The Challenge of Sentimental Items

For many of us, the largest expense we’ll ever tackle in our lives is our housing. The cost of owning a family home easily devours multiples of a person’s annual income. The median home price in America today is around $200,000, while the average American household income is somewhere around $60,000. Put those together and it’s clear how big of an impact home ownership can have on a person’s lifetime financial picture.

One of the biggest elements of that housing cost is square footage. The larger your home, the more expensive it’s going to be. Other factors like location also play a part, of course – a 2000 square foot home in rural Iowa will cost far less than a 1500 square foot home in San Francisco, for example – but when you’re comparing homes in a similar area, larger homes will cost more than smaller ones.

Why buy a big home, though? The reality is that, for many people, a big home is often used as storage space for our stuff. A home with lots of big closets means lots of storage space for stuff. A home with lots of shelves means you can fill them with lots of stuff. When you buy a smaller home, the biggest thing that you lose is storage space. In reality, no matter the size of home, most of us spend most of our time in just a few rooms in our home. If the home has a lot of rooms and closets and such, most of that winds up unused, often used as storage space.

Taking all of that together, it becomes clear that having a lot of stuff adds to the storage space that a person needs in their living space, thus increasing their housing costs. If you flip that on its ear, minimalism in terms of one’s possessions can thus reduce a person’s housing costs plus the amount one spends on their possessions.

Why do we keep so much stuff, especially when holding onto it becomes so expensive? One big reason for this is sentimentality. Items can trigger in us strong feelings of tenderness, nostalgia, and sadness, a yearning for the past or for a different time. Sentimental items remind us of different times in our life, different people and places and things long since faded, or of different roads in our life that we could have taken. Those feelings are strong, and when they’re deeply tied to a possession, it can be hard to get rid of that possession.

In the past year or two, I’ve made it my goal to slowly downsize my possessions, with some pretty good success. I’d estimate that I’ve eliminated about half the things I own, with a lot more on the chopping block. Some of this has come from eliminating redundant possessions, but a lot of it has come from figuring out better ways to handle items that I’m holding onto mostly for sentimental and emotional reasons. Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using to downsize my sentimental items.

Recognize That the Sentiment Is Inside of Me, Not In the Item

When I look at an item or hold it in my hand, the feeling of sentimentality that it creates is inside me. It’s not a part of that item at all. When I put that item down, that feeling goes with me. The truth is that the feeling of sentimentality doesn’t require the item at all.

I can think about my grandma any time I choose to do so. I don’t need an item to think about her. I can remember a great vacation any time I choose to do so. I don’t need a souvenir to think about that trip.

For me, realizing this helped me to eliminate a lot of the items I was holding onto purely for sentimental purposes. Those memories that were causing me to hold onto those items are still with me, even without the item.

Ask Myself “Will I Ever Use or Display This Again, Especially in the Next Year?”

One of the bigger challenges I have with sentimental items is that some of them are actually functional items or items I might choose to display in my home. I have quite a few board games, for example, that I hold onto because i have great memories of playing them in the past. I have books that I hold onto because I have great memories of reading them in the past.

However, as I said earlier, those memories remain even if I don’t have the item. I can still fondly remember a game I played with friends a few years ago even without having that game in my possession. I can still remember a great book I read a decade ago without actually owning that book.

What I’ve started to ask myself about each item I hold onto is whether or not I’ll actually use this item again in the next year or so. Will I read this book again in the next year or so? Will I play this game again in the next year or so? A very similar question applies to almost everything that I own.

If I can’t honestly answer yes to that question, then why am I holding onto the item? Furthermore, if it possesses such a high level of sentimentality for me but I’m not actually going to use it, shouldn’t I put that item in the hands of someone else who will enjoy and appreciate it?

What I’ve started doing is selling some of my used games and books to friends at a fairly low price, or even giving them away to friends. That way, there’s still the possibility of a future shared experience with those items. Note that I’m only doing this for some items where the sentimentality is strong.

For other items, part of the motivation to get rid of that item is the sense that I will be giving the opportunity for that experience that I had to someone else. To me, that’s a personal nostalgic reward.

Keep Track of Experiences By Other Means

One powerful way I’ve found to make nostalgia and sentiment manageable is to keep track of experiences by other means rather than the physical items themselves. I do this in a number of ways.

I track the games I play and the books I read using apps on my smartphone. Whenever I play a game, I mark it in my board game tracking app, and if something particularly interesting happened, I make a note of it. Whenever I finish reading a book, I mark it in my book reading app and often write a mini-review of it.

Having this record makes it much easier to actually pass along the physical item because I already have another “record” of the experience that I had with that item. I can look through my “games played” app and see all of the games I’ve played in the last several years and, often, just those records spur the kinds of sentimental memories and thoughts I want to have. The same is true for my books app.

A good general way to do this is through journaling. By putting aside some time each day to note the handful of memorable experiences that you’ve had that day, you’re creating a record of those memories. You don’t need other physical items to contain them. You can just flip through your journal and relive them.

Store Some Sentimental Items Digitally

Many sentimental items, such as photos and almost any kind of paper item such as a menu or an event ticket, work perfectly well as digital items rather than physical items. Stored digitally, they take up essentially no physical space whatsoever.

Over the years, I’ve scanned in thousands of pictures and tossed the originals simply because I’ve moved the value of that image into digital form. I’ve done the same with many souvenirs over the years, too – I’ve just taken pictures of things like menus and decals and tickets and saved the digital image while tossing the original physical item.

While I tried digital journaling for a while, I’ve stuck with pen-and-paper journaling, but I’ve found it well worth my time to scan in full journals when I’m finished with them, saving them as large PDF files and then tossing the old journals. I usually use FineScanner for this.

I’ve done this with things like childhood art projects that are memorable but not display-worthy. I’ve done this with countless documents and recipes and other things over the years. I just store them all digitally, dig through them when I’m in a nostalgic mood, and use many of those images as screensavers on my various devices.

Don’t Hesitate When Getting Rid of Things

One issue I’ve found is that whenever I used to consider downsizing a bunch of sentimental items, I end up hedging my bets and holding onto a lot of those things. I would assume that if I tossed it now, I’d never see it again and that would be a permanent decision, whereas if I held onto it now, I could at least keep my options open. This let uncertainty rule the day and basically ensured that I would never really downsize my stuff.

My solution for this kind of “on the fence” downsizing is to put all of that stuff in a big box with a giant label on it that’s dated a year from now. I’ll date it something like “April 1, 2020” or something like that, depending on the date when I fill that box – I just add one year to the current date.

Then, if I’m looking for a particular item and it’s in that box, I pull it out of that box and save it. It’s no big deal – if I find that I actually want something and want to keep it around, I just pull it out of that box and store it properly.

If that date comes and goes and I happen to notice the box after that date, I just get rid of everything in the entire box without even really going through it. I trust my earlier decision that the stuff in that box is just sentimental stuff that I was on the fence about.

With dated boxes, I don’t hesitate to dump that stuff. I don’t have any use for it if I haven’t bothered to even look at it in years. What value remains in memories is value that I’m already getting without those items, so they really do serve no purpose in my life other than taking up space and costing me money in terms of the storage needed.

Deal With Sentimentality in Other Ways

This is going to sound rather strange, but one of the best methods I’ve ever found for cutting through some sentimental ties in a healthy way is to just address those feelings head on in a new way.

One of my big projects for 2018 was to write a journal/family history/book of life advice in my own handwriting for each of my children. This is still definitely an ongoing project, but one of the biggest elements I’ve discovered as a part of doing this is that, in the process of digging through family and personal history, I’ve really come into contact with the fact that a lot of those feelings of sentimentality are wholly inside of me. Very few external items are needed to sustain it.

If you find yourself struggling to let go of sentimental items, find a new way to record the feeling that those items represent. Try writing a detailed family history, for example, or record one as a series of audio recordings. What this seems to do is transfer those sentimental feelings into a new form, one that no longer seems to require the old physical item. Often, it reveals that the feelings really are inside of you and not present in those items.

There are many ways to achieve this type of sentiment redirection. You can make a website. You can make a digital scrapbook. You can make a video series. The whole purpose is to face that sentimentality head on and record all of it in a way that’s meaningful not just for you, but for others as well. As you do that, you’ll quickly begin to find that the value of those feelings isn’t stored in old items, it’s stored in you, and finding ways to truly pass along that feeling holds far more value than a box of dusty items.

Consider Your Possessions As Your Estate

A final strategy I’ve employed is looking at all of my possessions through the eyes of the person who’s going to have to clean it all up if I pass away. If I were hit with a semi tomorrow, who would take care of this stuff? Who would want to even deal with it?

This has caused me to really start organizing my possessions and categorizing them in ways that are both useful to me and would be useful to a person who had to clean things up. It’s also led me to discard a lot of sentimental items that honestly have almost no personal value for anyone other than myself.

I have no reason to keep piles of old letters written to me over the years. I’ve scanned the ones I want to keep. The rest? Sure, a bit of sentimentality for me, but for the person who has to clean up my stuff, they’re useless. Out they go.

Basically, if someone cleaning up my estate is going to largely view these possessions as nothing more than a hassle and they’re not providing a lot of value to me personally in the sense that I’m actually using the item frequently, there’s really no reason to hold onto that item. Sentimentality is often a big reason to keep items that would fall into this category.

Final Thoughts

In general, I’ve begun to find that the most effective way to store the memories of the past are in digital form or in my own handwriting (which can then be stored digitally). Keeping around physical items for sentimental reasons – meaning I won’t actually display them in my home or use them again in the foreseeable future but it feels good to hang onto them – comes with a whole host of problems – you need space to store them (which costs money), you need time to manage them, and someone eventually has to deal with them.

Find new ways to deal with those old sentimental items. You’ll find your closets emptying out, your need for more space disappearing, and you’ll surprisingly find yourself more in touch with those feelings than you might expect. This process ends up not being a loss, but a pretty big win.

Good luck!