The Hidden Cost of Keeping Something Just Because You Feel Guilty Getting Rid of It

published Jun 26, 2022
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There are so many reasons not to get rid of something. It was a gift. You paid so much money for it or got a good deal on it. You might need it someday or they don’t make it anymore (or like they used to). It’s still in good condition and you don’t want to be wasteful.

No wonder it takes so much effort, brain power, emotional strength, and exhaustive decision-making to get rid of anything. And when you multiply that by a houseful of clutter, well, it’s enough to make you throw your hands up and just live with it. Sometimes it feels easier to buy organizing supplies and spend hours sorting and storing and labeling than it is to thin out your belongings. 

But there’s a cost to keeping too many things — even one thing — just because you feel bad getting rid of it. This idea is summed up in the “sunk cost fallacy,” described this way by The Decision Lab

“The sunk cost fallacy means that we are making decisions that are irrational and lead to suboptimal outcomes. We are focused on our past investments instead of our present and future costs and benefits, meaning that we commit ourselves to decisions that are no longer in our best interests.”

The cost of keeping things that you’d be better off getting rid of is the “suboptimal outcome.” Because items elicit so much guilt or obligation related to “past investments,” it’s easy ignore the impact on your present and future, neglecting to consider the negative impacts of keeping something and foregoing the benefits that are within reach, one tiny but high-impact decision away. 

Taking a closer look at the cost can help you make decisions that are in your best interests, that serve your present and future self, rather than being held back in the past by the items that weigh you down. 

The hidden cost of keeping things that you should get rid of appears in three main forms: 


Every single thing you own needs some amount of management, whether that’s maintaining it, storing it, looking for it, retrieving it, putting it back, dusting it off, or some combination of these. Even just the few seconds you’ll spend wondering if you should finally get rid of it the next time you declutter is costing you time. The more you let go of, the more time you gain back down the road. 


Each item you keep demands attention. All the things you spend time on when dealing with any object also require your energy. Even if you dodge the decision of whether to keep something or not, you still have to decide where and how to store it, continue to maintain it, put it away after you use it, and clean and organize it. Then there are the more subtle energy-zappers, such as the guilt of having something you don’t use, the pressure to use it, and trying to remember what you have so you can use it, should that occasion ever arise. There’s even the guilt that comes when you see something that you have that you forgot to use! Lastly, there’s the passive energy-suck that happens merely from having clutter around, even if it’s put away and neatly organized. Getting rid of things that you’re keeping because you feel bad conserves so much energy. 


As any declutterer knows, the space you gain from cleaned-out spaces is reason enough to do it. The space itself isn’t the goal; it’s the feeling that comes from having room to find things and put them away without frustration. Moreover, the aesthetic of spaces that have room to breathe makes you feel like you have room to breathe. In one of the ironies of how things are, the space and air gained from having fewer things feel far more abundant than spaces crammed with things. Not letting go of things you feel bad getting rid of costs you this kind of space and the serenity that goes along with it. 

Of course, many things we own are worth our time and energy, and having them doesn’t rob us of peace and calm. But keeping anything just because we feel bad getting rid of it? Never worth the cost.