How to Sort Through Sentimental Clutter, According to a Pro Organizer

published Sep 24, 2023
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Shelf in someone's home with sentimental objects including greeting cards, small souvenirs, framed art
Credit: Sarah Crowley

Apartment Therapy’s Decluttering Cure is a free two-week decluttering program that’ll help you achieve a tidier home. Joining us today is guest cure-ator Kayleen Kelly, a professional organizer, owner of Kayleen Kelly Home Organizing & Redesign, and the creator of the CORE 4 Method.

If you’ve ever had trouble letting go of your stuff, you’re not alone. Getting rid of things can be an overwhelming task — especially when they’re items you once loved, received as a gift, or that used to hold dear memories. But when those things take over your space, no longer serve you, or bring up unhappy memories instead, that’s when you know it’s time to let it go. 

These things are called sentimental clutter, which is one of the hardest things to declutter, and today we’re going to make some efforts to sort through it. 

Day 7: Sort through sentimental clutter.

We have professional organizer Kayleen Kelly as our guest cure-ator and she’ll be helping us get through this difficult assignment. 

What’s considered sentimental clutter?

“Sentimental clutter are items we have assigned significant emotional value to, but they have pulled up and now they are hindering the functionality of our space,” shares Kelly. These items (like old greeting cards or family heirloom items) can represent moments or people in our lives “and the idea of letting them go makes you feel like you are letting go of those moments and people, but that’s not the case.”

Before you get started

You may have noticed sentimental items pop up in your decluttering process so far — maybe in your closet, kitchen, or paper piles — and we asked you to save them for later. Now’s the time to get to those items and as you continue to declutter other areas where sentimental things may pop up, please refer back to this guide.

Kelly stresses that before you can declutter, you’ll want to be in the right state of mind. Sentimental items can be tied not just to memories from the past but also to anyone who may no longer be with you, so grieving may naturally happen, she shares. Take your time, do only what you can, and consider having a friend or family member there or a phone call away to support you and make sure you stay on track. 

How to sort through sentimental clutter

To sort through sentimental clutter, Kelly likes to rely on her Core 4 Method, which breaks down the decluttering process into four steps: Clear out, categorize, cut out, and contain. You’ve been clearing out and categorizing your things so far, identifying what’s sentimental and not. Now we move on to “cut out” what you no longer want in your home. 

For instance, maybe you noticed that you have 10 college T-shirts in your closet, so maybe you can pare those down to three or four instead. They’ll still serve to represent the memory while not taking up as much space. “Just because it’s a small collection, doesn’t mean it’s any less significant to you,” stresses Kelly. And perhaps you’ve come across your once-worn prom dress in there, too. Consider letting this go if you already have a bunch of prom photos, which capture the memory instead.

Narrow things down to the best of your ability and only truly get rid of things if you feel 100 percent about it. If you’re not, consider putting it into your “maybe” outbox for now or back where it was because decluttering sentimental items is a long-term process. “We change and we grow and what’s significant to us in one moment, years later won’t be,” says Kelly. 

How much stuff you end up keeping or getting rid of will also depend on how much storage space you have, she adds. “Someone who lives in a 5,000-square-foot home is going to be able to hold onto much more than someone in a 700-square-foot apartment.”

When it comes to “containing” your sentimental items, there are three forms of storage.

  • Active: The things you use often, like coffee mugs, which will remain/go back to where they belong.
  • Long-term: The things you need to store, like objects, paperwork, and photos. Kelly likes to use 56-quart clear storage containers for these. (If you are limited on space, we at Apartment Therapy recommend utilizing some under-bed storage options, like the one featured in our Organization Awards.)
  • Knickknacks and decor: The things that you want on display. Kelly shares that you want your pieces to “complement, not consume, your space.” So items here and there are completely fine, as long as they aren’t cluttering your home.

KELLY’S PRO TIP: Lean into self-compassion as you go through your things. “When you are going through the decluttering process, you really have to be your own cheerleader,” says Kelly. Because in the end you may be letting go of things, but you are gaining so much more — like the ability to manage your home and take care of yourself, especially if clutter was hindering your mental health. 

What did you notice about your sentimental clutter? Tell us in the comments below. 

More ways to participate in the Decluttering Cure:

The Cure Program is a tradition here at Apartment Therapy — it happens every January, April, and September. Click here to learn more about the year-round program and when to sign up.