learning how to let go of clutter

When you look at a mug, do you see a mug? Or do you see a gift from grandma, a souvenir from that charming bistro in Paris, the cup that your daughter used for her hot chocolate when she was little? Whether you see just a mug or an object that “emits memories” probably makes a big difference in the level of clutter in your life.

Why shouldn’t you have sentimental attachments to “stuff?”

1. Stuff is not memory-magnetic. If you still own a childhood teddy that your father gave you, you probably tell people it has “memories attached to it.” It doesn’t. If the bear is given away to the neighbor’s kid tomorrow, your memories will not disappear.

2. Stuff packed away in boxes is not sentimental. I have a couple of keepsakes, knickknacks, doodads, etc. I have my Star Wars baseball-style cards from my childhood. They are in a box in the garage. If someone threw them away tomorrow, I wouldn’t notice for years. If you pack something away in a box and never take it out, you aren’t sentimental about it.

3. Some of the things you keep are not attracting good memories. If you have something that makes you sad, but you hang on to it because you feel it had some significance in your life, you aren’t doing yourself any favors.

4. You can’t take it with you. I guarantee that within 100 years either your stuff or you will be gone. You’re leaving your stuff behind sooner or later.

I like my stuff. I like my childhood toys. But I don’t like clutter. Something has to give at some point. That collection of Star Wars cards is one more shoebox packed in one more big cardboard box taking just a little more storage space out of the garage and making me grumble that we have no room for the bikes. So what to do?

1. Be brutal. Throw out stuff. You may be tempted to put it in a pile ‘for donation’ or ‘for the neighbors’ or ‘for my future grandchildren.’ Unless you go directly to the Salvation Army right after assembling a pile of unneeded memorabilia, toss it. I know that’s not the environmentally sound thing to do, but at some point you have to admit that your beloved stuff is worthless to anyone but you.

2. Be honest. If you have a sentimental coffee cup, fine. If you have three… OK. If you have 16, you might want to winnow down a bit. You don’t need 16 coffee cups.

3. Take pictures. If there’s something you don’t need, but you want to remember it, take a picture. Put it in a screensaver. You’ll see it, the memory will trigger but you’ll still have less clutter.

4. Sell it. If you can move promptly – see rule #1 – sell your stuff. You may love that 1964 “I Love Lyndon” coffee mug but face it – wouldn’t you rather have the $8 it could fetch on eBay?

5. Just refuse it, baby! The next time you go on a trip to Cabo Wabo, don’t get the “I partied with Sammy Hagar” memorial tequila shooters. Take some pictures instead.

6. Put it in circulation. I have about a dozen nesting dolls I brought home from Russia. I treated them like they were holding the Hope Diamond for a while. Then I suddenly realized that Little Buddy and Pumpkin would get a lot of fun out of them. I have a twinge thinking about them breaking, but then again it’s not like I’m going to forget I lived in Russia. If you have wedding china, use it! If you have an antique chair, sit in it!

I am a sentimentalist. I fall somewhere in the middle of the scale between Mr. Spock (emotionless rejection of all sentimentality) and people who keep their cremated pets in urns. I do, however, try to eliminate the least sentimental pieces I own, and more importantly to minimize the new ‘stuff’ I buy during ‘a moment.’ Learning to let go isn’t easy – but we have to do it.

11 comments

  • Sometimes we hold on to things just out of habit or because we already have it. The sentimental stuff is often probably just an excuse to keep crap around the house. My wife is very good at calling me out on stuff that has been lingering around the house too long.

    My wife and I make one exception when we throw stuff out. We like to buy the books we read and we like to keep them in our bookshelves. These books are indeed a memory to me. I also think that their presence keeps their content fresher in my mind. Then again, maybe I am just making this up and I am only old-fashioned. Who will know about books when kindle is all we have?

  • Wait…what?? I can’t take the little Russian nesting dolls with me? I thought there was a special glass cupboard in heaven just for little Russian nesting dolls!

    I’m w/ ctreit about the books and also about the suspicion that keeping my library is getting to be old-fashioned. As a nonfiction writer & editor, I used my wallsful of books as references all the time…until Google came along. Now, with every search term the key to a vast virtual encyclopedia and much of the literature in my bookcases available full-text online, I question why I’m keeping ceiling-to-floor cabinets full of books. On the other hand, my rooms would sure look empty without them. The evolution of the print word: from intellectual capital to decorator item…

  • Hey,

    I wish I could get my wife to understand that things in boxes are not sentimental. They only are when she happens accross them and remembers when she got them or the memories that are tied to them. I’ll bet that of all the good tips on budgeting you posted above, one of the best would be for her to sell most of her boxed and almost forgotten treasures on ebay.

    I’ll make sure to forward this post to her.

    Cheers,

    Guy

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  • Good article. I have half a closet full of boxes of pictures, baby clothes, etc. of our 3 children and could certainly use the room as our closet space is limited. Should I throw out the pictures too? I only have 1 box of those. My husband threw out most of the toys I wanted to keep and a crib, thanks to a flood we had in our basement. Any suggestions for how to organize a toy room? One of our children has an art room, toy room and still toys in the bedroom.

  • This is a great list! I especially dig #3 Take pictures and #5 Just refuse it, baby! I hadn’t thought to make a screensaver of my sentimental stuff, but it’s a great idea. Now I can ditch that teddy bear that I don’t want and still think of the good times it evokes. I also really love costumes but rarely ever wear them but I could keep the memories alive with pictures of me wearing them at special events. I try hard to practice #5 like when my dad insists on getting me a T-shirt from everywhere he’s been. It’s a sweet thought, but I just don’t need it. Great post!

  • My rule of thumb is that if I don’t use it then I don’t need it. I do have some sentimental things I like to keep around but only if they don’t cause clutter. Keep your photos in digital format for storage. I like to lean more towards a “minimalist” life style approach. Just having to much clutter equals kaos and stress.

  • Well organized, great post. I hate clutter, and I’m not sentimental, so I totally agree! My husband, on the other hand, not so much. It’s fun to have the yin & yang. I keep working on him!!

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  • Been tossing stuff for two weeks. Today I let go of my map collection (foreign cities I have visited) and all the postcards I bought while traveling because I don’t carry a camera. Also the vintage postcards I have had for years. Many years. It was easy! And I can tell I won’t miss them. What I will miss will be not having stuff to toss after this is over.