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How to Decide What to Keep and What to Toss

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Should you keep it or just buy new things? At a time when we just keep buying more and more stuff that we don't need, following the right decluttering tips allows us to make room in our lives for the most important things. So, you’ve got this thing in front of you that's small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Maybe you have a collection of things too numerous to fit in your two-car garage. Either way, it needs a better home than where it is now. The truth is that you like it and the thought of it going somewhere else feels bad.

Deciding what you want to keep — and why.  Take a deep breath and realize that you have no visual on this item’s next possible destination but you know it needs a good home. Do you still want it? If the answer is "yes," then consider why. Was it yours or did you use it extensively at some point in your life? Did someone you cherish use it extensively? These can both be strong pulls. It’s OK to keep items because of these reasons under one condition: You rarely use this reasoning to justify keeping things. But if you frequently use this reason, it's time to take it a step further. Some objects have strong emotional ties.  I get it, really. When my grandmother passed and we were cleaning out her apartment, I kept her Chicken Tidbits recipe, not because I’d ever make them again (I’m primarily vegan), but because I was on the spot and had to make a decision. I don’t typically get emotionally attached to things, but in this case, I allowed it — and actually still have it. Not only that, but 13 years later, I’m so glad I have it. Why? It has her handwriting on it — it's personal and gives me the warm-fuzzies. It’s made of nearly 100 percent unhealthy ingredients — so typical of my grandmother! She brought them to nearly every family gathering for at least the last 10 years of her life. I keep it in my recipe box and, therefore, bump into it a few times a year — more warm-fuzzies. Placement is everything.  Peter Walsh, in his book, It’s All Too Much!, tells us that if we truly value something, then we need to put it somewhere that reflects that value. Where better than to put the Chicken Tidbits recipe than in my own recipe box? Plain and simple. I had a client once who was very creative and repurposed things that had once belonged to people she cared about. She uncovered a bunch of her husband’s old baseball t-shirts from his childhood. With his permission, she cut out either the front or back of several, and sewed them together with the intention of making a t-shirt quilt. Now, despite really wanting to complete this project, the time commitment involved was too much. So rather than boxing them all back up again, she shortened the project, chose fewer shirts, sewed them together, and made a smaller quilt. This quilt is now framed and hanging in her laundry room. It preserved her husband’s memories and has prompted several very sweet conversations with their two sons. This same client's father-in-law was a big flannel-shirt-wearing kind of guy and after his death, my client and her husband chose a half-dozen or so of their favorites that they couldn't part with and put them in a box. Ten years later, when emotions weren’t so raw, they rediscovered the shirts and had a conversation about why they kept these ones in particular and how they'd like them to be incorporated into their everyday lives. They were able to narrow the shirts down to their favorite three and had the shirts made into small throw pillows for their family room couch. These pillows have become comforting reminders of her father-in-law and the family knows that, as with anything that is frequently used, they won’t last forever — and they’re OK with that. And a final example with this same client involved her grandmother’s aprons, who was known for her waist-aprons. When the family was going through her grandmother's things, my client chose two aprons, and she knew exactly what she’d do with them. Plain and simple, she hung them on regular clip-skirt-hangers, put a couple of cute little hooks in the wall of her informal dining room, and hung them up. Given the sweet floral prints of the aprons, they contributed to the warm atmosphere of the dining room and certainly gave my client the warm-fuzzies. And if the family ever needed an extra apron, these were at the ready! Three reasons to keep an item. So, based on what this client did for her family's things, there are three keys to deciding if you should keep an item:

  • Placement

  • Accessibility

  • Use

These three keys also apply to compulsive buyers to prevent the buildup of clutter. Before you buy, consider the time and cost involved, both in assembling the item and making it useful in its ultimate destination, along with maintaining it (cleaning, regular repairs, availability and cost of parts), and where and how you’ll use it. Everything has its season. It’s understandable for things to have seasons — be it traditional holidays, personal style changes, or just whether you feel like decorating with certain items at a particular time. However, if you come to realize that you either haven’t or won’t ever again use something, then it’s time to find it a new home. Here are some questions to ask before acquiring something, regardless of how it’s acquired:

  • Do you need it? Will it truly be used and useful?

  • When and how frequently will you realistically use it?

  • Is it replacing something you already own? If so, what is the exact plan for geting rid of the thing it is replacing?

  • Where will it be placed and will it fit?

  • How long will it take to set it up and make fully functional? Do you need any parts or supplies to make it useful? Can you afford these supplies? Are these supplies easy to get?

  • When will you set it up? (Hint: Put the set-up time in your calendar.)

  • Do you have to take it down or disassemble it after each use or seasonally? Do you have room to store it? How long will it take to disassemble and store it?

This is a lot to wrap your brains around, especially if you’re a better emotional-attacher than most. Please be kind to yourself, above all else. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Progress is more sustainable when we go in smaller bits, anyway. Do your best and stop to congratulate yourself on every small bit of progress. Believe in yourself, because I do. :)

This article is also published at

Aubrei Krummert is a Certified Professional Organizer in Athens, Ohio. She specializes in Home Productivity and works with clients across the United States, doing on-site and virtual sessions. Contact her now.

1st Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash
2nd Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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