During the process of decluttering, it’s inevitable to face the sentimental items at some point in the process. But, how do you decide which sentimental items you should keep? Well, when decluttering sentimental items, childhood memorabilia, keepsakes, or mementos, there are 5 main roadblocks. Once you conquer these, you’re on the road to simplify your possessions!
That said, no one can make you get rid of sentimental items and there’s no decluttering rule that you have to get rid of them. That’s not the purpose of this post.
However, if you’re determined to simplify your life, you may find greater joy in being intentional and specific about the sentimental items that you DO keep.
I’d like to offer my top 5 reasons that we hang on to sentimental items and how to move past them. I’ve recently faced these obstacles myself when we downsized from a 3-bedroom home to a 1-bedroom apartment. I went through several large storage totes full of childhood memorabilia and keepsakes that I needed to drastically declutter and minimize to a smaller container.
I hope these 5 reasons that keep us from decluttering sentimental items helps you to reflect on what sentimental objects are truly the most valuable to you.
1| We find identity security in sentimental items.
If we get rid of a certain sentimental item, does that mean we’ll lose our identity? Are we throwing away our childhood? Our past? The memory of bygone times?
If you have these questions when you try to declutter sentimental items, then you probably attach some security to them. What’s behind such questions is a fear of losing something we feel is secure.
When it comes to our identity, we can’t lose something that’s a part of us by merely getting rid of an object. Someone could be an amazing violin player. If their violin is stolen, lost, or destroyed in a fire, it doesn’t change the fact that they could pick up another violin and still be an amazing violin player. Their loss of the violin doesn’t alter their identity or ability as a violin player.
“Will hanging onto this sentimental item positively help me towards becoming the person I’d like to be or does it keep me stuck in the past?”
2| We attribute memories to stuff.
We think that keeping the stuff or having the stuff will help us hang on to the memories.
Memories don’t exist in things. They exist in our minds and in our hearts. Decluttering stuff doesn’t erase memories.
Sentimental items represent an event, accomplishment, special time of life, or significant experience in life. Represent is the key word here. What’s really important are the events, accomplishments, memories, and experiences – not necessarily the stuff related to them.
Through the process of going through sentimental items, I realized that I felt guilty about the large storage totes that were sitting around taking up space, full of items that never saw the light of day. I needed to make some hard decisions about each of these items.
In fact, I recently donated a sentimental item that represented something very dear to my heart.
Sentimental Item: Wedding dress. I had the 15-minute moment of trying on my mom’s wedding dress. It was sweet, but somewhat anticlimactic and the dress had yellowed from years being in a box. I realized I didn’t want to hang onto my wedding dress for 20 years or so only to have a 15-minute moment. This was personally not worth it to me. Also, everytime we moved I had to lug the wedding dress box with me and then figure out where to store it in our new place. This became a burden, as we’ve lived in 6 different homes in the past 10 years.
Where I donated it: Adorned in Grace – based out of Washington and Oregon, the proceeds of selling second-hand wedding dresses go towards helping victims of human trafficking.
I cannot describe how wonderful it feels to donate this specific item to a unique charity that will put it to good use, instead of having it collect dust in storage.
Keep in Mind…
Please keep in mind that this process is different for everyone. Not everyone will want to donate their wedding dress. That’s totally fine. This is just an example of how I found a new home for an item that I no longer felt added value to my life by sitting in storage.
I did consider repurposing my wedding dress and researched ways to repurpose it. In the end, I came to the conclusion that I’d rather donate it to a charity with a worthwhile cause.
What Did I Do with a Huge Storage Tote Full of Photos?
I digitized them using a second-hand Doxie Go Scanner that I purchased on Ebay (for only $40! A brand new Doxie Go Scanner costs around $200) and the app Photomyne.
First, I weeded through ALL the photos in the giant storage bin and set aside the ones I wanted to keep. I threw away duplicates and pictures of people or places that I had no recollection of or that didn’t warrant keeping more than 1 copy of.
Next, I digitized ALL the photos using the Doxie Go scanner. I did this in chunks of time over the course of about 2 weeks until they were all scanned and uploaded digitally. I kept only a handful of physical photos, like senior pictures and such, but only enough to fit into a manila folder. Then I threw away ALL of the other photos.
“Does this sentimental item add value to my life or does it take up space and weigh me down?”
3| We want our loved ones to remember us through sentimental items when we’re gone.
We may think certain items will help friends or loved ones remember us when we’re gone. In actuality, they most likely don’t want to inherit a household full of stuff. Whatever remains must be sorted through, decluttered, sold, or donated.
A few key items that mean a lot to them are sufficient and will mean more in the long run.
Save them the time, energy, and headache of spending weeks sifting through your items once you’re gone. Whittle it down to a few meaningful items and they can choose which are most valuable to them.
After all, what we think our loved ones will enjoy might not be the item that truly reminds them of us.
“What’s the emotional reason behind my desire to keep this?”
4| We think all the sentimental items will bring meaning to our lives.
Depending on the item, a sentimental item CAN and MAY bring meaning to our lives. It can enrich our lives if it’s used or displayed in a meaningful way.
Grandma’s pitcher that’s used to make lemonade in the summertime can evoke past memories while new ones are created. A timeless piece of furniture that grandpa crafted himself can be used and enjoyed in a room of the house.
Other sentimental items are kept simply because it’s something everyone holds onto.
Mortarboard tassels with the graduation year on them, school yearbooks, a stuffed animal, or a baby blanket are all common sentimental items that we may hang onto without these items enriching our lives.
These types of items might not be significant to us beyond symbolizing a time or season in our life. They may signify something, but not hold much value or bring true meaning to our lives.
In the decluttering process, if you decided to keep these items, perhaps a shadow box might work well to display them in a concise way. A shadow box could include all the baby items with a scrap of the baby blanket or highlights from a high school or college graduation with the tassel included.
(insert shadow box picture)
“Would I like to display this sentimental item in my home somehow?”
Giving as a Way to Bring Meaning
One thing that universally brings meaning to one’s life is giving.
Giving comes in many different forms. It could be tithing to a church you’re involved in, giving toward a cause you’re passionate about, or simply donating items to a women’s shelter. You can give your time, your money, your resources, your expertise, or your possessions.
Money can be used toward accumulating stuff or toward helping others. You could buy new toys for your kids or, together with your kids, get involved in sponsoring a child in a 3rd world country. You could also do both of those things, of course.
Family, friends, relationships, community, causes we care about – these things bring true meaning to our lives.
“Generosity is the antidote for materialism.”
– Joshua Becker, Becoming Minimalist
5| We own them.
We’re fighting the Endowment Effect, attributing more value to the item simply because we own it. It’s defined as “an emotional bias that causes individuals to value an owned object higher, often irrationally, than its market value” (Investopedia).
In some cases this is positive. It’s why a baby blanket holds so much sentimental value to the mother or child, but not to a random stranger.
At other times, it can be a hindrance. A shirt we rarely wear because we don’t like the cut or the fit, stays in our closet because we spent our hard-earned money on it. It takes up space and rarely sees the light of day. Yet, because of the endowment effect, we have difficulty decluttering it.
Example: In my recent experience of decluttering sentimental items, I came across several school yearbooks in a large storage bin. I realized that after all these years, they didn’t bring value to my life and I didn’t want to display them in our house.
Yet I was having difficulty decluttering it! I can’t let go of a school yearbook. Isn’t it epic? High school is an important milestone and time of life, all encapsulated in a yearbook!
But….would I really flip through old high school yearbooks on a lazy Saturday afternoon? No. Would I show these to my child? Most likely not. I don’t remember looking at my parents yearbooks. Instead, as a kid I was more interested in their personal photos or photos with select family and friends from that period of their lives. I didn’t want to see pictures of people I never met and would never know.
The Endowment Effect tripped me up! I wanted to keep these yearbooks simply because I HAD them. If I HAD them, how could I get rid of them?!
I soon learned that Classmates.com already has all of my high schools’ yearbooks stored digitally. If I desperately needed to look at pictures from my high school yearbooks, I could view them online. I snapped a few shots of some favorites pages in the yearbook and organized those photos in an album entitled “High School Memories” in Google Photos. Then I threw the yearbook in the recycling bin. Done and done.
Go Forth and Conquer!
Whew! Decluttering sentimental items can DEFINITELY be challenging. But asking questions like “what’s the emotional reason behind my desire to keep this?” or “does this add value to my life?” or “would I like to display this in my home somehow?” certainly helps.
It’s important to declutter sentimental items so we can weed through the unnecessary and keep only what adds value to our life or is worth taking up space.
Eventually, my several large storage totes full of childhood memorabilia were simplified down to half of one storage tote. It didn’t happen in one day but be encouraged! Even if you get through a few of these roadblocks, you’re on the path to decluttering success in your simplification journey!