7 Tips for Decluttering Sentimental Items

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Last autumn, my family and I began preparing for an estate sale. My mom had decided to downsize, sell the family home and liquidate a lifetime’s worth of possessions.

The hardest part was letting go of mementos, those objects large and small connected to decades of family history. Though hard choices had to be made, we gave ourselves time and space to make them. In the end, the process itself became a memory — a happy one filled with late-night reminiscing and a few belly laughs.

If you’re facing a similar milestone moment (or simply want to clean out a few closets), read on. Here are some ways to declutter sentimental items without getting overwhelmed.

1. Take it one space at a time

A couple cleans out their cluttered garage
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Pace yourself. If you’re decluttering an entire house, take it one room at a time — or one drawer … or one shoebox. The idea is to make progress, however gradual, toward your decluttering goal.

Rushing the process typically results in letting go of way too much or not enough. With manageable limits, you’ll be able make a clearer decision about each object.

2. Categorize and conquer

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Establish categories for all the items you’ll be reviewing, then sort. Ideally, each object will be added to a pile marked:

  • Keep: The Keep pile is reserved for those things you simply can’t let go.
  • Sell: Items of significant monetary value can be sold online or through a local consignment store.
  • Gift/Donate: Objects in this category can be passed on to family and friends or donated to charity.
  • Toss: The Toss pile is for unusable items or ephemera (ticket stubs, photos, matchbooks, etc.).
  • Unsure: Can’t make up your mind about something? Don’t let it derail your project. Put it in the Unsure pile and move on.

At this point in the process, intention is key. You must be willing to actually toss an item, donate it or be prepared to store it.

See also: “12 Things You Should Never Donate to Thrift Stores”

3. Assess your feelings

Worried senior man
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As you consider each item, try to consciously recall the people and events that make it special. Are the memories positive or painful? Joyous or guilt-ridden?

Nostalgia comes in many forms. Consider letting go of those things associated with anxiety or sadness — no matter how long you’ve held on to them. Make this pact with yourself: I’ll reserve space in my home for only good memories.

4. Take photos

man taking a photograph
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It’s often easier to let an object go if we’re able to “capture” it in some way. Use the power of technology to help you declutter sentimental items. Digital images are basically free, take up no physical space, and are indestructible.

Snap a digital pic of old photographs, postcards, letters and even antiques before you let them go. These virtual mementos can live in the cloud or on a thumb drive forever.

To digitize and preserve film reels, video tapes, and slides, consider using a professional service such as Legacybox or EverPresent.

5. Say ‘goodbye’

senior woman smiling looking at family photos
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I rolled my eyes when I first heard Marie Kondo suggest that people thank objects as part of the discarding process. But over the past few years, it’s started to make more sense. To me, it’s less about thanking an inanimate object and more about honoring my own object-filled past (and letting parts of it go).

In the spirit of the KonMari Method, release with gratitude those things that no longer serve you. Then, let them become part of someone else’s story.

See also: “12 Retailers That Want To Buy Your Clutter”

6. Honor what you keep

Woman hanging artwork
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Not all sentimental items are appropriate to display, but many are. For those things you’ve decided to keep, ask yourself, “Instead of sticking this back in the closet, what’s a better way to honor the memories it holds?”

Old photos and kids’ artwork can be framed and hung in groups to create a gallery wall. Other mementos can be preserved in shadow boxes and integrated into your home’s decor.

7. Cut yourself some slack

Woman looking at box of old things to donate or sell
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Now, let’s get back to that Unsure pile. If there’s no compelling circumstance forcing you to make a decision … well, don’t.

Memories are incredibly powerful and emotions run deep. Continue to declutter other rooms and boxes. As you revisit (and inevitably add to) the Unsure pile, your feelings may change and choices become easier to make.

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