9 Tips For Decluttering Sentimental Items Guilt-Free From Professional Organizers

Southerners are a nostalgic bunch. From perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet passed down from the generation before us to Nana’s hand-embroidered napkins, every item handed down to us—and there are a lot of them—tells a story. But eventually, our house starts bursting at the seams (or maybe it just feels like it) and it becomes time to make some tough decisions. This can sometimes lead to panic, stress, and regret, but it doesn’t have to. We chatted with two of the South’s foremost professional organizers about how to declutter sentimental items guilt-free.

cluttered living room

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Give Yourself Grace

As a professional organizer, Clara Schoen of The Home Organized in Birmingham, Alabama, has experienced just how different peoples’ timelines can be—and insists they should be respected. “You should never force someone to do something that makes them so uncomfortable that it brings up guilt and shame because they let it go,” she says. Doing so ultimately backfires, and makes it more difficult to declutter in the future.

Be Realistic

The amount of items you can justify keeping in a 1,700 square foot house is going to be much less than a 5,000 square foot house. “Weigh the pros and cons of what actually can work for you in your current space, not whatever space you might have one day,” explains Shoen. For her, it comes down to one simple question: What capacity do you have, currently, to store these items? The memories of the past are valuable, and at the same time don’t deserve to impede on your present and future.

Set Limits

Once you’re realistic about the space you have, you can set fair limits for how much to keep. In addition to minimizing clutter, Margaret Ellison of Sunday Plans in Charleston, South Carolina, believes this management helps you become more discerning. “When that box is full, you either have to remove things if you want to add to it, or you can't add to it. This will force you to repeatedly question what you think is sentimental,” she shares.

Start With The Easy Stuff

There’s a reason why Marie Kondo’s famous decluttering process starts with clothes and ends with sentimental items. “Get rid of the other items first that you aren’t so connected to, so you can learn how it feels to actually let go of things,” Shoen says. This also teaches you how you respond to items worthy of keeping versus items that aren’t.


Once upon a time, before the invention of Dropbox or iCloud, it might have been easier to justify keeping more stuff. Now, however, we can keep tangible reminders without using a single fraction of a square foot. “If you have a picture, it’s not taking up physical clutter in your house, so you can let go of the item and still have the memory,” declares Shoen.

For kid art specifically, Ellison recommends sending the best of the best (that you aren’t hanging up) off to a service like Artkive to be turned into a digital gallery, art book, or framed mosaic.

Keep What’s Special

According to Ellison, “if everything is sentimental, nothing is sentimental.” This reframing of all the heirlooms and kid art you’ve amassed allows you to think critically about what you truly think is special. Spoiler alert: It’s not everything you’ve been holding onto.

Think About Your Why

For some, the idea of having a manageable home is all the motivation they need to start combing through stuff. “The house gets messy, but it doesn’t get chaotic to where it can’t be tidied really quickly, and that feels so much better,” Shoen insists.

For others, the incentive to declutter sentimental items is about the effect on loved ones. “You don’t want them to have to take on that burden once you pass, because it’s already so much,” Shoen often tells those who hold onto everything for their family to inherit. Besides, “these items will be much more of a gift if they are curated and few,” reasons Ellison.

Ask Around

The rule in Shoen’s family is that before you sell or donate an heirloom you don’t want, consider if there’s anyone in your family who does. “You don’t get rid of it. You offer it first to family members. Then if no one wants it, you can let it go,” she explains. “And we’re not saving it for the next generation—I have permission to let it go. I don’t have to save it for our children.”

Remember One Truth

Above all else, Shoen emphasizes that decluttering “doesn’t negate the people you love or make the memories any less.” The point of keeping sentimental items isn’t to recall each individual moment, she says, and is more about the essence of all the memories together. Thoughtful curation “creates a whole picture without all of the things.”

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