space in your pantry. That kind of storage, along with all the other similar items are causing you to fill your garage in such a way you can’t pull your car in out of the weather. Instead of keeping the punchbowl, consider donating it to a thrift store or another worthy cause. If you really need a punchbowl in the future, you can borrow one from your mother-in-law or repurchase yours from the thrift store.

  2. “My mom/aunt/best friend/favorite ex-boyfriend gave this to me.” There is nothing wrong with keeping items gifted by some of your favorite people. Of course it’s a problem if these items somehow get in the way of other relationships or if they represent some kind of stumbling block in your life or if they bring feelings of guilt. Realize that the person who gave you that item likely did not intend to burden you with that item. Grow yourself into the adult you already are and let go of the items that feel like a burden. You have the freedom to do that. If you need to, take a picture to remember the item, and then let it go. (But seriously, if it’s an ex-boyfriend who gave you that item, let it go in the same way you let that relationship go. There’s no need for that kind of old energy to be taking up your space.)

  3. “This was made by my grandma.” I have a hard time getting rid of sweaters given to me by my mom or knitted by my grandma. They aren’t my style anymore and yet I pack them with my winter gear each spring and fold them on my sweater shelf each fall. I’ve done this for decades. I literally have five sweaters I don’t wear that cycle through my closet each season. This is the year to do something with them. I’ll either recycle them into knitted pillow covers or sew them into Christmas stockings. If I don’t get to it, I resolve to donate them.

  4. “All these things are special.” The truth of the matter is, when everything is special, nothing is special. If you can isolate the very best of something and give it it’s own space, that becomes the thing worth having. I own at least 20 scarves, yet I only wear about 10 each winter. This seems like a good time to let go of the ones that haven’t made the cut since 2017.

Unicorn Christmas ornament my mom bought at Nerland’s in Fairbanks, AK in the 1980’s.

5. “I’m going to fit into this someday.” Ouch. Seriously people, I am preaching to my own choir on this one. Mid-life is no joke. There are four pairs of jeans that I might just fit back into one day, but I’m going to let them go today and treat myself to something more stylish when that day comes. Also, it’s a good time to let go of the clothing items that are uncomfortable, too short, too long, the wrong color, pilled, irreversibly stained, not your style or those that don’t represent who you are. Even if you paid a lot of money for some item of clothing, it’s costing you to keep it in your closet when you never wear it.

6. “I’m going to start knitting/spinning/pilates/painting/camping/etc. someday.” This is about the same as the aspirational clothing. My family really enjoys car camping. For various reasons, we haven’t been able to get out as much in recent years. I wonder how much camping clutter we could remove if we took the time to go through all our camping bins and supplies today? When we moved, we knew we were done skiing so we sold all our ski equipment at a garage sale before we left Alaska. If we choose to go skiing here in Washington, we’ll just rent it. We decided it wasn’t worth it for us to move and store something we would rarely use. When your aspirations don’t match your lifestyle, it’s time to make changes one way or another.

Japanese glass floats found on the beach near Shishmaref, AK by my dad and stepmom. These have become part of my decor.

7. “This is a family heirloom.” This is a hard one. Yes, it’s important to keep items in the family, especially if they’ve been labelled with provenance and related stories. How do we share the value of items to future generations? Especially when each generation creates it’s own new set of “heirlooms”? I can’t answer that question for you, but I can help you consider a few things. Is it an heirloom with a family story attached, or simply an antique? Can some items be considered just another piece of furniture or do they really hold meaning? Not everything is worth keeping, the trick is to determine what something is really worth to you. Both my husband and I are children of immigrants. Because of this, we have many items brought over from the “old country”. I own a beautiful cabinet built by my great-grandfather on my grandfather’s side. My in-laws gifted us with mid-century furniture brought over from the Netherlands when they immigrated to Michigan. All these items are meaningful to my husband and I and we can only hope our children will be interested in them in the future.

8. “I don’t know how to get rid of it.” Well, let me tell you, there are a million ways to get rid of things. You can sell items on Ebay, Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. You can have a garage sale. You can offer them to a family member who might be setting up a household or needing to fill their new house with furniture, decor and artwork. You can donate to Goodwill, St. Vincent DePaul, Value Village or a similar spot. Larger household items, furniture and building materials can be donated to the Habitat ReStore (they may even come pick them up). In Tacoma or Vancouver, WA you can call the Northwest Furniture Bank, to pick up your used but still in good condition furniture and mattresses. Consider giving books to your local Friends of the Library.

A sweater I knit myself and never wear and a sweater that belonged to my mom.

9. “These books were so meaningful to me in college.” I carried milk crates of notebooks and textbooks around for about 15 years before I finally got rid of 95% of it. In all those years, I never cracked one of those books, I never needed to refer back to my notes. I never needed to relearn those concepts I learned in school. Same goes for various Bible studies and courses I have taken through the years. Let it go. If you really need to keep a memento, keep one book or notebook and recycle the rest.

10. “Maybe my kids will want it for their kids.” You already know I’ve been collecting a stash of Christmas ornaments for my kids when they are off on their own. We also have a box of Legos and a box of Brio trains to haul out when little ones visit. It has been tempting to keep lots of “treasured” items that belonged to our kids in the name of saving them for future grandchildren. At the end of the day, it goes back to the “cost” of storing things in your home. If you have some room, it’s okay to keep some things, but consider how tastes change and how kids play with items differently. So much had changed from my childhood to my kids’ in terms of safety and interest. Consider these things when you think about long-term storage for your kids items.

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