On All the Sentimental Stuff and Clutter


Decluttering comes in waves and stages and layers. Before moving last year, I entered the deepest depths of those waves and stages and layers.

I’m talking about the almost everything must go stage. The dishes and clothes were easy, but the stuff that was seemingly attached to my heart was tough. I’ve let go of many sentimental things in my decluttering journey, but there were a few boxes I held on to until our big downsize. Some things were hard to part with …

Things like …

  • The little plastic bracelet I wore my first few hours on earth
  • The red sparkly dance outfit I wore when I was 2
  • My junior high report cards
  • A newspaper from the day that NYC and the world was forever changed
  • Yearbooks
  • Ticket stubs
  • Polaroids from amazing evenings on River Street in Savannah (so glad Facebook wasn’t around then)
  • Champagne corks
  • The little plastic bracelet my daughter wore during her first few hours
  • Books I read to my daughter so many times that she started catching me when I skipped a page
  • Love letters
  • Break up letters
  • Our wedding day menu
  • Rocks shaped like hearts that I found hiking with the love of my life

Some of these things made me smile, some made me cry, but each of them brought me out of my life and into my past. As I started going through the sentimental, the ticket stubs, the letters, my mind wasn’t here anymore… but back there.

And, in an effort to hold on tight I thought, “it’s not hurting anything or anyone to keep this stuff” and then I remembered that I want my standard to be more in line with “how is this helping?” instead of “how is this not hurting?”

Instead of lingering in the past, I want to be right here in my big beautiful life to …

  • laugh with my daughter
  • plan dates with my husband
  • be immersed in creative projects
  • hike with my dog
  • work with awesome people
  • send new love letters

I don’t want my legacy to be storage containers of stuff. In one hundred years, no one will care about a letter of recommendation I received from an art professor that meant so much to me. No one will care how excited I was to get a ticket to a sold out concert at the last-minute. The stuff won’t matter, but the stories will.

I have my stories and I’ll tell them to people who care. And they will tell them to people who care. When I go, I don’t want to be remembered by the stuff I left behind, but how I loved while I was here. Now that I’ve identified why I want to let it all go, the paper and plastic stuff that made up my memories doesn’t have a hold on me or my heart.

Your Sentimental Clutter Questions

What do I do with old birthday/Valentines/other greeting cards? You might choose to save a few, or jot down a few of your favorite words before you let them go. If you want to recycle the cards, cut them in half, toss the personal and send a card of your own written on the back of the cover.

What about yearbooks full of personal notes? When I looked at my old high school yearbooks, I couldn’t remember who wrote what. The messages that were very personal in 1987 couldn’t compare to the little notes that I exchange today with my family or a good Skype conversation with my sister. Assess the meaning of those messages in your life today. If they aren’t relevant, release them. Let go to let in.

How do you let go of stuff that has been handmade lovingly for you, but it is not your taste? This is a tough question and the answer is more for the gift givers and creators. If you do make things or have a specific craft or art specialty, ask your friends and family if they would like you to make them something OR if you can make something for a local organization in their name. For instance, if you are a quilter, you could make a quilt for a homeless shelter in the name of a friend. When you give a gift, include permission to pass it on without hurt feelings.

As the recipient of arts and crafts (I’m an artist so I don’t take this lightly), ask the artist if you can donate the item to a place that could really benefit like a fundraising auction, library, retirement home, or appropriate venue/event.

What about things that can’t be donated, such as extra monogrammed wedding glasses? Even monogrammed items are useful to people who don’t have the item to begin with. If you aren’t using them, give them away.

How can I best help others to let go of sentimental items? Share your story. Share this post. Be loving and patient.

Whats the most effective way to store it if you keep it? There is always a chance that what you store will be lost, broken or forgotten. Instead, take a picture. Take on the shoot your stuff mini-mission or read Markus Almond’s simplicity in action story for inspiration.

What about wedding day stuff? Great photographs are enough for me to remember my wedding day and the people who celebrated the event. I gave my wedding dress away last year but clipped a tiny piece of material from my dress and my mother’s wedding dress. They are pinned together and if someday my daughter wants to pin them into her wedding dress, she can.

How about things from our children’s childhoods? If your children are grown, give them their stuff and trust them to decide what to do with it. Give them permission to keep it or get rid of it so they don’t hold onto it for you. If your children are younger, lovingly display their artwork and report cards and instead of saving all of it, save a few pieces or photograph them and make a digital memory book for your child. I have a small box of my daughter’s things for her and if she decides that they aren’t important, I’ll support that.

You don’t have to let it all go at once. Take it slowly, honor your memories and identify your whys. Moving forward, instead of capturing moments and boxing them up, embrace them. Be fully engaged and moved right now instead of when you are sorting through the past in a garage or attic.

Let your legacy be how you love, how you treat people, and the light you bring to this world instead of the stuff you left behind.



  1. says

    Absolutely beautiful and just what I needed today, Courtney. We were just having tea, and I told CJ, We are going to attack this bit by bit but regularly. He wholeheartedly agreed, but I know those sentimental gifts and things will be the hardest. Those are what the closets have not been rid of yet. The other crapola I bought through the years? Not so much! Much of that is already donated, recycled, or thrown away. Thank you for this!

    • says

      There’s no doubt that this one from Courtney rocked, Tammy. I guess I’m just an (un)sentimental fool because I don’t need Courtney’s help with this slice of my life (just the other 99.9%). But you can bet I’ll be passing along a link to this when people ask me how to detach themselves from the emotional bonds to things they want to part with.

  2. says

    This is great! I recently did a similar purge, recycling all of those cheesy award certificates for passing my high school AP tests, college acceptance letters etc. It was liberating and I cleared out two boxes of excess paper!

  3. Pamela says

    Thank you for this! Your timing is perfect. I am in the process of purging my studio space. Artfacts from my life that once provided inspiration now cloud it. This has been helpful and kind! Thanks!

    • Courtney Carver says

      Pamela, It’s great that you recognize how those things affect you and your work differently now. Time to say goodbye!

  4. tash says

    This is still something I don’t understand about minimalism – I know the purging of sentimental items is supposed to be about the memories you already have and making room for the people you have in your life now and there’s no point keeping boxes of useless stuff…

    But surely some things jog your memories? I have a box of things that I look through every now and again and it brings things to mind things that otherwise I wouldn’t even think to recall. Memories don’t last forever in your mind and it feels good to remember nice times- so that’s my answer to the “how is this helping me?” question. I suppose holding onto old memories too tightly is just as bad as holding on to the physical things perhaps?

    • Courtney Carver says

      Hi Tash,

      Yes, that sentimental stuff does jog memories and I’m not suggesting that letting go of them is right for everyone. It took me some time to get here and there are still a few things I’ll either photograph or hold on to. It really is a different journey for everyone.

  5. says

    For our family, we decided it was best to have one trunk to store our physical memories. It was the only thing we kept when we sold our house to travel for a year. It helped us to limit the space instead of get rid of everything.

  6. says

    I learned the quick & diry way of decluttering when I left an abusive marriage under cover of darkness with a baby & a basket of clothes. Later he threatened to destroy everything if I didn’t come back. I realized no THING was worth my life and there wasn’t anything I left behind that I couldn’t have again if I really wanted it. That was 26 years ago and I’ve not had trouble purging since.

    • Poetrycherie says

      GG BRAVO! I applaud your post. I did the same thing 33 years ago and you’re right “no THING was worth my life”. My daughter and I survived and lived well!

  7. says

    Just wanted you to know how much I enjoy your blog and all the wisdom you’ve gleaned, and that you share with us all.

    We are blessed to have the information.


  8. Kathy says

    But… as a genealogist, I relish all the small things my ancestors left behind, the bits of jewelry, the newspaper clippings, small drawings, old stamps, school papers and pencils, old photos, membership cards, invoice for the very first car in the family, journals, things that are antiques now… that tell me about my ancestors, their hopes and prayers, their character, how life was back then.

    My father gave us his World War II records. The women in my great-grandfather’s life kept his certificate of citizenship. My great-great grandfather left a diary of his traveling. The women left their recipes and love letters, poems, and sentimental things.

    So I would suggest on some things, clip a note to personal papers from childhood and your children’s things too, telling their meaning and your purpose for keeping them. Now, when you remember clearly, for those who come after. Not everyone in the family will care, but some family genealogist will one day, and you will come alive to them. They will know who they came from.

    • Heather says

      If it’s something you truly cherish, then go ahead and keep it. I had a lot of non heirloom but old stuff, so no real attachment. The 2 blankets from my Nanna were so ruined with smoke, I had to toss them for my families health. Perhaps it’s something you can pass along in your will. I had an album book for my son. I want him to have some sense of history and family, I just keep it really organized and up to date.

    • Gail says

      I battle with paper clutter and I really love this thought provoking blog post Courtney. While preparing my comment, I see that Kathy hit on the topic I was pondering. I have photos of my 3rd great grandfather and many other family photos I cherish. I’m so glad they saved them. Also a poetry book and diary written by my Great Great Grandfather. I have had penpals throughout the course of my life, one for 45 years and counting! I’ve kept all letters that I’ve received over the years. I have thought about scanning them and getting rid of some of them. Or perhaps donating them to a museum or historical society.

  9. says

    Thank you so much for helping me decide what to do with all of my old yearbooks. This post helped me a lot. Granted High School was both fun and well you get the idea and I will always be grateful for the friends I made but, it is time to move on and let the good and bad memories of that time go.

    I also love the suggestion of making a digital memory of my daughters papers and what I choose to save I can later let her decide what she wants to do with it.

  10. venu says

    In the process of moving out of my apartment and packing/letting go of 8 years’ worth of stuff. LOVED your article- it reminded me to put things in perspective, thank you!

  11. Beth says

    I was totally thinking about your blog this past week. I’ve been working on simplifying my life. One big thing that I want to get rid of fast is debt. So we’ve stopped spending more than we need to so we can put that money towards the debt, and done other things as well… Last week I was thinking that we should go down to one car. It would be less work, less insurance and we really can get by with one car. Then I thought, who would buy our old car, because of course I’d get rid of that one! :) I don’t even know if we could give it to someone. It is really reliable, just really old and looks it. Well, we were just in an accident in our newer car…and it looks like we will be down to one car right now :) but of course we’ll be keeping the older car that is not totaled. I asked my husband if we could just wait and not buy a replacement vehicle right now… to live simpler with just the working beat up old car. :) And now we’re done with our car payment too which helps on us paying off the debt sooner. The best part is that we were all safe!

  12. says

    A very thoughtful piece, full of great examples. You seemed to have answered all possible ‘but what about…’, doing so from a place of love and care. Thanks for a beautiful piece of writing.

    p.s. I’m excited about this ‘news’ of yours. I await patiently to hear what it is.

  13. says

    This post is very helpful. Sometimes I’ll get really into declutter, then come upon a few objects that I just can’t part with yet have no use for. Then I feel defeated, and just leave the mess there without finishing the whole declutter project. I will try again after reading this, and using your tips, hopefully I can let go of the past, and live in the present. :-)

  14. says

    This post is spot on for me at the moment – I’m not only having to sort my own clutter, but also clearing my mother’s house prior to selling. I just hope I can put at least some of these suggestions into practice.
    Thank you

  15. says

    I figured wedding day stuff may be the toughest, but taking photos makes it easy. Thanks Courtney! Really enjoyed your post;)

  16. says

    I have been slowly decluttering for a while now, but I am about to move into a much smaller space so am having to amp it up. This post was very inspirational for me, so thank you.

  17. Heather says

    As someone who lost 3 bins of sentimental items, it can be hard but it is doable. With a small child, I pic out only the most wonderful pieces he brings home from school and I have a wall in my office that I add too. I just buy inexpensive plain black frames from the store and frame them. It makes a great statement wall and I get to enjoy his stuff all the time. The rest go into a bin, but I clean it out monthly. I want him to have some things and he can decide if he wants to keep them. I also do shadow boxes for his first baseball jersey and cleats and I have done one for my military medals. I think it’s better to enjoy things out then stuffed away. As far as things that are not my style or I felt like they were too delicate for me, I sold them at a yardsale or donated them. I didn’t want the stuff in the first place and it was sorta forced on me. After 15 years of dragging it around, including 11 moves, it’s all gone. My son has a few family items and I created a family tree for him, so he has some history. He is being raised without emphasis being placed on material items. I will not force items onto him nor will I leave him a mess when my time comes. I have cleaned out 3 houses of older relatives when they passed on and it was a nightmare. The best things my Nanna did was pass on her “heirlooms” when she turned 50. She started over and downsized. She gave away all the fancy stuff and had just what she needed and no one fought over a thing when she passed and I know she was much happier.

    • Heather says

      One more thing, the 3 bins, well they were stored at my parents house. They are heavy smokers and ruined EVERYTHING in those bins. I did all I could to get the smell and yellow out and nothing worked. I was able to make colored copies of paperwork I loved but the rest was awash.

  18. says

    My parents passed away when I was younger and left me quit a few antiques; lots of trinkets and some beautiful vases, etc. I have slowly let most of them go, keeping a dresser and a beautiful 18th century secretary. That’s where it ends!! One vase I felt very guilty about selling, but it went to someone who appreciates it almost as much as I did…

  19. Deb Briggs says

    Very nice post.

    My family is in the process of moving to be closer to my aging parents (my mother is in poor health), and my sons and I are staying at my parents’ house while my husband sells our house overseas. So while I have cut away most of our non-essentials (I do have a couple regrets, but that’s another story), I am now buried in my mother’s obsessive clutter. It is really driving me nuts. She has boxes and piles of stuff that really mean nothing to her, and yet she can’t bear to part with them, and in fact can’t bear to have me move them, even to give more space to walk.

    I really fear that these boxes of junk, clutter, and old newspapers are going to be her legacy. This is what we will have to deal with when she passes away, and I believe that in our remembrance of her, the sickness that causes her to cling to all this stuff will overshadow the other, good things, that my mom has been. My mom’s death will recall all the guilt and effort of plowing through her stuff and throwing it all out.

  20. says

    wonderful post! It made my eyes watery, but I felt very happy & uplifted all at the same time (: Letting go of certain things is a struggle of mine & you put into words exactly what I needed to read!

    “The past is history, the future a mystery – all we really have is right now”

  21. Tammy says

    I love the idea of giving people permission to pass on a handmade gift. As a quilter, crafter, artist, I want folks to love the gift, but I also don’t want them to feel burdened if it is not to their liking/taste (because I know I struggle with hurting someones feelings myself!). So yes! Giving permission to pass it on is a lovely idea and one that I hope spreads!

    Now, on to tackling a house FULL of sentimental clutter…I believe I am finding a lost part of myself in the midst of it all : )

  22. says

    I started the process of voluntary simplicity 4 1/2+ years ago & it’s still coming in waves. It’s so amazing what I find myself letting go of, items that I never would have thought of parting with (not even if my life depended on it!) at the beginning of this process. Granted, the end of a live-in relationship sent the process into hyper-drive for quite awhile. I have my sentimental clutter down to 5 pieces of heirloom jewelry from mom & grandparents & a music box my mom bought when she lived in Germany.

    It’s funny because just when I think I’m done, that there is nothing else left that I am OK parting with, I turn around & have filled up yet another bag to drop off at the thrift store.

  23. says

    Courtney, this was a very timely post for me because I just wrote a post of my own about having a yard sale and needing to part with things. Taking a picture was one of my tips as well. We attach so much emotional baggage to “things”, and as I wrote in the post, quoting Peter Walsh, “The Thing is NOT the Person.”

  24. Patricia says

    Hi Courtney, I just stumbled upon yr blog and am finding time to read all your posts. Yes, I kept my wedding stuff for past 27 years and finally got rid of them with just one thought in mind – my time with hubby now matters more than the silly dried flowers I kept, the wristband I wore and etc…. I feel so much lighter now. Am in the midst of purging more, more, more….lol

  25. Rene says

    Well put…I emigrated once, and left all behind exept b/w photos and music. Yes we do need memory joggers but as you pointed out so well, tell the stories, but don’t leave the clutter..
    I will take a leaf out of your book, thanks for the clarity of thought and the stir of conversation it leaves in it’s wake.

  26. Nan says

    In 30 minutes a company who specializes in clearing the clutter is coming to my house to help me. I just happened to run across this site, and my emotions are starting to calm. It’s the sentimental things I worry, yes worry, about … where are they going, what if some family member wanted some of them. Thanks for your words. Now for the action.

  27. says

    Thank you for this! I have been sitting on my bed crying thinking about a childhood decoration my mom made for me many years ago. It had been in a box for decades until I finally gave it to Goodwill. I had forgotten about it until something jogged my memory and I was overcome with guilt. I pictured her buying the materials and spending hours, days, weeks making it and am questioning the decision I made during a major de-cluttering. I feel silly that something so small and forgotten upset me. My mom is still living; I have the opportunity to make more memories with her. It’s helpful to remember that in the end it’s all just stuff. We can’t take it with us and it won’t matter to the people we leave behind.