Are you feeling overwhelmed with nostalgic stuff you can’t seem to part with? It used to be hard for me, too. But today, I want to share with you how I learned to let go of sentimental clutter without regrets or tears.
I was raised by a cleaning perfectionist who casually threw out my things if she saw no use for them—like my favorite stuffed animal or the book I’d just finished reading that was the first of a trilogy I adored. You can imagine the trauma.
The Move that Taught Me to Let Go
As a young adult, I reacted by holding onto things for no other reason than they reminded me of a moment in time or a person I cared for. Before long, that clutter started taking over my small apartment. When I got married, I somehow crammed it into our new home.
Then, the military transferred my husband. We had more things than the Army would pay to move, so we’d have to pay the extra cost ourselves—while trying to come up with a down payment for a home at the new duty station.
Let me just tell you, when you’ve got 72 hours to decide about what’s worth paying to move and what’s not, you relearn your relationship with sentimental clutter quickly. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
What is Sentimental Clutter?
Sentimental clutter consists of things that have no value aside from the memories or feelings they call up for the owner. Just because something makes you reminisce doesn’t make it clutter—the question is whether there’s more to it.
An example of sentimental clutter is the dried corsage I held onto from a 7th grade dance. I’d long forgotten the boy’s name, only that it was the first flower I’d ever received.
Something sentimental but not clutter: that incomplete trilogy of beloved books, which I re-read every few years. I used to borrow the first volume until I found an exact copy at a garage sale and completed my set. Now, I revisit all three routinely.
Why Letting Go of Stuff Is Hard
So why is it so difficult to let go of sentimental things? Sometimes, it’s because they remind us of something about ourselves we don’t want to let go of—like the young girl who felt pretty for the first time when a boy gave her a flower.
And sometimes, it’s because we irrationally fear that letting go of something could bring bad luck to a person or our relationship with them. Or we mysticize items, acting as if our departed loved ones live on in the things they left us.
Steps to Decluttering Nostalgic Items
So, here’s the process I followed back when I had to pare down my sentimental clutter for that impending move all those years ago. If you’re drowning in stuff and feel ready to declutter but keep getting stuck, these steps can help.
Step 1: Have a due date.
Ordinarily, dealing with clutter is an ongoing process, not a project. But sentimental clutter is a finite group of stuff, so have a deadline to finish getting it out of your home. My deadline was the moving company’s arrival.
Step 2: Identify your 20 percent.
Most of us only use around 20 percent of the stuff we own. The rest is just stuff we like to have. This is something the military figured out long ago: they send the belongings you really need as “unaccompanied baggage” ahead of time. What must you have? Make a list.
Step 3: Know your price.
Since our move was overseas, any excess beyond the allowed weight limit would cost us a small fortune. That was a powerful incentive to let go of my sentimental clutter.
In this exercise you need to think up your own price you don’t want to pay. Maybe donating money to a cause you don’t agree with? Giving up a favorite activity for a month? Choose something unpalatable ahead of time and let it motivate you.
Step 4: Get it done.
Now, methodically gather the sentimental items that aren’t on your must-have list and aren’t worth paying the price to keep. Then, take photos of every item to back up the charitable donation receipt and take the boxes to your local charity.
Now, you’ve got photos to remind you of those cherished memories and a home free from the weight of sentimental clutter. You, my friend, are ready to move into your future with nothing holding you back.