learning how to let go

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.

Here are a few key points about 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, my friend.

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 nowhere to store the megaboxes of diapers. 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 we are on a mission, my comrades.

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 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.

36 Replies to “learning how to let go”

  1. I highly recommend relocations like spending summers abroad or moving country a few times to knock the idea that you “need” all your crap around you all the time out of you entirely. “Four Hour Work Week” has a good section on this, if I remember correctly.

  2. A few years ago a freind of mine as an executor of an estate of a couple who passed away (no kids, very few relatives). We went to clean out the house and it tooks us a couple weeks to sort through all the things they had, books, knick nacks, photos, mugs, etc. I went home that very weekend and threw out/donated 4 large bags of things I did not use, want or love.

    The hard part is most of us have too much emotionally invested in our possessions. I’m having a hard time with my latest round of de-clutter (and surprisingly with kitchen items.) My ex and I really used to enjoy cooking and for me getting rid of the excess kitchen items has been hard. I realized that even though the ex and I have been apart for a number of years, this was my last real connection (and a happy one) to him. Once I realized this was fairly (no really) creepy, I’ve had an easier time paring down my kitchen clutter. I don’t have 16 coffee mugs, but I do have about 10. And I do serve myself a decent Sunday Lunch once a month complete with silver serving dishes.

  3. Excellent post, brip brap. I “know” all of this and yet I struggle with letting go. For me a huge part is remembering how much I spent on an item. I think that’s at least mildly sick. I’m determined to pare down this year! I got rid of my first two bags of stuff to the DAV just this morning.

  4. Sorry about the typo — in your “name” no less 🙁 I’m desperately foggy this morning and maybe should stick just to reading, huh?

  5. @Guinness416: You couldn’t be more correct. When I moved to Russia I got rid of everything except my clothes and a futon and my computer desk and my bed. All the junk disappeared. I can’t recommend the 4HWW yet. Despite reading Tim’s blog I may be one of only 3 people blogging who have not read his book.

    @Bouncing Betty: Absolutely right. The sentimental attachment doesn’t even have to be positive to make it hard to get rid of stuff. Seeing an estate is always chilling – you see so much junk. When my wife and I were idly looking for a new condo a few years ago we looked at one estate sale that hadn’t been cleaned up yet. That prompted us to launch into a decluttering when we got home. And 10 mugs are OK if you think it’s OK 🙂 I was thinking of my house; we have a seemingly endless collection – and it’s mostly my fault!

    @Elizabeth: Yeah, remembering the original cost is a big hangup. I think (I’m not 100% sure) there’s a term for this – sunk cost. If you go see a movie, you won’t walk out midway even if you hate it because you’ve already paid for it. The same thing happens (sorry to beat up on this one thing) with coffee mugs. “I can’t throw 8 of my 24 mugs out! Each one cost at least $2!!!” I do this ALL the time, too. ALL the time. Ask Bubelah.

    Oh, and don’t worry about misspelling brip blap – you are not the first! Now if you mispelled Steve then we’d have to have words… 🙂

  6. @FFB: That’s good that your wife isn’t a pack rat. My wife and I are both pack rats about some things and not about others – but complete different things, so the net result is I want to throw out her packrat items and she wants to throw out mine. We compromise by throwing out mine (just kidding, Bubelah!!)

    @Mark: Not buying junk in the first place is far and away the easiest way to declutter, but it’s a hard mindset to stay in.

    @deepali: I know what you mean. We have a huge 32″ TV (analog) that we use maybe 1 time per month (it’s in the basement). I have tried to sell it, to give it away and even donate it. I haven’t tried one last service that might take it, but if they don’t I may end up leaving it next to a dumpster. I hate to do it but nowadays with flatscreen TVs nobody wants a 400 pound TV. I hate thinking of throwing anything away, but sometimes it may be necessary. I will say that the Salvation Army will take just about everything, at least where I live.

    @Asithi: I love the idea of saying it has to be something that can be displayed at least! I do like buying a refrigerator magnet since we see that all the time. Digital pictures are great, too – I love watching vacation pictures as a screensaver on our laptop. We see those every day. If we had a picture album we’d drag it out once a year (if that).

  7. This strikes home for me. I am such a pack rat! My wife is the opposite and she’s the reason we have any space in the home. I’ve been trying to make a conscious effort to like at what’s accumulated around me and see what I really need and let go of the rest.

    Thanks for the tips!

  8. I am a packrat, but I’m not attached to anything. I’m just too lazy to clean. 🙂
    My biggest issue, though, is that I can’t just throw anything away – I hate waste. So I have to find some place to donate the item (and contrary to popular belief, Goodwill doesn’t want all your crap), and finding the time to do that is tough.

  9. When my husband and I used to travel, we would buy all kinds of survivors and knickknacks to bring home to remind us of our happy trip. The last time we moved, we have to toss out boxes of museums ticket stubs, shell necklaces, coconut wind chimes, etc. All the small cluttery stuff that does not improve your mood on a regular basis. Since then, we made a pact to buy only one item that we can display each time we travel, but we can take as many digital pictures as we want. That has been working out well for us so far.

  10. Have you seen what Star Wars cards in excellent condition fetch on eBay? If you’re going to throw them out, let me know when so I can fish them out of your trash can.

  11. One thing that tends to work here – putting items on the sidewalk for people to take. I live in the city and there is some lower-income housing not so far away, so things tend to get taken rather quickly. And yet for some reason, I still can’t be bothered to get rid of anything. 🙂

  12. I particularly like part 1 #2. If it’s in a box then unless you’re thinking about it all the time you probably don’t need it. (I do have some things in boxes which never got unpacked after the move and which I’ve been trying to locate…but I think about them a lot.)

  13. Great post.

    I really like #3 (take a picture).

    As for your old tv, I remember putting my old crt computer monitor out to the curb a couple of years ago with a note on it saying “it works”…no luck.


  14. I was reading through your article intently since I have been concerned about the growth of junk my garage and office. The Matryoshka doll picture caught me off guard. I too lived in Russia for a few years. I was there just a few weeks ago for the holidays. And for the record, I have only one matryoshka doll set. 🙂

  15. Steve, great article. I struggle with this all the time, but my wife is almost the opposite. I actually have it in my goals this year to clean things out and enjoy less clutter. I know I will feel much better about everything in the long run. Sell it, donate it, or trash it. I know I will feel better about walking into my basement and being able to find what I need, when I need it.

  16. @deepali: Yeah, leaving stuff out usually works in most places, although I feel bad about “littering.” I used to live in a place where there were a lot of homeless people around (Giuliani didn’t incarcerate ALL of them) and I would leave my old clothes or coats or shoes (all washed and in decent shape) folded up next to our building. They would be gone in 10 minutes every time.

    @dwr: I think the key phrase is “excellent condition” – I am fairly sure having childlike handwriting all over the back of your card like “Han is cool!” or “This is Steve’s card you stole it give it back” probably makes it slightly less valuable 🙂

    @Mrs. Micah: Again, sadly, one of my biggest problems. I have carted stuff with me in boxes for decades…

    @Mr. and Mrs. Four Pillars: Mike, old CRTs are funny – they still show a picture, they still work fine with today’s computers, and you can’t PAY people to take them away. I never have understood why people detest old computer equipment so much!

    @PLP: You were stronger-willed than I was, then! After I found a guy in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park market who could paint football matryoshkas I was sunk – but I do love my Otto Graham/Bernie Kosar/Brian Sipe/Jim Brown Cleveland Browns matroshka!

    @Patrick: I finally managed to get all of the spare lightbulbs we have in one place in the garage (before we had a few in the kitchen cabinets, a couple in the bathroom medicine cabinet, one in my bedside table, etc.) and just knowing “hey, that’s where light bulbs are” was a great feeling. Now if I can just replicate that for my computer wires/parts….

  17. I think letting go is difficult for everyone. I’m having an easier time ridding my life of clutter right now. I find that when I’m happy, it’s easier to get rid of an item I acquired when I was happy in the past. Right now, I’m trying to simplify my life by getting rid of clothes and accessories that I don’t like and don’t fit. My style has changed a lot in the past few years, and I need a wardrobe that reflects my current style. It difficult because some of the items still fit, but I haven’t worn them in years!

    Thanks for a great post! And thanks for the great advice on the tipping situation!

  18. I would say that it’s ok to leave stuff for another time. Once you’ve done one pass of decluttering, you’ll be amazed what you can get rid of the second and subsequent times.

  19. Pingback: Suburban Wife’s Daily Dollar Diary » Weekly Roundup and Link Love — ER Edition
  20. Pingback: Hot Topics for the Week: A New Beginning Edition | MoneySocket
  21. I subscribe to FlyLady online. She is having a Fling Boogie extravaganza this month- tracking reported weights of all the stuff people get rid of. Anyone here who is decluttering might want to add on to the sheer numbers of it all.

  22. This is a great article! I’m about to go through several boxes of “sentimental” clothes from high school that I have been keeping for some reason. I haven’t even opened the boxes in years. This is good inspiration for me to donate it all. Thanks!

  23. @Melissa: I had a similar experience getting rid of a lot of my fraternity stuff – I hated to, but I realized that a man in his late 30s wearing frat gear would just be sad. Doesn’t mean it’s not tough to get rid of it.

    @DivaJean: I have heard of FlyLady but I haven’t checked out her site more than in passing – but thanks for the reminder, I’ll look at it more closely now that you remind me of it!

  24. Just wanted to post the funniest thing I ever got rid of in a decluttering binge– a box of “momentos” from my childhood. In the box were things like- a shred of my blanket binky, notebooks from junior high, and best of all- a diary from 9th grade. I always joke that all my boyfriends have turned out to be gay (not really true- just seems so)- but this diary underlined some of my own naivete! One entry talks about how my “true love” (then) told me that he would love me as much as he could- but that would never be as much as he loved Barbra Streisand!! I know- a stereotype- but there’s a grain of truth there!! LOL! All of it went into the GARBAGE. I don’t need reminders of how dumb I was.

  25. @DivaJean: Ouch! That’s a good example of not keeping around the sweet-but-not-very-helpful reminders! But I definitely agree that those reminders aren’t going to be happy reminders, no matter how long you keep them…

  26. Good post. Have bookmarked your blog and will surely come back.

  27. Steve, Great article. Could you or someone let me know, as a man, what would you consider 'must-haves' for a man's wardrobe with all the rest just being fodder to be donated? I have drawers full of white socks, boxers, dress socks, etc. Closet full of clothes & shoes. Can't I really just get by with a lot less? I used to be able to fit all my “stuff” in my military duffel bag & go. Not so, anymore.

    1. Well, I'm not Steve but I have a suggestion: The maximum amount of clothes ANYONE should have – two weeks of work clothes and one week of casual clothes. As for socks, undies and the like – these should match the above. One formal wear. Get rid of the rest!!! Totally unnecessary. You wear one week, put that in the cleaners, wear the next, pick up your drycleaning and so on. Shoes: you should have one of each for work (black, brown, medium, navy) and one pair of sneakers. Belts, the same.

    2. @johnnygeorge: OK, my opinion is this: you need one good “dress” setup – suit, tie, shirt, works. You need about 2 casual setups – collared shirts, slacks, etc. After that, most men just need a few t-shirts and shorts/jeans – the number depends on your tolerance for washing. I get by on about 10 “outfits” – 5 “weekly” outfits of golf shirts and slacks (worn twice before washing, so not 5 sets), and – I will admit – a ton of t-shirts. I like having a pile of t-shirts, but otherwise, you're right – shed the extras. A good test – put labels on stuff with today's date. Remove the label when you wear it. In 3/4/5/6/whatever you choose months, if you have labels on anything, give it away.

  28. @johnnygeorge: OK, my opinion is this: you need one good “dress” setup – suit, tie, shirt, works. You need about 2 casual setups – collared shirts, slacks, etc. After that, most men just need a few t-shirts and shorts/jeans – the number depends on your tolerance for washing. I get by on about 10 “outfits” – 5 “weekly” outfits of golf shirts and slacks (worn twice before washing, so not 5 sets), and – I will admit – a ton of t-shirts. I like having a pile of t-shirts, but otherwise, you're right – shed the extras. A good test – put labels on stuff with today's date. Remove the label when you wear it. In 3/4/5/6/whatever you choose months, if you have labels on anything, give it away.

Comments are closed.