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What to Do With All Your Sentimental Crap

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Photo: Tai Dundua (Shutterstock)

If you live anywhere long enough—or you simply skew towards the nostalgic—it’s easy to accumulate a staggering array of sentimental items, aka clutter. You may not want to let go of tickets stubs, old meaningful letters, or the shirt you wore on your first date with your spouse. Because hey, one day, you might want to re-read all those notes you passed in high school, or pass down your prom dress to your daughter! (Who, sadly, is unlikely to want it.)

Often we don’t want to get rid of things because of the emotional significance they carry. But if we don’t let go of sentimental items, over time, our home will become a museum of old stuff. Here’s how to part with things, but keep the memories.

Save 1 or 2 items from important seasons of your life

Instead of two full boxes of notebooks and memorabilia from your semester abroad, select one or two pieces that hold the most significance, or conjure the most memories you hold dear. (Think bang for your buck, here.) You don’t have to get rid of all of your child’s favorite stuffed animals; but keep two rather than 12. If you’re decluttering items from an experience that spanned many years, break it up into bite-sized chunks and save one item from each timeframe. (One item from each year of college, for example.)

Preserve them in pictures

Pictures, especially when they remain digital, take up way less space than actual things. Even when printed, a photo book of your favorite newspaper clippings, chintzy souvenirs, or Halloween costumes is far more practical than hauling them with you every time you move, and dedicating half a closet to storing them when you arrive.

Repurpose them into something else

Do you know the children’s story Owen by Kevin Henkes? In it, Owen has to start school but can’t bear to part with his beloved blanket he takes everywhere. Though his parents try to sneak it away while he’s sleeping, even dousing it in vinegar to stop his dependence, Owen clings. It’s only when a wise neighborly rat named Mrs. Tweezers suggests converting it into a dozen small handkerchiefs he can carry anywhere that Owen is made whole again.

Moral of the story? Be like Mrs. Tweezers. Convert T-shirts or baby clothes into quilts or pillowcases. Newspaper clippings and old sports jerseys (once whittled down) can be framed and hung as wall decoration. Trophies can be spray painted and used as book ends, or they can be discarded while their nameplates are artfully framed. We recently wrote about ideas for managing your child’s metric ton of artwork; for suggestions on dealing with jewelry, dishware, and letters, see here.

Give them away

There’s something reassuring about donating hard-to-part-with things, rather than throwing them away. It’s not so final, and comes with far less guilt. If you’re not quite ready to chuck your extensive collection of baby toys or Mad magazines, why not gift them to a soon-to-be parent or a budding young writer in your family with a great sense of humor? When in doubt, ask yourself: Could someone else use this more than I could? Take comfort they’re not headed to rot in a lonely landfill, and they can have a second life in a new home.