How 2 Pros Say to Deal With Sentimental Items While Decluttering

by | Sep 16, 2022 | Signature Kitchen & Bath Blog | 0 comments

Lauren Phillips for Better Homes & Gardens on how to deal with sentimental items while decluttering. Let the professionals at SRB Signature Kitchen and Bath help you create your dream kitchen or bath.

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The authors of ‘Love Your Home Again’ say it’s OK to keep sentimental items.

Most contemporary organizing guidance is clear: If it’s not immediately practical, get rid of it. But a lot of us are hanging on to items from previous phases of our lives or from loved ones who have passed on. Getting rid of these sentimental items isn’t so easy—and that’s OK, say Ann Lightfoot and Kate Pawlowski, the mother-daughter professional organizing duo behind Done & Done Home and the authors of the new book Love Your Home Again: Organize Your Space and Uncover the Home of Your Dreams ($28, Barnes & Noble).

Lightfoot and Pawlowski’s approach to organizing is empathetic, compassionate, and intentional: “I think our general, overall approach to everything in the home is that you don’t need to be a minimalist,” Pawlowski says. “But you do need to be intentional about what you’re keeping.”

Through their decade-old New Jersey­–based organizing service and new book, Lightfoot and Pawlowski are hoping to change the way we bring new items into our home—and how we get rid of (or keep) those things we just can’t seem to let go of. We sat down with the two ahead of their September 13 book launch to chat all things organizing and decluttering. Read on for their top tips for making your home a space you love—without getting rid of all those sentimental items.

Be Intentional

A key component of the Done & Done philosophy is the concept of Owning Well. It boils down to keeping and purchasing items with intention.

Lightfoot and Pawlowski encourage their clients to purchase the highest quality item that they can afford and then to take care of it so it lasts a long time: having fewer, quality pieces in your closet means you won’t be overwhelmed by quantity.

“If you have the right amount of stuff, it’s very easy to stay on top of it,” Pawlowski says.

Plus, when those items are lasting, you can enjoy them longer and won’t have to constantly purchase new items to replace them. (Reducing the amount of items you purchase is also a more eco-friendly approach to shopping—and you’ll save money over time.) You’ll also probably be able to fulfill a challenge Lightfoot and Pawlowski call Wear It All Day or Give It Away: If you can’t put something in your closet on and wear it out of the house for a whole day, you may need to reconsider whether it needs a permanent place in your wardrobe.

But the pair’s intentional approach to organizing and decluttering goes beyond clothes. They recommend going through sentimental items and keeping only those that truly add something to your life, whether that something is a usefulness or an attachment to a certain memory or person.

“We will often find that people take more … than they actually want,” Lightfoot says. “What we do say is to lay everything out and really think, ‘What of these things do make your life interesting, better, make you think of the person, make you happy?'”

The key is to not just keep things because they belonged to someone you loved—it’s to keep the things that person loved most or used most, or the things that make you think of them most.

“The things that [clients] truly want are the very useful knife that they picture in their mother’s hand or whatever those things are,” Lightfoot says.

Lightfoot and Pawlowski recommend picking just one item that you associate strongly with the person who gave it to you. This could be a hat belonging to your father that you hang by the door and see every day on your way out, or your grandmother’s favorite lamp: Things that remind you of the person that you can also incorporate into your daily life, to keep their memory closer. Using or seeing just one beloved heirloom every day will be much more meaningful than boxes full of items stashed out of sight.

And don’t be afraid to use those items, especially if they are particularly practical—and they save you from having to purchase something new.

“Enjoy it, use it. If it happens to break, OK. It’s been in the family for a long time,” Pawlowski says. “Making it part of your life is really important, rather than trying to shove it all away.”

When you’re trying to declutter and dealing with items you’ve inherited, think of the quality of the item and its association with the person who gave it to you, not the quantity of items they gave you: Keeping things just to keep them serves no one.

“If it’s useful or if it triggers a happy memory, a memory of the person, I think that makes it a much better reason to keep things,” Lightfoot says.

Focus on Your Life Today

Accepting the life you lead and the home you live in today is a huge part of the Done & Done approach.

“What can you accommodate in the home that you live in today?” Lightfoot says.

Answering that question honestly can help you eliminate a lot of items that you’re hanging on to for a future life or home—items that are taking away from your life today. When you really thinking about it, items you’re holding on to for a possible future may be making your present life harder, not better.

“I think we all live in this fantasy about whether you’re going to move, you’re going to lose weight, you’re going to have babies, whatever the different life things are that are coming,” Pawlowski says. “Maybe all of those will happen and maybe none of them will happen, or when they do happen, they won’t be what you thought they would be, and so you’re sort of living for this fantasy. It’s about being really realistic about who you are, what your life is today, and where you live today.”

Think also about who you share your home with. If a housemate or partner doesn’t share a connection to the person who gave you an overabundance of heirlooms, all those items can become a burden to them, particularly if you’re tripping over boxes or out of room to store items you’d really like to keep close at hand. By making physical room for your partner or household member, you also make room for your shared life.

“You can’t be grateful for what you have and who you live with now and what your life is about now if you’re constantly thinking about a life that happened in the past or might happen in the future,” Lightfoot says.

Ignore Sunk Costs

Most any expert—financial, organizational, or otherwise—will tell you not to fall into the trap of prioritizing sunk costs over future or current benefit, and Lightfoot and Pawlowski are no different. Having spent a significant amount of money on an item that takes up space and isn’t useful (and may even fill you with feelings of guilt for the money you spent on it) is not a justification for keeping the item.

“A lot of the stuff of holding on to things comes from very good places in people,” Lightfoot says. “It comes from financial responsibility, it comes from wanting not to burden the landfills. You want to be good to your family, you want to take care of the things they gave you—whatever those things are, they come from good places,” Lightfoot says.

But that doesn’t change the fact that you already spent the money, and you’re not getting it back. That doesn’t mean you can’t pass the item on, though. While resale prices will almost never match the original purchase price, accepting the loss and celebrating the fact that someone else will enjoy the item can be worth nearly as much.

“If you donate while it’s still good, stylish and in good shape, someone else might get to wear it,” Lightfoot says. “It does help offset the bad feeling of having wasted money. You made a mistake. But also coming to terms with that mistake helps avoid making that mistake in the future.”

Don’t allow sunk costs to lead to future costs, either. Avoid additional storage facilities as much as you can, Lightfoot says.

“People take more than they can handle, and so then they end up saying, ‘My apartment is packed, my house is packed,’ whatever it is, and so it goes off to storage and it becomes a double problem,” she says. “Something that you don’t see and don’t use and don’t really want and something that you’re paying for. That becomes expensive over time.”

By ignoring the concept of sunk costs—whether that cost is time or money—you can ensure the items in your home are truly items you love.