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How to Declutter Sentimental Items: 9 tips to Let Go

Most of us can agree that clutter stinks.  And some of us are better than others at keeping it to a minimum.

But, over time, it can become easier and easier for the clutter to compound.  Certain life events such as moving into a new home can sometimes help us to purge but more often life events create more clutter.  Things like getting married, having children, changing jobs, adding family pets, picking up new hobbies and losing family members or loved ones, can create a significant amount of more “stuff.”

And that stuff builds up over time, sometimes exponentially. 

Some of it is easy, almost fun, to pitch out in the trash, bag up to donate or post online for sale.  But some of our stuff feels like way more than stuff.  Some of that stuff holds a significant amount of sentimental value.  Those items now become sentimental objects which is different than “stuff.”

And those sentimental objects now become increasingly difficult to part ways with, which ends up making them sentimental clutter.

So how do you begin the decluttering journey of sifting through such sentimental items?  And how can you bring yourself to let go of items that seemingly have so much sentimental value without feeling guilty or sad?

Here are 9 tips to let go of sentimental items without feeling guilty:

1. Determine categories in advance

Decide specific categories before you begin the decluttering process.  By creating categories in advance, you’re establishing a process that helps to expedite decision making for each particular item and, more importantly, yields a final decision!  Here are a few categories to consider:

  • Keep
  • Donate
  • Sell
  • Trash

2. Decide how to “keep” special items

For those sentimental things you decide to keep, challenge yourself to get creative with those precious memories and mementos.  You can only keep so much stuff so figuring out fun ways to honor memory lane is one way to keep challenging your desire to hang on or let go.

  • Display – a great way to keep something of sentimental value is to display it.  If you have multiple items from an event such as ticket stubs, a program and photos from your favorite concert, consider picking one of each of those items and making a shadow box that hangs in your home office.  The good thing about the display method is that puts your fondest memories out there for you to see often.  If you have duplicates, a shadow box also offers a way to consolidate and let go of the rest of those associated sentimental items like the additional ticket stubs or the entire collection of decades old souvenir cups in the back of a cabinet.
  • Store – the idea here is not to keep so much stuff that you need to go rent a storage unit but creating a small memory box is always an option.  A memory box should be reasonable in size and be somewhere you can easily access so you don’t forget about it.
  • Photograph – taking pictures of items is also a great way to keep the memory alive without keeping the physical object itself.  Perhaps you have a family heirloom that tugs at your heart strings, such as your mother’s wedding dress.  But you also know it will never be worn by you, your daughter or anyone else in the family.  Consider taking it to a photo studio and having them photograph the dress.  Or take the pictures yourself!  You can display the gorgeous photo in a frame on your dresser or hang it on the wall of your closet if you have one of those extended dressing areas.

3. Schedule decluttering sessions

The overall process of decluttering can be time consuming, but when the focus is on clearing out items of sentimental value it can be extra lengthy.  Carve out specific times on your calendar and block them off as “decluttering projects.”  Labeling your time will help you to focus and prepare your mindset to let go of the sentimental clutter.  Depending on what it is that you’re raking through, there may be some emotional walks down memory lane which can derail the process at times.  That’s ok!  It’s important to remember that you may need several rounds of decluttering sessions.  Be intentional and hold yourself accountable with setting aside the time to tackle it and, even if it’s done in baby steps, it will get done. 

4. Declutter the “no brainer” items first

Labeling something a no brainer item doesn’t mean it doesn’t, or once did, carry sentimental value.  It also doesn’t mean that these types of items are easy things to part ways with either.  No brainer items can be things that might be broken, stained or worn out.  It may even be that a particular item used to evoke a strong sentimental attachment and no longer conjures up that same feeling!  Clothing is a good place to start.  If you are about to turn 50 and are still hanging onto that high school varsity jacket, or that favorite dress from the “best girls’ night out of all time” (circa 2010) is still taking up closet space then it’s time to figure out how to best part ways.  It’s important to remember that these will always be great moments in your life.  Appreciate that you had those experiences, but the physical item may no longer serves a purpose and just be a space taker.

5. Use your physical boundaries

Get honest with yourself about how much space you actually have.  It may even be helpful to take a walk around your house before you decide which of your special items are heading for the “keep” pile.  Survey your space.  Take note of how much display space you have on shelves or walls.  Or how much storage space you can spare for things like more old photo albums. If you are working on downsizing your wardrobe, assess your dressers and closets.  Knowing what space you have in advance is helpful in figuring out just how much stuff you can physically keep.  Hey, with Marie Kondo’s file folding clothes method you might even figure out how to make more space for those special items!

6. Minimize the multiples

As a parent, I can admit that one of the hardest things is to part ways with anything that a child has made or given to you, especially when it comes to your children’s artwork.  I have twins and both children were beyond pleased to bring home every piece of art commissioned throughout the school year during their elementary years.  My whole home, from the garage to the inside of every cabinet door, could have been decorated in my kids’ artwork if I didn’t do several purges during those elementary school years.  But wow does that tug at the heart strings!  I always thought that cleaning out the baby clothes would be the toughest sentimental struggle but hands down, anything homemade ended up being (and still is) by far the hardest.

The first thing, when facing such a daunting task, is to sort through the multiples.  The good news is that a few of those sentimental duplicates will find a good home with the grandparents. For the rest of those duplicate sentimental objects, like the multiple clay pinch pots, consider keeping one single thing from each year for each child and taking pictures of the remaining items.  Perhaps making a scrapbook of your children’s artwork which largely includes cut out pieces from larger drawings and photos of their unique projects would fulfill an emotional need yet free up space for new memories – just not another clay pot.

7. Get creative with memorabilia

We have three 14-year-olds (pray for us) that play multiple sports.  Over the years there have been countless jerseys, game balls, pins, medals, trophies, team photos and all sorts of other sentimental objects related to sports strewn about the house.  But for some people, such as myself, I can’t bring myself to think about throwing any of those jerseys away.  Sports has been a huge part of our lives and had an incredibly positive impact on our family as a whole.  Those jerseys, balls, medals and everything else carry a high level of emotional value for us all, especially our children.

But, with the fabulous existence of Pinterest and online marketplaces such as Etsy, it has now become much easier to preserve and honor those items of high sentimental value in a way that does not clutter your space!  I recently saw a baseball Mom who made a hanging wreath out of her son’s homerun balls and another who filled the base of a large lamp with game balls.  Another trend gaining steam is to have a blanket made using all the jerseys your child has worn over the years.  These are all great ways to keep the decluttering journey going and continuing to free up space while finding creative ways to keep the types of items that bring a strong emotional attachment along.

8. Challenge your guilt

If you keep one single thing in the forefront of your mind during your decluttering process, let it be that things are not your loved ones.  Emotions like guilt, regret, sadness and fear are taking up double the space.  And the space that those types of emotions take up has an effect on your mental health and well-being.  So, bring it back to the facts.  Things are not your loved ones.  When you make the decision to purge a physical object from your space your memories stay right where they are.  Your special memories aren’t sold, donated or thrown out in the trash.  They are very much alive and will continue to live on if you feel compelled to share them. 

This hits home especially when we deal with losing a family member or loved one.  It can feel like the act of getting rid of their belongings, or items they gave us, is like throwing them away too.  But think of how your family member or loved one would want you to live.  Would they encourage you to live with guilt, regret, sadness or fear?  It’s more likely that what they would want is for you to cherish their memory and all the wonderful times you had together.  Perhaps even passing some of those stories on to the next generation.  I lost my Dad in 2020 after a decades long fight with cancer.  He wasn’t a man of many things but one of his most favorite past times was to make homemade sausage – and holy moly was it the best ever.  I remember helping him in the kitchen when I was a little girl and how much I love that time.  One of the things I look forward to the most is trying out his recipe with my own children.  He would love that.  And he would love that far more than seeing me feel guilty for donating any of his actual items.  Consciously choose to look at this process a different way and let the memories hold the space, not the stuff.

9. Allow yourself to feel

The decluttering journey of sifting through all those items of sentimental value can send you on an emotional rollercoaster.  The process can trigger good and bad memories, pleasant and unpleasant recollections, and funny and sad remembrances.  It can bring you back to different milestones in your life – the ones you’d love to relive as well as the ones you’d prefer to forget.  Through it all, it’s important to allow yourself the opportunity to feel and process those emotions and feelings. 

If your decluttering project is expected to be particularly emotional then try taking a gentle approach with yourself.  Set reasonable goals on how much to accomplish during each decluttering session.  Perhaps consider enlisting the help of a trusted friend or family member to be by your side during the process or to at least help get you started. 

Final Thought

Depending on the circumstances surrounding your decluttering project, remember to carve out specific time to focus on raking through such sentimental objects.  Hold yourself accountable to the categories you set in advance as well as the time you set aside. 

This is not easy work by any means but the best way to free up space for new memories is to find ways to preserve and honor your past special memories – whether that’s keeping, donating, selling or throwing out the “stuff.”