When I was much younger, I had a jar of items that I had collected over the years that I thought were absolutely magical. There was a white crystal rock and some really shiny polished stones that I was sure must have some sort of unique value, a rabbit’s foot and laminated 4-leaf clover (you know, for good luck), a few old stamps and coins that could skyrocket in value any day, and some Star Wars and A-Team stickers that were far too precious to actually stick on anything. For a number of years, that jar was tucked away in the back of my closet to protect it from would-be thieves, only to very occasionally be brought out and unveiled to the feigned or less often honest amazement of my closest friends.
Today, all but the coins are surely in a dump somewhere. I don’t actually remember how I had obtained any of the individual items. Some were given by someone else (who wanted to get rid of them). Others may have been passed-along tokens from dead relatives. And others I found at a garage sale or souvenir shop. At one point, each of those items had an intrinsic sentimental value to me. But, somewhere along the way I lost interest and moved on to newer, shinier objects that would also eventually meet a similar demise of interest. I don’t remember how or when I got rid of the items. Or why. But they are gone, and I can’t say that I miss any of them.
We accumulate a lot of stuff over the years. It’s been estimated that there is an average of about 300,000 items in American homes. I would (conservatively) venture that less than 2% of those items are used more than once per year and far less than 1% of those items are consistently used in our daily routines. The other 98%? It’s clutter. It’s stuff we don’t use and certainly don’t need to keep. But, it owns us. It has a physical and financial hold on us. We are housing it, keeping it warm (or cool) and dry, cleaning it, insuring it, paying its rent, paying to move it, and paying for the square footage dedicated to it on our property taxes. Whether we realize it or not, it also has a mental hold on us. We fear what would be if it were all suddenly gone. We often hand over our freedom of mobility because moving it all would be too much of a hassle.
Start by Categorizing your Clutter
Of the 98% of items that we almost never use, I’d guess that at least 95% of it has no true sentimental value to us. You can (and probably should) bucket most of it into one of the following categories:
- Clothes we don’t wear now, but you never know!
- Hobbies or projects we gave up on long ago or never started, but (surely) will get back into at some point.
- Things that we will (surely) fix up and make functional again someday.
- Stuff that we envision having some grand future use, if the stars align.
- Non-sentimental gifts that we have no use for, but fear getting caught getting rid of.
- Things we intend to trash, sell, recycle, or donate, but just haven’t found the time to do so yet.
You could (and probably should) part ways with all of this stuff starting as soon as tomorrow, potentially make some decent money in the process, and then never think about it ever again. A neighbor who had moved into a home down the street 1 year ago recently moved out and a 25-foot dumpster (!) in their driveway was filled to capacity with this kind of stuff. Categorizing your clutter allows you to properly label it in an objective way. And if you’re objective about your stuff and its usefulness (or lack of it), it’s much easier to get rid of it, without much hesitation. From there, it’s an easy trip to categorizing as sell, donate, recycle, trash, or (in rare cases) keep.
Getting Rid of Sentimental Stuff (Spoiler: it’s Still Stuff)
What’s left? The stuff that we’ve ascribed as having some sort of sentimental value. This stuff usually fits into one of the following categories:
- Collectible items that we think (or used to think) were really neat (e.g. music, games, cards, coins, stamps, toys, sports memorabilia, etc.).
- Awards, medals, trophies, ceremonial clothing.
- Physical photographs.
- Travel or event souvenirs.
- Old bikes, cars, or other big boy/girl toys
- Inherited items from friends or family.
- Items that someone made for us.
Why do items reach our vaunted and untouchable “sentimental” status? A dictionary definition of “sentimental” defines it as:
Of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.
That sounds… depressing. In my own life, when I’ve held on to items for sentimental purposes, even if those items were in memory of a fun or positive event, I’m often filled with a sense of nostalgic sadness. There is something deeply sad to me in elevating an item from an event that happened in the past as if I’m almost trying to re-live it through memory, and then realizing I never will be able recreate that moment in time ever again. It takes me out of the present moment. It leaves a void.
Mrs. 20SF’s family, around the holidays, will often bring out old home movies that were shot decades ago when she and her siblings were young. There are some cute and funny moments, but a similar sentimental nostalgic sadness always crosses my mind as I think “why aren’t we shooting videos this holiday or any holiday for the last few decades?”. In other words, at what point do we transition from using our time together to make new memories to mostly reminiscing about old ones?
In the last few years, I’ve been able to get rid of a lot of stuff, with a good portion of it being sentimental collectibles from my childhood and teen years – and it wasn’t easy. The short list includes (but is not limited to):
- Video games
- Hiking and biking gear
- Sports memorabilia
- Bikes I no longer ride
- Collectible clothing (e.g. sports, concerts)
I had once felt that my identity was tied to a lot of this sentimental stuff, so I had a difficult time letting go of it. But, we are not our stuff, as I reminded myself. Now that it’s gone, I don’t miss it. The house is less cluttered, I’ve made thousands of dollars, and feel lighter.
How to Think About your Stuff to Remove the Guilt or Remorse from Getting Rid of it
Getting rid of clutter is hard, particularly items that you’ve ascribed a sentimental value. As you decide what stuff you want to get rid of and what you want to keep, here are some things to consider and ask yourself that might help:
- Categorizing your stuff helps a lot in that it makes the process objective and more rational. Start there.
- Recognize the true cost of holding on to items with little to no use. Aside from the opportunity cost of not selling or donating the items, there is the cost of housing, storing, maintaining, insuring, and moving the items, as well as the psychological costs of clutter.
- Remind yourself that you are not defined by your stuff, no matter how it was received. We are not a collection of things. If your house were to burn down and you lost everything tomorrow, would losing your stuff make you any less of a person?
- Sentimental nostalgia can have the opposite effect of what you are intending. Ask yourself: does this item make you feel great, indifferent, or sad? Would you miss not having it around?
- If you’re concerned about losing the memory of something or someone by no longer having an item in your possession – could taking a photograph or writing a journal entry similarly rekindle the memory just as well?
- Help limit the intake of new items and motivate yourself to get rid of old items by using a strict “spend what you sell” strategy.
- Some day, someone else is going to have to decide to keep, sell, donate, or trash every single item you possess right now and almost none of it will be kept. We can’t take stuff with us when we go, so you should feel no guilt or remorse about parting from something before that happens. In most cases, you will find benefits to doing so.
This article was geared towards some of the more psychological aspects of getting rid of stuff, but this list of getting rid of clutter strategies that gets a little more tactical might also be helpful.