Coming to the End of a Sentimental Journey

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Many of us have inherited items from relatives who have passed or, over the years, started collections either intentionally or unintentionally. Now we have shelves, cabinets, and even rooms cluttered with these items or what some would call junk. We tend to hang onto these items because they elicit some sort of memory or emotion, and that is the key difference between sentimental clutter (pictures, possessions of loved ones, childhood items) and basic clutter (torn/stained clothing, broken toys, random books). To quote Dr. Julie Holland of the New York University School of Medicine, “sentimental clutter is the adult equivalent of a teddy bear.”

Letting go of sentimental items is tough! Keeping ALL those items or not removing basic clutter can lead to a home becoming overrun and become a health concern. Excessive clutter can lead to insect and rodent infestations, trip and fall hazards if in walkways, and, most dangerous, a fire hazard. Some individuals may even limit visits from family and friends or live alone due to clutter.

How can we “declutter” sentimental clutter? First, it’s important to understand not all items are necessarily clutter – if it genuinely makes you happy or brings you joy, keep it. Second, it’s okay to discard, sell, or donate items, so don’t feel guilty about getting rid of items. It’s better to remove items from your home than letting items overtake your home. There are a few steps you can take to help decide what will stay and what will go.

  1. Decide How Much Room You Have: It is important to decide in the beginning how much room you want to devote to the items you want to keep. For example, you can dedicate 10 percent of shelf space to these items. Think about going into a really nice cake shop – every piece of cake might make you happy, but you want to decide which piece of cake you actually want to try. It’s the same with sentimental items – too many things can diminish the quality of having them at all.
  2. Free Up Space in Your Home: For every one item you bring in your home, one or two items leave your home.
  3. Pick Representative Items: One easy way to reduce sentimental clutter is to pick good representative items of your collections and keep one or two favorites instead of the entire collection. For example, if you have hundreds of pictures of your deceased family member, pick up to 10 of the best to keep and display in your home. This can apply to collections as well. If a relative collected roosters, keep one or two of your favorites, not 50.
  4. Don’t Just Relocate Items: Every item in your house needs a forever home. As you are sorting through your relatives’ things, you may find boxes buried in their basement or storage area full of mementos from your childhood. It would make no sense to move a box of mementos from their basement to yours. Instead, pick two or three favorites to keep and discard the rest. You can digitize items like homemade cards you want to remember but don’t have room for in your home.
  5. Let It Go: Decide where each item will go – donate, sell, discard, or recycle/repurpose. Be sure to set a timeline to get these items to their intended destination.

The key for success in decreasing clutter is to follow through with your plan to get rid of things. An action plan is a great way to accomplish your plan. For more tips and information on decluttering, contact Jessie Jones, Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, at 910-671-3276, by email at, or visit our website.