how to declutter sentimental things

5 Guilt Free Ways to Get Rid of Sentimental Clutter

Sentimental items. They bring back so many good memories, right?

Ah yes, joy. But also guilt, anxiety, and stress.

I am a sentimental person who didn’t like to throw anything away.

My grandma would always tell this story of when I was younger and she was helping me clean my room. Before she could throw anything away, I would make her show it to me so I could say yes or no. Well, I happened to look over and see her throwing away a gum wrapper, and well, I got super upset.

Yep – over a gum wrapper.

I had written something on it that was clearly of value ( sarcasm) and I just couldn’t part with it. And no, my teenage crush Leonardo Dicaprio hadn’t signed it.

how to handle sentimental clutter

I’m happy to say that I’ve grown a lot since then, and no longer have a messy room full of literal garbage. In fact, I’ve grown so much that not only have my family and I decluttered over 140 boxes of stuff and sold countless more, but I have been able to part with many items I considered sentimental and haven’t regretted a single parting.

So how did I go from gum wrapper saver to declutter-er?

Related post: What is getting rid of stuff so hard? How our emotions get in the way of decluttering

Every Order Plants a Tree

Here are five tips on how to get rid of sentimental clutter guilt-free:

Ask yourself a few questions

When I come across something super sentimental (lately it has been some of my son’s old clothes from when he was a baby), I immediately want to hang on to them. I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you can relate. But then I stop for a moment, and realize a couple of things (using an old shirt of my son’s as an example):

  1. I kind of forgot about the shirt until I ran across it

  2. The shirt had been sitting in a box at the top of his closet – so, not exactly like we were using it.

To help move past the immediate ‘oh my gosh I need to keep this’, I ask myself one question:

‘Will/would it make me happy knowing someone else can use it?’

9 times out of 10 I answer, ‘yes’, and am able to finally part with the item.

how to deal with sentimental things

Does it mean it’s always easiest to give away an item like my sons old shirt? No. It of course still has a lot of meaning and memories. However, I know I am not using it. I know he is not going to be able to use it again. I know I don’t have any plans to repurpose it.

You know what else I know? I try to imagine another boy or girl running around in the shirt, full of laughter and joy, and I know that makes me very happy. That makes it OK for me to part with it. Because I would rather have someone else using it and enjoying it than it sitting at the top of the closet collecting dust.

Quick side note about sentimental clothes: I have started becoming very conscious about the social and environmental impacts of fast fashion, and the importance of finding alternatives (like, second hand). So, if I can help by passing along items I am no longer using for someone else to use, that also helps motivate me!

Final note: If the shirt or other item is really meaningful yet I don’t feel like I want to keep it, then I’ll do the next tip.

clearing sentimental clutter

Take a photo – your sentimental item will last longer

Sometimes, if I love an item but not enough to keep it, I’ll take a photo before giving it away. That way, I can still ‘run across’ the item (in photo form) every once in a while (intentionally or unintentionally), and get that same rush of joy, love, etc.

Often, even just taking a photo gives me that extra courage to part with the item, and I never end up going back to look at the picture.

And you don’t even have to do anything with the photo. I know some people who keep a folder for sentimental items in Google Drive. Other people print them out and put them in a photo book (I would suggest a photo book from Paper Culture – they are a carbon neutral, sustainable company that plants a tree with every order.)

Repurpose the item

Repurposing can be a great way to give new life to an item you’re not using anymore yet want to keep.

Since we’ve been talking about my son’s shirt, we’ll continue with that example. A quick EcoAsia search (the environmental equivalent of Google – where each search goes towards planting a tree) on ‘how to repurpose kids clothes’ resulted in over 1 million results. Pinterest also came up with tons of results. Simply enter whatever item you’re wondering about and I’m sure you’ll find lots of options.

Not feeling crafty? Ask your friends/family, community, or even Etsy for anyone who could make something like a t-shirt quilt, produce bag, pillowcase, etc for you.

While this may seem like a lot of work, use that to your advantage to really determine whether you want to keep an item or not by asking:

How much MORE time and energy (on top of the time and energy you’re already putting into it) do you want to give this particular item?

Thank you for the memories

At this point in the process, if I’m still going back and forth on a particular item, I’ll pull out another question for myself, which is:

‘If I give this item away, will the memory attached to it go away?’

I’ve never had a situation where the answer was ‘yes’.

This question has really come into use for situations where the item has memories and emotions attached to someone who has passed away, but it can work in any situation.

My cousin passed away when she and I were both 22. That death changed my world. She lived in another state, so we didn’t see each other ALL that often, but for a while, we were really close. The few items I did have of the time we spent together became increasingly important to me. But, I wasn’t doing anything with them. There were a few pictures and cards she gave me that were just sitting in a box and had been for years.

I kept them for a long time, and they ‘made the cut’ through a number of decluttering projects. But finally, I sat with myself and the item, and I asked:

“if I passed these items along to someone else, would the memory of my cousin and the times we had together go away?”

The answer was no, of course not.

Because the memory doesn’t come with the item or from the item. The memory and emotions come from me.

So, I took a photo of some of the more meaningful items, and then I let them go.

Was it easy? Of course not. But I knew that keeping them wasn’t doing me any good. And no, I don’t regret doing so. The benefits of decluttering have far outweighed any type of regret. And I know that my cousin wouldn’t want me to hang on to anything that causes me anxiety and stress.

Put it away – but only for a short while

If after going through the four tips above, you just simply aren’t sure, here is my final tip.

Pack away the item in a box, somewhere out of sight and out of mind. Pick a duration of time (somewhere between 3-6 months), and set a reminder on your phone or in your calendar. After that time has passed, if you haven’t missed, thought about, wanted, or pulled out the item, it’s time to move on from it.

I’ve had to do this with a couple of sentimental items, and both times I ended up donating the item after three months of time.

Sometimes some space and mental clarity can be all that you need.

Want even more decluttering tips? I’ve got a couple of resources for you!

  • Join my Facebook group where I am hosting a free, 8-week decluttering challenge! The challenge started on January 1st, but don’t fear, all of the challenge tasks and tips are saved in the archives found on the right-hand side of the group page.

  • My FREE 7-Day Decluttering E-course

  • Check out my decluttering workbook, which includes worksheets on decluttering sentimental items and:
    • A printable with the benefits of decluttering to print out and hang up somewhere (or you can save it as your desktop background)

    • A checklist for making sure you have everything set up in order to start the decluttering process

    • Printable with the questions you can ask for each item you want to declutter (including the questions for sentimental items)

    • A comprehensive checklist of all the areas of your home to declutter (includes areas like your car, social media, etc)

    • 28-day decluttering challenge

    • Guide for handling gifts (perfect for printing out to give to others as a reference)

    • My decluttering e-book where I talk about all the roadblocks my family and I hit and then overcame to declutter 140 boxes of stuff (including sharing allllll the tips), PLUS the workbook mentioned above.

One final note: when decluttering, please make every effort to dispose of the product in an environmentally responsible manner versus sending the item straight to the landfill. There are so many options for passing an item along, and you never know when someone is looking for EXACTLY what you are getting rid of!

Here are a couple more resources for helping you with that:

How to recycle and get rid of clothes responsibly

The Eco-Friendly Magic of Tidying Up (a guide to responsibly getting rid of almost anything)

What helps you declutter sentimental items?

Want to learn how to adopt a reduction based lifestyle (through mindfulness, minimalism, anxiety management, and zero waste living but not sure where to start?

Take the quiz and find out!

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Struggling with decluttering sentimental items? This post has 5 tips to help you figure out what to do with sentimental clutter and how to clear sentimental clutter guilt free #declutter #clutter #sentimentalclutter #sentimental #howtodeclutter #decluttertips
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4 years ago

Thanks for the tips. I still struggle with 3 items. I have been retired for 5 years and have a box full of work paraphernalia/memories. At some point, I will probably throw it out, but can’t seem to part with it yet. Another item is watches. Some are expensive and some cheaper, fun watches. I now have an iwatch, so I don’t wear any of them anymore. An lastly – books. I mostly read e-books through the library, but I have a handful of books that I keep for reference. Some are inspirational and some are for reference like maintenance… Read more »

Kathy D
4 years ago

Great article. I have a few items around my house like this. I’ll have to try some of these ideas to let go of them.

4 years ago

I’m a sentimental nomad and still find it hard to let go of the little trash I keep in a shoebox. Your advice to take a photo of it knocked some sense i to me and maybe even better in this digital age. i am a minimalist and collecting trinkets like this is just a bit contradicting to what I say that I am practicing. That’s what I have taken away from your article today. 😊

Jennifer Ervig
4 years ago

I love decluttering so much!

4 years ago

This post was incredibly helpful. Unique way to approach decluttering and it really gets me thinking how much do I love this stuff really.

Chloe Daniels
4 years ago

I love this post. These are such good ideas, and you write about this so beautifully. I never really even thought about imagining someone else using the item and enjoying it. That’s a great idea.

Kathleen MacAinsh
4 years ago

Love this topic and the helpful advice you’ve provided. Makes me question some of the old papers from high school I’ve been holding on to.

Thanks for the tips – I’m pretty good at clearing the clutter, but my husband is the one that has trouble parting with anything that was a gift from family.


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