Skip to Content

Decluttering Sentimental Items

Decluttering Sentimental Items

Many people find it difficult to declutter their homes and some rooms and types of items are definitely easier to declutter than others. Sentimental items that we have emotional attachment to can be particularly difficult. If you have sentimental clutter which you’d like to clear, here are some tips on how to declutter sentimental items more easily.

SENTIMENTAL CLUTTER CAN BE HARD TO DEAL WITH

Some people find decluttering easier than others but I’m sure most of us can relate to finding some items more difficult than others. One of those difficult-to-declutter items are sentimental items that evoke memories and feelings.

Many of us have come across old photos and journals, family heirlooms, our grandmother’s jewellery, baby clothes from when our kids were younger, or even an old sweatshirt hanging in our closet from university days.

Whilst it might be easy to throw out empty bottles of bath products as we declutter the bathroom, or old shoes that have worn out or aren’t comfortable anymore, deciding on which treasured photos, children’s drawings, mementos from holidays or favourite ornaments on our shelves to keep can be a totally different matter.

They remind us of people, places, important events and special times. They make us happy and give us comfort. We may even feel a sense of responsibility if these items have been passed down through the family. Decluttering sentimental items isn’t easy!

Whether you’re a young family with kids, about to move house, decluttering in later years and moving into retirement and downsizing, sorting through your clutter or helping someone else with theirs, decluttering sentimental items can be hard. So, in this article I’d like to share some ideas on how to declutter sentimental items more easily.

WHY DECLUTTER SENTIMENTAL ITEMS?

Our most loved and treasured possessions can hold huge meaning and attachment to us, way beyond their actual monetary value. So, why then, would we want to declutter them? This is probably the most important question to ask yourself before you even make a start.

There are some wonderful benefits of decluttering and keeping your home easy to manage, simplified and organised, including freeing up your time and energy for the rest of life.

If space is limited, there’s also the obvious benefit of less clutter = more space and you won’t need so much storage if you have less stuff. And, you’ll be able to find things easier too.

However, when it comes to decluttering sentimental items, the benefits many of us feel from a decluttered space, often get overridden when we struggle with the emotional side of letting go of things that bring back memories and emotions. In a way, our hearts rule our heads.

If you’re struggling, ask yourself why you want to declutter in the first place generally. What do you hope will change? What do you hope to gain? Getting crystal clear on your why and being committed to it, will help you know how to declutter sentimental items in a way that works for you.

  • Do you need more space?
  • Do you want to live in the present and let go of the past?
  • Do these sentimental items make you feel sad/bad/guilty/anxious?
  • Are you keeping these items out of habit?

THE BENEFITS OF DECLUTTERING SENTIMENTAL ITEMS

Also, imagine if you could look at your favourite ornaments, find your favourite photos, choose your favourite piece of Grandma’s jewellery, or browse the best of your children’s artwork – without having to sift through all the rest just to find those favourites or best?

It’s frustrating, exhausting and overwhelming to search for things at the best of times, let alone when it’s something special that you really want to find. Sifting through sentimental items can be difficult anyway, why make it even more difficult for yourself by being reminded of all the clutter you’re holding onto at the same time?

Make the meaningful and the important stand out amongst the random clutter. Give your most precious items the attention and position they deserve instead of getting lost amongst the rest. Feel freedom from the clutter, go for quality not quantity, without feeling like you’re getting rid of treasured possessions and memories.

Working out how to declutter sentimental items isn’t easy. It requires compassion for yourself, a gentle approach and a clear desire to have less but more. Decluttering for the sake of it never really works and it definitely won’t work for your sentimental clutter!

Here are some ideas on how to declutter sentimental items more easily.

How to declutter sentimental items

HOW TO DEAL WITH SENTIMENTAL CLUTTER

Try these tips on how to deal with sentimental clutter. Be kind to yourself, know what you’re trying to achieve and why. I found tip 18 to be very useful recently.

Be in the right frame of mind

If you’re feeling nostalgic, unsettled or emotional then it’s probably not a good time for you to be decluttering sentimental stuff. You need to be in the right mindset. Positive, thinking clearly and ready to take action.

Give yourself plenty of time if you need it, or set a timer if you prefer to work in short, focused bursts. Play some music in the background, have a cup of coffee to hand. Have a friend or loved one help you chat through decisions and give you encouragement. Make it a pleasurable experience!

Be prepared before you start

There are a few simple things you can do before decluttering that will make clearing clutter much easier, no matter what you’re decluttering. Having all the supplies you need with you and a clear idea of what you’re going to be doing with your unwanted items are all helpful things to do before you even begin decluttering. They can make a huge difference to how well your decluttering goes and help you stay motivated and on track! Read more ideas and things to do before you start decluttering.

Ask yourself some questions

When it comes to decluttering, you should always be asking yourself questions about what to keep and what not to keep. With time, these questions become second nature and you’ll make your decisions intuitively. However, it helps to remind yourself of them when it comes to decluttering sentimental items.

  • Do I really need to keep this item?
  • Is it useful?
  • Do I absolutely love it?
  • Do I appreciate it in my life?
  • Does it add value in some way?
  • What would my life be like without that item?

It may be useful to keep these same questions in mind when decluttering sentimental items to help you avoid making too many ‘heart’ rather than ‘head’ decisions as you’re actually decluttering. You could even try practicing decluttering another area of your home first so you build confidence and practice in making these decluttering decisions.

There are other questions that you might like to consider too when deciding what to keep and what to get rid of.

Decide on the space available for your sentimental clutter

If you’re sorting through a lot of sentimental clutter and you’re stuck, it may be helpful to take a different approach. Instead of deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, decide on where you’re going to store the items and what space is available. Use the limitations of space available to help you make decisions rather than relying on your subjectivity and emotions. Only keep what will fit into that space.

How sentimental is the item really?

Take a long hard look at the item with fresh eyes. Does it really remind you of that particular person? Or have you been hanging on to it out of habit or indecision, or even fear of just letting go? Perhaps there’s something else that reminds you of that person, place or event more than what you’re holding in your hand right now? Would you consider keeping another item and letting this one go? Maybe consider a mindset shift – it’s possible to let go of an item without letting go of the person it reminds you of. Carry memories of people, places and events in your heart and mind, not stored away in an attic.

It may be tough, but if you’re keen to minimise the clutter then you’re going to need to take decisions and understand trade-offs. For every item you keep, there’s a trade-off or compromise, even if it’s just the space it takes to store your stuff or your time in dusting around it.

Baby clothes

Sometimes we hold on to baby clothes and baby shoes because we want to remember what our little ones looked like wearing them. It’s easy to let the quantity of these clothes build up if we don’t go through them regularly. But, unless you’re going to pass them down to a younger sibling, for example, then they’re probably just going to stay there in the box, taking up space and maybe even squashed and dusty. Could you take a photo of your child wearing the item and keep just this photo rather than the actual clothes? A photo takes up less space and is easier to store for posterity than actual items of clothing.

How to declutter sentimental items

Take a photo instead

Taking photos doesn’t just apply to baby clothes. You could take photos of anything (serving dishes, travel mementos, jewellery etc) and save these safely for posterity. Think about how often you really look at the item, let alone use it, especially if you’re holding onto things just to stuff them in a box, out of sight and out of mind, in the attic.

Another bonus of photos is that a photo takes up much less space than many other physical sentimental items, even if you keep them in albums rather than saved digitally.

If you’re saving photos digitally, make sure that you save your photos with a clear file name and in folders that are clearly marked up. When you go back to search for a particular photo it will save you time and frustration if you can find them easily. Don’t forget to declutter your digital clutter regularly or you’ll build up clutter, just in a different form!

Photos as desktop backgrounds/screensaver/home screen

If you’ve taken photos of items that mean a lot to you and you’re worried you’ll forget about them if they’re saved deep on your pc drive, then what about rotating them as desktop backgrounds or the screensaver on your pc or the home and lock screens on your phone?

Repurpose sentimental clutter

If you have any items that are made of fabric, for example, baby blankets, handmade quilts, lace, christening or a wedding dress, perhaps consider cutting out a small piece and making your own quilt (or whatever takes your fancy) out of a collection of these pieces. This way you’re condensing lots of different items into one item that’s also usable, creative and meaningful.

I have an old serving dish of my grandmother’s. It’s beautiful, large and deserves a place on show as it reminds me of her whenever I see it. I didn’t want to let it go, take a photo of it or pop it away, forgotten about in a cupboard, so I use it as a fruit bowl on my kitchen counter. Can you find an alternative, useful way to use an item that’s special to you?

For paper items, like newspaper cuttings or paintings, drawings, photos and other artwork, can you display it by putting it into a frame? Maybe you could make a collage out of a small collection of items that you can hang on a wall or stick in one page of a notebook instead of keeping a whole box full?

Get creative and see how you can re-purpose a sentimental item and breathe fresh life into it!

Lose the guilt over decluttering gifts

If someone you love gives you a gift, are you hesitant of getting rid of it because the gift reminds you of that person? I’m sure we remember our loved ones for many more reasons than that gift so try not to feel that just because someone gave you a gift, you must keep it.

If you’re racked with guilt at the prospect of getting rid of an unwanted gift then perhaps you’ll feel better by giving it away to charity rather than just throwing it away. There’ll be somebody out there who needs it and will put it to good use even if you don’t.

If you’re worried about hurting the gift-giver’s feelings, make sure you say thank you and then get rid of the item (donate/recycle/throw as appropriate). If it’s some clothing for your children, perhaps take a photo of your child wearing it, send that to the giver and then get rid of it.

Donate sentimental items to a cause that means something to you

Many of our sentimental items don’t have huge monetary value but they’re meaningful to us in different ways. Finding a place to donate your unwanted items, perhaps to a charity who’s cause resonates with you, could help you feel more comfortable in parting with some of your sentimental clutter. Here are some ideas on what to do with your unwanted stuff.

Pass on to a friend

Maybe a friend could make more use of the item than you. You’ll have found a good home for it with a friend that you trust so no need to feel guilty!

Children’s artwork

I’ve written a whole post on this topic so have a read of that if you’re struggling to work out what to keep and how to deal with the rest.

Keep the best, throw the rest

If you’ve got a lot of one item in particular then consider just keeping one of it, the best, and saying goodbye to the rest. For example, if you’ve been left with a whole tea set from Great Aunt Mildred, do you need to keep the entire set, or could you just keep one plate or the sugar pot, as a keepsake rather than the whole set?

I have a small pouring jug passed down from my husband’s side of the family. It takes up only a small space in the kitchen cupboard and gets used quite a lot at mealtimes. If we’d kept the whole set of plates and serving dishes I’d have put them out of sight and never used in the attic. This way we get to use the jug regularly and remember loved ones at the same time!

Photos

Today it’s easier to take photos than ever before. We’re so encouraged to snap away and share photos of our lives on social media that it’s easy to end up with hundreds upon hundreds of photos in no time at all. It’s impossible to keep them all so you’ll need to edit them regularly.

Get rid of the ones that are poor quality or don’t mean much and save the rest to your computer. What about older, original photos? I would suggest scanning these and saving them on to your computer too, so they don’t get damaged or fade over time.

You could even compile a book of some of your most precious photos with suitable captions and illustrations. It will be totally unique, professionally printed and you can enjoy flicking through it and showing it to others.

How to declutter sentimental items

If you find it overwhelming

If you find yourself unable to part with a particular item then just put that piece aside and move onto the next. It’s ok to sit on the decision for a while if you’re really stuck and come back to it another day. It rarely all needs to be decluttered right now. Pace yourself, take it slow but steady.

Don’t stop decluttering because you find it overwhelming. Take it one day at a time. Declutter slowly. Think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it so you can get your head around it. Decluttering sentimental items is very much dependent upon your mindset so the more you get used to the concept of decluttering your sentimental stuff, the easier you will find it in practicality.

Play it safe

If you’re really struggling with letting go, give yourself a safety net until you find your feet. Create a ‘maybe box’ where you can put items you’re not sure about. I don’t advocate this generally but decluttering sentimental items is so emotionally charged that anything to reduce your anxiety or uncertainty can only but help with the decluttering process.

So, if you’re really not sure whether to keep something or get rid of it, put it in the ‘maybe’ box. Revisit the box another time (set a date in your diary) and commit to making a final decision then. You might feel differently having waited a little while.

Memory boxes for your sentimental clutter

I recently had to declutter my Mum’s stuff. She passed away recently and I’ve been sorting through her belongings. I didn’t feel ready to part with everything and wasn’t in the right frame of mind to make long-lasting decisions about what to keep and what to part with. So, I bought a large 84 litre plastic box and created a memory box for my Mum. I kept just enough of her stuff to fit in that box. I clearly labelled it and put it in my loft for safe-keeping. I know it’s there and whenever I want to revisit it, I know her stuff will be dry and safe.

This memory box was such a good idea that I’ve done the same for each of my children. Each child has one box and I keep just enough of their artwork, school reports, certificates and photos to fit in that box. These boxes live in the loft next to my Mum’s. When I have more to add, I sift through the box to see if there’s anything that I’d like to part with in order to free up some space.

These memory boxes are big for me to keep enough items and they can easily be stored and stacked so my precious possessions are organised and easy to find. They’re also sturdy and will look after my sentimental clutter for many years to come. When they become full, I know it’s time to re-assess what I’m holding on to. I use their size to help me decide what to keep and what to let go of.

You may not have space for such big containers but a shoe box might be all you need. Precious items don’t have to be large to be important.

Storage

When you’ve finally gone through everything and are left with only the sentimental items that you absolutely, positively can’t part with, then you need to sort out how to store them. If they are so sentimental that you can’t part with them then you need to at least honour them with being stored properly. Stuffed and squashed in a bin bag in the attic just won’t do. Invest in some big clear plastic boxes to put everything in and clearly label what you put in each box to make it easier to find things later on.

A QUESTION OF BALANCE IN DEALING WITH SENTIMENTAL CLUTTER

Learning how to declutter sentimental items without feeling like you’re getting rid of memories is largely a question of balance.

  • If you’re getting rid of things to make space, feel less burdened by your clutter or because you’re moving to a new home and exciting new chapter in your life then parting with a few personal possessions might feel good, even liberating.
  • If you’re getting rid of things because you’re feeling stressed out, forced to downsize, you’ve inherited a whole load of clutter to sort out, for example, then decluttering sentimental items can feel really difficult. Even more so if family and friends have passed away and your belongings feel like the only things still present with you now that connect you with the past.

Decluttering should feel like a positive experience to benefit you. If it feels tough, upsetting or not the right time, take it slow, reconsider your ‘why’, take it one item and one day at a time. Listen to yourself, your gut and what feels right for you. Don’t declutter because you feel you should, declutter because you want to.

RESOURCES ON DECLUTTERING

I hope you found these tips on how to deal with sentimental clutter helpful. If you’d like to explore other ways to clear your clutter, here are some useful articles and resources on decluttering your home and life.