Inherited clutter

– reclaiming your dream

Inherited items are some of the biggest culprits of clutter in our homes, weighing us down and impeding our way forward. Conquering this clutter can clear a path to transformation and renewal.   Photo: Martha Tobin

By Martha Tobin

Ellen’s dream of a basement meditation space and workout room was on hold for years because of all the dusty boxes that occupied that space. The boxes contained family heirlooms that she had inherited after her parents died. The seemingly monumental task of tackling these ancestral treasures weighed her down and made her dream impossible.

Ellen’s story is not unique. As it turns out, inherited items are one of the biggest culprits of clutter in our homes. There are a few reasons for this:

  • We are loath to part with items that were beloved by someone who has passed away.
  • Even though other family members don’t want these items, we don’t want to break the generational chain and discard them.
  • The time and effort required to determine if we should sell, donate, recycle or trash these items overwhelms us.
  • Here are a few tips and tricks that might help:
    1. Put aside at least double the time you think it’s going to take. Sorting through inherited items is emotional and takes longer than expected.
    2. Have boxes and bags ready for labelling with these action categories: SELL, DONATE, RECYCLE, TRASH, PUT SOMEWHERE ELSE and GIVE TO SOMEONE ELSE. Also have a box for PHOTOS and another for DOCUMENTS.
    3. Gather all the inherited items (or any items you’ve chosen to declutter) in one space. Start to sort “like with like.” All china, silverware, serving sets and glassware together. Furniture together. Clothing, bedding,and towels together. Tools together. Photos (slides, greeting cards, etc.) together. Documents together.
    4. Review each item and decide which action category it falls into. Remember that an item that was once important to someone else does not determine its importance to you. Getting rid of these items is not a sign that you loved that person any less. In fact, keeping only a few cherished items will make those treasures more meaningful, and you’ll be able to display them instead of leaving them out of sight in boxes in your basement. Save photos, slides, cards and documents until last.
    5. Take the filled, labelled boxes and bags directly to the trunk of your car. Drop those off as soon as possible. Take bags for RECYCLE and TRASH to their locations outside your home. Getting all of the filled bags outside your home is key. For items that are being PUT SOMEWHERE ELSE in your home, take these items to those specific places and find them a place to live – put up that painting and display that figurine on a shelf.
    6. For items or collections that you want to SELL, take photos and measurements. Do not rely on family lore regarding their value but rather research these items to determine what others would currently pay. TV programs like Antiques Roadshow have convinced us our treasures are worth a great deal but the final negotiated price is often substantially less. If the time and energy it takes to sell the item is equal to or greater than the price you may receive, consider donating the item so someone else can use and love it.
    7. For photos, slides, cards and documents, without spending time now doing any review, sort them into their respective boxes. Put these boxes beside your favourite chair. In the next few weeks, whenever you sit down, commit to reviewing their contents. Keep only those photos, slides or cards that truly remind you of the best days and place those in a labelled box. Keep only the documents you need for tax purposes; file those and shred the rest.

Congratulations. You did it! Decluttering our homes involves more than just freeing ourselves from those things that are holding us back and are weighing us down; decluttering is about transformation and renewal. As Tracy McCubbin writes in Making Space Clutter Free, “making more room for what we want to do in life – and freeing up time and space to actually accomplish those things – always has a positive and inspiring outcome even if the process of letting go can feel overwhelming and daunting.”

Creating a home where you can live more fully and be the best version of yourself is just one way of creating your “here” so that you can realize your dreams. And if, like Ellen, your dream is a workout room and meditation space, they are now possible.


Martha Tobin, owner of Room2Breathe – Organizing & Decluttering, is a Glebe resident passionate about making a difference in her clients’ lives. She can be reached at

 You can’t get there
from here, but if you prepare the here, there
comes here
(Abraham Hicks)

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