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Organization

8 space-saving tricks for people who have too much sentimental clutter

Joy is great, but junk is, well, junk

A person sorts through personal photographs at home. Credit: Getty Images / Tom Merton

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Many professional organizers, like Marie Kondo, advise to only keep what “brings you joy.” But, what if your joy comes from memories?

From shelves cluttered with photos to yellowing scraps of paper or kindergarten art projects squirreled away in a closet, sentimental clutter is often one of the biggest barriers to an orderly home.

However, experts say there are some easy approaches for streamlining and learning to let go of objects, while still keeping those memories close to our heart.

1. Start with the small stuff

A person takes a bag of goods off a pantry shelf.
Credit: Getty Images / mixetto

First, let go of some easy items like pantry items.

It’s better to start with the “small stuff,” in a manner of speaking, says clutter coach and certified life coach Christine Kell. Objects with lots of memories should come last in anyone’s organizational strategy.

“You've got to get good at letting go of the easy stuff first—like old pantry items, toiletries, medicines, clothes. Then you can move on to the sentimental stuff,” Kell advises. “Don't try to start your organizational journey with the sentimental stuff. That's like taking an organic chemistry class before you've even learned to read.”

2. Trade knickknacks for décor that means something

A person pulls a book from a bookshelf.
Credit: Getty Images / xavierarnau

Minimize knickknacks to keep books accessible.

Janine Adams, a certified professional organizer with Peace of Mind Organizing, says letting go of books or mantel knickknacks is a great way to clear space for intentional display of sentimental items.

While having a box to go through in the basement with grandkids can work, her strategy is more about freeing up real estate on places like bookshelves.

“You need to display what you need to in a way that will make it part of their life. That way you’re respecting the items, whether it’s on a shelf or a shadowbox, they’re not a mish-mash.”

3. Pick the best, toss the rest

A person sorts through old clothes to donate.
Credit: Getty Images / ArtMarie

Embrace a "love it or leave it" approach.

Dana K. White, author and writer of the blog A Slob Comes Clean, is also a mom who once kept every pair of shoes her kids had worn. She says she eventually ran out of room for the shoes to fit their bigger feet, and that’s when she gave herself permission for the “keep one” rule —shirking the total “love it or leave it” approach favored by many organizers.

Today, White has one baby outfit from each of her three children in her (organized) closet. “I come across them every once in a while, and they bring back these great memories, but they certainly aren’t in the way and taking up the space that I need to live my life right now, not in the past.”

4. Realize that containers set limits

A person looks through a box of memorabilia.
Credit: Getty Images / eclipse_images

Use containers to organize and sort memorabilia.

White says her breakthrough came with the container concept. “I didn’t realize before that containers are meant to serve as limits,” she says. “I just thought I’d buy containers and stick my stuff in it.”

White says that realizing that space is finite and containers aren’t bins to fill to the brim, but instead serve as organizational tools, was an epiphany.

“I started to understand that there are limits. It took away the value decisions, which was so hard for me. Put your favorite things in the container first,” she advises. “Once it’s full you can blame the container and not yourself for having to get rid of things.”

5. Try a ‘best of’ approach and rotate the favorites

A page in a family photo album.
Credit: Getty Images / SetsukoN

Get a digital scanner to digitize family photographs.

While sentimental clutter can be a challenge for any age, seniors are especially prone to having objects accrue over the years, says Adams. That becomes even more troublesome when it comes to downsizing.

Retirees might not have as much wall or shelf space for all of their family photos, which can lead to some feelings of guilt if they have to pick and choose. That’s why Kell often recommends a compact photo scanner for older snapshots, along with digital frames that rotate images instead of having each take up space.

Not a techie? A rotation strategy can work, too. Adams is onboard with whittling down the number of frames—but keeping all images the same size within them—and simply rotating to the front favorite snapshots every now and then.

White says she keeps the best of her children’s art projects from each school year together throughout the year, but then at the end selects her favorite to keep in an organized folder or box. That keeps her focused on reviewing the year’s accomplishments and how much her kids have progressed without holding on to too many odds and ends.

White also recommends taking digital pictures of kids holding their art so parents—and grandparents—can better remember those smiles and moments of creativity.

6. Repurpose sentimental objects for the here and now

A ceramic tea set sits on a shelf.
Credit: Getty Images / Vitali Karaliou

Instead of keeping an entire set, opt to save one item for sentimental purposes.

Giving sentimental items a purpose—while still holding one or two of them—reduces White’s angst about ditching sentimental clutter altogether, she says.

For instance, her children’s burp cloths, hand-embroidered by a friend, weren’t tossed but instead used for dusting. “I got more joy out of them for a couple of years, and then when they served their purpose, I was able to let go,” she says.

Keeping one of Grandma’s teacups to display or keep sugar packets in is another good nod to sentimentality—it’s the keeping of an entire set in the basement that inhibits progress, says White.

7. Say no to family hand-me-downs

A collection of family jewelry heirlooms.
Credit: Getty Images / cupcakegill

Only say yes to family heirlooms that you intend to keep.

White says she was always the person to whom family members often passed down bric-a-brac —but having a goal to not accumulate clutter carries a responsibility to turn down such offers.

White says, “Reframe your internal conversations—blame your house, and not yourself for not taking things. Would your grandmother want you to feel bad about not taking her stuff? No.”

Now, White is the one giving things away. Her practice is to text her family pictures of sentimental items, and set them aside for pickup—with firm deadlines to do so.

8. Seek out friends for advice on what to keep

A person calls someone with a video chat.
Credit: Getty Images / damircudic

Call for backup from an objective source.

Impartial observers—i.e., not family members or gift givers—can be valuable resources when it comes to the keep or shed piles, says Adams.

“Sometimes you need an outsider to get the logjam moving,” she explains, of starting to clear clutter. Her go-to is often her college roommate on FaceTime, and she can hold up her phone to give her friend a perspective on objects and the space they might take up.

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