clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

8 tips on how to declutter and let go of sentimental items

Many people face that moment when they wonder what they're going to do with the sentimental items that fill their closets and attics - things like old photos, kids' artwork, childhood treasures, books and family heirlooms.

And it's almost impossible to consider throwing out such cherished possessions as that soccer trophy your daughter earned when she was 7 or a grandmother's chipped lamp - even if they've collected dust for decades.

But there are ways to rationally deal with life's clutter when the time comes.

Nancy McGivney, a professional organizer and owner of Getting Things Done in Scottsdale, Ariz., starts by asking clients why they're keeping something. She helps them purge their guilt, then their stuff.

One of her favorite tricks: Take a picture of it, then let it go. "I always say, you have to pass it on," she said.

Consign or donate the paint set you inherited, and let someone else be an artist. Or let someone else's child find joy in a vintage toy. It's a generous and eco-friendly thing to do.

Charlotte Steill, who runs Simply Put Organizing in Scottsdale and has appeared on HGTV's "Mission Organization," said she's busy with clients who can't upgrade to bigger spaces.

"I really think this (economy) is kind of a wake-up call," Steill said. "People are streamlining and really paying attention to their home environment and how it functions."

Organized people don't see dusty boxes as treasures, they see junk shackling them to the past, blocking them from new experiences and generally overtaking their lives.

That's why Gail Blanke, a New York life coach and motivational speaker, wrote "Throw Out Fifty Things" (Springboard Press, $19.99), which challenges people to free themselves from physical junk that weighs them down emotionally. At throwoutfiftythings .com, readers dish on what's hitting the dumpster.

"Once you start and once you hit 50, you build all this energy and you find you can't stop," Blanke said. "I think you can go home on any given evening and throw out 50 things. . . . You can certainly do it in two weeks. Just take a few minutes every day and get it done."

Here are eight ways to break free from the sentimental clutter:

1. Photos: When photos are digital, they're preserved for the ages on a DVD. Sites such as,, and walk you through every step of creating a photo book, from uploading and organizing photos to adding captions. (And they're affordable - for example, a 40-page notebook-size photo book is $19.95 at, and smaller flipbooks are just $4.99 at snap

2. Children's artwork: McGivney suggests buying an artists' portfolio case at an art-supply store such as Aaron Brothers to store kids' artwork by date, then periodically sorting it and keeping the best.

3. Kids' rooms: McGivney suggests buying an appliance box at a moving-supplies store. Then make an agreement with your college-bound kid to store everything he or she wants to keep that fits in the box.

4. Souvenirs: Steill said a lot of clients have travel tchotchkes - the majority of which end up in boxes rather than on display. Again, she suggests taking photos of the objects and adding them to the trip's photo album.

5. Books: Steill helped one client purge his beloved law-school books after making shadow boxes from his favorite textbook covers. The rest of the textbooks were recycled. Another book lover sold his collection on, leading to a part-time business.

6. Parents' belongings: Baby boomers are grappling with the belongings of parents who have downsized, moved into an assisted- living home or passed away.

Julie Hall, an estate expert and author of "The Boomer Burden" (Thomas Nelson, $14.99), urges people to pare before burdening loved ones. Have an appraiser evaluate items before anything is distributed or sold. Capture the home and contents with still and/or video cameras, making for warm memories.

7. Family heirlooms: One of Blanke's clients inherited her mother's collection of china figurines. Blanke encouraged her to set them out at an estate sale and take solace when buyers fell in love with them.

Blanke has this test for keeping heirlooms: "If having it around me makes me feel really happy, I'll keep it. But if it's up in the attic and someone else can use it, then I'll give it away."

8. Correspondence and documents: There's no way you can hang on to every Christmas card or letter. McGivney suggests treating holiday cards like kids' art. Keep only the best.

If you're cleaning years of paperwork out of a den, a shredding service can be a godsend. Remember that almost any bill or statement can be retrieved online, so there are few essential documents you must keep.