put mementos and sentimental clutter in a special box

What to do with sentimental clutter

updated January 2022

Mementos and sentimental clutter can often trip you up when you try to declutter. What to do with all the precious personal tchotchkes that bring back so many memories?

We feel so guilty. How could you ever think of getting rid of your kids’ kindergarten papers? Or the wooden jewelry box your grandfather made for you. They take up so much space but it feels wrong to pitch them.

All of us have things that objectively have no value. And yet try and pry that baby blanket out of our hands and see what happens. It won’t be pretty. The blanket itself may be in shreds but the memories it holds are precious.

You’ll hear the usual suggestions to take a picture, to write down the story, to make a shadow box and create scrapbooks. But the most successful way to handle your tangible memories is to create a sentiment box.

What is a sentiment box?

It’s a container, ideally light enough that you could hold it on your lap while you look through the contents. The contents are very special because we don’t have twenty-five sentiment boxes, we just have one. The box is intensely personal. You don’t have to write notes about why something is in there, you’ll know.

Start making your sentiment box now

You’ll enjoy making it much more if you start now. Trying to put one together when you have a month to downsize will be stressful and you’ll be making snap judgments instead of listening to your heart.

What should you put in a sentiment box?

It holds the essence of what makes you smile, be it a favorite shell, a letter from a beloved relative, scribbles by your 18 month old who was “writing”, a ticket to a concert or movie you loved. There might be a medal from your first race, the recipe for your wedding cake, a silly photograph of your parents goofing around at your 3rd birthday party.

Exactly the sorts of things I’m usually advising you to declutter. But these things are different because they’re so very carefully selected. They’re the highlights of a life well lived and well loved. They sum up what has given you joy in the past and still brings a smile to your face when you rediscover it.

Choose the sentimental items that mean the most to you

The only prerequisite is that these things must warm your heart. We don’t stick a school report card in there so we have a something for each period of our lives. We’re not curating a chronological exhibition of your life here, we’re holding a sacred spot for reminders of cherished memories. It’s totally okay if the box is half empty. We’re not trying to fill a quota, we’re just holding space for such things.

Why should the box be able to sit on your lap? Because when you reach the ending of your days, when you’ve shed most of the possessions that bedevil you now, you can gently lift it onto your lap, open up the lid and be viscerally reminded of what a wonderful life you’ve had. Everything in there will bring a smile to your face. Its physical lightness mirrors the joy you’ll feel at the life you’ve been lucky enough to have here.

Kids have sentimental clutter too

Encourage your children and your grandchildren to start making their own sentiment boxes. As they grow older, they’ll revise what’s in there, sorting out the special from the ho-hum. The discipline of fitting things into just one box will help them discern what’s truly important to them and set the foundation for awesomely lifelong decluttering skills.

At eight, they might love all their origami animals and want to cram the box full of them. That’s fine, but when the time comes later on to add something different, encourage them to sort through the box and save only their favorite animals.

If they decide they’re all favorites, then they won’t be able to put the latest thing they love in there. It’s time to make some decisions not just get another box. Putting off decisions leads to 25 full-size totes stuffed with your children’s artwork. Surely it can’t all be that special?

What will you put in your sentiment box?

So, what will you put in your sentiment box? It’ll be as unique as you are. A shortcut to your memories, a way to remind yourself of how rich your life has been. It’ll evolve over time as you sort through it periodically, adding new things, removing things which have become stale and unspecial to you.

A source of fun to make and a pleasure to review, a way to honor the part of you that sometimes feels as if you’re throwing out your memories when you declutter an item you’ve had for a long time. A sentiment box is a microcosm of your life, a thing of beauty, a joy forever. And it’s all yours.

When disaster strikes, you’ll be so glad you made a sentiment box

When you live somewhere like Colorado, you have a Go bag. Or at least you know you should have. We had the floods in 2013, and the Marshall fire in 2021. We get regular storm watches and there are even tornado warning signs at the airport.

But almost everywhere has some potential for natural disaster. Even if tornados never come your way, you may find the day comes when you have to get out of your house in minutes.

When you have to act that fast, it’s hard to make decisions about your stuff.There isn’t time to deliberate over which of Grandma’s angel ornaments is the most special to you.

You’ll find yourself grabbing random stuff like hiking boots but no socks, or find that your fire box contains not only everyone’s birth certificates, which is useful, but also ten cassette tapes of your kids lisping their way through a favorite Golden book years ago.

Survival instinct will kick in and you’ll take the practical necessities. Throw them in a backpack and tuck your sentiment box under one arm. That way, body and soul will escape the disaster.

Having trouble narrowing it down? I can work with you to create your sentiment box.

by Lucy Kelly


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21 comments

  1. I’m all about this idea. But do I have such a box of my own — just one? — no. I have too much stuff and will be thinking about what box to use and consolidate into over time. I love the way you’ve described it. Also, I’ve just added this to my Photo & Memorabilia Resource Roundup.

  2. Lucy, this is so beautiful. I encourage people to have a memory box but have never been able to describe it as succinctly as you have here. I love that you talk about the benefits of starting a memory box for children so they learn how to curate things that are truly special. A very valuable life lesson.

  3. I like that you included kids in this post. I suggest people start a box for they kids when they are born and teach them how to save the things that are important to them.

  4. Love this idea – and asking kids to participate is a great way to support their decision-making skills. I’m already picturing the five gallon-size bags of origami cranes one of my lovely children has stashed in their closet (long story…don’t ask). I’ve also suggested that parents get together with their older children and make a bit of a party out of going through the memories. Have some snacks, pull out the stuff, laugh and chat (or cry and chat), and then condense down to what really matters going forward. Kind of like making memories out of the memories. Great post!

  5. What a beautiful idea to create a sentimental “lap” box! The size automatically encourages the gatherer to curate…adding only the most special, heart-warming possessions.

    It’s not the same, but I have a tray of fidgets on my desk. There are close to one-hundred miniature objects, pins, and doodads that are either fun on their own or have a message that I like. But interestingly, there are some that are my go-to favorites like the two miniature trolls or the miniature brass goblet that belonged to my mom when she was a child. So IF I were to consolidate these fidgets one day, I’m guessing I could make some choices for the most joyous ones. Fun to think about.

    1. Your tray of fidgets sounds delightful! What a great way to interact with things that bring you joy. Many of my clients enjoy creating these trays – I don’t use them on my desk but I can see how it would be fun to have some fidget toys near my reading chair, to help keep me focused.

  6. This was so beautifully written, Lucy! I have a few favorite lines–one being: “Its (the box) physical lightness mirrors the joy you’ll feel at the life you’ve been lucky enough to have here.” That’s what we’re often doing for our clients–helping them to have a ‘lighter’ life. When my kids were born, I bought each of them a decorative box to store sentimental items in. I’m usually the one to put most of the stuff in it but over the years they’ve been choosing what to keep for the future.

  7. I think it’s nice to have a beautiful little box that has the “top items” and that is easy enough to access that you actually look inside now and then. What a “warm and fuzzy” post this is. Thanks for the idea!

  8. I love the idea of narrowing your memorabilia box down to one light box. I have some memorabilia boxes that I revisit each year. This year when I visit my memorabilia I plan to take my very favorite items and make this one box. Thanks!

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