Tips to Help Clear Sentimental Clutter

When it comes to clutter, it is often most difficult to clear sentimental clutter. If you find the task of clearing sentimental clutter difficult, then read on.

I read quite a few books while I had access to the USA library system this summer (the English system is still in the dark ages I’m afraid). I thought I’d share a few things that were particularly illuminating on the clutter clearing front.

The New Minimalism by Cary Telander Fortin and Kyle Louise Quilici. Both are professional organizers. They have identified four clutter archetypes and the nature of clutter they tend to collect.

The four core types (I’ll paraphrase loosely):
1. Sentimental Person: highly values connections with people. Is likely to keep mementos and souvenirs of trips and events. Has a hard time parting with gifts or inherited items because of the connection to the person they love.
2. Creative/Crafty Person: always starting new projects. Tends to have a few unfinished projects going at any one time.
3. Practical Person: hates to waste. Tends to ask, “Could this thing be useful someday?” Since the answer is almost always “Yes”, they end up keeping most things.
4. Tech Type: tends to collect old computer monitors, printers and other gadgets/electronics.

I immediately recognized myself in all four of these categories. Ha! No wonder it is so hard to let stuff go.

Although I am most strongly in the Practical category, I have a few crafty projects that I haven’t started yet. Also, I find it hard to let go of sentimental items. My particular weakness is buying something antique at auction that needs a bit of work.  Then I never do the work to fix it. I’ve since learned not to buy anything that needs work! Thankfully, the authors had some helpful tips for each of these types. I’ll start with the sentimental types and cover the other types in upcoming articles.

Clearing Sentimental Clutter

If you are the sentimental type, you’ll keep things  for sentimental reasons. Maybe they remind you of a happy family trip or event. Or maybe you can’t bear to part with the antique chair from your great grandmother because you loved her so much and this is the only thing of hers you have. It can feel like you are throwing away that person or being disrespectful to your ancestors if you discard a gift or something you inherited. It is very difficult to let things go if you feel the item has a deep and meaningful emotional connection to a person you care about. The key to clear sentimental clutter is to separate the person and the memory from the physical object.

Here are some helpful tips to clear sentimental clutter

It is true that you want to honor that person and keep their memory alive. And you can do that without keeping the “stuff”. For example, if you inherited a set of china then you could keep one plate and hang it on the wall. Or you can keep a teacup and saucer to display. Then donate the rest. If you love the whole set, put it to active use so it isn’t clutter. My grandmother had three sets of china that she would change for the season. She’d store the rest in the basement. If you are using and enjoying your stuff, it isn’t clutter if you have the space to store it.

Another tip is to take photographs of things and then let go of the object. The key thing to consider: are you really honoring that person’s memory if you have the “stuff” in the attic or garage and aren’t using or enjoying it? How does that honor the person? My mom has her father’s old set of golf clubs mouldering away in the basement. I know she can’t bring herself to throw out the clubs because it reminds her of a happy memory. But how is keeping it in the basement honoring him? Better to display a photo of him golfing and let the clubs themselves go.

Keep the good memories and let the stuff go to a better home.

What about commemorating trips and events?

Send yourself a postcard of the trip when you are sending them to friends and family. Then you can keep your postcards in a box or scrapbook. This allows you to keep the memory without needing to buy t-shirts, mugs, or other souvenirs that end up collecting dust. What to do about all those souvenirs you already have? Get fun and creative. If you have a collection of t-shirts, then turn them into a t-shirt quilt. Then you can use that quilt on the bed or as a wall-hanging.

What about that collection of photos that never see the light of day? Turn them into a collage and hang it up somewhere to remind you of fun times and people you love. We have a wall of ancestors in our home in a mismatched set of frames that somehow all comes together. Some photos are old and sepia and some are modern in bright colors. Not one frame matches another. There is also space to keep adding more framed photos as new family members are born. I considered turning all the photos into black and white and re-framing with black frames. In the end, it seemed more unique and personal to have an artfully arranged hodgepodge.

One of my dear friends is clearly the sentimental type. She lost both parents and both in-laws to old age. As a result, she and her husband have inherited many beautiful and valuable prized possessions and family heirlooms. Unfortunately, they have a very small home that was already full of their own things. Now they feel burdened by all these possessions. At the same time, they can’t bring themselves to part with anything either. They feel it would be like discarding their beloved family member.

I suggested that it was too soon to clear sentimental clutter. While grieving, it might be too painful to let anything go. They have put stuff in storage. In time, they will be better able to make decisions about what to keep, what to sell, and what to donate.

The question to ask is: would this friend/relative want me to keep this item if it wasn’t making me happy? Would they want me to keep it if it was a burden? Of course they wouldn’t! Much better to give that item to someone who can use and enjoy it while keeping a cherished memory of the person. Or you can turn valuable items into cash and use that money to take a fabulous family holiday to create even more cherished memories.

 What about sorting photographs?

I’m a big fan of converting objects into photos to preserve the memory. Some minimalists say don’t even do that. But these days, photos don’t take up much space. So why not? If it makes it easier to get rid of something, then do it. If you store them digitally they take up no space at all. So you get the benefit of the memory without the actual item to store or maintain.

I spent a few days this summer going over old family photo albums. I bought three new photo albums only to realize that it isn’t necessary to put photos into albums. Albums take up a whole lot more space than photos in shoe boxes. Mom and I had a perfectly lovely time looking at photos and reminiscing. I realized that even badly taken, grainy photos serve the purpose of triggering happy memories.

In the end, we tossed only one bag of photos that were either duplicates or pictures that didn’t have a positive memory. We kept photos that weren’t worthy of putting into albums and put them into a shoe box for storage. My mom likes to take photos of renovation projects and house decorating projects. So we have a few albums of houses I’ve done up. We kept those as it is fun to look at the before and afters. I had forgotten just how much we’ve done over the years. If we were tight on space, we could have let those go. Since space isn’t an issue, we kept them.

We pulled out a few photos we wanted to frame. Then we added them to the ancestor wall. We didn’t put any photos in albums, as that felt like too much work. So much for my great photo decluttering session! Maybe one of my lovely readers can provide a better strategy. Until then, mom and I agree that keeping photos in boxes is very easy and handy.

Key takeaways from the experience to clear sentimental clutter:
  • You don’t need to have photos arranged beautifully in albums to enjoy them.

Photos take up a lot less space if stored vertically in shoe boxes.  If you want to get fancier, use photo boxes you can divide with tabs.

  • Write names, dates and places on the back with an acid free pen if you are worried about forgetting.
  • Poor quality photos might still be worth keeping if they trigger a happy memory.
  • The real point of keeping photos is to occasionally get them out and happily reminisce with relevant friends or family members.
  • We don’t like dusting so we keep all displayed photos on the wall in frames. (Minimalists like this approach as they don’t like more than one thing on flat surfaces. This keeps memories alive and surfaces clear.)
I’d love to hear from other sentimental types what strategies you’ve used to clear sentimental clutter while preserving the memories of your loved ones.

Next month I’ll share tips for the practical types. Hint: In their 50’s people often start to clear clutter as empty nesters downsizing. Why accumulate so much in the first place then? Okay, some of it is needed for the kids. It seems crazy that we spend time and money accumulating possessions the first half of our lives only to then spend the next half of our lives getting rid of it all so as not to burden our loved ones with that onerous task.

My sentimental friend has done well in that respect. She is very attached to her modest 3-bedroom home. It is in an excellent neighborhood, she likes her neighbors, and she has the ability to walk everywhere. Despite her love of keeping things she has never up-sized her home. This means she won’t need to downsize or clear sentimental clutter when the kids leave. Smart! This is where sentimentality to her home has served her well. It allowed her to keep a lid on how much she can keep and store (except for offsite storage). In the process, it saved her a bundle in moving and real-estate costs.

Which handily segues into the F.I.R.E. (Financial Independence Retire Early) conversation


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