3 Clear Steps to Declutter Sentimental Items Gently and Stress-Free

Can decluttering and sentimental even abide in the same sentence?  Am I a cold-hearted scrooge to even entertain the notion? 

After all, every single greeting card I’ve ever received is absolutely precious, right?

And all of those blurry photos of scenery?  How about that Altoid tin collection? 

I am that person – the one who is 60-something and still has (had) all of it. 

I am the one who was embarrassed to admit to the bins and boxes full of keep-sakes whenever anyone suggested that each of us should have one – one! memory bin. 

But I’ve made some changes, and here are a few of my methods:

First…. Just Look

Even if you can’t imagine that anything in the box of baby clothes and mementos from your now-30-year-old daughter can go, simply open the box and look through it. 

Give yourself permission to keep it all, at this point you’re only reminding yourself of what’s there.  Even perusing it is valuable – it’s no longer the formidable unknown. 

And, you might even find a stained bib you can part with.  You might realize that you kept multiple story books but really only a couple are your favorites.  Maybe there’s something that your daughter would love to have right now. 

Just look through each of your albums, bins, and boxes. 

My son died when he was 21 years old in a car crash. 

I had given many things to family and his friends at the time – clothing so it would be worn – backpacking equipment so it would be used – a favorite item to remember him by (basketball to a fellow teammate, etc). 

Still, I had so many things. 

There were bins of his Boy Scout items (up through Eagle Scout).  I had boxes of papers from homeschooling, regular school, VBS, and every sports or summer camp he went to.  And don’t even get me started on the photos. 

So, for these items, I started with the “Just Look” strategy. 

Along with also taking the steps below, I’m down to four “Jason” bins (from about 20).  And they’re categorized, I know what I have, and I’ll re-visit them in another year or so.

Next…. Sort by Large Categories

When first embarking on the challenge of sorting through sentimental items, you may not know much about what you’ll want to keep or how you’ll want to sort them. 

And you may change your mind a few times. 

So, for a first pass through it all, sort by large categories.  You can refine later. 

You might sort by decade, person, events, or another system you decide on. 

At first, make the categories large. 

Don’t make hard decisions at this point but if you come across something that is obviously trash or you want to take action on now (donate or give to another family member), go ahead and do that. 

Create a labeled box, bin, or bag for each category and simply toss the rest in.

I originally sorted into ten categories. 

Having even fewer would be ideal but I was in my 50s before starting this process and had so very many things. 

I sorted by generation and person. 

Anything that belonged to that era or person went in its labeled bin.  One category was “Mom.”  Whether photos or correspondence or keep-sakes, if it was about Mom or her parents or siblings, or my cousins on her side, or Mom’s friends or her college days, it went in the Mom bin. 

I did the same for “Dad.” 

Then there was “Mom and Dad & Family.”  So that began the journey of their courtship and marriage, it included myself and my siblings when we were young, and it ended as we all graduated and left home. 

Next was a bin for “Rebecca” (me) and “Siblings” (I have 3).  These bins include anything I had from each of our lives from about 18 years old until we each married and had children. 

And finally, I had categories for “Rebecca & Family,” “Sibs & Families,” “Jason” (my son), and “Jackie” (my daughter).  Actually, I did have one more category, “Everything Else.”

Finally… Curate a Collection

Starting with an easier category of items, select the very best of the best. 

Intentionally choose your favorite items.  Is there a photo that brings to mind an event that made you laugh?  How about a lucky penny that your dad always carried with him? 

Choose items that carry stories with them.  Write the stories down or record them to a voice memo. 

Choose items that bring back positive memories.  You don’t have to keep items that remind you of hard or hurtful times if you don’t want to (or maybe separate those so you only go through them again when you’re up to it). 

Share the stories with your family and friends.  Store or display these items with care. 

Perhaps you’ll want to put some photos in an album or frame.  Maybe you have a curio cabinet to display a few favorites. 

For other items, you might select a box, perhaps one that belonged to that person or era to keep both the artifacts and written or recorded stories in. 

After curating a best-of collection, you might be ready to let go of some of the rest. 

Maybe a family member or friend would like some of it, and blurry photos might go into the trash, and so on.  Even if some items remain, keep them separated from the most treasured items and pare down again in the future. Do this for each of your large categories.

Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff

The best resource I’ve come across to guide me through this process is Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff by Matt Paxton.  In his book, he dubs the curated collections Legacy List items. 

I’ve adopted many of his strategies.  I began the curating process by going through the categories that involved my siblings and their families because it was easier for me.  And I did the same along side my mom (so she could identify people in pictures) for items that involved her siblings and their families. 

There were many photos, greeting cards, correspondence, school pictures, and Christmas letters in these categories.  I kept a few representative items that held good memories, then gave the rest to my siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins when we were all at a family reunion.  They could keep or pitch what they wanted. 

I have started the process for the harder-to-part-with categories, and each collection is at least smaller than it was. 

I’m glad to know that my daughter will have fewer items to sort through when it’s her turn to carry on with our family’s “Legacy List.”

I was the 60 year old that had ALL my keepsakes. Here are the 3 stages I used to declutter so many bins of sentimental items.

About Rebecca Plasters

Hi - Rebecca Plasters here. I'm recently semi-retired having worked as a family nurse practitioner, nurse educator, school nurse, and public health administrator for decades. Yes, nurses have so many options! Minimalism has been calling my name for several years and I'm enjoying the progress I've made. I downsized from about 3000 sq ft and lived in a travel trailer in my barn while I built a 1200 sq ft house on a 27 acre farm. I have now sold the house / farm, moved cross country, and live in a 350 sq ft studio apartment. What an adventure! I've learned so much, found my own minimal style and am loving this simpler life.


  1. Can't relate to nostalgia on 03/21/2024 at 7:59 pm

    My boyfriend will turn 48 in April. He collects and collects. He father has passed and has a storage unit of stuff, a whole room plus closet in our house of stuff and our garage with more totes of stuff. Comics old picture albums a lot or papers (random paperworks from his creative writing phase plus documents of things). The hard part he finds new things to collect. Gi Joe’s, baseball cards, nostalgic toys that people pay 20 to 200 for. His new collecting hobby Vietnam things seriously old jackets and old photos and now deceased military people. He purchased a few lots from an estate sale online to be sent here. His obsessed of collecting is really driving a wedge now. I have spent 10 years with him we have a son. He’s so busy living in the past and in other people’s past. We have never been anywhere as a family I am so shocked we were able to buy a house..maybe because it was all with me taking charge of the whole venture. When we bring this up for discussion he agrees with me that he needs to stop however it’s all words. This man has framed photos of dead military strangers and me and my son have one photo by his stack of baseball cards. Don’t get me started on the amount of money that went into all these things. I am really at a loss. I cannot express how much I enjoy throwing things away. I don’t want to add to this madness. I spring clean and get bags of trash of documents that serve no purpose anymore and donate clothes that no one will ever wear. I have so much space taken up by his “nostalgic nature” and his .. to me.. junk.. I really don’t understand why people hold onto soooo much stuff… let go and let live. But that’s me and as I write this on a random article I decided to read since some of its content relates to my life I feel more sure about letting him go. He can live in his nostalgia of randomness and obsession of collecting. I want to be free of this and live a present life of present adventures not pasts of different people

    • Sonia on 03/24/2024 at 10:44 am


    • Rebecca Plasters on 03/24/2024 at 1:17 pm

      Wow – It sounds like you’re dealing with many lifetimes’ worth of collections! I hear you and can imagine the impact – on finances, relationships, and your own peace of mind. Many of us hold onto some photos and items to remind us of family history or stories. They can bring joy and loving memories. But what you’re experiencing is something else. And no matter the reason, it is negatively affecting you and so, worth your attention. I do hope you find solutions and peace for you and your family. I too say “seize the day!”

  2. Carol Evans on 03/25/2024 at 1:54 pm

    I’m so sorry for folks living with this level of “collectivism.” I have a lot but now I know I’m not as bad. These kind of articles and the related comments do help motivate me. Thx to all.

  3. Jean Davis on 03/27/2024 at 3:44 pm

    Rebecca, thank you for sharng your process. I’ll implement it. The photo of the stack of records caught my eye. Our son died almost five years ago, and I’m just now ready to handle things he left including his collection of records. It sounds like you are doing really well. Good for you! Thanks for your timely (for me) article.

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