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March 7, 2012 11:53 AM   Subscribe

What do you with your "stuff" as you try to create an uncluttered living space?

Knick-knacks. Souvineers. We have a relatively small home (post-war, built in 1949 with a small one-room addition) and are working to try and live as clean and uncluttered a life as possible. I just "sent back" a bunch of DVDs to Amazon as we adopt a "if we want to see it we can rent/watch it online," and have also done something similar to our books (donated.) We have one large IKEA EXPEDIT shelf that now lives in that bonus room and is now our main "holding space" for some meaningful items. And that's the issue. We don't spend a lot of time looking at these items, they mostly collect dust. I feel like to really embrace a "clean living space," I should do something, but what?

Do I pack them away and pull them out once or twice a year go to through? If I don't do that, do I give them away? That feels wrong. Do I take a picture of them and then keep that around?

What do you do with your knick knacks, especially those "small" things that hold meaning? Do you just dust regularly - and is the small window of appreciation worth keeping them out? How do you more fully make the transition away from "things"? Thanks!
posted by atayah to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I throw them away (slash donate the ones that that makes sense). I don't have a lot of sentimental attachment to objects, though, and mostly they just bug me because I like emptiness. My mom takes pictures of things she likes before she trashes them. My husband likes to hang up lots of pictures of places we've been to, though I prefer blank walls so we've compromised. But like you said, these objects are 99% dust collectors, and I don't like that in my ouse.
posted by brainmouse at 11:58 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

put some glass doors on the shelves where your meaningful items live. This will keep the dust off and make their display area more streamlined looking.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:02 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have kids and no place for shelves. My knick-knacks are all in storage. I have a few that were gifts that I keep in a closet for when people come visit. Otherwise, I just don't buy that kind of stuff. If I get it as a gift it gets put away. My excuse is that the kids are too little, but really I don't like that kind of stuff. One day my kids might like them so until then as long as I have room I will just store them away.

We collect ornaments for our Christmas tree when we go on vacation instead of little figurines and things like that. Every year when we decorate our tree we get a little trip down memory lane.
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:03 PM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have a rule about mementos. They must fit into one of three categories: 1) useful and regularly used, 2) beautiful and displayed proudly in public areas of my home, or 3) in "The Box." The Box a single carton in which I store items that have purely sentimental value, but that I don't otherwise want or like. It's about 1'x1'x1'. I have had the same box since I was 16. Anything I keep that isn't beautiful or useful must fit into The Box. If I want to store something new, I have to throw something older away to make room for it. If I acquire something too big for The Box, I usually take a picture and donate or toss the item.

The Box and the other rules have had a few affects on my life. First, I've pared down the sentimental clutter. But second, and perhaps more importantly, it really makes me think about aquiring new things. When I'm on vacation, instead of buying keychains and plastic statues, I tend to buy stuff I can actually use or stuff I envision displaying in an area of my home where I'll look at it regularly. I bought a jewelry box on my last vacation that I use every day. A piece of art I got from my uncle hangs proudly in my kitchen. When I'm thinking about how to remember something, I tend to take more photos and pick up smaller rather than larger items. It's changed a lot of the way I interact with objects in a way I really appreciate.
posted by decathecting at 12:08 PM on March 7, 2012 [21 favorites]

We don't spend a lot of time looking at these items, they mostly collect dust. I feel like to really embrace a "clean living space," I should do something, but what?

Put them in a box. Put a date on the box. Put it in your cellar. The next time you move - I have moved frequently - if you have not opened the box in over one year, you do not obviously need anything inside - so throw it away unopened.

I am sentimental about stuff and if I did not do this, I would be overwhelmed with crap.

Problem is that now I have lived in the same place for five years - a record for me - and my cellar storage is becoming full. Fortunately, the wife and I are discussing moving across town in the next year. Many, many boxes will be thrown out: unopened and un-examined. It is harsh, but again, no other way.
posted by three blind mice at 12:11 PM on March 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

"Hobbits give presents to other people on their own birthdays. Not very expensive ones, as a rule, and not so lavishly as on this occasion; but it was not a bad system."

-- The Fellowship of the Ring

I've been rocking my last few birthday parties hobbit-style. I go "shopping" in my house and pick out items that are meaningful, valuable, intrinsically desirable (not junk!) -- but that for whatever reason I'm not using. Then I tie a red ribbon on each one (easier than wrapping) and give a gift to each person at my birthday party. It's a lot of fun.
posted by ottereroticist at 12:16 PM on March 7, 2012 [26 favorites]

I embrace the sorting principle that decathecting does, but with the exception that I do not limit the third sort to one box. I box things up routinely. If it's sentimental, but I don't need to display it, it goes in a box, and the box goes in a storage area in the home.

There are advantages and drawbacks to this. Advantage, you're making your immediate living area cleaner. Disadvantage, you still have a ton of space, and if you live in a small apartment, must either be creative or rent a storage unit.

For perspective, though, my mother threw out almost every sentimental object that she got from her mother, with the exception of about a box's worth...and I have bitterly regretted it, on occasion rising to the level of resentment. I think it's important to think: for what purpose are you keeping the items? Is it for yourself? Is it for future children? Is it for the people who gave the things? And what might each party think about that? Could a meaningful home for the object be found elsewhere?
posted by corb at 12:18 PM on March 7, 2012

What do you do with your knick knacks, especially those "small" things that hold meaning?

I live in an efficiency and move a lot (and have never lived in anything bigger than a 1BR.) Extra stuff makes me twitch. If I have to look at clutter I can't think straight. This is what I do. (Having no money helps.)

-Don't buy things you don't need, or REALLY want. But only REALLY want things that are small.
-If you have to buy a souvenir, make it clothes, jewelry, or something else wearable. That way at least you're using it and it's in your closet, not cluttering up your house.
-Go through your stuff regularly and donate/ throw out whatever you can.
-Keep only very few decorative things that are very special and very small. (All of my knick-knacks fit on a few windowsills and would pack into a shoe-box.)
-Don't attach so much meaning to stuff. Photos are good for preserving memories, and if they're digital they don't take up any space. Music, too.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:28 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and there are some good suggestions on paring down and de-cluttering and throwing away on this blog: The Everyday Minimalist.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:32 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Peter Walsh from TLC's Clean Sweep used to do a great job talking to people about letting their memorabilia go. He'd remind the people that the person who gave them the object isn't in the object, the person is in their heart, and if the object was so very important that they keep it, then (like decathecting's answer above) it had to be displayed in the home in a special way. It is ok to let these things go, really it is. If it is something special from your family, offer it to other relatives who you think might enjoy it. I had a wooden cross that was my Great Grandmother's and I'm not religious at all so I gifted it to my cousin who is very religious and she loves it.

When we cleaned out my Grandma's house after she passed away, my one Aunt took whatever she could - she wasn't ready to let go. I took just 3 things that I have in my home that whenever I look at them, I think of my Grandma and smile. That's all I needed.

Also, consider stopping the knick knacks at their source. My mother used to get me little knick knacks for holidays - ceramic snowmen, bunnies and pumpkins kind of stuff. I don't "decorate" for holidays and finally told her in a nice way to please stop buying this stuff for me.
posted by NoraCharles at 12:32 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

What I discovered is that if you give away something, you'll most likely forget about it really quickly. Out of sight, out of mind. If it's just gathering dust and of no use to you, just give it away or sell it.
posted by Slinga at 12:47 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to get rid of the stuff, just get rid of it any old way; there is no 'right' way other than - away.

If it bothers you that you're not appreciating the stuff then make a ritual of focusing on something significant on a rotating weekly / monthly basis: put it away and make changing groupings of items on a table or prominent shelf. I tend to not 'see' familiar knickknacks if they become part of the background scenery and find it enjoyable to highlight them uniquely. Bonus is that if there's something you never bring out then maybe you decide it's not worth keeping.
posted by mightshould at 1:05 PM on March 7, 2012

I much prefer clean, open spaces to collections of doo-dads. But then I'm about as sentimental as a slab of granite.
I really think women are subtly pressured to attach value to's all so homey, cozy, and craftsy. But it makes your living space look like hell. A colorful, wool afghan will warm your place up, and be used everyday. Let usefulness be your guide.
posted by BostonTerrier at 1:05 PM on March 7, 2012

I got rid of all of it. Seriously, at least 95%. I dropped it off at a thrift store. It's so freeing!

The standard advice is to box it all up and wait six months. But you already know the answer: six months from now it will still be in the box. The second most-common advice is to take a picture and then get rid of the thing. But you know the answer to that, too: you will never look at the pictures.

Ask yourself, do you like the thing for itself? Or because of the circumstances surrounding it? If a stranger were to look at it, would they see the same qualities you do?

A beautiful sculpture made by a friend: yes. A tacky souvenir spoon that your best friend bought you: no. Keep the former; ditch the latter.

We invest our things with so much meaning. But all that meaning does is hold us back, collect dust, and clutter our shelves. Be free of it!
posted by ErikaB at 1:08 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I photographed a lot of old stuff before donating it to the Goodwill. The photos went in an online album with descriptions and stories.

I admit that I do keep everything my kids ever make, so that takes up a box in my coat closet. I have albums full of art and drawings; the kind of thing we used to put on the fridge.

I still have too many possessions, but I'm slowing winnowing down the number of things in the house. Photographing them and letting them go has helped tremendously. I don't feel at all guilty about giving away my dear great aunt's collection of ugly enamelware, or the awful cow creamers my stepmother gives me every year because all those things are documented for me to look at any time I want.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 1:11 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, thank you everyone for your thoughtful responses so far. Yes, I know - the 'put it in the box' method is code for 'I'm never looking in the box again.' Ugh.

The afghan analogy is also great; stuff that is USEFUL is the best gift of all. We're not planning on kids, though I do have a little brother 28 years (yep) my junior, so I may see if there's anything I would want to pass onto him.
posted by atayah at 1:15 PM on March 7, 2012

I'll admit up-front: our home is far too cluttered, but I've been using a few tactics to weed out unused objects. These two should work even better for someone whose home is more organized and pared-down than our tiny, overfilled home.

- In an out-of-the-way spot, stash a box designated for Goodwill (or the goods-accepting charity of your choice). Whenever you handle an item and think "I really don't need this," whenever you upgrade a still-serviceable item, whenever you decide you can remember that trip to the beach just as well without the [seashells/souvenir shotglass/whatever],immediately put the item in the box. Before the box is full, donate the goods and return the box to its place. Routine donations allow you to clear small spaces regularly without the hassle or time of a major overhaul.

- I give things away to friends on the spur of the moment. Not anything and everything, but if the whim strikes me and when they've expressed admiration of it. Example: recently a friend remarked upon our Wallace & Gromit clock, saying "My kid would go crazy for that." The Fella and I exchanged a look and he asked "Would you like it?" We explained: the alarm is broken but the clock and all the fun voice features still work, so we've replaced its function with a working alarm clock but didn't have the heart to give it away.

Knowing that a child will get some pleasure from it makes it much easier to hand it over. (And we also gave her a Wallace & Gromit figurine, just because.) In the same way, when I gave my sister the lovely handcrafted family heirloom tables that just didn't suit my space or my style anymore, I also offered her the pretty ceramic vases and candlestands that I used with those tables. In my home, they had started to feel like clutter; in her home, they look like a collection.
posted by Elsa at 1:21 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

The mother of my boyfriend does something that I think is brilliant.

The momento that she gets (maybe there are also others, I'm not sure) is a dish towel. So he's got a few great ones at his apartment that I adore. They're all way better than the crappy ones from Target or wherever, and they're a nice daily reminder of family time together.

So. In the long run, maybe shift your ephemera getting into a very good quality and useful type of item?

In the short term, Nthing "put that stuff in a box and toss it after 6 months or a year." Retrieve items from the box if you find yourself missing them.
posted by bilabial at 1:30 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine looking to simplify her life kept a box and made it a point that for EVERY DAY FOR 30 DAYS she put in one item that was no longer of use. I'm pretty sure she kept it in a prominent spot that reminded her daily to do this. After 30 days, she spent a few minutes deciding what went into the trash and what went to the thrift store. This proved so successful that she kept it up for almost a year and even blogged about it. Writing about the items that went into the box was part of her "closure" process.

I need to do this.
posted by HeyAllie at 1:30 PM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Don't forget about preventing clutter from entering your house from the start, especially in the form of sentimental gifts. My friends and family are really supportive and understanding of my aversion to clutter, especially since I move so frequently. So they give me candles, soaps, candy, fancy jams, gift certificates, fancy coffee, homemade goods, flowers, etc -- consumables that I can use up and enjoy without them taking up permanent space.
posted by mochapickle at 2:20 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

All good ideas here. Also, if you tend to be the type that starts a project, but....
Get rid of it. So many people I know have projects that take up space and don't get finished.

Also, with The Box? Never, ever, ever open it. Once you do, you get sucked into pulling out this and that and won't get rid of it.

I don't like that in my ouse.

Wow, brainmouse. You're amazing at minimalizing!
posted by BlueHorse at 3:02 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

We have one large IKEA EXPEDIT shelf that now lives in that bonus room and is now our main "holding space" for some meaningful items.

If you have things that you genuinely like, then part of the problem may be that this isn't a very good system - you are storing rather than displaying. An expedit bookcase in a bonus room is fine for things you want to store away, but consider wall shelving in a living room or hallway for vases, knick knacks, etc. so that you can look at them and enjoy them in your daily life.
posted by gatorae at 3:03 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would live in a minimalist zen cave in a flash, and yet I still think mementos make a 'place' out of your home so I have a quite a few sentimental objects. As others have said, try to collect momentos that are useful, or turn them into useful things. Little bowls, souvenir spoons, notepads, platters, kilims, blankets, bar coasters can all be used in day to day life and be stored where they are used. I put knick knacks around the house in less dust attracting places, often in places that are in daily use - eg I have a few small figurines from my great-grandmother that I have put in my bathroom cabinet next to/amongst my perfume bottles; I use some knick knacks to hang my jewellery on in my bedroom; my old teddy bear is sitting inside a desk drawer next to my printing paper etc. Some small flat things I hang on the front of a dress or jacket coathanger so they dangle, can be seen but aren't really attracting dust. I blutack postcards or lovely notes on the inside surface of my kitchen cabinet doors. I guess I can have the benefit of sentimental objects in my daily movements, rather than stored in dedicated display shelving that needs dusting.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:20 PM on March 7, 2012

Giving them away feels "wrong." Why? I've learned to keep the things that really matter to me... nothing in your home that you don't LOVE. Anything I'm not thrilled about? There is someone in this world to whom that item would be daily joy. Nothing wrong with releasing it into the world to make its way to them. It was a hard lesson, but one I'm glad I learned.

The only thing I've ever regretted getting rid of is books. I've re-bought more books... you'd think I'd learn!

I do have an assortment of small things that I change out. As others have said, it keeps them special, keeps the amount you have on display from being overwhelming, and reduces the amount of eye clutter/ dusting you have to deal with.
posted by theplotchickens at 6:41 PM on March 7, 2012

The advantage to getting rid of knickknacks that you think hold sentimental value, is that you instead start to see the sentimental value in your practical items. From each of my grandmothers, I have a cup and saucer set, and a piece of jewelry. They also gave me some tchotkes which I had trouble getting rid of, but ultimately had to, because of moving overseas with limited luggage space. I do not miss the marble cat figurine, the kitschy painting, or the porcelain doll I had of theirs at all, even though I used to sometimes finger them and remember gran. Instead, I remember her when I drink tea, or dress up to go somewhere jewelry-wearing-worthy, and that's fine.

Photos, blankets, knitted items, books, kitchenware... all of this is stuff you might have around that has sentimental value because of who made it, owned it or gave it to you, or where or when you bought it. Cherish the memories in those useful things and dump the rest.

If you are really worried about missing the knickknacks, take a good photo of them, and you can even use that to commission a painting or drawing one day if you prefer.
posted by lollusc at 6:49 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a similar approach to the Box, except I have a box that's about 12" x 6" x 6" and a giant, old cookie jar. Paper goods, such as letters, photos, postcards go in the box and other little things, such as rocks, beads, dried flowers, trinkets, flattened pennies (I've got a thing for them) go in the jar. About once a year (I love to spring clean), I go through both to figure out what I want and what I don't want. Both the jar and the box live in the place that I keep all of my sentimental stuff. There is stuff that doesn't fit in either of them but it's minimal and all of it lives on shelves that are about 6' x 2'.
posted by godshomemovies at 6:27 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a hard time letting go of things, so I think taking a picture is a great idea. I try to donate clothes I don't wear (or that don't fit anymore) two or three times a year, and I had a hard time giving up a sweater I wore on my first date with Mr. Getawaysticks. I took a picture of it and donated it, and haven't really given it another thought. If I want to see it, I can look at the picture. (Hey, it matched these really awesome shoes I still have)
posted by getawaysticks at 6:41 AM on March 8, 2012

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