Have you ever taken on the project of cleaning out a closet or cabinet, and by the time you finished going through the whole thing felt like it was almost as full as before? Or worse, gotten distracted or discouraged halfway through the project and never finished?
I experienced both of those scenarios when I first started trying to go through my things in preparation for selling my house and moving into an RV, and eventually I realized that my struggle to actually make a significant dent in the amount of stuff I owned was because I kept making the same excuses to myself that led me to end up keeping most of the items I was sorting through.
I had to learn to recognize these excuses when they arose and develop a new thought processes for responding to them, and those alternative ways of responding are what I want to share with you in this blog post.
Excuse #1: “I might end up needing it later.”
Often we keep things because we fear that if we sell or donate them, we might later end up needing them. Now just to be clear, there’s a big difference between “might need it later” and “will need it later.” For example, if you’re planning to live in an RV for one year and then buy a house, you know you will need appliances and furniture that might not fit in an RV. In that case, it might make more sense financially to rent a storage unit rather than sell everything only to replace it a year later. But when it comes to things that you don’t currently have a use for and don’t know for certain whether you will need again, going ahead and choosing to let go comes with some benefits:
- It reduces the amount of living space you need, which can open up new possibilities.
- It frees up space to be used for things you know you want or need.
- It prevents you (or a loved one) from having to get rid of the items later, perhaps at a more emotionally difficult time.
- If you do end up needing the item later, you can buy it in a newer style that you may end up liking more.
- The item can be used by someone else who actually does need it.
Whenever you’re tempted to hang onto something because you’re worried you might need it later, I would encourage you to ask yourself these questions:
- When was the last time I used this item, and when am I likely to use it next?
- Why don’t I use this item more often? Is that reason likely to change in the near future?
- Is keeping this item costly or inconvenient, and if so, is it worth it?
- What is the worst thing that could happen if I were to get rid of this item and later end up needing it? What would I be sacrificing in order to avoid that scenario, and is it worth it?
Honestly answering these questions can help you decide whether or not the possibility of needing an item in the future is actually a valid reason for you to keep it.
Excuse #2: “It might come in handy later”
At first “it might come in handy” seems almost the same as “I might need it later,” but for me at least, these two excuses come from a different place in my mind. Hanging onto something because I think I might need it is often a form of fear: fear of loss, fear of change, fear of lack.
“It might come in handy,” on the other hand, comes from a feeling of guilt at the idea of wasting something that could still be useful. My mom says it’s my grandmother’s influence on me, since she lived through The Great Depression and as a result knew how to find uses for all sorts of things that one would never expect (I remember my grandma telling me once how she and her sisters used to cut up tire inner tubing to use as elastic for making their own underwear!).
Whatever the reason, I often end up saving things others might view as trash. At our last house, I had drawers filled with things like bits of ribbon and empty thread spools and pieces of fabric and foam that I thought could potentially be used in some sort of craft project. I also filled every spare inch in our hot water heater closet with empty glass jars and bottles.
This tendency is both a blessing and a curse for me. The good thing about it is whenever I happen to need some sort of container, I usually have the perfect thing on hand. But I recognize this same inclination can turn people into hoarders or, at least, hold them back from living a life of freedom and flexibility.
To help balance out my tendencies to hang on to more potentially useful things than I really need, I have developed these guidelines for myself, and hopefully they can help you as well:
- I have a limited amount of storage space. If I want to keep something that doesn’t fit in that space, something else has to go.
- I recycle. That way, I can throw away potentially useful things and feel good knowing they will still end up being useful in some way.
- I imagine someone else using the item. I like to be generous, so when I visualize someone being happy to find my item at a thrift store and compare that visualization to the mental picture of the item being stashed away in a cabinet, I often find it easier to let go.
- I actively seek out people who find the item as useful as I do. When we were downsizing to move into an RV, I hated the thought of carting my carefully curated collection of pretty liquor and wine bottles to the recycling center, so I placed an ad for them on Craigslist offering them for free. A lady ended up taking all of them to use for craft projects, which made me feel happy to give them to her.
- I think about how easy it would be to replace the item. For example, I think to myself, “If I get rid of this basket, will I have any difficulty finding a different basket to use if I end up needing one?” Usually the answer is no.
Excuse #3: “It might be worth something.”
Do you have any items that you would actually be okay with getting rid of, but it just makes you sick to think of giving them away, selling them cheaply, or worse, throwing them away, because of how much you or someone else paid for them, or because you wonder if you might be able to get some money for them?
Here’s an unfortunate truth: An item is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it. Supply and demand fluctuates over time, and many things that were once costly and in high demand are now cheap and easy to find on eBay or on Craigslist. Even if you bought something brand new just yesterday you probably can’t sell it used for what you paid for it.
Here’s how I look at valuable items I own: the money is already gone, and if it’s not being used and appreciated, it’s not valuable to anyone. Anything at all that I can get someone to pay me for the item is more than I would have had otherwise.
Case in point: My husband once bought a pair of headphones and, after a few days of use, ended up deciding they were too uncomfortable, so he bought some different ones instead. However, because he had thrown away the packaging, the store wouldn’t allow him to return the original pair. I looked on eBay and found that people were selling the same headphones in excellent condition for less than a third of what he had paid for them, even though Walmart was still selling them at the original price! I went ahead and listed them at the low eBay price, and after a few weeks someone bought them. Even though it was still a net loss, I felt like I gained $20, because it was $20 I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d decided to keep a pair of headphones nobody was using. (Now you know why I majored in English and not math!)
When we had a garage sale before moving into our RV, we ended up making over $700. That amount was probably far less than what we originally paid for all the items we sold, but to us it felt exciting to not only be free of our stuff, but also have $700 to spend on things we needed for the RV!
But I’ve also heard people express similar satisfaction from donating all of their items and bothering with the hassle of trying to make money from selling them. They considered the feeling of freedom they got from being rid of their stuff to be payment enough.
Excuse #4: It holds sentimental value.
This reason was the hardest for me personally to deal with when we sold our house and moved into an RV. I loved being generous and giving away things I didn’t need, but when it came to getting rid of things that represented a cherished memory, it became very difficult to let go, especially if I knew the item really had no use or value to anyone else.
I ended up dealing with individual items in different ways. Some items I found a way to repurpose so they were actually being used instead of being stored in a box. Other items I gifted to family members who I knew would cherish them because of their own memories. Still other items I decided to throw away but before I did a took a picture of the item so that I could retain the memory that way. But I also realized that it was okay to forget some memories, because the time and effort required to hold onto them was interfering with my ability to enjoy the present.
“I realized that it was okay to forget some memories, because the time and effort required to hold onto them was interfering with my ability to enjoy the present.”
One of the clearest memories I have from the process was of the moment I threw into a recycling dumpster a large box that contained nearly all of the cards and letters I’d received throughout my life, as well as the pages from all of my childhood scrapbooks. I had scanned all the scrapbook pages to digitize them first, and I had planned to scan all my cards and letters as well, but at some point I realized I was putting off the monumental task of scanning all of those papers.
After spending some time thinking about why I was avoiding the task, I realized it felt like a waste of time to digitize cards and letters I hadn’t read since I’d received them and wouldn’t be likely to ever read again. So instead, I picked out a few cards and letters to represent each of the few people who were still important enough to me that I wanted to keep a few physical mementoes to remember them by, and decided to get rid of the rest. Just before I pitched that box into the dumpster, I had a moment of panic where I thought, “Holy crap what am I doing?!” but I took a deep breath and tossed it in anyway….and felt a huge sense of relief afterwards. I hang onto the memory that feeling whenever I’m getting rid of something difficult to let go of.
I didn’t do that on my first day of downsizing, though. Working up to the point where I could feel okay about doing that took me months of first sorting and getting rid of things I felt less attached to, and experiencing the increasing feeling of lightness that came with every Craigslist sale and every donation. That momentum, as well as the dream of a life of freedom, was what made letting go possible for me.
I did choose to keep a few sentimental items as well, but I was very selective about what I kept, and even as strict as I was with myself, there were a couple of boxes of things I wasn’t willing to part with. My mom generously offered to let me keep these items in her garage for the time being, but interestingly, in the two years that have passed since we first downsized, I’ve become far less attached to those things, to the point where I really think I’d be fine getting rid of them now if I had to, although I’d still like to find a good place to donate them.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who have gone through the process of letting go of sentimental belongings, and everyone I’ve talked to expressed a feeling of freedom and happiness at finally having done it. I admit, I have heard a few people say they wish they kept this or that, but usually it’s because they found out an item was worth something on eBay – not because they actually miss owning the item.
In writing about this subject, I recognize that my perspective as someone who is still young (in my thirties) is going to be different from that of someone older with more memories and more stuff. But someone who can relate to an older person’s perspective is my mom, and she too has written an article on the subject. If you’re interested in reading some thoughts on letting go of sentimental items from the perspective of a Baby Boomer and daughter of Great Depression era parents, I invite you to read her article:
A Time to Keep, and A Time to Cast Away
Additionally, I’ve created a list of questions I’ve found helpful to ask myself when deciding whether or not to keep a sentimental item. You can have me email it to you by filling out the form below.