Minimalist Monday: What to do with sentimental items (how to honor your memories without stuff)

Posted by:Lindsay S. Nixon Category: Minimalist

When I think back to the source of my clutter (pre-minimalist), one big culprit, if not the biggest, was our barrage of sentimental items.

I can distinctly remember one of our closets (one out of the two total closets we had in our studio apartment), being half full by boxes of sentimental items -- pictures, childhood things, T-shirts, and what have you.

Even when we downsized from our very large, very spacious, two-bedroom apartment to the teeny tiny studio, I can remember filling up 3, maybe 4 boxes of sentimental items before packing anything else.

(We had a very small storage/moving container (outside measured: 5 feet wide, by 7 feet tall by 8 feet long) to get all our belongings in, so we packed in order of priority.)

The thought never occurred with me to part with them -- any of them.

As I struggled to pair down my shoes and clothes (things that were very practical and I used every day), I never gave a passing thought to all these... things... I'd been keeping and toting around from my past... things that I never used.

Or even really looked at.

I couldn't even lie to myself about that last part... two years later all those items were still packed up from when we downsized.

Sure I could say I had such a little apartment I had no where to put them but IN a box IN my closet... but the truth was... the real, hard truth... that even when I had a bigger apartment, most of these items "lived" in a box.

(Why do we always use our homes as a storage facility?)

It wasn't even like my Christmas ornaments that I pulled out every year. Some of these things "lived" in their box for years without movement.

Yet I kept them and the thought of parting with them tore me in two.

I think part of it was me trying to hold on to my past. Trying to hold on to people that have left (or died).. or chapters in my life that closed.

Strange thing, though, is I remember my life, and those people, even without the papers, and pictures, and various other things that lived in those boxes.

I couldn't even really remember what was in those boxes specifically...

I'd saved my... mementos... to remember, and yet I was remembering just fine without them. Some mementos even resulted in my saying, " what the heck is this?!" when going through the boxes.

(Perhaps just keeping something isn't enough!)

But even admitting this harsh truth to myself (I'm holding on to my past....) I couldn't deal with the emotions of letting it all go.

My big issue: What if I wanted to show these things to my presently unborn children?

Let me back up.

One night when I was in elementary school... I was maybe 7 or 8, my Dad crawled up into the attic and later presented himself with a dusty box. He opened it and showed me all of these books that had been his father's (someone who died before I was born) and a few of his school papers and drawings from when he was a boy.

I remember pouring over them, touching them... feeling like I was meeting my Grandfather... feeling like I was finding my Dad...

I can't really put into words how I felt... how I still feel... except that I'd want that for my kids.

Perhaps what I didn't realize then is how little my Dad had from his past. He'd grown up poor beyond poor, and moved constantly. The fact that he had anything from his childhood at all, is a miracle... and perhaps because he retained so little, I then retained so much.

But looking at the boxes in my apartment, and the dozens more in the crawl space of my parent's attic (many of them are my things) I knew I did not need all this -- a museum of my life -- for me, or my future kids.

A few things -- very important things -- sure, but not hundreds of these items.

I also wondered if my Dad had 25 boxes, and not just one, if I'd have cherished all his belongings the same... poured over them and loved them so dearly...

actually I don't have to wonder, I know I wouldn't have.

That's the power of scarcity.

Most importantly: I recognized I can still remember my life, hold on to my past, hold on to and love and remember those I've lost... and I can still share that with my future children (or whomever) and without 10 boxes of keepsakes.

If my house burned down tomorrow, I'd still remember my grandparents...

In going through my belongings (and Scott's) we found we often had multiple keepsakes for one event in our life.

My graduation from college was a big moment, I admit, but just how much did I really need to keep in a box to memorialize that day? I had hundred's of pictures, the program, newspaper clippings, matchbooks from the bars and restaurants we went to after, what I wore that day, MY DIPLOMA, and so forth.

I just don't need all these things... not having them doesn't make the day or the memory any less special or important.

AND I really don't think my future son and daughter is going to care to see all of it. A few precious mementos, sure, but I have laugh at the thought of this scenario:

"Oh hey kiddo! Here's Mom and Dad's big box of stuff from our graduation!"

And can you imagine if I did this at every event in their life?

"You have a big day coming up.... Well here's the stuff from MINE!"

I already feel like as children we feel we need to compete with our parents and I wonder if having such a big museum of our parents lives makes that worse?!

I have a few friends who have extremely successful parents and I've watched them struggle with that their entire life. Feeling like they have to live up to that standard, or something. That some sort of expectation is there -- if not by their parents, but society because of who their parents are.

In some ways, it acted as a source of inspiration -- which is the upside, but there is a very clear downside, too.

Meanwhile, my parents have always been an inspiration to me, and in all the right ways. Yet neither of them has boxes of keepsakes from their past... they're more of a living inspiration.

Their mementos are their stories... their wisdom.... their advice.

I really do wonder how I would have felt if instead of just knowing my Dad went to college, if he had a box full of proof he handed me instead...

But I've really lost my way with this post ;) These are just some thoughts that came to me as I was minimizing my keepsakes.

Circling back: In my heart I feel it would be more special if I had just one thing from my college graduation, like the necklace my mother gave me that my future daughter could wear, than a box full of "proof."



less is more.

BUT I GET IT: all my mementos seemed harmless... these things are so small... they hardly take up space... what's the harm in keeping them? I might want them...

But together they aren't small. Together they take up a lot of space. And together they make my house a storage facility full of clutter.

(And, arguably, take specialness away from everything else that's a memento).

The rest is just clutter and distraction.

You might even argue excess memorabilia dims the shine of real sentimental items.

Identify what is the most important to you and your family.


This was my greatest discovery.

There are so many ways to honor your memories *and* your mementos.

#1 Use it.

Don't save grandma's china for special occasions. It's a plate! Use it. Wear your father's cufflinks often not once year.

If you're not going to use it, ask yourself how high up in the sentimental hierarchy it really is. Do you need to keep it?

Someone else might find it very useful and valuable -- and isn't that honoring your memento?

I admit I felt a twinge of pain when I let go of my wedding dress. Yet I knew I'd never wear it again so I donated it to a charity that turned wedding gowns into prom dresses for girls who couldn't afford them.

That's the best, most beautiful second life my dress could ever have. I'm honoring my dress and my memory that way. It's doing a lot more than just rotting in my closet.

If someone you loved loved something, let someone else love that thing the way your loved one did.

For example, a friend of mine recently lost a male family member. She made a passing comment to me about how she found great comfort in knowing his belongings were helping others. Specifically, she talked about how happy it made her to see young boys light up when they received her brother's sports equipment. The boys at the community center had never been able to afford their own items, but now they had his and they would love and cherish it as much as her late brother did. "That's what my brother would have wanted" she said, "he knew I'd never use those things...but those boys will."

#2 Transform it into something functional.

Scott had a huge trash bag full of T-shirts from college that I turned into a quilt.

So many memory items can be re purposed.

#3 Take pictures or write about it.

Before I packed up all my childhood toys, I took pictures of them.

#4 Pass it along

As I touched on with the baseball bat... pass it along. Recently my mother gave all my childhood toys to my cousins. The girls love them as much as I did and in a way, they are even more special than the other toys they have because these toys were once mine.

They don't need to sit in an attic. They can be enjoyed now by a new generation.

Store it virtually.

I had all our old photographs scanned. They're on discs, a jump drive and in our cloud.

My past is there, at my fingertips whenever I want to look at it.

I've also scanned and stored holiday and birthday cards. A little morbid, but I do keep the physical ones that are most recent in case it's the very last.


This has been one of my biggest takeaways of my minimalist journey.

My memories are not under my bed, in the attic, or in the closet. They are in my heart.

Letting go is freeing and sentimental should also be useful.

Above all, know WHY you're keeping it.

Reasons not to keep something:

"I've had it forever"

Unless you're making whiskey, the passage of time doesn't improve something. Just because you've had it a long time doesn't mean you should hang on to it any longer. If nothing else, maybe you've hung on to it long enough?

"It was a gift"

I've never had someone come to my home and look (or ask) where their gift was. Nor have I done this to someone else. Most people don't even remember the gifts they gave out last year.

If the gift was special or extraordinary to the point you both remember, I'm willing to bet it was a very practical gift or something you use and not something that was sent to the garage or attic.

"I might need or want it someday"

You won't :) Seriously it's so unlikely it's not worth keeping it around. 1 in 1000 doesn't mean keep the 1000 :)

"It's worth money" or "It might be worth money"

So is your time and space -- especially if you're renting storage. Try selling it now. If it's not worth anything... let it go.

Reasons to keep something:

It's functional. It has a purpose other than memories.

You would pass it down to your children.

You use or look at it regularly.

If your house was on fire, you'd grab it right away.

Takeaway: you can keep the memory and let go of sentimental clutter. Sentimental items are all over the place and while small independently are large all together.

Honor your past without cluttering your present -- find your balance!

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