As a “Militant Minimalist” (my family’s title for me), I’m pretty good about letting go of sentimental things. If it weren’t for the fact that my family loves every dopey holiday ornament we’ve collected for decades, my Christmas tree would be just white lights. Like something seen in a prison visitors’ room, maybe. But, we all have those belongings with emotional weight that aren’t so easy to get rid of. This month, we offer some ideas for how to help part with some of those sentimental items.

My husband has a T-shirt from every exotic place we’ve visited. I have one that says “Cape Cod,” and I wear it when I clean my bathroom grout. But there are five things I will never part with.

One is my mom’s good china. She died at fifty-one, and I’ve missed her every day since. I don’t use it often, because I’m afraid of breaking it. (Um, also because it has to be washed by hand.)

Second, a cassette my dad made for me when I went off to college. It’s a recording of Al “Jazzbo” Collins telling the story of the Three Little Pigs in jazz-speak. Our family used to listen to the record when my siblings and I were little kids in the sixties, and we thought it was the most far-out record our cool daddy-o owned. If you’re curious, here’s a link.

Third up, Pob. Pob is a little blue wooden creature (a troll, I think) that my younger brother gave me. I named him Pob because I was 6 and Pob seemed like a good name. Pob went everywhere with me and gave me courage when I felt shy. He also went through the wash countless times. I still have Pob. Everyone needs a Pob and a little brother who knows you need a Pob. I love them both.

Fourth, the receipt from my first date with my husband (he bought dinner, and I bought drinks). That has been disintegrating in my wallet for thirty-three years. My marriage, however, has not.

And last, a little drawing done by one of my kids at age four: A picture of a girl with dimes taped near her head. When I asked her to tell me about the picture, she explained, “Mommy, you love The Beatles. So I drew Lucy in the Sky with Dimes!”

Those are my keepers. So while I may be heartless for tossing my Aunt Georgia’s brass-plated dancing circus elephant ashtray, I do know how difficult it is to part with sentimental objects. The following tips can help.

Tips for cutting down on the sentimental clutter:

  • Less is (not) more: Keeping only a few items makes each item precious, one that you actually see and appreciate. (Keeping your dad’s favorite watch on your dresser is meaningful. Keeping his 125-piece ratchet set in a shoebox in the garage is less so.) Sort and save only your most beloved treasures.
  • Out of sight, out of room: How many sentimental items have you packed away and not looked at for years? They’re out of sight, but they still take up space, emotionally and physically. You can probably let most of them go without changing your life in any way.
  • Repeat after me: “It’s only stuff:” Even if you no longer have the teapot or doilies that your grandmother gave you, you still have the memory of her. And when you let go of the object, let go of the guilt along with it. Family members wouldn’t want their stuff to be your burden.
  • Love the person, not the object: If you’ve been given something that’s not your style, re-gift it to someone who will appreciate it. You don’t have to keep it just because someone you love gave it to you. (Just don’t forgetfully return it to the person who gave it to you. Don’t ask me how I know this.)
  • Family heirlooms: Have you been holding onto things to pass on to your kids or grandkids? See if they can use them now. Just be sure that the recipient truly wants the item (ie: don’t guilt them into taking it). If family members don’t want something, see if a local historical society or museum would be interested.
  • Someone needs it more than you: Ask yourself if your items could help someone else. For instance, a single parent, college student, senior, survivor of domestic violence, or houseless person. Many nonprofit organizations gratefully accept clothes, household goods, and furniture. Animal shelters often desperately need blankets and linens. Do some research, and you can help improve lives with your donation.
  • Be picky: Have you gotten multiple gifts from the same person? Choose a few items from each gift giver, and let the rest go. (This doesn’t work if you have relatives like mine, who expect me to keep every object they ever gave me. “Hey! Where’s the crocheted Colonial doll toilet paper cover I gave you?” More reasonable people don’t act like this.)
  • Fill up your computer, not your closets: Do you have shoeboxes of photos, folders of artwork, stacks of scrapbooks, and so on? (Who doesn’t?) Set aside a rainy day–or two solid weeks of rainy days, if you live in the Pacific Northwest–and scan all your sentimental papers and photos. If that task feels overwhelming, you can send items to a scanning service. Converting paper to pixels frees up space in your home and protects your memories from loss due to fire or natural disasters. Be sure to back up your computer in at least two places, including the Cloud. (Just like I didn’t do before I accidentally deleted every single photo I took on a trip to Cuba.) You can also share digital treasures with family members to pass down to future generations. Recommended resource:  www.Forever.com.*
  • Take a picture: Our memories may be triggered by seeing or touching a sentimental item, but the memories themselves are not contained in the item. They live within us. Take a photo of the item to preserve the memories. Store the photo in a folder called “Memories” on your computer. Again, remember to back up your computer. Don’t be like me.
  • Thank you and farewell: If an item has served its purpose, let it go with gratitude. For example, greeting cards are meant to send a one-time message. If you appreciated the message, the card has done its work. If the card is special to you, take a photo, then recycle the card. If you have a beloved pair of shoes or a jacket that has worn out, thank them for taking you to many places, then release them. This idea comes from Marie Kondo’s book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
  • Just in case: Often we keep things “just in case” they might be needed one day. Like the four dozen vintage postcards I’ve saved for a craft project I haven’t completed in six years because I don’t do crafts. The Minimalists (www.theminimalists.com) believe that “Just In Case” are three of the most dangerous words in the English language. If you are holding onto an item Just In Case, The Minimalists suggest applying the 20/20 rule: If an item can be replaced within twenty minutes for under twenty dollars, let it go.
  • Turn a memory into money: If the sentimental item is valuable, think about selling it. Sell it through a local consignment shop or online through Craigslist or eBay. Sites like Facebook Marketplace and OfferUp also help sell items locally. Put the money towards a memorable experience, such as a trip, or family outing, or even donate it to charity.
  • Look but don’t touch: This one is really interesting. Research shows that if you touch an item when making a decision to keep it, you are much more likely to keep it, due to a phenomenon known as “tactile sympathy.” Get help from a loving but objective friend or family member, or a professional organizer (shameless plug for Big Rocks Organizing goes here), to help you by physically handling the sentimental objects. Don’t touch! Once you make a decision, have your helper take the items to their intended destination as soon as possible. Or, if immediately parting with items is too stressful, have your helper box them up. Label the box, and put a note on your calendar six months in the future. If you have not thought about or retrieved the items in that time, release them without opening the box. (The song “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen is now stuck in my head.)
  • Be kind to yourself: Letting go of sentimental things can be emotionally draining if you’re not the Ice Queen of Minimalism like me. Give yourself permission to do it slowly over time. But do let go. It will free you to focus on what matters most: The people in your life, not the things. Contact us for help.

*Big Rocks Organizing does not use affiliate links or receive compensation of any kind for recommended products or services.


About Andrea Thompson

Andrea was an advertising copywriter/creative director for 40 years before retiring then unretiring to start a new career in organizing. She fully admits her new home is not 100% organized.