How to Uncover Your Treasures by Decluttering Your Keepsakes

My oldest grandson will be 7 next week, which I can hardly believe.  I can picture him when he was just crawling around – such a cheerful, curious little guy, with a couple of teeth and a lot of drool.

I'm so thankful to have photos of him, his younger brothers, his mom and uncle, and the great-grandparents he will only ever know through stories and pictures.

I would never agree that in order to be minimalist you must get rid of every keepsake or piece of memorabilia.  I certainly have items that I treasure and hope to pass on to younger generations.

But I don't want my house to become a museum, or cluttered with bits and bobs from a bygone time.

I definitely don't want my kids to have to clear out 60+ boxes of newspaper clippings, road maps, ticket stubs, church bulletins, receipts, and more, as my husband did at his parents' long-time home.  I don't want them to come across ruined photos, faded negatives, decayed 4-H ribbons, or a trumpet that should have been donated to a school decades ago when my brother-in-law gave it up in the 7th grade.

Give yourself the chance to actually see and enjoy a curated collection of memorabilia, while creating space and freedom for your life today and into the future.

What is memorabilia?

A lot of things can fit into this category, such as:

  • photos
  • scrapbooks
  • letters and postcards
  • ticket stubs
  • a lock of hair
  • a dried flower
  • jewelry
  • travel souvenirs
  • school papers
  • trophies and awards
  • art
  • collections
  • china
  • furniture

to name a few!

It might not matter as much as you think.

As you decide what to keep and what to toss, recycle, donate, or sell, you'll have to wrestle with your emotions.  You – or maybe your parents or your grandparents – kept this stuff for a reason.  It meant something.

No one is forcing you to prune your sentimental keepsakes.  If you have space for an item in your home, and you're able to use or access it easily and often to help you remember that special person or event, then it doesn't fit the definition of clutter.  It's not part of a pile or shoved into the back of a closet.  It has its own place to belong, and isn't crowding out the things you need for day to day life.

The problem comes when there are too many items you believe have sentimental value, all competing for space and attention.  If that's the case, you'll need to make choices about what's most special, because your space and attention have limits.

Actions speak louder than words – always.  If an item isn't important enough for you to display proudly or have in a special place you can access often, and you don't find yourself paying attention to it for months or years, it doesn't mean as much as you think.  If it's just stuck in a box or a pile, kept out of guilt or "just in case," it might not qualify as treasured memorabilia at all.

Maybe you need to admit that, and move it out of your life.

How much room do you have?

Your past is important.  The people you knew, the things you did, what you loved and learned about and accomplished has made you who you are today.  Of course you want to keep a few items that remind you where you've come from.

But if you have a lot of stuff, the value of each thing is diluted.  In a practical sense, you need to have room in your home for easy storage or display, and room in your heart to make the time and effort to enjoy and acknowledge the items – or you might as well not have them.  At that point, those crowded, unappreciated items do fit the definition of clutter.

To start...

You may already have memorabilia somewhat sorted, such as boxes that hold high school souvenirs, wedding keepsakes, baby clothes, etc.

You'll want to tackle this job in bite-sized chunks, because it can quickly become overwhelming.  Start with one box and set your timer for 15 minutes.  When the timer goes off, get up, stretch, get a drink of water.  Work longer if you're able, always in 15 minute increments, or wait until tomorrow.  Keep at it.

Sort into five boxes or bags:  for trash, recyclables, donations, keepers, and undecided.  Get the trash, recyclables, and donations out of your house quickly, before you start second-guessing yourself.  Keepers can be divided into items to display and items to store (more about that later).

Undecided items can also be sorted into two categories.  One is for things you think another family member might like to have.  These items fit into the undecided category because you need to wait for this person's response.  Other pieces are ones you feel unsure about keeping for yourself.  Set a deadline (such as one month) to assess your space and your heart to make a final decision.

After completing this task, many people feel emotionally free and less heavy.  They've gotten rid of things they didn't even remember or care about, and also let go of negative emotions they didn't realize they had.  Sometimes the things we think have sentimental value aren't making us happy at all, but are holding us back.

5 practical strategies to declutter keepsakes

1.  Set a limit.

Limit yourself to a certain amount of space, and only keep the stuff that will fit there.  Decide ahead of time to store one box of memorabilia, make one scrapbook, or use one wall or one shelf for display.

When you decide to keep only what will fit your allotted space, you help yourself prioritize what is most important, and give yourself permission to let go of the rest.

2.  Pass items to others.

If you have a lot of items from a deceased loved one, it may be too much for you to keep it all in your home.  Maybe you'll keep your mother-in-law's antique mantel clock and use her vintage sideboard in your entry hall, but you'll pass the Johnson Brothers Rose Chintz dinnerware to your daughter, who loves it.

Passing items to others includes selling and donating everything else your mother-in-law left.

3.  Make display an important part of your decorating.

Use some keepsakes to make a focal point in a room, perhaps framing a handmade christening gown with photos of the babies who wore it, designing a gallery wall with multiple generations of wedding portraits, or decorating a mantel with a favorite seascape painted by your mom, brass candlesticks forged by your grandfather, and your own collection of shells and driftwood from beach vacations.

4.  Take a photo.

Some keepsakes are large, such as a piece of furniture or art, or an extensive collection you don't want to keep.  You can smile and remember just as well from a photo, while taking up a lot less space.

5.  Keep one.

Save one thing representative of a person or event instead of keeping everything.  One keepsake can hold a lot of memories and draw attention to itself because it's unique.  You'll feel its value and importance because it's your only token.  With fewer mementos, you'll treasure them more.

Decluttering keepsakes can be tough, but it's also a positive, freeing experience.  I know you can do it, and be happy with just the items you treasure.

We need the shelter that our homes provide.  But think about how you feel when you walk into your home.  What happens to your energy and your mood?  Does your home make you feel as good as it could?  Does it support the quality of life you need and want?  If not, why not?  What should you do to make a change?

With my book Comfortable Minimalist: Create a Home with Plenty of Style and a Lot Less Stuff,* you can start making your home more beautiful and welcoming right now, even if you have no money to spend.  Experience more open space, more natural light, and easier home care.  Learn how to do a home tune-up, how to fix your areas of biggest complaint, and how to start with a clean slate.  Discover the colors, details, and signature touches that matter to you.  From slight tweaks to a new look, Comfortable Minimalism is packed with ideas that will make your home the stylish haven of your dreams.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you purchase through my links, I may earn a small commission.

Updated June 2023


  1. What a tough chore if you are living with someone who wants to keep it all. Any solutions for that?

    1. That is a tough situation. I would definitely share this article with them, and initiate a discussion about all of these ideas, especially #3 (make a prominent display) and #2 (pass some on to other loved ones). See if that helps them feel more connected to their memories, yet still a little lighter.
      Let me direct you to another post I wrote specifically about other people's clutter:
      Maybe some of the ideas in that can help you too.

      It's hard to live with someone who doesn't share your minimizing efforts - I know. Work on your own things, and keep lines of communication wide open! Best wishes.


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